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Barrett clears pivotal Senate hurdle ahead of Monday confirmation vote

Politico -

The Senate cleared a key procedural hurdle Sunday for Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, bringing the 48-year-old judge one step closer to confirmation to the Supreme Court.

In a 51-48 vote, the Senate voted to move forward with 30 hours of debate on Barrett’s nomination, setting up a final confirmation vote for Monday evening, just eight days before the Nov. 3 election. The Senate is expected to remain in session overnight into Monday.

Throughout the weekend, Senate Democrats highlighted the skyrocketing Covid-19 cases in the U.S., arguing that GOP leaders were prioritizing Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation over a stimulus package — even though negotiations over a bipartisan relief proposal have remained stalled for months.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined all Democrats in voting against the procedural step. Both senators opposed confirming Barrett before the election, but only Collins has said she will vote against Barrett’s final confirmation.

Murkowski announced Saturday that she will ultimately support Barrett’s confirmation to the high court, citing her qualifications even as she harangued the process that GOP leaders used to shepherd her nomination through the Senate.

Senate Democrats have accused Republicans of hypocrisy for confirming Barrett so close to the presidential election, after McConnell blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. But Republicans argue that the situation is different because the White House and the Senate are now controlled by the same party.

Barrett’s confirmation will shift the balance of the Supreme Court for a generation. President Donald Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court last month, shortly after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon. Barrett is Trump’s third high court nominee.

In their fight against Barrett, Democrats have focused almost exclusively on the future of the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Nov. 10 in the Trump administration's challenge to the 2010 law, which could result in its wholesale invalidation.

Prior to becoming a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett criticized Chief Justice John Roberts’ vote to uphold Obamacare. But during her confirmation hearing, Barrett insisted she was not “hostile” to the law and Senate Republicans have expressed doubt she would move to strike it down.

Senate Democrats have no procedural tools to stop Barrett’s nomination from going forward, despite several acts of protest in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote. Democrats boycotted the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote to advance Barrett’s nomination to the floor, and in a highly unusual move on Friday they forced the Senate into a closed session for 20 minutes — the first time the Senate went into such a session in more than a decade.

Barrett was confirmed to her current position on the Seventh Circuit on a 55-43 vote, with a handful of Democrats crossing party lines to support her nomination.

Trump top campaign adviser: 'The president wants to see every Republican reelected'

Politico -

Trump senior campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski insisted on Sunday that President Donald Trump “wants to see every Republican reelected, regardless of who they are,” contradicting comments the president reportedly made at an earlier fundraiser.

Trump told donors privately last week that it would be "very tough" for Republicans to retain Senate control in the Nov. 3 elections, The Washington Post reported Saturday. Trump also said there were some senators he wouldn't even "want to help" get reelected, The Post reported.

"There are a couple senators I can’t really get involved in. I just can’t do it. You lose your soul if you do. I can’t help some of them. I don’t want to help some of them," Trump told donors, according The Post.

On Sunday, though, Lewandowski said on NBC's "Meet the Press" the president has been "aggressively campaigning for members of the U.S. Senate," and the Trump team is confident that Republicans will retain a Senate majority in the November elections.

Asked whether Trump was referring to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in his comments about senators he wouldn't want to help, Lewandowski asserted "the president wants to see every Republican reelected regardless of who they are and if they break with the president on some of the issues — and the reason is the alternative is much worse."

Trump recently blasted Collins on Twitter over her opposition to Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination. Collins is in a tough reelection fight against Democratic Maine state House Speaker Sara Gideon, whose well-funded campaign could deny Collins a fifth term in the Senate.

Trump is set to visit Maine on Sunday to campaign in the 2nd Congressional District, which he won four years ago and "could be pivotal in this election cycle," Lewandowski said.

"Obviously, this president wants to make sure that, in addition to his reelection, we're retaining the majority in the US Senate and we're taking back the House of Representatives," Lewandowski said.

National security adviser: Hackers 'can't change votes'

Politico -

White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien declared on Sunday that Russian hackers who were recently reported to have launched attacks on state and local governments “can’t change votes” in the Nov. 3 elections

O’Brien’s comments on CBS’s “Face the Nation” come after federal officials said on Thursday the Russian government was behind a series of attacks "against a wide variety of U.S. targets” including “dozens” of state and local governments. But federal agencies also said they saw no indication that the hacking team had “intentionally disrupted any aviation, education, elections, or government operations.”

Asked if hackers can change votes or make it harder to vote, O'Brien responded: "No, they can't do either of those things. And we got ahold of them early on because we've got great cyber folks, and we put a stop to it, but there's nothing they can do to change your vote or to stop you from voting."

O'Brien also noted the difference between election interference on Election Day and trying to influence people's votes in the election, mentioning the Iranian government's involvement in recent emails threatening Americans with retribution if they don't vote to reelect President Donald Trump.

"Your vote is secret. Every American should understand that their vote is secret. And that was an Iranian effort to hurt the president," O'Brien said.

He said the Trump administration has taken a "very strong position" on election interference and that there will be "severe consequences to anyone who attempts to interfere with our elections on Election Day," though he didn't mention any specific consequences.

"We've told our foreign adversaries, 'don't try to mess with the ballots.' And it is very hard for them to do so," he said.

Polls: Biden has the edge in Florida and North Carolina

Politico -

A trio of CBS News Battleground Tracker polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a slight edge over President Donald Trump in three crucial Southeastern states.

The polls show Biden and Trump dead even among likely voters in Georgia at 49 percent, but Biden with a 50-48 edge over Trump in Florida and a 51-47 advantage in North Carolina. Trump won all three of the states in 2016, which offer a total of 60 electoral votes between them.

In all three states, a majority of those who had said they had already voted said they had voted for Biden: 55 percent in Georgia, and 61 percent in both Florida and North Carolina. The president had majority support among those who had yet to vote.

The polls also looked at Senate races in Georgia and North Carolina. In Georgia, Republican Sen. David Perdue was one percentage point ahead of Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff (47-46).

Georgia, which is also holding a Senate special election, requires the winner of a Senate race to draw at least 50 percent of the vote or face a runoff election.

In North Carolina, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham remained ahead of Sen. Thom Tillis by a margin of 49 percent to 43.

These surveys were conducted by YouGov from Oct. 20 to Oct. 23. They are based on samples of 1,243 registered voters in Florida, 1,102 in Georgia, and 1,037 in North Carolina. Margins of error for likely voters are plus or minus 3.6 points in Florida, 3.4 points in Georgia, and 4.1 points in North Carolina.

Pelosi to run for speaker again if Democrats keep the House

Politico -

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Sunday she'll seek another term as speaker should Democrats keep the House majority in the Nov. 3 elections.

Asked directly by host Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union" whether she will run again, Pelosi responded: "Yes, I am. But let me also say that we have to win the Senate."

The California Democrat, who is 80, first served as speaker from 2007 to 2011 — becoming the first woman in history to hold the post — and was reelected to it in January 2019.

Pelosi: Covid relief deal could still happen before Election Day

Politico -

With only nine days until Election Day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday she's still “optimistic” about Congress passing a coronavirus relief package before Nov. 3.

"I never give up hope. I'm optimistic. We put pen to paper and had been writing the bill based on what we hope will be the outcome, what they said they would get back to us on," Pelosi said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Relief talks among Pelosi, the Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders have been stalled for months, but the House speaker said Tuesday she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were "on a path" to a massive deal.

On Friday, Pelosi told CNN she sent Mnuchin a list of concerns "that we still had about 'what is the answer?'"

"My understanding is he will be reviewing that over the weekend, and we will have some answers on Monday," she said Sunday.

Pelosi said she'll not hold out to see whether Democrats win the White House and the Senate and keep the House after in the Nov. 3 elections to pursue a bill more to Democrats' liking. Instead, she said she'll continue working to get a relief bill passed "as soon as possible."

The speaker went on to say that a relief bill could be passed as soon as this week in the House, but that it's up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) whether it would go to the Senate floor.

McConnell has largely steered clear of stimulus talks recently and many GOP senators are opposed to the $2 trillion deal being discussed by Pelosi and Mnuchin. On Tuesday, McConnell softened his stance a bit, saying he would allow the Senate to vote on a Pelosi-Mnuchin agreement — assuming that first Trump agrees to sign it.

Earlier Sunday on CNN, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said, "We've identified those Senate Republicans most likely to vote" for the relief deal to pass. But he said Republicans will not blindly pass the bill without first reading its terms fully.

"We are not Nancy Pelosi. We are not going to vote or opine on a bill and pass it before we have read it," he said.

‘We’re not going to control the pandemic’: White House chief’s comments undermine Trump’s closing message

Politico -

The Trump administration signaled on Sunday that it had given up on controlling the spread of the coronavirus, even as Covid-19 makes its second run through the White House, three in four Americans are concerned that they or someone they know will contract the disease, and millions of American families are suffering as negotiators struggle to clinch an elusive relief deal.

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” “We are gonna control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation.”

Yet President Donald Trump — who continues to insist that the country is “rounding the corner” despite a new surge in cases — is campaigning in New Hampshire and Maine on Sunday before returning to the White House to co-host a Halloween event with first lady Melania Trump. Vice President Mike Pence will also continue to campaign instead of quarantine, after a top staffer tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday.

Nine days out from a critical election that will determine whether voters will “Keep America Great” by reelecting Trump or “Build Back Better” by promoting former Vice President Joe Biden, the coronavirus is dominating the presidential campaign.

In a nearly 20-minute interview with Meadows on CNN, the name Amy Coney Barrett didn’t even come up on Sunday, even though Trump’s nominee is just a day away from being elevated to the Supreme Court.

Instead, Meadows was constantly confronting questions about the coronavirus, including how many staffers inside the White House have tested positive or reported symptoms over the last week, why he sought to conceal that information from the public and why the U.S. won’t get control of the spread.

Meadows argued that the administration wouldn’t get the pandemic under control “because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.”

Trump himself privately said in a February interview with journalist Bob Woodward that the virus might be five times deadlier than the flu. Eight months later, the president’s handling of that same virus is imperiling his reelection bid.

Covid-19 has now killed more than 224,000 people in the U.S. and infected more than 8.5 million Americans, including some inside the White House.

“It’s ripping through this country,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who recovered from the virus earlier this summer, told reporters outside the White House on Sunday. “But it’s also ripping through Europe in a way that it never has before.”

The latest round of infections comes after the president, first lady, their son Barron, advisers Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller and several other staffers tested positive earlier this month.

Vice President Mike Pence’s office announced on Saturday that chief of staff Marc Short tested positive for Covid-19. Pence’s office said both he and second lady Karen Pence had tested negative.

Almost 80 percent of Americans are somewhat or very concerned that they or someone they know will be infected with the coronavirus, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll out on Sunday. And 61 percent of respondents disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic (38 percent approve).

Meadows said he wished Short and any Americans who have contracted the virus well, but he declined to identify how many people in Pence’s office or the White House had tested positive or reported symptoms.

“We don’t give out that kind of information,” Meadows said.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that at least four members of Pence’s staff had tested positive in the past few days and that Meadows “had sought to keep news of the outbreak from becoming public.”

“When we actually have people’s health at risk,” Meadows explained on Sunday, “sharing personal information is not something that we should do, not something that we do actually do, unless it’s the vice president or the president or someone that’s very close to them where there’s people in harm’s way.”

Trump was briefly hospitalized with the virus earlier this month but has since recovered and held a series of rallies per day, crisscrossing the country to rescue his flagging campaign. But masks are not required to attend the president’s crowded rallies, a stark contrast from the intimate, socially distant in-person and drive-in events Biden has. Polls show Trump trailing Biden in national and several battleground state surveys, including new surveys in Texas, Florida and North Carolina.

Pence will also continue to campaign, despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to quarantine for 14 days. But Meadows said the vice president, who the White House insists is an essential worker, will wear a mask.

“I spoke to the vice president last night at midnight, and I can tell you that what he’s doing is wearing a mask, socially distancing and when he goes up to speak, he will take the mask off, put it back on,” Meadows said. “He’s wearing a mask as it relates to this particular thing because the doctors have advised him to do that.”

Meadows said he had a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring a coronavirus relief package to the floor if the administration reaches an agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), though it appears unlikely a deal will pass before Election Day. And because of the price tag, Democrats will probably provide the bulk of the votes in the Senate.

The White House has identified the Senate Republicans most likely to support the deal, Meadows said. “But we’re not Nancy Pelosi,” he said. “We’re not going to vote or opine on a bill and pass it before we’ve read it.”

Meadows agreed that the pandemic is “very serious,” adding that the U.S. needs to make sure it has mitigation factors such as therapeutics, vaccines and other treatments to prevent deaths. He also said Americans, including the president, should “certainly” follow CDC guidelines, but when it comes to wearing masks at rallies, he said, it’s not mandated because “we live in a free society.”

“When we look at the number of cases increasing, what we have to do is make sure that we fight it with therapeutics and vaccines, take proper mitigation factors in terms of social distancing and masks when we can,” he said. “And when we look at this, we’re going to defeat it, Jake, because what we are, we’re Americans. We do that, and this president is leading while Joe Biden is sitting there suggesting that we’re going to mandate masks.”

Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that only one presidential candidate was campaigning safely. She cited a recent news report of coronavirus spikes following Trump’s campaign events, which she called health-jeopardizing “super-spreader rallies.”

“We’re never going to do that. You know, first and foremost, we are going to be looking out for public safety,” Bedingfield said. “We’ve done that from the outset of the pandemic. I think we have campaigned aggressively and creatively and safely, and you know, frankly, I think that’s what Americans are looking for.”

Biden leads slightly in Texas, poll indicates

Politico -

Democratic nominee Joe Biden holds a slight lead in Texas over President Donald Trump among likely voters in Texas, according to a poll released Sunday by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.

The poll showed Biden with the support of 48 percent of likely voters, compared with 45 percent for Trump. The results represent a shift from the same poll in September, when Trump led by 2 percentage points. One difference from September is that Biden has expanded his lead among Hispanic voters from 30 percentage points to 48.

Texas, with its 38 electoral votes, was the most populous state won by Trump in 2016. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Forty percent of those surveyed said they had already voted in the election.

One category listed in the polling not usually included in most state polls was “gun owners.” Of those surveyed, 58 percent said they supported Trump, compared to 35 percent who backed Biden.

The poll, conducted Oct. 13-20, surveyed 1,012 registered voters. Of those, 925 are characterized as likely voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.08 percentage points for the overall group, and 3.22 points for likely voters.

GOP Senate majority besieged on multiple fronts

Politico -

Democrats began the 2020 election cycle with only a narrow path back to the Senate majority. But entering the final week before the election, there are competitive races everywhere.

Republicans are scrambling resources into red and purple states alike — from Kansas and South Carolina to Iowa and North Carolina — cutting down Democrats’ massive financial edge and hoping for a late-breaking turn in their favor, similar to four years ago. But their defensive posture underscores just how broad the playing field is, with nearly a dozen Republican senators in various levels of danger, and only two Democratic seats at risk.

Democrats aren’t declaring the chamber won, given that the map still tilts heavily toward red states. But their paths back to the majority have expanded significantly as the election nears its close, leaving party strategists more optimistic about their chances than two years ago — when retaking the Senate seemed next to impossible, even in a wave election.

Republicans have poured money into Alaska, Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina in October to shore up their red wall, while races in more expected battlegrounds like Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Arizona are continuing to see record-shattering spending. Republicans concede Democrats have more paths back to power given the sheer number of competitive states, but the GOP still has a relatively straightforward, if challenging, path to hanging on.

Republicans faced bleak polling in early October, with President Donald Trump’s poor performance in the first debate and Covid-19 hospitalization depressing GOP voters. Trump’s dip, combined with massive Democratic fundraising, led to widespread concerns about a wipeout. But a flood of outside money from big GOP donors and some stabilization in red-leaning states has GOP officials more optimistic about holding the line.

Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Republicans could win in more places than people expect. But, he added, “the low-water mark is potentially catastrophic.”

“What was a significant downturn for most Republican candidates over the last couple weeks has sort of rebounded a bit,” Holmes said. “All of these competitive races are within the margin of error, and you could have a whole bunch of scenarios play out on Election Day. The options are basically endless.”

Democrats pulled money out of Colorado earlier this month in a sign of confidence in flipping that seat, and Republicans remain heavily favored to regain Alabama. Democrats maintain a clear edge in Arizona, even as some Republicans say their polls show a closer race. Maine is a challenge for Republicans, since Joe Biden is expected to win statewide by a large margin.

Democrat Cal Cunningham still holds a slight edge in North Carolina, despite revelations of his extramarital affair, which gave GOP Sen. Thom Tillis and Republicans new life in a race that had been trending against them. GOP Sen. Joni Ernst and Democrat Theresa Greenfield are locked in a dead heat in Iowa, which is the second-most expensive state. Republicans are pressing their case in Michigan, their only other chance besided Alabama to flip a seat, and Democrats are still spending heavily on defense there, even as public polls show them with a lead.

“The map is very tight. It is on a knife's edge,” said one Republican strategist working on Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Democrats’ expansion of the map came thanks to strong recruiting in a handful of unexpected places, incredible fundraising across the board and a nosedive in Trump’s numbers over the summer and into the fall. In states like Kansas, Alaska, Montana and South Carolina, Democrats fielded candidates that put races that would otherwise be afterthoughts into play, though recent public polling shows Republicans narrowly leading in all four.

“I think we have a good shot to take the majority back. There’s more opportunity and more pathways to get there. I think the map has broadened, and that's bad for Republicans,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ top super PAC focused on the chamber. “The big difference now is you have more competitive races, but they're still competitive. And we expect them to stay close right through Election Day.”

Democratic campaigns have spending advantages over Republicans in 12 of the 13 most competitive states, according to a POLITICO review of data from Advertising Analytics. That candidate spending edge is thanks to the massive small-dollar fundraising that continued into October.

But Senate Leadership Fund and its allies mounted a late surge to counter the disparity. As GOP donors honed in on the Senate, SLF raised $142 million from the beginning of September through mid-October, flooding the battlegrounds with new outside spending.

Senate Leadership Fund is spending in 11 states, only one of which, Michigan, is an offensive target. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is spending in seven states and recently added a nearly $500,000 coordinated campaign expenditure to boost GOP Sen. John Cornyn in Texas, the committee’s first spending there.

“As liberal donors flood races across the map with a green tsunami of cash, we’re working furiously to keep Republicans’ heads above water in the battle to hold the Senate majority,” Steven Law, president of Senate Leadership Fund, said in a statement.

Senate Majority PAC is spending on 10 offensive targets, while also continuing to spend heavily in Michigan to defend Sen. Gary Peters against Republican John James. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been more targeted, running independent-expenditure TV ads in four states: Arizona, Iowa, Montana and North Carolina.

“Strong candidates have run smart, disciplined campaigns, expanding the map into deep red states Democrats rarely compete in and forcing Republicans on defense across the country,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a DSCC spokesperson. She added that the races were in “tough states” and highlighted the GOP’s increased outside spending, saying the party was relying on grassroots donors to keep pace.

The late spending is similar to 2016, when a massive influx of GOP money in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania helped Republicans preserve their narrow majority. Democrats are better funded across the map this cycle, however, and Trump is polling well below Democrat Joe Biden.

Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the NRSC, said in a statement Republicans were positioned to close strong despite Democrats having thrown “an unprecedented amount of money at us this cycle,” accusing Democrats of having “personal scandals and failed records” that would keep the GOP competitive.

Republicans continue to hammer Cunningham in North Carolina over the revelation of an extramarital affair, with Tillis’ campaign and outside groups running constant ads on it. Cunningham is set to double Tillis’ TV spending between now and Election Day, however, and Democrats have more airtime booked in the state overall.

Since a virtual press conference a week after the scandal broke, the closest Cunningham has come to addressing it was in a new ad that began airing this weekend, in which he says Tillis is “desperately attacking my personal life because he doesn’t want to talk about his own record” on health care.

Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for Tillis’ campaign, called it a “desperate response ad to try and stop the bleeding.”

Maine is extremely close, within the margin of error, according to operatives in both parties. But the state’s ranked-choice voting system represents a concern for Republicans: There are two third-party candidates, and those candidates voters would move to their secondary choices until someone receives 50 percent. Both GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon agreed during a debate Thursday night not to challenge the election if they lost under the system.

In Michigan, Republicans remain hopeful about flipping the seat, and a recent internal GOP poll showed James tied with Peters, according to multiple officials familiar with the survey. But public and private Democratic polling shows a safer race for Peters. The first-term senator and his allies have a spending edge in the state through Election Day, and Peters doubled James' fundraising in the first two weeks of October after a surge in small-dollar donations.

A decisive Biden victory in Michigan would be difficult for James to overcome. But he’s showing some effort to separate from the top of the ticket. He released a new ad promising to “fight back” against any president and mocking Democrats’ assertions that “a 39-year-old Black guy from Detroit is Donald Trump.”

Absent a surprise upset, nearly every competitive race has to go Republicans' way to hold the majority. Lose in North Carolina or Iowa, or drop even one of the red-state races, and Democrats are favorites to retake the chamber.

“People are realists about the possibility, but nobody has given up,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran GOP strategist. “They don't have to quite run the table. But close.”

Afghanistan claims killing an al-Qaeda leader wanted by FBI

Politico -

ABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan claimed Sunday it killed a top al-Qaeda propagandist on an FBI most-wanted list during an operation in the country’s east, showing the group’s continued presence there as U.S. forces work to withdraw from America’s longest-running war amid continued bloodshed.

The reported death of Husam Abd al-Rauf, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhsin al-Masri, follows weeks of violence including an Islamic State-claimed suicide bombing Saturday at an education center near Kabul that killed 24 people. Meanwhile, the Afghan government continues to fight Taliban militants even as peace talks in Qatar between the two sides take place for the first time.

The violence and al-Rauf’s reported killing threatens the face-to-face peace talks and risks plunging this nation beset by decades of war into further instability. It also complicates America’s efforts to withdraw, 19 years after it led an invasion targeting the Taliban for hosting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Details over the raid that led to al-Rauf’s alleged death remained murky, hours after Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security intelligence service claimed on Twitter to have killed him in Ghazni province. Al-Qaeda did not immediately acknowledge al-Rauf’s reported death. The FBI, the U.S. military and NATO did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Afghan raid happened last week in Kunsaf, a village in Ghazni province’s Andar district some 90 miles southwest of Kabul, two government officials said.

Amanullah Kamrani, the deputy head of Ghazni’s provincial council, told The Associated Press that Afghan special forces led by the intelligence agency raided Kunsaf, which he described as being under Taliban control. On the village’s outskirts, they stormed an isolated home and killed seven suspected militants in a firefight, including al-Rauf, Kamrani said.

Neither Kamrani nor the intelligence agency offered details on how authorities identified al-Rauf, nor how they came to suspect he was in the village.

Wahidullah Jumazada, a spokesman for the provincial governor in Ghazni, said Afghan forces killed six suspected militants in the raid, without acknowledging al-Rauf had been killed.

Kamrani alleged, without providing evidence, that the Taliban had been offering shelter and protection to al-Rauf. The Taliban told the AP on Sunday they are investigating the incident, without elaborating.

If the Taliban had provided protection for al-Rauf, that would violate the terms of its Feb. 29 deal with the U.S. that jump-started the Afghan peace talks. That deal saw the Taliban agree “not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies,” which includes al-Qaida.

Federal prosecutors in the southern district of New York filed a warrant for al-Rauf’s arrest in December 2018, accusing him of providing support to a foreign terrorist organization and being part of a conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens. The FBI put him on the bureau’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, which now includes 27 others.

The red-headed al-Rauf, believed to be born in 1958, is an Egyptian national. An al-Qaeda-issued biography said he joined the mujahedeen fighters who battled the Soviet Union in 1986.

He has served for years as al-Qaeda’s media chief, offering audio statements and written articles backing the militant group. After years of remaining silent following the acknowledgement of Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s death, al-Rauf re-emerged in 2018 in an audio statement in which he mocked President Donald Trump and those who preceded him the White House.

“I name him ‘Donald T-Rambo’ who tries to copy the famous American fictional character ‘Rambo,’ who, with only a Kalashnikov, was able to liberate the entire Afghanistan from the Soviet Union,” al-Rauf said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

Meanwhile Sunday, authorities raised the death toll in Saturday’s suicide attack on an education center near Kabul. The suicide bomber, who was stopped by guards from entering the center, killed 24 and wounded 57 — many of them young students.

The Islamic State group’s local affiliate claimed credit for the attack in a heavily Shiite neighborhood of western Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, saying one of its fighters used a suicide bomb vest in the assault.


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