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July 17, 2017
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The 2018 midterm elections are right around the corner, and Democrats still don't have their party's core message figured out. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, the No. 4 House Democrat, recently "hesitated" when asked to define what Democrats want to convey to voters.

"That message is being worked on. We're doing everything we can to simplify it, but at the same time provide the meat behind it as well. So that's coming together now," the New York congressman told The Associated Press, eight months after his party suffered unexpectedly crushing defeats in the 2016 elections. AP noted Democrats' losses were partly due to a lack of a "consistent message."

Crowley's response likely won't reassure voters already uncertain of the party's message. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday revealed that only 37 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party "stands for something." Fifty-two percent instead suggested that the Democratic Party "just stands against [President] Trump."

Crowley assured voters that Democrats are "all working on" getting their message sorted out soon, though. "We're hoping to have this up and running and out by this fall," Crowley said. Becca Stanek

12:34 p.m. ET

Outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) took to the Senate floor Wednesday to decry President Trump's authoritarian tendencies.

Flake specifically referenced a February tweet from Trump, in which the president declared that the "FAKE NEWS media" is "the enemy of the American people." "It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies," Flake said.

The Washington Post points out that Stalin used a phrase similar to Trump's tweet to justify the execution of his enemies. The words were denounced three years after Stalin's death by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Flake, a frequent Trump critic, was especially bothered by the way Trump "inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language," noting how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have all invoked the phrase "fake news" to justify or lie about their actions.

Although Flake's speech aired on various news networks, The Washington Post's Erica Werner pointed out that the only audience on the Senate floor was Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and a smattering of reporters. Kelly O'Meara Morales

11:38 a.m. ET
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U.S. Border Patrol agents actively impair humanitarian efforts along the southern border, a report published Wednesday revealed. The report — commissioned by two humanitarian groups, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos — claims that U.S. immigration enforcement officials intentionally destroy water containers left for immigrants crossing the scorching deserts, "condemning people to die of thirst in baking temperatures," The Guardian reports.

The study analyzed an 800-square-mile swath of desert near Tucson, Arizona, where people often leave water for border-crossers, The Guardian explains. Between March 2012 and December 2015, Border Patrol agents reportedly damaged 415 containers of water, sabotaging more than 3,500 gallons.

While the report notes that wild animals do occasionally account for the destruction, U.S. Border Patrol agents are the water saboteurs "in the majority of cases," the groups claim. One Border Patrol agent is quoted in the report describing the strategy, saying: "I remember people smashing and stepping on water bottles. I remember that being imparted onto us in one way or another."

The report asserts that destroying aid supplies is a "systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands." Read more at The Guardian. Kelly O'Meara Morales

11:25 a.m. ET
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The team working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russia's influence over the 2016 election is reportedly inspecting "suspicious" transactions involving Russian diplomatic personnel, BuzzFeed News writes. Among the transactions flagged by the Russian embassy's bank and reported, as is legally required, to the U.S. Treasury's financial crimes unit is a payment of $120,000 to then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak just days after the presidential election and an attempt to withdraw $150,000 from the embassy's account less than a week after President Trump's inauguration.

In particular, Kislyak's payout raised eyebrows because it was marked as "payroll," although it didn't fit into his normal pay routine. Likewise, in the spring of 2014 some 30 checks to embassy employees totaling about $370,000 raised suspicions because "bank officials noted that the employees had not received similar payments in the past, and that the transactions surrounded the date of a critical referendum on whether parts of Crimea should secede from Ukraine and join Russia," BuzzFeed News writes.

Just because payments are flagged as suspicious, though, doesn't mean they are necessarily illegal. As people in the intelligence and diplomatic communities told BuzzFeed News, "there could be justifiable uses for the money, such as travel, bonuses, or pension payouts." That is now up to the Treasury Department, Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mueller to review and decide. Read more about the suspicious financial activity, including a small Washington, D.C., contractor who received some $320,000 from the Russian embassy, at BuzzFeed News. Jeva Lange

10:01 a.m. ET
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Americans have very little confidence in the major institutions of democracy, including the courts, political parties, presidency, and fourth estate, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has concluded. Of all the institutions, though, Americans had the least faith in Congress, with just 8 percent saying they have a "great deal" of trust in the lawmaking body.

The Republican Party followed closely, with only 29 percent of respondents saying they have a level of confidence in the political party that controls the House, Senate, and presidency. A not-much-better 36 percent of respondents said they have confidence in the Democratic Party. Sixty-eight percent of Americans have not much or no confidence in the GOP, while 62 percent said the same of the Democrats.

On the other hand, Americans have enormous faith in the military, with 87 percent of respondents reporting a degree of trust in the institution. In 1977, that number was 30 points lower, with just 57 percent of Americans having some or a great deal of confidence in the military. "There have been some big changes in the last 40 years," points out NPR, "including the draft being abolished and fewer and fewer Americans knowing someone serving in the military."

Other institutions that instill only limited confidence in Americans are organized labor (winning the confidence of 49 percent of adults), courts (winning the confidence of 51 percent of adults), and public schools (winning the confidence of 43 percent of adults). The media faired as poorly as the Republican Party, with an entire 68 percent of Americans having not much or no confidence in the press.

The poll reached 1,350 adults on Jan. 8-10 and has a margin of error of 2.7 percent. Read the full results here. Jeva Lange

9:12 a.m. ET

Eric Trump defended his father against charges of racism Wednesday, claiming President Trump sees just one color — and it isn't exactly a natural human shade.

The president came under fire last week after he reportedly dismissed immigrants from "shithole" places such as Haiti, El Salvador, or Africa during a meeting with lawmakers. He then allegedly offered up immigrants from Norway, a country that is 94 percent white, as a favorable alternative.

Eric Trump nevertheless dismissed such reports, suggesting on Fox & Friends that the demographic differences between Norway and the continent of Africa have nothing to do with it. "My father sees one color: Green," said the president's second son. "That is all he cares about. He cares about the economy."

Eric Trump went on to add that his father "does not see race. He is the least racist person I ever met in my entire life. It is total nonsense." President Trump, for his part, has denied using the specific vulgarity that has been attributed to him and told The New York Times on Sunday night: "I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you."

Watch Eric Trump's interview, below. Jeva Lange

8:28 a.m. ET
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House Republicans and Democrats are polling their caucuses Wednesday on a House GOP proposal for short-term spending extension to avert a government shutdown on Friday at midnight, but with Democrats insisting that the next spending package include a solution for the 700,000 DREAMers and Republicans balking, a government shutdown is a distinct possibility.

President Trump and his fellow Republicans have already started framing a government shutdown as the fault of Democrats, "but Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as veterans of past budget battles and campaigns, say that argument isn't likely to fly — not while the GOP runs the House, Senate, and White House and a deeply unpopular president sits in the Oval Office," Politico reports. Adding credence to that assumption is a new poll by Hart Research Associates of 12 battleground states, where 42 percent of respondents said they would blame Trump and congressional Republicans for a shutdown while 31 percent would blame Democrats. The same poll found that 81 percent of voters in those states support adding a DREAMer fix to the spending bill.

Still, "even though they're privately confident they have the upper hand, Democrats don't know for sure how it would play," Politico says. "The public supports DREAMers in the abstract, but would that support hold if the cost were a government shutdown?" In the last government shutdown, in 2013, Republicans took the blame — but still made gains in the next year's midterms, taking control of the Senate. "The clearest lesson from 2013 is that a government shutdown hurt Congress' popularity generally," Ed Kilgore writes at New York, with both parties taking a hit.

On the other hand, both parties would win if they passed a bill to protect DREAMers. A bipartisan Senate proposal was derailed by Trump's opposition and "shithole countries" comment, but Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) have a new "narrow and bipartisan" bill to protect DREAMers that could potentially break the logjam. Peter Weber

8:23 a.m. ET

A significant chunk of North Korea's 550-person delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics will be members of the nation's "cheering squad," The Associated Press reported Wednesday. Some 230 North Koreans are reportedly traveling to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the express purpose of root-root-rooting for the home team, a move Japan has dismissed as being nothing more than a "charm offensive," Reuters writes.

North and South Korea agreed earlier this month for the North to send a symbolic delegation to the Olympics, including the cheer team and a 140-member art troupe. On Wednesday, South Korea confirmed that the two technically warring nations will march together during the opening ceremony under a unified Korean Peninsula flag. South Korea is additionally appealing to the Olympic committee to allow for its women's hockey team roster to be expanded so North Korean players can join, a move that could potentially lead to the Koreas' first unified competitive Olympic team.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono wrote off the symbolic moves, claiming that "it is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea." Kono added, "The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working." Learn more about the North Korean cheerleading team below. Jeva Lange

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