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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday taunted her critics in the House Democratic caucus attempting to block her path to the speakership, daring any would-be candidate to jump into the race and saying she still enjoyed “overwhelming support” to become the next speaker.

“Come on in, the water’s warm,” she said in a press conference when asked about her possible challengers.

Pelosi, who doesn’t have an opponent in the speaker’s race, must win the support of a majority of Democrats behind closed doors on Nov. 28, and of 218 members on the floor on Jan. 3 to become the next speaker. The number of votes needed on the floor could change, if members vote “present” or do not vote, lowering the threshold.

The California Democrat, who expressed confidence she would win a speaker vote if taken immediately, faces resistance from a small but determined clutch of Democrats and incoming members who have called for new leadership of the caucus and pledged not to vote for her on the campaign trail.

At least 17 Democrats have signed on to a letter vowing to vote against Pelosi on the House floor, according to aides and members involved in the effort. Should they stick together or add more to their group, they’d be able to deny Pelosi the votes needed on the House floor.

“Have you seen the letter?” Pelosi asked reporters.

Pelosi’s opponents say they will release the letter once they obtain at least 20 signatures. They argue that the universe of Democrats willing to oppose Pelosi is greater than 17, but that some have not been willing to sign on to the letter.

Pelosi’s allies believe she will be able to convince a number of those critics to support her on the floor, or vote “present,” even if they opposed her in the caucus vote.

She’s been meeting and speaking with uncommitted and incoming members all week, along with the various constituencies of the caucus – including the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, and members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who are holding out support for a number of procedural rules changes in the House.

On Wednesday night, she hosted a dinner for the freshmen Democrats with top Democrats on several House committees, all of whom support her speaker bid and discussed their agendas with incoming members scrambling to lock down committee assignments.

Pelosi’s critics received a boost Wednesday when Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was considering a bid to challenge Pelosi.

On Thursday, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., another potential challenger eyed by the “Never Nancy” Democrats, tweeted that she would support Pelosi for speaker.

Pelosi did not appear worried Thursday by the possible challenge from Fudge.

“I happen to think, at this point, I’m the best person for this,” she said.

Asked whether she thought critics opposing her for speaker might be sexist, Pelosi responded, "You'd have to ask those people what their motivation is. I think of the 17, it's mostly like 14 men who are on that letter.

"You know I've never gone to that place," she continued. "I enjoy a tremendous amount of support from the women in our caucus -- from the new members who are women in our caucus -- and so I get the upside, I think, of being a woman. You'd have to ask them.

"If in fact there is any misogyny involved, it's their problem, not mine," she said.

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iStock/Thinkstock(MIAMI) -- Palm Beach County – a politically pivotal area in Florida – missed Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline for recounting votes in the state’s hotly contested Senate, governor’s and agriculture-commissioner races.

“We gave it a heroic effort,” Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told reporters adding that her county did not finish.

Palm Beach’s counting machines had overheated and stopped functioning at least twice this week.

Under Florida state law, totals submitted this past Saturday will stand. But counties have until Sunday to finish counting new votes—and overseas/military ballots can arrive until tomorrow.

Palm Beach submitted Saturday’s totals to the state, Bucher said. The state’s Senate race remains poised to head into a manual recount, to be completed Sunday.

A federal judge denied Sen. Bill Nelson’s attempt to extend all recount deadlines across the state in his race against Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- There’s a running joke among election officials in November: pray for the margins to be wide. In the 2018 midterm elections, Florida voters didn’t answer those prayers.

But as recounts progressed toward a conclusion in three statewide Florida races, including the races for U.S. senator and governor, experts say those margins, as narrow they may seem, likely won’t reverse the Election Day results.

Out of more than 4,600 statewide general elections between 2000 and 2015, there were 27 statewide recounts — three of which resulted in reversals, according to FairVote, a group that advocates for electoral reform.

In other words, recounts are rare. Recounts that end in reversals are even rarer.

“Ten percent of all statewide recounts in the 21st century are happening right now, as we speak,” David O’Brien, a staff attorney at FairVote and author of the recount analysis, said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. “Which just goes to show how uncommon they are.”

And if any of them end in reversal, O’Brien said he’d want to “really dig in” to find out why they became such outliers.

Ned Foley, a law professor at The Ohio State University who wrote a book documenting disputed elections throughout U.S. history, also spoke to the rarity of a reversal.

“If we focus specifically on statewide races, it's absolutely true that it's very rare to overturn,” Foley said.

It’s also rare to see a recount in the first place, Foley explained, nevermind three of them in one state — but Florida fits the bill for such a situation, he said.

“In a battleground state, this is more likely to arise,” he said, and predicted that increased voter targeting would only increase the purple-ish tint of the state.

“Both sides are more sophisticated in their messaging so it stands to reason that we’re going to have closer elections in the world we live in now than we had in the 20th century, and I think this year is evidence of that,” Foley later added.

The reason recount reversals are so rare, both Foley and O’Brien explained, is because, generally, vote margins don’t swing by more than a few hundred votes in statewide recounts, which isn’t usually enough to change the winner.

In the case of Florida, the Senate race differed by 12,562 votes heading into the recount. The margin was bigger in the gubernatorial race: 33,684.

Not only would many more votes have to come in during the recount to have a big impact on the current numbers, but the votes would have to lean almost entirely toward one candidate, Foley said.

“My instinct is its extraordinarily hard to overcome a lead of 10,000 or more, unless you tell me something about the nature of the ballots that have yet to be counted — unless you tell me why they would break so favorably for the candidate who was behind,” Foley said.

According to O’Brien, the margin shift in Florida would have to be more than 20 times bigger than what they saw in other races where there were recounts for a reversal in the governor’s race — and around 10 times bigger for the Senate race.

And yet, the rhetoric from both Republican and Democrat camps would have voters believe the stakes are much higher.

“What we’re seeing this year is in some respects familiar, in some respects new and different,” Foley said. “What is a new and unfortunately disconcerting development is the intensity of the rhetoric.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate, began claiming last week that his opponent, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, was trying to “steal” the election — though neither courts nor the Florida Department of Law Enforcement back these claims. Nelson said Scott has “thrown around words like voter fraud with no proof” and accused him of “using his power as governor to try to undermine the voting process.”

The president also weighed in. “Trying to STEAL two elections in Florida! We are watching closely!” he said in one tweet, without details or evidence.

“What frankly surprised me is how quickly the rhetoric got so hot and so contentious, given that the statewide races in Florida just aren't actually that close,” Foley said, adding that while they’re close enough to trigger automatic recounts, more than 10,000 vote margin in a statewide race “is still an extraordinarily wide margin to be able to overcome.”

And the number of lawsuits in Florida, from both Nelson and Scott’s campaigns, match the degree of rhetoric.

The escalation displays the country’s “Achilles heel,” as Foley calls it, which is the need for neutral institutions to monitor elections, instead of partisan secretary of state offices, because “democracy depends on a sense of fair play.”

Reports out of Palm Beach and Broward County, both Democrat-leaning counties, increased politicization of the ballot counting, further proving the need for neutrality, Foley said.

“What’s happened so far this week is troublesome, and I’m concerned about what it means when we have to go through this two years from now when the presidency is on the line,” he said.

Which brings up another benefit of a recount, beyond solidifying a winner or reinvigorating an opponent: assuring people that the election played out the way it was supposed to.

“It’s good for people to figure out what went wrong in the election so lawmakers and policymakers can make changes to make sure those don't happen again,” O’Brien said.

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Immigration arrests at U.S. national parks and other federal lands spiked dramatically this year under President Donald Trump, with some 4,010 immigration-related arrests alone since May compared to only 126 arrests in 2016, according to the Interior Department.

The figures represent a dramatic escalation in the immigration enforcement role played by the Interior Department, a federal agency better known for protecting the nation's historic monuments and wildlife refuges.

The push also comes as President Donald Trump has deployed several thousand active-duty troops to the border in a push to deter illegal immigration, and as a Republican-led House committee considers legislation this week that would give border patrol agents greater access to federal lands.

"The fact that we were able to increase arrests by almost 4,000 percent is undeniable proof that there's a big problem," said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in a statement touting the new arrest figures. "Under the previous administration, Interior's borderlands were basically an open door for illegal activity; and, what few law enforcement officers were down there were left unprotected and without the resources and backup needed to keep communities and themselves safe."

More than 40 percent of the land along the U.S.-Mexico border is federal land controlled by the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service. In order to protect that land, the Interior Department employs more than 4,000 law enforcement agents -- the third largest presence in the federal government.

That number includes National Park rangers and U.S. Park Police, but also federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Interior Department's primary mission is to protect natural resources in the parks, which can be damaged when too many people walk, drive, or leave trash. Law enforcement within the parks and monuments have an agreement to cooperate with agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which have complained in the past that restrictions intended to protect the environment made it more difficult to arrest undocumented migrants or stop routes for people entering the country illegally.

CBP is the agency primary in charge of border apprehensions, arresting nearly 400,000 people near the border this year -- a level on par with 2016 before Trump took office.

According to figures released by the Interior Department, agents in national monuments and protected wilderness on the border not only apprehended and turned over 4,010 people to CBP custody and seized 2,356 pounds of drugs.

An additional 469 people were eventually arrested outside of federal lands.

Interior's new role as an aggressive arm of immigration enforcement could become a new focus for Democrats next year, who took control of the House in the last midterm elections.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he has been concerned that U.S. Park Police officers who typically patrol Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco, were sent to the border after Zinke announced a "surge" to the border last May.

Grijalva asked Zinke then for more information on what the officers would be doing and whether other parks would be understaffed as a result. Grijalva's office said the congressman never got answers.

The Interior Department cited security concerns when declining to provide ABC News figures on how many officers were sent to the border, where they are working or what they would be doing.

"We have sought details from the Interior Department about their border activities and they have not been forthcoming," Grijalva said in a statement provided to ABC News. "There is very good reason to doubt their claims, just like there was good reason to doubt the president’s claims about the so-called caravan Republicans seem to have suddenly forgotten about."

Grijalva represents Arizona which includes public lands like the Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge. Multiple groups, including the Tohono O'odham Nation which lives in southern Arizona and Mexico, have said they strongly oppose what they call militarization at the border and want the military and parks law enforcement to step back.

Before this month's elections, Trump made immigration his focus.

He tweeted often about the dangers of a slow-moving caravan of migrants moving north through Mexico expected to seek asylum in the U.S. Last week, the administration announced a new plan to deter asylum seekers by refusing to consider applicants who cross the border outside a designated port of entry.

Darren Cruzan, the agency's head of law enforcement, said the Interior Department didn't dramatically change its policies this year when it comes to immigration. He said the agency has always played a law enforcement role in helping CBP enforce immigration laws.

He said the uptick in apprehensions likely reflects Park Police and other law enforcement outfits "paying attention" to areas near border crossings. The agency, he said, is taking its cues from border patrol to identify areas where rangers should increase patrols.

"Our priority is to protect the resources on DOI-managed land," Cruzan said in an interview. "So what we said is, 'Are there locations along the border where we are already doing our normal duties where we can be of assistance?'"

U.S. border policy for decades has pushed people seeking to cross the border onto more remote, dangerous areas, which includes areas of desert that are managed by the National Park Service and other agencies. Border patrol officials adopted the strategy of "prevention through deterrence" in 1994 and since then, more agents and equipment have been stationed along the border to reroute migrants attempting to reach urban areas.

But that effort to make it more difficult to cross into the U.S. illegally also resulted in more deaths among migrants, according to a 2010 government report and reports from advocacy groups.

In 2002, after a park ranger in Arizona was shot and killed by a man who crossed the border illegally, the Interior Department called for more focus on enforcing border security on federal lands.

Still, the focus in recent years by the Interior Department hasn't only been nabbing illegal migrants.

Fred Patton, a former chief park ranger at the Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument, said park rangers were focused on stopping illegal border crossings but through an environmental lens because their primary mission was still to protect the land, visitors, and staff in the park. Patton said that during the mid-2000s, his park had about 10 to 12 rangers to patrol the 28 miles of border between Arizona and Mexico.

Patton said its difficult to compare the number of apprehensions over time because it's influenced by other factors, including overall trends in migration across the border, other border security operations that might force migrants onto federal land, and the emphasis and resources on border operations within the department. But he said he's glad to see Zinke's support for the efforts on the border.

“If the secretary of the Interior mandates that this is a priority, that trickles down all the way to the operations level,” he said.

Zinke says the Interior Department is also increasing its law enforcement presence on the border in anticipation of the arrival of a caravan of migrants from Honduras and other countries. Some migrants that were part of the caravan are expected to reach the border near San Diego this weekend and some have arrived at the border in Tijuana.

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A federal judge is expected to announce Friday morning whether he will grant CNN's request that he order the Trump White House to immediately restore a press pass to the network's chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

The court hearing and announcement, originally scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday, was delayed until Friday without explanation.

During an emergency court hearing Wednesday, the Trump administration defended revoking Acosta' press pass, arguing that the president has the power to exclude any and all journalists from White House grounds.

“If the president wants to exclude all reporters from White House grounds he clearly has the authority to do that,” James Burnham, deputy assistant attorney general, argued before the judge on behalf of the president.

"We’re talking about the physical White House, I mean the one building in which the president’s authority over how people act, where they go, should be at his apex," Burnham said. The West Wing is a tight, small space, he argued, which is why journalists want to be there.

CNN and Acosta filed suit against President Donald Trump and top aides on Tuesday for stripping Acosta, without warning, of his access to the White House, where he works daily. The indefinite revocation of Acosta’s press credentials, known as a “hard pass,” came on the heels of a heated exchange between Trump and Acosta on Nov. 7.

CNN and Acosta filed an emergency motion to have Acosta’s press pass immediately reinstated as the court case continues and asked for a ruling from Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly in federal court in Washington Wednesday afternoon. A decision is expected on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the judge pushed CNN’s lawyers on how they can prove that Acosta's press pass was revoked specifically because of the content of Acosta’s reporting rather than based on his behavior, which the president described as "rude." CNN's case relies heavily on Sherrill v. Knight, a 1971 case which established that taking away a journalist's press pass because of the content of their coverage is prohibited under the First Amendment.

Despite months of criticism launched at CNN and Acosta, “Until this point, [the administration] took no action,” U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly said in a question to CNN’s lawyer, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. “What triggered a content-based response here as opposed to all those other months?”

“This was a bad day for the president,” Boutrous said. “It was the day after the midterms.”

Boutrous said the issue was bigger than Acosta or CNN.

“Rudeness really is a code word for ‘I don’t like you being an aggressive reporter,’” he said, which threatens the right of journalists to ask tenacious questions and, he argued, will have a "chilling effect" on the White House press corps.

It's Trump who “establishes the tenor and tone of these press conferences,” Boutrous argued, and "wants it to be a free-for-all, that's his prerogative."

"He is the most aggressive, dare I say rude, person in the room, and I’m not being critical -- this is the rough and tumble of the presidency, and that’s what the First Amendment protects,” Boutrous said.

The defense argued that denying Acosta a press pass was not a violation of the First Amendment as there is no guaranteed access to the White House, and dozens of other CNN reporters with "hard passes" could continue to serve public interest by reporting on the White House grounds. Acosta could continue to do his job by watching video fed back from the White House, the defense argued.

Boutrous called their argument a "fundamental misconception of journalism."

"Different reporters break different stories. This notion that it's some minor thing to be in the White House, be at a gaggle ... to work your sources in the White House, to go talk to the government officials who are there, that is invaluable access. We have evidence, they have no evidence," Boutrous said, also arguing that the president can't decide who CNN sends to the White House or exercise control over who the network wants to be its chief White House correspondent.

"There's no First Amendment doctrine that, if there are a bunch of other reporters, you can bar someone else and it's not a violation," Boutrous said, but Sherrill v. Knight, the lawyer argued, established the opposite.

"There's an interest to ensure that no one reporter is excluded -- and it's the public's interest," Boutrous said. "Maybe that's the reporter who would break the story, who would break the story wide open because of their sources."

The judge also asked whether the White House could act differently to reprimand Acosta without taking away his pass in full — something like not allowing Acosta in briefings with the president but letting him on White House grounds.

Boutrous said that suggestion would still be a violation of First Amendment rights.

In a brief written before the court hearing Wednesday, lawyers arguing on behalf of the president laid out the defense strategy and maintained that Acosta’s credentials were taken away because he “disrupted the fair and orderly administration of a press conference during an exchange with the president.”

“Mr. Acosta’s decision to engage in conduct that disrupts press events and impedes other reporters from asking questions provides a more-than-sufficient reason for revoking his hard pass,” the president’s attorneys wrote.

The brief focused largely on Acosta’s “disrupt[tions]” during the press conference rather than a previous explanation by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, which CNN promptly denied, that Acosta had placed his hands on an intern who tried to take away his microphone. The judge declined to characterize it as a "shift" in narrative.

In the brief, Trump’s attorneys argued it would be “extraordinary” for the court to decide to “directly police access to the secure White House complex where the president lives and works, as well as to dictate who the President must invite to press events.”

Many individual journalists who attended the press conference have shared personal accounts and spoken out, defending Acosta. Major news outlets also joined together to issue a statement in support of Acosta and CNN Tuesday, and filed "friend of the court" briefs in the case.

“Whether the news of the day concerns national security, the economy, or the environment, reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions. It is imperative that independent journalists have access to the President and his activities, and that journalists are not barred for arbitrary reasons,” read a statement issued by NBC News, FOX News, POLITICO, The New York Times, The Washington Post and more.

“Our news organizations support the fundamental constitutional right to question this President, or any President. We will be filing friend-of-the-court briefs to support CNN’s and Jim Acosta’s lawsuit based on these principles,” the statement continued.

The statement echoed one from the White House Correspondents' Association, which criticized the Trump White House decision and supported CNN.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is on a tour of Asia, was asked about Acosta and press freedom after he criticized Myanmar's lack of freedom during the trip.

"This administration has stood strong for a free and independent press and defended the freedom of the press on a world stage," Pence told reporters in Singapore. "There's no comparison whatsoever between disagreements over decorum at the White House and the imprisonment of the two reporters in Myanmar."

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- In the latest legal twist in the Florida vote recount controversy, a federal judge has ruled that the state's laws requiring signatures on ballots to match those on file are being applied unconstitutionally.

U.S. District Chief Judge Mark Walker has granted a preliminary injunction, sought by Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, ordering Florida’s secretary of state to direct local supervisors of elections that they must allow voters with suspected mismatched signatures to "cure" -- or validate -- their vote-by-mail and provisional ballots by 5 p.m. Saturday.

“The precise issue in this case is whether Florida’s law that allows county election officials to reject vote-by-mail and provisional ballots for mismatched signatures -- with no standards, an illusory process to cure, and no process to challenge the rejection -- passes constitutional muster. The answer is simple. It does not,” Walker wrote in the order.

The court ruling is not an order for county canvassing boards to "count every mismatched vote, sight unseen," Walker wrote, but instead is an order to "allow those voters who should have had an opportunity to cure their ballots in the first place to cure their vote-by-mail and provisional ballots now, before the second official results are fully counted."

Vote-by-mail and provisional ballots have become increasingly popular, Walker said, but the county canvassing boards, which determine whether a voter's signature on vote-by-mail and provisional ballots match state records, are "staffed by laypersons that are not required to undergo formal handwriting-analysis education or training."

Nevertheless, ballots considered to have "mismatched signatures" are rejected as invalid votes. Voters who are notified before Election Day of this discrepancy on their ballot can attempt to "cure," or address the problem, but the judge ruled that under previous law, the window to do so was too narrow, and in some cases, nonexistent.

If this "last chance" to cure is denied, "Florida law provides no opportunity for voters to challenge the determination of the canvassing board that their signatures do not match, and their votes do not count," Walker ruled.

For provisional ballots, the other type of ballot under inspection by the lawsuit, there was neither a cure period or a mechanism for a voter to challenge the decision that the voter wasn't eligible to vote.

"Consider the game of football," Walker wrote. Rules are made and rules are followed, he said, but sometimes calls deserve reviews.

"Indeed, not every call is going to be clear -- the ultimate decision may hinge on highly subjective factors. Hence, a call will be overturned only when there is 'clear and obvious visual evidence available that warrants the change'," Walker wrote, citing 2018 NFL rules.

"In this case, the Plaintiffs have thrown a red flag. But this is not football. Rather, this is a case about the precious and fundamental right to vote -- the right preservative of all other rights," Walker wrote.

Like the game of football, elections are governed by their own set of laws that allow for an "efficient and transparent" process.

And, as in football, Walker wrote, "There is no doubt that election officials must make certain calls, under the rules, that deserve review. And there is no doubt some of those calls may hinge on highly subjective factors."
 
The deadline for Florida counties to finish their machine recounts in Nelson's Senate race against GOP Gov. Rick Scott, as well as in the governor's race pitting former Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis against Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, is 3 p.m. Thursday. Before that deadline, however, court action is expected sometime in the morning on Nelson's lawsuit in federal court seeking to nullify all deadlines and give counties as much time to count votes as is needed, which, if ruled in Nelson's favor, would erase the need for counties to hit the 3 p.m. deadline.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Mira Ricardel, the president's deputy national security adviser, has been reassigned one day after first lady Melania Trump called for the woman's firing.

In a remarkable development Tuesday, Melania Trump made a public call for the president's deputy national security adviser to be fired.

Ricardel will depart the White House as Trump desired and reassigned to another role in the administration, according to press secretary Sarah Sanders.

"Mira Ricardel will continue to support the President as she departs the White House to transition to a new role within the Administration," Sanders said. "The President is grateful for Ms. Ricardel’s continued service to the American people and her steadfast pursuit of his national security priorities."

A statement released by Trump's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, on Tuesday said: “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”

Despite the White House drama, Sanders said earlier in the day Wednesday that Ricardel remained on the job.

Vice President Mike Pence became the first major member of the Trump administration to comment on Ricardel's ouster at a stop in Singapore on his Asian trip Thursday.

"I have great respect for her and her role," Pence said. "I look forward to her new role in another part of the administration."

Even amid new rumbles about the potential impending departures of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and even Chief of Staff John Kelly, it is unusual for the first lady to get so publicly involved in an administration's staffing issues.

The first lady's statement was released not long after Ricardel was seen smiling as she stood behind President Trump at an early afternoon Diwali ceremony at the White House Tuesday.

Ricardel and Melania Trump's office most recently tangled over her solo trip to Africa. Mrs. Trump felt she had treated her staff disrespectfully, White House sources said, and Ricardel was seen as so difficult during the planning of the trip, according to sources, that the first lady’s team sought Kelly's guidance. The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Ricardel was recruited to the National Security Council by the president's national security adviser, John Bolton. According to the Wall Street Journal, the first lady’s office believed Ricardel was behind negative stories and was known to not get along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and at times sought to undermine him from within the White House.

A White House official who requested anonymity noted in Ricardel's defense that she is one of the highest-ranking women in the Trump administration and that she has never met the first lady.

Trump told ABC News’ Tom Llamas last month, during her first sit-down interview, that she shares her opinions about people she doesn’t trust in the administration with her husband.

“Do you think there's still people there that he can't trust?” Llamas asked.

“Yes,” the first lady said. She added, “You always need to watch your back.”

When asked Tuesday if he agrees with the first lady on Ricardel, Mattis told ABC News, "I don't comment on other people's staffing issues."

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In an ongoing battle of harassment and misconduct allegations at the U.S. Forest Service, its chief, Vicki Christiansen, is set to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday along with a former employee from the agency who claims to have been harassed by the former chief.

Shannon Reed, an air quality specialist, claims in her written testimony she was viewed as a "sexual object" and that the former Forest Chief Tony Tooke grabbed her buttocks.

"I did not report Mr. Tooke because I feared retaliation," Reed wrote.

Tooke resigned after an investigation looking into the allegations made against him of sexual misconduct began. Shortly after, Christiansen, the interim chief at the time, issued a mandatory full-day training about harassment and safety in the work place.

One hundred current and former female employees of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote an open letter Wednesday to Christiansen, echoing Reed's fear of retaliation and to "expose serious issues of discrimination, harassment, and workplace violence against female employees."

The women who signed the letter work in a variety of departments within the agency ranging in years of service from as little as three years to more than 25 years. They are all from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and live across the country.

The Nov. 9 letter is not the first time women working in the agency have complained about abuse.

In the letter, the women wrote that the USDA and its agencies have a history of overlooked reports of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. They stated that senior officers of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees "wrote letters to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forest Service Chiefs describing incidents of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against female employees in the Forest Service."

"Despite the concerns of congress and the public exposure, the USDA and the Forest Service continue to ignore our complaints and continue this culture of abuse," the letter stated. "We decided it is time for you to hear our voices."

"The concerns of congress" the women wrote about were prompted after two women who worked for the agency testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in December 2016. They testified after a few women shared their stories in a Huffington Post Highline report. Multiple class-action lawsuits have also been filed against the agency over the years.

The women claim the agency took no action and there were no "positive changes to the work environment" even after the hearing.

"We watched Congressman Chaffetz, Congressman Cummings, Congressman Gowdy, Congresswoman Speier, and others tell Deputy Chief Lenise Lago and Assistant Secretary Joe Leonard that they did not believe their 'data' and told them to fix the problems of gender discrimination and sexual harassment," the letter stated. "We hoped the agency would take action."

Fueled by the agency's lack of effort to confront the ongoing issue, the women said they continued to speak to media outlets in hopes of garnering more attention to expose the agency's shortcomings.

"When PBS aired in March 2018 we had hope again," the women stated after the outlet published its investigation of women who reported harassment and received retaliation in return. The PBS report also revealed sexual misconduct allegations made against Tooke.

"The exposure of Tony Tooke's sexual misconduct/forced retirement was the perfect opportunity for the Forest Service to admit there were problems at all levels, and to assess how and why a male manager guilty of sexual misconduct could promote to the highest levels of the agency," the women wrote. "It was our expectation that the agency would acknowledge those of us who have been coming forward (many of us for years), and include us in problem solving initiatives. This did not happen."

Despite the full training day and the "30-day plan" implemented to include listening sessions, "Stand Up" values clarification/training sessions and advisory groups, the women claim the tactics were ineffective as they continued to face harassment and abuse in their work fields.

"Many of us observed that managers with harassment claims against them (including sexual harassment) were the ones facilitating these sessions," the letter stated. "We sat there and listened to management and employees blame the women, and blame PBS for having to go through these processes."

Some women spoke out during the "Stand Up" sessions, but not everyone did so for fear of retaliation, they wrote in the letter.

"And we want you to understand, we have real concerns that through your 'Stand Up' program you are putting the burden on us to 'stand up' and speak out about harassment when you have not made it a safe environment for us to do so," the women wrote.

In conclusion, the women demand Christiansen and her staff meet with everyone who signed the letter and that a delegation of women meet with USDA and Forest Service officials to "collaborate on problem solving" and find a resolution. The hope is to alleviate the impact harassment has had on their mental and emotional health.

"We have ideas and want to share them with you and your staff," the women stated.

ABC News reached out to Christiansen's press team, but have not received a response.

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Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration has nominated John Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The nomination comes amid increased tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as suspicion hangs over the kingdom about its involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid attended West Point, and rose from an infantry platoon commander to a four-star general during his distinguished military career.

During the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, Abizaid led an Army Ranger rifle company and reportedly ordered one of his soldiers to start up a nearby bulldozer to use as a tank and allow the company to advance on enemy positions. The unorthodox move inspired a scene in the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge, where the Hollywood star similarly used a bulldozer to advance on a Cuban position.

Abizaid is unique among high-ranking military officials for his intimate knowledge of the Arab world. The grandson of Lebanese-Christian immigrants, Abizaid is fluent in Arabic and obtained a master’s degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern area studies.

Many considered his passion for the Arab world to be an asset during the early years of the Iraq War, when Abizaid oversaw the effort as CENTCOM commander. Now, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Abizaid will be tested in the Arabian peninsula.

Questions linger over the possible involvement of Saudi officials in the killing of Khashoggi, including de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized that the United States will hold all of those involved accountable, and pressed Saudi Arabia to do the same.

The Trump administration recently announced it would stop midair refueling of Saudi military flights to Yemen, and the State Department announced 21 Saudi “suspects” would have their U.S. visas revoked, or be deemed ineligible for a U.S. visa.

Congress has also triggered an executive branch investigation into whether Saudi Arabia should face Global Magnitsky Act sanctions for human rights violations.

The appointment of a four-star general like Abizaid underscores how much the Trump administration values its military relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump went to Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip, and touted a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom.

The $110 billion figure represents offers of intent or interest, according to Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and a former CIA officer. He described the deal as a “wish list” of what the U.S. would like to sell Saudi Arabia in the next four to five years, but it is not guaranteed that all the deals will come to fruition. Saudi Arabia has purchased $14.5 billion in arms so far.

The arms sales have been a focal point of Trump’s deliberations on whether, and how much, to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of Khashoggi.

"I don't want to lose all of that investment being made into our country. I don't want to lose a million jobs, I don't want to lose $110 billion dollars in terms of investment," Trump told reporters in October.

Another question looming over Abizaid’s nomination is whether Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, will maintain his close relationship with Saudi officials, and whether Kushner will hinder Abizaid’s ability to conduct diplomacy.

The ambassador post has remained vacant for nearly two years of the Trump administration, but Kushner has a close relationship with the prince and has made multiple trips to Saudi Arabia.

Kushner clashed with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over a Saudi campaign to blockade Qatar, as the Gulf states accused Qatar of harboring terrorists. Kushner sided with the Saudis, while Tillerson attempted to defend Qatar, which hosts an enormous U.S. air base.

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iStock/Thinkstock(MIAMI, Fla.) -- As vote counting and recounting continues in Florida, the state's election authority said Wednesday that it had requested a federal investigation into altered voter forms.

The forms, which by-mail voters use to correct problems with signatures accompanying their ballots, appeared to have instructed voters to return them late. The Florida Department of State asked U.S. attorneys in three Florida districts to investigate, writing in a letter that creating such an altered form would be a crime.

Florida is the site of an ongoing vote recount in three statewide races, for U.S. senator, governor and state agriculture commissioner.

Four counties — Broward, Citrus, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa — received forms from mail-in voters that appeared to have been altered. The altered forms instructed voters to return them "no later than 5 p.m. on Thursday, November 8." The forms are due "no later than 5 p.m. the day before the election" -- as written on the original form.

"We respectfully ask that you take all necessary steps to investigate and remedy such abuse. Please contact us should you need any additional information," reads a letter Florida Dept. of State Interim General Counsel Bradley McVay sent to U.S. attorneys in the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Florida on Nov. 9.

The type of form, known as a "vote-by-mail cure affidavit" -- is used by voters who forgot to sign a "vote-by-mail certificate" when they returned their ballots, or whose signatures do not match those on file with their voter-registration records, according to Florida's Division of Elections website. Voters must return them with a copy of identification.

Voters can deliver the forms in person, fax, or email them to county election officials.

"If you forgot to sign your vote-by-mail ballot certificate when you returned your ballot, or you get information that your signature on the certificate did not match your registration record, you have the opportunity to correct the situation," the Florida Elections Division website tells voters, guiding them to the form.

Voters can request by-mail ballots in Florida even if they will not be absent on Election Day. By-mail ballots must be returned and received by county officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day; voters must return their affidavits correcting signature issues the day before.

The department sent copies of the altered forms, received by county officials, to the U.S. attorneys. The department provided copies to ABC News.

“The Department continues to review any information or complaints we receive regarding election fraud or other criminal activity,” Florida Dept. of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell told ABC News on Wednesday. “Last Friday, the Department sent a letter to the Offices of the United States Attorneys requesting they investigate possible violations of Florida and federal elections laws that have come to our attention.”

Florida's Department of State and its statewide law enforcement agency had been prompted by Attorney General Pam Bondi on Sunday to investigate any possible election-related crimes -- though not necessarily of this kind.

Amid allusions to "fraud" by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who narrowly leads Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate race currently undergoing a recount, Bondi had prompted the secretary of state and Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner to investigate any possible election misconduct, sending a letter to each on Sunday. Bondi's letter referenced some of the criticisms Scott's legal team had voiced against election officials in the Democratic counties of Broward and Palm Beach.

Those criticisms related to the counting of votes by those officials, but the secretary of state's request for an investigation focuses on a different kind of alleged crime -- misleading voters as they seek to cast ballots.

"[A]ltering a form in a manner that provided the incorrect date ... imposes a burden on the voter significant enough to frustrate the voter's ability to vote," McVay wrote to the attorneys general.

Florida faces a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline to complete a machine recount of votes in the three statewide races being recounted. If any remain within a margin of .25 percentage points, as is likely in the Senate contest, the state will move to a manual recount of some ballots, which must be completed by Sunday -- though those deadlines are being contested by Nelson in federal court.

Meanwhile, a federal court is hearing a lawsuit by Sen. Bill Nelson to invalidate Florida's law requiring that by-mail and provisional votes must include signatures that match those on file with voter-registration books -- which his campaign filed well before this request for an investigation. On Wednesday, a federal judge left open the possibility of allowing voters more time to amend and verify their signatures with county election officials.

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- During an emergency court hearing, the Trump administration defended revoking CNN chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta' press pass arguing that it's the president's "authority" on whether to exclude journalists from White House grounds.

“If the president wants to exclude all reporters from White House grounds he clearly has the authority to do that,” James Burnham argued before the judge on behalf of the president. The West Wing is a tight, small space, he argued, which is why journalists want to be there.

"We’re talking about the physical White House, I mean the one building in which the president’s authority over how people act, where they go, should be at its apex," Burnham said.

CNN and Acosta filed suit against President Donald Trump and top aides on Tuesday for stripping Acosta, without warning, of his access to the White House, where he works daily. The indefinite revocation of Acosta’s press credentials, known as a “hard pass,” came on the heels of a heated exchange between Trump and Acosta on Nov. 7.

CNN and Acosta filed an emergency motion to have Acosta’s press pass immediately reinstated as the court case continues and asked for a ruling from Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly in federal court in Washington Wednesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, the judge pushed CNN’s lawyers on how they can prove that Acosta's press pass was revoked specifically because of the content of Acosta’s reporting rather than based on his behavior.

“Until this point, they took no action,” U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly said in a question to CNN’s lawyer, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. “What triggered a content-based response here as opposed to all those other months?”

Kelly said he wasn’t sure how to weigh the statements CNN’s lawyers wrote in their court filings because those could’ve referred to different coverage from a number of different reporters. He asked Buttrous why, if this was specifically about Acosta’s reporting and not about his behavior on that specific day, after months of insults against CNN, the president waited until that day to bar him.

“This was a bad day for the president,” Boutrous said. “It was the day after the midterms.”

Boutrous called Trump “the most aggressive, dare I say rude person in the room, and I’m not being critical,” and said Trump “establishes the tenor and tone of these press conferences.”

“Trump wants it to be a free-for-all, that’s his prerogative,” Boutrous said.

The judge also asked whether the White House could act differently to reprimand Acosta without taking away his pass in full — something like not allowing Acosta in briefings with the president but letting him on White House grounds.

The lawyer said that suggestion would still be a violation of First Amendment rights.

The administration maintains that Acosta’s credentials were taken away because he “disrupted the fair and orderly administration of a press conference during an exchange with the president,” Department of Justice lawyers wrote earlier in a brief arguing on behalf of the president.

The DOJ attorneys also denied that the president revoked Acosta’s credentials because of reporting from Acosta and CNN that the White House didn’t like, despite the president’s open criticism of CNN as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people,” as well as calling Acosta a "disgrace."

“Mr. Acosta’s decision to engage in conduct that disrupts press events and impedes other reporters from asking questions provides a more-than-sufficient reason for revoking his hard pass,” the president’s attorneys wrote.

“Acosta continued his refusal to permit another journalist to ask a question, ignoring both the stated wishes of the President and the efforts of a staffer tasked with helping to manage an event,” they wrote.

The brief focused largely on Acosta’s “disrupt[tions]” during the press conference rather than a previous explanation by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, which CNN promptly denied, that Acosta had placed his hands on an intern who tried to take away his microphone.

Trump’s attorneys have also argued that the decision to revoke Acosta’s access does not violate the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of the press and prohibits the government from retaliating against individuals who speak out, because the First Amendment doesn’t “restrict the president’s ability to determine the terms on which he does, or does not, engage with particular journalists.”

The White House has made a similar argument in days past: "No journalist has a First Amendment right to enter the White House," the White House said.

Trump’s attorneys argued it would be “extraordinary” for the court to decide to “directly police access to the secure White House complex where the president lives and works, as well as to dictate who the President must invite to press events.”

Many individual journalists who attended a press conference on the matter shared personal accounts and spoke out in his defense after Acosta’s credentials were revoked.

Major news outlets also joined together to issue a statement in support of Acosta and CNN Tuesday and said they would be filing briefs in the court case.

“Whether the news of the day concerns national security, the economy, or the environment, reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions. It is imperative that independent journalists have access to the President and his activities, and that journalists are not barred for arbitrary reasons,” read a statement issued by The Associated Press, NBC News, FOX News, POLITICO, The New York Times, The Washington Post and more.

“Our news organizations support the fundamental constitutional right to question this President, or any President. We will be filing friend-of-the-court briefs to support CNN’s and Jim Acosta’s lawsuit based on these principles,” the statement continued.

The statement echoed one from the White House Correspondents' Association, which criticized the Trump White House decision and supported CNN.

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A bipartisan effort to provide legal protections for special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation failed on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware attempted to force a vote on a bill that would prevent Mueller from being fired without “good cause.”

Their efforts came in light of Jeff Sessions being forced out of his post as attorney general last week and the subsequent appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.

In his new role, Whitaker takes Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s place as the lead overseer of the Russia probe. Sessions had previously recused himself of all Justice Department activity related to the investigation into Russian meddling. Now, lawmakers are concerned that Whitaker’s objectivity is compromised because of his vocal criticism before joining the administration.

Flake and Coons sought unanimous consent from their Senate colleagues for the measure late Wednesday but that failed after an objection from Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

The bipartisan Mueller protection legislation formally named the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in April but has seen no floor action.

The bill codifies existing DOJ regulations to ensure that the special counsel can only be fired for good cause by a Senate-confirmed DOJ official. Whitaker has not been confirmed by the Senate for his current post.

It also provides the special counsel with a 10-day window in which he can seek expedited judicial review of his removal to determine whether the firing was for good cause. If the firing is ultimately determined to have violated the good-cause requirement, the special counsel cannot be removed.

Lastly, the bill would preserve the staffing, documents, and materials of the investigation while the matter is pending.

“The leader has always said 'there’s no need for this because nobody's been fired, the special counsel is fine.’ But I don’t think anyone can say that after Jeff Sessions’ forced removal,” Flake told ABC News on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, he followed up his remarks by threatening retribution on Senate Republicans to withhold his vote on judicial nominations.

"I have informed the Majority Leader that I will not vote to advance any of the 21 judicial nominees pending in the Judiciary Committee, or vote to confirm the 32 judges awaiting a confirmation vote on the floor, until [the bill] is brought to the full Senate for a vote," Flake announced on the Senate floor after McConnell objected to the measure.

His decision to withhold his vote on judicial nominations would draw ire from McConnell, who has previously said confirming judges to federal courts is a top priority.

McConnell has downplayed the necessity of the Mueller protection bill, saying the bipartisan legislation is not needed at this time because of assurances he has been given by President Trump that he does not intend to fire Mueller.

“I mean there's been no indication, as you can imagine – I talk to the president fairly often – no indication that the Mueller investigation will not be allowed to finish, and it should be allowed to finish,” McConnell told reporters on Wednesday.

He went on: “We know how the president feels about the Mueller investigation but he has never said he wants to shut it down. I've never heard anybody down there say they want to shut it down. I think it's in no danger and so I don't think any legislation is necessary.”

But several other Republicans have said they would vote for the bill, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis.

Graham told ABC News on Tuesday: “We bring it to the floor I’ll definitely vote on it. I don’t see any movement to fire Mueller, but legislatively it’d probably be good to put it into law for the future.”

On Sunday, Graham told CBS News’ Face the Nation that he doesn't think Whitaker should recuse himself from overseeing Mueller's investigation. He also said he intends to meet him sometime this week.

At least one Republican said he thinks the Mueller protection bill would be unconstitutional and he said he doesn’t think Whitaker will do anything to jeopardize the Mueller investigation.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the man to bash him before he even has a chance to find the men’s room,” Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said Tuesday.

Democrats, however, are insisting that if a standalone bill does not get a chance on the Senate floor, then it must be included in a must-pass spending bill due by Dec. 7.

Schumer on Tuesday said that Democrats will “attempt to add legislation to the must-pass spending bill in the lame duck session that will prevent acting Attorney General Whitaker from interfering with the Mueller investigation.”

Grassley, who’s charged with overseeing the DOJ as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on Tuesday insisted he felt reassured by Trump’s assurances on the matter.

“It seems to me that the president's the chief executive and the president said that he wasn't going to do that, so doesn't matter what Whitaker thinks,” Grassley told reporters.

Grassley also said that as long as Whitaker made comments about the Mueller probe as a “private citizen” he’s not concerned about any bias he may have.

On the bill to protect the special counsel investigation, Grassley said he supports it.

“The answer is if it comes to a vote, I will vote for that bill. Whether it comes for a vote is up to the Leader and I respect the leader's right to bring it up,” Grassley said.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Nancy Pelosi continues to fend off a rebellion in her ranks, working to win the support of enough House Democrats to clinch the votes needed to become Speaker of the House.

Lawmakers huddled Wednesday behind closed doors for the first time since winning back the majority in last week’s election, with several emerging to tell reporters that they remain dissatisfied with the Democratic slate of candidates.

“I’m not going to say anything about that,” Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters after the meeting. “I’m just going to say that I will be speaker.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge, a veteran Ohio Democrat, bluntly called for a challenger to step up and face off against Pelosi. Though she flirted with the idea of taking on Pelosi herself, she emphasized that she is looking for someone else to step forward.

“It’s clear I’m not going to be voting for the current leader,” Fudge said. “I don’t plan to run, but there are a number of people who I think are capable. And so we are exploring, talking to those people.”

But Fudge would not slam the door on a potential bid herself.

“I never really thought much about it to be perfectly honest. I would say this, as we tout diversity in this party, there’s no diversity in our leadership. As we talk about the base of our party – black and brown – there are no black and brown people in our leadership,” she said. “If we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, an ally in the quest to identify an alternative to Pelosi, floated Fudge as a possibility, stressing he wants the Midwest to have a seat at the table.

“There are several candidates out there that are great candidates that you know we have a very talented caucus, a lot of talent, and we just have to figure out who it’s going to be, you know, if anybody,” Ryan said. “But you know we’re going to bring change. The people want change.”

While Rep. Steny Hoyer has announced he has at least 155 Democratic signatures in support of his bid for majority leader, he refused to predict whether his play for the number two position could unravel if Pelosi’s campaign for speaker falls short.

“Everybody likes to talk about personalities. [What’s] much more important to the American people are the policies that we pursue,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “The personalities will take care of themselves but the policies is what we’re going to really focus on.”

With several incoming Democratic freshmen vowing to oppose Pelosi on the campaign trail, many are now tight-lipped about the allegiance, waiting to see whether any contested races emerge.

“I’ve got a lot of listening, learning and navigating to do,” Rep.-elect Dean Phillips told ABC News. “I’ll be visiting with [Pelosi] later this week, and a number of others, and like I said, listen and learn.”

“I am uncommitted. I’m not sure if there will be other candidates putting themselves forward, but I want to be fair,” Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said. “I haven’t met with the leader as of yet. We’re going to be sitting down.”

“I have not declared, and I’m really looking forward to understanding fully who’s running and what their agenda is and if it’s aligned with the best interests of the families across Illinois’ 14 district,” said Lauren Underwood, D-Illinois.

Rep.-elect Jeff Van Drew stressed he made a commitment to supporters and “I’m going to keep that commitment.”

“I come from a tough district, that requires a lot out of me, and I give it back to them. So when I tell you or my constituent, when I tell them something, I stick to it, Van Drew, D-N.J., said. “We’re a big tent and it makes the party look good if we have different ideas.”

Other veteran Democratic lawmakers have also refused to publicly endorse or oppose Pelosi.

“I think we’ll resolve that in the coming weeks,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, throwing up his hands in defense of an onslaught of questions about the speaker’s face.

“What a pleasant problem to have,” Rep. William Keating, D-Massachusetts, said.

Democrats are expected to hold their closed-door caucus leadership elections on November 28 while the full House of Representatives will elect the next speaker on January 3.

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ABCNews.com(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump is set to announce his support for prison and sentencing reform legislation championed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner at a White House event Wednesday afternoon.

“It's huge,” the president’s domestic policy adviser Ja’Ron Smith said of the president’s support for the legislation. “What we're doing here is finding a better way to be smart on crime. We want prison to serve as a place to lock up the people who are the most detrimental to society.”

The president has held back until now from putting his seal of approval on the Senate version of the legislation as he tasked his son-in-law with demonstrating that there is sufficient support among the law enforcement groups for the legislative action, according to sources familiar.

Kushner briefed the president on his progress on Tuesday, at which time the administration had secured endorsements from a handful of law enforcement associations, while some other groups that had actively opposed the legislation agreed to stay neutral on the legislation.

A narrower version of the bill, titled The First Step Act, passed the House earlier this year.

While the House version was focused on prison reform, the Senate language also includes sentencing reforms. It includes a measure to retroactively apply updated sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine, will eliminate a regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, give judges greater latitude to sidestep mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The administration’s aim now is to pass the legislation through the lame duck session of Congress.

“Yes, that's going to be the focus,” Smith said. “The president's leadership makes a lot of things possible.”

The administration’s legislative efforts on the issue have been complicated in the past by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ strong opposition to sentencing reforms. But with the former attorney general now departed, the path for achieving support for the legislation internally was made less complicated.

Kushner, whose father spent time in prison, has cited his family's personal experience with the nation's criminal justice system for his advocacy on the issue.

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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- House Republicans have selected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to serve as minority leader in the next Congress, choosing the California Republican who was a key architect of the 2010 GOP wave.

McCarthy defeated Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in the two-way race during a closed-door vote Wednesday afternoon.

Jordan, a pugnacious conservative and former Division I college wrestling champion, ran against McCarthy -- and the current slate of GOP leaders. Jordan called for House Republicans to fight with the same “intensity” as President Donald Trump on his priorities. He’s a frequent guest on Fox News who has vigorously defended the president and raised questions about the legitimacy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 election.

“He’s been at the forefront of the fight throughout these last two years, when quite honestly, the rest of the folks around this place weren’t interested,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a Jordan ally, told ABC News.

But the founder of the House Freedom Caucus, the band of hard-right insurgents who ousted former Speaker John Boehner and generally made life very difficult for Republicans in the majority, doesn’t have much support outside the group.

In McCarthy, Republicans have boosted one of the party’s strongest fundraisers and campaign strategists to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, who also has an encyclopedic knowledge of Republican members’ families and districts.

McCarthy raised more than $60 million for Republicans this midterm cycle, more than any majority leader in history, and campaigned with 75 members of Congress and 22 candidates across 46 states, according to his staff.

Along with Paul Ryan and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, McCarthy was one of the party’s “Young Guns,” poised to be the next generation of GOP leadership on Capitol Hill.

While his 2015 run to replace Boehner was derailed by opposition from conservatives, McCarthy benefited Wednesday from the fact that he only needed a simple majority of House Republicans’ support, and not 218 votes on the House floor.

He was also one of Trump’s earliest supporters on Capitol Hill, advising him quietly through the general election in 2016 and developing a closer bond with the businessman-turned-president in Washington. He served as a guide through the intricacies of Washington policy-making, and, on one occasion, as a supplier of his favorite Starburst candies. Trump has referred to him as "my Kevin."

“He has the energy and ideas and the will to go out there and be successful,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a McCarthy supporter, told ABC News.

Jordan is favored to win a post as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, putting him a key position to defend the president in any of the committee Democrats’ planned investigations in the next Congress.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was also selected to serve as minority whip in the next Congress, while Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was expected to become the conference chair and top-ranked female Republican in the House.

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