DHS looking for increased authority to investigate drug crimes

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(WASHINGTON) — It would only take a small change in legislation to allow more Homeland Security Investigations agents to investigate drug crimes without first getting the authority to do so from the Justice Department, a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told ABC News Thursday.

At the heart of the issue is law enforcement agencies’ Title 21 authority — which allows the federal government to investigate drug crimes. As it currently stands, Homeland Security Investigations has to ask the Justice Department first before investigating drug crimes.

Homeland Security Investigations is the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement arm.

Patrick J. Lechleitner, deputy director and senior official performing the duties of the director of ICE, which is Homeland Security Investigations’ parent agency, said the statue was written in the 1970s and doesn’t allow for law enforcement to tackle a 21st century problem.

“I just think it would benefit the American people just having the authority just to pivot and spin quickly because we are currently hamstrung because, you know, we’re delegated the authority,” he said in an interview. “So, by having the authority delegated to us fully delegated to us via legislation, literally we’re talking like a few words changed, right? That would reflect the current environment in 2024.”

He said that because of the delegated authority and the way the law is written, the agency now has only select agents work drug cases, and it can’t give the authority to their task force officers.

“We are limited in scope to who can do that,” he explained. “You would instantly add thousands and thousands of agents and officers to combat synthetic opioids and fentanyl and come and really add a lot more bearing to the fight. It’s just common sense.”

Lechleitner said the Homeland Security secretary should have the ability to delegate the authority to HSI without running into red tape.

“We’re trying to fight very nimble, agile adversaries with antiquated rules and regulations and it’s just not productive,” he said.

There is legislation proposed in both the House and Senate to give the authority to HSI, but it hasn’t gone anywhere since being introduced in September.

Louisiana GOP Rep. Clay Higgins’ office said in a press release that ” HSI agents are limited by a reliance on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to investigate Title 21 crimes.”

“Due to bureaucratic constraints, HSI lacks the independent statutory authority to enforce drug crimes and target these transnational criminal organizations,” Higgins, one of the sponsors of the bill, said in September 2023 “It’s absurd. This common-sense bill adds thousands of highly skilled federal law enforcement officers to lead the fight against drug trafficking at no cost to the American taxpayers. We must work to keep deadly drugs out of our communities and keep America’s borders safe.”

The DEA has not responded to an ABC News request for comment.

Last year, more than 112,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses, and Lechleitner said by giving the authority to HSI to investigate drug crimes, it could potentially save lives.

“We’re not looking to take anything away from anybody else, just add our resources to the fight. Allow us to take off the strap that puts our arm behind our back, allow us to be flexible enough to deal with these organizations in meaningful way with all of our partners, very closely aligned across the federal spectrum,” he said. “We have joint investigations and we deconflict all of it. We collaborate with everyone. And we’re just looking to try and do more so that we won’t have another 112,000 deaths.”

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DeSantis rules out being Trump’s VP, blames ex-aides with ‘ax to grind’ for attacks

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(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) — Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis this week quashed speculation about being Donald Trump’s vice president, blamed bitter ex-staffers for attacks he’s weathered from Trump’s allies, and criticized conservative media’s coverage of the the former president.

DeSantis made the remarks in a 30-minute Zoom call with supporters on Wednesday, audio of which was obtained by ABC News. (The New York Post was the first to report on the call).

“People were mentioning me [as his vice president]. I’m not doing that,” DeSantis said, when asked who he’d like to see Trump consider for the post.

“I know some people are really actively seeking it,” he continued. “It seems to me, just from watching kind of the body language and stuff, that you have a handful of folks who seem to be auditioning for it.”

As he campaigned for president, DeSantis, who suspended his run last month, ruled out being Trump’s running mate, but speculation arose on Tuesday after Trump, in a Fox News town hall, appeared to acknowledge the governor was among the people he was considering for the post.

After shooting down the idea, DeSantis criticized the way he believes Trump and his team are vetting vice presidential candidates, saying, “I have heard that they’re looking more in identity politics. I think that’s a mistake.”

A Trump spokeswoman, Karoline Leavitt, fired back in a statement, saying, “Ron DeSantis failed miserably in his presidential campaign and does not have a voice in selecting the next vice president of the United States.”

DeSantis endorsed Trump after dropping out but has not campaigned publicly for the former president.

Over 200 people joined Wednesday’s call, most of whom were people DeSantis’ campaign had recruited to be delegates at the Republican National Convention in July.

A woman who introduced the governor — who identified herself as a leader of DeSantis’ national delegate effort — said that the people on the call had been “willing to fight a floor battle for [DeSantis] in a brokered convention.”

At one point, DeSantis, who endured a barrage of attacks from Trump and his allies on the campaign trail, fielded a question about their attempts to “marginalize” the governor.

He downplayed the concern and attributed the blows to vengefulness of former allies who now work for Trump.

“I think he’s got people in his inner circle who were part of our orbit years ago that we fired. And I think some of that is they just have an ax to grind.”

The governor was likely referring to, among others, Susie Wiles, a top Trump aide who helped DeSantis reach the Florida governor’s mansion before being dismissed by the governor in 2019.

“She’s the main one,” a person close to the governor told ABC News.

Chris LaCivita, a Trump aide, reposted an X post about DeSantis’ comments, calling the governor a “sad little man.”

On Wednesday’s call, DeSantis expressed frustration with conservative media outlets he believes have failed to cover Trump critically enough during the primary.

“You know, he said at some point, he can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. Well, I think he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and the conservative media wouldn’t even report on it that it had happened. I mean, that’s kind of where we’re at,” he said.

As for his own political future, DeSantis did not rule out a 2028 presidential run, telling those on the call, “I think a lot happens in politics.”

ABC News previously reported that DeSantis has signaled privately he is open to running again in four years.

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Biden faces criticism from Johnson, progressives for weighing executive action on asylum

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Thursday faced criticism from Republicans and some progressive Democrats over reports that he is considering executive action to tighten asylum restrictions.

One potential course of action, an administration official told ABC News, would be to prohibit migrants from seeking asylum if they cross into the U.S. illegally between ports of entry. The official stressed, however, that they are far from deciding what steps, if any, to take.

The considerations come as Biden continues to face political headwinds on immigration in the 2024 campaign. House Republicans have pressured him for months to act unilaterally to curb migrant encounters at the southwest border, which reached a record high in December.

The White House previously brushed off suggestions he could do so, saying only legislation from Congress could effectively solve the problem. When asked about his executive authority last month, Biden told reporters: “I’ve done all I can do.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has led the charge in urging Biden to use executive authority while also killing a bipartisan immigration proposal out of the Senate, dismissed Biden’s potential change of course as “election year gimmicks.”

“Now, in an election year, after the president has surrendered the border to cartels and smugglers, after tens of thousands of Americans have tragically lost their lives due to fentanyl poisoning, after countless unaccompanied minors and young people have been subjected to human trafficking, and after millions of illegal aliens have been scattered by the Biden administration throughout our country — the president suddenly seems interested in trying to make a change using the legal authority that he claimed until recently didn’t exist,” Johnson said.

An administration official, asked about Biden’s previous comments that he was out of options when it came to the border, argued it would be irresponsible not to consider all possibilities after the immigration deal hit a dead end in Congress.

The bill (which tied border security and immigration reforms to aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan) included funding to bolster immigration review and hire additional border patrol agents; some changes to the asylum system; and new emergency powers for officials.

But Johnson, who called for foreign aid to be connected to immigration changes, poured cold water on the deal before its release and immediately after deemed it “dead on arrival” in the House. Former President Donald Trump, too, has encouraged Republicans to avoid passing a compromise bill and wait until after the 2024 election.

Biden slammed Republicans for tanking the deal and “caving” to Trump.

“Every day between now and November, the American people are gonna know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” he said earlier this month in remarks from the White House.

But polls show immigration is a weak spot for Biden: He has just an 18% approval rating on the issue, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll.

In taking a tougher stance on the issue, Biden has drawn fire from progressives within his own party.

“Doing Trump impressions isn’t how we beat Trump,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on X in response to reports he is weighing possible executive action. “Seeking asylum is a legal right of all people. In the face of authoritarian threat, we should not buckle on our principles – we should commit to them.”

Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said an executive action to tighten asylum restrictions “would be an extremely disappointing mistake.”

“Cruel enforcement-only policies have been tried for 30 years and simply do not work,” Jayapal wrote on X. “Democrats cannot continue to take pages out of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s playbook — we need to lead with dignity and humanity.”

Executive action restricting asylum could also result in legal battles. An attorney for the ACLU told the New York Times that, depending on the details, they could challenge the action.

Immigration activists have also pushed back on the idea.

“The Biden administration should ensure that any border security executive action protects due process for asylum seekers and provides resources for a fair, efficient and humane asylum system,”Kerri Talbot, the executive director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub, said in a statement.

“An asylum ban would be misguided and illegal. Americans want an orderly system at the border that protects access to asylum,” Talbot said.

ABC News’ Armando Garcia contributed to this report.

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Biden meets with widow, daughter of Alexei Navalny

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(SAN FRANCISCO) — President Joe Biden met with the widow of Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalnaya, and his daughter, Dasha, on Thursday during the president’s trip to California.

Navalny, the longtime Russian opposition politician and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died in prison last week at 47 years old. After her husband’s death, Yulia Navalnaya accused Putin of being involved in his death and has vowed to continue his work.

“The President expressed his admiration for Aleksey Navalny’s extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption and for a free and democratic Russia in which the rule of law applies equally to everyone,” the White House said in a statement. “The President emphasized that Aleksey’s legacy will carry on through people across Russia and around the world mourning his loss and fighting for freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

Images of the San Francisco meeting posted on the president’s X show him speaking with the two women and hugging Yulia Navalnaya.

The White House said it is set to announce “major new sanctions” against Russia on Friday in response to Navalny’s death as well as its “repression and aggression, and its brutal and illegal war in Ukraine.”

Earlier this week, White House national security spokesman John Kirby did not go into detail about what the new sanctions package would include.

Navalny’s cause of death has been listed as “natural” on his medical report, according to Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh, who was relayed the information on the death certificate by Navalny’s mother. His mother also said the Russian government is blackmailing her and trying to force her to have a secret funeral for her son.

Kirby hammered Russia on the reporting that they were making demands of Navalny’s mother in order for her to receive his body.

Kirby said he could not confirm that she was being “blackmailed,” but “nevertheless, this is the man’s mother. It’s not enough that she gets to see the body of her son. She should be able to collect the body of her son so that she can properly memorialize her son and her son’s bravery and courage and service and do all the things that any mother would want to do for a son lost in such a tragic way.”

“The Russians need to give her back to her son and they need to answer for … specifically what befell Mr. Navalny and … acknowledge that they in fact, are responsible for his demise,” Kirby said.

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Biden blasts Alabama Supreme Court’s ‘outrageous and unacceptable’ frozen embryo ruling

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Thursday blasted the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that said frozen embryos are considered children in the state, calling it “outrageous and unacceptable.”

“Today, in 2024 in America, women are being turned away from emergency rooms and forced to travel hundreds of miles for health care, while doctors fear prosecution for providing an abortion. And now, a court in Alabama put access to some fertility treatments at risk for families who are desperately trying to get pregnant. The disregard for women’s ability to make these decisions for themselves and their families is outrageous and unacceptable,” Biden wrote in the statement.

On Tuesday, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that “unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics.” The unprecedented decision could impact the future of in vitro fertilization treatments in the state — and several IVF providers have paused parts of their care to patients for fear of legal risks.

Biden said the court’s decisions is a “direct result of the overturning of Roe v. Wade” — the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Biden said he will work to restore Roe v. Wade — however, with a divided Congress it could be challenging.

“My message is: The Vice President and I are fighting for your rights. We’re fighting for the freedom of women, for families, and for doctors who care for these women. And we won’t stop until we restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law for all women in every state,” Biden wrote in the statement.

Biden’s campaign directly blamed former President Donald Trump for the Alabama court ruling, saying it was “only possible” because “Donald Trump’s Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade.” Trump appointed three conservative justices while he was president.

“Across the nation, MAGA Republicans are inserting themselves into the most personal decisions a family can make, from contraception to IVF. With their latest attack on reproductive freedom, these so-called pro-life Republicans are preventing loving couples from growing their families. If Donald Trump is elected, there is no question that he will impose his extreme anti-freedom agenda on the entire country,” Biden-Harris campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement.

Vice President Kamala Harris denounced the court’s decision in a post on X.

“This decision is outrageous — and it is already robbing women of the freedom to decide when and how to build a family,” Harris wrote.

Harris wrote that Biden would sign a bill reinstating the protections of Roe v. Wade if Democrats win majorities in Congress, although such legislation would need 60 votes in the Senate.

Trump has not yet weighed in on the Alabama court ruling or Biden’s comments. Congressional Republicans have been noticeably quiet on the topic, too.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s opponent in the Republican primary, said Wednesday that she agrees with the court’s ruling, telling NBC News that “embryos, to me, are babies.”

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Three things to watch at this year’s CPAC gathering of Republicans in DC

Former President Donald J. Trump speaks at the CPAC Conference in Washington, Mar. 4, 2023. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an erstwhile cross section of the GOP that has turned into a major staging ground for the party’s MAGA grassroots, is set to kick off in full force on Thursday.

The four-day conference, which formally started on Wednesday before big events begin Thursday, is expected to continue its relatively new legacy of vociferous support for former President Donald Trump and opposition toward his perceived enemies, both within and outside the Republican Party.

This year’s gathering is taking place in an election year when Trump looks set to coast to his third straight GOP nomination while promising “retribution” — and weighing who he might pick to join him on the Republican ticket this November.

All the while, the conference, much like the party, is delving into the nation’s culture wars.

Here are three things to watch at this year’s CPAC, which is set to attract notable names beyond Trump himself:

How much ‘retribution’ do Republicans want?

Trump vowed to Republicans at a rally in Waco, Texas, last year that he would be “your retribution” — a position he has since echoed and also sought to downplay.

But many of his supporters have sounded eager for him to make good on his promise, though it’s unclear how much revenge they’re looking for, either inside the GOP or in the federal government, if Trump is elected again.

Trump will speak to the crowd on Saturday, and the schedule is packed with his allies. Their remarks could help illuminate how much they and the base want to punish Democrats or government bureaucrats whom Trump has derided as the “deep state,” should Trump retake the White House later this year.

Already, the former president has expressed interest in firing swaths of the government’s career civil servants, falsely accusing them of broadly undermining his agenda while he was in office. He’s also floated going after President Joe Biden in retaliation for some of the criminal charges he faces, indictments that were brought by independent prosecutors but that he and his followers claim were politically motivated. He has pleaded not guilty.

CPAC in recent years has bragged about not inviting Sen. Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential nominee-turned-Trump critic, and speaker slots in recent years have been reserved for those allied with the former president.

Now, the conference is taking place after Trump dispatched with a slate of primary challengers, none of whom came particularly close to supplanting him atop the polls or as de facto GOP leader.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who suspended his own presidential campaign after running as a Trump cheerleader, is the only other former candidate taking the stage.

A spate of vice president auditions

With Trump cruising to victory in the initial nominating races in states like Iowa and Nevada, increased attention is being paid to who could join him on the 2024 GOP ticket — and many of the would-be contenders are slated to speak at CPAC in the next few days.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik (a member of her party’s House leadership) and Ohio Sen. JD Vance are among those speaking at CPAC who are thought to be in the vice-presidential conversation.

The conference marks one of the first cattle calls where multiple would-be running mates are in attendance, marking CPAC as an audition of sorts in front of the heart of Trump’s base.

CPAC is also including a vice presidential question on its straw poll for the first time in at least 10 years.

It’s not clear yet who will be featured in the non-scientific survey.

Picking battles in the culture war

Republicans in Washington are in the middle of a slew of policy debates, from Ukraine aid to government funding to the country’s spying powers. But if this year’s CPAC reflects the way the conference has gone in recent years, there will be an intense focus on culture war issues that reflect some of the base’s priorities.

Though there will certainly be discussions on foreign aid and abortion, among other things, the conference is also stocked with panels addressing the right’s grievance on issues like education and more, including talks on “Would Moses Go To Harvard?”, “Trump’s Wall Vs. Biden’s Gaps” and “Putting Our Heads in the Gas Stove,” referencing the often-cited and hyperbolic GOP complaint that Democrats are pushing families to use electric stoves.

CPAC this year chose Ramaswamy to headline its vaunted Ronald Reagan Dinner — which, if similar to the way Ramaswamy ran his presidential campaign, will focus on a potential wholesale revamp of the federal government and what he calls the disintegration of the family unit in America.

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Meghan McCain rejects Kari Lake’s appeal to ‘work together’ after disparaging her family

Former Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake announces her bid for the seat of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) at JetSet Magazine on Oct. 10, 2023 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain rejected Kari Lake’s offer on Wednesday to meet one-on-one after Lake claimed that disparaging comments she previously made about the late senator during her failed gubernatorial run in 2022 were “said in jest.”

Lake, a former TV reporter-turned-vocal ally of former President Donald Trump, who notably feuded with John McCain, said after winning the Republican nomination to be Arizona’s governor in 2022 that she “drove a stake through the heart of the McCain machine,” referring to the family’s roots in the state.

But now, as she campaigns to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate, Lake’s tone and strategy are shifting, a change she has suggested is in the interest of getting things done.

“I’d love nothing more than to buy you a beer, a coffee or lunch and pick your brain about how we can work together to strengthen our state,” she wrote Wednesday in a 225-word public post to Meghan McCain. “My team is sending you my contact info — if you’re willing to meet, it would mean a lot to me.”

Lake’s appeal comes after she told Arizona’s KTAR on Monday that her past comments about John McCain, such as her telling McCain supporters to “get the hell out” of an event in December 2021, were meant as a joke.

“I think that if John McCain, who had a great sense of humor, would have heard it, he would have laughed,” Lake told hosts Barry Markson and Bruce St. James.

She also said Republicans “need to get a little bit thicker skin because we’re going through some tough stuff right now and we need to be able to take a joke,” before the hosts asked her — in that spirit — to unblock them on X.

Meghan McCain, a former co-host of ABC’s The View, rejected Lake’s answer.

“Kari Lake is trying to walk back her continued attacks on my Dad (& family) and all of his loyal supporters after telling them to ‘get the hell out,'” McCain wrote in a social media post on Tuesday. “Guess she realized she can’t become a Senator without us.”

“We see you for who you are – and are repulsed by it,” she added.

Lake’s lengthy post, in turn, sought to appeal to Meghan McCain by noting they’re both mothers and both lost their fathers to cancer.

“Our movement to save Arizona & America is growing, and it’s Mama Bears like us who are leading the charge — ALL Moms want the same thing: to leave our children a better America than the one we had. It’s as simple as that,” she wrote.

“I want to make Senator McCain and Larry Lake proud,” she continued — before Meghan McCain bluntly dismissed her offer to meet.

“NO PEACE, B—-!” she wrote, in a post that was shared by Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison.

Later, Meghan McCain also posted: “I breathe fire for my family and never forgive those who have trashed any of us – particularly my Dad in death. Never.”

Markson, one of the KTAR hosts who interviewed Lake, questioned afterward why the likely Republican nominee for Senate “won’t just admit she was wrong and apologize.”

“Kari was a friend of the McCains, a close friend of the family, yet she had no problem attacking John McCain over and over, and she even attacked Cindy McCain in her recent book,” Markson wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Lake, in an interview in July 2022, accused John McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, of running a scheme to promote a “globalist” agenda.

“This is the Cindy McCain branch of the Republican Party. They’re not Republicans. … I think they want an end to America,” Lake said at the time.

Her new outreach to Meghan McCain appears to be part of a larger trend of her attempting to mend relationships with so-called “establishment Republicans” she torched during her unsuccessful gubernatorial run.

Asked Tuesday on KTAR if she’d won back over any of those Republicans, Lake said she’s having conversations “that would shock you.”

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Biden calls Putin a ‘crazy SOB,’ hits Trump for Navalny comparison

President Joe Biden announces the cancellation of an additional $1.2 billion in student loan debt for about 153,000 borrowers, at meeting with community at Culver City Julian Dixon Library in Culver City, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

(SAN FRANCISCO) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “crazy SOB,” while also taking a shot at former President Donald Trump for comparing his legal woes to the persecution of Alexei Navalny who died in a Russian jail this week.

“He’s comparing himself to Navalny and saying that he – because our country has become a communist country… [is being] persecuted just like Navalny [was] persecuted,” Biden said of Trump.

“Where the hell does this come from? If I stood here 10-15 years ago you all would have thought that I should be committed,” Biden continued, adding that Trump’s comment was “astounding.”

Biden was speaking at a big-dollar fundraiser in San Francisco on Wednesday as part of a three-day California fundraising swing that began in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

While speaking, Biden had choice words for Putin, though he said climate change is humanity’s biggest threat, according to reporters in the room.

“We have a crazy SOB, that guy Putin, others, and we always have to be worried about a nuclear conflict. But the existential threat to humanity is climate,” Biden told a gathering of about 20 deep-pocket donors.

Biden’s remarks at the fundraiser were heavily focused on climate change and the work his administration has done to fight it.

The White House on Tuesday said that the U.S. would announce a “major sanctions” package against Russia in response to Navalny’s death, which Biden has blamed on Putin.

“Whatever story the Russian government decides to tell the world, it’s clear that President Putin and his government are responsible for Mr. Navalny’s death,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

Trump on Monday wrote on his social media platform, in his first comments since the leading dissident’s death, “The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country.” He added that his political and legal opponents are “leading us down a path to destruction.”

The next day, Trump doubled down on the comparison in a televised town hall-style interview on Fox News. 

“It’s a form of Navalny,” Trump said in reference to his legal challenges.

In recent weeks, Biden has sharpened his attacks against rival Trump as his campaign pivots to November’s general election.

“You got to prevent this other guy from being president,” Biden said of Trump at the fundraiser. “He’s made it absolutely clear everything you’ve done, everything we’ve done, he’s against.”

While making a joke about his age, “I know I don’t look it. I’m only 40. Forgive me, lord,” Biden also questioned the “moral compass” of the “MAGA Republican crowd,” saying he’s seen nothing like it, though he’s “been around a long time.”

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Trump team insists RNC funds wouldn’t cover his legal bills, as party leadership change looms

Lara Trump, daughter-in-law to former President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump, speaks at a VFW Hall in Beaufort, S.C., Feb. 21, 2024. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — “Absolutely none” of the Republican National Committee’s funds will be used to pay former President Donald Trump’s multimillion-dollar stack of legal bills, a senior Trump campaign adviser insisted to ABC News as the former president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, says that “every penny” of the party’s funds should be prioritized toward his reelection.

“Every penny will go to making sure Donald Trump will be the 47th president, to ensuring that we have great candidates to expand our lead in the House and to take back the Senate,” Lara Trump, who was recently endorsed by the former president to head the RNC as co-chair, said to ABC News after her first surrogate event in South Carolina on Wednesday.

Later, at another event, Lara Trump told reporters that among her key roles as the RNC’s co-chair would be to “raise a ton of money,” saying, “We have to have a huge fundraising push.”

When pressed on whether any of RNC money would go toward covering Trump’s legal bills, she remained noncommittal: “I actually don’t know where they stand on that.”

Asked if she would support the RNC paying Donald Trump’s legal bills, Lara Trump said she believes “his legal bills have already been covered at this point” — citing a GoFundMe page set up by Trump supporters upset about his many court battles.

“They can see just how egregious and outrageous all of this is that he has to deal with,” she contended.

Donald Trump faces 91 criminal charges and has pleaded not guilty, along with other civil matters. He denies all wrongdoing.

Trump campaign officials say that instead of the RNC footing his legal bills, the candidate’s fundraising entities, including the leadership PAC Save America as well as Donald Trump himself, will continue to cover the costs.

Earlier this month, amid reporting that RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel discussed stepping down with the former president, he endorsed North Carolina GOP Chair Michael Whatley as the new chair of the national party and said he would support Lara Trump as the co-chair, with his senior campaign adviser Chris LaCivita as the chief operating officer — growing evidence of the Trump campaign pushing for the party’s national leadership to largely merge their operations ahead of the election.

Lara Trump on Wednesday praised McDaniel for her work as RNC chairwoman but said “it’s time for change” and that she believes McDaniel acknowledges that too. The RNC has said that its leadership will be resolved after the South Carolina presidential primary on Saturday.

“I think that fresh eyes are always good on a situation,” Lara Trump said. “I think Ronna has been there for a while and I think she probably herself feels like it’s time for a new chapter and time to pass on the torch.”

The former president’s various court battles have cost his various political fundraising committees more than $50 million in legal expenditures throughout last year and another $2.9 million just in January — amid growing questions about whether the Republican Party committee would begin to foot any of his bills again with donor money if the party unites its fundraising operation with his campaign.

Both the RNC and the Trump campaign have also been in something of a cash crunch as they ramp up for the 2024 general election, while President Joe Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee’s joint fundraising operation — because Biden is not facing the same kind of contested primary as Trump — boasts a $130 million war chest entering February.

A former RNC member who spoke with ABC News anonymously in order to share their candid thoughts on a potential merge between the RNC and Trump campaign operation said they thought that rather than any significant shift in spending from a reorganized national party, the focus of new leadership would be on bolstering fundraising efforts.

When asked what they thought about Lara Trump’s comments that “every penny” should go toward her father-in-law, this former member said that, historically, most of the budget has already gone toward the presidential race and that the party would likely be unable “to get away” from their assistance to certain House and Senate races.

“I would say 75% of the [budget] is for the presidential,” the former member said. “I would say that the other part of the role of the RNC is to be in direct support of the parties that have targeted races in their states … I don’t see how the RNC is going to get away from that.”

Earlier this week, LaCivita, with fellow senior Trump campaign adviser Susie Wiles, wrote in a memo that the campaign and the RNC should join forces so they can begin coordinating “convention planning, fundraising, strategy, and state party tactics” with two other Republican campaign groups in preparation for the general election.

Several state party chairs from battleground states, who asked not to be named because of their roles, along with GOP congressional strategists who spoke with ABC News agreed that they were not concerned about an overhauled RNC’s disinvestment in their states or in key races.

Some of the most competitive House and Senate races are in California, Michigan and New York, where the RNC already has a robust ground game operation.

Lara Trump said on Wednesday that her priorities to revamp the RNC would include bolstering its organizing on the ground, increasing voter registration efforts and “legal ballot harvesting all across the country.”

Questions around the RNC’s potential new leadership and its spending stem from the party committee’s history of footing Donald Trump and his allies’ legal bills throughout multiple courtroom issues over the years.

During his presidency, the RNC covered hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills on behalf of Donald Trump Jr. and other close allies of the former president; and between 2021 and 2022, the RNC spent nearly $2 million in bills for Donald Trump related to investigations in New York.

That spending was approved by a vote of the RNC’s Executive Committee, per a party resolution adopted in 2009.

That same resolution would require that any significant contributions to Donald Trump’s future legal bills be considered beyond just the top rungs of RNC leadership.

Legal contributions to the former president have long been a divisive subject among some Republican supporters — with some major longtime donors even halting their contributions to the RNC.

Trump primary rival Nikki Haley has attacked the push to have Lara Trump become party co-chair, saying on ABC’s This Week that “We don’t anoint kings in America. … He’s trying to control the RNC.”

During the 2022 midterms, ABC News reported that some leaders of the RNC attempted to use legal bills as a leverage to delay Donald Trump’s announcement of his third presidential bid as they worried he could hurt their election chances if he announced too soon.

Both he and McDaniel denied the story at the time, but he eventually launched his third presidential bid after the 2022 midterms.

The RNC continued to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills related to Donald Trump up until his announcement of 2024 candidacy, including nearly $200,000 paid to attorneys representing him in criminal cases in New York.

The RNC could not be reached by ABC News for comment on their contributions to Trump’s past legal bills.

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Nikki Haley says Trump’s jab at her husband, serving overseas, ‘cuts deep’ because of other military families

ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is addressing former President Donald Trump’s mocking jabs at her husband, Maj. Michael Haley, who is serving a one-year deployment overseas in the South Carolina National Guard.

In a new interview with ABC News’ co-anchor Eva Pilgrim, Nikki Haley discussed the comments about her husband from the former president, suggesting they were offensive to military families across the country.

“It’s not personal for me and Michael; we can handle that,” Haley told Pilgrim on Wednesday. “It’s personal when you think of military families. They go through a lot. They don’t complain.”

Haley’s husband, who was deployed last year to Africa, was recently targeted by Trump, who seemingly implied during a campaign event in Conway, South Carolina, earlier this month that he is in Africa to get away.

“What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone. He knew. He knew,” Trump said then.

He later doubled down on singling out Haley’s husband, saying, “I think he should come back home to help save her dying campaign.”

“And so, for someone to mock or make light of that, it cuts deep no matter what because military families, military spouses and their kids go through so much during this deployment,” Nikki Haley told Pilgrim on Wednesday. “Don’t make light of that.”

In her interview, Haley also reflected on her 26-year marriage to her husband.

“I’ve never done anything without him, we met when I was 17 … he’s all I ever known,” Haley said. “He’s the last person I think about when I go to bed because safety is front of mind. But also, I’m just grateful for him and so many other men and women who believe our country is worth fighting for.”

Having now run a presidential campaign for a year, Haley said that it has not been easy on her family but they understand the “sacrifice.”

“Our kids know we’re a family of service. They’ve watched their dad get deployed before. They’ve watched me run for office before, and they know this is all about sacrifice and service,” she said. “And so, I’m incredibly proud of Michael [and] I’m incredibly proud of the kids and how they continue to just stay humble and true to themselves.”

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