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The Daily 202: Debate moderators get advice on how to avoid clashing with Trump and becoming the story

Matt Lauer moderates the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7. The consensus view is that the "Today" show host did a terrible job. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: Matt Lauer got panned last week for not challenging Donald Trump after the GOP nominee falsely claimed he always opposed the Iraq war during a forum on NBC. But Jim Lehrer thinks the format of the upcoming debates will allow the moderators to avoid playing the role of fact checker.

“People sitting out there want the moderator to yell ‘liar!’ It ain’t gonna happen,” said Lehrer, who moderated 12 presidential debates from 1988 to 2012 and has since retired from PBS. “If Matt Lauer had both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sitting there together in a debate situation, and he asked that question and Trump gave that answer, all he would have had to do is say, ‘Secretary Clinton?’ … And then she would have called him a liar. The moderator would never have ever had to intrude.”

Lehrer and Bob Schieffer, another experienced moderator, spoke during a panel discussion at the University of Notre Dame last night about how to strike the right balance between fact checking a candidate and staying out of the way. They both received much better reviews in 2012 than former CNN anchor Candy Crowley, whose squabble with Mitt Romney about Benghazi became the major story out of the debate.

“The role of the moderator is to be the referee. It’s not to be the judge,” said Schieffer, who is now retired from CBS. “It is the responsibility of the moderator to make sure the truth gets out, but the chief fact checkers should be the candidates themselves. If candidate A says something, you should give candidate B the opportunity to correct them. … People want to know if the other guy knows the answer. … If he doesn’t correct it, that becomes part of the knowledge of what they think of the candidates. … If he doesn’t pick up on it, then you call the guy on it.”

“It’s more important than ever this time because there’s so much distorted and totally false information out there,” Bob went on. “A third of the people still believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya! … So you have to correct the misinformation, but you’re being unfair to both of the candidates when you don’t give the other the chance to correct it.”

-- Part of the challenge for all five of the 2016 moderators is that trust in the media continues sinking to new lows. A Gallup poll published yesterday included a litany of alarming numbers: Only 32 percent of Americans either trust the media “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to “report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” That’s down 8 points from last year and by far the lowest in the 44 years Gallup has tested the question. The decline is driven by Republicans, just 14 percent of whom express trust, down from 32 percent one year ago. The overall trust number was around 50 percent a decade ago.

-- The first debate, which takes place the Monday after next at Hofstra University, happens to fall on the 56th anniversary of the first televised debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In many ways, that was a parallel press conference because the two did not engage with one another. The rules have changed in recent decades, especially since the creation of the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1988, to allow for more clashes.

“Being a moderator has become increasingly difficult,” said Lehrer. “It is really hard work. Because now you’ve got candidates free to engage and free to ask questions. That also means free not to shut up! The moderators have to have a tremendous amount of knowledge … so you can follow-up and keep things flowing and have a sense of fairness. Fairness is not just the time clock. … The better the debates have gotten, the harder it is to moderate.”

“You can shut somebody up with your eyes, just looking at them a certain way,” the former Marine advised. “If you’re good at it, the person will shut up.”

He said the key to running a good debate is asking questions that lead to revealing moments, more than just drawing candidates out on specific policy questions. “There are a lot of think tankers that are all over moderators,” Lehrer said. “I’ve gotten my share of it: Why didn’t you ask this or that? You can’t do everything in 90 minutes! The things that yield [memorable moments], that’s what the people want.”

Lehrer grumbles when people question the motives of journalists, but he also knows it is unavoidable. “Whatever biases you have are irrelevant,” he said. “To accuse a professional journalist of intentionally letting his or her bias dictate the conduct of moderating or reporting would be like accusing a doctor of letting someone die or a lawyer of throwing a case or a minister of not letting someone go to heaven!”

Schieffer said every moderator must be prepared to get ridiculed on social media. “We’re the people you can always blame it on when things go wrong, and some of the times it is our fault,” he said. “I am one who thinks there is no such thing as objectivity. Where we stand depends on where we sit … no one can be totally objective unless you’re on a life support system. It’s easier to be fair. Being fair gives both sides the chance to tell their story. … You just have to give them both a fair chance, not let one of them hog the microphone.”

This year’s hosts are NBC’s Lester Holt, CBS’s Elaine Quijano, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox’s Chris Wallace.

Janet Brown, the longtime executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said they were picked because the commissioners think they can “get out of the way and let the candidates have the attention.” One of the selection criteria, she explained at the Notre Dame event, is: “They need to understand for better or worse that their names are not on the ballot.”

Each moderator chooses the topics they will cover, and Brown said Lester Holt’s picks for the first debate will be announced next Monday.

-- Bigger picture: How will we decide who wins on Sept. 26? Presidential debates, sadly, are almost never remembered for substance…

-- Every four years since 2000, James Fallows writes a cover story in The Atlantic about what to expect in the debates. The onetime Jimmy Carter speechwriter works on the piece for months, studying tape and talking with people who have debated each candidate, as well as experts on persuasion. “The rule is that the way candidates react, immediately and usually involuntarily, while caught by the camera, dominates impressions of who has ‘won’ or ‘lost’ an encounter,” he writes in this year’s version, which posted this week. “This is why the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.”

Here are the three most important takeaways from James’ story:

How Trump wins: “If the sound-off image is of a calm, confident Clinton and a fuming Trump, she will have won the debates and moved that much closer to winning the election. But if Trump can seem easily rather than angrily in command, or if he can lure Clinton into joining him in an insult-for-insult exchange, or if she is beset by some new controversy for which she gives a hyper-legalistic rationalization, then the debates could be a turning point for Trump. … If he seems better than expected, either by throwing Clinton off her game or appearing calmer than a wound-up opponent who gives a dense six-point answer to every question, he might achieve something similar to Reagan’s ‘There you go again!’”

How Trump loses: “Perhaps Trump will fail in the one way that really matters in debates: by confirming, before people’s eyes, doubts they already had. In his case that might involve revealing an embarrassing gap in factual knowledge. His comment to George Stephanopoulos in late July that Russia was ‘not going to go into Ukraine, all right?’ (two years after it already had) could have been devastating during a debate … Or it might involve a rash overstatement on a topic where minute shadings of presidential language can have enormous effect, such as his suggesting that he was not sure the U.S. should … honor payments on the national debt. It might involve a bullying word or gesture toward Clinton or toward one of the demographic groups he has criticized.”

How Clinton wins: “Most people I spoke with recommended a picador-like mocking approach, designed not to confront Trump directly but to cumulatively provoke him into an outburst. … When Comedy Central hosted a roast of Trump five years ago, he didn’t seem to object to jokes about his hair, about his weight, even about his lecherous remarks regarding his daughter Ivanka. The one subject he nixed, according to Aaron Lee, a writer for the roast, was ‘any joke that suggests Trump is not actually as wealthy as he claims to be.’ So this is a scab Hillary Clinton should deftly pick.” (Read the whole piece.)

-- In this week’s New Yorker, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore has a fun yarn about the evolution of the format: “Presidential debates are more often lost than won,” she concludes. “The gaffe costs more than exposition gains. It’s easy to practice your kicking; it’s harder to brace yourself for getting kicked. … ‘Trump is a brawler,’ Roger Stone said this summer, predicting that the Trump-Clinton debates will be bloodbaths. ‘Hillary’s a lawyer,’ the Clinton people kept reminding me. ‘She’ll prosecute him.’ Which of them has the advantage, going in, depends on which rules apply: the rules of battle or the rules of argument. In a boxing ring, a brawler beats a lawyer. In a courtroom, a lawyer beats a brawler. A debate hall is like a courtroom. But a political campaign is more like a boxing ring. The best Presidents—think of Lincoln, or L.B.J.—have been good at both: fleet, sure-footed, and unrelenting.” (Read Jill’s 16-page piece here.)

-- Don’t discount the role of Bill in Hillary’s debate prep: Lehrer recalled last night how he asked Bill a few years ago whether he had prepared one-liners. “Oh my god, yes, we had scads of them. We rehearsed them and I was ready to go,” the former president told him. “If Bill Clinton had his way, he’d still be talking about those debates! He loves the whole thing.”

-- And Trump has ousted Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who has been to a lot of these rodeos. The New Yorker piece includes an anecdote from backstage before the first debate in 1988, when Ailes was prepping George H.W. Bush to square off with Michael Dukakis: “As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis had urged the repeal of Colonial-era anti-sodomy laws; Ailes had produced a campaign ad suggesting that Dukakis supported bestiality. ‘If you get in trouble out there,’ Ailes whispered in Bush’s ear, ‘just call him an animal f***er.’”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- The Clinton campaign released a doctor’s letter describing Hillary's treatment for a “mild” bacteria pneumonia – painting an overall picture of good health as the Democratic nominee attempts to move past the illness that has sidelined her from campaigning for the past three days. “The remainder of her complete physical exam was normal and she is in excellent mental condition,” Clinton physician Lisa Bardack wrote in the letter. “She is recovering well with antibiotics and rest. She continues to remain healthy and fit to serve as President of the United States.” Bardack examined Clinton yesterday and has done so several other times since she was diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday, according to a campaign aide. (Story by Abby Phillip and Anne Gearan; read the full doctor’s note here.)

-- HRC gets back on the trail today with a rally in Greensboro, N.C. Clinton communications director Jen Palmieri says the speech will focus on “how we lift up our children and families and make sure that every child has the chance to live up to their God given potential.” It’s the second in a series of speeches “laying out her aspirational vision for the country” that began last week in Kansas City with a discussion of her faith journey. “Upcoming speeches include one on an inclusive economy and national service,” Jen emails.

-- Trump, meanwhile, appeared on the “Dr. Oz” show, giving a short synopsis of his health and – sparing little in the way of theatrics – staging an unexpected reveal of a letter containing details from his latest physical. (“Should I do it? I don’t care, should I do it?” he asked the audience, before pulling the note from his breast pocket.) Trump then confessed he'd like to lose 15 pounds. The letter revealed that the Republican nominee also takes a “statin,” normally used to control cholesterol.

Donald Trump jokes that the rally venue feels warm, and adds that he doesn’t think Hillary Clinton could stand at the podium “for an hour and do this.” (Video: The Washington Post)

-- The gloves are back off: After a few days of treading carefully, Donald questioned Clinton’s stamina last night in Ohio. "Oh, you think this is so easy?” he asked a crowd in Canton. “It is hot, and it's always hot when I perform because the crowds are so big …These rooms were not designed for this kind of a crowd. I don't know folks. You think Hillary would be able to stand up here for an hour and do this? I don't know. I don't know. I don't think so. I don't think so." (Sean Sullivan)

-- President Obama will create the first fully protected area in the Atlantic Ocean today, designating 4,913 square miles off the New England coastline as a new marine national monument. From Juliet Eilperin: “Obama’s previous marine conservation declarations have focused on some of the most remote waters under U.S. jurisdiction, including last month’s expansion of a massive protected area in Hawaii. But the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is more accessible, lying 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod.”

-- A dramatic House vote on the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen was delayed, if not averted entirely, by a last-minute deal between GOP leaders and the hard-line conservative members who could have forced the vote today. From Mike DeBonis: “Koskinen is expected to appear next week before the House Judiciary Committee, which is examining impeachment articles related to the destruction of emails subpoenaed by Congress, after declining to testify before the panel earlier this year. Because the committee has not advanced the impeachment proceedings, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus filed a special motion to bring the matter directly to the House floor. The caucus declared victory in a statement late Wednesday, saying the hearing would 'give every American the opportunity to hear John Koskinen answer under oath why he misled Congress, allowed evidence pertinent to an investigation to be destroyed, and defied Congressional subpoenas and preservation orders.'"

-- The Koch political network will stop running television ads in the final month before the election to pour more resources into the ground game, Matea Gold reports: “The intensification of a ground strategy is being driven by an assessment that Republicans need greater firepower when it comes to getting voters to the polls — particularly those unenthused about this year's campaign. For months, [the network] has had 1,200 paid staffers in 36 states across its allied advocacy groups … Those organizers are now being trained on 5 million voters in eight states where the network is bolstering GOP Senate candidates: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The new approach comes amid a shifting Senate battleground: While network officials are confident about states such as Ohio, where Sen. Rob Portman has a large lead, they are putting new resources into North Carolina and Missouri, where the GOP incumbents face narrowing polls.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Obama pledged to lift all remaining trade sanctions against Myanmar, the latest step in a series of efforts to normalize relations. The announcement came after his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de-facto leader. (David Nakamura)
  2. Wells Fargo received subpoenas from three different U.S. attorneys this week. The bank is being investigated for widespread misconduct that resulted in the creation of thousands of fraudulent customer accounts. (New York Times)
  3. Florida police arrested a suspect in connection with the arson fire that badly damaged a mosque formerly attended by Orlando gunman Omar Mateen. 32-year-old Joseph Schreiber, whose social media page was full of anti-Islamic posts, was caught because of surveillance footage from the attack. (AP)
  4. The survival rate for treating prostate cancer in the early stage is 99 percent after 10 years – regardless of what type of treatments patients pursue. The newly-published number is good news and expands the menu of options. (Laurie McGinley)
  5. The ACC announced it will move its championships out of North Carolina this year in retaliation for the state’s “bathroom bill." The decision follows announcements by the NCAA and the NBA. (Ava Wallace)
  6. SpaceX is cooperating with NASA and FAA probes into what founder Elon Musk calls the company’s “most difficult and complex failure” to date. Despite last week's rocket fire, the company wants to return to flight by November. (Christian Davenport)
  7. An elderly gunman opened fire at a senior living home in Wyoming, leaving one dead and injuring three others before turning the gun on himself. He was a resident at the facility. (Sarah Larimer)
  8. The British man who attempted to grab a police officer’s gun at a Las Vegas Trump rally earlier this year pleaded guilty to firearm and disruption charges. The 20-year-old, who reportedly suffers from autism and a range of mental health issues, will spend up to two years in prison. (Derek Hawkins)
  9. Ford reiterated its decision to move all U.S. production of its small cars to Mexico. Trump called the decision a “disgrace.” (Max Ehrenfreund)
  10. Efforts to bring humanitarian aid to Syrians amid the nationwide cease-fire stalled for a second day in a row, challenging a key part of the U.S. and Russian-backed deal aimed at curbing violence. (Erin Cunningham and Heba Habib)
  11. France will open 12 “de-radicalization centers” across the country, seeking to confront the rise of home-grown jihadist violence among young people. (James McAuley)
  12. Starving residents in Venezuela can be arrested for buying too much food. The new law is part of a national crackdown aimed at preventing people from buying desperately-needed food on the black market. (Mariana Zuñiga and Nick Miroff)
  13. Brazilian prosecutors filed new charges against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, accusing the charismatic politician of controlling a “multibillion-dollar corruption ring” centered around state oil company Petrobras. (Dom Phillips)
  14. An ex-mayor in Ohio claimed that a four-year-old girl he raped was a “willing participant,” according to court records. (Kristine Guerra)
  15. Several SWAT officers were hospitalized after being exposed to fentanyl during a drug raid. Raw powder – up to 50 times more potent than heroin -- became airborne during the drug seizure, forcing officials to continue through a cloud of the hazardous substance. (Lindsey Bever and J. Freedom du Lac)
  16. A New Jersey kindergarten was confronted with an unexpected and baffling disciplinary issue after a five-year-old was caught carrying packets of heroin in his lunch box. The student was rushed to the hospital, and investigators are working to determine how the young child came in contact with the opioid. (The Trentonian)
  17. A thousand runners who hoped to qualify for the Boston Marathon in Philly last weekend could not because a slow-moving freight train cut through the middle of the course. Runners were stalled for 10 minutes, all but disqualifying many participants from earning a spot in the more elite Boston race. (Ben Guarino)
  18. An 18-year-old Austrian woman is suing her parents for refusing to delete embarrassing baby photos from Facebook, saying the more than 500 childhood images shared violate her right to privacy. The case is the first of its kind in the country and could set national precedents. (The Local)
  19. Residents in St. Petersburg, Russia, are questioning the city’s commemoration of controversial figures such as Kim Jong-il and Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who led an anti-Russian militia and urged the killings of “as many Russians as possible.” The murderous tyrants are being honored with bridges and placards across the city. (New York Times)

A NEW COLD WAR HEATS UP:

-- U.S. intelligence agencies are expanding spying operations against Russia on a greater scale than at any time since the end of the Cold War. From Greg Miller: “The mobilization involves clandestine CIA operatives, National Security Agency cyberespionage capabilities, satellite systems and other intelligence assets, officials said, describing a shift in resources across spy services that had previously diverted attention from Russia to focus on terrorist threats and U.S. war zones. U.S. officials said the moves are part of an effort to rebuild U.S. intelligence capabilities that had continued to atrophy even as Russia sought to reassert itself as a global power. Though hidden from public view, the escalation in espionage activity is part of a broader renewal of conflict and competition between the United States and Russia after a two-decade lull." 

Seniors officials acknowledge that they were caught flat-footed by Moscow’s aggression over the past two years, and they insist that they are now playing “catch-up, big time”: "Former U.S. intelligence officials involved in spying operations against Russia [said] Putin’s motivations are consistent and clear — to reclaim his country’s standing as a global rival of the United States, to destabilize Western governments that contest that aim and to constantly test how much Moscow can provoke its adversaries before they respond. “What he’s basically doing is probing and saying: ‘How far can I push? How much can I gain?’ said one former CIA officer."

From Obama's former U.S. ambassador to Russia:

-- The latest target: More than two years of Colin Powell's private emails were posted online. Robert Barnes, Ellen Nakashima and Aaron Blake highlight some of the key messages:

  • On Hillary: The former secretary of state is "a greedy, not transformational” figure. “Everything she touches she kind of screws up with hubris,” he said. As for Bill? Powell wrote that the former president is busy entertaining "bimbos" while she is away.
  • On Trump: “A national disgrace and an international pariah” who gave voice to a “racist” movement by questioning President Obama’s citizenship." Powell also said Trump takes black people “for idiots" and blamed the media for his rise.

-- House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul claimed that the Republican National Committee had been hacked alongside the DNC earlier this year: "Yes, they have hacked into the Republican National Committee,” McCaul told Wolf Blizter on CNN’s “Situation Room.” “They are hacking into both political parties. … We're not sure why they've released some documents and not others."

-- The RNC quickly denied his remarks, saying there has been “no known breach” of their network.

-- Then McCaul walked backed his comment with a statement on Twitter:

We'd love to know which "Republican political operatives." Could they be Trump's opponents from the primaries?

-- The people who hacked the DNC released more documents yesterday -- including Tim Kaine’s personal cell phone number. From NBC’s Tom Winter: “’Guccifer 2.0’ released over 670 megabytes of documents at a cybersecurity conference in London …. The work cell phone numbers, personal email addresses and personal cell phone numbers of top Obama White House officials were also included in the cache. Kaine's title on the spreadsheet of contacts is ‘Chairman's Office’ — which might mean that the document was created from 2009 to 2011, when Kaine was with the [DNC]. It doesn't appear any emails were included in the documents released. But the DNC's holiday card list for 2010, FEC filings, early voter lists and a plan for redistricting were all in the dump.”

-- Another big way the Russians could mess with us on Election Day: “Voting machines are not supposed to be connected to the internet … But results are reported online, and one fear that federal cyberexperts have discussed is that a sophisticated 'man in the middle' attack could allow hackers to take over internet systems used to report unofficial results on election night," David Sanger and Charlie Savage report in today's New York Times. "Such a breach might not alter the official ballot count, but it could sow deep mistrust about the numbers that are broadcast."

-- Just how awful is Putin? Conservative columnist George Will explains how Vladimir has gone “full Orwell” after punishing a blogger for publishing facts about World War II: “Modern tyrannies depend on state control of national memories — retroactive truths established by government fiat. Which is why Russia’s Supreme Court recently upheld the conviction of a blogger for a provision criminalizing the 'rehabilitation of Nazism.' The blogger’s crime was to post: ‘The communists and Germany jointly invaded Poland, sparking off the Second World War.’ The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact have gone down one of Vladimir Putin’s memory holes. The Russian court’s ruling is a window into the sinister continuity of Putin’s Russia and the Soviet system that incubated him. As the Russian blogger’s fate demonstrates, Putin practices what Orwell wrote: ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’"

-- History will not be kind to "conservative" activists like Dinesh D'Souza, a convicted felon who cares more about antagonizing President Obama then preserving any claim to intellectual integrity. His latest:

FRESH POLLING:

-- Clinton leads by 5 points nationally (48-43) in the Quinnipiac poll, down from a 10-point advantage last month. Both continue to hold similarly dismal favorability ratings (40 percent for Clinton and 35 percent for Trump). The majority of voters for both Trump and Clinton say they are mainly voting to keep the opposing candidate from winning the White House. “Priority one for Clinton and Trump as the election looms: lure the cynical, disaffected, downright disgusted electorate into their camp,” says pollster Tim Malloy.

-- A CNN/ORC poll puts Trump up 5 points among likely voters in Ohio (46-41) and 3 points in Florida (47-44).

-- Trump also now leads Clinton in Nevada by 2 points, according to a Monmouth University poll. She is leading among non-white voters 63-28; Trump carries the white vote 51-33.

-- Nearly half of Americans say that voter fraud occurs at least somewhat often, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a viewpoint at odds with studies showing it rarely occurs in U.S. elections. Our poll finds 63 percent of voters are confident that votes in this year’s presidential election will be counted accurately, down from about 7 in 10 in 2004. (Emily Guskin and Scott Clement)

-- According to our new poll, 8 in 10 registered voters who support Trump say that the United States is less great than in the past, compared with just about 2 in 10 of those who support Clinton. Among all voters, 47 percent say the United States is less great than in the past, while 35 percent say it has been about the same and 17 percent say the country is greater than before. (Scott Clement and Jim Tankersley)

THE NEW NARRATIVE = TRUMP REALLY COULD WIN THIS THING:

-- Citigroup just released a note for clients that cautions against getting “lulled into complacency” by polls favoring Clinton. From Fox Business’s Brian Schwartz: “A 35 percent probability for a Trump victory is more meaningful than investors may be appreciating,” Chief Global Political Analyst Tina Fordham writes. “Political probabilities are not like blackjack — there is only one roll of the dice, and 35 percent probability events happen frequently in real life.” Citi predicts more market volatility if Trump keeps doing well, comparing him to Brexit.

-- “If you aren’t seriously contemplating the biggest black swan event in American electoral history, you aren’t paying attention,” writes National Review Editor Rich Lowry. “Hillary still has an advantage. Presumably, she won’t be as snake-bit the rest of the campaign as she has been the past two weeks. She has a campaign and Trump doesn’t, and that must count for something. Demographics favor her. But if Trump can hoist himself over the bar of acceptability, he might give the voting public enough permission to make this the change election it is naturally inclined to be. A Trump victory may not be likely, but it isn’t far-fetched. And, no, stranger things haven’t happened.”

-- “The week before last I looked at Trump’s likely ‘path to victory’ and adjudged it as ‘a tightrope walk down an insanely narrow path to 270 electoral votes,” New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore writes. “I’d now take out the adjective insanely and maybe even suggest it’s a walk along a balance beam rather than a tightrope. As the popular-vote margin separating Clinton and Trump gradually shrinks, putting together a map of states Trump might carry involves less conjecture about where he might make gains and more confidence that he might be able to consolidate gains he has already made…”

The Upshot, which rates Clinton [as having a] 79 percent win probability, offers this sobering analogy: ‘Mrs. Clinton’s chance of losing is about the same as the probability that an N.F.L. kicker misses a 45-yard field goal.’ So, in the fourth quarter of a very close game, when that placekicker trots out onto the field with everything on the line, how confident are you that he will nail that ‘high-probability’ field goal? Are you a tad nervous? Those who have laughed off Trump’s chances while believing his election would represent a turn for the worse in their own lives should be nervous right now.”

-- Most of the analysis about the polls has focused on how Clinton has hurt herself, Business Insider’s Josh Barro writes. “But here's the thought that's making me nervous: What if the shift in the polls is more about [Trump] campaigning better? For example, Trump has resisted the temptation to talk extensively about Clinton's pneumonia, instead staying focused on the ‘basket of deplorables’ comment … He has gotten more attention for his positive policy messages. He even pulled off a non-embarrassing meeting with the president of Mexico. Obviously, these are all very low bars I am describing Trump as having cleared … But low bars might be the right measure for the ‘can Trump win’ question. For most of this campaign, Trump has been just a few points behind Clinton despite running a comically inept campaign. What if running a merely somewhat inept campaign is good enough for him to catch up?”

-- “The American Electoral College is an unusual system, and Trump is an unusual candidate, Ross Douthat explains in his New York Times column. “He’s likely to underperform among normal Republicans in many red states … But he might overperform in Rust Belt states where the white working class is still a residually liberal swing vote. This unusual combination — underperforming but still probably winning Republican states, possibly overperforming in purple states — suggests a true black swan endgame. … No, it’s not likely. No, don’t freak out. But for this race to end with a huge Electoral College crisis is the kind of outcome everything that’s happened in 2016 almost — almost — leads one to expect."

THE DAILY DONALD:

-- In 2007, Trump spent $20,000 from his Trump Foundation charity to buy a six-foot-tall portrait of himself during a fundraiser auction at his Mar-a-Lago Club. The Post’s David A. Fahrenthold has been on the hunt for the painting since Sunday – because if the portrait wasn’t given to charity or used for otherwise “charitable purposes,” it could be an IRS violation. 

On Wednesday, he found a clue: “A former production manager for the portrait’s painter told The Post that he had shipped the painting — at the request of Trump’s wife, Melania — to Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Her plan was ‘to hang it in either the boardroom or the conference room of the club,’” the painter’s former manager said. “If the painting is still hanging in the club, ‘it’s on display, in his business enterprise. It’s not on display in a charitable enterprise. It is arguably enhancing the experience of playing golf there,’ said Marc Owens, the former director of the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt enterprises. ‘It’s not a charitable use. It is a noncharitable use.’” (Want to help Fahrenthold in his real-time investigations of Trump’s charitable giving? Follow him on Twitter.)

-- Ivanka Trump gave a tense interview to Cosmo about her father’s new maternity leave policy, demurring on whether same-sex male partners would receive any benefits, and pushing back on her father’s 2004 comments that pregnancy is an “inconvenient thing for a business.” “So I think that you have a lot of negativity in these questions, and I think my father has put forth a very comprehensive and really revolutionary plan to deal with a lot of issues,” she told Cosmo’s Prachi Gupta, when asked how her father's positions have evolved since the 2004 claim. “So I don't know how useful it is to spend too much time with you on this if you're going to make a comment like that. My father obviously has a track record of decades of employing women at every level of his company … and enabling them to thrive outside of the office and within. To imply otherwise is an unfair characterization of his track record and his support of professional women.” (The interview ended shortly after.)

-- “How the Trump organization’s foreign business ties could upend U.S. national security,” by Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald: “A close examination [of the Trump Organization] … reveals an enterprise with deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals … It also reveals a web of contractual entanglements that could not be just canceled. The dealings of the Trump Organization reach into so many countries that it is impossible to detail all the conflicts they present in a single issue of this magazine … [but] if Trump moves into the White House and his family continues to receive any benefit from the company … almost every foreign policy decision he makes will raise serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires.”

-- “New Records Shed Light on Donald Trump’s $25,000 Gift to Florida Official,” by the New York Times's Kevin Sack and Steve Eder: It was Aug. 29, 2013, an unremarkable day inside Florida’s whitewashed Capitol, when Pam Bondi’s communications director fielded a call from an Orlando Sentinel reporter inquiring about a Trump University fraud investigation. “Four days later, a check for $25,000 from the Donald J. Trump Foundation landed in the Tampa office of a [pro-Bondio PAC office] …” The proximate timing of the article – and Trump’s subsequent donation -- have driven a narrative that has dogged the two for years. “But documents obtained this week … including a copy of Mr. Trump’s check, at least partly undercut that timeline[:] Although the check was received by Ms. Bondi’s committee four days after the Sentinel report … it was actually dated and signed by Mr. Trump four days before the article appeared. Now, with the revelation of the date on Mr. Trump’s check … it appears that Mr. Trump and Ms. Bondi had in their possession a piece of favorable evidence that they bewilderingly failed to disclose …”

-- “Meet the Pastor Who Prays With Trump,” by Time's Elizabeth Dias: “[Eric Trump] was glowing when he sat down at a Cleveland restaurant next to Orlando pastor Paula White. ‘Your prayer did it, Paula,’ Eric told her. ‘I thought I was going to have to wing 15 minutes to them all,’ The younger Trump’s teleprompter had broken the night before as he prepared to address the Republican National Convention. ‘You prayed, and the prompter went back on.’ … ‘I probably [interceded] against any plot or plan or weapon of the enemy to interfere with the plan or the will of God,’” White said later. “[But] Eric Trump is not the only member of his family who has come to rely on White, 50, a popular televangelist who believes that intercessory prayer can have an immediate impact on shaping events.” She also spent four hours praying for Trump as he prepared for his address, leading the Republican nominee in a prayer circle and later riding with his family to the Quicken Loans Arena."

TRUMP ON THE TRAIL:

-- Trump received a chilly reception in the majority-black town of Flint, as he toured an inoperable water treatment plant and was chastised to stop “politicking” during a speech at a Methodist church. “The brief trip to Flint, a city gripped by poverty, marked Trump’s latest attempt to boost his appeal to African Americans and other minorities who don’t typically vote Republican,” Sean Sullivan and Robert Costa write. “It also highlighted the awkwardness and the problems he has faced in his endeavor”:

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver expressed unhappiness with the trip, saying she was unaware of his plans to visit, and that neither Trump nor his staff have attempted reached out since the crisis was declared an emergency. “Flint is focused on fixing the problems caused by lead contamination of our drinking water, not photo ops,” said Weaver. During his remarks at a Methodist church, he began speaking about Clinton’s “failed” policies – and was promptly chastised. “Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we’ve done in Flint,” the pastor said. “Not to give a political speech.”

Watch the scene:

Trump chastised by Flint pastor (Video: Reuters)

Watch her defend herself afterward:

"Some of the statements that I have heard him make about African Americans, Hispanics and others, were degrading," Rev. Faith Green Timmons said. (Video: Twitter/CameronRidle via Storyful)

THE DAILY HILLARY

-- The Boston arm of the Clinton charitable empire announced last night that it will shed most of its direct ties to the Clinton family and attempt to operate as an independent nonprofit if Clinton wins the presidential election, the Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey reports. "Former president Bill Clinton, their daughter Chelsea, longtime aide Ira Magaziner, and two other members of the organization’s board of directors would step down should Hilary Clinton win and be replaced under the new arrangement. The group, currently called the Clinton Health Access Initiative, would be known only by its acronym CHAI — and the 'C' would no longer stand for Clinton. The changes would allow the organization to continue accepting the foreign and corporate donations that it relies on to do charitable work, including increasing access to AIDS/HIV drugs in dozens of countries. Other arms of the Clinton Foundation have kept closer ties to Clinton, but pledged to stop taking foreign and corporate money if she is elected. Magaziner, who was paid $400,000 in salary and consulting fees by the Clinton charities in 2014, would continue to be the organization's chief executive, maintaining a strong link between the group and the Clinton family."

-- “Even as the Clintons are touting plans to distance themselves from their foundation and limit its fundraising, they’re planning one last glitzy fundraising bash on Friday to belatedly celebrate Bill Clinton’s 70th birthday,” Politico’s Ken Vogel and Gabriel Debenedetti report. “The fundraiser is being held at the Rainbow Room, a fine-dining restaurant on the 65th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. Plans called for performances by Wynton Marsalis, Jon Bon Jovi and Barbra Streisand.” Major donors are reportedly being asked to give $250,000 to be listed as a chair for the party, $100,000 to be listed a co-chair and $50,000 to be listed as a vice-chair.

-- Hillary plans to meet with several foreign leaders during the U.N. General Assembly next week, even as she skips the Foundation gathering that’s scheduled to coincide with it. (Politico’s Nahal Toosi)

-- Clinton’s new book is a flop: “Stronger Together,” Clinton’s newly-released policy blueprint for where she hopes to take the country if she is elected president, sold just 2,912 copies in its first week on sale. “Both Mrs. Clinton and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, have promoted the book on the campaign trail, but the sales figure, which tallies about 80 percent of booksellers nationwide and does not include e-books, firmly makes the book what the publishing industry would consider a flop,” Amy Chozick writes in the Times.

-- Garrison Keillor criticizes the coverage of her pneumonia in a Post op-ed: “The woman who does not conceal her own intelligence is a fine American tradition … but none has been subjected to the steady hectoring and jibber-jabber that Clinton has. ... Someday, historians will get this right and look back at the steady pitter-pat of scandals that turned out to be nothing, nada, zero and ixnay and will conclude that, almost a century after women’s suffrage, almost 45 years after Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law, a woman was required to run for office wearing concrete shoes.”

-- Politico’s Annie Karni argues that Bill Clinton has lost his touch and should no longer be his wife's closer: "As the campaign taps Bill to fill in for pneumonia-felled Hillary this week, the former president no longer packs his longtime stump-speech punch. ... Some of her allies have begun to question how much the campaign should lean on him and how bright his legacy star power still is. Indeed, Democratic operatives cast Clinton’s husband as a second-tier stand-in for the candidate — of less value than President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. ... In some of the swing states where campaign operatives are putting in asks for big-name Democrats to visit, Bill Clinton comes in about even with Joe Biden and Tim Kaine.

THE BATTLEGROUNDS:

-- The conservative Union Leader (New Hampshire's largest newspaper) endorses Libertarian Gary Johnson over Trump, assailing the Republican nominee as a “liar, a bully, and a buffoon.” “He denigrates any individual or group that displeases him. He has dishonored military veterans and their families, made fun of the physically frail, and changed political views almost as often as he has changed wives,” writes publisher Joseph McQuaid. The scathing editorial comes on the eve of a Trump’s appearance in the Granite State.

-- “’I hate palm trees’: The sentimental journey of Harry Reid,” by Ben Terris: “The SUV meandered through a quiet middle-class neighborhood until it reached Harry Reid’s former home, a pleasant one-story ranch house with a terra-cotta roof, pink flowers out front and a swimming pool in the back. The Senate minority leader remained in his seat, flipping the window up and down to take it all in. ‘My wife wanted to make sure I told you: This house is crap,’ he said. ‘When we lived there, it was really nice. You’ll see, they ruined our house.’”

“Reid is known as a shrewd tactician, a killer who speaks softly but carries a sharp knife. He’s the kind of a guy who hangs up without saying goodbye, who called George W. Bush a ‘loser’ and told him to his face that ‘your dog is fat.’ But as he prepares to leave the Senate … even Reid can’t avoid displaying something resembling human emotion.  He was spotted crying backstage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after giving a prime-time speech. He’s been telling the old war stories more often. And for once it seems as if he might actually care, just a little bit, about what people think about him; or at least what they think about the house he once kept. ... As the Chevrolet Suburban pulled away from the family home, Reid couldn’t help but look back one more time. ‘You see the house they ruined?’ he said.”

-- Uber’s self-driving cars made their debut in Pittsburgh. Our Brian Fung tested the autonomous vehicles: “There were a few times when the computer automatically gave up control to the driver, such as when it believed an oncoming truck called for human intervention. The car didn't do much to notify the driver a handoff had occurred other than to provide a soft beep and a change in the indicator lights — which means it'll be incredibly important that the safety driver be ready to take over.” Otherwise, he said, the cars provided a gentle – even boring – ride.

Founding Director for the National Museum of African American History and Culture gives us an idea on what to expect when steeping inside. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

-- Review --> “The African American Museum tells powerful stories — but not as powerfully as it could,” by Philip Kennicott: “Thirteen years after it was authorized, and more than a century after the idea … was first broached, the Smithsonian is opening a museum unlike any of its others. But it is not an easy museum to navigate … [and visitors] must learn how to use it. The museum, housed in a visually striking, metal-clad building … is a 21st-century mash-up of two 19th-century ideas: the encyclopedic history museum and the memorial. It has a factual narrative it must tell, a story spanning some 600 years of brutal displacement, cruel enslavement, and frequent disappointment along the long march to freedom. But it is also a memorial to the resilience of African Americans, and the culture they created. The tone, throughout, is a shifting mix of sadness and celebration. But covering more than a half-millennium of history while also celebrating the rich legacy of African American cultural contributions is a lot to accomplish, even in a 400,000-square-foot building.”

-- Another looming question: Will the museum be ready? With just 10 days to go, our Peggy McGlone says the museum is still far from the finish line: “About half of the lowest floor was blocked off because artifacts are not yet installed,” she said after the media preview. “Many cases were empty, and others that had artifacts were missing the labels explaining what was inside. Aboveground, the museum shop is a jumble of empty and partially built shelves …” Museum founding director Lonnie Bunch brushed off concerns, saying they are “so ready it’s ridiculous”: “We have 10 days. It’s a piece of cake.”

-- The First Family took a private tour of the museum last night. Then they had dinner at Oyamel.

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Malia Obama will be able to vote for Hillary:

Many leading Democrats called Dr. Oz a crank as Trump went on his show:

Jeb Bush's communications director wants you to know that Trump cannot with Pennsylvania:

Fascinating polling of millennial voters:

Marcia Cross is having fun with this Trump quote:

White House aides were excited to have Aung San Suu Kyi in the White House:

Chris Coons and Cory Booker met David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyongo at a screening of their new Disney film, Queen of Katwe. Here's a selfie from Nyongo with Booker:

Ben Sasse is still hamming it up about a Senate fight club:

Tim Scott visited the yet-to-open Smithsonian African-American history museum:

Lawmakers attended a memorial service for their late colleague, Mark Takai:

View this post on Instagram

Aloha, my friend

A post shared by Senator Mazie Hirono (@maziehirono) on

This would be epic:

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Black Rifles Matter sign raises eyebrows,” from NBC Columbus: “A large lawn sign that reads ‘Black Rifles Matter’ is offending some tourists in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. The sign’s creator, Linc Sample, said the sign is about gun rights, not race. Sample painted it and placed it on private property after an ad in the local paper supported an assault-style weapons ban. ‘That’s really a trigger for me — the assault weapons ban,’  said Sample. He said he used the phrase ‘Black Rifles Matter,’ a play on the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ to have impact. ‘If anything, they should be flattered I used the phrase,’ said Sample. But some have been upset by the sign. ‘We have received a few complaints from visitors to the region,’ Rick prose, the Boothbay Region Chamber of Commerce director, said. ‘Some of these people have cut their vacation short and left early.’”

 

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT

“What’s Worse: The Zika Virus or the Anti-Zika Spray?” from the Daily Beast: “Wearing gas masks and holding signs that said ‘The Cure is Worse Than The Disease,’ Miami Beach residents marched outside city hall early Wednesday morning to protest the city’s aerial spraying of naled, a pesticide intended to kill Zika-carrying mosquitoes.  A half hour later, they did have their say in a city commission meeting where some protestors advanced organic-based alternatives, promoted the use of ‘essential oils’ to fight the insects, and even claimed that the Zika virus does not, in fact, cause microcephaly in infants. ‘Regardless of what the [CDC] says, there is clear evidence that the link between Zika and microcephaly is very weak,’ said [one attendee]. His completely false statement drew cheers from the nearly-packed chambers.”

DAYBOOK:

On the campaign trail: Trump is in New York, N.Y. and Laconia, N.H. Pence will be with him for the New York stop. Clinton will return to the campaign trail with a rally in Greensboro, N.C.

At the White House: Obama speaks at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference at the State Department and the 39th Annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference and Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Convention Center. Biden speaks at a DSCC event and the 19th Annual Korbel Dinner in Denver.

On Capitol Hill: The Senate meets at 9:30 a.m. to consider S.2848, the Water Resources Development Act. The House meets at 9 a.m. to consider, H.R. 5351, to prohibit the transfer of any individual detained at Guantanamo Bay.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

How the sausage is made: In September 2011, Scott Walker asked his fundraiser how he could raise enough to survive a recall. She responded in a 6:39 a.m. email: “Corporations. Go heavy after them to give,” she wrote. “Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.” (The Guardian)

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

-- A blissfully normal fall forecast for today, via the Capital Weather Gang: “Stepping out in the morning should prove pleasant with much milder and drier air settling in across the region. Clouds should be fairly plentiful during the morning hours but become more scattered by afternoon. Highs only top out in the upper 70s to lower 80s with light northeast breezes.”

-- The Nationals beat the Mets 1-0.

-- A Montgomery County girls’ track coach is facing charges after allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old girl he met on social media. The 42-year-old reportedly struck the minor with a stick during the encounter, which was described as nonconsensual. (Dan Morse and Donna St. George)

-- D.C. police updated their body-camera policy this week, requiring officers to confirm they have turned on their recording equipment before responding to a call or interacting with citizens. The new policy comes after the fatal shooting of a motorcyclist who was said to have crashed his bike into a police cruiser. (Keith L. Alexander

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Police released surveillance footage of Florida state Rep. Keith Perry striking a man who was taking down one of his campaign signs:

Video shows politician slap man over campaign sign spat (Video: Gainesville Police Department)

Seth Meyers delved deeper into "basket of deplorables":

Kristen Bell taped a satirical video about the wage gap and other issues facing women for the Huffington Post:

Watch a river of blood flow through Dhaka, Bangladesh:

Watch a river of blood flow through Dhaka's streets (Video: YouTube/Jaodat Rahman)

Edward Snowden and his supporters made the case for Obama to pardon him:

Edward Snowden, supporters make case for pardon (Video: Reuters)

(Spoiler alert: It's not gonna happen!)
 

Another statue of Trump without clothes appeared outside the Holland Tunnel:

Statue of nude Trump appears near Holland Tunnel (Video: INDECLINE)
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