Meadows forecasts lawsuits against social media companies over bias claims

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Monday appeared to warn that the Trump administration would bring “additional lawsuits” against social media companies for attempting to curb the spread of misinformation ahead of the presidential election.

In an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Meadows argued that the online platforms are biased against conservatives and invoked their efforts to stop the sharing of dubious claims about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

“They have two standards: one for one campaign, one for the other. But I do believe that additional lawsuits will be filed perhaps as early as today to go after that,” Meadows said.

“Listen, it’s not just the campaigns,” he added. “They’re now starting to censor, actually, reporters. That’s a dangerous place for them to go when they’re the arbiter of what they deem to be the truth.”

The remarks from President Donald Trump’s top aide follow days of outrage from Republicans over Facebook’s and Twitter’s measures to counter the dissemination of unsubstantiated accusations against the Bidens published by the New York Post.

The allegations, pushed by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, have drawn widespread skepticism for potentially being part of a Russian influence operation perpetrated in the final weeks before Election Day.

Meadows’ threat of litigation also comes after Twitter briefly locked Trump’s reelection campaign account last Thursday for amplifying the Biden claims, leading the president to predict that the social media controversy is “going to all end up in a big lawsuit.”

“There are things that can happen that are very severe that I’d rather not see happen,” Trump told Fox Business in an interview. “But it’s probably going to have to.”

Supreme Court to hear case over Trump border wall

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether President Donald Trump unconstitutionally usurped Congress’ spending power by diverting Defense Department funds to pay for expansion and reinforcement of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The high court’s announcement in a routine order list Monday morning was widely expected because in July 2019 the justices allowed construction of the wall with disputed funds to proceed by staying a lower court injunction.

The justices typically grant review after issuing a stay like the one last year, particularly in a high-profile legal fight like the one over Trump’s border wall. At issue in the case is the president's February 2019 move to repurpose about $6 billion in military construction and counterdrug appropriations to finance the wall, ending a budget standoff with Congress and a partial government shutdown.

The president’s spending maneuver came after Congress agreed to spend only $1.375 billion in that fiscal year for border wall improvements, billions less than Trump was demanding. Trump’s actions triggered lawsuits from various quarters, including border groups, environmentalists, 20 states and the Democratic-led House of Representatives.

The Supreme Court case could divide the justices along ideological lines if the vote turns out to be similar to the action on the stay, which was granted by the court’s five Republican-appointed justices and opposed by the four Democratic appointees.

One of the liberals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died in September. Trump has nominated appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy. The Senate could vote to approve her nomination within days.

The border wall case, which involves interpretation of the executive branch’s authority to shift funds between budget accounts, will likely be heard early next year.

The Supreme Court also announced Monday that it will take up another immigration-related Trump initiative, the so-called Remain in Mexico policy under which most asylum applicants who present themselves at the southwest border are returned to Mexico to await a hearing before an immigration judge.

As with the border wall, the Supreme Court granted a stay that allowed the administration to press on with the asylum policy. The high court’s action in March of this year allowed the program, formally known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” to continue.

However, due to the coronavirus, the hearings conducted near the border under the “Remain in Mexico” policy were suspended in March and have not yet resumed. As a result, most asylum applicants who arrived at the southwest border are effectively stranded in Mexico.

The Trump administration has said the policy is needed to prevent a rush of asylum seekers who could overwhelm border posts, endangering border officers and routine border-crossers. Critics say making the asylum applicants return to Mexico is callous because of the dangers they face there, including from widespread drug-related violence.

“Remain in Mexico” could also become a vehicle for the Supreme Court to weigh in on an increasingly contentious legal issue: when and whether individual federal judges have the power to issue an injunction that applies nationwide and protects individuals not party to the litigation. In the asylum case, a district court judge blocked the policy nationwide but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later narrowed the injunction to only the two southern border states in its jurisdiction: Arizona and California.

California's $100M dialysis battle comes with ancillary benefits for labor union

OAKLAND — In initiative-happy California, one set of ads stands out — those involving dialysis clinics, an industry that's historically been a lower-profile player in politics.

The ads are unusual not only because of their unlikely topic but their volume, which is high because industry opponents of a labor ballot measure are spending more than any group opposing the other 11 proposals California voters must decide on.

The massive spending gap between the $100 million opponents, including DaVita Inc., have raised and the $8.9 million by supporters led by SEIU United Healthcare Workers West means that the dialysis industry has flooded airwaves as it defends itself against organized labor. The same chain of events played out two years ago, resulting in a resounding defeat for the union's ballot initiative.

California's ballot wars have escalated in recent years as industries see little problem spending more than $100 million — and nearly twice that amount in the gig industry's case — to persuade the electorate. Businesses and organizations that don't get their way in the state Capitol often use the ballot to change state laws or as leverage to pressure lawmakers and other powerful interests. Proposition 23 is the third most expensive ballot initiative in 2020, according to data compiled by POLITICO.

While SEIU-UHW says it is committed to passing Prop 23, political strategists suggest that labor backers may simply be playing the long game by placing an initiative on the ballot every two years challenging the industry. Win or lose, the union is putting pressure on dialysis companies to spend gobs of money each general election.

“The threat of a ballot measure is something UHW has used strategically,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento who is not involved in the Prop. 23 campaign. “In order for a threat to actually be credible, sometimes you have to put it on the ballot. But appearing on a ballot and actually running a campaign to support something are two different things.”

Proposition 23 faces long odds not just because of the industry's $100 million war chest, but also because it involves a regulatory matter on a crowded ballot — a perfect recipe for voter rejection.

Two years ago, Californians voted 60-40 to reject Prop. 8, another SEIU-UHW-backed initiative that would have capped dialysis profits. But to get that win, the dialysis industry, led by the dominant franchises DaVita Inc. and Fresenius Medical Care, invested about $111 million to defeat it, or nearly six times what the proponents spent.

One day after that Nov. 6, 2018 election, the union vowed to refile the initiative in California and other states. SEIU-UHW did file another initiative, but Prop 23 looks dramatically different, focusing on requirements that clinics must meet such as staffing one doctor on site.

John Logan, director of labor employment studies at San Francisco State University, said unions have long used non-traditional tactics like ballot-box campaigns to get companies to the negotiating table.

“They don’t have to invest any of their money to support it, but the other side has to spend tens of millions because it would be a disaster if it were to pass,” he said.

That David-and-Goliath theme is playing out again this time. The industry has amassed more than $104 million so far to defeat the initiative, compared to nearly $9 million on the yes side.

SEIU-UHW knows it's going to be vastly outspent by the industry, but says it is not part of a strategy to get the dialysis companies to bargain with them. Union officials acknowledged they want to organize the clinics, but say it's an uphill battle and that they haven’t spoken with the clinic operators in more than five years. They say they're in this to improve patient care.

"We have our sights set on them," SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan said. "Part of what we view our mission, our charge and our work is we want to be an organization that puts a spotlight on the worst actors in the health care industry and, frankly, DaVita and Fresenius are at the front of that line."

SEIU-UHW and other health care unions, including the California Nurses Association, have long used patient care as the centerpiece of campaigns against health care entities — both at the ballot box and through legislative efforts.

“The whole idea of using non-traditional tactics to achieve greater leverage in unionizing has been around for years,” SF State’s Logan said. “SEIU, in particular, is one of a number of unions that have used corporate campaigning very extensively and quite successfully over a number of years.”

SEIU-UHW, since 2012, has filed some 23 local and state initiatives. In recent years, they’ve launched a flurry of measures, targeting a number of California hospitals to limit prices and impose executive salary caps, though many failed to qualify or were abandoned.

Still, the union counts as victories its campaign to increase the minimum wage, which in 2016 helped spark a legislative deal. And the failure of Prop. 8 led to a 2019 law authored by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa), which was designed to control health costs by deterring dialysis clinics from encouraging their patients to enroll in health plans that offer higher reimbursement rates.

But the new law, which was supposed to go into effect this year, is on hold while an industry lawsuit winds through the courts.

The dialysis industry has come under scrutiny for its relationship with the nonprofit American Kidney Fund, which has steered patients toward higher-paying commercial insurance instead of Medicare, resulting in higher clinic reimbursements. DaVita and Fresenius have provided the bulk of funding for AKF, according to an audit of the nonprofit.

That financial situation led to the Wood legislation and fueled the union's 2018 ballot initiative drive targeting dialysis revenues.

The Yes on Prop. 23 campaign, endorsed by the California Democratic Party and the California Labor Federation, now contends the multibillion-dollar industry has put the lives of California's more than 70,000 dialysis patients at risk through substandard care and staffing.

The No on Prop. 23 campaign refutes those claims, emphasizing that the “special interest proposition” would increase health care costs by millions and force clinics to close, jeopardizing access to care most acutely in low-income communities. It notes that no other state requires a doctor to be on site during dialysis treatment.

Brokaw described the dialysis industry as a “non-traditional boogie man."

“These dialysis clinics literally provide a life-saving service so it’s not like you’re taking on the tobacco industry,” he said. But, nonetheless, the campaign is a tactic of “extracting many, many pounds of flesh from your opponent at a smaller cost to yourself. And there is some value strategically in doing that.”

Regan didn't rule out a run at the industry again if Prop. 23 falls short.

"We’ll see what we do in 2021, but this is an industry that needs to be reformed, to modify their business practices and to improve," he said, adding that SEIU-UHW has cost the dialysis industry about a quarter of a billion to fight back. "The reason they’re willing to spend it is this business is so lucrative for all the wrong reasons, and it’s obviously in their interest to do this."

Fauci: Trump ‘equates wearing a mask with weakness’

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, suggested in a new interview that President Donald Trump is reluctant to cover his face in public amid the coronavirus pandemic because he “equates wearing a mask with weakness.”

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Fauci said the president’s frequent refusal to model the personal mitigation measure is “less an anti-science [position] than it’s more a statement.”

“You know, a statement of strength,” Fauci added. “Like, ‘We’re strong. We don’t need a mask.’ That kind of thing. He sometimes equates wearing a mask with weakness.”

Asked whether it made sense to him to view mask-wearing through such a lens of strength or weakness, Fauci responded: “No, it doesn’t. Of course not.”

Still, Fauci said he thought that “deep down, [Trump] believes in science,” because “if he didn’t, he would not have entrusted his health to the very competent physicians at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.”

Trump was treated at the Maryland military hospital for three days earlier this month after contracting Covid-19. But even after being discharged, he has continued to decline to wear masks at many public events.

In fact, upon his return to the White House after his stay at Walter Reed, the presumably still-contagious president ascended the steps to the Truman Balcony and removed his mask to pose and salute for the cameras before entering the executive mansion.

Trump has resumed his campaign schedule in the final weeks of the presidential race, headlining packed rallies in swing states attended by mostly maskless crowds and urging Americans to go about their normal lives with little regard for the pandemic.

Trump was pressed on his failure to more forcefully advocate mask-wearing at an NBC town hall event last Thursday, during which he only expressed approval of masks and did not encourage their use.

Presented with the results of a University of Washington study from July that predicted the nation’s daily death toll could be reduced by more than 66 percent with universal mask-wearing, Trump said there were “other people that disagree” and mentioned Dr. Scott Atlas — the White House’s controversial new health adviser.

“Scott Atkins, if you look at Scott, Dr. Scott,” Trump said, apparently misremembering Atlas’ name. “He's from — great guy. Stanford. He will tell you that. He disagrees with you.”

Atlas is a physician with no expertise in infectious diseases or epidemiology, known for his rosier assessments of the pandemic’s threat and resistance to coronavirus restrictions. He has reportedly been urging the White House to embrace a strategy of herd immunity through mass infection to quash the public health crisis, but has denied advocating such an approach.

Trump also distorted data from a study published last month by the CDC to assert that 85 percent of people who wear masks become infected — a false claim he made on several occasions last Thursday.

Trump noted that Fauci did not endorse mask-wearing in the initial stage of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. But neither did other administration officials at the time, and the CDC began recommending the use of cloth masks when outside the home by early April.

Fauci acknowledged in June that the administration was slow to promote mask-wearing because of concerns among the public health community regarding a shortage of personal protective equipment in the U.S.

Everytown pumps $4.4M into closing message in six battleground states

Everytown for Gun Safety is dropping an additional $4.4 million in the closing weeks of the fall election, tying gun safety measures to the coronavirus pandemic in a slew of TV and digital ads.

Everytown, co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is spreading its investment across six key battleground states to mobilize supportive votersr. The effort is part of $60 million in spending on 2020 races, doubling what the group spent on the 2018 election cycle.

In Texas, Everytown is targeting two open, competitive House seats, dropping $2 million on negative TV ads. In Texas’ 22nd District, the group attacks Republican Troy Nehls, who is running against Democrat Sri Kulkarni, for his National Rifle Association endorsement. In Texas’ 24th District, the ad hits Republican Beth Van Duyne, who is running against Democrat Candace Valenzuela, for accepting money from the NRA.

Everytown is also spending $1.3 million in TV and digital ads aimed at flipping state legislative chambers to Democrats in Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas. One digital ad tells voters in North Carolina that “Covid-19 is not the only public health crisis facing North Carolina families,” the ad’s narrator says. “Deaths from Covid-19 and gun violence are on the rise, but Republicans in North Carolina’s legislature have failed to action required to keep us safe.”

Another $1 million will go to TV and digital ads, as well as a direct mail campaign, focused on voter mobilization in Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Everytown’s ad buy comes at the close of a 2020 election dominated by coronavirus and a struggling economy, topics not central to the group’s core issue: stricter gun laws. In March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, “Everyone asked, ‘was the political zeitgeist scrambled?’ And we asked ourselves the same question,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Throughout the spring, Everytown researched ways to refine their messaging and found that yoking the coronavirus and gun violence together could be an effective way to move voters.

“Our polling showed us, when you couple the dual carnage of Covid and gun violence to legislative failure to address both emergencies, it's particularly potent,” Feinblatt said. “When you talk about the number of people who have died from Covid, from gun violence, and you lay responsibility at the feet of lawmakers, what you find is that Americans want to know that their lawmakers are going to do to keep them safe.”

One particularly stark example came in a TV ad that aired in Florida and Arizona last month, linking Trump’s inauguration speech to the pandemic and gun violence.

“As he’s sworn into office, Donald Trump warns about American carnage. He was right. Trump’s failed leadership has brought four deadly years,” the ad’s narrator says, over ominous music. “125,000 dead from gun violence, 200,000 more from Covid-19. Now, Trump warns about the carnage to come if he’s not reelected.

“As the death toll continues to rise, downplaying, denying, refusing to act – Donald Trump is failing America,” the ad concludes.

In an analysis done by Civis Analytics, a Democratic analytics firm which performs randomized trials judging the effectiveness of ads, Everytown’s ad was the highest performing 30-second negative ad about President Donald Trump last month.

It “[contextualized] the gun violence crisis within the COVID crisis” and “their fall TV spot effectively moved the needle in increasing support for Democratic candidates,” said Jesse Stinebring, Civis Analytics’ managing director for political research and development.

El Auge de los “Magazolanos” y la Contienda por Sus Votos

En 2016, la dictadura de Nicolás Maduro ya había desatado el caos en Venezuela cuando Donald Trump ganó la elección presidencial de los Estados Unidos. El régimen de Maduro se convertía cada vez más en un mandato de hambruna, enfermedad y persecución. Ese mismo año, la herida nacional produjo cerca de 5 millones de refugiados. De acuerdo con el Departamento de Seguridad Interna, el número de venezolanos que solicitaron asilo en los Estados Unidos se triplicó a casi 15.000 personas.

Ese mismo año, la zona de Doral en el condado Miami-Dade—apodada “Doralzuela” debido a que cerca de un tercio de la población está compuesta por migrantes venezolanos—eligió a Hillary Clinton por una ventaja de 52 puntos en un precinto electoral ubicado a tan solo 10 minutos del club de golf propiedad de Trump.

Sin embargo, Trump ganó la elección, y en enero de 2019 algo empezó a cambiar. Incitado por sus consejeros, Trump reconoció al líder opositor de 37 años Juan Guaidó como presidente legítimo de Venezuela aún cuando Maduro permanecía en el poder. Un mes después, durante un discurso en la Universidad Internacional de la Florida, flanqueado por las banderas de Estados Unidos y Venezuela, y tan solo pocos días después de haber recibido a Guaidó en la Casa Blanca, Trump proclamó que había iniciado “el ocaso del socialismo”. En marzo, cuando Guaidó trató de liderar un fallido levantamiento militar para derrocar a Maduro, Trump y otros funcionarios administrativos de alto rango apoyaron sus esfuerzos. En abril, el Departamento de Estado de los Estados Unidos apoyó a los diplomáticos de Guaidó para que tomaran posesión de la Embajada de Venezuela en Georgetown, en Washington, D.C. Por su parte, el Departamento del Tesoro impuso una nueva ráfaga de sanciones. En febrero de 2020, Guaidó fungió como invitado de Trump durante su discurso del Estado de la Unión, donde el venezolano fue acogido con vítores y ovaciones.

Ningún otro presidente estadounidense había llevado a cabo tal demostración de fuerza en contra del asediado régimen autoritario de Venezuela; y los venezolanos en Estados Unidos lo notaron. “El presidente Trump fue el primer presidente en la historia de Venezuela que ha levantado la voz por nosotros” comenta Andreína Kissane, fundadora en 2019 de la Alianza Republicana Venezolana Americana (VARA por sus siglas en inglés), grupo que busca impulsar el apoyo de los venezolanos a Trump.

Ahora, una nueva y poderosa comunidad política parece estar gestándose en favor de Trump. Con respecto a la elección pasada, la población venezolana en Florida se ha duplicado a más de 200.000 personas; así lo afirma Michael Binder, director del Laboratorio de Investigación de la Opinión Pública de la Universidad del Norte de Florida (UNF). En estas elecciones, al menos 75.000 venezolano-americanos tienen el derecho de votar en Florida, un estado clave que en las dos últimas elecciones presidenciales fue decidido por menos de 150.000 votos. Aunque no se puede desglosar con claridad el voto venezolano de 2016—puesto que la población era demasiado pequeña como para hacer una encuesta profunda—un estudio en línea realizado en agosto por Binder para el sitio venezolano de noticias El Diario, encontró que 66% de los votantes venezolanos en Florida tienen la intención de votar por Trump. Incluso, 53% de los venezolanos que se consideran demócratas afirmaron que votarían por él.

Muchos de estos votantes no solo apoyan a Trump, sino que lo admiran aferradamente. Los más apasionados incluso se autodenominan magazolanos, que es la unión de los términos “MAGA”—Make America Great Again—y el gentilicio venezolano. En su actividad en línea, los magazolanos a veces llegan a los extremos para defender el historial del presidente, entre lo que se incluye aceptar algunas teorías de conspiración sobre el candidato demócrata Joe Biden y otros miembros de su partido. A inicios de octubre de este año, cuando Trump contrajo Covid-19, miembros de un grupo de Facebook llamado “Venezolanos con Trump 2020” publicaron oraciones para su recuperación, e incluso un usuario afirmó que era “el hijo elegido de Dios”. Por otro lado, un video publicado en la página del grupo acusaba al movimiento “Black Lives Matter” de ser un grupo marxista y, además, insinuaba que las protestas por George Floyd eran una estrategia premeditada para desestabilizar al país. No obstante, la perspectiva del magazolano demuestra la fuerza de atracción que Trump ejerce sobre el decisivo estado de la Florida: a escasas semanas de la elección, esta nueva camada de votantes altamente comprometidos podría ayudar a entregar este estado al actual inquilino de la Casa Blanca.

Si bien reconocen la férrea desaprobación de Trump a Maduro, estos votantes también han creído el antiguo pero casi siempre efectivo argumento republicano: “el Partido Demócrata es un agente del socialismo en los Estados Unidos”. Esta creencia se agudizó tras la reunión que Barack Obama y el dictador cubano Raúl Castro tuvieron en marzo de 2016, como parte de la táctica presidencial para el “deshielo” de las relaciones con Cuba. A pesar de que los padecimientos de Venezuela van más allá de sus políticas económicas socialistas y también son resultado del totalitarismo y la corrupción, muchos venezolanos ven al socialismo como un virus que ha infectado al continente, en donde el líder populista Hugo Chávez fue el gran responsable de propagarlo.

La campaña de Trump se ha aferrado a esta retórica. De hecho, Trump ha lanzado en Florida publicidades en español que enseñan al demócrata Biden sonriendo al lado de Maduro durante una toma de posesión en Brasil en 2015, seguido de imágenes de la Representante Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, el Senador Bernie Sanders y el Che Guevara, acompañadas de la palabra “extremistas”. De acuerdo con el diario Los Ángeles Times, el spot salió al aire en más de mil ocasiones para las audiencias de Miami, Orlando y Tampa. “Joe Biden es un TÍTERE de los CASTRO-CHAVISTAS, como el loco de Bernie, AOC y la amante de Castro, Karen Bass”, tuiteó Trump el 10 de octubre de este año.

“Están oyendo a Trump decir, ‘si votas por los demócratas vas a perderlo todo. Será peor que en Venezuela’”, dice María Elena López, migrante cubana y primera vicepresidenta del Partido Demócrata del condado Miami-Dade. “Quieren atraparlos valiéndose de sus peores miedos, porque ya vivieron todo eso.”

Sin importar cuán exagerados puedan llegar a ser estos ataques, Biden no puede ignorarlos. Una encuesta publicada en septiembre de este año por una firma de latinos demócratas mostró que, en comparación con las cifras de Clinton de 2016, el exvicepresidente no está teniendo buenos resultados entre los latinos de Florida. Por su parte, la campaña de Biden ha estado enviando su propio mensaje a los votantes venezolanos; exaltando el apoyo del candidato a los migrantes y mostrando a Trump como un líder autoritario parecido a Chávez. Un spot lanzado en Florida durante el verano mostraba un Trump que reaccionaba con mano dura ante las manifestaciones a favor de la justicia racial como parte de su táctica para suprimir la disidencia. “Cuando alguien es presidente de los Estados Unidos, la autoridad es absoluta,” amenaza Trump en el anuncio publicitario, seguido de los nombres de Fidel, Chávez, Maduro y Trump en pantalla. “Caudillos de la misma tela”, afirma el anuncio, el cual fue realizado incluso antes de que Trump se negara a aceptar una transición pacífica del poder.

Ahora, la batalla por el voto venezolano en Florida podría reducirse a qué candidato tiene más éxito en asemejar al otro a los mandatarios socialistas y totalitarios que han provocado el sufrimiento de tantos venezolanos.

Los republicanos de la Florida llevan décadas cortejando a los votantes latinoamericanos, especialmente a la ya establecida comunidad de exiliados cubanos con su añeja antipatía hacia la revolución comunista de Fidel Castro. Su arma más efectiva ha sido la asociación de sus oponentes demócratas con el comunismo.

En los años ochenta, Jeb Bush, entonces presidente del partido republicano del condado Dade, consolidó el apoyo de los cubanos en Miami con la ayuda de los representantes Lincoln Díaz-Balart e Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ambos de ascendencia cubana y fervientes opositores de Castro. Para 1988, el 68% de los cubano-americanos radicados al sur de Florida aparecían como republicanos en el registro electoral. En el año 2000, los republicanos reprendieron a la administración de Clinton por haber regresado a Cuba al niño Elián Gónzalez. El entonces candidato Steve Forbes, por ejemplo, afirmó que González era “la ofrenda de Bill Clinton para los sacrificios humanos de Fidel Castro.” Ese mismo año, además de lograr que George W. Bush superara a Al Gore por 250.000 votos, los exiliados cubanos protestaron con el fin de detener el recuento de los votos en Miami-Dade. Hace apenas dos años, a manera de una reflexión “post-mortem” de su campaña de 2018 por la gobernación de la Florida, el demócrata Andrew Gillum le dijo a la Associated Press que su partido “esperó quizá demasiado antes de empezar a rechazar” las acusaciones republicanas que lo etiquetaban de socialista.

En Florida, los votantes hispanos tienden a inclinarse por los demócratas: entre los residentes latinos no cubanos, apenas el 26% votó por Trump en 2016. Sin embargo, los cubanos, particularmente los de mayor edad, han votado sin titubeos por los republicanos y, en 2016, el 51% de los cubanos de Florida respaldaron a Trump. Aunque el número de venezolanos con derecho a voto en Florida es menor al número de cubanos y nicaragüenses, los cuales se elevan en cientos de miles respectivamente, algunos estrategas políticos afirman que la experiencia de todas las personas que han vivido bajo regímenes totalitarios de izquierda reaccionan de manera similar y coinciden en sus preferencias políticas. Por su parte Doral, el área donde Clinton ganó arrolladoramente en 2016, aun se inclina drásticamente por el lado demócrata. No obstante, parece que los republicanos mejoran los márgenes: en las elecciones de mitad de periodo de 2018 el candidato para gobernador por el partido republicano, Ron DeSantis, perdió Doral por 20 puntos menos de los que Trump había alcanzado.

En la primavera de este año, el término “magazolano” comenzó a emplearse en las redes sociales anglo e hispanohablantes como un término despectivo hacia los venezolanos que respaldan a Trump. Germania Rodríguez Poleo, escritora radicada en Miami, tuiteó un meme que afirmaba que los magazolanos y los chavistas compartían su amor por el populismo autoritario. Una cuenta de chistes y memes de Twitter bajo el nombre @magazolano también empezó a compartir bromas que asociaban a los venezolanos pro-Trump con el fanatismo que caracteriza a la base política detrás de Chávez y Maduro. Recientemente, la cuenta sugirió que Trump debería ir a Cuba para recibir tratamiento contra el Covid-19, igual que lo hizo Chávez en 2012, cuando viajó a la Habana para recibir un fallido tratamiento contra el cáncer.

Algunos de los seguidores de Trump decidieron hacer suyo el apodo magazolano. Lo hicieron incluso con más fervor que el que tuvo un grupo de votantes de Trump en 2016, cuando Clinton les llamó “cesta de deplorables”

“Magazolano era como un insulto, una burla”, comenta Helen Aguirre Ferré, directora ejecutiva del partido republicano de Florida y antigua consejera de Trump. “Pero los venezolanos dijeron ‘¿Nos van a llamar magazolanos?, bueno, para ser honestos, sí apoyamos al presidente y eso nos hace sentir muy orgullosos.’”

A finales de agosto, Orlando Avendaño, entonces editor del libertario sitio de noticias PanAm Post, el cual tiene sus mayores audiencias en Estados Unidos y Venezuela, escribió una columna cargada de vulgaridades titulada “Magazolanos, uníos.” Avendaño, de origen venezolano, argumentaba que, aunque Trump puede llegar a ser “insufrible”, prefería tener a un “patán que haga el trabajo a un simpatiquísimo seductor que hunda el barco.” Por otro lado, Avendaño escribió que aquellos que critican a los venezolanos pro-Trump “inventaron la idea de que Donald Trump nunca fue un verdadero aliado de nuestra causa”, y añadió: “Pues, déjeme decirle, compañero magazolano, que esos tipos son unos idiotas.”

En las redes, los magazolanos imaginan un final inminente y trágico si Trump pierde, y a veces incluso difunden las “conspiraciones” que se han urdido para que tal cosa suceda. En el grupo de Facebook, “Venezolanos con Trump 2020”, que tiene cerca de 2.100 miembros; así como en las entrevistas realizadas para este artículo, los venezolanos lanzaron una serie de acusaciones falsas: culparon a Biden por la propagación del coronavirus; afirmaron que en las escuelas primarias estadounidenses se imparten clases de marxismo; y advirtieron que Biden planeaba anunciar que había contraído el virus con el fin de no participar en los debates. Leonardo Camacho, residente de Canadá con raíces venezolanas, dijo que había creado el grupo para “combatir las noticias falsas” y servir como una fuente “alternativa” de información para los hispanos.

Además de Biden, los venezolanos pro-Trump también consideran que la influencia de Ocasio-Cortez y Sanders—cuyas primeras condenas de Maduro como dictador fueron ambiguas—es la evidencia irreprochable del declive socialista del partido demócrata. Alberto Perosch, miembro de la Alianza Republicana Venezolana Americana y votante primerizo lo planteó de la siguiente manera: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez es la reencarnación de Chávez hecha mujer.”

En Venezuela, los ojos de Chávez te siguen a donde quiera que vayas, literalmente. Desde el año 2012, un reconocido diseño con los ojos del fallecido autócrata ha aparecido en vallas publicitarias, plazas públicas, proyectos de vivienda, e incluso en tarjetas electorales. Maduro, por su parte, se aseguró desde el momento que tomó el poder que esta mirada fuera omnipresente con el fin de inmortalizar el eterno legado de Chávez. Por lo tanto, no es de sorprender que los venezolanos se descontrolaran en redes sociales cuando vieron a un hombre portando una franela similar con este diseño formando parte de las protestas en la Casa Blanca tras el asesinato de George Floyd. Este episodio les dio a los venezolanos pro-Trump un nuevo ataque en contra de los simpatizantes de Biden: “Esas protestas espontáneas no son. La parasitaria izquierda está en todas partes.”

Aunque la mayor parte de los estadounidenses consideran que la manera en que Trump reaccionó a las protestas empeoró la situación, los venezolanos pro-Trump que conversaron con Politico Magazine consideran que su respuesta no debe verse como un impulso autoritario, sino como un esfuerzo presidencial para imponer la ley y el orden ante la anarquía callejera.

“Ahora quieren quitar los fondos de la policía? Esa maravillosa policía que tenemos aquí ya la quisiéramos tener en nuestro país,” comenta Kissane, mientras agrega que sí considera necesario que se implementen reformas en contra del uso injustificado de la fuerza por parte de la policía estadounidense. “¡Los policías que teníamos allá eran criminales!”

La campaña de Biden en Florida asegura que según sus encuestas internas, las cuales están basadas en el registro electoral, la contienda está mucho más cerrada con respecto a la encuesta que la UNF realizó este verano; motivo por el que ahora está enfocándose a las áreas de gran concentración de venezolanos, como Doral y Broward. “El 49% de los votantes del sur de Florida son hispanos no cubanos”, declara Christian Ulvert, consejero estratégico de Biden con raíces nicaragüenses. “En todas las encuestas que he visto, el exvicepresidente va a la cabeza por 30 puntos en la comunidad latina. Estas cifras han sido muy consistentes.” Una encuesta realizada en octubre por la firma consultora internacional Bendixen & Amandi encontró que Biden ha tenido avances modestos entre los latinos del condado de Miami-Dade en lo que va del otoño. Una serie de anuncios en bancas públicas de Miami a favor de Biden, colocadas por el progresista comité de acción política “Win Justice”, proclaman: “Ellos hacen más ruido”—refiriéndose a los simpatizantes venezolanos de Trump—“nosotros somos más.”

Por otro lado, un grupo llamado “Venezolanos con Biden” es el principal responsable de organizar encuentros a nivel nacional para despertar el apoyo venezolano para el demócrata. Este grupo, que oficialmente no forma parte de la campaña de Biden, tiene cerca de 200 miembros y redes de simpatizantes en cada estado del país; así como un grupo privado de Facebook con más de 2.200 miembros. En los meses recientes, algunos de los miembros fuera de Florida incluso se han ofrecido como voluntarios para hacer campaña vía telefónica en dicho estado, el cual representa la poderosa y decisiva cifra de 29 votos electorales.

Diego Scharifker, antiguo concejal del municipio Chacao de Caracas que reside en Estados Unidos desde hace 2 años y medio, fundó el grupo junto con otros dos migrantes venezolanos. Conversando con sus connacionales, Scharifker comenta que ha visto surgir una dicotomía: “O estas con Venezuela y tienes que ser republicano, o estas con Chávez y Maduro y la dictatura.” Pero para Scharifker, es el mismo Trump quien le recuerda a los mandatarios y al lugar de donde tuvo que huir: “Trump personifica lo que yo rechazaba de Chávez y de Maduro: la demagogia; el populismo; el uso de las instituciones del Estado para su conveniencia; el uso del poder para dividir.” Sin embargo, cuando Scharifker anunció su apoyo para el candidato demócrata a sus 70.000 seguidores de Twitter, sus connacionales pro-Trump lo llamaron chavista, comunista y “gusano”. Algunos incluso sugirieron que lo deportaran, a pesar de ser ciudadano estadounidense.

Algunos venezolanos ven en Biden algo así como la antítesis de Trump, quien ha demostrado sentimientos xenófobos y anti-latinos. De hecho, piensan que Biden sería más capaz de poner un fin a la prolongada crisis venezolana, pues podría convencer a sus aliados en Europa que la hora de la diplomacia con Maduro ya acabó. Los simpatizantes de Biden también señalan que, aunque la administración de Trump ha apoyado abiertamente a Guaidó, el exconsejero de seguridad nacional, John Bolton, mencionó en su libro que Trump ha dicho en privado que Guaidó le parece “débil”; e incluso ha comentado que una invasión estadounidense en Venezuela sería “genial”. (En repetidas ocasiones el equipo de campaña de Trump se abstuvo de comentar al respecto).

Los venezolanos a favor de Biden le han dado su propio giro al caos venezolano: a principios de octubre apareció en Doral una valla publicitaria con los ojos de Chávez sobrepuestos en el rostro de Trump con la leyenda: “No nos engañan otra vez. ¡Los venezolanos votamos por Biden!”. Win Justice también financió la valla, la cual incluye el hashtag #tufoatirano.

Y luego está el problema del “Estatus de Protección Temporal”, TPS por sus siglas en inglés; una política que ofrecería protección contra deportación y permisos de trabajo a los más de 200.000 ciudadanos venezolanos radicados en los Estados Unidos. Dos funcionarios enterados de las conversaciones diplomáticas al respecto, y quienes pidieron permanecer en el anonimato, indicaron que los representantes de Guaidó han tratado de impulsar el TPS a través del Departamento de Estado, el Departamento de Seguridad Interna y la Casa Blanca. Sin embargo, los principales consejeros antimigración de Trump lo persuadieron para que desistiera de ofrecer protección a los venezolanos. El mes pasado, los republicanos en el Senado bloquearon el proyecto de ley del TPS, aprobado por la cámara de representantes e introducido por los demócratas Dick Durbin y Bob Menéndez.

Mientras tanto, Biden se ha comprometido a aprobar el TPS para los venezolanos durante sus primeros 100 días de gobierno. “Maduro, a quien he conocido personalmente, es un dictador, simple y llanamente,” declaró Biden en un evento de campaña en Little Havana el día 5 de octubre. “El pueblo venezolano necesita nuestro apoyo para recuperar su democracia y reconstruir su país. Justo por ello, como presidente, aprobaré de manera inmediata el estatus de protección temporal para los venezolanos.”

Durante el evento, Biden apareció con la Representante Donna Shalala, quien no solo ganó el distrito de la republicana Ros-Lehtinen tras el retiro del escaño de esta última en 2018, sino que comanda la causa de los demócratas por Venezuela. De hecho, en este evento Shalala portó un tapabocas con el logo de “Venezolanos con Biden”. En una entrevista para Politico Magazine, comentó que los asesores anti-inmigrantes de la Casa Blanca son los que han retrasado el TPS.

“Ya no quieren más inmigrantes, punto,” dijo la demócrata, y agregó que la Casa Blanca disuadió a Mario Díaz-Balart, su aliado republicano y representante de Doral, de buscar más votos republicanos a favor del proyecto de ley de TPS en la Cámara de Representantes. Díaz-Balart no respondió a una solicitud de comentario al respecto.

En agosto, el enviado especial a Venezuela del Departamento de Estado, Elliott Abrams, testificó en una audiencia del Comité de Relaciones Exteriores del Senado que el gobierno de Trump no estaba deportando venezolanos de vuelta a la nación sudamericana debido a que es sumamente peligroso hacerlo. Sin embargo, en una carta dirigida a los Departamentos de Estado, Seguridad Interina y Transporte el pasado viernes por la tarde, Menéndez, el miembro de más alto rango de ese comité, denunció que al menos 100 venezolanos han sido deportados vía Trinidad y Tobago en lo que va de año de acuerdo con cifras de febrero de 2020. (El año pasado la Administración Federal de Aviación impuso una prohibición a los vuelos directos venezolanos.) Politico Magazine solicitó a cada departamento sus respuestas sobre la carta de Menendez, pero ninguno respondió durante el fin de semana.

Al dirigirse no solo a los ciudadanos venezolanos, sino a colombianos, puertorriqueños y nicaragüenses—especialmente a los votantes jóvenes—la campaña de Biden espera contrarrestar el monopolio que el partido republicano tiene de los votantes cubanos de mayor edad; aunque no hay signos que sugieran que la estrategia será un éxito seguro. Cuando la Senadora Kamala Harris, candidata a la vicepresidencia de Biden, se presentó el mes pasado en un negocio local de arepas en Doral, el dueño de “Amaize” le dijo a canal NBC 6 South Florida que él no habría aceptado a Harris en su restaurante porque no quería que su negocio fuera utilizado con fines políticos. Por su parte, VARA también protestó la visita de Harris, y los manifestantes portaron letreros con consignas como “Venezuela no negocia con socialistas estadounidenses.” Algunos días después, miembros del grupo asistieron a una caravana pro-Trump en Doral conformada por más de 4.000 automóviles. Desde entonces, venezolanos partidarios de Trump y Biden han participado en caravanas que también reúnen grupos cubanos y nicaragüenses casi cada semana, inclusive caravanas rivales en Miami el domingo.

“Queremos una Venezuela libre, el TPS es casi como un premio de consolación,” comenta Kissane, presidenta de VARA. También argumenta que, de ser reelecto, Trump será el que por fin derroque a Maduro del poder. “No me cabe duda que Biden come de la mesa de los Castro y de Maduro.”

Independientemente de esto, el verdadero riesgo para Biden reside en que Trump puede debilitarlo muy fácilmente. El presidente posee la autoridad plena de aprobar una de las plataformas principales que el demócrata tiene con respecto a Venezuela: el TPS.

“No me sorprendería,” comenta Shalala, “si la diferencia de votos en Florida está muy cerrada y el presidente termina aprobando el TPS; por fin, después de años de que le rogaramos que lo hiciera por los venezolanos”.

The Rise of the ‘Magazolano’ and the Battle for the Venezuelan Vote

Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship had already unleashed chaos in Venezuela in 2016 when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential race. Maduro’s was increasingly a regime of famine, sickness and persecution. That year, the country hemorrhaged close to 5 million refugees, and, according to Department of Homeland Security data, the number of Venezuelans who requested asylum in the United States tripled to nearly 15,000.

Also that year, Miami-Dade’s Doral area—affectionately called “Doralzuela” because nearly a third of the population is Venezuelan émigrés—chose Hillary Clinton by 52 points in a precinct just 10 minutes away from Trump’s golf club.

But Trump won the election, and in January 2019 something began to shift. Trump—pushed by senior advisers—recognized 37-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful president of Venezuela, even as Maduro remained in power. The next month, Trump heralded “the twilight hour of socialism” at a Florida International University speech, flanked by Venezuelan and U.S. flags, just a few days after he had welcomed Guaidó to the White House. In March, when Guaidó tried to lead a military uprising to oust Maduro (which ultimately failed), Trump and other senior administration officials voiced their support. In April, the State Department helped Guaidó’s diplomats to wrest control of the Venezuelan Embassy in Georgetown. The Treasury Department imposed new rounds of sanctions. This past February, Guaidó was a guest at Trump’s State of the Union address, where he received a standing ovation.

No American president had carried out such a show of force against Venezuela’s embattled authoritarian regime before, and Venezuelans in America took notice. “President Trump was the first president in the history of Venezuela who actually stood up for us,” says Andreina Kissane, who in 2019 founded the Venezuelan American Republican Alliance, a group that seeks to bolster Venezuelan support for Trump.

Now, a new, increasingly powerful political community appears to be coalescing behind Trump. Since the last election, the Venezuelan population in Florida has doubled to more than 200,000, according to Michael Binder, director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab. This year, some 75,000 Venezuelan Americans are eligible to vote in a swing state that was decided by fewer than 150,000 votes in the past two presidential elections. Although it’s not clear exactly how the Venezuelan American vote broke down in 2016—the population was too small to be extensively polled—an online study Binder conducted in August for the Venezuelan news site El Diario found that 66 percent of Venezuelan voters in Florida intend to vote for Trump. Even 53 percent of Venezuelans who describe themselves as Democrats said they will vote for him.

Many of these voters are not just Trump supporters but impassioned fans of the president. The most fervent among them call themselves magazolanos, a portmanteau of “MAGA” and the Spanish word for “Venezuelan.” Online, magazolanos sometimes go to extremes to defend the president’s record, including embracing conspiracy theories about Democratic nominee Joe Biden and others in his party. As Trump fell ill with Covid-19 in early October, members of a Facebook group called “Venezolanos con Trump 2020” posted prayers for his recovery, and one user said the president was the “anointed son of God.” One recent video posted on the group’s page called the Black Lives Matter movement a Marxist group and alleged that the George Floyd protests had been pre-planned to destabilize the country. Nonetheless, the magazolano worldview offers a glimpse into Trump’s appeal in the decisive state of Florida: With almost two weeks until the election, this new crop of highly engaged voters just might help deliver the state to the incumbent.

While they credit Trump’s rebuke of Maduro for their support, these voters also have bought into a time-honored but often effective Republican talking point: They conceive of the Democratic Party as an agent of socialism in the United States, especially because of a March 2016 meeting between Barack Obama and Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, which was part of the former president’s Cuban thaw. Even if Venezuela’s maladies extend far beyond its socialist economic policy and are also the result of totalitarianism and corruption, many Venezuelans see socialism as the virus that has infected the continent, propagated by the populist strongman Hugo Chávez.

The Trump campaign has seized on this rhetoric. Trump has aired Spanish-language ads in Florida that show Biden, the Democratic nominee, smiling with Maduro at a 2015 swearing-in ceremony in Brazil, before flashing images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Che Guevara, calling them “extremistas.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the ad has aired more than 1,000 times in the Miami, Orlando and Tampa markets. “Joe Biden is a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS like Crazy Bernie, AOC and Castro-lover Karen Bass,” Trump wrote in an October 10 tweet.

“They’re hearing from Trump, ‘If you vote for the Democrats, you’re going to lose everything. They’re going to be worse than Venezuela,’” says María Elena López, the first vice chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and a Cuban émigrée. “You’re preying on the worst fears that they have, because they have gone through it.”

Exaggerated as these attacks might be, Biden cannot ignore them. A poll released in September by a Democratic Latino firm showed the former vice president underperforming among Florida Latinos compared with Clinton in 2016. The Biden campaign has been offering its own message to Venezuelan voters, touting the candidate’s support for immigrants and painting Trump as an authoritarian in the mold of Chávez. An ad airing over the summer in Miami depicted Trump’s heavy-handed response to this year’s racial justice uprisings as a tactic to suppress dissent. “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump says ominously in the ad, before the names Fidel, Chávez, Maduro and Trump flash across the screen. Trump is a caudillo cut from the same cloth as the leftist rulers, claims the ad (which was produced even before Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power).

Now, the battle over the Venezuelan vote in Florida might come down to which candidate can cast the other as more like the socialist and totalitarian rulers who have caused suffering for so many.

Republicans in Florida have long courted Latin American voters—especially the state’s deep-rooted community of Cuban exiles, with their long-held antipathy toward Fidel Castro’s communist revolution—by tying their Democratic opponents to communism.

In the 1980s, Jeb Bush, then the chairman of the Dade County Republican Party, solidified Cuban support in Miami with the help of Reps. Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who were themselves of Cuban heritage and fervently against Castro. By 1988, 68 percent of Cuban Americans in South Florida were registered Republicans. In 2000, Republicans chided the Clinton administration for returning the child Elián González to Cuba, with then-candidate Steve Forbes calling González Bill Clinton’s “human sacrifice to Fidel Castro.” That same year, in addition to casting upward of 250,000 more votes for George W. Bush than Al Gore, Cuban exiles protested to shut down voting recounts in Miami-Dade. As recently as two years ago, in a postmortem of his 2018 gubernatorial run, Democrat Andrew Gillum told The Associated Press that his party “waited a bit too long before we started to push back” on the Republicans who tagged him as a socialist.

In Florida, Hispanic voters overall tend to vote Democratic: Among non-Cuban Latinos in Florida, a paltry 26 percent voted for Trump in 2016. But Cubans, specifically older generations, have voted reliably for Republicans, and in 2016, 51 percent of Florida Cubans backed Trump. Although the Venezuelan voting population in Florida is smaller than that of Cubans and Nicaraguans, which each number in the hundreds of thousands, some Sunshine State strategists say the common experience of having lived under leftist totalitarian regimes generates solidarity and, in turn, similar voting patterns. Doral, where Clinton saw a landslide in 2016, still leans heavily Democratic, but Republicans appear to be making gains: In the 2018 midterms, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Ron DeSantis, lost Doral by 20 points less than Trump had.

In the spring of this year, the term “magazolano” began cropping up on English- and Spanish-language social media circles—originally as a way to mock Venezuelans voting for Trump. Germania Rodriguez Poleo, a writer in Miami, tweeted that magazolanos and chavistas shared a love for authoritarian populism in a well-known meme format. A comedy Twitter account with the name @magazolano also began sharing jokes tying Venezuelans who support the president to the fanaticism of Chávez and Maduro’s political base. Recently, the account quipped that Trump should be sent to Cuba for his Covid-19 treatment, similar to the way Chávez went to Havana for an unsuccessful cancer treatment in 2012.

Some Trump supporters decided to embrace the term—perhaps even more fervently than the subset of Trump voters who embraced Clinton’s term “deplorable” in 2016.

“‘Magazolano’ was like an insult, like a mockery,” says Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Florida Republican Party and a former Trump adviser. “But the Venezuelans said, ‘You call us magazolanos? Well, to tell you the truth, we’re very proud and very supportive of the president.’”

In late August, Orlando Avendaño, then editor-in-chief of the libertarian news site PanAm Post, which has its highest audiences in the United States and Venezuela, wrote an expletive-laden column titled, “Magazolanos, unite.” Avendaño, who is Venezuelan, argued that Trump might be “insufferable” but said he preferred “a lout who gets the job done over a charming seducer who sinks the ship.” Critics of pro-Trump Venezuelans “came up with the notion that Donald Trump was never a true ally of our cause,” he wrote. “Well, let me tell you, fellow magazolano, that these people are idiots.”

Online, magazolanos imagine impending doom if Trump loses, and they sometimes promote conspiracies to that end. In the Facebook group “Venezolanos con Trump 2020,” which has almost 2,100 members, as well as in interviews for this article, they falsely blame Biden for the spread of coronavirus, say Marxism is being taught in American elementary school classrooms, and warn of a scheme from the Biden campaign to announce that he had caught the virus in order to skip the debates. Leonardo Camacho, a Canadian resident of Venezuelan heritage, says he created the group to “combat fake news” and serve as an “alternative” source of information for Hispanics.

In addition to Biden, pro-Trump Venezuelans also see the influence of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders—who were initially equivocal in their condemnation of Maduro as a dictator—as unimpeachable evidence of the Democratic Party’s socialist demise. Alberto Perosch, a member of the Venezuelan American Republican Alliance and a first-time voter, put it this way: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the reincarnation of Chávez made woman.”

In Venezuela, Chávez’s eyes follow you everywhere you go. Literally: Since 2012, a design of the late autocrat’s eyes has appeared on billboards, public squares, housing projects and even ballots. Maduro made the silhouetted eyes ubiquitous after he took power in 2013 to immortalize Chávez’s undying legacy. It was no surprise, then, that when a man wearing a shirt with the same design appeared on a Fox News broadcast of protests outside the White House on May 30, after the police killing of George Floyd, Venezuelans on social media went haywire. The episode gave Venezuelan Trump supporters a new line of attack against anyone who supported Biden: The Black Lives Matter protests that the Democrats supported were not spontaneous, but a creature of the global “parasitic left” that had infiltrated the United States.

While a majority of Americans thought Trump’s handling of the protests made the situation worse, the Trump-supporting Venezuelans who spoke to Politico Magazine saw in his response not an authoritarian impulse, but an attempt by the president to impose law and order on anarchic streets.

“Now they want to defund the police? The wonderful police we have here, we wish we had that in our country,” Kissane says, while adding that she thinks there need to be some reforms to the unwarranted use of force by police. “The police that we had were criminals!”

The Biden campaign in Florida says its internal polling, based on voter registration files, shows a much closer race than the UNF poll from the summer, which is why the campaign is targeting heavily Venezuelan areas like Doral and Broward County. “In South Florida, 49 percent of the vote is non-Cuban Hispanics,” says Christian Ulvert, a Biden strategic adviser of Nicaraguan heritage. “In all the polling I’ve seen, the vice president has a 30-point lead with the non-Cuban Hispanic community, and that’s been pretty consistent.” An October poll from Bendixen & Amandi International found that Biden had made modest gains among Latinos in Miami-Dade County this fall. A series of pro-Biden bench ads in Miami, put up by the progressive super PAC Win Justice, assert, “They’re louder”—referring to Venezuelan Trump supporters—“but there are more of us.”

A group called Venezolanos con Biden has been primarily responsible for rallying Venezuelan support nationwide for Biden. The group, which is not officially part of the Biden campaign, has about 200 members, supporter networks in every state and a private Facebook group of more than 2,200 members. In recent months, some of its members from outside Florida have been volunteering to phone-bank in the state, which carries a mighty 29 electoral votes.

Diego Scharifker, a former Caracas city councilman who came to the United States 2½ years ago, founded the group along with two other Venezuelan immigrants. In conversations with fellow Venezuelans, Scharifker says he has seen a dichotomy emerging: “Either you’re with Venezuela and you have to be a Republican, or you’re with Chávez and Maduro and the dictatorship.” But to Scharifker, it’s Trump who reminds him of the place he fled: “Trump personified the things I rejected in Chávez and Maduro: the demagoguery, the populism, bending state institutions to his own convenience and his own agenda, the use of power to divide.” When Scharifker announced his support for the Democratic nominee to his nearly 70,000 Twitter followers in late April, however, pro-Trump Venezuelans called him a chavista, a communist and a “maggot.” Some suggested he be deported, even though he is a natural-born U.S. citizen.

Some Venezuelans see in Biden something more than the antithesis of Trump, who has demonstrated xenophobic and anti-Latino sentiments. They think Biden would be more capable of putting an end to the protracted Venezuelan crisis because he could convince European allies that the time for diplomacy with Maduro has run out. Biden’s supporters also point out that while Trump’s administration outwardly has supported Guaidó, former national security adviser John Bolton has written that Trump privately sees him as “weak” and has mused about a U.S. invasion of Venezuela as “cool.” (The Trump campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Biden-aligned Venezuelans have given their own spin to the specter of Venezuelan chaos: Earlier this month, a billboard of Chávez’s eyes superimposed over Trump’s face appeared in Doral, with the caption: “We won’t be fooled again. We Venezuelans vote for Biden!” The billboard was put up by Win Justice, and includes the hashtag #tufoatirano, which translates as “reeks of tyrant.”

Then there’s the matter of TPS, or “temporary protected status”—a policy that would provide work permits and protection from deportation to the more than 200,000 Venezuelan citizens living in the United States. Two officials familiar with diplomatic talks, who requested anonymity to discuss confidential agreements, said Guaidó’s representatives have tried to lobby for TPS through the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House, but that Trump’s anti-immigrant senior advisers have dissuaded him from offering protection to Venezuelans. In the Senate last month, Republicans blocked a House-approved TPS bill introduced by Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Biden, meanwhile, has committed to enacting TPS for Venezuelans in his first 100 days. “Maduro, who I’ve met, is a dictator—plain and simple,” Biden said in a campaign event in Little Havana on October 5. “The Venezuelan people need our support to recover their democracy and rebuild their country. That’s why I would immediately grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans as president.”

At the event, Biden appeared with Rep. Donna Shalala, who flipped Ros-Lehtinen’s district after she retired in 2018 and has spearheaded the Democrats’ advocacy for Venezuela. Shalala wore a face mask emblazoned with the “Venezolanos con Biden” logo. In an earlier interview with Politico Magazine, she said nativism was to blame for the White House’s delay on TPS.

“They don’t want any more immigrants, period,” Shalala said. She added that the White House dissuaded her Republican ally Mario Díaz-Balart, who represents Doral, from whipping GOP votes for the House TPS bill. Díaz-Balart did not respond to a request for comment.

In August, Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy to Venezuela, testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the administration was not deporting Venezuelans back to their home country because of the dangers of doing so. But in a letter sent to the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Transportation this past Friday afternoon, Menendez, the committee’s ranking member, cited records showing that at least 100 Venezuelans had been deported as of February 2020 via the nearby nation of Trinidad and Tobago. (The Federal Aviation Administration banned direct flights to Venezuela last year.) Asked to respond to the letter over the weekend, the three departments were not immediately available for comment.

By targeting not only Venezuelans, but also Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Nicaraguans—especially young voters—the Biden campaign is hoping to create a counterweight to the Republican Party’s hold on older Cubans. But there are no surefire signs this strategy will work. After Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, showed up at a local arepa joint in Doral last month, the owner of the restaurant, Amaize, told NBC 6 South Florida that he “would’ve said no” to Harris picking up lunch there if he had known ahead of time because he didn‘t want the restaurant to be used for political reasons. The Venezuelan American Republican Alliance also protested Harris’ visit, with demonstrators holding signs saying, “Venezuela doesn’t negotiate with U.S. socialists.” A few days later, members of the group showed up to a pro-Trump caravan of more than 4,000 cars in Doral. Since then, pro-Biden and pro-Trump Venezuelans have been participating in regular caravans—sometimes by organized by other groups, such as Cubans and Nicaraguans—including dueling caravans in Miami on Sunday.

“We want Venezuela free—TPS is almost like a pat on the back,” says Kissane, president of VARA, arguing that Trump, if reelected, would finally oust Maduro from power. “Biden absolutely sits and eats at the table of the Castro people and Maduro.”

The risk for Biden is that Trump has the sole authority to undercut him as Election Day nears by enacting one of the former vice president’s main Venezuela policy planks: TPS.

“I would not be surprised,” Shalala says, “if the vote gets close in Florida, if the president does it—now, after years of us begging them to do it for the Venezuelans.”

The hidden factors that could produce a surprise Trump victory

By almost every measure that political operatives, academics and handicappers use to forecast elections, the likely outcome is that Joe Biden will win the White House.

Yet two weeks before Election Day, the unfolding reality of 2020 is that it’s harder than ever to be sure. And Democrats are scrambling to account for the hidden variables that could still sink their nominee — or what you might call the known unknowns.

Republican registration has ticked up in key states at the same time Democratic field operations were in hibernation. Democratic turnout is surging in the early vote. But it’s unclear whether it will be enough to overcome an expected rush of ballots that Republicans, leerier of mail voting, will cast in person on Election Day.

There is uncertainty about the accuracy of polling in certain swing states, the efficacy of GOP voter suppression efforts and even the number of mail-in ballots that for one reason or another will be disqualified.

“There are more known unknowns than we’ve ever had at any point,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart. “The instruments we have to gauge this race, the polling, our predictive models … the problem is all those tools are built around quote-unquote normal elections. And this is anything but a normal election.”

On a recent video call with Democratic Party state chairs, Bonier laid out an overwhelmingly positive electoral landscape for Biden. But he cautioned that even small variations in turnout projections could have a substantial effect on the outcome. For that reason, among others, Democrats are poring over early vote totals, circulating anxiety-ridden campaign memos and bracing for a long two weeks.

“We don’t know what insanity Trump will hurl into the mix,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “Every day is a week and every week is a month. It’s going to feel like a long time between now and November 3rd."

Of all the reasons for Democrats to be uncertain, the most worrisome for the party is the one that — for now — is going very well for them: Turnout. More than 27 million people had already voted nationwide as of Sunday, some after standing in line for hours, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project. In states that report returns by party, Democrats are returning more ballots than Republicans. Republicans and Democrats alike believe early voters in other states lean Democratic, as well.

But political professionals don’t know how great an advantage Democrats will build in the early vote — or whether it will be enough to overcome the wave of votes that Republicans are expected to cast in person.

Flagging “clear warning signs” for Biden, one prominent strategist circulated a memo among Democrats earlier this month citing increasing registration of white, non-college educated voters — Trump’s base demographic — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. There is no precedent for Trump overcoming such a large polling deficit this close to the election, the strategist wrote. “And yet ...”

For Democrats, uncertainty about who is voting is only part of the equation. It’s also unclear how many mail-in ballots ultimately will be rejected, and in which states.

It’s no small matter. After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last month that so-called “naked ballots” — those mailed without a proper envelope — could not be counted, elections officials warned more than 100,000 ballots could be invalidated. That is more than twice the margin by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016.

Republicans in other states have had some success in court preventing mail ballots that arrive after Election Day from being counted. A Biden victory may hinge not only on persuading Democrats to continue voting in the next two weeks — but to ensure they do so correctly.

There is uncertainty, especially, about younger voters, who are returning ballots at a slower rate than older ones. That is typical, wrote Michael McDonald, who directs the Elections Project, in an analysis of the early vote last week.

Still, he said, “I predict in the coming weeks the Democratic narrative will change from euphoria over the apparent large leads in early voting to concern that a disproportionately large number of younger voters have yet to return their mail ballots.”

In any other year, Democrats would have a time-tested, if imperfect way to address their turnout concerns — thousands of volunteers and organizers knocking on doors to register voters and prod them to return their ballots. But Biden abandoned a door-knocking campaign due to concerns about the coronavirus until the final month of the election, ceding traditional field operations to Trump.

The effect that decision will have on the outcome will be impossible to fully quantify until the election is over. But it is one likely reason that Republicans have been able to make registration gains in several states, including Florida, where the GOP has significantly narrowed the party’s voter registration gap with Democrats.

“One big known unknown right now is how many Democrats return their ballots,” said Nick Trainer, the Trump campaign's director of battleground strategy. “In ‘16, you would have had a Democrat volunteer or operative knocking on a voter’s door in Orlando reminding them to return the ballot on their kitchen table or go to the polls. That’s not happening today.”

Many Democrats will go to the polls, of course. But what they may find there is another source of concern for Democrats. Democrats are spending millions of dollars on voter education and voter protection programs. But in his debate with Biden, Trump called on “my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” which was taken by some partisans as a call to arms.

Mathew Littman, a former Biden speechwriter who was helping to organize a phone bank for Biden last week, said, “I worry about turnout. I worry about people being threatened when they go to vote. I worry about these gangs of roving militias.”

One reason that political strategists are focusing so heavily on the mechanics of the election — including turnout and vote-counting — is that little else is likely to alter the course of the campaign. Republicans have all but abandoned hope for a dramatic turnaround on the coronavirus or for a burst of good economic news. The election is still the referendum on Trump that it was six months ago, and Trump is losing.

Whit Ayres, the longtime Republican pollster, said a “major health event” involving either Trump or Biden could still upend the campaign.

But “it’s getting late, in part because so many people have voted,” he said. “This election could be effectively over by the time we get to the election date. We won’t know it, because the results won’t have been reported, but it could be over by the time we get to Election Day … The window for a major event to substantially affect the election is closing.”

Polls suggest that Trump will need every uncertainty to break his way to win a second term. But there is some uncertainty even about that. Trump cannot rely, as many of his supporters do, on a blanket repudiation of public polls. Pollsters of both parties say they are more carefully accounting for white, non-college educated voters some surveys missed in 2016.

Yet many Democrats continue to suspect so-called “quiet” or “shy” Trump voters still exist — those who refuse to tell pollsters they support a deeply polarizing president. Many Republican Party leaders, especially at the local level, are convinced of it.

In addition, while Trump is behind in critical states, he is close to or within the margin of error in many of them. And that’s “after a f---ing historically awful year,” said Jeff Roe, the Republican strategist who steered Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.

For Trump, he said, “The path ain’t closed.”

It is possible that the race is already cooked. To this point, nothing has changed the basic equation — and that includes a pandemic, a disastrous first debate and Trump’s hospitalization for a coronavirus infection. Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said one reason he is confident “is just how steady the race has been.”

Still, the election four years ago shifted significantly in the final weeks. Acknowledging “a little bit of PTSD from 2016,” Martin said, “You never know what type of issue could move the electorate” in the final days.

For Democrats, there is no political price to pay for projecting caution, which can help to avert complacency among donors and potential voters. Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, wrote in a memo to supporters on Saturday that “the reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest. In the key battleground states where this election will be decided, we remain neck and neck with Donald Trump.”

What is different about 2020 is that in any other presidential election it might not feel that way.

Looking at the polling alone, said Bonier, of TargetSmart, “you’d feel very confident, very confident … You would just be thinking of the extent of the landslide.”

This year, Bonier said, he would “rather be us than them.” But his outlook was as wary as that of many other Democrats.

“It’s just that nagging question of uncertainty,” he said.

Trump launches a frenzied effort to save his brand

President Donald Trump is racing to close a yawning gap in the polls in his final, frantic sprint to Election Day — and also rushing to restore a key element of his personal brand.

Two weeks since exiting a hospital after being pumped with experimental drugs, Trump is attempting to regain a carefully cultivated persona of the businessman-turned-politician who can travel more than anyone, work (or tweet) at all hours and deliver roaring rally speeches for more than 90 minutes on his feet.

It’s an image of vitality and stamina Trump has promoted throughout his real estate career, his reality show and his presidency, suddenly upended by his Covid-19 diagnosis in the final month of the 2020 race. Now, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic and searing recession, Trump is closing out his campaign with this attitude of fighting, dominance and aggression rather than empathy and compassion many undecided voters may want in a moment of national uncertainty.

“He sees his ability to make calls late at night, function on little sleep and work no matter where he is as part of his appeal,” said one White House official. Covid “threatened to change that projected image.”

“Portraying weakness or vulnerability is not a comfortable spot for him,” the official added. “He thinks his supporters like seeing him as a fighter.”

Trump has long viewed his own portrayal of his health as an extension of his political brand — a way to draw a contrast with Republican rivals and now with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to interviews with eight current and senior former administration officials. It’s one reason he and his team have been so eager to resume travel and rallies over the past week — to showcase the idea that he not only survived the coronavirus but dominated it.

While the approach may help him appeal to his base as it did 2016, the strategy has not done enough to win the support of key voting blocs including senior citizens, suburban women and independent voters. Many of them are turning away from Trump this election cycle, dismayed by his administration’s handling of Covid-19.

Now, Trump’s post-Covid macho man routine could become a political liability as cases rise this fall across the nation.

“When he said, ‘Don’t let the virus dominate your life,’ I heard a million epidemiologists cry out in terror,” said Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “The fact that when Trump recovered, it was all about him beating the virus and not about, ‘I went through this ordeal and here is what we can do to stay safe’ — that is a terrible disservice. As a president, you have the opportunity to educate people every day.”

It’s a much different approach from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a debate coach for Trump’s first presidential debate last month who also contracted Covid-19 around the same time. Upon leaving a weeklong hospital stay, Christie said he was “wrong” for not wearing a mask at the White House and said the president should encourage Americans to wear them.

Trump’s portrayal of his health has long been an avenue for him to display his tough-guy cred. It’s carried from his time as a high-profile marketer to his 2016 campaign, when his doctor released an exaggerated assessment of his health, to his genuine aversion to germs as president in order to avoid getting sick.

Privately, the president has long bragged to staff about his ability to outlast them on long travel days and at rallies. He views the length of his speeches as a transactional way to reciprocate the enthusiasm of his supporters, one aide said.

One former senior administration official joked Trump would speak for more than 90 minutes at a nighttime rally, board Air Force One, eat a cheeseburger and keep working with phone calls and meetings — feeding into the portrayal of his desire to appear to work all of the time.

“The president obviously talks about his IQ and personal fitness a lot,” said a second former senior administration official, who said much of the White House staff recognized it as hyperbole. “He usually does it to compare himself favorably to others.”

Trump is also incredibly protective of any information about his health, viewing it as one of the last bastions of his privacy, say current and former senior administration officials. The president and his aides still have not made public why he made an unannounced trip to Walter Reed hospital for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon last November.

People familiar with the episode say the visit did appear on the White House’s internal schedule in advance. At the time, the White House doctor said Trump was not evaluated for any chest pain, urgent or acute issues, nor did he undergo any specialized cardiac or neurologic evaluations. But Americans still do not know why Trump needed to make the visit at all, when so much medical care and equipment is available at the White House. It left unanswered numerous questions about his health, much as his recovery from Covid-19 did.

Trump has treated his Covid-19 recovery and the outbreak among White House staff and advisers as a problem he can overcome in this final stretch of the election through a frenzied schedule of rallies and events in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, as if the pace of the activity will make voters forget about his brush with the sometimes-deadly virus.

Last week, he told supporters in Pennsylvania that once he took some drugs for the coronavirus, he “felt like Superman.”

He has said repeatedly that the country was “rounding the corner” on Covid-19, even as health experts warned of a third spike of infections and an explosion of cases heading into the late fall and winter.

In his NBC town hall on Thursday, Trump spoke disparagingly about masks saying incorrectly that 85 percent of people who wear masks catch the virus. Health officials widely agree on masks as a low-tech way to stop the spread of the airborne droplets that can spread Covid-19.

By contrast, first lady Melania Trump used her own experience with Covid to try to empathize with the millions of Americans touched by the pandemic either through health problems or the resulting economic fallout.

“When my husband was taken to Walter Reed as a precaution, I spent much of my time reflecting on my family,” she wrote in a statement last week. “I also thought about the hundreds of thousands of people across our country who have been impacted by this illness that infects people with no discrimination.”

Unlike the first lady, the president did not use his Covid-19 diagnosis to connect with a broader swath of Americans or speak to their plight in navigating health care during a pandemic.

“What Trump most fears and denies is weakness,” said Tony Schwartz, the author who ghost-wrote “Trump: The Art of the Deal” and just published a memoir titled “Dealing with the Devil: My Mother, Trump and Me.” “I can only imagine he found it virtually intolerable to be in a hospital. ‘I am not a sick person, ever’ is how he sees himself.”

“He has always defined every outcome as a victory even when it wasn’t,” Schwartz added, saying half of the business transactions mentioned in “The Art of the Deal” actually were failures. “Trump’s advantage in promoting himself is that a victory is a victory, but he also declares victory in defeat.”

Opinion | Could Fracking Actually Help the Climate?

Hydraulic fracturing — the controversial oil and gas extraction method usually called “fracking” — has divided Democrats and the political left for a decade now. Many in the environmental community claim that allowing fracking is incompatible with climate action. Others, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, take a more nuanced position: During their respective debates, both Biden and Harris emphasized that a Biden-Harris administration would not ban fracking.

While most environmental groups tend to be on the side of a ban, there are actually strong environmental justifications for Biden and Harris’s light touch on fracking today. In fact, there are reasons to worry that even a partial ban on fracking could slow decarbonization efforts in the near-term. What’s more, the deployment of some clean energy technologies could depend, perhaps counterintuitively, on fracking.

Fracking, which involves pumping chemicals at high pressure underground to extract gas from shale rock formations, has driven a revolution in the U.S. fossil fuel sector, doubling natural gas production since 2005. That surge has pushed down prices dramatically, making natural gas-fired electricity much more cost competitive with coal power. Today, coal accounts for only 23 percent of U.S. electricity generation, compared to over 50 percent two decades ago; much of that shift is due to the fracking boom.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, coal-to-gas switching has driven the majority of CO2 emissions reductions in the power sector every year since 2005. And while methane releases are an important downside to gas use that needs to be better addressed, even taking them into account, natural gas is still better for the climate than coal.

Another fear of environmentalists is that the expansion of natural gas will slow the adoption of cleaner renewable energy. But the shale gas revolution has not demonstrably reduced the impressive growth of solar and wind power. Since 2005, wind generation has risen by over a factor of 15, and solar by over a factor of 140. Experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have observed that, because natural gas plants are so flexible in terms of when they start and stop production, they actually pair well with solar and wind power, whose output is intermittent.

By all appearances, natural gas production in the United States has acted exactly like the “bridge fuel” many imagined it would, providing an interim step in energy development from legacy fuels like coal and oil to the renewables of the future. It is a bridge that will ultimately have to end to meet the Biden campaign’s goal to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, but in the meantime natural gas is both helping dismantle the old fossil fuel economy while laying the groundwork for a new, renewable one.

Biden and Harris are clearly not interested in cutting that bridge off abruptly, a step that would offer a lifeline to coal power which is currently operating at less than half capacity and could easily ramp back up if gas prices rise. Nor are they likely interested in scaring away voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other oil-and-gas-heavy swing states. What’s more, since the vast majority of U.S. fracking occurs on private lands, even the Biden campaign promise to end new fracking leases on public lands might amount to little more than a symbolic gesture.

But while a ban on fracking on public lands would likely have little impact on total U.S. natural gas production, it could do serious harm to another renewable energy sector: new enhanced geothermal systems. This technology, known as EGS, often depends on hydraulic fracturing technologies and techniques to extract heat from deep rock formations. And though geothermal generated only 0.4 percent of U.S. electricity in 2019, there are signs that it could be on the verge of a boom; one estimate suggests that EGS systems could supply 1,300 times more energy than conventional geothermal technologies.

This is where avoiding a blanket ban on new fracking on public lands could be critical. Unlike natural gas, the best geothermal resources are spread across the American West, where the federal government manages almost half the land. So while the limited impact on natural gas production might well be an intentional feature of the Biden-Harris plan, the possible impacts on the nascent geothermal industry are certainly a bug.

Restricting natural gas development would have knock-on effects on other industries that also need to be considered. The electric power sector only consumes about a third of the natural gas produced in the United States. Another third goes to industrial applications, such as synthetic fertilizer and petrochemicals production. Unlike electric power, there are currently few affordable and scalable technological alternatives to natural gas in these industries. Ending natural gas consumption in our factories will require technological innovation of similar scale and scope to what we’ve achieved in the electric power sector. Limits on supply will have limited effect until that point given the lack of alternatives.

We may even want to produce some natural gas in the long term. Energy experts increasingly agree that more firm, non-intermittent clean generation — geothermal, advanced nuclear, gas with carbon capture — as well as cheaper energy storage, electricity grid modernization and expansion, are all needed to support large amounts of intermittent renewables. There are reasons to be hopeful about a new generation of integrated natural gas with carbon capture power plants — a technology that can capture CO2 from gas generation and bury it in stable underground geological formations. So-called “Allam cycle” plants may be able to capture carbon emissions for storage or reuse with relatively low costs. Carbon capture on electric power and industrial plants could keep natural gas around for a long time, just with a fraction of the CO2 the emissions.

Of course, to achieve a truly low-carbon economy, the “natural gas bridge” must end at some point. While gas has around half the long-term climate impact of coal, half the emissions is still far too high given that we ultimately need to bring emissions all the way down to zero to stop climate change. The success of a new generation of carbon capture technologies might allow for a low-carbon future without an end to fracking. Or, perhaps, solar, wind, advanced nuclear, EGS, and other low-carbon alternatives might obviate the need for much if any fracking in the future.

Either way we need to prioritize closing coal plants in the short-term, and move away from natural gas by gradually replacing it with clean energy alternatives; abruptly ending fracking today would make that decarbonization process harder, not easier.

The race to be Biden’s secretary of State is already underway

The race to serve as Joe Biden’s secretary of State has already begun, and the signs are surprisingly obvious if you know where to look.

Did you see the George Will column about why Biden should pick Chris Coons? Or the Jewish Insider story filled with quotes about how great the Delaware senator would be at Foggy Bottom? Or Coons’ essay in Foreign Affairs earlier this month? If you want to know more, supporters of Coons have crafted an informal five-page, bullet-pointed document making the case for why a future President Biden should name him America’s top diplomat.

Another Democratic senator, Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, may also be in the mix. He keeps popping up on panels about foreign policy, penning columns on international affairs and pushing bills that put him at odds with President Donald Trump on global issues. Murphy also happens to be a favorite of progressives trying to influence Biden’s personnel choices.

His aides point out that Murphy has been speaking out on foreign policy for years, and that he’s simply passionate about the issue. Still, his frenzy of activity in recent months has not gone unnoticed by people in and around the Biden campaign.

Then there are Bidenworld insiders who need no promotional campaign: Susan Rice, the hard-charging former national security adviser who was in the mix to serve as Biden’s vice president and is widely assumed to be a lock for a top administration job; and Antony Blinken, the smooth-talking former deputy secretary of State who is now a top Biden campaign aide.

In discussions with various foreign policy observers, POLITICO has heard around 10 names overall, from Foreign Service luminaries such as William Burns to way-outside-the-box picks like Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

Biden himself has offered few clues into his thinking, though his long history as a foreign policy specialist — and his campaign comments on the subject — suggests he would make diplomacy a priority. The former vice president also tends to surround himself with a small coterie of trusted advisers, from family members like his sister Valerie to longtime aides like Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti — suggesting he’s unlikely to tap an outsider.

“The president is going to want to pick somebody who obviously is qualified, but also can have a close working relationship with him," said Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. “Secretaries of State are always more effective when they’re close to the president.”

Aside from his personal comfort level, Biden also has to consider other factors, including: Who would face challenges being confirmed by the Senate? Who will constituencies like progressives want for the job? And what about the promises he’s made to have a diverse Cabinet?

The GOP whisperer

Of the potential candidates for the job, Coons, who now holds the Senate seat once held by Biden, comes closest to openly admitting he wants it.

“Joe Biden and I have very similar, closely aligned views on foreign policy,” he said in a statement. “He’s got a lot of great folks from whom to choose, but if he were to consider me as well, I’d certainly be honored.”

In his messaging so far, Coons has cast himself as a bipartisan dealmaker in Biden’s mold — someone willing to reach across the proverbial aisle to craft a foreign policy that appeals to Republicans and Democrats alike.

“For the United States to play a steady, stabilizing role in world affairs, its allies and adversaries must know that its government speaks with one voice and that its policies won’t shift dramatically with changing domestic political winds,” Coons argued in an Oct. 7 essay in Foreign Affairs, titled “A Bipartisan Foreign Policy is Still Possible.”

The informal document Coons’ supporters have put together notes, among other things, his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his interest in African affairs. It also points out that Coons has good relationships with Republicans, suggesting that he’ll have
a relatively easy time getting Senate approval.

The left’s man

Murphy, meanwhile, has aligned himself with the increasingly outspoken progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Progressives are not only intent on ousting Trump, they want to influence Biden’s personnel choices, knowing that can shape his policy. Their vision — which calls for a reduction in military spending, more emphasis on diplomacy and putting economic issues more at the center of foreign policy — appears to have influenced Biden’s foreign policy platform.

Murphy has raised his profile in recent years, using his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to call for a fresh approach to the foreign affairs budget and draw attention to conflicts in places like Yemen.

He has appeared in a variety of foreign policy forums throughout the 2020 campaign, a guest of groups like the Council on Foreign Relations. He drew ire from Trump for meeting with Iran’s foreign minister earlier this year, a session he defended by saying, “It’s dangerous to not talk to your enemies.” Murphy also is the driving force behind legislation — rejected by Trump — that restricts U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which, like Iran, is involved in the Yemen war.

A year ago, Murphy published an essay titled “How to Make a Progressive Foreign Policy Actually Work.” It was something of a call for humility and pragmatism on both sides of the burgeoning debate between progressives and establishment Democrats over foreign policy. Its impact on the debate itself has been limited, but it helped fan questions about Murphy’s intentions.

“Progressives should rethink their reflexive opposition to international trade agreements,” Murphy argues in one section. “Yes, a progressive president should fight for greater worker and environmental standards in trade agreements like [the Trans Pacific Partnership], but it would be foolish to simply cede economic hegemony in Asia to China by refusing to try to reconstruct a U.S.-Asia trade agreement.”

Murphy’s activities have drawn attention among Biden hands, but the senator’s aides downplay the idea that he’s auditioning for Foggy Bottom. They point out that he’s been talking about foreign policy for years — he co-authored a Foreign Affairs essay back in 2015 titled “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy.”

“He is honored to serve the people of Connecticut in the United States Senate, and there’s a lot to be done in his current job to reassert Congress’ role in foreign policy,” said Jamie Geller, a Murphy spokesperson. “He will continue to work to ensure that U.S. national security is informed and guided by progressive values at home and abroad.”

The trusted hand

If Biden wins, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic devastation is likely to consume his early months. Current and former U.S. officials say that could lead him to choose a secretary of State with past experience at the State Department because the person wouldn’t need much on-the-job-training in Foggy Bottom.

That makes Rice — an experienced foreign policy hand who’s held jobs all the way from junior NSC staffer to top Africa diplomat to U.N. ambassador to national security adviser — an appealing option for secretary of State.

She and Biden are said to have a warm relationship, though they disagreed over how to deal with tumult in places like Egypt and Libya when Biden was vice president. As a measure of his esteem, Biden seriously considered Rice as a potential running mate but went instead with California Sen. Kamala Harris. Rice, who is Black, also is one of the few women and people of color being mentioned as a potential chief U.S. diplomat.

Getting Rice confirmed as secretary of State could be difficult. Republicans long ago cast her as a villain, alleging she misled the public about the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya. Rice has pointed out that she was simply sharing talking points prepared by intelligence officials, but Republicans have repeatedly dismissed her defenses.

The political assaults were believed to be why her young daughter temporarily complained of having hallucinations, Rice wrote in a memoir published last year. The attacks prompted Rice to take herself out of the running to be Obama’s second-term secretary of State, becoming national security adviser instead.

More recently, Trump and his allies have alleged that Rice was part of a broader conspiracy to undermine the president. They claim she acted improperly when she requested the identities of some Americans referenced in intelligence reports who turned out to be Trump associates. Rice insists she did nothing wrong and came across the names as part of her routine duties as national security adviser; a Justice Department probe into the so-called unmasking of Trump aides quietly wrapped up in recent weeks with no charges filed and no public report.

Rice declined to comment for this story via a spokesperson. Although she’s active on Twitter, appears on television as a Biden surrogate and writes columns for The New York Times, she’s not openly saying she wants the role of chief diplomat — but she’s not deflecting the idea, either.

The Biden insider

Rice’s top rival could be Blinken, 58, a longtime Biden aide and a key member of his 2020 campaign team.

Blinken declined to comment for this article, but he was practically bred for the job: He's a polished Harvard graduate whose father, Donald, also a Harvard graduate, was an investment banker who served as a U.S. ambassador to Hungary. The younger Blinken attended high school in Paris, has worked as a journalist and as a lawyer, and has held positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. He’s also spent time on Capitol Hill, where he was Democratic staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair.

Blinken has been a key intermediary for Biden throughout the campaign; he meets on a regular basis, for instance, with a handful of progressive groups trying to shape Biden’s foreign policy.

During the Obama years, Blinken served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of State. But while Blinken would be fluent in State Department matters, foreign policy doyens expect Biden will want him close by in the White House, possibly as national security adviser.

Don’t count them out

Other prominent Obama-era appointees who could be in the running, foreign affairs analysts say, include: Samantha Power, who served on the National Security Council and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Tom Donilon, a former Obama national security adviser who has long known Biden; and Wendy Sherman, a key architect of the Iran nuclear deal who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs.

Some current and former diplomats say Biden should seriously consider tapping a current or former Foreign Service officer as his secretary of State. That would signal to State Department employees that he’s got their backs.

Under Trump, many U.S. diplomats have been marginalized and cast as a “deep state” determined to wreck the president’s agenda. Trump has also repeatedly tried to slash the State Department’s budget by as much as a third, but Congress has blocked that.

“It’s critical that the next secretary of State not just be the diplomat-in-chief but also be able to repair the State Department after the damage the Trump administration has done,” a former Obama-era State Department official said.

Among the favorite potential candidates with deep department ties is William Burns, a longtime Foreign Service officer who served as deputy secretary of State under Obama. He is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Another possible Foreign Service-related choice is Nicholas Burns, whose positions at the State Department included undersecretary of State for political affairs during the George W. Bush years. He now teaches at Harvard.

While neither is openly campaigning for the secretary of State position, both are overseeing or involved in projects that tackle big-picture questions about where U.S. foreign policy is heading.

Nicholas Burns’ initiative, called the American Diplomacy Project, is designed to produce a nonpartisan report after the election that lays out how “to rebuild the Foreign Service for the next half-century,” according to an announcement in April.

At Carnegie, William Burns has been involved with a project titled “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class.” The project addresses what is at times a seeming disconnect between U.S. foreign policy choices and economic decisions that affect ordinary Americans.

In an essay he co-authored for Foreign Affairs, William Burns laid out the stark challenge facing whoever is chosen as Biden’s secretary of State.

“After four years of relentless attacks by the Trump administration and decades of neglect, political paralysis, and organizational drift, U.S. diplomacy is badly broken. But it is not beyond repair, at least not yet,” the essay states. “What is needed now is a great renewal of diplomatic capacity, an effort that balances ambition with the limits of the possible at a moment of growing difficulties at home and abroad.”

Biden’s aides and allies would prefer not to discuss possible personnel choices — the election could still go either way, they say, and they are laser-focused on beating Trump above all else. Neither of the Burnses (who are not related) offered comment for this story. Donilon declined to comment, while Sherman and Power did not respond to requests for comment.

Transition planning for a Biden presidency has been under way for months, with both paid and unpaid advisers playing a role. Recently, the transition team not-so-subtly told people who are already jockeying for Cabinet posts to knock it off.

“Our focus between now and Election Day is on defeating Donald Trump and uniting our country to face the crises he has failed to address,” said Michael Gwin, a campaign spokesperson. “The work of rebuilding our government to face those challenges will come after that.”

Biden would revamp fraying intel community

President Donald Trump was in the middle of receiving a highly classified briefing on Afghanistan at his New Jersey golf club when he suddenly craved a malted milkshake.

“Does anyone want a malt?” he asked the senior defense and intelligence officials gathered around him, an august group that included the head of the CIA’s Special Activities Center, which is responsible for covert operations and paramilitary operations. “We have the best malts, you have to try them,” Trump insisted, as he beckoned a waiter into the room where code-word classified intelligence was being discussed.

The malt episode, which took place a few months after Trump took office in 2017, became legendary inside the CIA, said three former officials. It was seen as an early harbinger of Trump’s disinterest in intelligence, which would later be borne out by the new president’s notorious resistance to reading his classified daily briefing, known as the PDB, and his impatience with the briefers, current and former officials said.

But what initially seemed like mere boredom — which demoralized intelligence officials but could potentially be managed by including pictures and charts in briefings to hold the president’s attention — later morphed into something the officials saw as more sinister: an interest in wielding intelligence as a political cudgel. Whether selectively declassified by spy chiefs he installed for their loyalty, or obscured from congressional and public scrutiny if it conflicted with his preferred narrative, intelligence became just another weapon in the president’s arsenal.

Trump’s actions, and the endless partisan battles over the Russia probe and impeachment, have left the intelligence community bruised and battered. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s advisers and allies in Congress are already thinking about what a heavy lift it will be to restore morale inside the agencies, legitimacy on Capitol Hill and public trust in the intelligence community’s leadership should Biden defeat Trump in November, according to more than a dozen people close to the candidate.

“This will be among the most important things a President Biden would need to do—and that he’ll want to do—immediately,” said Tony Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama and is a top adviser to the Biden campaign. “I know from several conversations with him about this that he has deep concern about what has been done to the IC these last several years in terms of the politicization, and repairing that starts at the top with the president.”

Blinken recalled Biden telling him in February 2017, shortly after leaving office, that the thing he missed most about being vice president was receiving the PDB every morning.

“He said he felt so connected to what was going on around the world thanks to the PDB, and that losing that connection felt like a real void,” Blinken said. “I think that is evidence of the basic value he placed on the work of the intelligence community, because the PDB is of course their most important product.”

One approach Biden is considering, others said: placing people in charge who are experienced and who are already familiar faces to the intelligence community and its oversight bodies.

There’s precedent for holding over senior national security officials from one administration to the next — George Tenet, for instance, served as CIA director under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, while Bob Gates became Obama’s defense secretary after several years with Bush.

But there appears to be little appetite for that kind of bipartisan gesture now. When Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe canceled in-person election security briefings for lawmakers over the summer, Biden accused the Trump administration of hoping Russian President Vladimir Putin would “once more boost” Trump’s candidacy.

"This is not how democracy works," Biden said at the time. "But it is how American national security and sovereignty are violated."

“A couple of people at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would have to go, absolutely,” said former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, referring to Trump’s stocking the office with loyalists, like Ratcliffe, over the last few months. The former Texas lawmaker’s scant intelligence experience — fewer than two years on the House Intelligence Committee — was among the issues that scuttled his confirmation prospects when he was first nominated by Trump last year.

“Probably Gina Haspel would have to go, too,” Hayden said.

Haspel, a career intelligence official who became the agency’s first female director in May 2018, has rankled some current and former officials by at times appearing overly willing to appease the president. She has clamped down on the flow of Russia intelligence to Trump—who is known to erupt in anger whenever confronted with news of Moscow’s malign activities in the U.S.—and stood and clapped for his state of the union address earlier this year, a move out of step with past directors’ efforts to appear apolitical.

“Gina is a good woman, but she would have to go,” Hayden said.

The Biden campaign has been considering a couple of veteran national security hands who could serve in senior intelligence roles in a Biden administration and hit the ground running to repair what they see as the damage Trump has done to the intelligence community over the last four years, people familiar with the internal discussions said. Among the names is former acting CIA director Michael Morell, former Obama national security adviser and close Biden confidant Tom Donilon, former Obama deputy national security adviser Avril Haines, former Deputy NSA Director Chris Inglis, and former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo.

“There is no question that Biden and his team will have an urgent task in restoring faith, trust, competence, and morale in the intelligence community,” said former NSA general counsel Glenn Gerstell, who retired earlier this year. “It’s going to be a huge effort.”

He added that a Biden administration will need to pull off a revolution in how the intelligence community thinks about and responds to a changing world—complex, transnational threats like climate change and pandemics—following the reduced focus on the war on terror and the onrush of new technologies.

“That transformation, which should have occurred in earnest years ago, has to be accelerated under Biden,” Gerstell said, “or else we will be so far behind China we won’t be able to ever catch up. With ODNI having four directors and being so distracted, we mostly blew four years at a time when every moment counts.”

Trump’s prevailing attitude toward the intelligence community, current and former officials said, has been that he knows better—and that the agencies therefore need to be constrained to better align with his priorities.

He has also repeatedly made clear his distrust of the intelligence community, from comparing them to Nazis before he was even inaugurated to discarding their analysis of Russia’s 2016 election interference in favor of Vladimir Putin’s denials. He often uses quotation marks around the word “intelligence” in his tweets to signal his disdain. And he has been reckless with classified information, from revealing highly sensitive secrets about ISIS to the Russians in the Oval Office to tweeting out sensitive images of Iran taken by one of the U.S.’s most advanced spy satellites.

"I think we need somebody like that that's strong and can really rein it in,” Trump said last year, when outlining why he wanted Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats, a respected former Indiana lawmaker who often resisted the president as ODNI chief. “As you've all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok,” Trump added. “They've run amok."

In some ways, the reins of the intelligence and defense communities have been loosened under Trump, current and former officials said. NSA Director Paul Nakasone, for example, has been “unshackled,” as Wired put it, to wage more offensive cyber operations against adversaries than previous administrations ever allowed.

And Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who served as the director for European Affairs on Trump’s NSC until February, said the degree to which Trump has “shaken the faith in the executive branch” could undermine the progress that the Pentagon and intelligence community have made in responding more quickly to various threats, particularly in cyberspace. “That is another, in certain ways more troubling, issue that will have to be managed,” he said in an interview.

A president should always have a healthy skepticism of intelligence, be willing to ask tough questions, and demand accountability, said former CIA Director John Brennan, who served from March 2013 to January 2017 and is now one of Trump’s fiercest critics. His new book, "Undaunted," outlines some disagreements he had with then-Vice President Biden, for example, on issues including the Osama bin Laden raid and the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

“I remember [former DNI] Jim Clapper and myself would be in NSC meetings in the Situation Room, and we knew we'd be the skunk at the party because we would be presenting intelligence that might be at odds with the prevailing view,” Brennan said. “I was questioned on it, challenged on it, and rightly so. But I never felt that they didn't want to hear it.”

Hayden echoed that sentiment. “Many times I disagreed with Biden,” he said. “And that’s OK!”

Biden served on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a decade before entering the White House and was rarely seen in his West Wing office without a copy of the PDB under his arm, his former aides said.

He is the “diametric opposite of Trump” in that respect, said a former senior administration official. In a 2009 speech for the swearing-in ceremony of Leon Panetta as CIA director, Biden said, “The most important thing for this job, in my view … is to give the president of the United States the unvarnished truth, not what he thinks the president may want to hear.”

It’s a sentiment seldom heard from Trump, who has instilled a sense in some intelligence professionals that they have to be careful not to present information that might conflict with his political agenda. He fired the former acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, earlier this year for allowing a subordinate to brief lawmakers on Russia’s interference in 2020. And there’s been “tip-toeing” around Congress among analysts and briefers wary of their findings getting back to the president, as one former senior intelligence official put it — particularly in the presence of staunch Trump ally and Gang of 8 member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

The fear of provoking Trump’s wrath led to a months-long standoff earlier this year between Congress and ODNI officials, who pushed for the annual Worldwide Threats hearing to be held behind closed doors so that the agency directors would not be seen publicly contradicting the president on key issues like Iran, North Korea and Russia. (CIA officials have had some trouble getting through to the president on issues related to North Korea, former officials said, beginning early on in his presidency when he instructed them to consult with former professional basketball player Dennis Rodman on the subject.)

Over the summer, a DHS whistleblower alleged that intelligence on Russia’s malign activities in the U.S. and the domestic terror threat posed by white supremacists was also being suppressed by senior DHS leadership so as not to anger Trump, though the White House pushed back on the claim.

“For many of us, Biden’s demeanor in and of itself is like the healing balm we all need,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who served as assistant secretary of counterterrorism and threat prevention at DHS until earlier this year and has been outspoken about the department’s politicization of intelligence under Trump.

“And we don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat, with the Biden administration just focusing on vengeance,” continued Neumann, who has endorsed Biden. “But it will be really important to acknowledge that there has been a brain drain of good, competent, and qualified intelligence leaders under this administration, and these people should be given an opportunity to come back into government.”

One that immediately comes to mind, Neumann said, is former counterterrorism chief Russ Travers, who alerted the former IC inspector general Michael Atkinson earlier this year to his concerns over the shrinking budgets and resources available to the intelligence community. Travers was removed from his post in March by Ric Grenell, a Trump devotee who pushed through a number of controversial moves during his brief stint as acting director.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst, said in an interview that “a targeted callback” of officers who were forced out or resigned under Trump might be one way of getting some of that expertise back.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, agreed and pointed to Sue Gordon, a career official and former Coats deputy who was well-respected on both sides of the aisle and within the agencies but left the administration after Trump ousted her boss.

"I think that to the extent that we could attract some of these people back to public service, even in a transitional role, to build up a little bit of trust again with people that are known inside the intelligence community and liked and trusted also by Congress, I think that might not be a bad idea," Krishnamoorthi said.

Another task for a Biden administration will be to identify “who in the senior ranks may have been supportive and complicit in politicization of intelligence,” Slotkin said. “If those people are still in their jobs, there should at a minimum be some pretty clear conversations—and, at a maximum, to me, it's probably not the right career for them.”

Vindman, who was forced out of government following his impeachment testimony against Trump, said he was unnerved by the “creep of politicization” within the defense and intelligence community before he was effectively forced to resign from the military earlier this year after he testified at Trump’s impeachment trial.

“In many ways, I am a victim of that trend,” he said, “because under normal circumstances, you would expect senior leadership to defend their people aggressively—especially people doing the right thing. So that authoritarian mindset that has infiltrated these institutions will have to be undone by a Biden administration through a protracted period of confidence-building.”

To that end, Krishnamoorthi said it would be important for Congress to partner with a potential President Biden on whistleblower reforms and other measures introduced by Democratic lawmakers to help insulate the intelligence community from politics. Trump repeatedly and publicly attacked the whistleblower whose complaint led to his impeachment proceedings, and fired the intelligence community watchdog, Michael Atkinson, who brought the complaint to Congress—one of five inspectors general Trump dismissed in the space of six weeks earlier this year.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), also a member of the House Intelligence Committee, encouraged Biden to back legislation protecting the independence of inspectors general and whistleblowers that Democrats recently unveiled as part of a post-Watergate-style reform package.

"Fundamentally, the key thing is that there must be trust between the oversight committees and the intelligence community and that starts at the top," Maloney said, adding that it was “time to show the political hacks the door and bring back the nonpolitical professionals who care about our country's national security and who will tell it to us straight regardless of the politics.”

Twitter blocks tweet from Trump adviser downplaying masks

NEW YORK — Twitter blocked a post Sunday from an adviser to President Donald Trump who suggested that masks do not work to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Scott Atlas, who joined the White House in August as a science adviser, had tweeted “Masks work? NO,” and said widespread use of masks is not supported.

The tweet violated a Twitter policy that prohibits sharing false or misleading misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to harm, a company spokesperson said. The policy bans statements that have been confirmed to be false or misleading by experts such as public health authorities.

In such cases, Twitter disables the account until its owner deletes the post in question.

Trump has downplayed the importance of masks in reducing the spread of the virus, even after he contracted the disease, which has killed more than 215,000 Americans.

“I don’t understand why the tweets were deleted,” Atlas said in an email, calling Twitter’s actions censorship. He said his tweet was intended to show that “general population masks and mask mandates do not work,” and he clarified that the correct policy is to use masks when one cannot socially distance. Atlas added that infections exploded even with mandates in Los Angeles County, Miami-Dade County, Hawaii, Alabama, the Philippines, Japan and other places.

Researchers have concluded that masks can control the spread of the virus, and public health experts have urged the public to wear them. But Trump and his team often go without masks while campaigning.

Atlas, the former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center and a fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, has no expertise in public health or infectious diseases. He has criticized the coronavirus lockdowns and campaigned for children to return to classrooms. Some scientists view Atlas as promoting dangerous theories around “herd immunity.”

Last week, Twitter and Facebook moved quickly to limit the spread of an unverified political story published by the conservative-leaning New York Post. The story cited unverified emails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, and it has not been confirmed by other publications. There have been no new tweets from the Post since Oct. 14, indicating Twitter may still be blocking the newspaper’s tweets.

States brace for surge of voter registrations as deadlines near

A cut cable, an equipment failure at a data center, an online traffic overload that crashed a website — online voter registration systems have already had their share of snafus this election season, amid record-breaking registration totals in battleground states. With registration deadlines approaching in more than a dozen states, voting rights groups and party officials warn there could be more glitches on the horizon, resulting in the disenfranchisement of would-be voters.

Registration deadlines were extended last week in Virginia and two weeks ago in Florida after web outages prevented residents from registering online for hours, prompting lawsuits from voting rights groups and even allegations of voter suppression.

Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact at the League of Women Voters, said other states should be taking the outages seriously because online systems in states across the country sometimes fail even on regular days.

“It can also forecast problems with the state system to support their polling place finder or their ballot lookup or their voter verification system,” she warned. “All of these systems to tend to be connected to one another.”

With President Donald Trump on the ballot against former Vice President Joe Biden and control of the Senate up for grabs, the general election could see record turnout. More than 27 million Americans have already voted, one-fifth of the total votes tallied in the 2016 presidential race, according to the U.S. Elections Project, and several battleground states are seeing more registrations than ever before.

Georgia reported a record-high of nearly 7.6 million registered voters, 734,000 of whom registered online. A court extended Arizona’s Oct. 5 deadline to last Thursday, though a record-high almost 4 million residents had already registered to vote as of August, according to the secretary of state’s office.

More than 14.4 million voters have registered in Florida, its Department of State said last week, a total that bests its 2016 figure by more than 1 million. Almost 8.1 million Ohioans were registered to vote as of Wednesday, the secretary of state’s office said, narrowly topping its 2018 high. And nearly 3.4 million voters are registered in South Carolina, outpacing totals from the 2016 and 2018 elections.

Americans are turning to online voter registration as a safe method during a coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 8 million Americans and killed upwards of 219,000 people in the U.S. “This year, clearly with Covid, more people are relying on online systems than in past years because in-person activities are just not as acceptable and available as they have been in the past,” Senecal said.

That surge in online registration, however, has caused its own headaches.

A federal judge in Virginia last week extended the state’s voter registration deadline to 11:59 p.m. Thursday. The original deadline was Tuesday, the same day the website crashed after a cable was severed. U.S. District Judge John Gibney Jr. said the outage caused “a tremendous harm” to people who wanted to register to vote.

Florida extended its Oct. 5 deadline to 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 after its system crashed two weeks ago. Secretary of State Laurel Lee said that at one point the state’s voter registration website was accessed by more than 1 million requests per hour, “an extremely high volume of traffic.”

Voting rights groups filed suit in Florida and Virginia following the deadline day snafus, warning that the outages disenfranchised people who tried to register but couldn’t. The Florida Democratic Party called the website malfunction “blatant voter suppression,” and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the state’s online system “has a suspect history of crashing just before key deadlines,” blaming Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lee, the secretary of state, for knowing but doing nothing.

Voting rights groups in Virginia similarly noted that Tuesday wasn’t the first time Virginia’s system has failed. “This now marks two presidential election cycles in a row in which the state’s registration system has collapsed,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement, “and we hope that this will counsel in favor of stronger systems and backstops to prevent mass disenfranchisement in the future.”

Louisiana also suffered a recent system failure — albeit last month, on National Voter Registration Day. Its website went down for three-and-a-half hours due to what Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin called “an unfortunate error” that allowed routine maintenance to occur that night. Democratic New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell called the mistake “beyond reprehensible” and a “dereliction of duty” by the Republican official at a critical time.

And Pennsylvania's voter registration web page and other online services went dark over the first weekend of October after equipment at a data center broke.

While it’s unclear how many people were unable to register during the outages, Senecal from the League of Women Voters said many of those people do come back and try again.

“One of the things that’s really helpful is that a number of organizations like the league, we have systems where voters can start or complete their registration process online, so we actually know if there are people who try to start the process, say in Virginia, and weren’t able to complete it,” she said. “We can then follow up with those people … All of the nonprofits who do this type of work that are using systems that enable that have the ability to reach back out to their voters.”

Despite the recent website outages in Virginia, Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, some officials in states with upcoming voter registration deadlines are expressing confidence that their systems will operate smoothly.

POLITICO reached out to elections offices in five states with registration deadlines in the next week — four battlegrounds and California. Two expressed confidence in their systems to withstand any surge, and one said the issue needed to be discussed internally before commenting publicly.

“We are confident in the ability of our system to handle registration requests up to and through Election Day, as is allowed by Michigan law,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, press secretary of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Michigan is one of several states whose voter registration deadline is on Monday. But Michigan is “an automatic voter registration state, meaning any time you conduct a transaction at our branch offices, you are either registered or your registration is updated unless you decline it,” Kiersnowski said. “Our deadlines and this process allows the volume of registrations and updates to be better spread out over time.”

Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, said, “We have confidence in the system.” Iowa’s Oct. 24 deadline “is a preregistration deadline,” Hall added, noting that that Iowans can register up to and on Election Day at the polls. Nineteen other states and Washington, D.C., also allow people to register in person on Election Day.

An automated email reply from the Pennsylvania Department of State encouraged a POLITICO reporter to call the office for “urgent matters,” citing delayed email response times due to an increase in inquiries. The reporter was No. 26 in a queue but hung up after more than 90 minutes of hold music.

Other states didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Even though elections officials have projected confidence that no digital issues will plague them, elected officials and party officials were more wary.

Brendan Welch, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, highlighted in-person alternatives, “[i]n the event that the SURE (Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors) system does have issues on Monday,” the commonwealth’s registration deadline.

“Nobody can say they’re not worried this election year. You can’t,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said in an interview. “You wouldn’t be sane if you weren’t worried.”

But in Michigan, she said, Benson, the secretary of state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and others are working hard to make sure people get registered and vote.

“I’m not saying I’m not worried,” Dingell said, “but I sure know we’re working hard to try to address all the problems.”

Former Democratic power broker James A. Johnson dies at 76

MINNEAPOLIS — James A. Johnson, a former Democratic campaign operative who was CEO of housing lender Fannie Mae in the 1990s and served as chairman of Walter Mondale’s presidential bid, died Sunday at his home in Washington. He was 76.

Johnson’s son, Alfred, confirmed that his father had died, telling The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal that the cause was complications from a neurological condition.

A native of Benson, Minnesota, and the son of a prominent state lawmaker, Johnson had a political, cultural and business resume that prompted Harold M. Ickes, President Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, to dub him “the chairman of the universe.” Johnson chaired the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Brookings Institution think tank and Fannie Mae all at the same time.

Besides running Mondale’s failed run for the White House against Ronald Reagan in 1984, Johnson was a key player in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie and George McGovern.

He turned his political savvy into business success. David O. Maxwell, former head of Fannie Mae, hired Johnson as vice chairman in 1990, after Johnson had helped the company hold off privatization efforts by the Reagan administration. Johnson was promoted to chairman and CEO the next year.

Johnson immediately set his sights on maintaining Fannie Mae’s lucrative government privileges and ensuring that new regulations were not overly burdensome. Johnson and his lobbyists helped fashion a 1992 law signed by President George H.W. Bush that aimed to reduce the chance of an expensive taxpayer bailout if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had bad loans on their books.

It also opened up a new era of home ownership for families who were previously unable to get mortgage loans.

After retiring from Fannie Mae at the end of 1998, Johnson served on the boards of several companies, including UnitedHealth Group, KB Home and Target, and was vice chairman of the Washington private-equity firm Perseus. He had chaired the advisory council of the Stanford Center on Longevity since 2011.