Where Texas Could Actually Turn Blue in 2020

ALLEN, Texas — In a wealthy subdivision north of Dallas, with two-story brick houses tucked close together, Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach pauses beside his black pickup truck to scroll through a voter roll app on his phone.

Leach is a Republican, and just a couple of elections ago, he wouldn’t have had to campaign here at all. In 2016, he beat his Democratic challenger by nearly 17 percentage points. When he first ran for office in 2012, he didn’t even have an opponent.

But two years ago, Leach nearly lost his seat, and this year there is a good chance a Democrat could replace him. The app telling him which house to visit, used by Republican candidates across the country, says this is exactly the type of swing suburban neighborhood Leach needs to win if he’s going to stay in office.

“2018 was a wake-up call for Republicans,” he says.

Leach and his volunteer team are aiming to knock on more than 2,000 doors on this sunny, crisp Saturday in October, 30 days before Election Day. He skips the houses with Trump yard signs and any that the app tells him regularly vote Republican. He wants to reach more moderate voters.

The doors he knocks on are rarely answered; he leaves a door hanger and a handwritten Post-it note with his cell phone number. Finally, after about 30 minutes, someone answers. Leach introduces himself, and the man at the door asks: “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” When Leach replies that he is a Republican, the Allen resident slams the door shut saying, “I’m a Democrat.”

Leach’s district in Collin County — about a 30 minute drive from Dallas and stretching less than 15 miles top to bottom — is emblematic of a broader shift underway in Texas politics. Over the past decade or so, new residents from across Texas, California and other states, drawn by jobs, good schools and low housing costs, have transformed this largely rural, reliably Republican district into a suburban, unpredictable one. “It’s a diverse community. The representation has not kept up with that,” says Lorenzo Sanchez, Leach’s Democratic opponent this year.

Texas Democrats have talked about flipping the state for so long, and failed so many times, that it’s easy to be skeptical of their ambitions. But after years of disappointing losses in statewide races, they believe they have an achievable, if narrower, target this November: For the first time in nearly two decades, Democrats think they can win a majority in the Texas state House.

This is not a story about Texas as a whole turning blue on Nov. 3. The state’s Republican governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are not up for reelection this year. Republican Sen. John Cornyn maintains a lead, though a narrowing one, over his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar. The Texas congressional delegation will still be majority-Republican even if Democrats pick up a few seats. The state Senate will remain majority-Republican when the legislature convenes in January. President Donald Trump is also leading Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Texas, though by slim margins.

But in Texas, a blue state House would be a shocker all by itself. The “lege” is a creature of its own in American politics, a deep-red institution that only meets for 140 days on alternate years, and reliably gets caught up in national culture-war issues — stricter and stricter abortion rules, looser and looser gun limits, an anti-transgender rights bathroom bill in 2017 — that are less and less reflective of the state overall. And beyond the symbolic value, control of the state House would give Democrats a say in next year’s redistricting process, in turn laying the groundwork for future gains in Congress. And that looks ahead to an even bigger prize: The battle for the state House might end up being the first step in the Democratic Party’s long-term goal of flipping the nation’s third most populous state.

How close are they? Democrats picked up 12 state House seats in 2018, putting them just nine seats away from controlling the chamber. The state party is targeting 22 state House seats this year, about half of which are in Dallas and its surrounding areas. In nine of those 22 seats, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke outperformed Republican Ted Cruz in 2018 — a sign that there are likely left-leaning votes waiting to be won.

Texas Democrats have been betting for years that changing demographics would turn the tide and give them more seats. This year, they also hope to benefit from a rupture on the right. An ongoing spat between far-right Republicans and moderates has brought down Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, led to firebrand conservative Allen West being elected chair of the state Republican party and created a rift over state leaders’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s growing unpopularity in Texas, especially in places like Collin County, is even dragging down candidates like Cornyn who were once secure in their seats.

And Texas Democrats now have a lot of money — way more than they’ve had in years. The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee raised more than $3.6 million from July to September — more than double the $1.5 million it raised in the first six months of the year and more than the $1.3 million raised in all of 2018, according to campaign filings. The national party, after years of being accused of ignoring statehouse races, also is pouring cash into Texas. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is spending $1.1 million on digital ads on Texas state House races. Forward Majority, a national Democratic super PAC, said it will spend more than $12 million on Texas state House races this year, including on ads for Lorenzo Sanchez — up from $2.5 million last cycle.

“Winning the Texas state House this year is key for future power in America,” says Vicky Hausman, co-founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority. “Republicans have long understood that roots of power lie in the statehouse.”

At the same time, this year, Republicans like Jeff Leach will not be caught off guard.

Conservatism runs deep in Texas. It’s been 18 years since Democrats controlled the state House and 26 years since Texas has elected a Democrat to statewide office. Since George W. Bush became governor in 1998, the state has only moved farther to the right. Texas is one of only a dozen states that has yet to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and it is leading a lawsuit to overturn the federal health law.

With their control of the statehouse, Republican lawmakers have targeted abortion rights, passed one of the harshest immigration enforcement regimes in the country and held a special session to debate a bill that would require people to use the bathroom for the gender listed on their birth certificates. Republican legislators backed down from that bill only in the face of strong business opposition. The state’s GOP leadership hasn’t called a special session to convene during the pandemic, even as more than 17,000 Texans have died of Covid-19.

Faced with a growing minority population, state lawmakers also enacted strict voter ID laws and drew maps in Republicans’ favor during the 2011 redistricting process. Two years later, Texas lawmakers were forced to redraw those maps after federal judges found them to be unconstitutional because they discriminated against minorities. The Supreme Court upheld the current maps two years ago, and, as a result, for many years the only really competitive races in many Texas House districts were Republican primaries.

But Texas has added more than 4 million people in the past decade, with the state’s share of Hispanics and Asian Americans growing rapidly. Much of that growth has taken place in and around the state’s big cities — Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — making a historically rural state increasingly urban and suburban.

Texas’ new residents are not necessarily Democrats. In fact, they don’t necessarily vote at all. But they give Democrats new people to try to win over. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign, which generated massive enthusiasm and funds, showed Democrats the potential well of support across the state. More than 2 million Texans voted in this year’s Democratic primary, up from 1.4 million in 2016. And so far this year, more than 4.6 million Texans have already voted early in-person or by mail.

After he dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, O’Rourke started a political action committee, called Powered by People, to raise money and manpower for Texas Democratic candidates. O’Rourke, who takes part in the group’s phone banks, admits that calling voters isn’t as effective as knocking on doors, which the group had put on hold because of Covid-19. But when people do answer, he says he makes sure to talk up the local statehouse candidate.

“The most gratifying ones are people who say, ‘I didn’t pay attention to this race,’” he said in a recent interview. “A lot of voters in 2018 didn’t go all the way down the ballot.”

On a Saturday in early October, the same day Leach was door-knocking, his opponent, Sanchez, spent the morning at an office parking lot in Richardson, just outside his district, with other Dallas-area Democratic candidates. It was a pandemic version of a meet-and-greet: People drove by in their cars to pick up yard signs and chat with candidates through their rolled-down windows.

Sanchez isn’t happy that his campaign largely has been limited to Zoom events and phone banks. “It’s hard for me not to be out and about right now,” he says. He recently scrapped plans to start knocking on doors again in the final few weeks before the election.

This is the first time that Sanchez, a Mexican American real estate agent, has run for office. He is soft-spoken and earnest, not the prototype of a Texas politician. Still, he placed second in the March primary and eked out a win in the runoff, which was delayed until July because of the coronavirus. Sanchez, who is gay, says his parents spoke Spanish at home and that he didn’t learn English until he started attending public schools. He was 12 when his family moved from the Midwest to Plano, in the district he now hopes to represent. After attending college in Chicago and working briefly in Denver, he settled back in the district in 2018, when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He launched his campaign in July 2019.

“I don’t think I ever thought I would ever go and get involved in politics,” he admits. “I’m doing this for the people I care about who have been getting the short end of the stick for too long.”

Sanchez’s campaign looks bootstrapped. He posts selfie videos of himself chatting and driving. His nieces, one with epilepsy, make cameos in other videos. He jokes about his roommate, Liz, feeding him. Yet while Leach maintains an overall fundraising lead of about $200,000, Sanchez raised $693,000 between July 5 and Sept. 24, surpassing the $532,000 Leach raised in about the same period.

That’s a major change from 2018, when Democratic candidates were far outspent by their Republican rivals. Two years ago, Brandy Chambers lost to Republican incumbent Angie Chen Button by 1,110 votes in a Dallas County state House district. This time around, Chambers is running against Button with about $800,000, or more than triple the funds she had two years ago. Chambers told me that in 2018 Democratic donors were in denial that some of these races were winnable. But she saw O’Rourke’s near win as a sign that voters would come out of the woodwork if Democratic candidates actually challenged the incumbents.

“It was extremely difficult for me to get any support in 2018 because no one believed this district was winnable,” says Chambers, an employment lawyer in Dallas. “If we stop accepting defeat, maybe we will actually win. Resources have started coming into all of these races. It’s no longer a losing game.”

Hausman, of Forward Majority, says national Democrats are waking up to the idea that they need to invest in local races to build the party’s bench, gain support for candidates farther up the ballot and change state policy. But she criticizes the party for continuing to overinvest in high-profile, long-shot races, pointing to the millions of dollars that have gone into Amy McGrath’s bid to unseat Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. “That is, in many ways, a market failure on the Democratic side,” Hausman says.

Sanchez has been reaching out to local temples, mosques and other minority groups, and his campaign wants to ensure that the county’s newest residents go the polls and make the effort to vote for state representative. He is also hoping to pick up voters who are disillusioned by Trump.

Later that Saturday afternoon, Kathryn Vargas stepped into the Friend & Foe Board Game Café for a Sanchez campaign event in Plano. She wore a Black Lives Matter mask, while her 6-year-old son, Asher, wore a Mario one. They were there to get candy, part of an event organized by a North Texas Democratic women’s group and called “Taste the Blue Wave Road Rally.” At each stop, people picked up free snacks and met Democratic candidates and volunteers, many of them wearing shirts picturing a fork skewering a red elephant. Sanchez spent the afternoon at the café meeting supporters and juggling Zoom events with his phone tripod wedged between two board games.

Vargas says she voted for an independent candidate for president in 2016, a decision she now regrets. “I’m a recovering Republican,” she says. “I felt a lot of guilt.” Vargas, who is white, is married to a Mexican American man, a firefighter. She says last year’s mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart prompted her political change of heart. The shooter is from Allen, graduated from Plano public schools and admitted to officers that he was targeting Mexicans.

“We are coming from the community of the El Paso shooter, who drove 600 miles to kill 23 people who look like my husband and two boys,” Vargas said, while Asher clung to her leg with one hand and two paper cups of candy in the other. Her husband and 19-month old son were waiting in the car. “El Paso changed everything,” says Vargas, who wants state lawmakers to pass gun restrictions.

Sanchez chooses his words carefully on the issue of guns, knowing that he needs centrist voters. He is for universal background checks and other measures to limit the availability of guns, but he is also quick to point out that he supports the Second Amendment. He wants to counter the image Republicans have conjured in campaign ads that he is a radical, far-left liberal who supports abolishing police departments and guns.

“People understand me, that I am not something to be afraid of,” he says.

Polling for these races is scant, but even with the left’s momentum, there are plenty of reasons Sanchez and other well-funded, well-organized Democrats could lose. Not long ago, Democrats pinned their hopes on Wendy Davis beating Greg Abbott in the governor’s race in 2014, and she lost by more than 20 points. And despite O’Rourke’s popularity, he is now back home in El Paso, while Ted Cruz is a senator in Washington.

In a private video call with lobbyists in September, Republican strategist Dave Carney, who advises Abbott, said he believes Democrats are overplaying their hand and that the state House will remain Republican, according to two people who were on the call. Asked about the conversation, Carney told me in a text message that he had told the lobbyists “the Democrat spin was bullshit” and “we would hold the house.” Texas Republicans point to a special election in January in a fast-growing Houston suburb as evidence that their bravado is justified: Republican Gary Gates beat his Democratic challenger, Eliz Markowitz, by 16 percentage points. The two are facing off again in November.

“This is exactly the type of district that [Democrats] need to win,” says Craig Murphy, a consultant for Angie Chen Button. “It was a wipeout for them.”

Still, there’s no doubt that Democratic efforts are putting Republicans on the defensive. Gates had to lend his campaign $1.5 million to keep up with Markowitz’s fundraising efforts. Overall, Democrats in competitive state House races have raised $9.5 million from July 1 to Sept. 24, compared with $3.1 million in the same period in 2018, according to Christopher Tackett, who tracks campaign financing in Texas. Republicans in competitive races raised $10.3 million over that period in 2020, compared with $5.6 million two years ago.

The pressure has already forced policy changes, too. During the 2019 legislative session, chastened by the previous year’s election losses, Republicans focused on property taxes and education reform, largely eschewing controversial social legislation.

As he tries to hold onto his seat, Leach has sought to temper his own image as a conservative hardliner and distance himself from both Trump and state party scandals. Last year, as a committee chair, he blocked a bill that would have allowed women who sought abortions to be charged with homicide — a bill he had co-authored in 2017. He left the far-right Freedom Caucus in 2018, and he says he has changed his mind about the bathroom bill, which he also supported in 2017. One of his campaign ads calls attention to his efforts on criminal justice reform, and features a Democrat exonerated after spending 13 years in prison saying he plans to vote for Leach.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in Austin or Washington,” says Leach, a lawyer who specializes in commercial and civil litigation, construction law and real estate. “We are confident we have served this district well. This is a local race.”

Other Texas Republicans in tight races are also moderating their positions. Button told The Dallas Morning News that because of the pandemic she would support a version of Medicaid expansion, despite voting against the policy in previous sessions. Button declined to comment for this story, but Murphy, her consultant, maintains that she has always maintained a “complicated position on the issue.”

One challenge for Texas Democrats this year will be getting voters to turn, or scroll, several pages in their ballots to vote for their state representative. This is the first year Texas will not have straight-ticket voting, which previously allowed a voter to cast a ballot for all candidates from one party with a single check mark or button. The change might encourage voters to be more independent in their selections, but it also could help Texas Republicans hoping to distinguish themselves from a president who is more unpopular in the state than previous Republican presidents.

“The straight ticket gets you all the upside and none of the downside with President Trump,” says state Rep. Jim Murphy, vice chair of the Texas House Republican Caucus.

Democrats hope any gains they make in Texas this year aren’t just a short-lived Trump bump. If they can pick up nine seats or even come close, they will be able to influence the race for next Texas House speaker and pick up important committee chair positions, which could have downstream effects. If nothing else, some observers believe the momentum Democrats have generated shows the state is worth the fight.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, argues that this election won’t sweep in a Democratic revolution in Texas, but that changes are taking place in the state and in the national mood. (Wendy Davis is running again, this time for Congress against freshman Chip Roy, and polling has put them in a dead heat.)

“The idea of Texas turning blue is stupid,” Henson says. “The more realistic version that emerges is that Texas becomes a more competitive state like Florida. … The new steady state becomes an unsteady balance of power.”

White House looks at cutting Covid funds, newborn screenings in ‘anarchist’ cities

The White House is considering slashing millions of dollars for coronavirus relief, HIV treatment, screenings for newborns and other programs in Democratic-led cities that President Donald Trump has deemed “anarchist jurisdictions,” according to documents obtained by POLITICO.

New York, Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and Seattle could lose funding for a wide swath of programs that serve their poorest, sickest residents after the president moved last month to restrict funding, escalating his political battle against liberal cities he’s sought to use as a campaign foil.

The Department of Health and Human Services has identified federal grants covering those services, which are among the nearly 200 health programs that could be in line for cuts as part of a sweeping government-wide directive the administration is advancing during the final weeks of the presidential campaign and amid an intensifying pandemic Trump has downplayed.

Trump in a Sept. 2 order called on federal agencies to curtail funding to jurisdictions that “disempower” police departments and promote “lawlessness.” The memo argued that the cities haven’t done enough to quash riots stemming from this summer’s protests over systemic racism and police violence.

The HHS list offers the most detailed picture yet of the administration’s efforts to quickly comply with the Trump directive and the potentially large cuts facing these cities even as the pandemic strains local budgets. It isn’t immediately clear what criteria the budget office will use to evaluate the grants — or how or when cuts may be made.

But while the White House pores over existing funds, at least one department has already moved to implement Trump’s directive for new funding. The Department of Transportation earlier this month said Trump’s “anarchy” memo would factor into the department’s review of applications for a new $10 million grant program supporting Covid-19 safety measures.

"My Administration will do everything in its power to prevent weak mayors and lawless cities from taking Federal dollars while they let anarchists harm people, burn buildings, and ruin lives and businesses,” Trump tweeted shortly after releasing the Sept. 2 defunding memo.

Almost three weeks later, Attorney General Bill Barr labeled New York City, Portland and Seattle as “anarchist jurisdictions.” The White House budget office also instructed departments to also scrutinize funding for Washington, D.C.

The HHS list, which was sent Friday to the White House budget office, represents the 1,500-plus funding awards that have gone to the four cities since 2018. Each federal department also faced a Friday deadline to submit their own lists to the Office of Management and Budget, which will make the final decisions about funding.

HHS compiled the list with input from at least 12 agencies it oversees. The list includes 185 programs that touch on everything from Trump’s own initiative to end HIV transmission by the end of the decade to the opioid crisis and research into lung diseases. The list also includes funding for other programs, like $423,000 for universal hearing screenings for newborns in the District of Columbia, housing for people in addiction recovery in Seattle, and services providing nutrition and mental health counseling to elderly New Yorkers.

A spokesperson for HHS declined to comment. OMB declined to comment on the details of the review while pointing to two agency memos issued last month.

The White House budget office has previously said the administration will use the data to determine whether to bar cities from being eligible for new federal cash. A senior administration official did not rule out the possibility that cities could lose their existing funds.

“As the data comes in, OMB will collect it and make a decision,” said the official, who requested anonymity. The review is in the preliminary stages, and the official said the administration will make decisions about each grant individually.

“We need to review the information with agencies before we know,” according to the official. “Grant programs all have different authorities so it’s going to be case by case.”

According to OMB’s own guidelines, just a small fraction of the grants flagged by HHS may be protected from cuts. A Sept. 21 memo from OMB Director Russ Vought instructed agencies to assess whether grants supported law enforcement activities, indicating those would be less vulnerable to elimination. “[S]uch programs and activities, when properly designed and implemented, can help prevent the deterioration of municipalities into lawless zones,” Vought wrote.

HHS identified that just six of the 185 grant programs directly or indirectly have a connection to law enforcement, including some public health measures, hospital emergency preparedness and child support enforcement.

Programs that don’t meet the law enforcement exception include a two-year $4.6 million grant to D.C.’s Department of Health Care Finance that funds addiction treatment and recovery services through next September. Another includes $850,000 through 2025 to King County, which includes Seattle, to support the HIV initiative Trump announced at his State of the Union address last year.

A $1.8 million grant for Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes Portland, and a $880,000 grant to King County, both to help community and migrant health centers care for Covid-19 patients, are also under review.

Public health advocates and city officials panned the administration's review, warning that the consequences of pulling funding from these cities — especially during the pandemic — could be dire.

“The bottom line is there's no extra money lying around, and this is not a time to be playing politics with people’s health,” said Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, a national group that represents health departments in major U.S. cities — including the four targeted by Trump.

Officials from New York City and Seattle — as well as the United States Conference of Mayors — have already threatened legal action if the administration moves to block funds.

“This is nothing more than political retribution,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.

Trump ends ’60 Minutes’ interview, attacks Lesley Stahl on Twitter

At the White House on Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump ended a fiery interview taping with CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” proceeded to launch an attack against the interviewer on Twitter for not wearing a mask, and threatened to post the interview before it aired.

The drama unfolded after Trump was frustrated with the line of questioning and how the interview was being conducted, said one person familiar with the episode, while another in the room described the president as “pissed.”

The president spent more than 40 minutes with CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl, and did not proceed to shoot a second portion of the interview that included Vice President Mike Pence. Following a short break, the president decided he had spent enough time in the interview, one White House official said.

The official described Stahl as “very antagonistic,” and said she “seemed ill prepared in a wide-ranging interview.”

The president was expected to shoot part of the interview with Pence, who went on to spend 15 minutes with Stahl and the “60 Minutes” crew.

After the interview, the president tweeted a video of Stahl speaking to producers inside the White House without a mask accompanied by the message: “Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes not wearing a mask in the White House after her interview with me. Much more to come.”

“This is moments after she criticized me for not wearing a mask while working at my desk,” tweeted assistant White House press secretary Karoline Leavitt. “Rules for thee but not for me, Lesley?”

Both Stahl and Trump were hospitalized with the coronavirus, and Leavitt was one of the press staff who contracted the virus in early October.

Another person familiar with the interview said of the video clip: “This image is from immediately following the interview with the CBS team, who had all been tested. Lesley had a mask on leading into the interviews, as appropriate.”

On Tuesday evening, just before leaving the White House for a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, the president implied that the “60 Minutes” broadcast would not reflect what actually happened in the interview.

“I am pleased to inform you that, for the sake of accuracy in reporting, I am considering posting my interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, PRIOR TO AIRTIME!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “This will be done so that everybody can get a glimpse of what a FAKE and BIASED interview is all about…”

“...Everyone should compare this terrible Electoral Intrusion with the recent interviews of Sleepy Joe Biden!” he concluded.

The president also taped a town hall in the Rose Garden on Tuesday with former Fox News host Eric Bolling that is airing on the Sinclair Broadcasting Network.

CBS News did not respond to a request for comment on the interview’s abrupt conclusion, which was first reported by CNN.

“60 Minutes” plans to broadcast the interview on Sunday night in a special that will also feature Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

Senate Dems agonize over embattled Feinstein

Chuck Schumer refused to defend Sen. Dianne Feinstein over calls from progressive groups for her removal as top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, with the Senate minority leader divulging he had a “long and serious talk” recently with the California senator.

Senate Democrats are grappling with how to handle Feinstein’s future role on the panel. Liberal groups say Feinstein was far too accommodating to Republicans during last week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. And while Democrats tread carefully in public on Tuesday, refusing to criticize the 87-year-old Feinstein — the first woman to serve as ranking member on Judiciary — her loudest supporters were actually Republicans.

Democrats mostly refused to comment on the controversy, with some praising Feinstein’s long record of service but few touting her performance last week. The Barrett proceedings ended with Feinstein praising Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and then hugging him. She called the Barrett hearings “one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in,” a comment that drew waves of angry criticism from the left.

NARAL, Demand Justice and an array of liberal organizations dinged Feinstein for being far too deferential to Barrett, claiming she essentially helped Senate Republicans stack the Supreme Court with another ideologue who will solidify the conservative majority on the high court for years to come. NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue said Feinstein “offered an appearance of credibility to the proceedings that is wildly out of step with the American people.”

In a brief interview, Feinstein said she had “no comment” about the groups calling for her to step down. Feinstein waved away a question about whether she would run again for the top Democratic slot on the Judiciary Committee during the next Congress.

The normally voluble Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who could be in line for the position if Feinstein stepped down, was uncharacteristically terse about calls for her to be demoted.

“You keep asking me that question. I’m not going to answer it,” he said on Tuesday.

The Democratic Party is highly unlikely to overtly force Feinstein to step down. Several Democratic sources said that if she did leave the top slot of the Judiciary Committee it would be of her own accord.

And in response to questions about whether Feinstein should be replaced atop the panel, Schumer was tight-lipped about Feinstein.

“I’ve had a long and serious talk with Sen. Feinstein,” Schumer said on Tuesday. “That’s all I’m going to say about it right now.

Many other Democrats also declined to comment on Feinstein, from progressive Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Those that did speak out said the decision on Feinstein’s future isn’t up to them.

“She is the ranking member, and so far as I know standing here right now, she’ll continue to be ranking member,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “Sen. Schumer is the leader of our caucus and he’s the one who decides. She has contributed through her public service and I value her leadership and friendship.”

“Sen. Feinstein has a long record of fighting for gender equality and reproductive rights, and [she] has led the minority on the committee well,” added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who also serves on the Judiciary Committee. When asked whether Feinstein should be replaced atop the panel, Coons demurred: “I don’t think that’s for me to say.”

Feinstein was the first Senate Democrat to endorse Joe Biden, even before he got in the race to be president. Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said: "Vice President Biden's appreciation for her support is only exceeded by his respect and admiration for her strong record of public service to the people of California and the nation.”

Feinstein still enjoys close relationships in the GOP and Republicans emerged this week as Feinstein’s most outspoken advocates. They claim the anger from the left at Feinstein is misguided and shows that Democrats’ attacks on Barrett’s conduct and qualifications during the hearing failed to land.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) lamented that it “would be a real shame if they run her off.”

“She’s such an outstanding legislator, it’s totally unjustified,” said fellow octogenarian Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a former Judiciary Committee chairman. “She’s only three months older than I am, and I haven’t announced I’m not running for reelection.”

“I’m not sure it would be terribly helpful to Dianne if I said something nice about her,” acknowledged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who serves on the Judiciary Committee. “The left-wing attacks on Sen. Feinstein are a product of the frustration on the far left that their attacks [on Barrett] aren’t working and their arguments aren’t resonating.”

Feinstein would take over as chair of the Judiciary panel in the next Congress if Democrats win the majority on Election Day, which looks increasingly possible. Feinstein has not stated whether she will fight her critics and try to keep her spot or whether she will give up the role. After Durbin, who would be unlikely to lead the panel if he stays on as whip, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is next in seniority.

“Sen. Feinstein is focused right now on the Barrett nomination and the upcoming election,” the California Democrat’s office said in a statement. “Decisions on the next Congress will be made after Nov. 3.”

There is precedent for replacing committee chairs who no longer are up to the job or become incapacitated due to health issues. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was replaced as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee during the late 1990s. And in 2008, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) voluntarily gave up his role as Appropriations Committee chairman. Most recently, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) retired in 2018 after questions were raised about his fitness to wield the gavel at the Appropriations Committee.

The seniority system in Congress protects veteran members from being pushed aside by more junior rivals who may have a higher profile, and it also provides a powerful tool to small states or poor districts to get federal attention. Yet the other side of the coin is that it can take decades to climb the committee ladder, meaning lawmakers may not be as vital as they once were when they finally get to the cherished panel post.

But for Feinstein, this month's controversy centers on her throwback attitude of bipartisan comity and buddying up to Graham, an embattled incumbent who Democrats see as rushing the Supreme Court hearings and shifting the high court away from them for a generation.

“I hate the fact that saying something nice about me about the way I conducted the hearing has gotten to the point now that people would drive you out of office,” Graham lamented in an interview. “We’re losing our way here."

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

Bloomberg knocks Trump back on his heels in Florida

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s $100 million investment in Florida to defeat Donald Trump is recasting the presidential contest in the president’s must-win state, forcing his campaign to spend big to shore up his position and freeing up Democratic cash to expand the electoral map elsewhere.

Bloomberg’s massive advertising and ground-game spending, which began roughly a month ago, has thrown Trump into a defensive crouch across the arc of Sunbelt states. As a result, the president‘s campaign has scaled back its TV ad buys in crucial Northern swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — a vacuum being filled by a constellation of outside political groups backing Joe Biden.

“It’s forced the Trump campaign to retrench in Florida. You can see it in the spending habits, in television and digital. They’re investing more at the expense of places they need to win,” said Steve Schale, who leads the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC.

“Basically, Trump has now been committed to the equivalent of land war in Asia by having to spend so much of his money in Florida, a state he has to win to get to 270 Electoral College votes,” Schale said. “And as a result, he doesn’t have the resources to compete everywhere he would like.”

Schale said his group and the other major Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, have been able to focus their dollars in other parts of the country, particularly the Upper Midwest. Democratic super PACs, meanwhile, have been able to focus more attention on Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia — once-reliably red states where the president has also had to commit additional resources for the past month, in addition to Florida.

Florida, the largest and most-expensive swing state, has 10 media markets and is so competitive that outside groups and the presidential campaigns have spent and reserved a record $263 million on TV ads from June through Election Day, according to data compiled by the media tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Since the beginning of September, Trump has added more than $6 million to his total in ad spending in Florida, according to Advertising Analytics. During that same period of time, with Democrats freed up to attack elsewhere, the Trump campaign has also been forced to plow more than $7 million in ad spending into Georgia — a state he was once expected to win easily — and nearly $6 million in Arizona, another state he won in 2016.

Trump also decreased planned spending by nearly $13 million in Ohio, more than $6 million in Minnesota and nearly $3 million in Wisconsin, reducing his advertising footprint in the region.

David Johnson, former Florida GOP executive director, said the Bloomberg money has had a clear effect on forcing Trump to withdraw to his core states, instead of competing across a wider national map.

“This is not your 2016 election, so abso-freaking-lutley the Trump team knows they have to maintain something closer to parity in [gross rating] points and spots in the home stretch,” Johnson said. “You best not be massively outspent in Florida the last two weeks and expect to perform well on Election Day, where Republicans have to turnout in vastly larger numbers to win.”

In Pennsylvania, former Republican Congressman Phil English said Trump’s campaign has a clear advantage on the ground, where the GOP spent all summer organizing and knocking on doors. But on TV, English said, there’s a huge disparity in the area he once represented, Erie County, one of the bellwethers of the swing state.

“The Democrats are literally flooding everything with anti-Trump and pro-Biden advertising. It’s a concern,” English said. “We’re definitely seeing seniors reacting to the coronavirus here, and the steady messaging from Democrats over how the Trump administration has handled coronavirus has moved a lot of people.”

Trump’s advisers say they are confident about the amount of money they have to spend on TV across the map — announcing a $55 million ad buy this week — and outside groups are backfilling for Trump in some states where he has drawn down his own spending.

The pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, for example, has added nearly $17 million in ad spending in Pennsylvania and more than $5 million in Wisconsin since the beginning of September, according to Advertising Analytics. It has added nearly $8.8 million in Florida.

Even so, Biden’s financial advantage in the home stretch — and Trump’s vulnerability in once-safe states — has unexpectedly forced the former vice president to make difficult decisions about where to spend it all.

“The contraction of the Upper Midwest and the failure to keep TV advertising there speaks to [Trump’s] flagging possibilities to win,” said Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

Fernand Amandi, a veteran Democratic pollster and consultant in Florida, said “In the closing days of a campaign, follow the money means follow the problems. Clearly there is concern in the Trump camp as they vote with their wallets to try and restore states that, if they’re in jeopardy, spell real problems for their campaign.”

Trump’s Florida squeeze isn’t all Bloomberg‘s doing. At the same time the former New York City mayor was ramping up his Florida spending, Trump’s campaign was experiencing a cash crunch from too much spending and too little funding. But Bloomberg’s money, by design, has added to the pressure on the president

“It’s virtually impossible for Trump to win the presidency without Florida, and that is why Mike Bloomberg is investing $100 million into the race there — to turn it into a state Trump and Republicans have to work hard to win, and to free up Democratic resources to other states like Pennsylvania that can solidify a Biden victory,” said Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s senior political adviser. “Florida is a key state for winning the presidency — and where we hope Donald Trump makes his residency permanent after he loses.”

Max Steele, a former Florida Democratic Party spokesman and current senior communications advisor with the liberal group American Bridge, said his organization has noticed Trump’s scaling back in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That’s where American Bridge has been focusing on getting Obama-Trump voters to flip back to the Democratic fold.

“That’s the point of Bloomberg’s spending: keep him mired down. Florida is a money pit,” Steele said.

One thing remains unclear about Bloomberg’s TV ad spending — the efficacy, compared to social media or news coverage of the final two weeks of the campaign. Both sides recognize it’s taking place against the backdrop of a highly polarized electorate in which few voters remain undecided.

“I think one of the things we’re going to find this year is that there has been a much higher percentage spent on social media and voter contact,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “I think this is a base election, not a swing selection, so you’re having a much larger percentage of money spent on get-out-the-vote and communicating with your supporters.”

Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokesperson, pointed to the Trump’s campaign’s ground game, his digital spending and his data operation as advantages over Biden that counteract Democrats’ TV spending.

“Considering President Trump won in 2016 and the DC establishment got itself worked up over the exact same issue then, maybe it’s time for the mainstream media to accept our winning strategy and start questioning why Joe Biden is needlessly overspending on TV.”

States prepare for their own vaccine safety reviews amid worries about Trump’s influence on the FDA

Several states are setting up their own coronavirus vaccine reviews to counter public safety concerns as the Trump administration pushes the Food and Drug Administration to approve a shot on an aggressive timeline that they fear could be too rushed.

New York, California, Michigan, West Virginia, Washington D.C. and potentially a handful of others are in the early stages of creating independent panels to review vaccine data as it becomes available – although it’s not yet clear whether all these states would seek to block distribution of a vaccine they deem unsafe or ineffective, or just to broadcast those concerns.

Most have Democratic governors; in an exception, West Virginia is convening an advisory group of 20 to 25 pharmacists and physicians to review Covid-19 vaccine efficacy data. In addition, Oregon has said it will use its own senior state health advisers to review data. Nearby Washington will watch the FDA vaccine approval process closely to make sure it’s “thorough and transparent.”

“Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in announcing his state’s vaccine review panel. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who announced his state’s 11 member panel of doctors and scientists on Monday said: "Of course we won't take anyone's word for it."

President Donald Trump’s intense push for a vaccine before the election – which is now virtually impossible given that none of the leading vaccine candidates will be ready by then -- on top of administration pressure on the FDA and Centers for Disease Control, have sowed growing public doubt about vaccine safety, particularly as the research into the shots has progressed at an unprecedented breakneck pace.

A CNN poll from earlier this month showed only about half of Americans might get a vaccine, while a more recent Stat News poll revealed 58 percent of the U.S. public said they would get vaccinated as soon as a vaccine was available – a big decline over its prior poll. If large numbers of people spurn the shot, its power to beat back the pandemic is diminished.

States have not yet released a lot of details about their vaccine reviews. The additional layer of oversight raises questions about whether a state agency could impede use of a federally-approved vaccine, and whether they could end up slowing down the pandemic response, rather than enhancing it.

Even though governors say they are protecting their residents in case pressure from the White House leads the FDA to approve a flawed vaccine, some officials and public health advocates are warning that these state interventions could confuse the public and prevent people from seeking a shot even if it is safe and effective.

It is “hard to see how any state could replicate anything like the national, gold standard system” of FDA approval, said former FDA commissioner Mark McClellan, who now heads a major health policy center at Duke.

Critics of the state review panels include both Republicans in Congress as well as nonpartisan public health experts in both the advocacy and academic worlds.

Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the outgoing top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FDA, called the state vaccine panels a “reckless” idea that would “dangerously undermine the FDA” and increase public vaccine hesitancy.

Walden told a recent committee hearing that the FDA had ample safeguards, including an independent data safety monitoring board for each vaccine trial, as well as the outside experts that serve on the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn has said the advisory panel, which meets for the first time to discuss Covid-19 vaccines this Thursday, will review every vaccine prior to an emergency authorization or approval.

States “would be hard-pressed to find more qualified experts” than those already on the FDA and CDC advisory panels, said Amy Pisani, executive director of the nonprofit Vaccinate Your Family. Their “recommendations will speak for themselves,” she said.

Traditionally the states have been more involved with planning and overseeing vaccine distribution, rather than evaluating efficacy and safety. That’s where the focus should stay, said Jason Schwartz, a vaccine expert at the Yale School of Public Health, who fears the state panels “would only create confusion.” He said the scientists involved with the FDA review will make clear themselves whether the FDA review process has been tainted. If they stay involved, it will be a signal that science is prevailing over politics.

But some governors and state health officials remain worried — either because they have lost confidence in the FDA’s independence or because they believe the public has. Much of the White House’s pressure on the FDA has played out in public, with Trump’s statements and tweets on both drugs and vaccines.

The White House attempted to block FDA from spelling out additional vaccine safety requirements for emergency authorizations, yielding only it when it became clear the agency would not back down. The FDA has also signed off on emergency authorizations under White House pressure for some treatments with sparse data, including Trump-championed hydroxychloroquine, and more recently with convalescent plasma. The FDA later reversed the emergency authorization of hydroxychloroquine as data mounted that the malaria drug did not help with the coronavirus.

States had to submit their vaccine distribution plans to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by Friday. More details on those plans and the vaccine data review panels are likely to trickle out in the coming weeks. California has publicly released more information than most.

The FDA experts can interpret raw data provided by vaccine developers; whether any or all of the states will have that same data is not yet known. Nor it is clear what powers the state will have to restrict vaccine distribution or use if the panel reaches a different conclusion than the FDA-appointed experts. Even if they can’t bar the vaccine from their state, a public assessment that the state doesn’t find a vaccine safe or effective would almost certainly dampen use.

Patti Zettler, a former FDA attorney who is now an associate law professor at Ohio State University, said that states can legally restrict the use of FDA-approved or authorized products, such as a vaccine, but that could be challenged in court. She noted that in 2014, Massachusetts tried to ban a powerful new opioid that the FDA had approved, but the opioid manufacturer got a court to overturn it.

“States interested in these independent evaluations underscores how much public trust in FDA has been lost,” Zettler said. “That loss is hugely problematic as a public health matter.”

States and vaccine developers have offered few specifics on how the reviews will be conducted.

“We would hope there would be transparency at the federal level regarding that data so we can make an informed decision,” said a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Michigan aims to independently evaluate the efficacy and safety data for any approved vaccines.

Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services department, said the speed with which vaccines were moving through trials was one trigger for California’s planned vaccine safety committee. “Once it’s established, it will be made public and their charge and mission will be clarified” on a state website, he said.

Arthur Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley who’s chairing the California vaccine review panel, said in a phone interview that state reviews could cut both ways. Some people might “feel gratitude to the government for looking after their interests, with added reassurance, and other people might go across the border to another state to get a vaccine.”

The Washington, D.C., health department said its panel will rely on publicly available information for its reviews of vaccines.

Not surprisingly, the biopharma industry, which in general prefers consistent national and international guidance and standards, lambasted the proposed state vaccine reviews.

“This is more than a little perturbing,” Michelle McMurry-Heath, the new president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, told the Food and Drug Law Institute conference last week. “To put in place one or even 50 individual extra levels of review to second guess FDA decisions is a huge mistake.”

A spokesperson for Moderna, one of the two leading vaccine candidate developers, said that “nothing is far enough along in this area for us to be ready to comment.” Pfizer Chief Business Officer John Young told the Business Council of New York State’s annual meeting that the company “will cooperate with all levels of government and will be transparent with all our data.”

Two other leading candidates — AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — have paused their U.S.-based Phase III trials due to safety concerns. A spokesman for Oxford University, which is working with AstraZeneca, said their ongoing Covid-19 trials in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa have enrolled almost 20,000 participants so far.

California outlines path for sports fans and Disneyland — in concept

OAKLAND — California officials on Tuesday dangled the possibility of allowing visitors to professional sporting events and theme parks, but the realities of infection rates and county policies quickly dashed hopes that major venues would open anytime soon.

The state until now has blocked visitors from professional games and theme parks out of concern for coronavirus spread. With infection rates declining after a summer surge, California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly issued rules Tuesday that provide a path for those venues to open.

The new guidelines for professional sports allow outdoor stadiums and racetracks to reopen in counties that have lowered infections enough to reach the orange tier, the second-least restrictive. Teams there can play with up to 20 percent capacity, with additional restrictions such as ticket purchasers having to live within a 120-mile radius and a face-covering mandate.

California this year allowed professional sports to occur without fans in California, which included hosting part of the Major League Baseball playoff bubble this month in Southern California.

Tuesday's spectator announcement initially raised the spirits of San Francisco 49ers fans because Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara County qualifies for reopening under the state rules. But Santa Clara County immediately issued a statement after Ghaly's announcement saying that fans at professional sporting events "will not be allowed anytime soon."

Santa Clara County was the first in the nation to shut pro sports events in March as community spread began, a move that was partially responsible for forcing the NBA and other leagues to reconsider their policies.

County Executive Jeff Smith, who is also a physician, followed up with harsh words for state officials.

“It makes no sense whatsoever to have audiences at stadiums, particularly when there is a model to do it without audiences in a much a safer way,” Smith said at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon. “Putting an audience in a stadium in large groups is just asking for trouble. It’s like a petri dish.”

The state also released rules for reopening theme parks that allows smaller venues to reopen in counties with lower rates of infection — but brings no immediate relief to Disneyland or other major Southern California attractions.

The large attractions won't be allowed to open until their counties are in the yellow tier — which no Southern California county has reached — and those parks will have to limit capacity with 25 percent capacity with reservations. Disneyland is in Orange County, which is still in the red tier, two levels away from where it would have to land for the theme park to reopen.

Ghaly said the distinction between the large and small parks came down to the characteristics of the venue and the reach of their draw. He said smaller amusement parks "often don't draw from broader communities, and they are almost exclusively outdoors" while the large theme parks can attract an international audience.

Ken Potrock, president of Disneyland Resort, was dissatisfied with the latest announcement. The resort took the unusual step of issuing a statement with quotes from Orange County Public Health Officer Clayton Chau, who said the county would likely not reach the yellow tier until next summer and that it could depend on a vaccine.

Disney chief Bob Iger recently resigned from Gov. Gavin Newsom's reopening task force out of frustration with the governor's theme park prohibition. The company's Disney World Resort is open in Florida.

"We have proven that we can responsibly reopen, with science-based health and safety protocols strictly enforced at our theme park properties around the world," Potrock said in a statement. "Nevertheless, the State of California continues to ignore this fact, instead mandating arbitrary guidelines that it knows are unworkable and that hold us to a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities."

Flynn, Grenell on opposing GOP sides of Georgia Senate race

Two key figures in President Donald Trump’s attacks on the 2016-era Russia investigation endorsed dueling Republican candidates in one of Georgia’s hotly contested Senate races.

Trump’s former acting intelligence chief Richard Grenell on Tuesday endorsed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who was appointed to her seat earlier this year after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) retired. Just hours earlier, Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017, had endorsed Loeffler’s challenger, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.).

The race, which has grown contentious in recent months, has essentially turned into a battle of who supports Trump the most. While the president has not endorsed a candidate in the race, he has spoken glowingly about both of them.

Senate Republicans’ campaign arm is backing Loeffler, reinforcing its policy of supporting GOP incumbents; Trump’s allies in the House are largely backing Collins.

Loeffler has been in office for less than a year and has been relatively quiet about what Trump’s allies allege was an effort by the outgoing Obama administration to illegally target and undermine the incoming Trump administration. Collins, on the other hand, led the charge against House Democrats’ impeachment of Trump from his former perch as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and has been a reliable ally in Trump’s fight to investigate the origins of the Russia probe.

The Justice Department earlier this year moved to drop all charges against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February 2017 after just a few weeks on the job, after he admitted to lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Kislyak.

But Flynn has since become a hero of the Trump-supporting right, which argues that Flynn was unfairly targeted by Obama administration Justice Department officials. The president himself has supported a campaign against his political foes involved in the initial investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year probe.

When he served as acting director of national intelligence, Grenell was an active participant in the Trump-backed effort, moving to declassify certain documents about the Russia investigation. Democrats said those actions were intended to boost the president’s political fortunes.

The Georgia race, which is a special election to fill out the remainder of Isakson’s term, is likely to head to a runoff, with no candidate expected to reach the 50-percent threshold. Loeffler and Collins are polling close to one another, but Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock is on track to claim the top spot for the runoff. Loeffler and Collins are vying for the second slot.

GOP money man pleads guilty on foreign influence charge

A top Republican fundraiser has pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiring to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Elliott Broidy, a former deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, conspired with others to influence the federal government on behalf of Malaysian financier Jho Low, he acknowledged on Tuesday.

Criminal charges for violations of the 1938 law had been rare in recent decades, and charges of conspiracy to violate FARA even rarer: As Broidy’s plea agreement notes, there are no applicable sentencing guidelines for the charge.

But FARA has come to the fore in President Donald Trump’s Washington, where global money and influence have flowed especially freely. The Justice Department signaled last year its intent to tighten enforcement, following the high-profile prosecutions of Trump lieutenants Paul Manafort and Rick Gates for charges that stemmed from their foreign lobbying work.

Broidy will forfeit $6.6 million as part of the deal.

Low, an international fugitive from justice, stands accused of masterminding the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, fraud. He has denied wrongdoing and recruited a stable of American advisers, but has not come to the U.S. to face charges.

Broidy’s efforts on behalf of Low included attempts to soften the Trump administration's stance on the 1MDB fraud, and to bolster Beijing’s efforts to secure the extradition of Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, an ally of Steve Bannon’s seeking asylum in the U.S.

Broidy was largely unsuccessful, but his efforts attracted the notice of federal prosecutors.

Nickie Lum Davis, a Hawaii-based political consultant, and George Higginbotham, a former Justice Department official, have already pleaded guilty for their efforts to help Low influence the government.

Musician Pras Michel, best known for his role in the rap group the Fugees, has pleaded not guilty to charges he helped Low conceal foreign contributions into groups backing President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Goldman Sachs would pay a $2.8 billion fine and that a subsidiary of the bank was expected to plead guilty to a criminal charge for its role in the 1MDB fraud.

Broidy is best known in Washington for his efforts to influence the Trump administration's foreign policy on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. Those efforts were exposed in reports based on Broidy’s hacked emails. Broidy has accused the UAE’s rival, Qatar, of orchestrating the hack, a charge the country denies.

What’s next: The plea agreement stipulates that Broidy will not face additional charges related to his efforts on behalf of Low, or his efforts to undermine Qatar on behalf of the UAE.

Broidy entered the plea at a virtual hearing before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the District of Columbia District Court. Public access to the hearing was permitted by calling into a conference line, but for much of the hearing the audio was unintelligible.

A status hearing is scheduled for February.

California wants court to force Republicans to divulge ballot box details

OAKLAND — California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is pursuing a court order to wring more information from the California Republican Party about its unofficial ballot collection boxes.

Becerra wants the California GOP to share the locations of the boxes and the identity of voters who have used them. In a court filing, Becerra argued that such information is critical to ensuring that votes are counted and that the California Republican Party is abiding by election laws governing how it collects ballots. The filing says the Republican Party has refused to share the information requested.

“Because the election date is quickly approaching, it is critical that the State ensure that any ballot that was deposited into a drop box is able to be confirmed as having reached a county elections official for counting,” the filing says.

Becerra is escalating a standoff with the California GOP over the party’s ballot collection practices. The party has already said it has no obligation to share all the information Becerra wants.

The Republican Party vowed to fight back, with spokesperson Hector Barajas excoriating Becerra in a statement for “an abuse of power” and “authoritarian bullying tactics” in violating Californians’ privacy.

“The California Republican Party will not provide the Secretary of State or Attorney General a list of Californians who attend religious services, frequent firearms retailers, participate in political events or engage in any other lawful activity,” Barajas said.

After the Republican Party admitted it was behind unofficial ballot boxes that were surfacing in congressional battleground areas, Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla sent a cease-and-desist order last week telling the party to stand down.

Republican officials have said they are complying with election laws and removed an erroneous “official” label on one of the boxes. Becerra and Padilla signaled on Friday that the boxes could remain, but they underscored that they were continuing to investigate and seeking more information via subpoenas.

“To the extent that unauthorized ballot drop boxes are redeployed, our investigation is ongoing and we will act where necessary,” Becerra said in a statement Monday accompanying the latest court action.

Republican party officials resisted those demands last week. They said state law does not require ballot collectors to record their relationships to voters, as California insists, and argued that disclosing the location of ballot boxes would reveal the party’s political strategy.

“Unless the other side’s going to tell us where they’re doing ballot harvesting and the like we are not going to reveal the campaign plans of the California Republican Party,” attorney Thomas Hiltachk said on Friday.

Republicans say their boxes are another form of collection that has been used by Democrats in recent elections, in which volunteers have delivered ballots on behalf of voters under a 2016 law that broadened such activity.

Lawmakers press HHS for documents on Trump’s drug-card plan

Senior Democratic lawmakers are demanding that the health department turn over internal documents on President Donald Trump's plan to give seniors $200 discount cards to buy prescription drugs, following a POLITICO report that the department's top lawyer warned the plan could violate election law.

The media reports "appear to confirm our concerns that the Trump Administration is relying on dubious legal authority to justify a blatant political gambit by the President that would be paid for using taxpayer dollars," Reps. Frank Pallone and Richard Neal and Sen. Ron Wyden wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, demanding the documents by Monday.

Trump abruptly announced the drug-card plan last month, prompting health officials to rush to find a legal basis for it before Election Day. But the $7.9 billion proposal, which would be paid for by dipping into one of Medicare's trust funds, has come under fire from Democrats and outside watchdogs, who have called it inappropriate and potentially illegal. The Trump administration says it's a legally permissible use of Medicare powers to "test" new ways of funding care.

Pallone chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Neal chairs the Ways and Means Committee and Wyden is the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee. In their letter to Azar, which was first shared with POLITICO, the Democrats requested an unredacted copy of HHS General Counsel Robert Charrow's internal memo warning that Trump's plan could violate election law because of its close proximity to Election Day. The Democrats also are requesting details of Charrow's instruction that HHS seek guidance from the Justice Department before moving forward with the plan.

In addition, the Democrats are seeking a copy of the draft letter that officials had planned to send to 39 million Medicare beneficiaries announcing the rollout of the drug cards. Three officials last week told POLITICO that the draft letter has been carefully guarded amid growing legal scrutiny of the plan. Though the vast majority of the drugs cards were unlikely to go out before Election Day, administration officials have been hoping to provide notice to seniors by then.

The Democrats also requested that the administration brief congressional staff on the plan by next week. The three Democrats have separately asked the Government Accountability Office to begin an immediate review of the drug cards.

An HHS spokesperson said that the department would respond to Congress' requests but would not specify whether the administration would produce Charrow's memo and other documents.

"HHS does not comment on alleged, leaked documents," the spokesperson said, referring additional questions about the draft letter to Medicare officials.

Despite the growing concerns about the drug cards, Trump has continued to tout the plan in an effort to shore up his flagging support with seniors.

"[M]ore than 35 million Medicare beneficiaries will soon receive a card in the mail with $200 that you can use to help pay for prescription drugs," Trump vowed on Friday during an event in Florida billed as "Protecting America's Seniors."

A step ‘long overdue’: DOJ’s Google antitrust suit meets bipartisan praise

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum lauded the Justice Department for hitting Google with a major antitrust lawsuit on Tuesday, remarks that highlight the breadth of bipartisan concern in Washington over the power the tech giant wields online.

A broad coalition: Progressive Democrats, populist Republicans and even libertarian-leaning conservatives voiced support for the DOJ suit, the first major U.S. monopolization case in decades. The DOJ and 11 Republican attorneys general filed the legal complaint in Washington, D.C., federal court, accusing Google of abusing its dominance in the online search market to crowd out competitors.

House antitrust subcommittee Chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.), whose panel issued a sweeping report accusing Google and other tech giants of abusing their monopoly power earlier this month, called the lawsuit a step “long overdue” in a tweet.

“It is critical that the Justice Department’s lawsuit focuses on Google’s monopolization of search and search advertising, while also targeting the anticompetitive business practices Google is using to leverage this monopoly into other areas, such as maps, browsers, videos and voice assistants,” said Cicilline, a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a statement.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the libertarian-leaning chair of the counterpart Senate antitrust subcommittee, likewise called the suit “an encouraging sign in our country’s ongoing battle against the pernicious influence of Big Tech” in a statement.

How times have changed: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who as the Missouri attorney general launched a state probe into Google’s competitive practices in 2017, called the DOJ lawsuit a “major development” in the government's approach to the company's dominance online.

“Three years ago I couldn’t get a single fellow state attorney general to join my antitrust investigation into Google, not one, Republican or Democrat,” Hawley, an outspoken tech critic and prominent ally to President Donald Trump, said on a call with reporters.

A notable caveat: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement that she is “pleased that the Justice Department is finally taking action” on years of complaints that Google has abused its dominance in search to squelch competitors."

But she said the "questionable timing of the suit so close to the election" could undermine efforts to rein in the tech giant's conduct.

“While the lawsuit is an important start, it will likely be passed to a new Attorney General, as well as state attorney generals across the country,” she said. “It will be on them to finish the job and get real results.”

The DOJ's lawsuit is notably lacking the backing of any Democratic AGs, who are forging ahead with a separate complaint against the tech giant with other Republican state regulators that could be unveiled in coming weeks.

Efforts to combine those complaints ran into political headwinds earlier this year partly because U.S. Attorney General William Barr pushed to file the case ahead of the November election, as POLITICO reported. By filing the lawsuit now, the DOJ is setting it into motion regardless of whether President Donald Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden win the November election.

Google’s response: The tech giant called the DOJ’s lawsuit “deeply flawed” in a statement, adding: “People use Google because they choose to — not because they're forced to or because they can't find alternatives.”

Pelosi sees ‘a path’ to stimulus deal — but deadline may slip

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are “on a path” to a massive coronavirus relief deal, just hours before her self-imposed deadline to come to a broad agreement with the White House.

But the California Democrat's biggest obstacle may be across the Capitol — with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) openly dismissing the negotiations and privately urging the White House not to settle with Pelosi before the election.

Pelosi was scheduled to speak to Mnuchin at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon as Washington waits to see whether months of negotiations between the two will culminate in a multitrillion-dollar stimulus plan just two weeks before the presidential election.

“We’re on a path,” Pelosi said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “As the secretary and I say to each other, ‘If we didn’t believe we could get this done, why would we even be talking?’”

Despite Pelosi’s hopefulness Tuesday, most Republicans and many Democrats still say it is unlikely the two will be able to shepherd a relief package through Congress in the coming weeks — because of both resistance in the GOP-controlled Senate as well as lingering differences between Pelosi and Mnuchin.

“You never know what’s going to happen around here at the last minute, but it’s getting to be toward the last minute and the clock keeps ticking away,” Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters Tuesday. “I’m not optimistic about doing anything.”

Pelosi herself seemed to downplay the “48-hour” deadline she announced over the weekend, saying that timeline was needed to finalize a bill before the election but that she and Mnuchin could keep negotiating even if an agreement didn’t materialize by the end of the day Tuesday.

“It isn’t that this day was a day we would have a deal. It is a day we would have our terms on the table to be able to go to the next step,” Pelosi said. “We could still continue the negotiation. It might not be finished by Election Day.”

Pelosi said she and Mnuchin have made significant progress in some key areas in the last day, including on provisions outlining a national coronavirus testing and tracing plan — a key element for Democrats that appeared to be derailed over the weekend when the two sides couldn’t agree on legislative text.

“I do think we have a shared value — not many, but a shared value, finally, that they want to crush the virus. And that’s been a change from over the weekend,” Pelosi said of the testing language.

But key hurdles remain, including one of Democrats’ top priorities — funding for state and local governments — and liability protections for businesses and schools that Republicans have long demanded. There are also smaller outstanding disagreements on language related to vaccines, health care worker protections and the child tax credit.

“The two bookends of our differences right now… one is state and local and the other is liability,” Pelosi said on Bloomberg TV.

Pelosi and Mnuchin are more broadly aligned on the need to revive expanded unemployment benefits, send aid to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and deliver stimulus checks to individuals, though there is still some disagreement on the assistance levels for those initiatives.

Much of Capitol Hill remains skeptical that Pelosi and Mnuchin can reach an agreement on that anything will make it to President Donald Trump’s desk, especially without the support of McConnell and other key Republicans.

McConnell has largely steered clear of the stimulus talks and is focused on confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election. Most GOP senators are also opposed to spending anything close to the $2 trillion being discussed by Pelosi and Mnuchin; they’re instead backing a narrower, approximately $500 billion proposal.

On Tuesday McConnell appeared to publicly soften his stance on whether to allow any Pelosi-Mnuchin deal to come to the Senate floor for a vote.

In a statement over the weekend, McConnell only agreed to "consider" a Pelosi-Mnuchin agreement. But on Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican said he would allow the Senate to vote on it, provided that Trump had agreed to sign it first.

“What I’m telling you is that if such a deal were to clear the House, obviously with the presidential signature promised, we would put it on the floor of the Senate and let the Senate consider it," McConnell told reporters following a Republican policy lunch.

McConnell, however, didn't say when any such measure would come up for a vote, and it's increasingly unlikely that such an agreement could see action before Election Day.

And privately, McConnell told Republican members at lunch Tuesday that he had warned the White House against reaching a large stimulus deal before the election; doing so could divide the GOP conference and delay Barrett's confirmation, according to two people familiar with his remarks. McConnell's private remarks were first reported by the Washington Post.

There isn’t unanimity among Democrats either — several of whom are uneasy with the negotiations over liability provisions. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) told Pelosi on a private caucus call Monday that she didn’t see how any Democrat could vote for a deal with the current liability provisions.

Pelosi said Tuesday that she expects to have updated liability language ready for Mnuchin to review by their afternoon call.

“I think that there is a balance that can be struck,” she said in the Bloomberg interview. “We'll have our language to them. We're working very hard to protect the workers, but also to be able to come to an agreement.”

Mnuchin, meanwhile, has argued that Senate Republicans would get behind an accord if Trump himself backed the deal. But that prospect is still uncertain in a GOP-controlled Senate on edge ahead of an election where the majority is up for grabs.

Trump, too, said on “Fox and Friends” on Tuesday that McConnell “will be on board if something comes.”

Trump then went on to call for a stimulus package that’s even pricier than the $2.2 trillion Democrats want — though the GOP has shown zero interest in spending more than Democrats after months of talks.

“I want to do it even bigger than the Democrats. And not every Republican agrees with me, but they will,” Trump claimed, adding that Pelosi does not want to reach a deal, despite weeks of lengthy talks with Mnuchin.

“Here's the problem, she doesn't want to do anything until after the election because she thinks that helps her,” Trump said. “I actually think it helps us, because everyone knows that she's the one that's breaking up the deal. Now, they are talking. Let's see what happens.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, has continued to insist publicly and privately that a massive economic rescue package could be done before the election, with her caucus eager to see money go out the door as quickly as possible. The bill would have to be written by the end of this week and move through Congress next week, Pelosi said Tuesday.

In a private call with Democrats on Monday afternoon, Pelosi said she’s determined to reach a deal and push it through the House in part to help clear the decks ahead of a potential Joe Biden presidency.

And the California Democrat directed her committee chairs to reach out to the top Republicans on their panels to begin hammering out some of the finer details of a broader deal.

But that effort seemed futile at best on Tuesday, as multiple Democrats reported an icy reception from House Republicans. And a bipartisan phone call between House Appropriations Committee staffers on Monday yielded little progress.

Pelosi has faced pressure from across her caucus to deliver a deal quickly, with tens of millions of Americans out of work and businesses shuttered. But top Democrats have also been firm that they will not agree to a deal that does not offer expansive relief — rather than the more targeted packages that Republicans have been proposing.

“I’m frustrated by what appears to be very mixed signals, very mercurial signals from the Senate and the GOP that seem to change every day,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) said in an interview.

“There is still a chance, that’s why we need to hold out hope,” she added. “I have seen some crazy stuff come together, so maybe we’re not as far away from one another as we think we are.”

John Bresnahan, Marianne LeVine, Burgess Everett and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.

Poll: Democrats even with Republicans in Georgia Senate races

Democratic Senate candidates are in a dead heat with their GOP rivals in Georgia, according to a survey of the traditionally Republican-leaning state that has morphed into a new southern battleground in recent years.

A New York Times/Siena College poll published Tuesday — two weeks out from the state’s pair of Senate elections — shows that 43 percent of likely voters support incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, and another 43 percent support Democrat Jon Ossoff.

An additional 4 percent of likely voters support Libertarian Shane Hazel, while 10 percent are voting for someone else, not voting at all or unsure who they will support.

Perdue is widely regarded as one of the more vulnerable Senate Republicans seeking reelection in November, and his race could decide whether Democrats retake control of the chamber.

The Times/Siena survey was partly conducted in the days after Perdue drew criticism Friday for mocking Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ name during a campaign rally.

The incident resulted in Ossoff reporting that his campaign had raised more than $1.8 million over the weekend from at least 42,000 donors.

In the state’s other Senate race — a special election for incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat — a plurality of likely voters, 32 percent, support Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Loeffler is supported by 23 percent of likely voters, while GOP challenger Doug Collins has 17 percent support.

Behind the race’s three leaders, a total of 9 percent of likely voters support Democrats Matt Lieberman and Ed Tarver. An additional 19 percent are either not voting or do not know who they will vote for.

Loeffler was appointed to her Senate seat in January by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired last year. The winner of Loeffler’s race will finish out Isakson’s term.

Because it is a special election, Loeffler’s race is a “jungle” primary featuring 21 total candidates. If none win a majority of the vote on Nov. 3, the top two vote-getters will face one another in a runoff in January 2021.

The Times/Siena survey also shows that the state of the White House race in Georgia is unchanged from last month, with both Donald Trump and Joe Biden still supported by 45 percent of likely voters.

According to a RealClearPolitics average of Georgia surveys conducted from Sept. 27-Oct. 19, the Democratic nominee is 0.9 percentage points ahead of the Republican incumbent in general election polling.

Trump won Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes by 5.7 percentage points in 2016. Republican presidential candidates have carried Georgia in every election since 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton was victorious there.

The Times/Siena poll was conducted Oct. 13-19, surveying 759 Georgia likely voters with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

Judge blasts DeVos’ sweeping denials of student loan relief claims as ‘disturbingly Kafkaesque’

A federal judge scrapped a settlement Tuesday over the Trump administration’s slow processing of loan forgiveness for borrowers who have accused their colleges of fraud, ruling that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos undermined the deal.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in a sharply worded decision that DeVos undercut the settlement by denying large swaths of the claims without sufficient explanation.

The class-action settlement, which was reached earlier this year and received preliminary approval from the court, was meant to force the Education Department to move faster on final decisions for roughly 160,000 of the backlogged requests for loan forgiveness, known as “borrower defense” claims. Some of the claims have languished at the department for years.

Alsup said he is alarmed that DeVos has in recent months responded by swiftly rejecting tens of thousands of the applications through “perfunctory” denial notices. Of the applications in question in the class-action lawsuit, DeVos has denied 74,000 applications and granted 4,400 applications, which the judge noted was a denial rate of 94 percent.

Ruling justification: Alsup called the denial notices “potentially unlawful” and said he was considering blocking DeVos from issuing any further denial notices as the lawsuit proceeds.

The judge, who President Bill Clinton appointed for the Northern District of California, also took the unusual step of authorizing the depositions of up to five Education Department officials to probe the Trump administration’s decision to deny the claims and its months-long delays in processing them. He wrote that DeVos “at this time” would not be required to personally sit for a deposition but said it is a possibility in the future.

In many cases, the department used form letters in its recent string of denials, stating that student loan borrowers had provided insufficient evidence, without any further explanation.

As a result, borrowers face a process that “rings disturbingly Kafkaesque,” Alsup wrote in describing the system as oppressive. The Education Department said borrowers could appeal the denials by explaining why they believed the department incorrectly decided their claim, but it never provided any meaningful explanation for how it came to those conclusions, he said.

Key context: The now-scrapped settlement, which was reached in April and earned Alsup's preliminary approval in May, would have required DeVos to wade through some 160,000 applications and make final decisions within 18 months. At the time, both the Education Department and attorneys for the students said they thought it was a reasonable approach.

But in recent months, the Education Department's rash of denials led many of the students to object to the settlement. A court hearing conducted virtually earlier this month was attended by 650 participants, including hundreds of students, many of whom described their concerns with the settlement in light of DeVos’ denials.

“Students came together to speak up for themselves and show the court the massive scope of the trauma they have endured at the hands of the Department of Education, and the courts are listening,” said Eileen Connor, legal director at Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which represents the students in the class action lawsuit along with legal group Housing & Economic Rights Advocates. “We look forward to the next stage of litigation in which we depose Department of Education officials to explain their actions under oath.”

DeVos' record: An Education Department spokesperson did not immediately have a comment on the decision.

DeVos’ handling of the “borrower defense to repayment” program has repeatedly been rebuked by federal judges and has been among her most politically contentious higher education policies over the past four years.

The secretary argues that the Obama administration’s approach to addressing student loan fraud claims was too lenient and expensive for taxpayers. She has sought to curtail loan forgiveness for defrauded students — an effort that has enraged her Democratic critics.

When DeVos took office, she moved to delay the implementation of the Obama-era standards for loan forgiveness. But she was thwarted by a judge who ruled that she had illegally postponed the regulations.

DeVos in 2019 rewrote the standards and tightened the rules. But more than a dozen Republicans in Congress joined with Democrats in passing legislation to block her policy over concerns that it was too difficult for defrauded students to obtain relief. President Donald Trump sided with his education secretary and vetoed the legislation, which cleared the way for DeVos’ rule to take effect in July.

Meadows to judge: Trump didn’t promise more declassification

A pair of tweets President Donald Trump sent earlier this month complaining about the slow pace of the release of information about the origins of the Russia investigation did not amount to a direct order to make public any additional information, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows declared in an unusual court filing Tuesday.

Meadows’ parsing of the presidential tweets was prompted by a federal judge’s order last week demanding that the White House clarify whether the social media messages undercut the government’s decision to withhold portions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report and related FBI interview reports that are the focus of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

“In light of orders the Court entered…I conferred with the President concerning his intentions with respect to two statements he made on Twitter on October 6, 2020 relating to declassification,” Meadows wrote in a declaration filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.

“The President indicated to me that his statements on Twitter were not self-executing declassification orders and do not require the declassification or release of any particular documents,” Meadows added. “Instead, the President’s statements related to the authorization he had provided the Attorney General to declassify documents as part of his ongoing review of intelligence activities relating to the 2016 Presidential election and certain related matters.”

Meadows’ message may be deflating for some Trump supporters, who are still hoping for major pre-election revelations and have been railing against FBI Director Christopher Wray and others they contend are resisting the president’s long-running calls to open up government records on what he asserts was a “deep state”-orchestrated coup aimed at overturning the results of the 2016 election.

Trump’s tweets seemed consistent with that view, suggesting that elements in the government were undermining his orders.

“I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” Trump wrote on Twitter two weeks ago. “All Russia Hoax Scandal information was Declassified by me long ago. Unfortunately for our Country, people have acted very slowly, especially since it is perhaps the biggest political crime in the history of our Country. Act!!!”

U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton issued the rare order to the White House last week after expressing dissatisfaction with a previous explanation submitted by the Justice Department’s top career official, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer. Weinsheimer said he had checked with an unidentified official in the White House counsel’s office and determined that no new declassification was triggered by Trump’s latest tweets.

However, Walton said that given Trump’s suggestions of a rogue element undercutting his orders, some assurance directly from the president or someone who had spoken to the president was necessary.

“It seems to me that when a president makes an unambiguous statement of what his intent is, I can’t rely upon White House counsel saying, 'Well, that was not his intent,'” the George W. Bush appointee said during a telephone hearing Friday. “Maybe White House counsel talked to the president. Maybe they didn’t, but I can’t tell.”

Walton has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday to address the sufficiency of the White House’s response.

It is unclear whether the judge will find the latest explanation satisfactory. While Meadows’ submission describes the meaning of Trump’s two Oct. 6 tweets, the judge also raised questions about an interview Trump did earlier this month with radio host Rush Limbaugh, in which the president complained about the obstacles to making information public.

In addition, Meadows' description is in tension with Trump’s actual words. While he called for “No redactions!,” the Justice Department continues to withhold limited portions of the Mueller report and large swaths of the underlying FBI interview summaries.

The main report has not been deemed classified, but portions of the summaries have been classified on national security grounds. Other sections are withheld as confidential law enforcement techniques and based on a claim that FBI agents at witness interviews were essentially acting directly for prosecutors.

The suits Walton is overseeing were filed by BuzzFeed, CNN and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Brazil's Bolsonaro endorses Trump's reelection

BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro endorsed his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on Tuesday, adding his name to a list of foreign leaders who have given their support to Trump’s reelection campaign.

“God willing I will be able to attend” Trump’s second inauguration, Bolsonaro said through a translator, adding that he won't "interfere" in the election but "it is from the heart."

The remarks came moments after U.S. and Brazilian officials signed a new trade agreement at an event in Brasilia, Brazil, with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

O'Brien said the memorandum of understanding signed by U.S. and Brazilian officials will lead to an additional $1 billion in Export-Import Bank financing in telecommunications and 5G, in addition to the $450 million in transactions with Brazil the bank has already supported this year.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a better relationship with Brazil than we have today,” said O’Brien, noting that in 2019 Trump designated Brazil a non-NATO ally.

The agreement comes on the heels of a new mini trade deal between the two countries announced Monday covering customs facilitation, trade facilitation good regulatory practices and anti corruption measures.

Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018, has been frequently likened to Trump as both share conservative and populist sensibilities. Both are bombastic heads of state who have frequently shirked domestic and international norms during their time in office.

Each has also faced criticism for their skepticism of scientific expertise, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic as the two presidents have disparaged their own public health officials. Both men have also had personal brushes with Covid-19: Both O'Brien and Bolsonaro separately tested positive in July, as did Trump in early October.

Bolsonaro has met with the president at both the White House and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, and Trump promised the Brazilian leader “the full and complete support of the USA” in 2019 as the country dealt with raging wildfires in the Amazon rain forest.

The Brazilian president joins Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as world leaders who have come out in support of Trump as he seeks another four-year term.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month criticized Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, for his “anti-Russian rhetoric” without explicitly backing Trump. Russia has faced accusations of election interference in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, which Putin has steadfastly denied.

Agreement on warheads brings U.S., Russia closer to extending nuclear treaty

The U.S. and Russia on Tuesday came closer to extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for one year in exchange for a freeze on all nuclear weapons, a breakthrough as President Donald Trump seeks a foreign policy win ahead of the election.

Russia brought the sides closer on Tuesday when it agreed to a U.S. offer that both countries should freeze their number of nuclear warheads of all types for one year.

"Our proposal can only and exclusively be implemented on the understanding that the United States will not advance any additional conditions with regard to freezing the arsenals," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"If this suits Washington," the statement added, "the time gained through the extension of the New START could be used to hold comprehensive bilateral talks on the future of nuclear missile control, with the mandatory discussion of all factors that can influence strategic stability."

Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier offered to extend the treaty for five years without any preconditions, which the U.S. rejected. Late last week, Putin proposed a one-year extension without conditions, and the U.S. countered that any agreement must include the one-year freeze on all nuclear arms, including those not covered by New START.

The Trump administration on Tuesday sounded a positive note after Russia's statement.

"We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control," Megan Ortagus, a State Department spokesperson, said in a statement. "The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same."

Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, Trump's top arms control negotiator, is in Brussels briefing fellow NATO members on the status of the talks.

New START, which began in 2010, limits both sides to 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 delivery systems. It is set to expire on Feb. 5, but allows for an extension of up to five years if both sides agree.

The developments raise the prospect that Trump could notch a major diplomatic achievement just two weeks from the election. His opponent Joe Biden has said he would extend the treaty with Russia for five years without preconditions, while Trump has insisted on a new arrangement that also limits nonstrategic, or battlefield, nuclear weapons.

“It’s a big win because no matter who wins the election, this is significant progress, dislodging a very entrenched Russian position," said Rebeccah Heinrichs, an arms control expert at the Hudson Institute.

But she also cautioned that the details of a freeze need to be worked out quickly.

“We obviously need a detailed verification plan before the U.S. moves forward with a one-year extension," she said. "A detailed verification plan should be intrinsic to the deal and not something the Russians can credibly count as an additional burden.”

"But this is a good commitment," she added.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, noted that the Russians have moved on from their original "clean" five-year extension. "And the Trump administration has shifted its position, too," he added. "The two sides are now closer, but there are still some differences and it will be interesting to see if Trump takes 'yes' for an answer."

"A one-year freeze would buy some time to negotiate something that is more durable," Kimball said.

But he also agreed that the key will be how to verify a freeze. New START requires each side to declare twice a year how many deployed strategic warheads it has but there is no formal accounting of the full breakdown on "exactly how many and which type of warheads," he said.

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

Trump administration launches antitrust salvo against Google

The Justice Department and several Republican-led states filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google on Tuesday, unleashing the might of the U.S. government against one of Silicon Valley's most powerful companies.

The complaint was filed in Washington, D.C. federal court. Eleven Republican attorneys general — representing Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina and Texas — signed on to the complaint.

The Trump administration’s suit, coming just two weeks before Election Day, is the most concrete manifestation yet of Washington’s growing bipartisan anger at the tech giants’ heft and wealth. But with no Democratic attorneys general joining DOJ’s case, it raises questions about the lawsuit’s future in a potential Joe Biden administration. DOJ and the states had spent months attempting to find common ground — those AGs are expected to file their own bipartisan antitrust case in the coming weeks targeting Google’s dominance.

DOJ’s complaint accuses Google of abusing its command of the online search market to stifle competitors. The complaint itself does not say what fixes DOJ will pursue — a recommendation that will be made later. One possibility: The Justice Department could push for the court to require the company to sell off parts of its operations, in what would be the nation’s biggest breakup of a corporate giant on antitrust grounds since AT&T was dismembered in the 1980s.

Impact: The suit follows years of complaints by smaller tech companies, news publishers and other rivals in the U.S. and Europe who say the company has abused its search engine’s role as the internet’s de facto gatekeeper to unfairly benefit its other sprawling business interests. The suit could force major changes in how the search company operates — and may trigger legal rulings that shape the fate of ongoing antitrust probes into Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Beyond that, this suit is the most concrete sign yet that Washington intends to impose real consequences on the tech industry, whose wealth and influence on society have turned Silicon Valley into a rival power center.

Just two weeks ago, House Democrats proposed an overhaul of U.S. antitrust laws that could make it easier to break up companies, writing that the tech giants “have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons.”

The background: The company, founded in 1998 with the motto “Don’t be evil,” takes its name from the googol — the math term for an unfathomably large number, 1 followed by 100 zeros.

Google’s role in technology, business and people’s everyday lives is just as vast. For more than two decades, its search engine has been the main way people find things on the internet. It also controls the world’s most popular web browser (Chrome), video streaming site (YouTube) and smartphone operating system (Android), while claiming the lion’s share of the revenue from the $162 billion global online ad market.

Its moves into other services and products — including mapping and navigation, music, movies, streaming television, games, smart speakers, home thermostats and health — have raised privacy concerns about the hordes of data it’s swooping up. Google has also found itself in disputes with a chorus of business rivals, from fellow tech giants like Apple and Oracle to smaller players such as the review websites Yelp and Tripadvisor.

These concerns helped lead DOJ to open an antitrust probe last year into Google’s activities. Google has also been the subject of antitrust investigations around the world — most prominently in Europe, where authorities have fined the company a total of about $9 billion in three separate cases. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission closed an earlier antitrust investigation into Google in 2013 without taking action after the tech company agreed to change some of its policies.

A long pursuit: Under Attorney General Bill Barr, a former Verizon lawyer who played a key role in that company’s antitrust skirmishes, DOJ has made the Google investigation one of its highest priorities. It has spent the past 16 months delving into the tech giant’s control over search, mobile and the technology underlying much of the advertising that funds the open web.

The Justice Department opened its probe into Google last summer, sending its first information request to the company in August 2019.

A group of attorneys general representing more than 50 states and territories announced their own, separate investigation into the search giant’s digital ad dominance the following month. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose office has a large unit devoted to antitrust — is leading that effort and has spent money to hire experts to help with the probe.

Meanwhile, Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser — a Democrat and an Obama-era DOJ antitrust official — took the lead for the states on search issues, bringing on his own team of lawyers to help with a probe.

Why it’s taken so long: Barr and the Justice Department had hoped to file a suit this summer, but disagreements with the states over the scope and timing of a suit delayed any final decisions on the case until now.

But this suit has still come together quickly compared with past probes of Google.

The Justice Department’s sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission, and a group of five states previously investigated Google over allegations of search bias. The FTC’s 19-month probe ended in January 2013 with the agency’s five commissioner’s opting against a case. The states, which included Texas, California, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and Mississippi, later closed their probes in 2014.

Google backers tend to portray the FTC’s decision not to bring an antitrust suit as an exoneration of the company. But in fact, the agency’s antitrust lawyers had proposed that the FTC file a suit focused on three aspects of Google’s behavior, concluding that the company’s conduct had harmed the market for search and search advertising, according to a staff report that the regulator inadvertently released to The Wall Street Journal in 2015 as part of a public records request.

But prosecutors declined to recommend a suit on the issue of search bias, warning of a “substantial risk” that the FTC wouldn’t be able to win an antitrust suit against the search giant because of the state of U.S. law.

Two years later, the European Commission fined Google €2.42 billion (about $2.8 billion) for giving advantages to one of its own services, Google Shopping, in search results. The commission would issue fines against Google two more times over its practices related to online advertising and exclusive contracts related to the Android operating system. In total, Europe’s primary antitrust authority has fined Google about $9 billion.

More suits on the horizon: The Justice Department and state AGs of both parties are separately pursuing an investigation focused on Google’s command of the online ad-technology market. The states, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, could file an antitrust suit on that issue in the coming weeks.

6 Russian military officers charged in vast hacking campaign

The Justice Department announced charges Monday against Russian intelligence officers in cyberattacks that targeted a French presidential election, the Winter Olympics in South Korea and American businesses. The case implicates the same Kremlin unit that interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, but is not related to the November vote.

The indictment accuses the six defendants, all said to be current and former officers in the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, of hacks that prosecutors say were aimed at furthering the Kremlin's geopolitical interests and in destabilizing or punishing perceived enemies. All told, the attacks caused billions of dollars in losses and disrupted a broad cross-section of life, including health care in Pennsylvania, a power grid serving hundreds of thousands of customers in Ukraine and a French election that saw the late-stage disclosure of hacked emails.

The seven-count indictment is the most recent in a series of Justice Department prosecutions of Russian hackers, often working on behalf of the government. Past cases have focused on attacks against targets like internet giant Yahoo and the 2016 presidential contest, when Russian hackers from the GRU stole Democratic emails that were released online in the weeks before the election.

The attacks in this case are “some of the most destructive, most costly, most egregious cyber attacks ever known,” said Scott Brady, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the 50-page indictment was filed.

“Time and again, Russia has made it clear: They will not abide by accepted norms, and instead, they intend to continue their destructive, destabilizing cyber behavior," said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.

The indictment does not charge the defendants in connection with interference in American elections, though the officers are part of the same intelligence unit that prosecutors say interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. One of the six charged in the case announced Monday was among the Russian military intelligence officers charged with hacking in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.

The timing of the indictment was unrelated to the upcoming election in the U.S., said Assistant Attorney General John Demers. He said that despite ongoing warnings of Russian interference in the election, Americans “should be confident that a vote cast for their candidate will be counted for that candidate.”

The hacking targets described in Monday's case are diverse, with the indictment fleshing out details about attacks that in some instances had already received significant attention because of the havoc they had caused.

The indictment accuses the officers, for instance, of hacking into the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea after Russia was punished by the International Olympic Committee for a vast doping conspiracy. It also says the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were targeted. Those Olympics have been postponed until next year.

The Japanese government's chief Cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato declined to comment on specifics. “We cannot overlook malicious cyberattacks that could shake the foundation of democracy," he said.

Tokyo 2020 in a statement said “no significant impact has been observed in our operations." It said it has been taking “countermeasures” but declined to disclose them.

Prosecutors say the hackers unleashed a devastating malicious software attack during the opening ceremony in February 2018 that deleted data from thousands of computers related to the event and left them inoperable. Russia then tried to pin blame on North Korea in what prosecutors say was a failed “false flag” attempt.

Another attack was aimed at disrupting the 2017 presidential election in France through hacks that targeted local government entities, campaigns and political parties, including the party of current President Emmanuel Macron.

The controversy known as the “Macron Leaks" involved the leak of over 20,000 emails linked to Macron’s campaign in the days before his victory. The involvement of bots raised questions about the possible involvement of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. The leaks, which gained huge media attention in France, were shared by WikiLeaks and several alt-right activists on Twitter, Facebook and others.

Other attacks targeted international investigators looking into the suspected nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom, as well as the country of Georgia, where roughly 15,000 websites were defaced.

“In many cases,” the indictment says, “the Conspirators replaced website home pages with an image of a former Georgian president, who was known for his efforts to counter Russian influence in Georgia, along with the caption, ‘I’ll be back.'"

Beyond that, though, the hacks had harmful impacts on quality-of-life for everyday citizens. The attacks in Ukraine, for instance, disrupted the power supply in the middle of winter for hundreds of thousands of customers, officials say.

And the global malware attack known as NotPetya that infected computers across the world harmed the operations of the Heritage Valley Heath System, which prosecutors say serves tens of thousands of people in western Pennsylvania. Work stations were locked, hard drives encrypted, laboratory records and other files were inaccessible, and Heritage Valley temporarily lost access to critical computer systems related to medical care.

Robert Lee, a security researcher who helped uncover the malware used in one of the Ukraine hacks, said U.S. and European political leaders should have done more at the time to call out Russia and make clear that attacks on power grids are unacceptable.

But Lee, CEO of security firm Dragos, also welcomed the indictment as an important message before the U.S. presidential election about American officials’ resolve to fight back against attacks on elections and civic infrastructure.

“This is a broad signal from U.S. intelligence to say, ‘We’re watching you and we’re willing to burn our resources to burn your resources,’” Lee said. “Leading up to the election, I think that’s an important signal to send.”

The six defendants face charges including conspiracy to conduct computer fraud and abuse, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. None is currently in custody, but the Justice Department in recent years has eagerly charged foreign hackers in absentia in countries including Russia, China and Iran with the goal of creating a message of deterrence.

“No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small tactical advantages as fits of spite," said Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official.