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July 18, 2014
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We still don't know exactly what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which according to U.S. officials was likely brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile near the Ukraine-Russia border on Thursday. Suspicion immediately fell on Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, though Russia has denied involvement and laid the blame at the Ukrainian government's doorstep.

But the killing of nearly 300 civilians from several different countries has turned the global klieg lights on a game of cat-and-mouse that Russia had been more than happy to play — and that could ultimately be responsible for a catastrophe that will ramp up pressure on President Vladimir Putin in ways he didn't foresee.

Putin has consistently called for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, while brazenly sending arms and armed forces to assist the rebels, extending an insurgency that has destabilized the government in Kiev. "It is a game for Putin," an anonymous Russian official told The New York Times. "He likes to say that he is a peacekeeper from one hand, while from the other he is sending the rebels arms. It is typical K.G.B."

So far, the U.S.'s European allies have been reluctant to following President Obama's lead in strengthening sanctions against Russia. With the deaths of Dutch and British civilians, among others, that could change. Furthermore, in this new environment, it will become far more difficult for Russia to continue supporting the rebels, who may soon find themselves left high and dry.

No one wanted this disaster to happen — perhaps none more than Putin himself. Ryu Spaeth

1:14 p.m. ET
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Not even Glenn Beck — the conservative radio host who reportedly spent $500,000 on travel stumping for Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries — is ready to let the Texas senator off the hook for endorsing Donald Trump. In an interview on Beck's radio show Monday, Beck repeatedly tried to get Cruz to explain his decision to vote for Trump — despite the fact that during the Republican National Convention, Cruz used his speech to advise Americans to "vote your conscience" rather than to endorse the GOP nominee.

At first Cruz tried to paint his convention speech as a way to "lay out a path to uniting Republicans," explaining that this election is "a binary choice" and Hillary Clinton isn't the choice to make. But Beck wasn't ready to let Cruz get away with once again refusing to say whether Trump is fit to be president. "So a man, who you cannot come on [the show] and say, 'Yes, Glenn, he is fit to be president of the United States,' I still am encouraged by you to abandon my principles and vote [for him] because it's a binary choice?" Beck asked.

By the end of the nearly 20-minute conversation, Beck had to admit he "strongly" disagreed with Cruz — and he was reportedly even more candid after he hung up the phone. "I think I have to apologize, and say, maybe, perhaps, those of you who said Ted Cruz is calculating and a smarmy politician, I think I may have to slightly agree with you and apologize for saying, 'No, he wasn't,'" Beck said, as reported by The Daily Beast. Then, Cruz apparently twisted the knife, reportedly admitting that maybe, just maybe, he should've supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the primary instead.

Listen to the entire interview, below. Becca Stanek

11:57 a.m. ET

The weekend's intense rain in the Midwest may finally be subsiding, but in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, floodwaters are continuing to rise. As of Monday morning, the Cedar River crested at 16 feet, which constitutes a "major flood event," Time reported. By Tuesday morning, the river is expected to crest at 23 feet, which NBC News noted would put the water "11 feet above flood stage." The waters are rushing down to Cedar Rapids from Wisconsin, where two people died last week because of flooding.

The last time Iowa waters rose this high was in 2008; that flood, which The Des Moines Register called the "worst in the city's history," resulted in an estimated $10 billion in damages.

Residents of Cedar Rapids and in other areas of Iowa have been advised to evacuate, while curfews have also been installed in some parts of the state. CNN reported Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) have "each declared disaster emergencies for 13 counties, freeing up state resources to respond to the flooding." Becca Stanek

10:45 a.m. ET
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Tonight is a big night for the swath of voters who still haven't decided whether they're team Donald Trump or team Hillary Clinton. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday, the day of the first presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, revealed that of the 50 percent of likely voters who are using the presidential debates to guide their decision this November, 10 percent still don't even prefer one candidate over another.

But for all those voters who are hopeful the debates will bring some much-needed clarity, 39 percent of respondents were already resigned to the fact the debates "will not help" them choose a candidate, Reuters reported. Another 11 percent weren't sure how the debates will shape their decisions.

The debate will be moderated by NBC's Lester Holt at New York's Hofstra University. Reuters reported it is expected to draw "a Super Bowl-sized audience of 100 million Americans."

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted among 1,337 likely voters across all 50 states, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Becca Stanek

10:33 a.m. ET

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will finally face off Monday night, in the first of three presidential debates. For Trump, preparing for the debate has meant getting used to working on a timer and practicing staying even-keeled and optimistic; Clinton, meanwhile, has been holding marathon run-throughs and honing her mental discipline.

But Trump's former campaign manager-cum-CNN commentator Corey Lewandowski thinks Clinton could do without all the formal practice and instead just focus on one thing: becoming human. "What Hillary Clinton has to do here is she has to become human, and I mean that in a good way," Lewandowski said Monday on a CNN panel, per Politico. "There's no question about [the fact that she knows the issues], but what she doesn't have is that compassion that people can see."

Lewandowski's critique of Clinton as coming off wooden is not new, and is a claim that has dogged the Democratic nominee throughout her political life. In a lengthy report for The Washington Post published Friday, writer Marc Fisher explored Clinton's problems with being perceived as even "likable enough," as Barack Obama said memorably in 2008 — to the point where she believed the press would publish even the most bombastic of rumors about her:

Lewandowski — who is still receiving severance from the Trump campaign while being paid by CNN for his work — also said Monday that he believed Trump would exceed expectations at Monday night's debate. Read more of his comments at Politico, or read Fisher's full story on Clinton's authenticity problem at The Washington Post. Kimberly Alters

10:13 a.m. ET
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If Election Day got bumped up to Sept. 26, FiveThirtyEight predicts Donald Trump would claim a huge victory. In Monday's now-cast election predictor, released hours ahead of the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Republican presidential nominee's chances of winning were nearly 10 points higher than Clinton's, 54.9 percent to 45.1 percent.

Of course, a lot can change over the course of 43 days. But the trends over the last couple months in this particular FiveThirtyEight forecast have shown Trump steadily gaining ground and Clinton steadily losing it. After Trump briefly pulled ahead in late July, Clinton's lead peaked on Aug. 8, when she had a 96.4 percent chance of winning and Trump had just a 3.6 percent chance. Since then, it's been a slow but steady downhill slide for Clinton.

Moreover, while Clinton has consistently led since June in FiveThirtyEight's polls-plus predictor, which takes polls, historical data, and the economy into the equation, she now holds her slimmest lead yet in that measure, too: In the polls-plus forecast, Clinton's chances of winning on Nov. 8 are 51.9 percent, while Trump's are 48.1 percent. Becca Stanek

9:42 a.m. ET

And the hits just keep on coming.

Just days after 21-year league veteran Kevin Garnett announced his retirement from the NBA — joining fellow icons Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan in hanging 'em up after the 2015-2016 season — Garnett's erstwhile teammate Paul Pierce announced Monday via The Players' Tribune that the 2016-2017 season would be his last.

"I'm at peace with retiring, but I've got one more ride left," Pierce wrote. “With the [Los Angeles] Clippers, in the city where I grew up, I feel like I have that opportunity … to win a championship."

Pierce played his first 15 seasons with the Boston Celtics, joining forces with sharp-shooter Ray Allen and the emotional, defense-anchoring Garnett to win a championship in 2008. He then spent one season each with the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards before joining the Clippers in the summer of 2015. He is a 10-time All-Star team selection and was also the 2008 NBA Finals MVP. Below, a look at some of his best career plays. Kimberly Alters

8:55 a.m. ET

Turns out, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was probably making money off of Donald Trump when he panned the GOP nominee at the Republican National Convention in July and urged Americans to "vote your conscience." Politico reported Sunday that Cruz sold Trump his donor email list just six weeks after dropping out of the Republican presidential primary — an entire month before Cruz's convention speech and nearly five months before Cruz announced he'd decided to vote for Trump after "searching my own conscience."

It's hard to tell exactly how much money Cruz has made from selling his list to Trump's campaign, but Politico estimated he's pocketed "at least tens of thousands of dollars, and more likely hundreds of thousands, that can be used to bankroll the Texan's own political future":

Since he exited the presidential race in May, Cruz's campaign committee has reported a total of roughly $290,000 in list rental income, Federal Election Commission records show. Trump's campaign directly rented Cruz's list five times in June and since early July his joint fundraising committee with the Republican National Committee — which gives 80 percent of its proceeds to Trump — has rented Cruz's list more than 25 times.

The buying and selling of email addresses is standard fare in modern politics — but less typical among bitter rivals. After Cruz failed to back Trump at the convention, he told the Texas delegation he would not "go like a servile puppy dog" and simply endorse after Trump had "slandered" his family. [Politico]

Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier defended Cruz's decision as a move to "help the Republican Party at large."

You can read the full story on Cruz's under-the-radar Trump assist over at Politico. Becca Stanek

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