GOP-led Arizona election review closely matches Biden's winning margin

A hand tally from a controversial review of the 2020 election results in Arizona’s largest county closely tracked the official canvass, according to a draft copy of a report expected to be delivered later on Friday.

The tally from the review, which was backed by the Republican-controlled state Senate but has no bearing on President Joe Biden's long-official victory in the state, found Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in Maricopa County by about 45,000 votes, a slight increase of Biden’s margin from the official count.

The review in Arizona has played a central role in Trump’s mythology that he won the 2020 election. Since leaving office, Trump has repeatedly spread the lie that he did not lose the election, and has sought to undermine confidence in the American democratic system.

County officials from Maricopa, whose county board of supervisors is controlled by Republicans and whose top elections official is also a Republican, celebrated the draft report as vindication of their election results.

“You don’t have to dig deep into the draft copy of the Arizona Senate/Cyber Ninja audit report to confirm what I already knew — the candidates certified by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General — did, in fact, win,” board chair Jack Sellers, a Republican, said in a statement. “This means the tabulation equipment counted the ballots as they were designed to do, and the results reflected the will of the voters. That should be the end of the story.”

POLITICO reviewed copies of a draft report circulated by the Maricopa county recorder’s office and the Arizona secretary of state’s office, both of whom have consistently opposed the effort in the state. Arizona media outlets — including the Arizona Republic,KJZZ and the newsletter Arizona Agenda — all previously reported on various drafts of the report.

A spokesperson for the secretary of state said the office can't speak to the authenticity of the draft, and declined to share how the office received a copy of it. But a spokesperson for the effort told the radio station that their draft was “not the final report, but it’s close.” Requests for comment from POLITICO sent to a separate review spokesperson and Doug Logan — the head of Cyber Ninjas, the firm contracted by the state Senate to run the effort — were not immediately returned early Friday morning.

A final report release and a hearing is scheduled for Friday afternoon in Arizona.

The Arizona review has been marred by significant problems, stretching on for months past its initial expected runtime, while seemingly improvising processes on the fly and playing into conspiracy theories that included checking for bamboo fibers in ballots. The effort was also significantly funded by allies of Trump.

Election officials in the state and outside experts have opposed it nearly every step of the way, and derided the “audit” label supporters attached to it. Logan, who is leading the effort, has echoed some of Trump’s conspiracy theories, and has no discernible experience running or reviewing elections.

Nevertheless, the near-matching tally will likely not stop Trump and his supporters from further attacking America's democratic system. The draft report claimed irregularities with tens of thousands of ballots, and suggested changes to the state’s election law “that tightens up the election process to provide additional certainty to elections going forward.”

“Everybody will be watching Arizona tomorrow to see what the highly respected auditors and Arizona State Senate found out regarding the so-called Election!” the former president said in a statement, hours before the draft report was made public.

The Arizona effort has also inspired copycat reviews or investigations in states across the country, including efforts backed by GOP legislative leaders in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Most recently, Texas’ secretary of state’s office announced Thursday night it would be reviewing the 2020 election in four of the state’s most populous counties, after Trump publicly released a letter to GOP Gov. Greg Abbott calling for one earlier in the day.

Trump has also pressured Republican officials across the country to tout his lies about the election, often lashing out against Republican election officials who said their elections were not rigged. He has backed Republicans seeking to become their state’s secretary of state who have parroted those falsehoods — including state Rep. Mark Finchem, a major proponent of the review in Maricopa.

Texas launches review of 2020 election, hours after Trump call

Texas’ secretary of state office announced it had launched a review of the 2020 election in four of the state’s largest counties on Thursday evening, hours after former President Donald Trump sent an open letter to GOP Gov. Greg Abbott demanding one.

The secretary of state office said a “full and comprehensive forensic audit” had begun in Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin counties. It was not immediately clear what the exact process of the review would be. “Forensic audit” is not a well-defined term among election experts, but Trump and his supporters have latched on to it in an effort to further his lies about his electoral loss in 2020.

The office did not release any further details about the process, other than it expected the Legislature to provide funds for it. President Joe Biden carried Dallas, Harris and Tarrant last November, while Trump carried Collin en route to his statewide win.

“Donald Trump ordered Gov. Abbott to audit the 2020 Texas election and, like clockwork, TX just initiated an audit of Harris County voters,” Harris County’s Chief Executive Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, wrote in a tweet. “These fake audits are an affront to all voters, & pure pandering to the kinds of extremists that stormed our Capitol.”

Texas currently does not have a permanent secretary of state. The position, which is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, is currently vacant, with Joe Esparza, a former aide for Abbott, overseeing the office on an interim basis. The secretary of state’s office did not immediately respond to a series of questions from POLITICO, including for details of the process and who will be conducting the review.

The announcement comes hours after Trump publicly released a letter to Abbott, whom he has already endorsed in his 2022 reelection bid. In the letter, Trump advocated for a piece of legislation that would allow candidates and party officials to kick off an audit in the state.

“Governor Abbott, we need a ‘Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election' added" to the agenda of the in-progress special session, Trump said in his letter, which was released by his leadership PAC earlier on Thursday. “Let's get to the bottom of the 2020 Presidential Election Scam!”

Since his loss last November, Trump and his allies have been fixated on false claims of widespread electoral fraud. Supporters of the former president have sought to launch election reviews in states across the country that he lost, with efforts in various stages in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

A long-delayed final report out of Arizona is expected to be delivered tomorrow. The review of the results in the state’s largest county, Maricopa, has been run under the authority of the Republican-controlled state Senate. The effort, funded by allies of Trump, has been besieged from the start by conspiracy theories and seemingly improvised procedures.

Arizona's Democratic secretary of state and Republican chief elections officer have publicly opposed the effort, and they and outside experts have rejected the “audit” label supporters append to it because of its shortcomings.

This, however, has not deterred Trump supporters, who have sought to export the process around the country.

The review in Texas also follows a brutal battle over the state’s election laws. Republicans passed a new election law in the state that adds new restrictions to voting, which came after state House Democrats launched a protracted walkout that delayed passage, but ultimately did not kill the effort. The new law added further restrictions to mail voting in the state, and targeted pandemic-era practices from Harris County, including 24-hour and drive-in early voting.

That new law, SB 1, calls for the secretary of state to conduct “randomized audits” immediately after midterm and presidential elections, but lays out few parameters for how it is to be conducted, leaving that up to the judgment of the secretary of state’s office.

House passes $768B defense bill, super-sizing Biden's Pentagon plans

The House on Thursday easily passed a $768 billion defense policy bill that endorses a major budget boost, dealing the biggest blow yet to President Joe Biden's Pentagon spending plans.

Lawmakers approved the National Defense Authorization Act in a 316-113 vote with broad support from Democrats and Republicans as momentum builds on Capitol Hill to add upwards of $25 billion to Biden's defense proposal.

The legislation, which authorizes spending levels and sets Pentagon policy, would require women to register for a military draft. It also aims to extract information from the Biden administration on the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and launch a wide-ranging review of the two-decade war.

In a bipartisan blowout, 181 Democrats teamed with 135 Republicans to push the bill across the finish line.

The Senate has not yet passed its own version of the defense bill. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a version in July that also endorses increased defense spending and expands the Selective Service registration to women.

In all, the legislation would authorize $768 billion for national defense programs, including $740 billion for the Pentagon base budget — an increase of $25 billion from what Biden requested — and $28 billion for nuclear weapons programs under the Energy Department.

On the House floor this week, Armed Services leaders touted the legislation as a key step in shedding aging weapons and helping the Pentagon pivot toward emerging technologies that help match threats posed by China and Russia.

"Everybody here will find something that they do not like," House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said on the House floor. "But it is also the nature of the legislative process, in this case, that we have produced a product that everybody in this House can be proud of.”

The top Armed Services Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, added that the bill is "laser-focused on preparing our military to prevail in a conflict with China."

In a debate spanning three days, lawmakers tackled nearly 500 amendments to the defense bill.

Lawmakers notably rejected by a 286-142 vote efforts by progressive Democrats — led by Reps. Barbara Lee of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — to undo the $25 billion budget increase and instead endorse Biden's budget level.

Republicans, and even some Democrats, have panned Biden's budget as insufficient to tackle China and other emerging threats. And the Armed Services Committee this month adopted the extra spending in a wide bipartisan vote.

But increasing the defense budget has split House Democrats. Smith, who unsuccessfully opposed efforts to boost defense spending in the Armed Services Committee this month, backed the amendment along with 141 other Democrats, a majority of the caucus.

"We have got to instill discipline at the Pentagon so we get value for the dollars that we spend," Smith said. "Simply giving them another $25 billion does not do that."

The bill also would require women to register for a potential military draft, a major change that has irked conservative groups and lawmakers who were unsuccessful in their attempts to claw back the provision.

The Senate bill endorses a similar change to the Selective Service System. With the provision in both bills, the change has good odds of becoming law.

Though there hasn't been a military draft in more than four decades, American men are still required to register when they turn 18. With all military combat jobs opening to women in 2015, support has grown for requiring all Americans to sign up.

The bill also taps into frustration among both parties with what lawmakers saw a shoddy withdrawal from Afghanistan that left Americans, Afghan allies and loads of equipment behind.

Lawmakers attached provisions requiring the Pentagon to explain to Congress why it left Bagram Air Base and why it halted maintenance support to the Afghan air force.

Other provisions require the administration to submit plans outlining how it will evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan partners and conduct counterterrorism operations following the withdrawal. Lawmakers are also seeking information from the administration on the threat posed by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS-K following the Taliban takeover.

The bill also establishes a 12-member bipartisan commission, proposed by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), to review the entirety of the two-decade conflict.

The bill also would:

— Authorize $28.4 billion for 13 new Navy ships, including three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and two Virginia-class attack submarines.

— Authorize the purchase of 85 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters, matching the Pentagon's budget request.

— Procure 24 Boeing F-15EX jets for the Air Force, double the number requested by the Pentagon.

— Prohibit private funding for cross-state National Guard deployment except for emergency or disaster relief efforts.

— Require generals and admirals to be out of the military for 10 years before they can serve as defense secretary, up from the current seven-year cooling off period.

— Provide a 2.7 percent troop pay raise.

Sens. Gillibrand, Ernst call House defense legislation ‘inadequate’ on military prosecutions

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Thursday called defense legislation in the House “inadequate” because it doesn’t overhaul how the military prosecutes major crimes, including sexual assault.

The New York Democrat, speaking during POLITICO’s Women Rule Summit on sexual assault in the military, mentioned the case of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a soldier who was sexually harassed and later killed in Fort Hood, Texas, last year, as an example of why the legislation needed to be more expansive. Guillén’s killing would not be given the proper attention under guidelines outlined in the current House bill, she said.

“It doesn’t cover murder,” she said. “It doesn’t create an independent chain of command, an independent review outside of the chain of command. And it doesn’t do a bright line at all serious crimes. It’s an issue of justice.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also appeared on the Women Rule panel. Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, said Guillén’s murder was the point at which she realized “enough was enough.”

“We’ve given the military enough time. Now it’s time to be very aggressive about the moves that we’re making,” she said. “If the military won’t make the changes necessary, then I will partner with Senator Gillibrand, work with her on this legislation, and we will be the ones that make that difference.”

Prosecutors said that a fellow soldier killed Guillén and then tried to dispose of her remains. Army Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, was charged with Guillén’s murder in July 2020, though he had killed himself a few days before the charge was announced publicly.

Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, was arrested in July 2020 in Killeen, Texas. According to Justice Department court documents, Robinson told Aguilar, a civilian, that he had hit Guillén in the head with a hammer repeatedly, killing her. The two then tried to dismember and burn Guillén’s remains, according to the court documents.

Aguilar was indicted on 11 counts related to tampering with documents and during an indictment by a grand jury in Waco, Texas, in July. She pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Annual defense policy legislation approved in July by the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Gillibrand and Ernst are members, includes the senators’ legislation to remove military commanders’ authority to prosecute all serious crimes, including sexual assault, and hand them to independent military prosecutors.

In July, President Joe Biden said he supported changes to how military sexual assault cases are prosecuted. Under the changes, commanders would have no input on prosecution in sexual assault cases, and all decisions on those cases are given to a special victims prosecutor. However, he stopped short of extending these procedures to all major crimes, something that is included in Gillibrand and Ernst’s bill.

The current Senate bill was tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act. However, Gillibrand started working on changing prosecutions for sexual assault in the military eight years ago. Ernst was previously a holdout on the concept, but recently teamed up with Gillibrand on the bill.

The House version of the bill that is set to pass Thursday evening overhauls the way the military services handle prosecutions for sex crimes, but doesn’t include Gillibrand’s proposal to remove prosecution of all serious crimes from the chain of command.

“We believe this change will change who gets prosecuted and what the outcomes of those cases are,” Gillibrand said on Thursday. “And that sends a message to the military, that these crimes will not be tolerated.”

Ernst said that removing all nonmilitary felonies from the chain of command would prevent women from feeling isolated by having sexual assault cases reviewed only by an outside prosecutor.

Though there are male survivors of sexual assault, “typically, when you think sexual assault, you’re thinking women, and there are a lot of women that are sexually assaulted in the military,” Ernst said.

“What we want to do is remove the most heinous crimes, including murder, kidnapping, out of the chain of command,” Ernst said. “The commander can still focus on issues that are related to military good order and discipline. They still have authority over other types of crimes, but we’re taking anything that would imprison a service member for a year or more and moving it to that special prosecutor.”

Gillibrand said they would call on Biden to back the reform, since he previously stated his support.

“He said, during his campaign, when asked, ‘Would you take sexual assault, and rape, and murder, and child abuse out of the chain of command?’ He said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I would take it all,’” Gillibrand said “And so he is with us, and he is the commander in chief. If necessary, we will hopefully get President Biden engaged on this issue so that he can let his chairmen of the committees know how important it is to him.”

Jan. 6 committee subpoenas 4 from Trump's inner circle

The select panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is issuing subpoenas to four current and former top aides to President Donald Trump, including his most recent chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The committee issued its first subpoenas on Thursday to Meadows; former Pentagon official and longtime House Intelligence Committee aide Kash Patel; former top White House adviser Steve Bannon; and longtime Trump social media chief Dan Scavino. It marks a turning point in the investigation as lawmakers begin homing in on Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election results.

The Jan. 6 committee's chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), had foreshadowed Wednesday that the first subpoenas would go out imminently, as the panel kicks into high gear with the goal of finishing its work by next spring. The four Trump associates will be commanded to produce relevant documents by Oct. 7 and appear for depositions the following week.

“The Select Committee has revealed credible evidence of your involvement in events within the scope of the Select Committee’s inquiry,” Thompson wrote in the letter to Meadows, saying he has "critical information regarding many elements of our inquiry."

In a statement released shortly after the subpoenas were issued, Trump lashed out at the panel and reiterated his discredited claims about the results of the 2020 election.

"We will fight the Subpoenas on Executive Privilege and other grounds, for the good of our Country," Trump said in the statement, deriding the panel as the "Unselect Committee."

Hundreds of those charged in breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6 have cited Trump's false claims about election fraud as a motivating factor for their decision to travel to Washington ahead of what turned into the violent attack.

The issuance of subpoenas marks a sharp escalation in the two-month-old committee's activity. The panel is bracing for resistance from the four Trump associates — Thompson and other committee members indicated that they would issue immediate subpoenas to those they felt would be "recalcitrant."

The letters cite a mix of news reports and documents obtained by the committee to suggest that the aides have information relevant to their investigation. For example, in the letter to Bannon — the longtime boss of Breitbart News who helped lead Trump’s 2016 campaign in its final months — the committee cited passages from “Peril,” the new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, as a basis for seeking his testimony.

Patel, a veteran of House Intel Ranking Member Devin Nunes' staff before Trump tapped him for a series of high-profile national security jobs, was the chief of staff to Defense Secretary Christopher Miller in the waning days of the Trump administration. The panel says it believes he has documents that would reveal the White House's involvement in "preparing for and responding to the attack on the U.S. Capitol."

The committee also cites "Peril" as a basis for calling Scavino, who noted that the book suggested Scavino was at Trump's side the night before the Jan. 6 insurrection and helped Trump develop his messaging in the run-up to the certification of the Electoral College.

"It also appears that you were with or in the vicinity of former President Trump on Jan. 6 and are a witness regarding his activities that day," Thompson wrote.

Biden needs India to counter China, but it comes with a cost

India’s prime minister is in Washington this week for a coveted White House meeting. But Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism and his country’s backsliding on human rights and democracy are creating a problematic alliance for President Joe Biden.

Modi, a favorite friend of former President Donald Trump, will meet Biden on Friday along with the leaders of Australia and Japan. The four countries make up the “Quad,” a grouping Biden is trying to elevate in a broader effort to stand up to China.

While the members of the Quad all are democracies, India’s was recently downgraded from “free” to “partly free” by Freedom House, which slammed Modi’s government for everything from harassment of journalists to attacks on non-Hindus.

Yet not only have Biden administration officials kept their public criticisms of Modi to a minimum, they’ve even engaged in outreach to Modi allies known for their extreme views.

Earlier this month, the top U.S. diplomat in New Delhi met with the leader of an Indian organization notorious for its often-violent promotion of Hindu nationalism. The U.S. envoy, Atul Keshap, was reported to say afterward that he’d had a “good discussion” with Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a movement with paramilitary elements that intimidate Muslims and other non-Hindus. Keshap said the pair spoke of how “India’s tradition of diversity, democracy, inclusivity and pluralism can ensure the vitality and strength of a truly great nation.”

Those remarks did little to reassure longtime observers of the Washington-New Delhi dynamic, who fear it’s all part of a broader willingness of the Biden administration to look away from the Modi government’s abuses despite U.S. influence on the country.

“Why is the Biden administration so mute on India’s human rights situation? Why are U.S. officials pulling their punches? What is the strategy?” asked John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The U.S. is a vital partner to India, in trade, diplomacy and military relations — this is leverage that the Biden administration does not seem to know how to measure properly.”

On Thursday, as the Indian leader scored a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, one U.S. lawmaker also voiced concern about India’s trajectory under Modi.

“I hope his White House visit includes honest conversations about how the Modi government can ensure India’s democracy remains a democracy for all of its people,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement.

White House and State Department spokespersons did not offer on-the-record comments for this story. The Indian Embassy also did not respond to requests for comment. Keshap, who was in charge of the U.S. Embassy in India on a temporary basis, has since left the post.

Elevating the Quad, including India, will continue to be a priority, a senior Biden administration official said Thursday in a written statement.

“The Quad is a model for how much of our statecraft in Indo-Pacific will look going forward,” the senior official said. “It’s about bringing together allies and partners together in a flexible, fit-for-purpose configuration.”

Biden administration officials have said they do not have blinders on to India’s troubles. Instead, they argue that when it comes to a country of 1.4 billion people that is geo-strategically vital — especially when it comes to holding a rising China at bay — they prefer to level their criticisms behind the scenes.

“Public admonishment is the appropriate tack under certain circumstances, but in other circumstances the private approach is what’s really going to do the most good,” one senior official recently told POLITICO in describing the administration’s overall strategy on human rights.

That worries other U.S. officials who argue that there’s little evidence that the overall human rights and democracy atmosphere in India is improving.

“We are repeating the Obama and Trump mistake of cozying up to India and Modi without demanding Modi end his tilt towards authoritarianism and start protecting human rights and religious freedom,” a U.S. official engaged in the debate told POLITICO. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The U.S. official said Biden administration representatives do voice their human rights concerns privately to their Indian counterparts, but, “I just don’t know that Modi or his party change any behavior because of those conversations.”

Complicating the U.S. calculation, the official added, is that Modi remains popular in India, so there’s “lots of hand-wringing” inside the Biden administration about what to do.

As the U.S. official suggested, Biden is to an extent echoing his recent predecessors.

Modi came into power in 2014, and former President Barack Obama largely embraced him, despite Modi’s record of anti-Muslim sentiment.

In fact, nearly a decade earlier, Modi had been denied a U.S. visa on religious freedom grounds after he was accused of tacitly supporting Hindu extremists attacking Muslims years earlier in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister. In 2016, however, Modi’s star had risen so much in Washington that he delivered an address to the U.S. Congress.

Trump, Obama’s successor in the Oval Office, made little pretense of caring about human rights and openly sought favor with the world’s autocrats. He also was keen on countering a rising China. All of that made Modi a particular favorite of Trump’s.

In 2019, Trump attended a “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston, Texas, alongside the Indian leader. The following year, Trump visited with Modi in New Delhi. Both events attracted massive crowds. During Trump’s visit, Muslims and Hindus clashed in riots in the Indian capital, but Trump said Modi had reassured him about the situation, and that Modi was working closely with India’s minority Muslims. Trump’s own antipathy toward Muslims — whom he had proposed banning from U.S. soil — made him a favorite of Hindu nationalists.

When Biden ran for president, he trashed Trump’s seeming indifference to suffering around the world, and he promised to put human rights at the “center” of his foreign policy.

But Biden and his team also were clear early on that they saw India as a nearly irreplaceable partner.

Modi was among the first leaders the new U.S. president met with (though in a virtual Quad meeting, due to the coronavirus pandemic). India also was a stop on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first overseas trip.

Even though the Biden administration was initially largely focused on the domestic challenge of the pandemic, it stepped up to aid India as it faced a brutal wave of the virus during the spring. The Biden administration also supported India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization as they proposed waiving intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines. The administration also pledged early on to “deepen our partnership with India” in a document laying out its national security views.

While building a bulwark against China is a paramount concern for the Biden team, plenty of other reasons also factor into its friendliness toward New Delhi. That includes a desire for Indian leadership in tackling climate change and pandemics.

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the takeover of the country by the Islamist Taliban militia also promises to have reverberations in America’s relationship with India, a major player in South Asia that is always worried about archrival Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan.

All of this suggests the Biden administration is unlikely to back off its embrace of New Delhi anytime soon.

Modi hails from the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist political movement. The BJP’s rise long concerned Indians who worried that the party would erode the tradition of secular democracy in a country with many diverse religious and ethnic groups, including some 200 million Muslims.

Modi’s economic policies have had mixed results, but his improvement of public services for India’s poor have drawn positive reviews, while elections in the country are still considered largely free and fair. But on many fronts, activists argue, India’s institutions and its minorities are under attack.

During a congressional briefing this week, Sifton laid out examples. Among them: The Modi government’s passage of a law that discriminates against Muslims by making religion a basis of citizenship; its revocation of the autonomy granted to the majority-Muslim Jammu and Kashmir region and subsequent crackdown on that state; and the passage in some Indian states of “anti-conversion” laws that appear to target Muslim men who marry Hindu women.

These and other moves are playing out against a backdrop of more violence against religious minorities, crackdowns on government critics and journalists and more, Sifton and others have noted.

Analysts point out that India is a vast, diverse country, and that trying to measure progress or failure on a subject like human rights is challenging if not impossible because not every element moves in the same direction at the same time. Plus, the United States’ own reputation when it comes to democracy and human rights took a hit under Trump, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, making U.S. diplomats’ job even harder.

Alyssa Ayres, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State for South Asia during the Obama years, said the Biden administration appears to be striving to find the right balance and that there’s no reason to doubt that it is discussing human rights and democracy with the Modi government, even if privately.

“We should be able to pursue our national security interests while also raising important issues of human rights,” said Ayres, now dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

To influence governments, U.S. diplomats often make a point of talking to a broad array of power players in the countries where they are posted. And the RSS is without question a major influence on Modi and the BJP. (If there have been past meetings between U.S. diplomats and RSS leaders, they’ve been largely kept under wraps, though there was a report of at least one such encounter in 2020.)

“U.S. officials meet a wide range of political, business, religious, and civil society leaders in India and across the world,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “We cannot comment on the details of private diplomatic conversations.”

Still, the pro-Hindu approach of the group — whose ideology is referred to as “Hindutva” — is often described as chauvinist, extremist and violent by rights activists. Members of its student wing are accused of attacking professors and others on campuses, while one of its acolytes was the man who assassinated Indian icon Mahatma Gandhi. The group has at times been banned in India.

Keshap’s meeting upset some American Muslim activists, a number of whom plan to protest Modi’s visit to the White House this week.

In a Sept. 20 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the American Muslim Institution condemned Keshap’s visit.

“Mr. Secretary, given the current religious discrimination and violence facing Christian, Muslim and Dalit minority groups in India, it is critical the United States not legitimatize the RSS and those perpetuating violence against minorities in India,” states the letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO. “It is critical that we hold not only our foes but our allies accountable when it comes to our long-cherished values of religious freedom, justice, equality and rule of law.”

Why 15,000 Migrants Ended Up in One Spot on the U.S.-Mexico Border

DEL RIO, Texas — On a metal bench outside this city’s small airport, a 27-year-old woman named Nephtalie sat with her husband as he spoke anxiously on the phone in Haitian Creole. Behind them, the airport was closed for the night, and the parking lot was empty. It was a little after 10 p.m. on Tuesday. The two had managed to buy tickets for a 6 a.m. flight to Chicago the next morning, where she has family. But with every hotel within 100 miles of Del Rio fully booked and little money to spend on a room anyway, they would have to weather the elements outside for the night until the airport reopened. The couple was more relieved than anything. They’d spent the last few days under a bridge at the border where as many as 15,000 migrants this weekend (down to about 5,000 today), mostly Haitians like them, have been camped, closed in on all sides by U.S. border agents and Texas state troopers.

At the bridge, about 4 miles south of the airport in Del Rio, the scene looks like a war camp, with hundreds of armed agents positioned on a field near thousands of migrants living in squalor. When some 15,000 people crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico in the past week or so, it brought a spotlight on this Texas border town of 35,000, which has not been a historically popular crossing point (though it has seen more than 200,000 migrant encounters in the last year). It also raised the question of why and how so many migrants, particularly Haitians, arrived at the same time and the same place along the border. The answer is a mix of misinformation and desperation, exacerbated by the Biden administration’s application of draconian deterrence with seemingly random mercy.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security sent hundreds of additional U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to Del Rio, called in the Coast Guard for reinforcement, and announced the administration’s plans to put migrants on planes and fly them out of the country, including sending many back to Haiti. At the same time, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott seized on the situation to mobilize hundreds of state troopers and Texas National Guard officers to Del Rio to “secure the border,” including by creating a “steel wall” of patrol vehicles to prevent more migrants from entering the country.

The highway to the port of entry between the U.S. and Mexico that so many Del Rio residents are used to crossing everyday has been closed until further notice, and the massive presence of officers from different state and federal agencies, along with helicopters overhead, gives the city a sense of military occupation. But that occupation has done little to fix the country’s broken immigration system, of which the scenes in South Texas are only the latest symptom.

The harshest and most dramatic coverage of the recent migrant crisis — photos of Black immigrants being rounded up by CBP officers on horseback, stories of the dire conditions in the camp under the bridge — only hint at the bigger picture on the ground, in which people on both sides of the border, Mexico and the U.S., are living in a state of subjective and at times seemingly arbitrary enforcement of policy. In Del Rio this past week, but across the border for months now, people of any number of nationalities are getting through in small numbers, finding themselves suddenly relieved to be in the U.S. but at the same time uncertain about their future, let alone where they’ll sleep at night. On the other side, a growing mix of migrants is waiting, uncertain whether to cross and risk the consequences of not being let in or to stay and wait for a better opportunity that may not come. Ever constant is the threat of being sent back to their home countries, a fate most who have crossed up to now have been dealt.

The past few days in Del Rio, white prison transport vans have rolled at a steady rate down the dusty road to the bridge, where agents have forced migrants to board. From there, groups of migrants have been taken to the town’s airport, or nearby ones in San Antonio, Laredo and Brownsville, where they’ve been placed on flights back to their home countries. In order to do so without allowing these people their legal right to plead their case for asylum in court, President Joe Biden has relied on Title 42, a public health order implemented last year by the Trump administration to summarily expel border-crossers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I followed one bus to the Del Rio airport, where I watched a Coast Guard flight, loaded up with families with young children, including mothers with babies in their arms, take off. While the Department of Homeland Security says that some of these flights are taking families to be “processed elsewhere,” the department has also acknowledged it will expel families who do not request asylum. However, lawyers working with people in the camp say they’ve heard that CBP is not performing any “credible fear” interviews — the first and most basic step in the asylum process — and thus it’s unclear if families know they even have the right to make such a request. DHS did not respond to questions about how many families have been deported, whether or not credible fear interviews have been conducted or where the Coast Guard flight I witnessed would land.

Still, with so many people for CBP to process, not everyone in the camp has faced automatic expulsion. Every day, people ostensibly deemed too vulnerable to be immediately returned to their home country have been released into Del Rio. This has included pregnant women, travelers with disabling injuries and families with young children, but there are no clear criteria for who gets released and who gets expelled. (Most single adults are being expelled.) Many of the released migrants themselves are unsure of why they’ve been allowed to cross while others have been left behind. One Venezuelan woman was allowed into the town; her twin sister was forced to stay in the camp. Such a lack of order has created a tense and chaotic situation south of the Rio Grande, where people still in Mexico face an opaque sort of lottery with severe stakes: There is incentive to cross — after all, CBP is letting some people into the U.S. But hundreds more are being deported to potentially perilous home countries. With no sign of better options, it’s a chance many are willing to take.

Nephtalie, like almost all the Haitians in Del Rio, did not arrive on the U.S.-Mexican border straight from Haiti. Instead, she came from Chile, where she and her husband lived for four years. In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many Haitians fled to South America, in particular Brazil and Chile, where a large expat community had taken root. In recent years, however, Chile has cracked down on Haitian immigrants, putting many people’s visa status in jeopardy. Nephtalie and her husband, unable to find work and beset by anti-Black discrimination, decided to travel north to the U.S. earlier this year, in June.

They started an immense and arduous odyssey, taken by hundreds of thousands of people over the last several years, out of South America: Buses through Chile to Bolivia, a long trek through mountains, a boat over Lake Titicaca into Peru, and then more buses and more walking. Bit by bit, they made their way northward. In Panama, migrants must face the Darién Gap, a 50-mile stretch of swamp and jungle too dense for any roads, and incredibly dangerous to get through. Nephtalie says she entered with a group of nine. Only five made it out. She watched fellow travelers swept away during multiple of the many river crossings, potentially joining the hundreds of migrants who have lost their lives there to the river, snakebite, thieves or starvation. A fall in the Panamanian jungle left Nephtalie’s husband with a spinal injury for which he’s been on crutches ever since.

When Nephtalie and her husband finally arrived on the Mexico-Guatemala border in late July, they made their way into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state. There, they began a long wait, along with hundreds of other migrants, shut out of entering the United States. Throughout the Trump administration and the beginning of the Biden administration, Mexico has become home to tens of thousands of exiles from across the globe. Many of them form communities based on their countries of origin, waiting their chance to lawfully enter the U.S. and plead their case for asylum. But that wait has become interminable.

For the last five years, they’ve been blocked by a succession of policies, from Trump’s use of “metering” (more or less artificially limiting the number of people who could cross each day at ports of entry), which created a bottleneck at the border, to the Migrant Protection Protocols (commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy), which returned asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court dates. As more and more asylum seekers have arrived to Mexico in the last year and a half, Trump and Biden have used Title 42 to expel any who try to cross the border into the U.S. Not to mention, U.S. presidents since Barack Obama have strong-armed Mexican authorities to crack down on immigration, too. In Chiapas, Nephtalie was among the thousands placed in a notorious detention camp, before eventually being released weeks later with a permit only valid for work and travel within Chiapas and strict instructions not to travel northward. Even today, as CBP officers and state troopers patrol the U.S. side of the Del Rio border, Mexican police are cracking down on immigrants in neighborhoods on the other side.

As time wears on, however, with no end in sight to the border being officially closed to asylum, desperation has led some people who have been waiting for months and years to try their luck. Last March, I visited a camp of migrants on the streets of Tijuana who had gathered with the hope that Title 42 would soon end and they would be able to cross to request asylum. But Biden showed no signs then (or since) of reopening the border to asylum seekers. While I was there, a false rumor lit up the camp that to the east in Tecate, CBP was letting people cross. One night, a group of about two dozen decided to travel out into the desert to try their chances.

This is what’s happening today, in Del Rio and all across the border. For eight months, the Biden administration has not provided clear information about when, if ever, Title 42 will end, going so far as to fight in court to keep it in place; it’s given people no advice about a proper way to seek protection. But while Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas have all said on no uncertain terms “Don’t come” and that Title 42 will be enforced, on the border the reality is more fluid: Minors have been allowed in; people deemed “extremely vulnerable” by local CBP officers have been allowed to cross to seek asylum. Every time one of these lucky few makes it to U.S. soil, say in Del Rio, a rumor can spread across the border: They’re letting people in in Del Rio.

In late August, Nephtalie and her husband, still waiting in Chiapas, began to hear a rumor spreading around the Haitian migrant population living across Mexico. From interviews this week with other migrants in Del Rio, and conversations with attorneys who have met with dozens more, it seems that many people had the same experience. The rumor went like this: First, information went around that, while most of the border was closed, U.S. immigration authorities were allowing people to cross and ask for asylum in Mexicali — on the border with Calexico, California — and in Acuña, the Mexican city across from Del Rio. (This was not true, but it spread like wildfire among people yearning for a glimmer of hope.) Second, the rumor said that Sept. 16 would be the best day to travel. That would be Mexico’s Independence Day, and migrants figured that the Mexican authorities, who have bowed to U.S. pressure to more stringently police immigrants in Mexico, would be preoccupied, allowing them to travel within the country unimpeded northward. Finally, the bus routes to Acuña were cheaper than to other spots along the border, like Mexicali. So, as el Día de la Independencia de México arrived, thousands of people who had heard the rumors — by word of mouth or on WhatsApp or on Haitian social media — began traveling to Acuña to cross into Del Rio.

When I asked one Haitian man at a gas station in Del Rio, “Why did you choose to cross from Acunã to Del Rio?” he replied: “Where is that?” Like many, he had probably simply followed others along what sounded like an opportunity to finally be accepted in the United States.

But the stakes of following such a rumor only to be faced with the reality of a closed border are tragic: Most of the Haitians in Del Rio today left Haiti years ago. Now, after traveling thousands of miles with the hope that they could eventually gain asylum in the U.S., many are instead being returned to the very island they fled. In March, BuzzFeed News reported that U.S. officials knew deported Haitian migrants would very likely face harm due to the country’s increasing political and economic instability. And that was before Haiti was wracked by a presidential assassination in July and multiple natural disasters in August. That’s all on top of an ongoing pandemic, for which less than 1 percent of the country is vaccinated and there are fewer than 200 ICU beds among a population of more than 11 million.

In a news briefing at the White House today, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. is “working with the International Organization on Migration to ensure that returning Haitian migrants are met at the airport and provided immediate assistance.”

Neither the White House nor CBP responded to specific questions for this article, but the Biden administration has publicly maintained that its justification for the mass expulsion campaign is to discourage others from making the “dangerous journey” to the U.S. “Our objective is not to keep the policy as it is,” Psaki said at the White House today, describing Title 42 as “not workable long term” and adding that it remains the administration’s desire “to put in place a new immigration policy that is humane, that is orderly, that does have robust asylum processing.” Still, she added: “But we’ve also reiterated that it is our objective to continue to implement what is law and what our laws are, and that includes border restrictions. Across the border, including in the Del Rio sector, we continue to enforce Title 42. Families and single adults are typically expelled under this CDC directive when possible.”

Guerline Jozef, the founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a major U.S. organization providing direct aid to Haitian migrants, has spent the last week on the ground in Del Rio. Thinking of the route taken by people like Nephtalie, she finds the administration’s deterrence strategy unbearably naïve: “They have walked past human bones in the jungles of Panama,” Jozef said. “If that was not enough to deter them, how does Biden think he can deter them here?”

In Colombia, Nephtalie says she and her husband were kidnapped and held for ransom for three days. While waiting in Mexico, she saw many other migrants robbed, kidnapped and assaulted. Still, she waited to cross. Like so many of the people stuck in Mexico by metering, MPP or Title 42, or held by Mexican immigration authorities, Nephtalie simply bided her time, waiting for any sign of hope — a rumor, a chance, an opening — that she would be able to cross.

“If people are desperate,” Jozef emphasized, “they are going to come no matter what.”

Even for the migrants in Del Rio who do make it out from under the bridge and into town rather than on a plane back to their home country, the journey is far from over. With few resources and a deeply limiting language barrier, many have found themselves sleeping on the concrete at a gas station, or, like Nephtalie, at the airport. None of the migrants I spoke with had received a credible fear interview. Attorneys who had met with dozens of people CBP had released also confirmed that they hadn’t met anyone processed under the normal procedures of U.S. asylum law. When I asked Sarah Decker, an attorney with the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, what sort of legal situation people were finding themselves in — were they in the asylum process? on parole before an eventual expulsion? in expedited deportation proceedings? — she shook her head: “We have no idea.”

The migrants released by CBP, including Nephtalie and her husband, were given a slip of paper called a “Notice to Appear,” instructing them that they would have to go to a courthouse to begin immigration proceedings — proceedings that might still result in them being expelled.

When Decker and other attorneys read these notices, they found many of them lacked both a date and location for their court appearance. “They’re obligated to check in with their local ICE field office, wherever they end up, within 60 days,” Decker explained, saying that they’ll likely receive their actual court date then. “But a lot of them haven’t been told that, or didn’t understand when they were told. And they may not know how to locate an ICE field office.” Those who don’t report will forfeit their right to fight deportation.

On Wednesday afternoon, Nephtalie texted me: “Dios está conmigo,” God is with me. She had landed in Chicago and said her first stop, after finding a place to sleep, would be an ICE field office, to begin a potentially yearslong legal process she hopes will end with asylum for her and her husband.

China’s new D.C. ambassador: We’re just a misunderstood democracy

China’s new ambassador in D.C. isn’t buying President Joe Biden’s warning to the United Nations General Assembly about rising authoritarianism.

On Wednesday, Qin Gang issued an implicit rebuke to Biden’s U.N. speech, telling a crowd of China wonks that the country’s seven decades of one-party rule is actually a misunderstood form of democracy.

Qin warned that “misjudgment” about the differences in the U.S. and Chinese political systems had harmed the bilateral relationship.

In his first in-person public address since arriving in the U.S. in July, Qin told representatives of the Carter Center and the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations that China boasts a “whole-process democracy” hinged to “whether the people are satisfied.” That rhetoric underscores the Chinese government’s shift in recent years from blanket denials of international criticism of its political system to an Orwellian style semantic redefinition of democracy and human rights.

Qin’s comments suggest an implicit response to elements of Biden’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday about a struggle between authoritarianism and “the age of democracy” that included a ringing endorsement of pro-democracy activists from Belarus to Venezuela. Qin flagged Biden’s planned Summit for Democracy in December — which Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said will include China’s arch-rival Taiwan — as a looming flashpoint for U.S.-China disagreement. And he made clear that the Chinese Communist Party won’t budge amid U.S. criticism of China’s authoritarian system.

“Some people are busy fanning up the battle between democracy and authoritarianism, and putting together an alliance of democracies,” Qin said. “To define America’s relations with China as democracy versus authoritarianism and to stoke up ideological confrontation… has led to serious difficulties in China-U.S. relations.”

Qin’s speech was otably absent of the fiery rhetoric that the progenitor Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomat is known for. Instead, he undertook a long-winded discourse on the nature of democracy that referenced everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Confucius to Plato and Henry Kissinger. Qin threaded a blizzard of data points through his defense of Chinese “democracy,” including the assertion that China’s 14th Five Year Plan, which was formally approved in March, involved the distillation of more than “1,000 suggestions” from “more than 1 million online posts.”

The ambassador also lavished praise on President Xi Jinping as a virtuous avatar of Chinese “democracy” whose affection for China’s citizens ensures top-notch governance. Qin’s laundry list of the fruits of that governance included poverty reductions, economic growth, and historically high levels of foreign direct investment. That combination renders a political system where “China's senior officials [are] elected with an overwhelming majority of votes or even unanimously,” Qin said.

Qin omitted some well-documented deficiencies in the Chinese system, including that Xi and other top leaders are selected through an opaque process that bars the participation of the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people. And although Chinese citizens do have the opportunity to vote every five years for representatives of local People’s Congresses, the bottom rung of China’s legislature, the Chinese Communist Party, vets the candidates and severely restricts their political influence. Qin also made no mention of Beijing’s attack on Hong Kong’s already limited democratic freedoms through the introduction of a draconian National Security Law in July 2020.

Xi’s strangling of Hong Kong's pro-democracy efforts dovetail with his adoption of a strongman persona backed by Maoist-style aggressive nationalism and strict social controls. “Xi Jinping Thought,” China’s new ideological framework, emphasizes a “national rejuvenation” linked to bolstering the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power with Xi as its new “helmsman.”

Qin served notice that the status quo under Xi was resistant to outside pressure. “Our two countries should not and cannot change each other,” Qin said.

But in the spirit of Biden’s phone call to Xi earlier this month in pursuit of a reset of frosty bilateral relations, Qin stressed the need for peaceful co-existence between Beijing and Washington. That suggests Xi might eventually accept Biden’s offer of a face-to-face summit. “Let’s demonstrate courage and political resolve to chart a new course in China-U.S. relations,” Qin said.

Biden’s nuclear agenda in trouble as Pentagon hawks attack

One of President Joe Biden’s leading allies in his decadeslong attempt to reduce nuclear weapons has lost a battle with the Pentagon’s hawks.

The ouster of Leonor Tomero, who questioned the status quo on nuclear weapons, signals the Biden administration’s ambitious agenda to overhaul America's nuclear policy might be in trouble.

Early in his administration, Biden installed national security officials intent on negotiating new arms control treaties and curtailing nuclear weapons spending. One of them was Tomero, a leading voice for nuclear restraint on Capitol Hill and in the think tank community, who was appointed to oversee the Nuclear Posture Review that will set the administration’s atomic weapons policy and strategy.

But officials with more traditional views on nuclear weapons, who promote a status quo agenda to include modernizing the land, sea and airborne legs of America’s nuclear arsenal, did not take kindly to Tomero’s progressive ideology, according to 11 current and former defense officials, as well as others with insight into the debate.

One current U.S. official who works on nuclear issues, when asked about Tomero, said he considers some of her positions dangerous in the face of Russian and Chinese nuclear advancements.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, described her as among "the arms controllers who used to seem naive but now seem irrational given what China and Russia are doing.”

“Her appointment was something that people were immediately resistant to,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor and nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and host of the podcast Arms Control Wonk. “People with very traditional views of nuclear weapons policy did not want someone in charge of the Nuclear Posture Review who might think differently about those issues.”

That clash spilled into public this month when Tomero, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, was unceremoniously edged out in what the Pentagon is officially calling a “reorganization” after just nine months on the job.

The Pentagon’s new assistant secretary for space, a position Congress recently created, will absorb the responsibility for nuclear and missile defense, POLITICO first reported this week. Tomero’s position was eliminated as part of the reorganization.

Tomero did not respond to a request for comment.

“It's natural with any new administration, this one's not excepted, that we would want to reevaluate the organizational structure and make changes where we think is appropriate to support the secretary's priorities. And I think, again, without speaking to individuals, we're certainly doing that,” chief Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Tomero’s ouster.

“We're going to continue to consider and include a wide range of viewpoints in the Nuclear Posture Review, including those from administration officials, military leaders, academics and all others,” he added.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said the departure of one person won't affect the review.

"The nuclear policy review is being handled by a large group of experts from across the department. Overall, USD(P) owns it. The nuclear posture review isn’t reliant on one individual; to imply the review would somehow be skewed because of an individual’s departure is just incorrect," the spokesperson said.

But people familiar with the internal debate believe the move reflects a rebellion against her unorthodox views.

“Department of Defense insiders wanted nothing to do with anyone who wanted to carry forth Joe Biden’s views on nuclear modernization,” said former Rep. John Tierney, executive director of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, where Tomero was once a researcher before serving in government.

Tomero did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the White House.

Experts now worry that her removal signals the Nuclear Posture Review will not fully consider alternative options for maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent that might be less costly or evaluate new ways to carry out nuclear strategy.

“The decision to fire Leonor suggests to me that the first draft of NPR is going to be a continuation of the line of thinking we saw in the Trump administration’s NPR,” Lewis said. “They have put themselves on the course that is a first draft that is 180 degrees to what Biden said on the campaign trail.”

Congressional staffers from both parties who are tracking the Nuclear Posture Review say they are still unclear why Tomero was pushed out, citing a lack of communication from the Pentagon.

The nuclear review completed in 2018 under former President Donald Trump backed several new weapons, including a new “low yield” warhead that has been introduced on submarines and development of a new nuclear-armed cruise missile. It also expanded the role of nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats.

The U.S. is planning to upgrade the nuclear force to the tune of $634 billion over the next decade, according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s views on reducing the nuclear arsenal and seeking more international treaties to prevent their spread dates back decades.

One of his first decisions as president was to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia that limits deployed strategic arms on both sides to 1,550.

And during the 2020 presidential campaign, he also doubled down on a number of his positions. He restated his opposition to the new low yield warhead, saying “the United States does not need new nuclear weapons,” according to a candidate questionnaire that he filled out at the request of a disarmament group.

He also agreed that the United States should review the current ambiguity over whether it would use nuclear weapons first.

But Tomero’s departure signals the Pentagon’s review may not reflect Biden’s more ambitious agenda.

A former U.S. official who is privy to some of the internal debates said Tomero’s departure means there will be fewer officials inside the military establishment open to considering such alternative approaches to nuclear modernization and strategy.

“She was running a process that would have included alternative nuclear policy options and that’s not tolerable,” the former official complained, adding that her “openness to policy change overall” was causing friction.

Tomero has been open about her intent to re-examine the costly modernization of the nuclear arsenal — particularly replacements for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and the long-range standoff weapon — as well as America’s declaratory policy.

“Certainly that’s the objective of the president, is to find ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and so we look forward to examining those issues, as part of our Nuclear Posture Review,” Tomero said in a May interview.

One of those potential policy changes is declaring a “no first use” policy that Biden has expressed openness to as a way to reduce the chances of miscalculation with potential nuclear adversaries.

Leading arms control advocates in Congress have been pushing legislation on no first use, including House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Tomero’s former boss when she was chief counsel of the panel.

Smith is also a leading proponent of reconsidering the nuclear modernization effort. He called on Biden in August to “take a hard look at whether every ongoing and planned effort is necessary.”

Tomero clearly shares some of those views. In May she insisted in testimony before Smith’s panel that the United States needs an upgraded nuclear arsenal to deter Russia and China, but also pledged that the Pentagon would seek ways to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

“Our upcoming strategic reviews will play a critical role in laying the groundwork for this effort by allowing us to examine areas where we can make progress toward this goal,” she testified.

Tomero’s supporters said they hope that she finds another perch in the Biden administration when she departs the Pentagon next month, possibly at the National Security Council.

“My fear is it was an inside move to squeeze her out,” added Tierney, who said he has spoken to a number of her allies. “My concern is they don’t want to look at this in a reasonable way.”

Others are a bit more optimistic about the outcome of the nuclear review.

Jon Wolfsthal, who was Biden's special adviser for nuclear policy when he was vice president, said he thinks it’s possible that more senior Biden administration officials, including the president himself, will end up shaping the final product.

“It’s clear that Trump never saw or understood his own Nuclear Posture Review,” said Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser to Global Zero, a disarmament group. “When you have a president who doesn’t care or understand, the staff sets the NPR. Biden has a long history [on nuclear issues]. In that situation the personnel and the process is a little less important, The question is will he have time to put to this issue. That’s an open question and not one we’ll know for a few months.”

Paul McLeary and Alexander Ward contributed to this report.

CDC panel endorses Pfizer booster shot for elderly, high-risk people

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine advisory committee on Thursday endorsed the use of Pfizer and BioNTech's Covid-19 booster shot for elderly people, nursing home residents and those who may be at risk of developing severe disease, a move that could allow broad latitude for people to access additional doses.

But the panel rejected the notion of offering boosters to health care workers and others who may encounter the virus in the course of their jobs or "institutional" settings, such as prisons or homeless shelters.

The independent committee said the booster dose should be given at least six months after the initial two-dose vaccination series.

It unanimously voted for boosters for people 65 and older and those who live in long-term care homes, and backed — with some limits — shots for people between 18 and 64 with underlying medical conditions that raise their risk of severe Covid-19. People between 18 and 49 in the latter category would be directed to weigh the benefits and risks in consultation with their doctors or pharmacists, but they wouldn't have to provide documentation to support their reasons for seeking a booster.

The CDC panel's votes Thursday afternoon came less than a day after the Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech booster for people 65 and older and those ages 18 to 64 with underlying health conditions. FDA also allowed the booster for people 18 to 64 who may be at risk of contracting or transmitting Covid-19 at work, such as doctors or nurses, or in congregate settings.

The final step in the process will come when CDC Director Rochelle Walensky approves the CDC advisory panel's recommendations, clearing the way for a slightly narrower booster rollout than the FDA envisioned in its authorization. That does not mean that the two health agencies will not decide at some point to formally broaden the groups eligible for boosters.

CDC advisory panel members couched its decisions as "interim recommendations" in an effort to emphasize the evolving data and on-the-ground realities influencing their decision-making.

But it's unclear to what extent the committee's recommendations could prevent Americans who aren't technically eligible under the new parameters from accessing boosters. Federal health officials have already allowed moderately to severely immunocompromised Americans to receive additional doses of either Pfizer's or Moderna's vaccines by attesting to their conditions, with 2.3 million having gotten them as of Wednesday.

“We might as well say, 'Just give it to anyone 18 and older,'" said Pablo Sanchez of Ohio State University's Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Walensky applauded the committee's work at the beginning of Thursday's meeting, touting the importance of discussing different opinions to reach consensus on how to use the vaccine in real-world settings.

“This is a tremendous amount of work, a tremendous amount of data to review and, in truth, a tremendous service,” she said.

There was little debate on the benefits of boosting seniors, whose protection against severe disease and hospitalization has been shown to wane over time — and possibly due to the prevalence of the highly contagious Delta variant.

But committee members diverged on whether any adult who was initially immunized with the Pfizer product who either has an underlying medical condition or whose work or living situation put them at high risk for severe disease should get a booster now.

Members also fretted over the implications of approving one brand's booster without allowing recipients of others authorized for use in the U.S. — Moderna and Johnson & Johnson's — to access it, since mixing vaccine brands has yet to be sanctioned by the FDA.

Education Secretary backs mandatory school Covid-19 vaccines

DETROIT, Mich. — Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Thursday declared his support for mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for eligible schoolchildren, saying the FDA’s full approval of jabs for certain adolescents should clear the way for state officials to implement plans to begin vaccinations.

“Not only do I support it, but I’m encouraging states to come up with a plan to make sure it happens,” Cardona told POLITICO between stops on a multistate tour of schools and child care facilities. “I would like governors who hold those decisions to make those decisions now that [vaccines] are FDA-approved.”

“There’s a reason why we’re not talking about measles today,” Cardona added. “It was a required vaccination, and we put it behind us. So I do believe at this point we need to be moving forward.”

Cardona’s support for broader student inoculations comes as the number of children receiving their first doses slowed for a fifth consecutive week through Sept. 15 — reaching its lowest point since the vaccine was first made available to 12- through 15-year-olds, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Governors should work with their school officials and with their health officials to roll out requirements, especially in areas that are high-spread, and where students might be at risk for going back to remote learning, or hybrid learning, as a result of the spread of Covid-19,” Cardona said.

More than 60 percent of children age 12 to 17 have received at least one dose in 15 states, according to the AAP. But fewer than 40 percent of children have received one dose in nine states.

The FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people 16 and older on Aug. 23. The shot remains available under an emergency use authorization for teens 12 to 15.

But the education secretary dismissed the possibility that his call for broader vaccinations could result in political backlash, particularly in conservative-led states that have resisted mandatory masks in schools and other virus safety measures. Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in particular has resisted Covid-related mandates such requiring student to weak masks in schools.

“This is about safely reopening schools,” Cardona said. “And what we know, based on not only on the Covid-19 vaccine, but the other vaccines that are already mandatory for school enrollment, is that they work. Our students have been disrupted enough, and sometimes you have to be crystal clear on what you believe.”

Biden picks up the tab for Florida school leaders fined by DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday repaid several Florida school board members who saw their salary slashed by the DeSantis administration for requiring students to wear masks this fall.

In total, the Biden administration sent school officials in Alachua County $147,719 to make up for fines from the Florida Department of Education, marking the first awards granted by the feds in the fight against Republican-led states and their Covid-19 policies. Alachua is one of 11 school districts in Florida to mandate masks for students in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants parents to have the ultimate say on face coverings in schools.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

Since the summer, the Biden administration has clashed with DeSantis over the GOP governor’s resistance to Covid-related restrictions amid the surge in new infections. While the fight over masking children has been the most high profile, the DeSantis also publicly rejected the White House’s push to require large businesses to vaccinate their workers.

And most recently, DeSantis railed against Biden’s plan to redistribute monoclonal antibody treatments from Florida and other southern states to areas that also need the treatments. DeSantis has spent weeks traveling around Florida heralding the antibody therapies, essentially making the treatments the centerpiece in the state’s Covid fight.

The federal funding the White House is using to repay Florida’s school officials comes from the Support America’s Families and Educators, or Project SAFE grant program cooked up by the U.S. Education Department in response to some Republican states blocking Covid-19 precautions like masking requirements for students.

Alachua and Broward counties are the only Florida school boards to be sanctioned by the Florida Department so far, even as nearly a dozen districts have defied the DeSantis administration by mandating masks.

Carlee Simon, Alachua’s school superintendent, said she was “grateful” to the Biden and the federal government for coming to the aid of board members who have been punished by the DeSantis administration.

“But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning,” Simon said in a statement.

By paying school board members sanctioned by Florida officials, the feds undercut what has been the only means of disciplining noncompliant districts.

The SAFE grants are meant to be a signal to districts that the feds “have their backs” on pushing for Covid-19 safety measures, Cardona said.

The DeSantis mask policies are entailed in a Florida Department of Health rule that stipulates any local school mask mandate must give parents the ability to opt out. The rule has survived numerous court challenges, including one that was thrown out Wednesday when state officials created a new policy that replaced and slightly tweaked the rule.

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office also is investigating the rule on the grounds that it could violate the rights of students with disabilities.

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy makes first visit to Capitol Hill since taking top job

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy made his first visit to Capitol Hill this week since taking on his new post — meeting with top Congressional leaders as Amazon faces increasing scrutiny from Washington, according to a person briefed on the matter.

Jassy, who took over from Jeff Bezos in early July, met this week with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

The charm offensive comes as Amazon faces serious regulatory threats on a number of fronts in Washington and signals that Jassy intends to make his case directly with policymakers in Washington during a key period for the company.

It’s also a departure from the approach taken by Bezos, who occasionally met members of Congress when he was CEO, but never made the “Big Four” rounds like Jassy did this week.

This is Jassy’s second visit to Washington in his new job; he visited the White House a few weeks ago for a cybersecurity summit. Jassy isn’t meeting with any White House officials this week. When he was CEO of Amazon Web Services, a major source of the company’s revenue, Jassy did regular Capitol Hill outreach as well.

Jassy also met with the senators from the company’s home state of Washington, Maria Cantwell (D) and Patty Murray (D), according to the individual, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Schumer spokesperson told POLITICO that the majority leader pushed Jassy to support unionization of the Amazon workforce. A Murray aide said in a statement that Murray, the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, told Jassy of her “strongly-held views that all workers have the right to unionize and the importance of strong workers’ rights and protections, and that corporations like Amazon have a responsibility to forcefully oppose harmful anti-abortion laws like SB8,” the new controversial Texas law.

Spokespeople for Pelosi, McCarthy and Cantwell didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for McConnell had no immediate comment, while an Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

Lawmakers in both chambers have been scrutinizing Amazon over its labor practices, alleged monopoly power, the spread of counterfeits on its platform and the role that its e-commerce site has played in spreading misinformation about Covid-19. And the Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating Amazon’s acquisition of entertainment company MGM.

The House Judiciary Committee earlier this year passed a package of antitrust bills seeking to rein in the power of Amazon and the other tech giants. Pelosi has endorsed the bills, which Amazon has been lobbying against aggressively, but she still has not said whether she intends to bring them to the House floor.

Lawmakers and congressional aides have been raring for Jassy to testify since was named as CEO earlier this year. “I have some questions for Mr. Jassy,” tweeted Rep. Ken Buck (R-Col.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, in February. Bezos testified before the subcommittee last year.

Former FreedomWorks grassroots organizer arrested for role in Jan. 6 riot

An FBI investigation that included an airport stakeout led to the arrest Friday of a former grassroots organizer for the conservative group FreedomWorks for allegedly taking part in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 as electoral votes were being tallied.

Brandon Prenzlin, 26, faces four federal misdemeanor charges, including entering the Capitol without permission and disorderly conduct.

Prenzlin was present in the Capitol for less than four minutes on Jan. 6, according to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Clarke Burns used to get a warrant for the conservative activist’s arrest.

Still frames taken from surveillance video show Prenzlin walking past a metal detector inside the Upper House Door and milling around with other protesters as police streamed by.

The FBI’s investigation of Prenzlin appears to have kicked off July 11 with a tip from an unnamed confidential source who identified the conservative activist in publicly-available video, according to Burns.

The FBI then dove into social media posts by Prenzlin and other FreedomWorks staffers, turning up images that appeared to match the individual seen in the videos from Jan. 6. The FBI zeroed in on “distinctive navy-blue shoes with dark tan thick gum soles” worn by the suspect in the videos.

Prenzlin was wearing similar shoes in a photo from a June Twitter post by a FreedomWorks colleague, the FBI noted.

Agents then took the somewhat unusual step of conducting “physical surveillance” of Prenzlin as he arrived on a flight at Reagan National Airport on July 20. The FBI affidavit includes a photo of Prenzlin pulling wheeled luggage while wearing similar blue shoes, a red FreedomWorks golf shirt and a mask that had slipped below his nose.

In addition, federal investigators may have had an eye on Prenzlin before his flight landed. “On July 26, 2021, a federal law enforcement officer on Prenzlin’s July 20, 2021 flight was provided photographs of Prenzlin inside and just outside of the Capitol,” Burns wrote. “The officer stated that the individual in these photos looked ‘exactly like’ the individual known to be Prenzlin from airline manifest information, including seat number.”

Burns’ affidavit says at one point that the FBI watched Prenzlin come off a flight on June 20, but that date may be an error.

FreedomWorks highlighted a series of election fraud claims before and after the vote last November, stoking the same anger that brought many to the Capitol to insist — incorrectly — that former President Donald Trump had won reelection.

However, after the Jan. 6 riot, the advocacy group issued a statement saying violence had undercut “the very foundations of what our founding fathers built.”

FreedomWorks spokesperson Peter Vicenzi said Thursday Prenzlin was no longer employed with the group as of Monday. His photo and biography, which described him as a grassroots manager for the group, were recently taken down from the FreedomWorks website.

Vicenzi declined to respond to questions about when the group learned of Prenzlin’s alleged presence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 or whether other FreedomWorks staff had any involvement in the investigation. However, the spokesperson said the group wasn’t involved in the Jan. 6 takeover of the Capitol.

“FreedomWorks was in no way involved in the event. Prenzlin entered the Capitol alone,” Vicenzi said.

Court records show Prenzlin was arrested Friday in Arlington, Va. Prenzlin seems to have spent the weekend in law enforcement custody before appearing by video Monday afternoon before Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui. Prosecutors did not seek Prenzlin’s detention and he was released on personal recognizance.

FreedomWorks, formed in 2004 by a merger of other conservative/libertarian groups, was closely associated at its founding with Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) and enjoyed funding from businesspeople Charles and David Koch. Armey left the group in an acrimonious split in 2012.

At the outset of the Obama administration, FreedomWorks was allied with the burgeoning tea party movement. In recent years, it has encouraged protests against coronavirus-related lockdown measures.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

House passes $1B for Israel's Iron Dome after progressive dustup

The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a bill to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, just two days after it was pulled from a government funding package over objections from progressive lawmakers.

Moderate Democrats had pushed for a standalone vote on the Iron Dome funding, which totals $1 billion, amid an uproar over leadership’s decision to strip it from a stopgap spending bill aimed at averting a government shutdown at the end of the month.

The bill passed by a vote of 420-9, with eight Democrats and one Republican voting against it, plus two Democrats voting present. But for the majority party, the episode served to further expose the its internal strife over the U.S.-Israel relationship, with progressives demanding a policy doctrine that takes into account the plight of Palestinians and pushes back on Israel’s retaliatory offensives in Gaza.

Lawmakers who support the security funding sought to highlight the defensive nature of the Iron Dome system, which has proven to be effective in intercepting rockets that would otherwise harm civilians in Israel.

“Let me repeat: This funding, as the bill language clearly states, is limited to a system that is entirely defensive,” House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “The legislation before us ensures that Israel can fully defend all its citizens, a necessary condition for lasting peace.”

Israel views the Iron Dome as critical to its security. Terror groups like Hamas routinely fire rockets into Israel, and the Iron Dome destroys them mid-air. The missile defense system is developed jointly by U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Technologies and Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

Over the summer, Israel found itself in a shooting war with Hamas militants in Gaza who were firing hundreds of rockets per day into Israel, prompting a series of retaliatory strikes by the Israeli government against Hamas positions in Gaza.

Progressives in the U.S. criticized the Israeli government for that offensive, noting that it was resulting in civilian casualties. They have since argued that U.S. military aid to Israel should be conditions-based, as it often is for other countries with whom the U.S. has a strategic relationship. Other Democrats have pushed for the U.S. to fund humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in tandem with the Iron Dome funding.

Ahead of the House vote, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, according to a readout from the Israeli government. Gantz “thanked Secretary Austin for the continued support of the U.S. administration and the Pentagon for the processes to equip Israel with the means necessary to defend itself and its citizens.”

Paul McLeary contributed to this report.