As deadline looms, Florida Senate race moves to a manual recount

iStock/Thinkstock(MIAMI) -- As Florida continues to count and recount votes, a key deadline loomed Thursday afternoon – and one key county, Palm Beach, missed it as the state's Senate race now moves into a manual recount.

Florida counties had until 3 p.m. on Thursday to complete their initial recount of votes in the state's hotly contested Senate, governor, and agriculture-commissioner races. Palm Beach – a key Democratic county in South Florida that has been the subject of lawsuits and criticism by Senate candidate and Republican Gov. Rick Scott – missed the deadline, its top election official said.

“We gave it a heroic effort,” Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told reporters adding that her county did not finish.

Palm Beach’s counting machines had overheated and stopped functioning at least twice this week.

Recount deadlines are being contested in court, although a federal judge on Thursday denied Sen. Bill Nelson's request to extend them across the state.

What's Next

Two Florida races have drawn national attention – the Senate contest between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson – and the governor's contest, between Mayor Andrew Gillum and Rep. Ron DeSantis.

The Senate race and agriculture commissioner races will move to manual recounts.

A manual recount is solely a hand recount of overvotes and undervotes in the affected races. An overvote is when a voter designated more choices than allowable in the recounted race and an undervote is when a voter made no choice or less than the allowable number of choices in the recounted race.

The results of the manual recount will be reflected in the official returns due to the Department of State no later than noon on Sunday.

The governor's race is less likely to meet the threshold for a manual recount.

In the Senate race, Scott leads Nelson by .15 percentage points, according to current totals.

In the governor's race, DeSantis leads Gillum by .41 percentage points. Gillum has urged Florida to count every vote.

An unknown number of overseas and military ballots are still coming in – they can arrive until Friday, under state law. Counties will have until Sunday to count them, and official results are not expected to be known in either race until after that happens.

Latest in Court

A federal judge on Thursday denied Nelson's request to extend recount deadlines. But Nelson did score a win, in his bid to allow provisional and by-mail ballots where signatures did not match those on voter-registration books, as required by state law.

A federal judge gave voters whose ballots had been rejected until Saturday to correct the issue with election officials. The ruling will affect an unknown number of ballots. Just under 4,000 ballots are known to have been rejected, but that total does not encompass all counties and lacks totals from some key ones, like Duval and Miami-Dade.

Nelson is also challenging Florida's laws over what ballots count, seeking to expand considerations of when a voter intended to select a specific candidate with a ballot mark.

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Pelosi taunts critics, says she still has support to be elected speaker

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday taunted her critics in the House Democratic caucus attempting to block her path to the speakership, daring any would-be candidate to jump into the race and saying she still enjoyed “overwhelming support” to become the next speaker.

“Come on in, the water’s warm,” she said in a press conference when asked about her possible challengers.

Pelosi, who doesn’t have an opponent in the speaker’s race, must win the support of a majority of Democrats behind closed doors on Nov. 28, and of 218 members on the floor on Jan. 3 to become the next speaker. The number of votes needed on the floor could change, if members vote “present” or do not vote, lowering the threshold.

The California Democrat, who expressed confidence she would win a speaker vote if taken immediately, faces resistance from a small but determined clutch of Democrats and incoming members who have called for new leadership of the caucus and pledged not to vote for her on the campaign trail.

At least 17 Democrats have signed on to a letter vowing to vote against Pelosi on the House floor, according to aides and members involved in the effort. Should they stick together or add more to their group, they’d be able to deny Pelosi the votes needed on the House floor.

“Have you seen the letter?” Pelosi asked reporters.

Pelosi’s opponents say they will release the letter once they obtain at least 20 signatures. They argue that the universe of Democrats willing to oppose Pelosi is greater than 17, but that some have not been willing to sign on to the letter.

Pelosi’s allies believe she will be able to convince a number of those critics to support her on the floor, or vote “present,” even if they opposed her in the caucus vote.

She’s been meeting and speaking with uncommitted and incoming members all week, along with the various constituencies of the caucus – including the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, and members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who are holding out support for a number of procedural rules changes in the House.

On Wednesday night, she hosted a dinner for the freshmen Democrats with top Democrats on several House committees, all of whom support her speaker bid and discussed their agendas with incoming members scrambling to lock down committee assignments.

Pelosi’s critics received a boost Wednesday when Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was considering a bid to challenge Pelosi.

On Thursday, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., another potential challenger eyed by the “Never Nancy” Democrats, tweeted that she would support Pelosi for speaker.

Pelosi did not appear worried Thursday by the possible challenge from Fudge.

“I happen to think, at this point, I’m the best person for this,” she said.

Asked whether she thought critics opposing her for speaker might be sexist, Pelosi responded, "You'd have to ask those people what their motivation is. I think of the 17, it's mostly like 14 men who are on that letter.

"You know I've never gone to that place," she continued. "I enjoy a tremendous amount of support from the women in our caucus -- from the new members who are women in our caucus -- and so I get the upside, I think, of being a woman. You'd have to ask them.

"If in fact there is any misogyny involved, it's their problem, not mine," she said.

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Experts say vote recounts like Florida's are rare and reversals even rarer

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- There’s a running joke among election officials in November: pray for the margins to be wide. In the 2018 midterm elections, Florida voters didn’t answer those prayers.

But as recounts progressed toward a conclusion in three statewide Florida races, including the races for U.S. senator and governor, experts say those margins, as narrow they may seem, likely won’t reverse the Election Day results.

Out of more than 4,600 statewide general elections between 2000 and 2015, there were 27 statewide recounts — three of which resulted in reversals, according to FairVote, a group that advocates for electoral reform.

In other words, recounts are rare. Recounts that end in reversals are even rarer.

“Ten percent of all statewide recounts in the 21st century are happening right now, as we speak,” David O’Brien, a staff attorney at FairVote and author of the recount analysis, said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. “Which just goes to show how uncommon they are.”

And if any of them end in reversal, O’Brien said he’d want to “really dig in” to find out why they became such outliers.

Ned Foley, a law professor at The Ohio State University who wrote a book documenting disputed elections throughout U.S. history, also spoke to the rarity of a reversal.

“If we focus specifically on statewide races, it's absolutely true that it's very rare to overturn,” Foley said.

It’s also rare to see a recount in the first place, Foley explained, nevermind three of them in one state — but Florida fits the bill for such a situation, he said.

“In a battleground state, this is more likely to arise,” he said, and predicted that increased voter targeting would only increase the purple-ish tint of the state.

“Both sides are more sophisticated in their messaging so it stands to reason that we’re going to have closer elections in the world we live in now than we had in the 20th century, and I think this year is evidence of that,” Foley later added.

The reason recount reversals are so rare, both Foley and O’Brien explained, is because, generally, vote margins don’t swing by more than a few hundred votes in statewide recounts, which isn’t usually enough to change the winner.

In the case of Florida, the Senate race differed by 12,562 votes heading into the recount. The margin was bigger in the gubernatorial race: 33,684.

Not only would many more votes have to come in during the recount to have a big impact on the current numbers, but the votes would have to lean almost entirely toward one candidate, Foley said.

“My instinct is its extraordinarily hard to overcome a lead of 10,000 or more, unless you tell me something about the nature of the ballots that have yet to be counted — unless you tell me why they would break so favorably for the candidate who was behind,” Foley said.

According to O’Brien, the margin shift in Florida would have to be more than 20 times bigger than what they saw in other races where there were recounts for a reversal in the governor’s race — and around 10 times bigger for the Senate race.

And yet, the rhetoric from both Republican and Democrat camps would have voters believe the stakes are much higher.

“What we’re seeing this year is in some respects familiar, in some respects new and different,” Foley said. “What is a new and unfortunately disconcerting development is the intensity of the rhetoric.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate, began claiming last week that his opponent, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, was trying to “steal” the election — though neither courts nor the Florida Department of Law Enforcement back these claims. Nelson said Scott has “thrown around words like voter fraud with no proof” and accused him of “using his power as governor to try to undermine the voting process.”

The president also weighed in. “Trying to STEAL two elections in Florida! We are watching closely!” he said in one tweet, without details or evidence.

“What frankly surprised me is how quickly the rhetoric got so hot and so contentious, given that the statewide races in Florida just aren't actually that close,” Foley said, adding that while they’re close enough to trigger automatic recounts, more than 10,000 vote margin in a statewide race “is still an extraordinarily wide margin to be able to overcome.”

And the number of lawsuits in Florida, from both Nelson and Scott’s campaigns, match the degree of rhetoric.

The escalation displays the country’s “Achilles heel,” as Foley calls it, which is the need for neutral institutions to monitor elections, instead of partisan secretary of state offices, because “democracy depends on a sense of fair play.”

Reports out of Palm Beach and Broward County, both Democrat-leaning counties, increased politicization of the ballot counting, further proving the need for neutrality, Foley said.

“What’s happened so far this week is troublesome, and I’m concerned about what it means when we have to go through this two years from now when the presidency is on the line,” he said.

Which brings up another benefit of a recount, beyond solidifying a winner or reinvigorating an opponent: assuring people that the election played out the way it was supposed to.

“It’s good for people to figure out what went wrong in the election so lawmakers and policymakers can make changes to make sure those don't happen again,” O’Brien said.

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Immigration arrests on public lands up 4000 percent under Trump

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Immigration arrests at U.S. national parks and other federal lands spiked dramatically this year under President Donald Trump, with some 4,010 immigration-related arrests alone since May compared to only 126 arrests in 2016, according to the Interior Department.

The figures represent a dramatic escalation in the immigration enforcement role played by the Interior Department, a federal agency better known for protecting the nation's historic monuments and wildlife refuges.

The push also comes as President Donald Trump has deployed several thousand active-duty troops to the border in a push to deter illegal immigration, and as a Republican-led House committee considers legislation this week that would give border patrol agents greater access to federal lands.

"The fact that we were able to increase arrests by almost 4,000 percent is undeniable proof that there's a big problem," said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a statement touting the new arrest figures. "Under the previous administration, Interior's borderlands were basically an open door for illegal activity; and, what few law enforcement officers were down there were left unprotected and without the resources and backup needed to keep communities and themselves safe."

More than 40 percent of the land along the U.S.-Mexico border is federal land controlled by the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service. In order to protect that land, the Interior Department employs more than 4,000 law enforcement agents -- the third largest presence in the federal government.

That number includes National Park rangers and U.S. Park Police, but also federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Interior Department's primary mission is to protect natural resources in the parks, which can be damaged when too many people walk, drive, or leave trash. Law enforcement within the parks and monuments have an agreement to cooperate with agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which have complained in the past that restrictions intended to protect the environment made it more difficult to arrest undocumented migrants or stop routes for people entering the country illegally.

CBP is the agency primary in charge of border apprehensions, arresting nearly 400,000 people near the border this year -- a level on par with 2016 before Trump took office.

According to figures released by the Interior Department, agents in national monuments and protected wilderness on the border not only apprehended and turned over 4,010 people to CBP custody and seized 2,356 pounds of drugs.

An additional 469 people were eventually arrested outside of federal lands.

Interior's new role as an aggressive arm of immigration enforcement could become a new focus for Democrats next year, who took control of the House in the last midterm elections.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he has been concerned that U.S. Park Police officers who typically patrol Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco, were sent to the border after Zinke announced a "surge" to the border last May.

Grijalva asked Zinke then for more information on what the officers would be doing and whether other parks would be understaffed as a result. Grijalva's office said the congressman never got answers.

The Interior Department cited security concerns when declining to provide ABC News figures on how many officers were sent to the border, where they are working or what they would be doing.

"We have sought details from the Interior Department about their border activities and they have not been forthcoming," Grijalva said in a statement provided to ABC News. "There is very good reason to doubt their claims, just like there was good reason to doubt the president’s claims about the so-called caravan Republicans seem to have suddenly forgotten about."

Grijalva represents Arizona which includes public lands like the Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge. Multiple groups, including the Tohono O'odham Nation which lives in southern Arizona and Mexico, have said they strongly oppose what they call militarization at the border and want the military and parks law enforcement to step back.

Before this month's elections, Trump made immigration his focus.

He tweeted often about the dangers of a slow-moving caravan of migrants moving north through Mexico expected to seek asylum in the U.S. Last week, the administration announced a new plan to deter asylum seekers by refusing to consider applicants who cross the border outside a designated port of entry.

Darren Cruzan, the agency's head of law enforcement, said the Interior Department didn't dramatically change its policies this year when it comes to immigration. He said the agency has always played a law enforcement role in helping CBP enforce immigration laws.

He said the uptick in apprehensions likely reflects Park Police and other law enforcement outfits "paying attention" to areas near border crossings. The agency, he said, is taking its cues from border patrol to identify areas where rangers should increase patrols.

"Our priority is to protect the resources on DOI-managed land," Cruzan said in an interview. "So what we said is, 'Are there locations along the border where we are already doing our normal duties where we can be of assistance?'"

U.S. border policy for decades has pushed people seeking to cross the border onto more remote, dangerous areas, which includes areas of desert that are managed by the National Park Service and other agencies. Border patrol officials adopted the strategy of "prevention through deterrence" in 1994 and since then, more agents and equipment have been stationed along the border to reroute migrants attempting to reach urban areas.

But that effort to make it more difficult to cross into the U.S. illegally also resulted in more deaths among migrants, according to a 2010 government report and reports from advocacy groups.

In 2002, after a park ranger in Arizona was shot and killed by a man who crossed the border illegally, the Interior Department called for more focus on enforcing border security on federal lands.

Still, the focus in recent years by the Interior Department hasn't only been nabbing illegal migrants.

Fred Patton, a former chief park ranger at the Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument, said park rangers were focused on stopping illegal border crossings but through an environmental lens because their primary mission was still to protect the land, visitors, and staff in the park. Patton said that during the mid-2000s, his park had about 10 to 12 rangers to patrol the 28 miles of border between Arizona and Mexico.

Patton said its difficult to compare the number of apprehensions over time because it's influenced by other factors, including overall trends in migration across the border, other border security operations that might force migrants onto federal land, and the emphasis and resources on border operations within the department. But he said he's glad to see Zinke's support for the efforts on the border.

“If the secretary of the Interior mandates that this is a priority, that trickles down all the way to the operations level,” he said.

Zinke says the Interior Department is also increasing its law enforcement presence on the border in anticipation of the arrival of a caravan of migrants from Honduras and other countries. Some migrants that were part of the caravan are expected to reach the border near San Diego this weekend and some have arrived at the border in Tijuana.

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Judge expected to rule whether White House must immediately restore CNN reporter Jim Acosta's press pass

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A federal judge is expected to announce Friday morning whether he will grant CNN's request that he order the Trump White House to immediately restore a press pass to the network's chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

The court hearing and announcement, originally scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday, was delayed until Friday without explanation.

During an emergency court hearing Wednesday, the Trump administration defended revoking Acosta' press pass, arguing that the president has the power to exclude any and all journalists from White House grounds.

“If the president wants to exclude all reporters from White House grounds he clearly has the authority to do that,” James Burnham, deputy assistant attorney general, argued before the judge on behalf of the president.

"We’re talking about the physical White House, I mean the one building in which the president’s authority over how people act, where they go, should be at his apex," Burnham said. The West Wing is a tight, small space, he argued, which is why journalists want to be there.

CNN and Acosta filed suit against President Donald Trump and top aides on Tuesday for stripping Acosta, without warning, of his access to the White House, where he works daily. The indefinite revocation of Acosta’s press credentials, known as a “hard pass,” came on the heels of a heated exchange between Trump and Acosta on Nov. 7.

CNN and Acosta filed an emergency motion to have Acosta’s press pass immediately reinstated as the court case continues and asked for a ruling from Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly in federal court in Washington Wednesday afternoon. A decision is expected on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the judge pushed CNN’s lawyers on how they can prove that Acosta's press pass was revoked specifically because of the content of Acosta’s reporting rather than based on his behavior, which the president described as "rude." CNN's case relies heavily on Sherrill v. Knight, a 1971 case which established that taking away a journalist's press pass because of the content of their coverage is prohibited under the First Amendment.

Despite months of criticism launched at CNN and Acosta, “Until this point, [the administration] took no action,” U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly said in a question to CNN’s lawyer, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. “What triggered a content-based response here as opposed to all those other months?”

“This was a bad day for the president,” Boutrous said. “It was the day after the midterms.”

Boutrous said the issue was bigger than Acosta or CNN.

“Rudeness really is a code word for ‘I don’t like you being an aggressive reporter,’” he said, which threatens the right of journalists to ask tenacious questions and, he argued, will have a "chilling effect" on the White House press corps.

It's Trump who “establishes the tenor and tone of these press conferences,” Boutrous argued, and "wants it to be a free-for-all, that's his prerogative."

"He is the most aggressive, dare I say rude, person in the room, and I’m not being critical -- this is the rough and tumble of the presidency, and that’s what the First Amendment protects,” Boutrous said.

The defense argued that denying Acosta a press pass was not a violation of the First Amendment as there is no guaranteed access to the White House, and dozens of other CNN reporters with "hard passes" could continue to serve public interest by reporting on the White House grounds. Acosta could continue to do his job by watching video fed back from the White House, the defense argued.

Boutrous called their argument a "fundamental misconception of journalism."

"Different reporters break different stories. This notion that it's some minor thing to be in the White House, be at a gaggle ... to work your sources in the White House, to go talk to the government officials who are there, that is invaluable access. We have evidence, they have no evidence," Boutrous said, also arguing that the president can't decide who CNN sends to the White House or exercise control over who the network wants to be its chief White House correspondent.

"There's no First Amendment doctrine that, if there are a bunch of other reporters, you can bar someone else and it's not a violation," Boutrous said, but Sherrill v. Knight, the lawyer argued, established the opposite.

"There's an interest to ensure that no one reporter is excluded -- and it's the public's interest," Boutrous said. "Maybe that's the reporter who would break the story, who would break the story wide open because of their sources."

The judge also asked whether the White House could act differently to reprimand Acosta without taking away his pass in full — something like not allowing Acosta in briefings with the president but letting him on White House grounds.

Boutrous said that suggestion would still be a violation of First Amendment rights.

In a brief written before the court hearing Wednesday, lawyers arguing on behalf of the president laid out the defense strategy and maintained that Acosta’s credentials were taken away because he “disrupted the fair and orderly administration of a press conference during an exchange with the president.”

“Mr. Acosta’s decision to engage in conduct that disrupts press events and impedes other reporters from asking questions provides a more-than-sufficient reason for revoking his hard pass,” the president’s attorneys wrote.

The brief focused largely on Acosta’s “disrupt[tions]” during the press conference rather than a previous explanation by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, which CNN promptly denied, that Acosta had placed his hands on an intern who tried to take away his microphone. The judge declined to characterize it as a "shift" in narrative.

In the brief, Trump’s attorneys argued it would be “extraordinary” for the court to decide to “directly police access to the secure White House complex where the president lives and works, as well as to dictate who the President must invite to press events.”

Many individual journalists who attended the press conference have shared personal accounts and spoken out, defending Acosta. Major news outlets also joined together to issue a statement in support of Acosta and CNN Tuesday, and filed "friend of the court" briefs in the case.

“Whether the news of the day concerns national security, the economy, or the environment, reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions. It is imperative that independent journalists have access to the President and his activities, and that journalists are not barred for arbitrary reasons,” read a statement issued by NBC News, FOX News, POLITICO, The New York Times, The Washington Post and more.

“Our news organizations support the fundamental constitutional right to question this President, or any President. We will be filing friend-of-the-court briefs to support CNN’s and Jim Acosta’s lawsuit based on these principles,” the statement continued.

The statement echoed one from the White House Correspondents' Association, which criticized the Trump White House decision and supported CNN.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is on a tour of Asia, was asked about Acosta and press freedom after he criticized Myanmar's lack of freedom during the trip.

"This administration has stood strong for a free and independent press and defended the freedom of the press on a world stage," Pence told reporters in Singapore. "There's no comparison whatsoever between disagreements over decorum at the White House and the imprisonment of the two reporters in Myanmar."

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Judge rules FL law on matching ballot signatures being applied unconstitutionally 

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- In the latest legal twist in the Florida vote recount controversy, a federal judge has ruled that the state's laws requiring signatures on ballots to match those on file are being applied unconstitutionally.

U.S. District Chief Judge Mark Walker has granted a preliminary injunction, sought by Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, ordering Florida’s secretary of state to direct local supervisors of elections that they must allow voters with suspected mismatched signatures to "cure" -- or validate -- their vote-by-mail and provisional ballots by 5 p.m. Saturday.

“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures -- with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection -- passes constitutional muster. The answer is simple. It does not,” Walker wrote in the order.

The court ruling is not an order for county canvassing boards to "count every mismatched vote, sight unseen," Walker wrote, but instead is an order to "allow those voters who should have had an opportunity to cure their ballots in the first place to cure their vote-by-mail and provisional ballots now, before the second official results are fully counted."

Vote-by-mail and provisional ballots have become increasingly popular, Walker said, but the county canvassing boards, which determine whether a voter's signature on vote-by-mail and provisional ballots match state records, are "staffed by laypersons that are not required to undergo formal handwriting-analysis education or training."

Nevertheless, ballots considered to have "mismatched signatures" are rejected as invalid votes. Voters who are notified before Election Day of this discrepancy on their ballot can attempt to "cure," or address the problem, but the judge ruled that under previous law, the window to do so was too narrow, and in some cases, nonexistent.

If this "last chance" to cure is denied, "Florida law provides no opportunity for voters to challenge the determination of the canvassing board that their signatures do not match, and their votes do not count," Walker ruled.

For provisional ballots, the other type of ballot under inspection by the lawsuit, there was neither a cure period or a mechanism for a voter to challenge the decision that the voter wasn't eligible to vote.

"Consider the game of football," Walker wrote. Rules are made and rules are followed, he said, but sometimes calls deserve reviews.

"Indeed, not every call is going to be clear -- the ultimate decision may hinge on highly subjective factors. Hence, a call will be overturned only when there is 'clear and obvious visual evidence available that warrants the change'," Walker wrote, citing 2018 NFL rules.

"In this case, the Plaintiffs have thrown a red flag. But this is not football. Rather, this is a case about the precious and fundamental right to vote -- the right preservative of all other rights," Walker wrote.

Like the game of football, elections are governed by their own set of laws that allow for an "efficient and transparent" process.

And, as in football, Walker wrote, "There is no doubt that election officials must make certain calls, under the rules, that deserve review. And there is no doubt some of those calls may hinge on highly subjective factors."
The deadline for Florida counties to finish their machine recounts in Nelson's Senate race against GOP Gov. Rick Scott, as well as in the governor's race pitting former Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis against Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, is 3 p.m. Thursday. Before that deadline, however, court action is expected sometime in the morning on Nelson's lawsuit in federal court seeking to nullify all deadlines and give counties as much time to count votes as is needed, which, if ruled in Nelson's favor, would erase the need for counties to hit the 3 p.m. deadline.

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Deputy national security adviser reassigned after Melania Trump calls for firing

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Mira Ricardel, the president's deputy national security adviser, has been reassigned one day after first lady Melania Trump called for the woman's firing.

In a remarkable development Tuesday, Melania Trump made a public call for the president's deputy national security adviser to be fired.

Ricardel will depart the White House as Trump desired and reassigned to another role in the administration, according to press secretary Sarah Sanders.

"Mira Ricardel will continue to support the President as she departs the White House to transition to a new role within the Administration," Sanders said. "The President is grateful for Ms. Ricardel’s continued service to the American people and her steadfast pursuit of his national security priorities."

A statement released by Trump's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, on Tuesday said: “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”

Despite the White House drama, Sanders said earlier in the day Wednesday that Ricardel remained on the job.

Vice President Mike Pence became the first major member of the Trump administration to comment on Ricardel's ouster at a stop in Singapore on his Asian trip Thursday.

"I have great respect for her and her role," Pence said. "I look forward to her new role in another part of the administration."

Even amid new rumbles about the potential impending departures of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and even Chief of Staff John Kelly, it is unusual for the first lady to get so publicly involved in an administration's staffing issues.

The first lady's statement was released not long after Ricardel was seen smiling as she stood behind President Trump at an early afternoon Diwali ceremony at the White House Tuesday.

Ricardel and Melania Trump's office most recently tangled over her solo trip to Africa. Mrs. Trump felt she had treated her staff disrespectfully, White House sources said, and Ricardel was seen as so difficult during the planning of the trip, according to sources, that the first lady’s team sought Kelly's guidance. The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Ricardel was recruited to the National Security Council by the president's national security adviser, John Bolton. According to the Wall Street Journal, the first lady’s office believed Ricardel was behind negative stories and was known to not get along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and at times sought to undermine him from within the White House.

A White House official who requested anonymity noted in Ricardel's defense that she is one of the highest-ranking women in the Trump administration and that she has never met the first lady.

Trump told ABC News’ Tom Llamas last month, during her first sit-down interview, that she shares her opinions about people she doesn’t trust in the administration with her husband.

“Do you think there's still people there that he can't trust?” Llamas asked.

“Yes,” the first lady said. She added, “You always need to watch your back.”

When asked Tuesday if he agrees with the first lady on Ricardel, Mattis told ABC News, "I don't comment on other people's staffing issues."

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Forest Service chief set to testify before congressional committee on work place abuse

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In an ongoing battle of harassment and misconduct allegations at the U.S. Forest Service, its chief, Vicki Christiansen, is set to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday along with a former employee from the agency who claims to have been harassed by the former chief.

Shannon Reed, an air quality specialist, claims in her written testimony she was viewed as a "sexual object" and that the former Forest Chief Tony Tooke grabbed her buttocks.

"I did not report Mr. Tooke because I feared retaliation," Reed wrote.

Tooke resigned after an investigation looking into the allegations made against him of sexual misconduct began. Shortly after, Christiansen, the interim chief at the time, issued a mandatory full-day training about harassment and safety in the work place.

One hundred current and former female employees of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote an open letter Wednesday to Christiansen, echoing Reed's fear of retaliation and to "expose serious issues of discrimination, harassment, and workplace violence against female employees."

The women who signed the letter work in a variety of departments within the agency ranging in years of service from as little as three years to more than 25 years. They are all from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and live across the country.

The Nov. 9 letter is not the first time women working in the agency have complained about abuse.

In the letter, the women wrote that the USDA and its agencies have a history of overlooked reports of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. They stated that senior officers of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees "wrote letters to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forest Service Chiefs describing incidents of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against female employees in the Forest Service."

"Despite the concerns of congress and the public exposure, the USDA and the Forest Service continue to ignore our complaints and continue this culture of abuse," the letter stated. "We decided it is time for you to hear our voices."

"The concerns of congress" the women wrote about were prompted after two women who worked for the agency testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in December 2016. They testified after a few women shared their stories in a Huffington Post Highline report. Multiple class-action lawsuits have also been filed against the agency over the years.

The women claim the agency took no action and there were no "positive changes to the work environment" even after the hearing.

"We watched Congressman Chaffetz, Congressman Cummings, Congressman Gowdy, Congresswoman Speier, and others tell Deputy Chief Lenise Lago and Assistant Secretary Joe Leonard that they did not believe their 'data' and told them to fix the problems of gender discrimination and sexual harassment," the letter stated. "We hoped the agency would take action."

Fueled by the agency's lack of effort to confront the ongoing issue, the women said they continued to speak to media outlets in hopes of garnering more attention to expose the agency's shortcomings.

"When PBS aired in March 2018 we had hope again," the women stated after the outlet published its investigation of women who reported harassment and received retaliation in return. The PBS report also revealed sexual misconduct allegations made against Tooke.

"The exposure of Tony Tooke's sexual misconduct/forced retirement was the perfect opportunity for the Forest Service to admit there were problems at all levels, and to assess how and why a male manager guilty of sexual misconduct could promote to the highest levels of the agency," the women wrote. "It was our expectation that the agency would acknowledge those of us who have been coming forward (many of us for years), and include us in problem solving initiatives. This did not happen."

Despite the full training day and the "30-day plan" implemented to include listening sessions, "Stand Up" values clarification/training sessions and advisory groups, the women claim the tactics were ineffective as they continued to face harassment and abuse in their work fields.

"Many of us observed that managers with harassment claims against them (including sexual harassment) were the ones facilitating these sessions," the letter stated. "We sat there and listened to management and employees blame the women, and blame PBS for having to go through these processes."

Some women spoke out during the "Stand Up" sessions, but not everyone did so for fear of retaliation, they wrote in the letter.

"And we want you to understand, we have real concerns that through your 'Stand Up' program you are putting the burden on us to 'stand up' and speak out about harassment when you have not made it a safe environment for us to do so," the women wrote.

In conclusion, the women demand Christiansen and her staff meet with everyone who signed the letter and that a delegation of women meet with USDA and Forest Service officials to "collaborate on problem solving" and find a resolution. The hope is to alleviate the impact harassment has had on their mental and emotional health.

"We have ideas and want to share them with you and your staff," the women stated.

ABC News reached out to Christiansen's press team, but have not received a response.

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Trump nominates retired four-star general to be Saudi ambassador

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration has nominated John Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The nomination comes amid increased tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as suspicion hangs over the kingdom about its involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid attended West Point, and rose from an infantry platoon commander to a four-star general during his distinguished military career.

During the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, Abizaid led an Army Ranger rifle company and reportedly ordered one of his soldiers to start up a nearby bulldozer to use as a tank and allow the company to advance on enemy positions. The unorthodox move inspired a scene in the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge, where the Hollywood star similarly used a bulldozer to advance on a Cuban position.

Abizaid is unique among high-ranking military officials for his intimate knowledge of the Arab world. The grandson of Lebanese-Christian immigrants, Abizaid is fluent in Arabic and obtained a master’s degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern area studies.

Many considered his passion for the Arab world to be an asset during the early years of the Iraq War, when Abizaid oversaw the effort as CENTCOM commander. Now, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Abizaid will be tested in the Arabian peninsula.

Questions linger over the possible involvement of Saudi officials in the killing of Khashoggi, including de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized that the United States will hold all of those involved accountable, and pressed Saudi Arabia to do the same.

The Trump administration recently announced it would stop midair refueling of Saudi military flights to Yemen, and the State Department announced 21 Saudi “suspects” would have their U.S. visas revoked, or be deemed ineligible for a U.S. visa.

Congress has also triggered an executive branch investigation into whether Saudi Arabia should face Global Magnitsky Act sanctions for human rights violations.

The appointment of a four-star general like Abizaid underscores how much the Trump administration values its military relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump went to Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip, and touted a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom.

The $110 billion figure represents offers of intent or interest, according to Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and a former CIA officer. He described the deal as a “wish list” of what the U.S. would like to sell Saudi Arabia in the next four to five years, but it is not guaranteed that all the deals will come to fruition. Saudi Arabia has purchased $14.5 billion in arms so far.

The arms sales have been a focal point of Trump’s deliberations on whether, and how much, to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of Khashoggi.

"I don't want to lose all of that investment being made into our country. I don't want to lose a million jobs, I don't want to lose $110 billion dollars in terms of investment," Trump told reporters in October.

Another question looming over Abizaid’s nomination is whether Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, will maintain his close relationship with Saudi officials, and whether Kushner will hinder Abizaid’s ability to conduct diplomacy.

The ambassador post has remained vacant for nearly two years of the Trump administration, but Kushner has a close relationship with the prince and has made multiple trips to Saudi Arabia.

Kushner clashed with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over a Saudi campaign to blockade Qatar, as the Gulf states accused Qatar of harboring terrorists. Kushner sided with the Saudis, while Tillerson attempted to defend Qatar, which hosts an enormous U.S. air base.

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Florida Department of State requests investigation into altered voter forms

iStock/Thinkstock(MIAMI, Fla.) -- As vote counting and recounting continues in Florida, the state's election authority said Wednesday that it had requested a federal investigation into altered voter forms.

The forms, which by-mail voters use to correct problems with signatures accompanying their ballots, appeared to have instructed voters to return them late. The Florida Department of State asked U.S. attorneys in three Florida districts to investigate, writing in a letter that creating such an altered form would be a crime.

Florida is the site of an ongoing vote recount in three statewide races, for U.S. senator, governor and state agriculture commissioner.

Four counties — Broward, Citrus, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa — received forms from mail-in voters that appeared to have been altered. The altered forms instructed voters to return them "no later than 5 p.m. on Thursday, November 8." The forms are due "no later than 5 p.m. the day before the election" -- as written on the original form.

"We respectfully ask that you take all necessary steps to investigate and remedy such abuse. Please contact us should you need any additional information," reads a letter Florida Dept. of State Interim General Counsel Bradley McVay sent to U.S. attorneys in the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Florida on Nov. 9.

The type of form, known as a "vote-by-mail cure affidavit" -- is used by voters who forgot to sign a "vote-by-mail certificate" when they returned their ballots, or whose signatures do not match those on file with their voter-registration records, according to Florida's Division of Elections website. Voters must return them with a copy of identification.

Voters can deliver the forms in person, fax, or email them to county election officials.

"If you forgot to sign your vote-by-mail ballot certificate when you returned your ballot, or you get information that your signature on the certificate did not match your registration record, you have the opportunity to correct the situation," the Florida Elections Division website tells voters, guiding them to the form.

Voters can request by-mail ballots in Florida even if they will not be absent on Election Day. By-mail ballots must be returned and received by county officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day; voters must return their affidavits correcting signature issues the day before.

The department sent copies of the altered forms, received by county officials, to the U.S. attorneys. The department provided copies to ABC News.

“The Department continues to review any information or complaints we receive regarding election fraud or other criminal activity,” Florida Dept. of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell told ABC News on Wednesday. “Last Friday, the Department sent a letter to the Offices of the United States Attorneys requesting they investigate possible violations of Florida and federal elections laws that have come to our attention.”

Florida's Department of State and its statewide law enforcement agency had been prompted by Attorney General Pam Bondi on Sunday to investigate any possible election-related crimes -- though not necessarily of this kind.

Amid allusions to "fraud" by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who narrowly leads Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate race currently undergoing a recount, Bondi had prompted the secretary of state and Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner to investigate any possible election misconduct, sending a letter to each on Sunday. Bondi's letter referenced some of the criticisms Scott's legal team had voiced against election officials in the Democratic counties of Broward and Palm Beach.

Those criticisms related to the counting of votes by those officials, but the secretary of state's request for an investigation focuses on a different kind of alleged crime -- misleading voters as they seek to cast ballots.

"[A]ltering a form in a manner that provided the incorrect date ... imposes a burden on the voter significant enough to frustrate the voter's ability to vote," McVay wrote to the attorneys general.

Florida faces a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline to complete a machine recount of votes in the three statewide races being recounted. If any remain within a margin of .25 percentage points, as is likely in the Senate contest, the state will move to a manual recount of some ballots, which must be completed by Sunday -- though those deadlines are being contested by Nelson in federal court.

Meanwhile, a federal court is hearing a lawsuit by Sen. Bill Nelson to invalidate Florida's law requiring that by-mail and provisional votes must include signatures that match those on file with voter-registration books -- which his campaign filed well before this request for an investigation. On Wednesday, a federal judge left open the possibility of allowing voters more time to amend and verify their signatures with county election officials.

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