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Thursday
Jul122018

Americans rank Barack Obama as best president of their lifetimes: Poll

Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- A new Pew Research Center poll says more Americans rank former President Barack Obama higher than any other when asked which president has done the best job in their lifetimes.

Obama was named the best or second best president by 44 percent of Americans in the survey that came out Wednesday. Thirty-one percent ranked him as the best president in their lifetimes.

President Donald Trump comes in fourth after President Bill Clinton and President Ronald Reagan, with 19 percent of Americans ranking him as the best or second best in their lifetimes.

While 19 percent might seem low, 20 percent of Americans ranked Obama as the best or second best president in 2011, at a similar point in his first term and the last time Pew conducted this poll.

Pew found that rankings changed by generation. More than 60 percent of millennials view Obama as the best or second best president of their lifetime and 46 percent name him as the best.

Older Americans, baby boomers and the "silent generation," chose Reagan as the top president during their lives. Forty-two percent of 54 to 72-year-olds and 38 percent of 73 to 90-year-olds rank Reagan as the best or second best.

Partisanship also affects people’s choice of a top president, Pew found.

Among Democrats or Democratic-leaning Independents, 71 percent ranked Obama as the best or second best president. Clinton comes in second, with 49 percent ranking him as best or second best.

A majority of Republicans list Reagan as the top president, with 57 percent saying he’s the best of their lifetime. Trump comes in second among Republicans, with 40 percent naming him.

The survey was conducted from June 5-12 among 2,002 U.S. adults.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Progressive Democrats introduce bill to abolish ICE

Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Progressive Democrats introduced a bill in the House Thursday that would shut down U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within one year of enactment – part of a movement that has growing support but that's also getting criticized by moderate Democrats as well as Republicans.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was incredulous: “They have really jumped the sharks on the left.”

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., sponsored the legislation, along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Adriano Espaillat D-N.Y., who are both themselves immigrants. All three have criticized the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy,” the immigration crackdown which has resulted in the separation of children and parents and the creation of makeshift tent cities and “tender age shelters” to house the recent influx of immigrants.

The bill’s sponsors say they introduced the measure because they believe ICE is too corrupt to reform.

"President Trump has so misused ICE that the agency can no longer accomplish its goals effectively," Pocan said in a statement. "The best path forward is this legislation, which would end ICE and transfer its critical functions to other executive agencies."

The bill responds to a growing left-wing movement to abolish ICE, whose message has been amplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialist candidate who gained national attention for her upset primary win in New York on a platform of economic and social justice.

More: #AbolishICE movement gains support in Congress after Tuesday primaries

Both Republicans and skeptical Democrats have asked what would replace the agency, which, in addition to detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants, investigates criminal activity such as human smuggling and sex trafficking.

The bill’s sponsors say they would create a commission to determine how best to "transition its essential functions to other agencies and ensure that these functions comport with our values and are subject to appropriate oversight, accountability, and transparency measures."

When asked about the bill Thursday, Paul Ryan called it "the craziest position I've ever seen."

"This is the agency that gets gangs out of our communities, that helps prevent drugs from flowing into our schools, that rescues people from human trafficking," Ryan said of the proposal to raze ICE, adding that he believes Democrats "are tripping over themselves to move too far to the left."

Pocan shot back at Ryan on Twitter, saying he considers the Trump administration's practice of family separation more outrageous.

President Donald Trump has also criticized the movement, joining GOP legislators who have accused Democrats of calling for ‘open borders.’ However, the bill would not alter any existing immigration laws, but would distribute tasks currently performed by ICE to other agencies.

The bill is highly unlikely to be signed into law, given GOP control of both chambers of Congress and the Trump administration's focus on limiting immigration. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has promised to bring the bill to the floor, anticipating a doomed vote that will serve as a litmus test for Democrats.

Many Democrats have expressed their skepticism about abolishing ICE. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have criticized the agency but stopped short of calling to abolish ICE. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said on CNN that she doesn’t believe scrapping the agency would protect immigrants.

"You abolish ICE now, you still have the president with the same failed policies. Whatever you replace it with is just going to still reflect what this president wants to do," Duckworth said.

ICE was founded in 2003, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, as a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Jayapal, who serves on the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, said in a statement to ABC News that the agency was conceived without sufficient accountability.

"The agency was created in a hurry in the aftermath of 9/11, with little oversight and little foundation to ensure it is serving the country’s needs humanely," Jayapal said, adding, “there was enforcement of our immigration laws before ICE was created and there will be after ICE, as an agency, is gone.”

Jayapal also condemned the agency’s subcontracting with private, for-profit detention centers. The bill states that the use of private contractors costs taxpayers more than state options, and that for-profit contractors’ incentive to maximize profits has resulted in the mistreatment and even the death of detainees.

One name surprisingly absent from the bill: Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a longtime advocate for immigrants' rights.

Grijalva had initially expressed support for the legislation, Pocan told ABC News over a phone interview in June. However, a spokesperson told ABC News that Grijalva is still reviewing the bill, awaiting "details concerning what abolishing ICE actually means, what will replace the agency, and how issues like accountability, oversight, and alternatives to detention will be addressed."

The bill’s cosponsors include Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Adam Smith of Washington, and Yvette D. Clarke, Jose E. Serrano, and Nydia M. Velazquez of New York.

On June 26, Clarke narrowly defeated insurgent candidate Adem Bunkeddeko, whose candidacy in New York’s 12th Congressional District earned the endorsement of the New York Times and drew comparisons to Ocasio-Cortez’s successful campaign to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y. Bunkeddeko campaigned on a progressive platform that included calling to abolish ICE.

Ocasio-Cortez, who made abolishing ICE a key point in her platform, has galvanized the movement, traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border just days before her primary upset over Crowley.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrats including potential 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have joined insurgents on the party’s left flank in calling to abolish ICE.

More than 150 elected officials from around the country have also signed an open letter calling to abolish the agency. Among the state senators who signed on is Daniel Biss, the Democratic Socialist legislator who recently mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge from the left to venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker in the race for governor of Illinois.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Allies doubt Trump threatened to bail on NATO in spending feud

Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(BRUSSELS) -- During a meeting with NATO leaders Thursday, President Donald Trump reportedly said that if the major allies did not meet the 2 percent of GDP defense spending target by January 2019, the U.S. “would go it alone.”

He also reportedly said that if the accelerated target – which was originally agreed for 2024 – is not honored the US would “do our own thing,” sources told the New York Times and Washington Post.

Multiple sources in the room reached by ABC News did not deny that the president made those comments but said that they were not taken as a threat to pull out of the alliance.

“That is not what we understood or retained from the declarations of President Trump at the NATO summit. The heart of Trump’s message was positive,” a French source told ABC.

Another senior European NATO diplomat reiterated that the comments were not interpreted as an ultimatum.

"It was a very intense day. It was tough,” the diplomat told ABC. "It was extremely frank…he was very forceful.”

Trump didn’t hold back in voicing his other opinions about NATO spending. The diplomat said he complained about the new NATO headquarters, saying he didn’t like the design and suggesting that the building is unsafe because of the glass walls, confirming the Washington Post’s reporting.

A senior Czech official said some of Trump’s statements have been “concerning” but are “not that surprising.”

“We know the position. It was the same wording as last year,” the official said. “What is the problem is to spend so much money on the military. There is a challenge to make it stronger."

When asked if Trump said he would leave NATO unless the wealthiest economies hit 2 percent GDP by January or “we are going to do our own thing,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders would not comment directly on the president’s reported statements but insisted he didn’t offer a new deadline for allies to meet the 2 percent standard.

President Trump “didn’t set a timetable, but he was very clear that other countries needed to step up and fulfill their obligations,” Sanders told ABC News.

Several leaders who participated in the meeting issued public denials on Thursday that Trump had threatened to walk out on NATO if his demands aren’t met.

"Trump said things plainly as is normal between friends and allies,” said Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. “We committed ourselves to spending a bit more."

"President Trump, never at any moment, either in public or in private, threatened to withdraw from NATO," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters.

Asked if Trump in any way implied the U.S. could pull back from its commitment to – or participation in – NATO, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the president did not.

“He didn't say that. He said he is very committed to NATO and the fact that we have made many important decisions on stepping up the fight against terrorism, new command structure, combined with more defense spending makes NATO stronger and we are more united because we had open and frank discussions,” Stoltenberg said.

Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said on paper the summit was a success because of binding commitments to present a plan for increased defense spending and the development of the long-awaited Southern Strategy.

“All's well that ends well, it ended well but it was a tortured process,” Vershbow told ABC News.

“It erodes the trust that binds the alliance together if trust is going to pursue his PR agenda at their expense. It could be worse.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Amid Mueller probe, Blackwater founder pitches mercenary takeover of Afghan War

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who is facing scrutiny in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, is reprising his role as America’s most famous private military contractor, hawking a proposal to turn over U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan to mercenaries.

In a new video posted on YouTube on Tuesday as this year’s NATO summit got underway in Brussels, Prince was sharply critical of the Pentagon’s strategy in the conflict, now in its 17th year, calling it a “stalemate” and proposing that CIA officers and 6,000 mercenaries should intervene.

“The Pentagon does what it does and wanted to keep doing the same thing it has done for the last 17 years,” Prince said. Trump has “stayed the course” in Afghanistan so far, he added, but continuing to wage a conventional war there would be “reckless and it’s irresponsible.”

Prince has plenty of experience building contractor forces in Afghanistan as well Iraq, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates as the former head of the controversial Blackwater firm and the current chairman of Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong-based security company. But the timing of renewed efforts to push the proposal is, to say the least, interesting, providing Prince with an alternative headline to those announcing his public pledge of “cooperation” with Mueller’s Russia probe.

In April 2017, the Washington Post reported that Prince, a Trump ally and donor whose sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s education secretary, had traveled to the Seychelles following Trump’s election for a secret meeting with a Russian official with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prince testified before the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in November that he hadn’t made the January 2017 trip "to meet any Russian guy,” describing his meeting with Kirill Dmitriev, the Putin-appointed head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund, as a chance encounter “over a beer.”

ABC News reported earlier this year, however, that Mueller has obtained evidence that calls that testimony into question. Sources familiar with the investigation told ABC News that George Nader, a key witness given limited immunity by Mueller, told investigators that he set up the meeting in the Seychelles between Prince and Dmitriev. Documents obtained by Mueller also suggest, sources said, that before and after Prince met Nader in New York, Nader shared biographical information about Dmitriev with Prince.

Last month, a spokesperson for Prince told ABC News that Prince has provided Mueller with “total access to his phone and computer.”

In an interview about the proposal with Britain’s Independent newspaper on Tuesday, Prince said that he has “no concern at all” about the special counsel’s scrutiny of his activities. He has proposed this strategy to Trump before, but senior members of administration turned him down, according to the Independent. With the recent restructuring of Trump’s national security team, Prince told the paper, he hopes this time might be different. A source close to Prince told ABC News the target audience for the video is “decision makers.”

Whatever happens in the Russia investigation, Prince appears determined to push a plan that would almost certainly net him a hefty profit, if Trump were to adopt it.

“We have to get it right. Pulling out of Afghanistan is not the answer,” Prince said in the video. “A smaller more unconventional approach is necessary.”

Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, agreed that the current strategy in Afghanistan needs an overhaul but called Prince’s proposal “unacceptable.”

“The video pitch is strong and on target when it argues that what we are doing isn’t working,” Rubin told ABC News. “It does not explain, however, what the 6,000 contractors would do or how they would do it.”

Critics of Prince noted that the presence of private security forces have, at times, been counterproductive, exacerbating tensions with local populations, particularly in 2007 when his Blackwater soldiers gunned down more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

“The biggest single contentious issue in Afghanistan is civilian casualties,” said a former senior official with the U.S. command in Kabul. “Every dead civilian helps the Taliban recruit.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Unpacking Trump's claim of new funding from NATO members

Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(BRUSSELS) -- President Donald Trump claimed Thursday at the conclusion of the NATO summit that he had secured substantially increased defense funding commitments from the alliance's member nations.

“Yesterday I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening and they have substantially upped their commitment,” President Trump told reporters, going on to repeat the claim that he had secured new commitments 10 more times during a press conference in Brussels.

He continued: “And now we're very happy and have a very, very powerful, very, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago.”

So, to what new funding commitment is the president referring?

It’s not immediately clear.

The summit’s joint declaration, signed onto by all 29 NATO members and issued Wednesday, made no mention of any new funding commitments. And the president’s declaration was also directly contradicted by one of his closest personal allies, French President Emanuel Macron.

“There is a communique that was published yesterday. It's very detailed,” Macron said, according to the AP. "It confirms the goal of 2 percent by 2024. That's all."

Member states had already agreed, dating back in 2014, to increase their base level defense spending to 2 percent.

And while the president has said he ultimately wants to up commitments doubled to 4 percent, for now he said that countries have agreed to move at a “faster clip” to meet the 2 percent threshold.

“What they're doing is spending – at a much faster clip they're going up to the 2 percent level,” Trump said. “After we're at 2 percent, we'll start talking about going higher. But I said, ultimately we should be – in years in advance, we should be at 4 percent. I think 4 percent is the right number.”

And while all member nations have agreed, in principle, to work toward the 2 percent spending goal, each country is ultimately beholden to unique political processes and must consult with their respective parliaments to secure increased military spending.

“They're here as a prime minister or as a president, and they can't necessarily go in and say, ‘This is what we're going to do.’ But they're going back for approvals,” Trump said, acknowledging the political realities. “Some are at 2 percent, others have agreed definitely to go to 2 percent, and some are going back to get the approval – and which they will get -- to go to 2 percent.”

Following the summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was careful not to contradict the president’s claim of a substantial increase in spending but was only able to directly point to members’ existing 2 percent commitments.

“The fact is that we have a commitment to increase defense spending. We all agreed we have to deliver on that,” Stoltenberg said, later saying: “We have agreed that we need to make good on the pledges we have made.”

Stoltenberg, who has seemed eager to heap praise on President Trump for increases in NATO funding in public settings, again said that “his strong message is having a clear impact, allies are increasing defense spending.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

After judge's order, Manafort arrives at new jail

Mark Wilson/Getty Images(ALEXANDRIA, Va.) -- Paul Manafort arrived at an Alexandria, Va., jail Thursday after a federal judge ordered U.S. Marshals to move the former Trump campaign manager from a rural Virginia facility this week.

Judge T.S. Ellis, who is presiding over Manafort's trial in Virginia beginning in two weeks, on Wednesday denied Manafort’s request to remain at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va., where Manafort told associates he was being treated like a "VIP," according to a recorded phone call revealed by prosecutors with special counsel Robert Mueller's team.

“Because he is a high-profile inmate, Mr. Manafort will be placed in protective custody which limits his interactions with other inmates," Alexandria, Va., Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said Thursday. "Specific details about Mr. Manafort’s confinement will not be made public due to security and privacy concerns. We will work closely with the U.S. Marshals to ensure his proper care while he remains in our custody.”

Judge Ellis initially ordered on Tuesday that Manafort should be moved closer to the Washington, D.C., area “to ensure that defendant has access to his counsel and can adequately prepare his defense.”

But within hours of the judge’s order, attorneys for Manafort asked that their client remain at Northern Neck Regional Jail, citing “his safety," among other things, even though they had complained his detention there was hurting his defense.

Last week, attorneys for Manafort asked the court to delay Manafort’s trial, claiming their client’s detention at the rural facility put an unfair burden on pretrial preparations and specifically cited the distance – more than 100 miles – from Warsaw to Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, Ellis denied Manafort’s request, and for the second time in as many days ordered him to be moved.

“It is surprising and confusing when the counsel identifies a problem and then opposes the most logical solution to that problem,” Ellis wrote Wednesday, adding, “Defense counsel has not identified any general or specific threat to defendant’s safety at the Alexandria Detention Center.”

Manafort has been held at Northern Neck Regional Jail since another federal judge, presiding over his case in Washington, D.C., revoked his bail last month. Prosecutors with the special counsel asked the judge to jail Manafort after learning that he had attempted to contact potential government witnesses in the days after Mueller brought a superseding indictment against him.

Mueller’s special counsel team has hit Manafort with three superseding indictments in two federal courts – Washington, D.C., and Virginia – amounting to more than 40 charges related to money laundering, tax and bank fraud, conspiracy, and other financial crimes that largely predate his time on the Trump campaign. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Manafort’s previous bail agreement had allowed him to remain at his tony Alexandria, Va., condo with a GPS ankle monitor.

During his time at Northern Neck jail, ABC News reported that Manafort stayed in a cell by himself in the facility’s VIP section, surrounded by walls painted in two shades of brown: bagel and biscuit.

Manafort received three meals a day in his approximately 14x14 foot VIP section cell, which came equipped with a toilet, a shower, a place to sit, a small table, a TV with basic cable, and a phone to make outgoing collect calls.

Manafort's trial in Washington, D.C. is set to kick off in September.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Trump visits UK amid acrimonious relationship with London

Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Even with an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at London Stansted airport for the American leader's first official visit to the U.K. Thursday morning amid an expected surge in protests.

According to his itinerary at this point, his only formal event in London – where his unpopularity is high – is a closed press meet and greet at the U.S. embassy on Thursday. Otherwise, he will remain on the outskirts of the city center – which, in some ways, lessens the chance he'll encounter displays of British criticism of his policies directly.

The trek, coming more than a year and a half into his presidency, does not have the trappings of a state visit. Still, activists, members of Parliament, and the mayor of London are angry about their American guest.

The president’s visit comes after his participation in the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium. At the NATO headquarters, Trump addressed his relations with the U.K. and insisted that it "loves [him]."

“The UK loves me, in fact my mother was from the UK, they love me there even if they are not treating us well with trades, but they will," he said. "They like me a lot in the UK."

Widespread protests opposing President Trump’s stay begin Thursday evening and continue through Friday night. London Mayor Sadiq Khan – who has had a particularly contentious relationship with President Trump – approved protesters’ use of a “Trump baby” blimp during the president’s visit to Great Britain. The blimp, which depicts the president as a giant, orange child in a diaper, will fly over Parliament for two hours on Thursday.

The 2004 Green Day hit, "American Idiot" is now skyrocketing to the top of the UK charts ahead of the visit - a boost fueled in large part by the efforts of British protesters and social media.

A coalition known as Together Against Trump has been the chief organizer of the opposition effort. In a statement, the group said it was a “victory that Donald Trump does not appear to have any official engagements in London.”

“Instead he will stay hidden away in country estates and castles,” the statement read.

U.K. prime minister Theresa May will not attend any demonstrations but she has been critical of her American counterpart. Just a few weeks ago, she called the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy “wrong.”

“The pictures of children being held in what appear to be cages are deeply disturbing,” May stated to the House of Commons.

The president’s visit comes after his participation in the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium. After arriving in Great Britain Thursday evening, Trump and the first lady will dine with May and her husband at Blenheim Palace. On Friday, the two leaders will participate in a bilateral meeting and joint press conference. Trump will then meet the Queen at Windsor Castle.

Although this is Trump’s first official trip to the U.K., he has been invited before.

Like this go-round, protesters promised widespread backlash back in February amid the president’s plans to travel to London for the grand-opening of a new U.S. embassy. When Trump canceled his plans a few weeks before the big day, some – like London Mayor Sadiq Khan – speculated that the expected opposition scared off Trump and was happy about it.

“It appears that President Trump got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance,” mayor Khan said in January. “His visit...would, without doubt, have been met by mass peaceful protests.”

The president, in contrast, claimed that he called off his trip because of his predecessor’s decision to sell the old embassy for “peanuts," a “bad deal” in his eyes.

In June of last year, Trump mocked Khan for his handling of the London Bridge terror attack and called him “pathetic.” The incident resulted in seven deaths and more than 50 injuries.

Khan responded to Trump’s pointed tweets in a television appearance on BBC.

“Some people thrive on feud and division. We are not going to let Donald Trump divide our communities,” he said.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

President Trump declares NATO a 'fine-tuned machine' at conclusion of summit

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump declared NATO a “fine-tuned machine” in an impromptu news conference at the conclusion of his participation in a contentious NATO summit during which he has questioned the utility of the alliance and harshly criticized some of the United States’ closest allies for not paying more into the alliance.

The alliance is much stronger than it was at the outset of the conference, Trump said Thursday, taking credit for what he said are increased commitments from allies to up spending, citing an increased commitment of $33 billion to the alliance.

“Yesterday, I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening and they have substantially upped their commitment and they have a very powerful, very strong NATO appeared much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said.

The president told reporters he “probably” had the unilateral power to pull the United States out of NATO if he chose to but said he thinks it’s unnecessary.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Democratic coalition targets moderate GOP senators in SCOTUS fight

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Senate Democrats and a newly-minted coalition of allied progressive interest groups have launched a coordinated campaign to oppose Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, that includes highlighting the stakes for average Americans on key issues such as health care and abortion rights.

But it’s not just an effort to unite Democrats against the nominee.

Their unusual strategy, according to multiple senior Democratic strategists, is to apply as much pressure as possible on two moderate Republican senators - Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski - as a way to not only possibly sink the nomination but to keep vulnerable red-state Democrats from supporting the nominee.

The thinking is that if either Republican announces her support early, vulnerable Democrats might more easily follow suit, seeing that their vote would not be decisive.

The longer any final decision takes, the strategy goes, the more time groups including Demand Justice, NARAL, MoveOn.org, Center for American Progress, and Planned Parenthood have to fire up their base and persuade their vulnerable incumbents to oppose the nomination.

“We have an important task ahead of us. We need to unite our Democratic caucus as quickly as possible so that we can put the maximum amount of pressure on trying to flip Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski,” Brian Fallon, head of Demand Justice, told ABC’s Powerhouse Politics podcast Wednesday.

Jesse Lee of the Center for American Progress said the coalition’s blueprint for the fight is the success Democrats had in derailing a GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) versus their failure in galvanizing opposition to this year’s tax cut legislation.

“This, too, is about taking something away,” Lee said, referring to Democrats’ plan to highlight what they see as a likelihood that Kavanaugh might vote to essentially dismantle ACA or upend abortion rights in some fashion, either by voting to overturn Roe v. Wade or in favor of allowing states to pass legislation that makes it all but impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion.

The message to the Collins and Murkowski, Lee said, is, “This won’t play out way down the road. This is going to happen while you’re in office. This isn’t just about today’s kabuki theater.”

Lee said Democrats will also focus on Kavanaugh's expansive view of presidential power and will - to a lesser extent - shine a light on corporate greed, attempting to tie in Kavanaugh's past opposition to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This, along with the focus on health care and abortion, Democrats are hoping, will excite the base - which could be a boon to red-state Democrats, as well.

So, Collins and Murkowski now find themselves on the receiving end of TV and social media ads, grassroots lobbying and more, as the fight is brought to their doorstep. Collins’ office has even received wire coat hangers as a reminder of the grisly ends to which some women in the past went to end a pregnancy.

But one senior Republican strategist told ABC News he thought the campaign was doomed to fail, saying, “Red-state Democrats are under far more pressure. Collins and Murkowski aren’t up for re-election, and they’ve survived far worse than this could ever be. Plus, Collins has never voted against a Supreme Court nominee.”

To be sure, the pressure is intense on those Democrats up for re-election in November in states President Trump won handily, primarily Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

All three voted for Trump’s first Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

Freshman Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who won his seat in a highly-contested race in conservative Alabama, is also a target of some Democratic efforts, though some strategists believe he might be less inclined to support Kavanaugh over civil rights concerns. Jones is a former career prosecutor who touted his civil rights wins during his insurgent campaign.

The new Democratic coalition is fighting an uphill battle against their GOP adversaries.

Republicans have long used judiciary nominations as ground zero to galvanize the base, and their machine is a well-funded one. They, too, are spending big to target Manchin, Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Jones.

Judicial Crisis Network is up now with a $1.4 million ad buy on national cable and digital in Alabama, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia, and the group’s chief counsel, Carrie Severino, tells ABC News, “We’re prepared to spend whatever it takes.” Asked if that could be as high as $10 million, the group’s budget for the Gorsuch nomination, Severino said, “Absolutely.

The Republican National Committee has also prepared its own massive plan ahead of Kavanaugh's confirmation primarily focusing on states that President Trump won in 2016 where there is a Democratic Senator up for re-election, according to the plan obtained by ABC News.

The effort includes a war room-like operation with "SCOTUS specific phone and door scripts" and digital ad buys with targeted social media posts.

“We have the largest field program we’ve ever had, and we’re using it to take Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation fight directly to voters. If Senate Democrats want to obstruct this immensely qualified judge to appeal to their base, we’ll make sure their constituents hold them accountable this November," RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.

Manchin, for his part, said no amount of pressure will affect him, and he will not be swayed by any decision by his GOP counterparts. “I get no pressure. Zilch,” Manchin said. “I’ve been here eight years. And Susan and Lisa are my friends, but I don’t work that way. They do their thing. I do mine.”

The senator said he plans to hold town hall meetings in his home state to gauge public opinion, along with a thorough reading of research on the nominee and an eventual one-on-one sit-down with Kavanaugh.

But Manchin did note that health care is a top concern. He said he wants to know if the nominee will protect insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, noting that some 88,000 of his constituents would be affected if that protection went away.

Likewise, Heitkamp said the pressure campaign would fail on her.

“I think anyone who thinks that pressuring Lisa or Susan will work doesn’t know those two women very well,” the senator said, noting that she would make her own decision based on her research and meeting the nominee.

Time, however, is something that the Democratic coalition could have on its side.

Both Collins and Murkowski are known for meticulously researching a nominee, and both have said this time will be no different. And though Sen. Collins indicated this week that she finds the judge well-qualified, an aide to the moderate senator said she was not stating a position either way on the nominee. No tea leaves to read there, though everyone has been trying.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jul122018

Gowdy and FBI agent Strzok in angry exchange over anti-Trump texts

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who sent anti-Trump texts, engaged in an angry exchange with Rep. Trey Gowdy Thursday as House Republicans grilled Strzok as he testified for the first time in public at a joint hearing before the House Judiciary and Oversight committees.

The exchange began when Gowdy said he "didn't give a damn" as Strzok tried to explain the "context" around the texts including one that said "we will stop it" referring to then-candidate Donald Trump.

"I don't appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations in 2016," Gowdy said.

"What I can tell you is that text in no way suggested that I or the FBI would take any action to influence the candidacy of candidate Trump," an angry Strzok replied.

In his opening remarks, Strzok told lawmakers that his texts "have created confusion and caused pain for people I love" and "have provided ammunition for misguided attacks against the FBI, an institution I love deeply and have served proudly for more than 20 years."

As he concluded his opening remarks, he took a shot at Republicans who have harshly criticized him, saying they were helping Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity,” Strzok said.

“I have the utmost respect for Congress’s oversight role, but I strongly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” he said.

The committees are looking at the actions of the FBI and Justice Department during the 2016 presidential campaign.

President Donald Trump and his supporters have cited Strzok's texts with his former FBI colleague Lisa Page, with whom Strzok was having an extramarital affair, as evidence of political bias within the FBI during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Strzok's appearance comes as House Republicans have demanded testimony from Page after she did not comply with a subpoena to appear before the committee for a closed-door interview on Wednesday. Strzok, who led the Hillary Clinton email investigation, spoke to the committee behind closed doors last month for almost 11 hours.

Follow along for live updates.

3:15 p.m. – Dems erupt when GOP member discusses Strzok’s infidelity

In perhaps the most contentious moment of the hearing thus far, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, got personal with Strzok about his affair with Lisa Page – and Democrats cried foul.

“He's lying. He knows we know he's lying,” Gohmert said. “I’ve talked to FBI agents around the country. You've embarrassed them. You've embarrassed yourself. And I can't help but wonder when I see you looking there with a little smirk is how many times did you look so innocent into your wife's eye and lie to her about Lisa Page.”

The Department of Justice’s inspector general concluded in their June report that Strzok and Page had engaged in an extramarital affair.

A chorus of Democrats objected to Rep. Gohmert’s remark.

“Shame on you,” one shouted. “What is wrong with you?” another added. “This is intolerable,” and finally “You need your medication.”

As for Strzok, all he said was, "Sir, that is quite a set of statements."

"I have always told the truth," Strzok added, "The fact that you would accuse me otherwise, the fact that you would question whether that is the sort of look I would engage in with a family member who I have acknowledged hurting goes more to a discussion about your character and what you stand for."

2:45 p.m. – Tempers flare as Dem suggests Strzok deserves a Purple Heart

As Republicans continue battering the former FBI agent, at least one Democrat is suggesting Strzok’s performance in front of the committee warrants commendation.

“If I could give you a Purple Heart, I would,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said. “You deserve one. This is an attack on you and Mr. Mueller of the investigation that's to get Russia of collusion and fall on our election.”

Moments later, after an exchange regarding the so-called Steele dossier, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, expressed his frustration when Strzok declined to answer.

“This is unbelievable,” Rep. Jordan said. “It’s as frustrating as it can get.”

“Sir, it is as frustrating to me as it is to you,” Strzok responded, grinning, adding that he wanted to answer the question but could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

2:15 p.m. – GOP's Issa asks Strzok to read texts aloud, Strzok cites Trump NATO comments as the rationale for 2016 text

After an hour-long intermission for House votes, members trickled back into the chamber to resume questioning.

Only about a dozen of the 76-member panel have had a chance to question Strzok, thus far.

In the first questioning after returning from the break, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Strzok to read aloud from a selection of his anti-Trump texts handed over to the committee.

Strzok obliged, delivering the texts in a monotone voice, adding that “these texts represent personal beliefs” and again imploring the committee to read the texts within the context of what Trump was saying at the time.

“When I make the comment about Trump having no idea how destabilizing his presidency would be,” Strzok said, “that came on the heels of a speech where then-candidate Trump said he didn’t know whether the United States should honor its commitment to mutual defense under NATO.”

1:00 p.m. – Hearing continues with contentious questioning falling along party lines

As Thursday's joint hearing grinds on into the afternoon, the content of questioning diverges sharply along party lines, with Republicans berating Strzok over his text messages and Democrats lamenting GOP colleagues’ accusations of FBI bias against President Trump.

Questioning from both sides, however, remains contentious.

During his allotted time, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, accused Strzok of “hating” President Trump, asking: “Are you starting to understand why some folks out there don't believe a word you say?”

Before Strzok finished responding, Ratcliffe stood up and left the committee room.

At one point, a frustrated GOP Rep. Goodlatte pressed Strzok to release additional text messages from his personal device. Strzok said he would not.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, took a moment out of her questioning to show the committee a recently-released mugshot of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort as evidence that the investigation into Russian meddling is not, she said, unfounded.

11:20 a.m. – Strzok slams Trump, Dems applaud

Strzok gave an impassioned defense of himself and of the FBI.

It began by Strzok saying he didn't appreciate how Rep. Trey Gowdy has twisted his words, especially about two text messages: the one saying "we will stop it" about Trump, and one saying Hillary Clinton should win 100 million to zero.

Gowdy responded: "I don't give a damn what you appreciate, agent Strzok. I don't appreciate having an FBI agent with an unprecedented level of animus working on two major investigations in 2016."

Then, in a dramatic monologue applauded by Democrats, Strzok asked the panel to “understand the context in which” his texts were sent, citing what he called Trump’s “horrible” treatment of a Gold Star father on the campaign trail.

“In terms of the texts that ‘we will stop it’” – referring to a text Strzok sent Page during the campaign – “you need to understand that that was written late at night, off the cuff, and it was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero, and my presumption based on that horrible, disgusting behavior that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be President of the United States.”

Strzok said it was "my sense that the American population wouldn't vote him into office." "I don't recall writing that text ... what I can tell you is that text in no way suggested that I or the FBI would take any action to influence the candidacy of candidate Trump."

Rep. Trey Gowdy, who had said he didn't care about Strzok's explanations of "context" responded: "That is a fantastic answer to a question nobody asked.

Strzok reiterated his insistence that, despite the sentiment expressed in his texts, the FBI’s investigation was not politically motivated and his views had no impact on the probe.

“I take great offense and I take great disagreement to your assertion” that “the FBI would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate.”

“Furthermore, this isn't just me sitting here telling you – you don't have to take my word for it,” Strzok said. “At every step – at every investigative decision – there were multiple layers of people above me: the assistant director, the deputy assistant director, deputy director, and director of the FBI – and multiple layers of people below me: section chiefs, supervisors, unit chiefs, case agents, and analysts. All of whom were involved in all of these decisions. They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them."

Strzok made an impassioned plea for lawmakers to understand that the FBI carries no bias.

“That is who we are as the FBI and the suggestion that I in some dark chamber somewhere would somehow cast aside all of these procedures all of these safeguards and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me,” Strzok said. “It simply couldn't happen.”

Strzok’s comments garnered raucous applause from Democrats on the panel and some supporters in the room.

11:00 a.m. – Committee chairman threatens to hold Strzok in contempt of Congress


Within minutes of the start of questioning, a highly contentious exchange between Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Strzok ended with Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., saying that the panel will consider whether to find Strzok in contempt of Congress.

Strzok, asked by Rep. Gowdy how many people he interviewed as part of the FBI’s Russia probe, refused to answer, citing FBI counsel advising him not to comment an ongoing investigation. After a back and forth, Rep. Goodlatte warned Strzok that he had two choices: answer the question, or refuse to answer and be "at risk of a contempt citation and potential criminal liability.”

Rep. Nadler, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the panel, then read from U.S. Attorney's manual and cited FBI policy telling DOJ personnel not to answer questions about ongoing investigations. "The question being directed at the witness is out of order," Nadler insisted.

After an even more animated back and forth involving Goodlatte, Gowdy, Strzok, and a chorus of Democrats, Goodlatte insisted that Strzok answer Gowdy's question.

After convening briefly with his attorney, Strzok maintained that he could not answer the question, to which Goodlatte asserted, “at the conclusion of the day we will be recessing the hearing and you will be subject to recall, to allow the committee to consider proceeding with a contempt citation.”

10:55 a.m. – Strzok: Today’s hearing a ‘victory notch in Putin’s belt’

In his opening statement to the committee, Peter Strzok conceded that text messages he sent during the campaign contained characterizations of Donald Trump that were “not always expressed in terms I am proud of,” but stood by the FBI’s work in conducting its investigation into Russian meddling.

“This investigation is not politically motivated. It is not a witch hunt, it is not a hoax,” Strzok said. “I’m proud of our work on the Russian interference investigation.”

Strzok, who says he was one of only a handful of people aware of Russia’s alleged actions in 2016, warned that the Russian operations during the election were "a grave attack on our democracy" that Americans "should be alarmed by.”

“I have the utmost respect for Congress’s oversight role,” Strzok said, “but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”

The FBI agent defended his investigative record and insisted his personal opinions did not influence his work at the FBI.

“Let me be clear, unequivocally and under oath: not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took,” Strzok said.

10:25 a.m. – Committee chairman tears into Strzok texts in opening statement

In his opening statement, Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., ripped both Strzok and others at the FBI, claiming they compromised the public's faith in the nation's top law enforcement agency.

“Mr. Strzok and others inside the FBI and DOJ turned our system of justice on its head,” Goodlatte said. “That is why we’re here and why this matters.”

Goodlatte encouraged Democrats on the joint panel to “replace President Trump’s name with your own name in a small sample of things Mr. Strzok has said,” before reading off a list of some of Strzok’s most controversial texts.

“’F Trump,’ ‘Trump is a disaster,’ ‘Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart. I could SMELL the Trump support’ – or, perhaps most alarmingly and revealingly, ‘We’ll stop it’ – referring directly to Mr. Trump’s candidacy for President,” Goodlatte said.

The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., shot back at Goodlatte, arguing that the committee should be spending its time focused on what he says are “other emergencies” the nation faces.

"We ought to be holding hearings" on families separated at U.S. border, Nadler said. "It's of more immediate concern than this hearing, certainly."

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