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Friday
Sep142018

Kavanaugh denies high school assault allegation

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Friday strongly denied newly-surfaced allegations from a woman who, according to the New Yorker, is claiming he “attempted to force himself on her” during a party when they were both in high school in the early 1980s.

“I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation," Kavanaugh said in a statement released by the White House Friday. "I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”

The New Yorker on Friday reported details of what it said the woman, who has declined to reveal her identity, has alleged in a letter that the magazine said was given to the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

According to the New Yorker, the woman claims that “during the party, Kavanaugh held her down and that attempted to force himself on her.”

The magazine reported she claimed in the letter “that Kavanaugh and a classmate of his, both of whom had been drinking, turned up music that was playing in the room to conceal the sound of her protests, and that Kavanaugh covered her mouth with his hand.”

The account said, “she was able to free herself.”

The existence of the letter was first reported by the online news outlet, The Intercept, on Wednesday. The New York Times reported Thursday that the letter was regarding “possible sexual misconduct” from when Kavanaugh was in high school.

ABC News has not confirmed details of the letter’s contents or seen the letter.

On Thursday, Feinstein said she had received "information" regarding Kavanaugh and has passed it on to the FBI.

"I have received information from an individual concerning the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That individual strongly requested confidentiality, declined to come forward or press the matter further, and I have honored that decision. I have, however, referred the matter to federal investigative authorities," Feinstein said in a statement Thursday.

According to a source cited by the New Yorker, Feinstein learned of the alleged incident in July and while her staff mentioned it to other Democratic lawmakers, they did not share the letter with them. The allegation was not raised at any time during the judge's confirmation hearings.

The FBI confirmed it had received the letter but indicated it was not immediately pursuing the allegations.

ABC News has reached out to Debra Katz, a lawyer identified by Buzzfeed as counsel to the woman who has come forward with the allegation but received no response.

Senate Republicans on Friday released a letter from 65 women who knew Kavanaugh during his high school years vouching for his character.

"We are women who have known Brett Kavanaugh for more than 35 years and knew him while he attended high school between 1979 and 1983. For the entire time we have known Brett Kavanaugh, he has behaved honorably and treated women with respect," the women said in the letter sent Friday to Senate Judiciary leaders.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, is pushing ahead with plans for a committee vote on Kavanaugh's nomination next Thursday. "Anonymous allegations are not going to change the chairman’s plans for a vote on Thursday," a top committee Republican aide tells Cindy Smith.

As to whether Republicans knew about the allegation in advance and had the letter from the 65 Kavanaugh high school contemporaries "in the can," Grassley's office said no. One of Kavanaugh's law clerks spearheaded the effort Thursday and sent the letter to Grassley's office Friday, the aide said.

In its initial story, The Intercept reported the letter was said to have been written by someone affiliated with Stanford University. It was originally sent to Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents California's 14th district, according to several media reports. Eshoo then referred the letter to Feinstein.

Eshoo's staff declined to comment on the letter, saying they do not discuss constituent casework.

Feinstein has not shared details about the letter beyond her statement Thursday, and no other senators on the Judiciary Committee have been permitted to see it, according to reports.

ABC News has not confirmed the Intercept's reporting.

The person who reportedly is the subject of the letter is said to be represented by Debra Katz, according to The Intercept. Katz is a Washington attorney whose firm’s website says she specializes in employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and whistleblower-related cases.

Katz has not responded to ABC News’ request for comment.

The FBI confirmed it had received the information "on the night of September 12." A spokesperson added, "we included it as part of Judge Kavanaugh's background file, as per the standard process."

On Thursday, Grassley told reporters he had not seen the letter.

“All I know is what I read in some two or three sentences in some report that came out overnight, and since I don't know anything more about it then what I read, that's all I can say at this point,” Grassley said.

He went on: “All I know is what I read and I wouldn't make any judgment of it until I had more information.”

Separately, Grassley’s spokesperson George Hartmann told ABC News that Grassley is “respecting the request for confidentiality.”

“There’s no plan to change the committee’s consideration of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination,” Hartmann said in a statement.

The White House also weighed in with a statement on Thursday.

“Throughout his confirmation process, Judge Kavanaugh has had 65 meetings with senators—including with Senator Feinstein—sat through over 30 hours of testimony, addressed over 2,000 questions in a public setting and additional questions in a confidential session. Not until the eve of his confirmation has Sen. Feinstein or anyone raised the specter of new ‘information’ about him," White House spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

"Throughout 25 years of public service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has thoroughly and repeatedly vetted Judge Kavanaugh, dating back to 1993, for some of the most highly sensitive roles. He has served in the Office of Independent Counsel, the White House, and on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, all before his nomination earlier this year to serve as Associate Justice on the Supreme Court," she said.

"Senator Schumer promised to ‘oppose Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination with everything I have,’ and it appears he is delivering with this 11th-hour attempt to delay his confirmation,” Kupec said.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Sep142018

Paul Manafort plea deal includes 'broad' cooperation with special counsel

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Paul Manafort, the onetime campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of a formal deal to plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy in a federal courthouse on Friday and will forfeit a number of his bank accounts and properties.

On Thursday, ABC News reported that Manafort’s legal team had reached a tentative deal with Mueller’s team after an hourslong meeting at the special counsel’s downtown Washington, D.C., offices.

Prosecutors, who made a point of noting the activity occurred “at least through 2016,” used bank records and other documents to show what they say Manafort did to hide evidence of his work for Ukrainian politicians; hide millions in proceeds in offshore accounts; and then spend the money lavishly on clothing, luxury items, homes and cars.

The new court filing indicates that prosecutors have taken a number of the earlier charges against Manafort -- including a money laundering charge that could, on its own, bring a 20-year sentence -- and folded them into two charges that would each yield five-year sentences.

Unclear from the new criminal filing is what concession, if any, Manafort made to yield this accommodation. Either he has offered some form of cooperation, one source familiar with the case explained, or the government has concluded that it has hit him with a sufficient number of charges -- and following through with a second trial is not worth the time and expense.

Just under a year ago, the 69-year-old veteran GOP operative was charged in Washington, D.C., with several counts of fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent by the special counsel.

A second case was opened in Virginia earlier this year on related charges that ended with a jury finding Manafort guilty on eight counts out of an 18-count indictment, facing a maximum of 80 years behind the bars -- though, under sentencing guidelines, the term is likely to be closer to seven years. He has not been sentenced in that case.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep132018

Storm and devastation 'no one's fault': Ryan on Trump and Puerto Rico death toll

Zach Gibson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- House Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican to comment on President Donald Trump’s tweets questioning the Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico, created a social media controversy himself Thursday when he suggested the storm and its aftermath was "no one's fault."

In a news conference Thursday, Ryan said he had “no reason to dispute” a study from George Washington University, commissioned by the Puerto Rican government, that concluded 2,975 people perished as a result of the hurricane, more than 4,500 percent higher than the original estimate of 64 people.

“Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” Ryan said. “I have no reason to dispute these numbers. I was in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. It was devastated. This was a horrible storm. I toured the entire island. It’s an isolated island that lost its infrastructure and its power for a long time.”

He added, “This was a devastating storm that hit an isolated island, and that's really no one's fault. That is just what happened.”

Although it appeared that he was talking about the unstoppable nature of the weather event itself, the latter comment elicited a strong response on Twitter, where multiple users accused Ryan of failing to stand up to Trump’s false and incendiary rhetoric.

Other Republican members of Congress also reaffirmed, as Ryan did, their belief in the government-sanctioned study that showed a much higher number than originally reported.

“The official count, as I understand it, is 3,000 people died as a result of that hurricane. So that’s the number we should accept but we also should not play politics on either side of this,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said.

Some Senate Republicans, though, appeared to back the president up somewhat, by raising questions about how the official estimate was determined.

“I really don’t know the number of deaths but it is certainly more than 16 whatever the initial reports were. It’d be interesting to find out exactly what happened. Were the deaths the result of the hurricane itself or inability to get food or water afterward? I don’t know. It’s something I’d be interested in finding out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

“I don’t buy the idea that the President is indifferent to our friends in PR. I don’t buy that but I do believe we can learn from the mistakes that were made in Puerto Rico,” he added.

“There is a big difference between what was originally reported and what ended up being the final figure, and I think that I'd like to know why that is. I think the president is in a position to find out why that is and I hope he can report the reason,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

But Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello, a Republican, reaffirmed in a statement Thursday that the revised study was sanctioned by his administration and should be considered the “official number.”

“The victims in Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico, do not deserve that their pain is questioned. Today I’ve seen that the number and process to find excess deaths has been questioned and it is something that we have to leave behind,” he said, in Spanish.

Estimates of direct deaths in a hurricane typically include those caused by drowning in a storm surge or another event that occurs while the storm is taking place. Indirect deaths comprise those from events that arise as a consequence of a disaster, like heart attacks, house fires and car accidents.

Instances of people unable to obtain critical food, water and medicine were widely reported as well.

The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, also reaffirmed its conclusions Thursday. “We are confident that the number — 2,975 — is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date,” a Milken statement said.

At least one other Republican said he agreed with Trump that Democrats were taking advantage of natural disasters for political gain.

“There's no doubt that there are a number of Democrats that are trying to play politics on hurricanes and in particular using Puerto Rico as an excuse to attack the president,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.

Retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was one of the lone Republicans to lash out at President Trump's tweet Thursday, calling it "dehumanizing" and suggesting that Trump doesn't consider Puerto Ricans American citizens but "brown stepchildren."

“If this were North Carolina I don't think he would be tweeting these heartless words,” she said.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep132018

Batch of new Strzok-Page texts shows FBI efforts to shape news reports

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- More than 100 pages of newly-recovered text messages show that former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page used authorized channels within the FBI to help shape what they viewed as misguided media reports, and they expressed deep concern about politically-motivated leaks they suspected came from outside the FBI and Justice Department.

ABC News was able to review the full batch of text messages on Thursday, just days after at least one Republican lawmaker released only two of the hundreds of text messages to allege "a coordinated effort on the part of the FBI and DOJ to release information in the public domain potentially harmful to President Donald Trump’s administration."

The text messages do show the FBI was in regular contact with certain reporters, but it was the head of the FBI's National Press Office -- the agency's representative to the press -- who was engaging with reporters, according to the documents. And those contacts were often intended to shape stories already in the works by reporters or to seek changes to stories that had already been published, the text messages suggest.

For example, on Dec. 16, 2016, the Washington Post published a story under the headline: “FBI in agreement with CIA that Russia aimed to help Trump win White House.”

In text messages that day, Strzok told Page that the article’s “angle” – “the notion that somehow we’ve come around to the agency’s position” – “really infuriates me.”

Strzok wrote to Page that the FBI has always believed “there were a variety of motives,” and it’s the CIA that later changed its position. So, the text messages show the head of the FBI’s National Press Office tried to get the story updated.

At least the headline was revised, but Strzok privately still took issue with it.

The “agency plays the game better than we do,” Strzok lamented in a text message, insisting the CIA’s public relations efforts were more effective than the FBI’s.

Before being relegated to the FBI's human resources division last year and then fired from the FBI last month, Strzok helped lead the agency's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian operatives. Page was an attorney for the FBI.

The text messages reviewed by ABC News on Thursday also show that in February 2016, as the New York Times was preparing to report that Trump associates “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election,” the top FBI spokesman talked repeatedly with the newspaper's reporters.

"[He] ran through boss’ thinking/timeline/narrative on this," Strzok wrote to Page on Feb. 14, 2017. But months later, then-FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that "in the main" the story as published "was not true."

Still, in a letter to the Justice Department on Monday, one of Trump's staunchest allies, Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, called the newly-recovered text messages "troubling."

He specifically pointed to a text message sent by Strzok on April 10, 2017, in which Strzok told Page he wanted “to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ.”

Strzok’s attorney then released his own statement, insisting the text messages reflect a renewed Justice Department and FBI effort to stop media leaks – not promote them. And a review of public announcements at the time supports the attorney’s claims, including a subsequent announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions during that period that the Justice Department and FBI had been working on ways to deter media leaks.

Meanwhile, in the newly-recovered text messages, Strzok and Page repeatedly speculated over who might be leaking information to reporters.

“Would make sense for the Hill to start strategically leaking to prep the scene for Monday,” Strzok wrote on March 17, 2017, after the Washington Post obtained certain information ahead of Comey’s much-anticipated testimony to lawmakers three days later.

Then a week later, when discussing internal investigators looking into the source of leaks, Strzok wrote Page: “I hope they understand the primary likelies are the [political appointees] at WH and DoJ, not the poor” agents and analysts at the FBI.

Months earlier, when the New York Times began working on a story about previous cyber attacks targeting Republicans, Strzok seemed to speculate that other U.S. agencies were behind the story.

“Think our sisters have begun leaking like mad,” he wrote Page in December 2016. “Scorned and worried and political, they’re into overdrive.”

On Thursday morning, Trump launched another Twitter attack on the FBI and Justice Department, saying “more text messages between former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are a disaster and embarrassment.”

"'Others were leaking like mad’ in order to get to the President!" he tweeted.

Strzok was fired from the FBI last month for sending a series of anti-Trump text messages to Page in the run-up to the 2016 election and in the months afterward. Page has also left the FBI.

In January, the Justice Department handed lawmakers more than 1,300 messages sent between Strzok and Page.

The messages caused a political firestorm, but at the time the Justice Department said five months’ worth of messages had gone missing from the FBI and would have to be recovered. Many of those messages have now been recovered and are the ones that ABC News reviewed on Thursday.

They were sent to members of Congress and include more anti-Trump sentiments.

It's unclear whether all the messages have been recovered.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep132018

Obama continues campaign resurgence in Ohio: 'We’ve got to restore some sanity to our politics'

Alex Wong/Getty Images(CLEVELAND) -- Continuing his reemergence on the campaign trail in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, former President Barack Obama urged a crowd of roughly 3,000 people gathered on a hot and humid late summer night in Cleveland, Ohio, to "restore some sanity to our politics, and give the power back to the American people."

Appearing at a rally for Ohio gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, Obama offered more stark criticism of a Republican Party he says is refusing to act as a check on President Donald Trump.

"None of this is conservative. This is not normal what we’re seeing, it is radical. It’s a vision that says it’s more important for folks that are in power to protect that power even if it hurts the country," Obama said alongside Cordray, a former official in his two-term administration.

"Instead of being a check...Republicans in Congress are bending over backwards to protect and shield," Obama added, "That's now how democracy is supposed to work."

The 44th president took more than one implicit swipe at President Donald Trump, criticizing the current administration's decision to enforce an immigration policy that lead to the separation of some immigrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year.

"There’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their moms," Obama said.

But in a reprisal of a message he delivered in a speech last week at the University of Illinois, Obama said that the "biggest threat to our democracy is indifference," and urged not only Democrats to turn out in 2018, but independents and Republicans disillusioned with the current state of American politics.

"This fall we cannot afford that kind of complacency, we can’t afford to sit this one out. If you don’t like what’s going on right now you can’t just complain...you can’t just boo, you’ve got to vote," Obama said.

The former president, who has largely stayed out of politics since leaving office in January 2017, also defended his administration's major policy programs like the Affordable Care Act (ACA), casting the midterms as a referendum on a more inclusive healthcare system.

"When you vote you have the power to make sure a family keeps their health insurance, you can save somebody’s life, that power is in your hands," Obama urged the crowd.

Cordray, 59, was appointed the first Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) by Obama in 2012, and is facing off against Ohio's Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine in one of Democrats' best opportunities to flip a gubernatorial seat this cycle.

In his speech introducing Obama, Cordray recounted his appointment as head of the CFPB, and said the issue of healthcare "sharply represents" what his race against DeWine is about.

"Some of those fights are not over, not by a long shot," Cordray said of the continued Republican efforts to chip away at the ACA, Obama's signature policy achievement, "It’s just wrong, and we’re not going to let it happen."

The Cleveland rally comes less than a week after Obama's fiery rebuke to Trump in that Illinois speech, calling the 2018 elections a "pivotal moment" with "dire" consequences for the country.

That speech marked a dramatic course change for the former president, who has largely stayed out of politics since the 2016 election, and vaulted him back in the national political fray as a key figure leading up to the first major election since Trump's inauguration.

"If you thought elections don’t matter I hope these last two years have corrected that impression," said Obama, who hit the trail with a host of Democratic candidates for the U.S. House in southern California last weekend.

Democrats have high hopes in Ohio after eight years of the Republican administration of Gov. John Kasich, hopes that were bolstered after they fell just over 1,500 votes short of winning an August special election for a congressional seat in a district Donald Trump won by double-digits in 2016.

Joining the rally were former Rep. Betty Sutton, Cordray's running mate, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who is up for re-election this cycle in a seat the party must hold if it has any chance of wresting control of the U.S. Senate back from Republicans in 2018.

President Trump's son, Donald Jr., will also be in the state on Thursday, campaigning for Brown's GOP opponent Rep. Jim Renacci and attending a fundraiser for DeWine.

A return to the Rust Belt

In 2016, Democratic losses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, all states Obama carried in his two presidential bids, delivered the presidency to Donald Trump.

But with the national political environment in their favor, Trump's approval rating in the mid-30s, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, and the historical disadvantage the incumbent president's party faces in the midterm elections, Democrats are eyeing the Midwest, and Ohio in particular, as a place to avenge those losses.

Key to statewide victory in 2018 will be boosting turnout in northeast Ohio and the Cleveland area, Democratic strongholds with a large African-American population that helped carry Obama to victory in the state.

"Obama is still very popular in Ohio. But he’s not just coming to Ohio, he’s not just coming to Cleveland, he’s coming to East Cleveland. Which I think is a real sign that his job is to get African-American voters fired up for the election," David Cohen, Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron, told ABC News.

Hillary Clinton's margin of victory dipped voter turnout in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, from just over 670,000 to under 620,000, according to data from the Ohio Secretary of State's office.

"The Cordray campaign understands that what happened in 2016 was partially a result of the fact that there wasn’t as much enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton in the northeastern part of the state, in African-American communities as there was of course for President Obama," Cohen added.

Aside from the governor's race, the party is eyeing Ohio's 12th Congressional District, where Democrat Danny O'Connor and Republican Troy Balderson are locked in a rematch following the August special election, and the state's 1st Congressional District, where GOP Rep. Steve Chabot is facing 36-year-old Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval for another traditionally red seat.

"On Election Night I would not be surprised if both of those seats flipped to the Democrats," Cohen said, "Especially if the Democratic wave is going to be as big as some people are predicting."

An Obama alum gets a boost from his former boss

To win in November, Cordray will have to both boost turnout in the state's urban centers and broaden his appeal to reach voters that backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, but gravitated toward Donald Trump in 2016.

National Democrats are optimistic that the mild-mannered Cordray can do just that.

"Richard Cordray has spent his career fighting for families who have been taken advantage of, and over the course of his career, he has fought to put money in the pockets of the middle class," said David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), "He can appeal to Obama-Trump voters for that very reason – they know Richard Cordray will put workers first, not big business."

Ahead of Obama's visit to Ohio, a GOP spokesperson called the former president's speech last week an "insult."

"Ohioans rejected the continuation of Obama policies in 2016 and won't take kindly to more of these Democrats' insults. Ohioans are happy with the direction we're headed under strong Republican leadership," RNC spokesperson Mandi Merritt wrote in a statement Wednesday.

Republicans are also seeking to use the former president's visit as a reminder of Cordray's tenure at the consumer watchdog agency that became mired in controversy last year when his retirement sparked a legal battle over who would replace him.

At the time, President Trump characterized the agency as a "total disaster" under Cordray.

Cordray defended the agency, calling acting director Mick Mulvaney, a "squatter" at the agency and slamming Trump, writing on Twitter: "The fish rots from the head down."

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep132018

Paul Manafort and special counsel reach tentative plea deal: Sources

Win McNamee/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has tentatively agreed to a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller that will head off his upcoming trial, sources familiar with the negotiations tell ABC News.

The deal is expected to be announced in court Friday, but it remains unclear whether Manafort has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors or is simply conceding to a guilty plea, which would allow him to avoid the stress and expense of trial, according to three sources with knowledge of the discussions.

Manafort and his most senior defense attorneys spent more than four hours Thursday in discussions with a team of special prosecutors who are involved in the ongoing investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

ABC News spotted the team arriving in a dark SUV Thursday morning, pulling into a secret entrance out of public view at the building where Special Counsel Robert Mueller is based.

Word of the agreement comes as Manafort's second trial was slated to begin later this month in federal court in Washington, D.C.

Just under a year ago, the 69-year-old veteran GOP operative was charged in Washington, D.C., with several counts of fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent by the special counsel. A second case was opened in Virginia earlier this year on related charges that ended with a jury finding Manafort guilty on eight counts out of an 18-count indictment, facing a maximum of 80 years behind the bars, though under sentencing guidelines the term is likely to be closer to seven years. He has not been sentenced in that case.

Manafort has been held in jail for the last several months after prosecutors accused him of witness tampering.

He joined the president's campaign in March 2016 and became campaign chairman in May, and left the campaign in August days after the New York Times and the Associated Press ran reports that he had been tied to alleged undisclosed foreign lobbying practices in Ukraine.

A spokesperson for Manafort and a representative for the special counsel’s office both declined to comment.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep132018

Trump casts doubt on Puerto Rico hurricane death toll: '3000 people did not die' 

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Facing renewed criticism over the recent glowing reviews he gave his administration's handling of Hurricane Maria, President Trump on Thursday made a series of unsubstantiated claims casting doubt on the revised death toll officially declared by Puerto Rico's government late last month.

"3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico," Trump said in a tweet. "When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000."

The president added, "This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"

In a news conference at the Capitol, House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared to distance himself from Trump's tweets, saying he has “no reason to dispute” the revised 3,000 death toll, and discounted the president’s conspiracy claim that Democrats increased the tally to make Trump “look as bad as possible.”

“Casualties don’t make a person look bad,” Ryan told ABC News. “I have no reason to dispute these numbers. I was in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. It was devastated. This was a horrible storm. I toured the entire island. It’s an isolated island that lost its infrastructure and its power for a long time.”

Ryan stressed that first responders in Puerto Rico “couldn’t get to people for a long time on the island because roads were washed out, power was gone and the casualties mounted for a long time.”

The president's tweets sparked an immediate backlash from other lawmakers and renewed the spotlight on the administration's handling of Hurricane Maria, even as it continued preparations for Hurricane Florence's landfall on the East Coast.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has previously sparred with Trump over the federal response to Hurricane Maria, shot back just minutes after the president's tweets.

"Mr. Trump you can try and bully us with your tweets BUT WE KNOW OUR LIVES MATTER," she tweeted. "You will never take away our self-respect. Shame on you!"

Late last month, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced the territory was officially revising its death toll to 2,975 from 64 after the government commissioned an independent study by George Washington University's Milken School of Public Health.

While President Trump's contention in his tweet that 3,000 didn't die "in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico" is not technically inaccurate, the study never claimed to measure deaths based on such a metric. It instead focused on the number of excess deaths in the six months following Maria's landfall.

For instance, the GWU report also showed that the risk of dying in the aftermath of Maria was 60 percent higher for those in the poorest communities and 35 percent higher for those 65 years old or older.

"There are huge inequalities in Puerto Rico that were brought up by the hurricane," said Carlos Santos-Burgoa, one of the principal investigators of the study.

In a statement responding to the president's tweet, the institute said it continues to stand by the methods used to reach their estimate.

"Our results show that Hurricane Maria was a very deadly storm, one that affected the entire island but hit the poor and the elderly the hardest," the statement said. "We are confident that the number — 2,975 — is the most accurate and unbiased estimate of excess mortality to date."

In the days after Maria's landfall, President Trump visited Puerto Rico, and while there lauded the government's efforts at minimizing the death toll at a time when the San Juan government had certified only 16 deaths as a result of the storm, which the president referred to in his Thursday tweets.

"If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering -- nobody has ever seen anything like this," Trump said at the time.

Rossello, who steadfastly defended the administration's response during those early days of relief efforts, responded to the president's tweets Thursday urging a more compassionate approach.

“The victims in Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico, do not deserve that their pain is questioned," Rossello said. "This is not a moment to fight, or to make political noise, or to use this to benefit one side or another. This is a moment to remember all those that lost their lives. It is a moment to recognize their pain and sacrifice that all have made for the recovery efforts.”

Florida's GOP Gov. Rick Scott
, a close ally of the president, who is locked in a tight Senate race this November, dismissed the president's claim in his tweets and reaffirmed his support for the study with the revised death toll.

Democrats were unsparing in their criticism.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused the president of trafficking in "alternative facts" by blaming Democrats for inflating the death toll.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat, went so far as to suggest that President Trump's dismissal of the death toll was rooted in racism.

The White House did not immediately respond to ABC's requests for comment on what the president considers an accurate accounting of the death toll or whether there's any evidence behind his assertion that Democrats played a role in the study commissioned by Puerto Rico's government.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep132018

Race for New York’s next top cop shows Democrats’ diversity, anti-Trumpism

Drew Angerer/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- From a pregnant Fordham University law professor-turned-progressive insurgent, to New York state's first openly gay congressman, to three African-American women, the Democrat who wins Thursday's primary for New York attorney general is poised to make history as the state's top cop.

The race for the open seat -- vacated by Eric Schneiderman in May amid allegations of physical abuse by four women, and filled temporarily by then-solicitor general Barbara Underwood -- has attracted national attention for its significance: jurisdiction over President Trump's sprawling business and real estate empire, and the ability to investigate the mogul-turned-commander in chief.

Trump v. New York

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, professor Zephyr Teachout, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and Verizon executive Leecia Eve are wrestling over who can make the most aggressive pitch to take on the president.

"You can’t understate the threat of Donald Trump and the Trump administration to our laws and democracy," Teachout told ABC News in an interview Tuesday.

"I’m running for attorney general because Donald Trump is a clear and present danger, because he is a crook and a bigot, and he has a bull's-eye on New York," Maloney said during the final debate in New York last week.

Earlier in the race, the congressman ramped up his rhetoric against Trump in a television ad, in which he said, "I feel like there’s a group of men who have shown up with Donald Trump in the front yard, and they’re getting ready to tear this house apart. And I’m going to stand in the hallway with a baseball bat, because I don’t have a choice. My kids are upstairs asleep."

The progressive state is both home to the president and several major lawsuits against him. Before his stunning fall, rising star Schneiderman surged to national prominence after a series of legal confrontations with the president related to financial and regulatory cases in New York.

In 2016, Schneiderman opened an investigation into the Trump Foundation for alleged improprieties. Later that year, he ordered the foundation to stop fundraising. Another Trump-related probe -- the case against Trump University over claims of fraud -- ultimately led to a $25 million settlement.

Schneiderman also targeted the president’s political endeavors through amicus briefs and legal proceedings, specifically against White House environmental and immigration policies. In 2017, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general released a statement warning legal action if the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Democrats audition for role of Trump foe

With the cloud of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe hanging over the White House, all four Democratic candidates have made Trump a central figure in their campaigns, attacking the president’s policies and pledging to hold him accountable if elected.

"As New York's next attorney general, I will work hand-in-glove with Mueller to stand as a backstop against Trump's attempts to evade civil and criminal responsibility," Maloney said in a statement.

Teachout -- a progressive endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The New York Times editorial board -- shared her four initial priorities with ABC News: taking on alleged illegality in Trump’s businesses emoluments, corruption in Albany, addressing the increasingly hostile federal judiciary, and pushing to end mass incarceration.

"Our campaign is driven by grassroots supporters who want a real change in New York and the best person to take on Donald Trump," she asserted.

James, who has received endorsements from Cuomo and other top party leaders in the state, also said she is committed to challenging Trump on the first day.

"We are at a pivotal point in our country’s history, with an illegitimate president working in Washington, D.C., to pull us backwards, and forces here in New York fighting against progress," James said in a statement to ABC News on Wednesday. "From my time as a public defender to serving as public advocate, I’ve spent my career giving a voice to the voiceless. And on Day One, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I'll take on Trump’s harmful policies; go after corrupt officials; and protect New Yorkers from gun violence, abusive landlords and polluters."

James is not only the first woman of color to hold a citywide office in New York City, but also the first woman of color to use her platform to address criminal justice reform.

The other female African-American in the race -- who worked for top Democratic leaders such as Cuomo, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden -- has also not shied away from condemning the Trump administration on the trail.

"You need an experienced advocate to fight against Donald Trump and all that he is trying to do to undermine our rights," Eve said during the final debate.

A groundbreaking race in a groundbreaking election year

Trump might be the impetus behind their campaigns, but it was the swift departure of Schneiderman that set off a tight contest to succeed Underwood -- the first woman to hold the position -- in a year featuring a diverse array of candidates for higher office.

There are currently no sitting African-American governors in the country, but voters in Florida and Georgia can possibly change that in November after three Democratic contenders advanced to the general election. If elected in November, both Democratic nominees Ben Jealous and Andrew Gillum will be their state’s first black governor in Maryland and Florida, respectively; and Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams will be the first black female chief executive in the nation’s history.

Women are making a remarkable number of historic firsts: A record-breaking 529 women ran for Congress in 2018, and female candidates secured the highest number of U.S. Senate, U.S. House, gubernatorial and state legislative nominations in the country’s history, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Georgetown University political scientist Michele Swers said Wednesday that Trump has "certainly energized" Democrats. "You just have an increase in the number of candidates on the Democratic side, which is then also an increase in the quality."

The winner in Thursday’s Democratic primary will face political newcomer and African-American lawyer Keith Wofford, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary -- ushering in a historic tenure for whoever wins in November.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Sep122018

FiveThirtyEight forecasts Republicans as favorites to keep the Senate

iStock/ThinkstockBY: FIVETHIRTYEIGHT

(NEW YORK) -- Democrats have a 1-in-3 chance of winning the Senate majority this November, according to FiveThirtyEight’s just-launched 2018 Senate forecast. Republicans have a 2-in-3 chance of keeping control. Unlike in the race for the House of Representatives, in which Democrats are favored, they’re fighting uphill in the upper chamber.

The FiveThirtyEight Senate model produces probabilistic forecasts, as opposed to hard-and-fast predictions about who will win or lose, using a statistical model that looks at polls of each race, fundraising, how each state has voted historically and more.

 

In the same way that a weather forecaster might tell you there’s a 70 percent chance of rain tomorrow, the FiveThirtyEight model estimates the chances of each candidate winning in every Senate race on the ballot this year. It will update continuously up until Election Day.

Check out the full forecast for details about each race. And you can read more about how the forecast is calculated here.

FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news site founded by Nate Silver in 2008, joined ABC News this year.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

FiveThirtyEight forecasts Republicans as favorites to keep the Senate

Wednesday
Sep122018

Trump signs order that would impose sanctions for election interference 

Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed a broad executive order that would pave the way for the administration to impose sanctions on foreign actors that attempt to meddle in U.S. elections -- whether it be an entity, an individual, or a country.

The order, entitled “Imposing Certain Sanctions in the Event of Foreign Interference in a United States Election,” directs parts of the administration to compose reports on election interference and directs the State Department and Treasury Department to then decide on appropriate sanctions on foreign actors. The order is not country-specific and as part of it, the president declared a national emergency as required under sanctions authority.

National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters that the executive order will apply not only to campaign infrastructure interference but also propaganda and misinformation.

"Basically, it's a further effort among several of the administration has made to protect the United States against foreign interference in our elections and, really, our political process more broadly," Bolton said. He added that the executive order is intended to take effect now before November's midterm elections so Treasury and State can make appropriate decisions.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that after the intelligence community has found interference, there will be a 45-day period during which it will make an assessment and turn its findings over to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. If they agree there was interference, then sanctions will be imposed.

Coats said the Trump administration wants to prevent, report and have a full assessment after the election "to ensure the American people exactly what may have happened or may not have happened, and if we see something then there's going to be an automatic response."

"This is an ongoing effort that will continue on a 24-hour basis until the election," Coats said.

"We have seen signs of [interference] not just Russia but from China, and capabilities from potentially Iran and North Korea," Coats said. "So it's more than Russia."

Bolton was asked if public perception, the president's reluctance to acknowledge meddling in the 2016 election, and his deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit had any role in the administration's push to have Trump sign an executive order addressing the issue.

"Zero," Bolton said. "The president has said repeatedly that he's determined that there not be foreign interference in the political process. He sent the heads of departments and agencies out repeatedly to talk about what they're doing and today he signed this executive order, so I think his actions speak for themselves."

Bolton said congressional lawmakers offered suggestions on what should be in the executive order.

The sanctions would come in the form of asset blocking, Bolton said, and the executive order asks State and Treasury to make punishments based on the "seriousness of interference."

On Capitol Hill, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen issued a joint statement saying the president should do more - along the lines of legislation they've proposed that they say Congress should quickly pass.

“There is no question that protecting our elections from foreign interference is one of the most pressing issues facing our country today. Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it. The United States can and must do more," the lawmakers said.

"Mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems serve as the best deterrent, which is the central tenet of the bipartisan DETER Act. We must make sure Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or any other foreign actor, understands that we will respond decisively and impose punishing consequences against those who interfere in our democracy," the statement said.

Election-security observers have said that talking about interference, and warning foreign actors publicly, is an important component of guarding elections.

“One of the things we call for in our articles is for leaders to clearly speak about the dangers of election interference vocally, both to prepare its own public about the potential threat and to send a message to would-be attackers … that there would be consequences,” said Erik Brattberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has put out recommendations for how countries should prepare and respond.

German elections were free from interference after high-level officials warned against meddling, Brattberg noted in a recent report. In Sweden, meanwhile, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven warned against interference ahead of this month's vote as early as a year and a half ago.

The lack of a strong U.S. response to 2016 meddling “was a bad thing and probably invites more malfeasance going forward,” said Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program.

“In terms of signaling that election meddling is unacceptable, we are definitely behind European governments,” David Salvo of the Alliance for Democracy told ABC in August. “It took Facebook’s actions ... for Trump Cabinet officials to come to the [White House] briefing room and say we will not tolerate interference.”

Days after Facebook announced it had shut down 32 fake pages in July, DNI Coats and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen took to the White House podium to warn against election meddling.

“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” said Nielsen, who has placed the blame for 2016 hacking squarely on Russia. Coats, who appeared alongside her, said in July that Russian cyber efforts are “persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America's democracy on a daily basis.”

In contrast to his top officials, Trump has been loath to speak publicly about interference in U.S. elections, after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russian hackers intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump and harm his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

“I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said when asked if Russia were responsible for the 2016 hacks, as he stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July after over a year of casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence assessment. Trump later sought to clarify his remark, saying he had meant to say “wouldn’t,” instead of “would.”

Asked by ABC’s Cecilia Vega whether Russia is still attempting to influence U.S. elections, Trump said “no.” The White House later said Trump had meant he would not take questions from reporters.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is investigating Russian interference—and any potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia—has indicted 12 Russians for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Among experts, opinions on sanctions are mixed.

Eric Rosenbach, co-director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs called them "an important aspect of sending a clear message that America will not tolerate attacks on our democracy" and urged Trump to "do everything he can to change the current perception that it acceptable to hack American democracy."

Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Vice President James Lewis, meanwhile, called sanctions "good, but not enough," questioning their ability to influence Russian behavior meaningfully.

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