Senate Republicans expected to once again defeat voting rights reform bill

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(WASHINGTON) — Senate Republicans are expected to defeat — for the second time this year — a Democratic measure aimed at enacting sweeping federal election law changes, a move that is certain to increase pressure on the majority to change the chamber’s filibuster rule.

“This bill is a compromise, but a good one. It’s a bill that every Senate Democrat is united behind enthusiastically,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who worked to get moderate Democrat Joe Manchin behind the proposal known as the Freedom to Vote Act. The legislation is a product of Democrats’ concerns about the wave of stricter new voting laws in red states following the false claims by former President Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen.

Manchin, D-W.Va., refused to endorse a more comprehensive reform effort by his caucus in June, saying it lacked bipartisan input and encroached too far on state’s rights to run elections. But after months of trying to corral GOP support, Manchin has found none.

The vote on Wednesday is to start debate on the measure, a move that would require 10 Republicans to vote with all Democrats. But no Republican is expected to support the revised bill.

“There are areas where we could perhaps work together, but the legislation that’s been crafted (by Democrats) is not what I’ll support,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a consensus-minded Republican whom Manchin approached. “Federalizing election law is something which I think is not a good idea.”

Sen. Angus King, D-Maine, a lead sponsor of the legislation and member of that working group, pleaded with colleagues to support the bill, saying U.S. democracy is “fragile” and at stake in the wake of Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election despite no widespread fraud found in multiple, nonpartisan investigations.

“The problem with this goes well beyond the wave of voter suppression legislation sweeping the country; the deeper problem is the massive and unprecedented erosion of trust in the electoral system itself, the beating heart of our democracy,” said King. “Of all the depredations of Donald Trump, this is by far the worst. In relentlessly pursuing his narrow self-interest, he has grievously wounded democracy itself. And by the way, I mean ‘narrow self-interest’ quite literally; he doesn’t give the slightest damn about any of us — any of you — and will cast any or all of us aside whenever it suits his needs of the moment.”

But Republicans for months have said they see the efforts to counter red state laws as nothing more than “a partisan power grab.”

“The only thing this proposal would have done for the people…would be to help make sure that the outcome of virtually every future election meant that Democrats win and Republicans lose. Thus, Republicans would be relegated to a permanent minority status. That was the goal,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, charged in a Tuesday floor speech. “If this bill weren’t so dangerous, it would have been laughable.”

King told reporters on a conference call that the only option after the vote fails Wednesday is to alter the Senate’s filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation but also imposes no requirement on the 41 senators who are in opposition other than his or her stated opposition to legislation that is up for a vote.

“I’ve been very, very reluctant on (changing the filibuster), but on the other hand, it strikes me that this is a very special case, because it goes to the very fundamentals of how our democracy works,” King told reporters, adding that the debate among Democrats “can’t go on forever, because as you know redistricting has already started in states…It’s got to happen, I would say, in this calendar year.”

King said Democrats are looking at a number of possible changes, from requiring those supporting a filibuster to appear on the floor and hold the chamber with speeches — the so-called “talking filibuster” — to modifying the rules to end filibusters on motions to start debate — which is what will happen Wednesday — to ending the filibuster altogether.

Changing the filibuster would require all Democrats to be united, but that is not the case currently. Manchin and his fellow moderate, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have steadfastly refused to change the chamber’s rules citing a fear of permanently damaging the institution.

Outside groups pushed back Tuesday and called on Biden to do more.

“The president must get in the game. Say into a microphone, ‘You’ve got to get rid of the filibuster,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays of the progressive group Indivisible.

“The filibuster is paralyzing the Senate. It’s preventing it from doing the very basics, such as debating bills,” said Adam Jentleson, a one-time deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and founder of the Battle Born Collective, a progressive interest group.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred Tuesday when asked about support for the filibuster.

“It’s a discussion that we would have with leaders and members in Congress,” said Psaki, who added that the White House was focused on the Wednesday vote. “Republicans still have an opportunity to do the right thing to protect people’s fundamental right to vote.”

The Democrats’ new bill still encompasses sweeping election law changes, including voter ID requirements, expanded early voting, making Election Day a national holiday, banning partisan gerrymandering, and implementing election security and campaign finance measures.

Among the provisions dropped or changed since June is the automatic mailing of ballots. Under the new measure, any voter may request a mail-in ballot but they are not sent out automatically. The legislation will continue to allow voter roll purges but requires changes to be “done on the basis of reliable and objective evidence” and prohibits the use of returned mail sent by third parties to remove voters.

The bill would also no longer implement public financing of presidential and congressional elections. Still, there are a number of election security provisions, including mandatory, nationwide use of machines that deliver paper ballots.

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Jan. 6 committee recommends holding Bannon in contempt

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(WASHINGTON) — The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on Tuesday moved to punish Trump adviser Steve Bannon, recommending the full House hold him in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with a subpoena for records and testimony.

The nine-member panel voted unanimously Tuesday evening to send a report recommending contempt charges to the full House. If approved by the full chamber as soon as this week, the matter would then be referred to the Justice Department to decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

“Our goal is simple: we want Mr. Bannon to answer our questions,” Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in the meeting. “We want him to turn over whatever records he possesses that are relevant to the select committee’s investigation. The issue in front of us today is our ability to do our job.”

The Justice Department has declined to comment on how it might act on a criminal referral for Bannon or others who may be held in contempt.

After President Joe Biden said recently that the Justice Department should prosecute Bannon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki attempted to distance the White House from that action, telling reporters on Monday that Biden “believes it’s an independent decision that should be made by the Department of Justice.”

The matter could take months, if not years, to litigate, and could result in a fine of up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison.

Robert Costello, Bannon’s attorney, told committee members that his client would not cooperate with the probe given Trump’s executive privilege concerns, or without a court order to do so.

“Though the Select Committee welcomes good-faith engagement with witnesses seeking to cooperate with our investigation, we will not allow any witness to defy a lawful subpoena or attempt to run out the clock, and we will swiftly consider advancing a criminal contempt of Congress referral,” Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a statement earlier this month.

Thompson said Bannon “stands alone in his complete defiance” of the committee.

“We have reached out to dozens of witnesses. We are taking in thousands of pages of records. We are conducting interviews on a steady basis,” he said.

The committee’s report argues that the committee’s efforts to seek information from Bannon are justified because he “had specific knowledge about the events planned for January 6th before they occurred.”

“Mr. Bannon was a private citizen during the relevant time period and the testimony and documents the Select Committee is demanding do not concern discussion of official government matters with the President and his immediate advisors,” the panel wrote in the report, in response to Trump’s claims of privilege.

Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee, said that Bannon and Trump’s claims of privilege “suggest that President Trump was personally involved in the planning and execution of January 6th.”

She also warned Republicans that Trump’s continued lies about widespread election fraud are “a prescription for national self-destruction.”

“You know that there is no evidence of widespread election fraud sufficient to overturn the election; you know that the Dominion voting machines were not corrupted by a foreign power. You know those claims are false. Yet President Trump repeats them almost daily,” she said.

“The American people must know what happened. They must know the truth. All of us who are elected officials must do our duty to prevent the dismantling of the rule of law, and to ensure nothing like that dark day in January ever happens again,” Cheney said.

Several other former Trump aides and associates, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Kashyap Patel, who served as a senior Pentagon official, continue to negotiate with the committee over cooperation after receiving subpoenas.

It’s not clear if Dan Scavino, one of Trump’s longest-serving aides, will cooperate with the panel’s investigation.

On Monday, the former president announced he was suing the committee, as well as the National Archives, to block lawmakers from receiving Trump White House records.

The Biden administration had refuted Trump’s of claim executive privilege, saying that the invocation “is not in the best interests of the United States,” White House counsel Dana Remus wrote in a letter to the National Archives.

As a result, the National Archives notified Trump’s attorney last week that it planned to turn over dozens of records to the committee on Nov. 12, “absent any intervening court order.”

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White House defends Rahm Emanuel’s ambassadorial nomination against liberal backlash

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(WASHINGTON) — Amid a fresh wave of criticism from liberal activists and lawmakers, the White House on Tuesday defended President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Rahm Emanuel for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The former congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama has faced questions over how, as mayor of Chicago, he handled the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.

Emanuel faces his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, which is also the seventh anniversary of McDonald’s killing — prompting renewed outcry this week.

He’s one of dozens of Biden ambassadorial nominees still stuck in the confirmation process. Biden has seen a single-digit handful of his ambassadorial nominees confirmed by the Senate, leaving key vacancies in foreign capitals and at the highest ranks of the State Department that some analysts warn pose a national security threat.

Republican senators, especially Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have put holds on dozens of nominees over Biden’s refusal to sanction the German company behind Russia’s pipeline, Nord Stream 2. But the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., secured confirmation for 33 nominees on Tuesday, sending them to the Senate floor for a final vote.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back against new calls for Biden to withdraw Emanuel’s nomination on Tuesday.

“The president nominated Rahm Emanuel to serve as ambassador to Japan because he’s somebody who has a record of public service, both in Congress, serving as a public official in the White House, and certainly also as the mayor of Chicago, and he felt he was somebody who could best represent the United States in Japan,” she told reporters.

No Democratic senators have spoken out against Emanuel’s nomination. Instead, powerful Democratic senators like Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip and a fellow Illinois Democrat, have backed him. Durbin tweeted back in August that Emanuel “has a lifetime of public service preparing him to speak for America. … I will do all I can to help Rahm become America’s voice in Japan.”

Some House Democrats, however, have urged the White House to reverse course, although they do not vote to confirm nominees.

“This nomination is deeply shameful. … That the Biden administration seeks to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship is an embarrassment and betrayal of the values we seek to uphold both within our nation and around the world. I urge the Senate to vote NO on his confirmation,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement last month.

This week, Kina Collins, a Democrat running for Congress in Emanuel’s home state of Illinois, has been leading advocacy against him.

“We can’t say Black Lives Matter and plan to build back better by appointing the man who covered up a police murder to a cushy job as an ambassador — a job the man is completely unqualified to hold,” tweeted the community organizer and activist, running again against Democratic lawmaker Danny Davis, who has held the Chicago district’s seat for over two decades.

At issue is the accusation that Emanuel, a longtime Democratic power player, helped cover up the 2014 killing of McDonald, a black teenager shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white policer officer.

Chicago police had said McDonald ignored warnings and approached the officers, but video, released 13 months later by a judge’s order, showed McDonald veering away from Van Dyke before the officer shot him.

The city reached a settlement with McDonald’s family, and in October 2018, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

Emanuel had said the city could not release the video because of a Justice Department investigation, said he did not see the video until shortly before its release, and has denied any wrongdoing. The video was released in Nov. 2015, seven months after Emanuel won reelection as mayor.

Asked whether Biden and Emanuel have spoken, including about the McDonald case, Psaki told reporters, “I don’t have any record of him speaking with him necessarily through the process. … Obviously, he’s somebody who he was familiar with. He knew his record of long standing prior to the nomination. And the president has made his own comments about that case, which I would point everyone to.”

Emanuel, a former ABC News contributor, was reportedly under consideration for a Cabinet secretary position during the transition last winter, but ultimately, he was not nominated for a role. The White House announced his nomination for ambassador to Japan on Aug. 20 after months of speculation.

To date, only nine Biden ambassador picks have been confirmed by the Senate, with dozens of others held up by Cruz, Hawley, and others over foreign policy disagreements with the White House, especially on Nord Stream 2.

“There have been unprecedented delays, obstruction, holds on qualified individuals from Republicans in the Senate,” Psaki said Monday. “The blame is clear. It is frustrating. It is something that we wish would move forward more quickly.”

After months of battle, however, there was a breakthrough Tuesday, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting to send 33 nominations to the Senate floor for a vote.

“As the United States faces an unprecedented confluence of challenges on the world stage, our security, interests, and ability to advance our values and assert global leadership should not be imperiled by the obstructionism of those infatuated with playing politics with our entire national security infrastructure,” Menendez said Tuesday.

Among those approved by the committee are Cindy McCain, John McCain’s widow, for U.S. envoy to the United Nations agencies in Rome; former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken Trump critic, as ambassador to Turkey; famed pilot Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger as U.S. envoy to the International Civil Aviation Organization; and former Delaware Democratic Gov. Jack Markell as U.S. envoy to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

ABC News’s Sarah Donaldson contributed to this report from the White House.

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Jan. 6 committee expected to recommend holding Bannon in contempt

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(WASHINGTON) —  The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is expected to recommend holding longtime Trump adviser Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the panel’s investigation.

Committee members will vote Tuesday evening on whether to send a report recommending contempt charges to the full House. If approved by the full chamber on Thursday, the matter would then be referred to the Justice Department to decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

After President Joe Biden said recently that the Justice Department should prosecute Bannon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki attempted to distance the White House from that action, telling reporters on Monday that Biden “believes it’s an independent decision that should be made by the Department of Justice.”

The matter could take months, if not years, to litigate, and could result in a fine of up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison.

“Though the Select Committee welcomes good-faith engagement with witnesses seeking to cooperate with our investigation, we will not allow any witness to defy a lawful subpoena or attempt to run out the clock, and we will swiftly consider advancing a criminal contempt of Congress referral,” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a statement earlier this month.

The statement came after Robert Costello, Bannon’s attorney, told committee members that his client would not cooperate with the probe given Trump’s executive privilege concerns, or without a court order to do so.

The committee’s report argues that the committee’s efforts to seek information from Bannon are justified because he “had specific knowledge about the events planned for January 6th before they occurred.”

“Mr. Bannon was a private citizen during the relevant time period and the testimony and documents the Select Committee is demanding do not concern discussion of official government matters with the President and his immediate advisors,” the panel wrote in the report, in response to Trump’s claims of privilege.

Several other former Trump aides and associates, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Kashyap Patel, who served as a senior Pentagon official, continue to negotiate with the committee over cooperation after receiving subpoenas.

It’s not clear if Dan Scavino, one of Trump’s longest-serving aides, will cooperate with the panel’s investigation.

Earlier Tuesday, the former president announced he was suing the committee, as well as the National Archives, to block lawmakers from receiving Trump White House records.

The Biden administration had refuted Trump’s of claim executive privilege, saying that the invocation “is not in the best interests of the United States,” White House counsel Dana Remus wrote in a letter to the National Archives.

As a result, the National Archives notified Trump’s attorney last week that it planned to turn over dozens of records to the committee on Nov. 12, “absent any intervening court order.”

 

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Biden admin backs down on tracking bank accounts with over $600 annual transactions

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(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration on Tuesday backed down on a controversial proposal to direct the IRS to collect additional data on every bank account that sees more than $600 in annual transactions, after widespread criticism from Republican lawmakers and banking industry representatives, who said the tax enforcement strategy represented a breach of privacy by the federal government.

Instead, the administration and Senate Democrats are proposing to raise the threshold to accounts with more than $10,000 in annual transactions, and any income received through a paycheck from which federal taxes are automatically deducted will not be subject to the reporting. Recipients of federal benefits like unemployment and Social Security would also be exempt.

The IRS would collect the total sum of deposits and withdrawals from bank accounts with more than $10,000 in non-payroll income. Information on individual transactions would not be collected.

The changes were announced Tuesday by the Treasury Department.

“In response to considerations about scope, it [Congress] has crafted a new approach to include an exemption for wage and salary earners and federal program beneficiaries. Under this revised approach, such earners can be completely carved out of the reporting structure. This is a well-reasoned modification: for American workers and retirees, the IRS already has information on wage and salary income and the federal benefits they receive,” a Treasury Department fact sheet on the changes said.

The changes would exempt millions of Americans from the reporting requirement, and help the IRS target wealthier Americans, especially those who earn money from investments, real estate, and other transactions that are more difficult for the IRS to track.

“Under the current system, American workers pay virtually all their tax bills while many top earners avoid paying billions in the taxes they owe by exploiting the system. At the core of the problem is a discrepancy in the ways types of income are reported to the IRS: opaque income sources frequently avoid scrutiny while wages and federal benefits are typically subject to nearly full compliance. This two-tiered tax system is unfair and deprives the country of resources to fund core priorities,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

“Today’s new proposal reflects the Administration’s strong belief that we should zero in on those at the top of the income scale who don’t pay the taxes they owe, while protecting American workers by setting the bank account threshold at $10,000 and providing an exemption for wage earners like teachers and firefighters,” Yellen said.

The fact sheet says, “Imagine a taxpayer who reports $10,000 of income; but has $10 million of flows in and out of their bank account. Having this summary information will help flag for the IRS when high-income people under-report their income (and under-pay their tax obligations). This will help the IRS target its enforcement activities on those who are actually evading their tax obligations—decreasing costly and burdensome audits for the vast majority of taxpayers who pay what they owe.”

The proposal is a long way from being enacted. It’s currently included in a multi-trillion dollar social spending package lawmakers and the White House have been negotiating for months. If that package is passed into law, this requirement wouldn’t begin until December 2022.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden D-Ore., who spearheaded the effort to revise the proposal, dispute Republican claims that the goal is to snoop on Americans’ financial transactions.

“The bottom line is, wealthy tax cheats are ripping off the American people to the tune of billions and billions of dollars per year. Tax cheats thrive when the reporting rules that apply to them are loose and murky. Democrats want to fix this broken approach and crack down on the cheating at the top,” Wyden said in a press conference on the announcement Tuesday.

Wyden made clear that even Americans who might make a large purchase over $10,000 wouldn’t be subject to the additional reporting.

“If you don’t have $10,000 above your paycheck, Social Security income, or the like coming in or going out, there’s no additional reporting. We’ve also addressed the scenario where an individual spends a significant amount of savings for a major purchase. There will be no additional reporting in this scenario, as long as the amount of money coming into the account does not exceed wages +$10,000,” Wyden said.

The administration did not specify if the changes will impact the additional tax revenue they might be able to collect through enforcement. The administration has estimated improved tax enforcement could net up to $600 billion in additional tax revenue over the next decade.

The initial proposal, which would have affected nearly every non-dormant bank account in the U.S., raised the ire of Republican lawmakers, who called it a breach of privacy and an example of government overreach. Even with the revisions to the proposal, Republicans in the Senate remained critical.

“So how long is it gonna take for them to say, ‘Well you know we need a little bit more information because we really can’t make much of this.’ Then they’re going to want individual transactions and who knows what,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, cited President Biden’s commitment not to raise taxes on any American making less than $400,000, suggesting that threshold ought to be applied to IRS reporting.

“Why don’t they just put a ban in there that bans the IRS from snooping in the accounts of people who make less than $400,000? That’s the question I think that should be asked with the sponsors of this approach,” Crapo said.

Crapo was hard-pressed to give an example of an alternative way to close the tax gap other than to say mention “closing loopholes.”

Banking industry representatives remain skeptical of any additional reporting requirement, saying it will create a burden, especially for smaller community banks.

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Trump sues to block release of Jan. 6 records to Congress

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(WASHINGTON) — Former President Donald Trump filed a lawsuit Monday against the Jan. 6 select committee and the National Archives as he seeks to block the release of presidential records related to his communications around the insurrection.

In the lawsuit, Trump’s attorney Jesse Binnall argues the committee “has decided to harass President Trump … by sending an illegal, unfounded, and overbroad records request to the Archivist of the United States.”

Binnall also accuses President Joe Biden of engaging in “a political ploy to accommodate his partisan allies” by refusing to block the release of Trump’s records to the Jan. 6 committee.

“The Committee’s request amounts to nothing less than a vexatious, illegal fishing expedition openly endorsed by Biden and designed to unconstitutionally investigate President Trump and his administration. Our laws do not permit such an impulsive, egregious action against a former President and his close advisors,” Binnall writes.

The lawsuit asks that the district court “invalidate the Committee’s requests” and enjoin the National Archives from turning over the records.

“At a bare minimum, the Court should enjoin the Archivist from producing any potentially privileged records until President Trump is able to conduct a full privilege review of all of the requested materials.”

The lawsuit could set up a contentious fight with potentially significant ramifications for both the work of the Jan. 6 committee investigating the Capitol assault and the ability for other former presidents to assert executive privilege over records from their administrations.

Earlier this month, Biden ordered the National Archives to release records identified by the select committee that Trump had sought to classify as privileged communications. In a letter to Archivist David Ferriero, White House counsel Dana Remus said the materials should be handed over within 30 days of notification to Trump, “absent any intervening court order.”

“President Biden has determined that an assertion of executive privilege is not in the best interests of the United States, and therefore is not justified as to any of the documents,” Remus wrote. “These are unique and extraordinary circumstances. Congress is examining an assault on our Constitution and democratic institutions provoked and fanned by those sworn to protect them, and the conduct under investigation extends far beyond typical deliberations concerning the proper discharge of the President’s constitutional responsibilities.”

While the Supreme Court following the Nixon administration previously ruled that former presidents should have some role in deciding whether their presidential records should be released, that precedent has so far not been tested when a current administration opts to deny the former president’s privilege assertions.

“The former President’s clear objective is to stop the Select Committee from getting to the facts about January 6th and his lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to delay and obstruct our probe. Precedent and law are on our side. Executive privilege is not absolute and President Biden has so far declined to invoke that privilege,” Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement Monday night. “Additionally, there’s a long history of the White House accommodating congressional investigative requests when the public interest outweighs other concerns. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling public interest than trying to get answers about an attack on our democracy and an attempt to overturn the results of an election.”

“The Select Committee’s authority to seek these records is clear. We’ll fight the former President’s attempt to obstruct our investigation while we continue to push ahead successfully with our probe on a number of other fronts,” Cheney and Thompson added.

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Out of the Shadows: Christopher Steele defiant on dossier, says Trump still ‘potential’ threat

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(NEW YORK) — Retired British spy Christopher Steele is stepping out of the shadows to discuss his so-called “Steele dossier” for the first time publicly, describing his efforts as apolitical and defending his decision to include the most explosive and criticized claims about Donald Trump contained in his controversial 2016 report.

“I stand by the work we did, the sources that we had, and the professionalism which we applied to it,” Steele said in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos about how he gathered his intelligence, and the life-altering events that ensued after his work and identity were made public.

The dossier’s contents, laid out in 17 memos, upended Washington and quickly ricocheted across the globe after BuzzFeed News published the bombshell reports in early 2017 — 10 days before Donald Trump was sworn into office. The salacious mix of sex, spies, and scandal made for an irresistible political drama. But the real-world implications of its claims, even though unproven, exacerbated an already fraught moment in American history.

Trump and his allies immediately lashed out at the allegations laid out in the dossier, calling it “fake news” and “phony stuff.” The president’s detractors embraced it, using it to buttress growing suspicions about what they saw as Trump’s odd infatuation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Over time, journalists and experts from both sides of the political aisle grew increasingly skeptical about the dossier’s claims, noting that despite deep investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and others, many of Steele’s allegations have never been verified, and some have been debunked.

“Everyone with whom the dossier was shared sent reporters out, tried to confirm the basic allegations within it. And it never got any traction because no one could nail anything in it down,” said Barry Meier, author of “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies,” and a vocal critic of Steele’s.

“Bearing in mind, this was raw intelligence,” said Chris Burrows, Steele’s partner in the private investigative firm Orbis Business Intelligence. “Raw intelligence in the sense that what we sent over was the initial findings.”

Yet in many ways, the dossier proved prescient. The Mueller probe found that Russia had been making efforts to meddle in the 2016 campaign, and that Trump campaign members and surrogates had promoted and retweeted Russian-produced political content alleging voter fraud and criminal activity on the part of Hillary Clinton. Investigators determined there had been “numerous links — i.e. contacts — between Trump campaign officials and individuals having ties to the Russian government.” And, proof emerged that the Trump Organization had been discussing a real estate deal in Moscow during the campaign.

All were findings that had been signaled, at least broadly, in Steele’s work.

Cloistered in his London home and his firm’s office, Steele has never responded to his critics in public. Through all the cacophony of political rhetoric and cable news punditry, one notable voice has been missing: Steele’s.

Now, nearly five years after his report became public, Steele has broken his silence to defend his name, his credibility, and the dossier that captured the world’s attention.

“It was credible reporting,” Steele told Stephanopoulos. “We knew some of it was right, and we suspected some of it may never be provable.”

“Out of the Shadows: The Man Behind the Steele Dossier” is available Monday, October 18, on Hulu.

A sordid conspiracy

Christopher Steele penned his reports between June and December of 2016 for a law firm that represented Democrats and the campaign of party nominee Hillary Clinton. His reporting was initially meant to be internal work for the firm conducting opposition campaign research.

Over seven months, the memos laid out a series of damning claims alleging that the Russians were attempting to influence the campaign in Trump’s favor, that members of the Trump campaign had various connections and communications with Kremlin officials, that the campaign had coordinated with Kremlin officials and accepted a flow of anti-Clinton information, and, most alarmingly, that the Kremlin perhaps had materials with which it could blackmail or exercise leverage over Trump.

Steele said that as he worked on the report, he grew increasingly alarmed by the picture it was painting.

“It meant that, for the first time, there was a potentially serious situation of ‘kompromat’ against a presidential candidate. And therefore, it became much more of serious issue than we had expected,” Steele recalled. “I was surprised and shocked.”

Even before the dossier surfaced publicly on Jan. 10, 2017, the FBI and several news outlets had already seen Steele’s intelligence reports and had attempted to corroborate their contents, but could not. Within days of its publication, some allegations fell apart quickly. Reports that Trump’s personal attorney and self-described fixer Michael Cohen had relatives who maintained ties to Putin were swiftly debunked.

Trump’s allies mounted a full-fledged campaign to pick the dossier apart — and malign its author. Trump himself repeatedly lashed out at Steele and the report. At one point, then-President Trump tweeted of Steele: “This man should be extradited, tried, and thrown into jail. A sick lier [sic] who was paid by Crooked Hillary & the DNC!”

Asked if he was ever worried about Trump’s calls for his extradition, Steele at first laughed: “He also called me a liar, spelled L-I-E-R, George. So, you know, these things have to be taken, I think, with a pinch of salt.”

But Steele said that the ensuing investigations, legal fights, and withering attacks — including Trump’s claims that his reporting was a “hoax” — did take a toll.

“The idea that somebody with my track record — and I’ve never had my integrity, professionalism, or expertise on Russia questioned at any point in my career — would be inventing some strange, fabricated document or information, is absolute anathema, and I wouldn’t be a successful businessman if that were the practice,” Steele said.

The dossier did deal a series of blows to Steele’s credibility in both media and government investigations, most notably a December 2019 Justice Department inspector general report that cast doubts on his sources.

The inspector general wrote that “certain allegations” in Steele’s reporting “were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”

“Do you accept that conclusion?” Stephanopoulos asked Steele.

“I think they are putting too much store, frankly, into what FBI knew about early on in the campaign,” Steele said. “I think the FBI is generally an effective organization. I’m not sure the extent to which FBI has got good coverage of Moscow and Moscow politics and Moscow operations.”

Through it all, Steele said, he has remained confident in the broad strokes of his dossier, which he insists remain “still very credible.”

“I think there are parts of the dossier which have been stood up, there are parts of the dossier that haven’t been stood up,” Steele said. “And there are one or two things in it which have been proven wrong.”

Drafting the dossier

Steele’s firm agreed to take on the project at the behest of Fusion GPS, a Washington-based corporate research firm, in the spring of 2016. Fusion GPS’s initial client had been a Republican financier, but when Trump emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign agreed to inherit Fusion GPS’s research.

Steele said he knew within the first month of his reporting that “supporters of Hillary Clinton” were funding Fusion GPS’s work, and by extension his own.

“I didn’t know what opposition research was,” Steele said. “But from our perspective, what we were doing was very similar to other project work we’d done, which is getting human intelligence out of Russia on an issue of interest to a client.”

Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee the assignment for Steele was relatively simple — Donald Trump had made repeated trips to Russia during his career as a real estate mogul, but not sealed any deals.

“He was the lead Russianist at MI6 prior to leaving the government and an extremely well-regarded investigator, researcher, and, as I say, we’re friends and share interest in Russian kleptocracy and organized crime issues,” Simpson testified regarding Steele. “I would say that’s broadly why I asked him to see what he could find out about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia.”

Steele told ABC News that the mission expanded almost immediately into two main threads: “One was what the Russians were doing in terms of potential interference in the campaign; and two, what the links were between Trump and the Trump campaign and Russia,” Steele said.

“We realized it was potentially quite a big project and potentially quite a controversial project,” he added. “But frankly, George, when we went into it, we weren’t expecting to find a great deal.”

Steele soon became convinced he had wandered into something more involved, and more concerning.

The four pillars

In defending his work, Steele describes his intelligence reports as resting on “four pillars” of information that he believes have held up over time as accurate.

“One was, there was a large-scale Russian interference campaign in the American election in 2016,” he said.

“The second was that this had been authorized and ordered at the highest levels, including Putin,” he said.

“The third had been that the objective of this was to damage Hillary Clinton and to try and get this rather unorthodox candidate, Donald Trump, elected,” Steele said. “And the fourth was, there was evidence of collusion between Trump and people around Trump and the Russians.”

Part of the challenge — and the intrigue — of Steele’s reporting is that much of it is virtually impossible for lay people to verify. When the Department of Justice’s inspector general examined the dossier’s claims, he concluded that what Steele described as “raw intelligence” amounted to little more than rumor and bar talk.

Very little corroborating evidence has emerged to support the dossier. But neither, Steele points out, has there been much concrete contradictory evidence either.

His critics have taken issue with that particular line of defense.

“The common refrain when people were speaking about the dossier is, ‘Well, we don’t know if that’s not true,'” Meier said. “People who are intelligence operatives anchor their reports to rumors, to hearsay, to bar talk, to smoke. That’s the world that Christopher Steele operated in. And I guess that’s the world he continues to operate in. I prefer the world of facts. That’s the world I’m comfortable in.”

It isn’t just Steele’s critics who have accused him of trafficking in rumors. His own collector — the person who actually traveled to Russia on his behalf to gather information, including the “pee tape” allegation — later told the FBI that he “felt that the tenor of Steele’s reports was far more ‘conclusive’ than was justified,” and that “information came from ‘word of mouth and hearsay’ … ‘conversation that [he/she] had with friends over beers,'” according to a Justice Department inspector general report.

Steele suggested his collector may have “taken fright” at having his cover blown and “[tried] to downplay and underestimate” his own reporting when he spoke to the FBI. Steele added that the information he gathered passed through an important filter: his experience as an expert on Russian intelligence activities going back decades. He said his confidence in the dossier’s claims about Russia’s interest in Trump is based on his knowledge of Putin — a figure whom he has studied for decades.

“This is the M.O. of the KGB and its successor organizations,” Steele said, referring to Russia’s intelligence services.

Skeptics of Steele’s reporting, however, suggest he may have fallen victim to another trademark of Russian spy craft: disinformation. Speaking to congressional investigators in October 2019, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official in the Trump administration and a longtime friend of Steele’s, called Steele’s dossier a “rabbit hole.”

“It’s very likely that the Russians planted disinformation in and among other information that may have been truthful, because that’s exactly, again, the way that they operate,” Hill said.

Steele acknowledged that “there is a chance” the Russians intentionally tainted his reporting, but said he felt it was “very unlikely.”

“Ultimately, any disinformation operation has an objective,” Steele said. “Seems to me pretty far-fetched that the Russians’ objective during the campaign of 2016 was to aide Hillary Clinton and to damage Donald Trump. And I just don’t think you can get past that.”

The ‘pee tape’

One allegation from Steele’s dossier stood out immediately: a claim that the Russians had obtained a compromising video of Trump at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow in 2013. According to the dossier, the tape purportedly showed Trump “employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him” on a bed where the Obamas supposedly once stayed.

The supposed “pee tape” never emerged. But the claim may be the public’s most enduring symbol of Steele’s work — particularly after it became a favorite of late-night comics.

Steele told ABC News he believes the alleged tape “probably does” exist — but that he “wouldn’t put 100% certainty on it.”

When Stephanopoulos asked him to explain why the tape, if it does exist, has not been made public, Steele replied that “it hasn’t needed to be released.”

“Because I think the Russians felt they’d got pretty good value out of Donald Trump when he was president of the U.S.,” Steele said.

“[Putin] wouldn’t be releasing it in a hurry for all sorts of reasons,” he continued. “He would put it under very strict lock and key and make sure it never got out, unless he chose for it to get out.”

For his part, Trump has repeatedly and firmly denied this specific allegation. At a press conference the day after BuzzFeed published Steele’s dossier, Trump told reporters that he was “a germaphobe.” As recently as last week, Trump reportedly told donors at a private speech that he is “not into golden showers.”

Pressed by Stephanopoulos on how he can assess the likelihood of a seemingly outlandish allegation without concrete evidence, Steele cited his lengthy career as a British intelligence officer focused on Russia.

“When you’ve worked on Russia for 30 years like I have and you’ve spent as much time, sadly, in the brains of the Russian leadership as I have, you begin to understand these things,” Steele said. “And you actually sense whether something’s credible or not.”

Still defiant

Steele’s dossier took its first major hit with the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s highly anticipated report, which largely omitted mention of Steele’s name or his claims. The most significant mention of Steele was not positive.

The report cast doubt on one of the dossier’s most striking claims: that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, had traveled to Prague in the summer of 2016 for “secret meeting/s with Kremlin officials.”

Cohen has vehemently denied ever traveling to Prague or meeting with Russian interlocutors. The Justice Department inspector general reinforced Mueller’s findings, saying the FBI had determined that this specific allegation was untrue.

To this day, Steele says he remains unmoved.

“Do you accept that finding, that it didn’t happen?” asked Stephanopoulos.

“No,” Steele replied. “I don’t.”

“But the FBI looked into this and said it wasn’t true,” Stephanopoulos said.

“I don’t know to what extent they were able to look into it. I don’t know what evidence they gathered,” Steele said. “I haven’t seen any, if you like, report on that aspect. So, from my point of view, I think it’s still an open question.”

Reached for comment, Cohen sarcastically told ABC News, “I’m pleased to see that my old friend Christopher Steele, a/k/a Austin Powers, has crawled out of the pub long enough to make up a few more stories.”

“I eagerly await his next secret dossier which proves the existence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and that Elvis is still alive,” Cohen said.

Stephanopoulos pressed Steele: “Do you think it hurts your credibility at all that you won’t accept the findings of the FBI in this particular case?”

“I’m prepared to accept that not everything in the dossier is 100% accurate,” Steele replied. “I have yet to be convinced that that is one of them.”

Dismissing claims that subsequent government reports undermined his findings, Steele argued that, in his view, Mueller’s team actually served to reinforce the broad strokes of his dossier — those “four pillars” he described.

“Those four pillars that we mentioned … when you actually look at the detail, if you’re forensic about looking at the detail of the report, then it paints a totally different picture, in my view,” Steele said. “And I think there’s a lot of supportive commentary and evidence and so on, there, for the work we had done.”

But further investigative efforts undertaken at various levels of government have appeared to confirm the notion that Steele’s reporting was at best flawed and at worst incorrect.

A bipartisan report published by the Senate Intelligence Committee in April 2020 found that Steele’s assertions about Trump campaign aide Carter Page — which accused him of conducting “secret meetings in Moscow” with Kremlin leaders — were incorrect. Page himself would later testify before Congress that he spoke briefly with a mid-level Russian official during a visit for a Moscow speech, but that the conversation was short and inconsequential.

“Other than … facts which were readily available in news reports at the time of their inclusion in the dossier — the Committee did not find any information that corroborates the allegations related to Page in the dossier,” the report concluded.

Stephanopoulos asked Steele about the FBI decision to rely in part on his work in seeking and obtaining court approval to eavesdrop on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“Any regrets about that?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“It had nothing to do with us,” Steele replied. “I didn’t even know what FISA was, frankly, in 2016. We were not told of any use of our material in such a process. And therefore, if there were problems with that process, they weren’t our problems, they were the problems of the people conducting it.”

A potential threat

Steele conceded in the ABC News interview that he could not provide evidence for many of his claims, including those about Page. But pressed by Stephanopoulos on some of the findings that have come up against the harshest criticism, Steele remained defiant.

“Not the ‘pee tape,’ not Michael Cohen in Prague, not Carter Page?” asked Stephanopoulos.

“None of those things, to my mind, have been disproven,” Steele replied. “They may not have been proven. And we maybe will hear more about those things as we go forward.”

Steele said he is watching American politics from a distance these days. He said he has concerns about a potential Trump return to the presidency in 2024.

“So, Donald Trump, in your view, is a continuing threat, as long as he’s an active political player, to the national security?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“A potential one,” Steele replied. “Yes.”

And as long as Trump remains active in politics, Steele contends that more evidence to support the dossier’s claims may still surface.

“I don’t think this book is finished,” Steele said. “By a long shot.”

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DOJ pledges independence after Biden calls for prosecutions of those who defy Jan. 6 committee subpoenas

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(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department on Friday evening issued a statement reiterating its commitment to remain independent soon after President Joe Biden told reporters he hoped that witnesses who defy subpoenas from Congress’ select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot would face federal prosecution.

“The Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop,” DOJ spokesperson Anthony Coley said.

The statement came after comments from Biden following his arrival back at the White House Friday when he was asked what his message is for those who defy subpoenas from the Jan. 6 select committee.

“I hope that the committee goes after them and holds them accountable,” Biden said after returning from a trip to Connecticut.

When asked whether he thinks those individuals should be prosecuted by the Justice Department, Biden answered, “I do, yes.”

Biden’s comments came just a day after the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced it would meet next Tuesday to consider criminal contempt proceedings against Steve Bannon, a former Trump aide who has refused to comply with a subpoena seeking testimony and any communications he may have had with with the former president in the days around the storming of the Capitol.

As both a candidate and while in office, Biden has repeatedly pledged to put up a wall between the White House and the Justice Department on criminal matters that critics had argued had completely deteriorated during his predecessor’s years – where Trump repeatedly called for the prosecutions of his political enemies and pressured officials to take actions they later said they resisted.

“Though the Select Committee welcomes good-faith engagement with witnesses seeking to cooperate with our investigation, we will not allow any witness to defy a lawful subpoena or attempt to run out the clock, and we will swiftly consider advancing a criminal contempt of Congress referral,” the committee said in a statement.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has similarly stated his desire to reinstate the department’s independence from political matters.

Prior to their statement Friday seemingly pushing back against Biden’s comments, the Justice Department has repeatedly declined to comment to ABC News on how it might act if and when the U.S. House votes for a criminal contempt referral stemming from a Jan. 6 committee witness declining to cooperate.

ABC News’ Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

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‘My body is not their property,’ a Texas woman’s journey across state lines for an abortion

ABC

(NEW YORK) — At 21 years old, Texas college student Madi said she was not ready to be a mother.

She was about 10 weeks along when she found out she was pregnant and decided she wanted to have an abortion.

But due to the new Texas law that effectively bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, Madi’s personal choice turned into an arduous journey, traveling hundreds of miles and crossing state lines for the procedure.

“I’m drowning,” said Madi, who asked to only be identified by her first name. “That’s the best word to describe it, drowning.”

On Sept. 1, the most restrictive abortion law in the country went into effect. Senate Bill 8 bans abortions once cardiac activity is detected and before some women know they are pregnant. Nearly a month later, Madi traveled more than 400 miles to the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi.

She says her story reveals the lengths some women face to have a choice.

“I am a senior in college. I just turned 21 and I would say I’m a pretty typical college kid,” Madi told ABC News. “I am 13 weeks pregnant right now and I’m not in a place to have a baby.”

Madi said she was in a committed relationship and on birth control so her pregnancy was unexpected. She didn’t experience any early pregnancy signs until the nine-week mark, which at the time seemed like the typical stress of being a senior and starting a new semester.

“I had been not sleeping and not eating and nauseous for a few weeks,” said Madi. “So I took one test and it came out a clear plus sign from the beginning. And I was devastated.”

Up until that point, she had been living her life normally, she said.

“I was still living my life as regular and as carefree of a college kid as I could be,” said Madi.

After several positive pregnancy tests, Madi booked an appointment at a Planned Parenthood in Texas.

She said the clinician told her she was measuring 10-and-a-half weeks into her pregnancy — past the mark at which she could still receive the procedure in Texas.

“I just cried. I was heartbroken and terrified,” said Madi. “I immediately knew that any chance I had of being able to have this procedure done in Texas was gone.”

She immediately knew that she wanted to exercise her federal right to choose, despite the new Texas law.

“There aren’t any laws on the books in any state regulating men’s bodies. It’s sexist, it’s unequal and it’s wrong,” said Madi. “My body is not their property.

Madi said she began to research nearby clinics across state lines. She said she called more than 30 clinics, looking for the earliest open appointment.

“I started researching with the materials that Planned Parenthood gave me and looked into Louisiana and Louisiana’s booked out three weeks,” said Madi. “I called Alabama, and Kansas, and Oklahoma, and Vegas, and Georgia.”

The earliest appointment Madi could find in Mississippi was more than 400 miles away.

Jackson Women’s Health is Mississippi’s last abortion clinic and the center of a potentially historic Supreme Court case that could possibly overturn Roe V. Wade.

Clinic director Shannon Brewer has been working at Jackson Women’s Health for two decades. She said the new Texas law isn’t deterring people from getting an abortion, only pushing them to travel out of state for the procedure.

“We’ve been even busier, because now we’re seeing even a lot more patients from Texas,” said Brewer. “We’ve almost doubled our capacity. Our phones are ringing non-stop because of this.”

Madi said it was with the help of her parents that she was able to get the procedure. Her mother, who asked not to reveal her name, said she wasn’t angry at Madi for her situation.

“I’m angry with Governor Abbott,” said Madi’s mother. “I’m angry that men have decided this is what’s best for women.”

Madi and her family had to make two separate trips to Mississippi in order to secure her appointment. Madi said she was grateful for the support through such an emotionally difficult time.

“There were so many emotions going on at once that it was a blur. The anxiety was still there. The frustration was still there. And I think honestly just the fear of the unknown,” said Madi.

“I had to keep in mind that I was doing this for me. This is my future on the line. It’s my body on the line. And it’s a lot to take in,” she added.

ABC News followed Madi on the day of the procedure.

Madi said the staff at Jackson Women’s Health helped put her mind at ease.

Her nurse walked Madi through what would happen during the procedure.

Prior to starting, she explained that Madi would first receive medication and then be asked to wait an hour-and-a-half to let her body prepare for the procedure. While she waited, she said her decision did not waiver.

“It’s my body and it’s my choice,” said Madi at the time. “I don’t think it’s right for people to try and convince others when it’s not their life that’s about to change.”

Madi said she wanted to publicly share her deeply intimate moment to break the stigma around a taboo topic.

“No one talks about this process,” said Madi. “I’m glad that I’m able to kind of shine a light and give people a little bit of that sense of control back that I feel like I’ve been lacking in this process.”

She said that the patient before her helped let her know that she wasn’t alone.

“Waiting for my turn to go into the room was so heavy because you’re sitting there knowing that there’s a girl in there before you,” said Madi. “Watching her come out and seeing that thumbs up from her, that she was doing OK after it, that put a little bit of ease on my nerves.”

During the procedure, Madi said she appreciated that she was able to ask questions and that the clinicians talked her through each step. After the procedure was over, Madi fell into her mother’s arms crying.

“We got in the car, got buckled, and we started making our way to the airport. Got on the flight and I finally slept,” said Madi.

By the time she got home, she learned of a stunning legal development.

On the same day as her procedure, a federal court blocked Texas’ Senate Bill 8 — the law that had forced Madi to go to Mississippi for her procedure in the first place.

But 48 hours later, a federal appeals court allowed the ban to resume while the U.S. Department of Justice appealed the decision.

“To think that this could all, like, be overturned again and it goes back into place …. really scares me,” said Madi when she heard the news.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday to reject the Justice Department’s decision and let the Texas statue remain in effect amid the ongoing legal challenge. But, following that decision, the Department of Justice announced it plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling to temporarily block the restrictive abortion law.

As the decision likely moves toward the U.S. Supreme Court, the Texas law has become a rallying cry for anti-abortion rights advocates.

Anti-abortion activist Heather Gardner is the executive director of the Central Texas Coalition for Life. Gardner said she has spent a decade training “sidewalk advocates” to pray outside abortion facilities across the country.

Gardner said she acknowledges that some Texans will find ways around the law.

“We’re very well aware that women will go to other states to have abortions,” said Gardner. “We want women to not have to feel so desperate they have to do that.”

Yet Lila Rose, the president of Live Action, said that Senate Bill 8 is still a historic win for the anti-abortion movement.

“It is the most, most legal protection in effect right now across the country for human lives,” said Rose. “I think that Texas law should be an inspiration to other states because they found an enforcement mechanism that allows the lifesaving law to remain in effect.”

Rose added she hopes the Texas law reframes the narrative around abortion.

“Our societal approach to pregnancy and motherhood and seeing that pre-born child as a threat or a risk or an enemy as opposed to a precious member of the human family,” said Rose. “This is exactly what we should be focusing on, as opposed to promoting the death and destruction of children in the womb.”

While the country remains focused on Texas, Brewer said she will continue to fight to keep the doors of her clinic open in Mississippi.

“I just feel good that they’re able to come here. It’s like, as tired as we are sometimes … every day that I get to wake up and [help women], I’m OK,” said Brewer.

While she recovers from her procedure, Madi said she’s sharing her story because she recognizes many women won’t have same emotional and financial support that she had through the process.

“There were so many unneeded obstacles that I managed to get over but many women won’t,” said Madi. “I feel like this entire process of everything has happened for a reason. Everything happens in life for a reason and it’s my chance to speak on it.”

Madi said her story is meant to empower other women in her situation to fight back.

“My biggest thing is making sure that other women know that they’re not alone. If Texas is gonna make this difficult, make it difficult for Texas,” she said. “Don’t go silently and if they need inspiration, I hope I can be that for them.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

First lady Jill Biden stumps in New Jersey, Virginia to help elect Democratic governors

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(EDISON, N.J.) — First lady Jill Biden hit the campaign trail Friday, hoping to help deliver victories for Democrats in two gubernatorial elections.

Biden stumped in New Jersey for Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday afternoon and is traveling to Virginia Friday evening to help elect Terry McAuliffe.

“I came here to ask the people of New Jersey to reelect Phil Murphy as your next governor. You know, he’s used this office to lead New Jersey through one of the darkest times in modern history,” Biden said in Edison, New Jersey, Friday afternoon. “Joe and I know Phil. We know that he’s going to fight for you and your family every single day.”

An incumbent Democratic governor hasn’t won reelection in New Jersey since the 1970s, but public polling indicates Murphy is better positioned heading into November than McAuliffe. Polls conducted in mid-September from Stockton University and Monmouth University showed Murphy with a nine-point and 13-point lead, respectively, over Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman.

While Virginians rejected former President Donald Trump at the ballot box twice and Democrats made significant gains in the commonwealth, including securing a trifecta government when he was in office, McAuliffe only has a slim 2.5-point lead over GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.

Despite the race tightening over the last few weeks, McAuliffe is confident Virginians will back his record and he’ll once again break the so-called “Virginia curse” of candidates losing Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial race if they have the same party affiliation as the current occupant of the White House.

“We’re gonna win this again and make history again with this,” McAuliffe told reporters Thursday. “I am the first candidate for office of either party in 80 years to win every single city and county (in the primary). … Why? I think a.) people were happy with my job as governor before and b.) because I have a real agenda.”

The first lady is not the only high-profile surrogate hitting the road for the two candidates — former President Barack Obama will also stump for both men next week.

Obama will hold back-to-back events in the states on Oct. 23, 10 days before Election Day and coinciding with the first day of in-person early voting in New Jersey’s history.

Georgia heavy-hitters Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who were both on the president’s shortlist for vice president, are also headed to Virginia on Sunday to campaign for McAuliffe.

After McAuliffe said during the last debate that he doesn’t “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” the Youngkin campaign rallied around education as his closing message. Having the first lady, an educator who began her career in 1976, join McAuliffe on the trail could serve as an opportunity to speak to the issue and reassure parents who may be wary of his stance.

Biden, who currently works as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, has made education one of the top priorities in her role as first lady.

The first lady is not the first Biden to campaign for McAuliffe in the state — President Joe Biden also made a campaign stop on behalf of his longtime friend in July — though recent polling has shown Biden’s approval ratings in the state fall, leading McAuliffe to distance himself from the president.

“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington, as you know. The president is unpopular today unfortunately here in Virginia, so we have got to plow through,” McAuliffe said during a virtual rally last week. He’s also said he’s frustrated that Congress still hasn’t passed the infrastructure package, saying the “inaction on Capitol Hill … is so damaging.”

Despite the comments, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that she expected the president would continue to advocate for McAuliffe’s candidacy.

“I think the president of course wants former Governor McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia. There is alignment on a lot of their agenda, whether it is the need to invest in rebuilding our roads, rails and bridges or making it easier for women to rejoin the workforce,” Psaki told reporters.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe and we believe in the agenda he’s representing,” she added

And McAuliffe has since made clear that Biden is still welcome in Virginia, telling reporters Tuesday, “He’ll be coming back. You bet he will.”

ABC News’ Meg Cunningham contributed to this report.

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