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Federal election fraud would be 'a major challenge for an adversary': FBI director

iStock/Raghu_RamaswamyABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The FBI Director told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Thursday that it would be difficult for a foreign government to change the outcome of a national election through mail-in ballot fraud.

"Now we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise we have seen voter fraud," said FBI Director Christopher Wray, appearing before the committee to discuss threats the homeland faces. "Certainly to change a federal election outcome, by mounting that kind of fraud at scale would be a major challenge for an adversary, but people should make no mistake, we're vigilant," he said.

His comments came as President Donald Trump has repeatedly warned of widespread fraud as the result of expanded mail-in voting.

When asked about ways to combat malign foreign influence, Wray encouraged voters to be "critical thinkers" and to get their news from a variety of sources.

Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Christopher Miller and DHS Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli also appeared before the committee Thursday. A similar hearing occured in the House last week.

Last week, Wray echoed the intelligence community's assessment that Russia is actively continuing to try to influence the U.S. election.

"The intelligence community's consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our elections, primarily through what we would call malign foreign influence, as opposed to what we saw in 2016, where there was also an effort to target election infrastructure, cyber targeting," he said.

The Trump administration, and the president in particular, has repeatedly claimed that China is a bigger threat to election security than Russia.

"But Chris, you don’t see any activity from China, even though it is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia. They will both, plus others, be able to interfere in our 2020 Election with our totally vulnerable Unsolicited (Counterfeit?) Ballot Scam. Check it out!" the President tweeted shortly after Wray's testimony last week.

In an early August statement, the office of the Director of National Intelligence singled out Russia, China and Iran as potential disruptor countries during the 2020 election.

On Thursday, Wray said he can’t rank the those three countries in terms of which is the biggest threat to the 2020 presidential election and that each country is focused on a different issue.

"I don't think I could really rank them, I mean all three are ones that we're very concerned about in different ways. So it's not really an apple to apple comparison," he explained.

He also sidestepped the question on Chinese election interference.

"As I mentioned before, in many ways, [China is] our greatest counterintelligence threat to this country and their malign foreign influence efforts are different. As Mr. Cuccinelli said, different from the Russians but much broader and wider, in terms of their reach to not just federal officials but state local officials, and they use economic leavers very heavily."

Wray also tackled the issue of protests around the country. The FBI director reiterated a point he made last week in front of the House that the FBI does not investigate the ideology of demonstrators.

"Now let me be clear, we do not investigate groups or individuals based on ideology or on the exercise of First Amendment protected activity alone but when the ideology leads someone to commit criminal acts and pursue violence, the FBI will not hesitate to take appropriate action," he said.

Wray testified that that his agency is working with state and local law enforcement officials to see if federal charges can be brought against some of those protesters who have been arrested.

Cuccinelli was put on the spot when asked about two whistleblower complaints DHS is facing.

Former DHS Intelligence and Analysis director Brian Murphy claims he "was instructed by Mr. Wolf and/or Mr. Cuccinelli to modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups."

"Oh absolutely that did not happen," Cuccinelli said, adding that the language in a DHS upcoming threats report on white supremacists was not toned down, as was alleged.

Democrats on the House Homeland Security committee also announced last week the start of a new investigation into allegations from a detention facility nurse, including reports that ICE detainees in the Irwin County Detention Center were subjected to hysterectomy operations without their full understanding or consent.

ABC News has not confirmed this reporting.

Cuccinelli said that the allegations were "shocking" and that he immediately dispatched a team outside of ICE, including a Coast Guard attorney and an Army nurse, to review records at the Georgia facility.

"I'm happy to report that, at this stage the inspector general is still doing a more in depth review, but at this stage the documentation indicates that there were, over the course of four years, two hysterectomies were performed on two women and that is confirmed by the nearby medical facility where those procedures took place. They came to the same numerical conclusion that that we did but, as I said, the inspector general is continuing to investigate that."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Trump booed while visiting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's casket at Supreme Court

Official White House Photo by Andrea HanksBy BEN GITTLESON, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump was loudly booed by members of the public on Thursday while visiting the casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been lying in repose outside the Supreme Court.

Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, stood behind the court's massive columns at the top of the court steps as people from the bottom of the steps loudly booed him and chanted, "Vote him out!"

Members of the public have been waiting for hours to file past the flag-draped casket, which will on Friday be moved to the Capitol building where Ginsburg will lie in state.


President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at the Supreme Court to pay their respects to #RBG.

Sound on to listen to the crowd react as they realize he’s there.

— Dan Linden (@DanLinden) September 24, 2020


Standing a block away during the president's visit, they also shouted, "Honor her wish," according to a reporter traveling with Trump.

"My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed," Ginsburg reportedly had said, her granddaughter told the BBC.

On Monday, without evidence, Trump baselessly asserted it had been made up by Democrats.

Later Thursday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed the protesters. "The chants were appalling but certainly to be expected when you're in the heart of the swamp,” she told reporters.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, stopped by the court on Wednesday to visit the casket.


This moment was followed by chants of “vote him out.”#RBG

— Dan Linden (@DanLinden) September 24, 2020


Ginsburg, an associate justice who became a historic influence on the court and an American icon, died on Friday. She was 87.

While Trump praised Ginsburg in the wake of her death, the next day his campaign began fundraising off the Supreme Court vacancy she left, and the president gleefully led chants of "fill that seat" at a campaign rally.

Trump and Senate Republicans have moved quickly to confirm a justice tor replace Ginsburg, with Trump pushing for a vote before the Nov. 3 election.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Mary Trump alleges in lawsuit her family 'fleeced' her out of millions of dollars


(NEW YORK) -- President Donald Trump and his siblings "fleeced" their niece out of tens of millions of dollars, Mary L. Trump alleges in a lawsuit filed on Thursday.

The president's niece is suing her uncle, his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, and their late brother, Robert Trump, in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, alleging they cheated her out of her multi-million dollar inheritance, an allegation she first revealed in her recently published book.

"Fraud was not just the family business -- it was a way of life," the lawsuit said.

The White House previously has rejected the claims Mary Trump made in her book, but she repeated them in a lawsuit meant to "right these wrongs." She accused the president and his siblings of conspiracy and fraud.

"They swindled her," the lawsuit said. "They conspired with her trustee, maneuvered to steal her money and lied to her about it."

The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages of more than $500,000 and punitive damages.

"We now know that under the guise of supposedly taking care of their teenage niece after her father's untimely death, Donald, Robert and Maryanne Trump perpetrated elaborate schemes to defraud Mary Trump in order to enrich themselves to the tune of millions of dollars at her expense," said Mary Trump's attorney, Roberta Kaplan.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Unanimous Senate commits to peaceful transfer of power after Trump refuses

Official White House Photo by D. Myles CullenBy ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- In a remarkable move, the Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to a peaceful transition of power in the wake of President Donald Trump's refusal to do so if he loses the election.

The measure, authored by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, warns, in part, "Whereas any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people ..." and ends saying that the Senate "intends that there should be no disruptions by the President or any person in power to overturn the will of the people of the United States."

The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.

— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) September 24, 2020

Trump, meanwhile, stood by his comments first made Wednesday night even as the White House tried to explain what he meant.

As the day began Thursday, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pushed back on Trump, tweeting, "The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792," but like others did not mention Trump by name.

McConnell made no mention of the explosive subject when he spoke later on the Senate floor.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn't hold back, though, using the president's remarks to urge voter turnout in the 2020 election.

"We don't agonize, we organize, and we want to make sure the American people know how important their vote is," she said. "It's very sad that you even have to ask that question, a real testimony to the need to protect our democracy."

The California Democrat, who has said Trump "admires" leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called on the president to honor his oath of office.

"He's trying to have the Constitution of the United States swallow Clorox," Pelosi said.

Asked if he will leave the White House peacefully at a White House news conference Wednesday night, Trump had responded, "Well, we're going to have to see what happens. You know that."

When pressed for a second time if he would "commit to making sure that there's a peaceful transferral of power," Trump again turned to his baseless claim of widespread fraud involving mail-in ballots.

"We want to have -- get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very peaceful, there won't be a transfer, frankly," Trump said. "There'll be a continuation."

On Thursday, ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl asked White House press secretary Kayleigh McNenany, “If the president loses this election, will this White House, will this president assure us that there will be a peaceful transfer of power? It’s a very simple question.”

“The president will accept the results of a free and fair election,” McEnany responded.

When another reporter followed up, asking: “Just to understand this clearly, are the results legitimate only if the president wins?”

"The president will accept the results of a free and fair election,” she repeated. “He will accept the will of the American people.”

Later, speaking to reporters on the White House South Lawn as he left for North Carolina, Trump would not say whether he would consider the election legitimate only if he wins.

“We want to make sure the election is honest. I’m not sure that it can be,” Trump said.

The Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, told "Fox and Friends" Thursday morning there was nothing to worry about.

"People wonder about the peaceful transfer of power. I can assure you it will be peaceful. Now, we may have litigation about who won the election ... and if Republicans lose we'll accept the result," Graham said, noting a court challenge was a key reason why Trump's Supreme Court nominee needed to be confirmed before the election.

GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was more pointed in his reaction in a tweet overnight, saying a peaceful transition of power was "fundamental to democracy," but he also did not call out Trump by name.

On Thursday, Romney said he was "absolutely confident there will be a peaceful transition if there’s a new president," when asked by reporters.

"No question that all the people sworn to support the Constitution would assure that there would be a peaceful transition of power, including the president," Romney said.

Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican who has pushed back at Trump previously, tweeted a peaceful transfer of power is "fundamental to the survival of our Republic."

Several other Republicans pointed to the vital role a peaceful transfer of power plays in a democratic system, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said she was concerned by Trump's comments.

"The peaceful transfer of power is a fundamental tenet of our democracy. And I am confident that we will see it occur once again," Collins said Thursday. "I don't know what his thinking was, but we have always had a peaceful transition between administrations."

In an effort to deflect criticism of Trump's remarks, several Republicans pointed to comments Hillary Clinton made in August to Showtime's "The Circus." Clinton, after outlining that she believes Trump may target absentee ballots to discredit the election outcome, advised that Biden "not concede."

"Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances because I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don't give an inch and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is," Clinton said in the interview.

"What he says doesn't matter any more than what Hillary Clinton advised Biden to do: Don't concede the election," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told reporters Thursday.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also pointed to the Clinton comment.

"Whether it’s Mrs. Clinton telling Joe Biden to never concede or any other suggestion that somehow we won’t finish this election year appropriately of course I’m concerned about that but both sides are unhelpful on this topic," Blunt said. "But there will be a - if the president is reelected there is no transition and if he’s not there will be a peaceful transition on January 20."

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Thursday he is not at all concerned that Biden would not accept the outcome of the 2020 election.

"If it's a clear outcome, there is no question," Kaine said. "We could have a murky outcome and then we have to wait and get it to be clear but there is no question that he will accept a clear outcome."

The second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, called Trump "a real danger to the Constitution."

"This is frightening rhetoric from the President of the United States. What he said to the American people was, go ahead and vote if you wish. But I'm not sure I’ll accept your vote as the real sentiment of America. That questions the very foundation of our democracy, if a president does not accept the results of an election. It's not the first time he’s said it, so we know that he’s convinced of how important that statement is. But the American people should be convinced that this president is a real danger to our Constitution," he told reporters Thursday morning.

His comments were echoed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who likened the president to a dictator.

"Donald Trump’s statement is what a dictator says although usually dictators don’t announce in advance what their plans are," Warren said. "He wants to be named president for life, king of the country. That’s not how Democracy works."

GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota wasn't concerned.

"The president speaks in overly extreme manners on occasion, I didn't find what he said last night to be overly extreme quite honestly. I just thought that what he's making the point that we'll see what happens after the election," Cramer said.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson, Elizabeth Thomas, Ben Siegel and Trish Turner contributed to this report


ABC News' Ben Gittleson, Elizabeth Thomas, Ben Siegel and Trish Turner contributed to this report

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Bipartisan accusations fly over SCOTUS confirmation debate after death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Bill Chizek/iStockBy BILL HUTCHINSON, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has ignited a bare-knuckle debate over her replacement. Democrats and Republicans are exchanging accusations of hypocrisy as they sling prior statements made on Senate confirmation hearings across the aisle.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is standing firm on his decision that there will be a vote on President Donald Trump's pending nominee to fill Ginsburg's seat, possibly by Election Day, prompting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to slam McConnell's decision as a "craven" power grab.

"Some -- some -- few on that side will at least have the dignity of putting their head down and plowing through it because they know there is no reason -- no reason, no argument, no logic -- to justify flipping your position 180 degrees and calling it some kind of principle. It is not. It is utterly craven, an exercise in raw political power and nothing -- nothing more," Schumer said in his remarks on the Senate floor on Monday.

Since Ginsburg's death on Friday, McConnell and many of his Republican Senate colleagues have beaten the drum for a swift confirmation hearing for whoever Trump picks to occupy the vacancy left by the Supreme Court's most veteran liberal justice and fortify the panel's conservative wing.

Some GOP senators are remaining mum, waiting to see who Trump names, what the nominee's record turns up and what the hearings reveal before they agree to a speedy vote.

Democrats, assuming that Joe Biden will win the Nov. 3 election, counter that a new Supreme Court justice confirmation hearing should be postponed until after the presidential inauguration to give voters a say in the process. If Trump prevails at the polls, then the subject of when a confirmation hearing is held becomes moot.

With the Republicans maintaining a 53-47 majority in the Senate, Democrats cling to fraying threads of hope they can still sway four Republicans to block the Supreme Court nomination and prevent Vice President Mike Pence from casting the deciding vote. But they were dealt with what appears to be a fait accompli on Tuesday when Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah -- who voted earlier this year to convict Trump during his impeachment trial -- said he supports holding a hearing for the president's Supreme Court pick.

The two sides have resorted to publicly shaming the other, trading accusations of perpetuating a double standard, with statements made in 2016 when McConnell refused to allow a Senate hearing for appellate Judge Merrick Garland, who President Barack Obama nominated to fill the Supreme Court seat of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died nearly nine months before the presidential election.

However, Scalia died 269 days before the 2016 presidential election. Ginsburg's death came only 46 days before the upcoming election.

At the time, the roles of the parties were reversed with most Senate Democrats calling for a hearing and with the bulk of Republicans, who occupied the majority of the chamber then as they do now, successfully thwarting Garland's bid to serve on the highest court in the land.

Here is what some key players in the Senate from both sides of the aisle said then and now:

- Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, penned a 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing against a Supreme Court nominee hearing in an election year, saying the American voters should "decide who they trust to both lead the country and nominate the next Supreme Court justice." On Monday, McConnell said there is "sufficient time" with six weeks to go before the election for a hearing on a nominee, and said the late Justice John Paul Stevens was confirmed in just 19 days, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was confirmed in 33 days and Ginsburg was confirmed in 42 days. "Americans re-elected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary," McConnell said in a statement issued on the day Ginsburg died. "Once again, we will keep our promise."

- Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in 2016 called for a hearing on Garland's nomination "so Senators and the public can get a deeper sense of Judge Garland's views and experience." But in a speech on the Senate floor Monday, he said, "Our Republican colleagues in the Senate should follow the rule they set in 2016: Not to consider a Supreme Court justice in an election year."

- Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in 2016 called for a hearing on Garland's nomination "so Senators and the public can get a deeper sense of Judge Garland's views and experience." But in a speech on the Senate floor Monday, he said, "Our Republican colleagues in the Senate should follow the rule they set in 2016: Not to consider a Supreme Court justice in an election year."

- Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, supported blocking Garland's confirmation hearing in 2016, saying at the time, "I want you to use my words against me. If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said, 'Let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination

Now Graham says he supports Trump "in any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy created by the passing of Justice Ginsburg." He explained that he changed his opinion for two reasons: former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's 2013 decision to replace the 60-vote rule in Senate confirmations with a simple majority vote, and because "Schumer and his friends in the liberal media conspired to destroy the life of Brett Kavanaugh and hold that Supreme Court seat open."

Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018 with a 50-48 vote after enduring a grueling confirmation hearing in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a high school classmate in 1982.

- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also fought in 2016 to have a hearing for Garland, saying at the time: "President Obama fulfilled his constitutional duty by nominating Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Now it's time for the Senate to do its own job and fully and fairly consider this nominee."

Feinstein now says that when she made her statement on Garland, the nation was 237 days from electing its next president. "To jam through a lifetime appointment to the country's highest court -- particularly to replace an icon like Justice Ginsburg -- would be the height of hypocrisy," Feinstein said in a statement released shortly after Ginsburg's death on Friday.

- Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was among the first senators to call for a hearing for President Trump's pending nominee. During an interview on ABC's This Week, Cruz told ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos that the nation cannot afford to have a short-handed high court with a possible contested presidential election just weeks away.

While he was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Cruz released a statement, saying, "I proudly stand with my Republican colleagues in our shared belief -- our advice and consent -- that we should not vote on any nominee until the next president is sworn into office."

- Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also supported holding a confirmation hearing for Garland back in 2016, saying at the time, "The Constitution is clear: the Senate must consider the president's nominee and then choose whether to vote 'yes' or 'no.' We must do our job, hold hearings, and vote."

In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Sunday, Klobuchar challenged her Republican colleagues to "look into their souls and look at what they said back then, and justice must prevail."

"As Joe Biden said, the American People should decide this, who their president is and the president should pick the nominee," she said.

- Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.,
a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a 2016 statement that while Obama was entitled to nominate Garland to the Supreme Court, "the Senate has made it clear it will be exercising its Constitutional authority to withhold consent of the nomination."

"Rather than drag the nation into a bitter, partisan fight over a confirmation process that will never come to pass, I hope President Obama will use his final months in office to work across the aisle with Congress to produce meaningful solutions that create new opportunities for hardworking Americans," Tillis said at the time.

Now, he says he supports Trump nominating a "well-qualified and conservative jurist," adding that if Biden is elected he will nominate someone "who will legislate radical, left-wing policies from the bench."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Supreme Court favorite faces renewed attention for religious affiliation


(WASHINGTON) -- As U.S. Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s name has emerged atop a list of possible replacements for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, her long affiliation with a small, Charismatic Christian community in Indiana has drawn fresh attention -- in part due to the group’s historical use of the term “handmaid” to describe its female members.

The ecumenical organization, People of Praise, has fought to distance itself from comparisons to the oppressive fictional religious order in the Margaret Atwood book and television adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale. But to Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the symbolic comparisons to Atwood's dystopian narrative invite real and important questions.

“There are serious and deep concerns about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise and her past comments about the conflict between faith and law,” Seidel said. “Not only is her connection to this community and her previous writings fair to ask about, but senators have a duty to the constitution to ask those questions.”

Barrett is a devout Catholic and favorite of conservative Christians. She faced scrutiny for her past writings and public comments during a testy 2017 confirmation hearing for her nomination to the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But this time around, it is her association with People of Praise that is commandeering headlines ahead of her possible nomination to the high court.

The group is described on its website as a “charismatic Christian community,” which typically refers to adherents that have borrowed from Pentecostal practices, like speaking in tongues, prophesying and praying for divine healings. The group encourages its more than 1,700 members to make a covenant to the community, and it also assigns younger members a personal mentor, known as a “head” or “leader.” Until recently, women in those roles were referred to as “handmaids.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., distributed a press release on Tuesday calling criticism of the group nothing more than “ugly smears” that reflect “anti-Catholic bigotry.” Sasse referred to the group as “basically a Bible study.”

Vice President Mike Pence told ABC News Wednesday that he considers Barrett’s strong religious values an asset, rather than a liability, and said objections are evidence that some are harboring “intolerance … about her Catholic faith.”

“Judge Barrett, and other judges currently under consideration, we have every confidence are exactly the kind of jurists that the president has appointed from early in this administration,” said Pence, who was the governor of Indiana prior to becoming vice president. “It's been men and women who are committed to upholding the constitution, applying laws as written and serving in a manner consistent with the late and great Justice Antonin Scalia.”

Barrett, 48, has not spoken publicly about her involvement in People of Praise, and an aide to Barrett would not comment on her current status with the organization. But a former member confirmed to ABC News that she had been a member, and publicly available documents support the claim -- though it is unclear whether she still participates today. A spokesperson for the group said it “leaves it up to its members to decide whether to publicly disclose their involvement in our community.”

Since at least 2006, Barrett and her family have garnered occasional mentions in issues of the group’s quarterly publication, called Vine & Branches. In one issue, which was later pulled off the internet, Barrett’s photograph appeared as part of an article about the organization’s Leaders Conference for Women. Between 2010 and 2012, three references to the birth of her children are included in members’ updates. And in a 2017 congressional questionnaire, Barrett listed herself as a trustee for the Trinity School, the organization’s educational program.

Bob Byrne, a former member of People of Praise, also confirmed Barrett’s connection to the group. He said he left the organization on “completely amicable” terms in 2008, when his work as a Deacon in a nearby town absorbed too much of his time and attention to remain active in the community.

Byrne said he did not know Barrett well, but based on limited interactions found her “quite impressive” and “a very fine woman.” He described her role in the community as any other member, often taking on daily tasks and participating in events hosted by the group.

“I remember one day when I was [at her parish],” Byrne said, “[Barrett’s] task for the day was to take the young kids out and do Bible lessons with them while the adults attended mass. And I said, ‘Wow, wow’ -- here is this lady, she’s a law instructor and she’s doing the task of just being a mom. Quite impressive.”

Questions of a covenant and the law

Scrutiny of the group has largely involved reports that it encourages members to make a covenant to the community, which it describes as “a promise of love and service we choose to make to one another.” The group claims it does not force members into the covenant and is clear that it is “not an oath or a vow.”

Seidel, the Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyer, said any statement of loyalty to the organization -- and possible covenant with its members -- could threaten to supersede her oath to uphold the Constitution.

“How does the covenant interact with the oath that all justices take to uphold the constitution as the supreme law of the land? We need to know that,” he said.

When the New York Times first reported on Barrett’s affiliation with the group in 2017 ahead of Barrett’s elevation to the federal appellate court, religious organizations objected to such questions. The Catholic League released a statement calling the report a “Catholic-baiting tactic” to cast doubt on Barrett’s fitness as a federal judge.

Beyond the specific group, Barrett’s Catholic faith emerged as a subject of question during her confirmation hearing for the appellate seat.

“Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “I think in your case, professor … the dogma lives loudly within you, and that is of concern.”

Feinstein’s comments drew rebukes from religious freedom groups. Her phrase, “the dogma lives loudly within you,” has since made its way onto tee shirts and mugs for sale on the internet.

Nelson Tebbe, a law professor at Cornell University, said Feinstein’s line of questioning went too far, but demonstrates the dilemma senators face in asking judicial nominees about legitimate issues involving faith over secular law.

“The toughest question is, what can senators ask about? Because the line between legitimate probing of a potential justice’s willingness to adhere to the law, on the one hand, and on the other hand, expressions of religious prejudice -- it’s just hard to draw that line,” Tebbe said.

At the time of her 2017 confirmation, Barrett assured senators that her faith would have no bearing on her jurisprudence, despite advocating in a 1998 scholarly article for Catholic judges to recuse themselves from death penalty cases, citing the “the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment.”

“I see no conflict between having a sincerely held faith and duties as a judge,” Barrett told the Senate panel. “I would never impose my own personal convictions upon the law.”

During her confirmation, Barrett walked back her position on the death penalty, telling senators that she would not recuse “as a blanket matter” from death penalty cases. On abortion, she stood by past comments that “abortion … is always immoral,” but added that, if confirmed, her “views on this or any other question will have no bearing on the discharge of [her] duties as a judge.”

For its part, People of Praise denies that its practices would have any effect on a member’s professional life.

“Each person is always responsible for his or her own decisions, including decisions in their careers, and no community member should ever violate his or her conscience,” a spokesperson for the group told ABC News.

Former use of 'handmaid' raises eyebrows, group denies link to book

As People of Praise has come more into focus, so too have some of its other practices, chief among them the historical use of the term "handmaid" to mean a female "trusted confidant." The term is no longer in use, according to the organization’s website.

In 2005, one edition of the group’s magazine, Vine & Branches, described Barrett’s mother, Linda, as a “handmaid.”

The reference to “handmaids” has led some news outlets and commentators to speculate that People of Praise may have been the inspiration behind Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. In a 1986 New York Times Book Review interview, Atwood said when describing the book: "There is a sect now, a Catholic charismatic spinoff sect, which calls the women handmaids.”

Seidel said he believes the symbolic parallels between Atwood’s book and People of Praise will resonate with religious freedom advocates. The Trump administration has already moved the country toward a “theocratic religious authoritarianism” like the fictional country described in the book, Seidel said, and “a nominee like Amy Coney Barrett reinforces all of those fears.”

People of Praise vehemently denies such connections, stating explicitly on its website that “The People of Praise community was not the inspiration for Ms. Atwood’s work!” The group explains that the term “handmaid” was a Biblical reference, but “recognizing that the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years, we no longer use the term.”

Reached for comment by ABC News, Atwood said there were multiple “major influences on the book” and said short of explicit evidence in her notes, she “would hesitate to say anything specific.”

“I certainly did not confine myself to one sect or group,” she said. “So I don't think this is a thread that can be legitimately used in this way.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Presidential hopefuls gear up for costly post-election legal battles


(WASHINGTON) -- Both political parties are gearing up for what could be some of the most aggressive post-election legal battles in U.S. history focused on mail-in and absentee ballots in key states -- expensive fights that loom large as President Donald Trump struggles to catch up to former Vice President Joe Biden's sudden cash advantage.

“I would anticipate costly litigation in multiple states in this because frankly, I think the president has telegraphed that to us that his plan is to turn to the court,” said Kathleen Clark, professor of law at Washington University and an expert in legal and government ethics.

Trump in the past few months has frequently referred to legal action against Democratic efforts to expand mail-in voting, just last month tweeting “see you in court” in response to Nevada’s move to expand mail-in voting. More recently, he’s been aggressively pushing to fill late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat ahead of the election, saying he needs “nine justices” considering the amount of mail-in ballots that will be used for this election.

"We need nine justices,” the president said to reporters this week. “You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they're sending ... you're gonna need 9 justices."

Both candidates have recognized that legal costs to litigate the outcome of the 2020 election could be stratospheric. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign and the Democratic Party announced they were expanding their legal operation in anticipation of the major fight over voting this fall. The new leadership, including two former solicitors general, oversees a pre-existing team of hundreds of lawyers on the campaign's national litigation team that has been working with thousands of lawyers in states across the country on voter protection.

But the struggle may pose a special challenge to the Trump campaign. the Trump re-election team has already burned through nearly $1 billion of the over $1.3 billion raised since 2019 and is now contemplating a post-Election Day cash crunch that was once unthinkable. Biden once trailed well behind in funds, but is now well ahead, with access to more than $466 million going into September -- $140 million more than the president.

Outside groups from both sides of the aisle also have invested hundreds of millions of dollars for the general election, but their money can't be used to help pay legal bills for campaigns or parties' post-election court action. Outside groups can, however, get involved by bringing legal action themselves or attempting to join in legal action brought by others.

On a press call earlier this month following reports of the campaign facing a money squeeze, Bill Stepien, who took over as Trump campaign manager for Brad Parscale over two months ago, said he was “now carefully managing the budget.”

Legal fees have already chewed up a hefty portion of the campaign and RNC's money -- a byproduct of the wide-ranging legal controversies Trump has faced since almost his first day in office. The campaign, the RNC and joint fundraising committees have together spent nearly $50 million on law firms since the 2016 election cycle. Lawyers have been paid $28 million in just the past two years, according to disclosure reports filed to the Federal Election Commission.

Under Stepien’s management, the president’s team has undergone an internal audit that’s led to several belt-tightening measures. The campaign has pulled some planned ad buys in swing states and has limited travel for staff, in part so they can allocate more resources for operations post-Election Day, sources told ABC News.

“Parscale burned through money like this would be all wrapped up on November 3rd. And that just doesn't look like the case right now,” a source close to the campaign told ABC News, raising questions about whether the campaign will have enough cash to sustain prolonged legal battles.

Parscale declined to comment on the campaign spending. Deputy National Press Secretary for the Trump Campaign Thea McDonald told ABC News they “will be ready for any fight necessary to protect America’s election integrity.”

The RNC brushed off concerns about the cost of post-election legal battles, saying the party has the resources to fight beyond Election Day.

"At the RNC, we have been clear we will spend whatever it takes to protect the integrity of the ballot," RNC spokesperson Mike Reed told ABC News in a statement. "We are in a strong financial position and have the resources to continue this fight post-election day. We expect Democrats to try every trick in the book to bend the rules in their favor – we plan to be there in court to stop them.”

Former Rep. Barbara Comstock, who had previously served as the chief counsel on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that investigated former President Bill Clinton, told ABC News building aggressive legal teams in multiple states -- like those from the 2000 Florida recount effort -- could easily stretch into the “tens of millions of dollars.”

In the 2000 legal fight between Republican George Bush and Democrat Al Gore -- which was waged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- both sides placed hundreds of lawyers and other staffers at voting sites across Florida. Comstock said that in addition to billable hours, that also “meant tens of thousands in travel costs, staff costs, and hotel costs.”

Ahead of the 2020 election, both Republicans and Democrats have been asking wealthy donors to direct some money into their respective special legal accounts. Under federal rules, national party committees can set up dedicated legal funds that permit donors to give up to $106,500 each, so long as all agree the money will be spent on election-related legal expenses. Party committees can use their general accounts to pay legal bills, but such legal funds serve as an extra boost for their legal battles because it can accept additional big-dollar contributions from wealthy donors beyond the $35,000 limit for regular funds. Donations to legal accounts are reported as part of the total amount party committees bring in.

Since 2017, the RNC has raised $30 million for this account, mostly from a small number of very wealthy supporters, including roughly $20 million from this election cycle, FEC filings show. The DNC and its joint fundraising committees with the Biden campaign have also raised at least $12 million for the Democratic Party’s legal account this election cycle, with more than $7.5 million from just in the month of August. Due to a lack of disclosure rules on legal accounts, it’s unclear how much of the funds have been spent and how much of that is left.

Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford University, said he does not anticipate the president will experience a shortage of money given the campaign and the party’s ability to continue to accept contributions to help fund legal bills even after Election Day.

“There's some interesting differences between the candidate campaigns in terms of cash on hand, but if it literally comes down to lawyers being paid, there'll be no shortage of money,” Persily said.

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Trump admin urged to accept refugees amid concerns it will indefinitely delay admissions

Brad Greeff/iStockBy CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- A group of prominent former U.S. officials is joining state and local governments, U.S. lawmakers, religious leaders and resettlement agencies in urging the Trump administration to increase refugee admissions in fiscal year 2021 amid historic need around the world.

The administration is supposed to consult with Congress and make a decision by the end of the fiscal year, in one week. But there is growing concern that President Donald Trump will decide to zero out refugee admissions, delay them indefinitely, or reduce the admissions cap even further.

So far, the U.S. is on track to admit just over 10,000 refugees, which is also the lowest number of admissions since 1975, according to U.S. government data. The next closest figure is nearly double as many, in 1977.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Trump's cap and "the internal discussions or the timeline related to its development," but told ABC News it was ultimately the president's decision.

Seven former U.S. officials who ran the refugee admissions program under both Republican and Democrat administrations urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express alarm at such a suspension and call for a "substantial increase" in admissions.

"We believe that any further reduction in refugee resettlement would represent the disregard of dire needs of displaced people around the world at a time when other governments are bearing substantial responsibilities to provide refuge," while a "suspension would walk away from a proud U.S. tradition of welcoming those individuals to our country who are seeking better lives for themselves and their children," wrote Republicans James Purcell and Arthur Dewy and Democrats Frank Loy, Phyllis Oakley, Samuel Witten, Eric Schwartz and Anne Richard.

The U.S. had suspended refugee admissions during the first few months of the coronavirus outbreak, one of the ways the administration cited the pandemic to curtail legal immigration. Some refugee advocates are concerned the administration will again delay admissions, or blow past the Oct. 1 deadline and by de facto bar new admissions.

Pompeo approved the resumption of admissions on July 29, with the first arrivals of approved refugees starting the next day "with significant COVID health measures in place," the State Department spokesperson told ABC News.

"Refugees remain subject to the same COVID-19 travel restrictions as other foreign national travelers to the United States," the spokesperson added, as well as "extensive COVID-related health screening prior to arrival that other foreign national travelers are not, which safeguards the refugees and the U.S. communities to which they arrive."

Given those protective measures, it's unclear what grounds the administration would cite to reduce the refugee cap or freeze admissions again.

The administration is facing a legal battle in courts after Trump authorized local governments to refuse the resettlement of refugees in their jurisdictions last September. But that decision continues to work its way through the courts, possibly to the Supreme Court, and may take months.

Trump's political campaign in the 2016 presidential election focused heavily on unfounded attacks on refugees, blasting them as national security threats despite the vigorous vetting process involved in the U.S. program. Instead of accepting refugees, his senior aides like Pompeo have called for countries closer to a refugee's country of origin to take them in temporarily.

Last year, the administration also claimed its drastic reduction was necessary so that the U.S. could focus on border operations and reducing a massive backlog of legal cases for people seeking asylum in the U.S.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the world is facing a record number of people -- nearly 79.5 million -- who have been forced to leave their homes. Among them, nearly 26 million are designated refugees and around half of those are under age 18.

Joe Biden, Trump's Democrat opponent, has called for raising the refugee cap to 125,000, adding the former vice president would "seek to raise it over time commensurate with our responsibility, our values, and the unprecedented global need."

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Pompeo takes Trump's anti-China message to election swing state Wisconsin

State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public DomainBy CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Heralding President Donald Trump's new push to blame China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Wisconsin lawmakers Wednesday, warning that China views state and local officials as the "weak link" in its efforts to influence the U.S.

Critics, including Democratic members of Congress, blasted the stop as Pompeo's latest dive into politics ahead of November's presidential election, accusing the Trump administration of utilizing the levers of power to boost his chances of reelection, including with high-level visits to swing states.

Among the most-partisan top U.S. diplomats, Pompeo has addressed the Republican National Convention, stonewalled House Democrats in their investigations and attacked individual lawmakers by name, and has met with top Republican donors and evangelical leaders.

Pompeo has vocally defended those moves as critical to his efforts to spread the message about what the State Department does and how it serves the American people, chastising those who question his domestic trips.

"Some of the political press in Washington was saying, 'What the heck's secretary going to Wisconsin for?' I know, it's not a country, I get it -- but what goes on here and the work that you all do is so important to the mission that I have," he told the Republican-controlled legislature Wednesday. "I feel like it's my responsibility to get out and talk to you about what we're doing."

The message that he delivered focused on China. He said its leader, Xi Jinping, is feeling the heat from Trump's efforts "pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party here in the United States and its malign influence. ... He thinks local leaders may well be the weak link."

He cited specific examples of Chinese diplomats reaching out to local lawmakers to ask them to pass resolutions praising China's response to COVID-19. Those Chinese officials want to "collectively whitewash (their) culpability for a global pandemic," he said, adding that the virus was "released from Wuhan" -- an evocation of the conspiracy theory he's previously raised that it was manufactured or manipulated in a lab.

His remarks seemed to stir fears of Chinese interference in local communities, from sister cities programs to parent-teacher association meetings, however Pompeo said the administration is not attacking Chinese people, but the country's Communist Party leadership.

Instead, he accused the Chinese government of using racial unrest in the U.S. both to avoid "accountability" and "to foment the kind of strife we've seen in Minneapolis and Portland and Kenosha."

"Each of us as public officials cannot be complacent or complicit in the CCP's (Chinese Communist Party's) campaign to fracture American society and to silence American voices," he said.

In the face of what the U.S. calls an influence operation, he called on state and local officials to invest their public pension funds outside China, increase cooperation with federal agencies on intellectual property protection or counter influence operations, limit or dissolve Confucius Institutes' presence on state college campuses and "engage more broadly around the world" -- seemingly a reference to Taiwan.

It's a message that Trump has adopted in the last few months as his reelection closes in. After initially praising China's response to COVID-19, he has more recently blamed Beijing for how bad the outbreak is in the U.S., including Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly. After holding off on sanctioning Chinese officials for their human rights abuses against the Muslim Uighurs, he has unleashed financial penalties and blacklisted Chinese firms.

That Pompeo would be the messenger for these election-season pushes is not new, even if it remains unusual.

The top U.S. diplomat was the first to address his or her party in such a political speech at a party convention. Those RNC remarks, while on an official trip to Israel, were cleared by four sets of lawyers, according to an RNC official, but it may have violated the Hatch Act, which forbids government employees from using government resources to promote partisan politics.

Pompeo's RNC speech brought renewed scrutiny to his other activities. The department's acting legal adviser Marik String confirmed to Congress last week that his office has looked into whether Pompeo could attend and speak at one of Trump's reelection rallies, but determined that the secretary could not without violating the Hatch Act.

At another politically charged event, Pompeo told the Prestonwood Baptist Church, an evangelical megachurch in Plano, Texas, that he is "not allowed to do politics," after being asked how attendees could support him and Trump in the 2020 election.

It's a fine line for any senior administration official, between advocating for their boss' priorities and advocating for his or her reelection. But previous secretaries have taken a firmer line against stepping into partisan politics.

"As secretary of state, I am obliged not to participate in any way, shape, fashion or form in parochial, political debates. I have to take no sides in the matter," Colin Powell said in 2004 when he skipped the GOP convention while serving under President George W. Bush.

Powell, a Republican, endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in this year's election.

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GOP report: No wrongdoing in Biden son ties to Ukraine firm, but still 'problematic'

Handout/DNCC via Getty ImagesBy ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- A report released Wednesday by Senate Republicans found that the role of Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma was "awkward" and at times "problematic" for U.S. officials dealing with the country, but provides no new evidence and found no instance of policy being altered as a result of his role.

"The extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear," the report finds.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who led the investigation as chair of the Homeland Security Committee, had openly said he hoped the election-year probe would hurt the Democratic nominee and help President Donald Trump while Democrats had decried the effort as purely political.

Johnson's investigation, carried out in conjunction with GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, who heads the Senate Finance committees, purportedly sought to determine whether Hunter Biden's role on the board of Burisma was an improper conflict of interest with U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine while Joe Biden served as vice president.

"The Obama administration knew that Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board was problematic and did interfere in the efficient execution of policy with respect to Ukraine," the GOP report found, without drawing a conclusion on the extent of the impact of Hunter Biden's role.

Johnson said he had pursued the probe based in part on accusations from Trump and others that Joe Biden ousted a Ukrainian prosecutor who had been looking into Burisma to benefit his son, despite multiple reports and testimony from Obama administration officials who have said ousting the corrupt prosecutor was in line with U.S. policy. Much of that testimony came during the Trump impeachment hearings earlier this year in which he was accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden by threatening to withhold military aid and an Oval Office meeting.

The GOP report, based largely on news accounts, broke no new ground on that point.

"The extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear," the report finds.

In their response to Johnson's and Grassley's report, the ranking Democrats on the committees, Sens. Ron Wyden and Gary Peters, issued a separate report stating that Republicans found "no evidence" of wrongdoing by former Vice President Biden and "no evidence" of alterations to U.S.-Ukraine policy to assist Hunter Biden.

"The Chairmen have uncovered absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by Vice President Biden," the minority response reads. "Instead, this effort has been a partisan and unnecessary distraction from important business before both Committees as the country faces a once in a century pandemic."

The Republicans issued the report with the election just six weeks away, and Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates, in a statement released in advance, called it a distraction from other issues like the COVID-19 crisis.

"Why? To subsidize a foreign attack against the sovereignty of our elections with taxpayer dollars -- an attack founded on a long-disproven, hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory," Bates said.

The Republican report relies on the testimony of several U.S officials, including then top State Department official in Ukraine, George Kent, who testified in the House impeachment inquiry.

According to the GOP report, records from Kent show that he and other State Department officials "regularly considered how Hunter Biden’s connection to Burisma might affect the execution of U.S. policy."

Johnson and Grassley pointed to several emails in which Kent, during 2015 and 2016, raised concerns to others in the State Department about the role that Biden's position on the board might muddy the U.S. anti-corruption message in Ukraine, an effort which at the time was being led by Biden as vice president.

But senior Democratic aides said that in interviews with at least ten individuals as part of the probe, no witnesses testified to Hunter Biden's position on the board of Burisma as having any direct impact on U.S. policy in Ukraine.

Democrats have charged that the entire effort to investigate Burisma and the Bidens is predicated on Russian disinformation peddled, at least in part, by Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian national whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned earlier this month after linking him to the disinformation effort.

Treasury Department investigators found Derkach to be a "Russian agent" and designated him for his efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Democrats have alleged that Derkach is targeting Biden. He has previously released unverified tapes of phone calls allegedly between Joe Biden and former Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko.

Wyden and Peters called the Republican report "one outcome of Mr. Derkach’s election interference efforts."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, said the report "reads as if Putin wrote it not United States senators."

Johnson and Grassley have repeatedly denied receiving information from or communicating with Derkach.

"This is a good-government oversight investigation that relies on documents and testimony from U.S. agencies and officials, not a Russian disinformation campaign, as our Democratic colleagues have falsely stated," the Republican report reads.

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Trump declines to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'There won't be a transfer'


(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power following November's election during a press conference on Wednesday.

Asked if he will leave the White House peacefully, if he loses the election, Trump responded, "Well, we're going to have to see what happens. You know that."

JUST IN: Asked if he'd "commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election," Pres. Trump says, "Well, we're going to have to see what happens."

— ABC News (@ABC) September 23, 2020

The president then shifted to a subject he has frequently brought up: ballots. For months, Trump has sought to undermine confidence in mail-in voting as the country grapples with how to safely cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster," the president said.

When pressed for a second time if he would "commit to making sure that there's a peaceful transferral of power," Trump again turned to ballots.

"We want to have -- get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very peaceful, there won't be a transfer, frankly," Trump said. "There'll be a continuation."

He then pivoted back to the ballots, saying, "the ballots are out of control. You know it. You know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know better than anybody else."

Trump's lack of commitment to a peaceful transfer of power is unprecedented. A peaceful transition is a key aspect of American democracy. Even President Richard Nixon, during his first Inaugural Address in 1969, commented on the peaceful transfer of power, saying, "In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free."

In response to Trump's comments on committing to a peaceful transition of power, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign is referring reporters back to a statement issued on July 19, when Trump gave a similar answer about accepting the results of the election to Fox News' Chris Wallace.

"The American people will decide this election," Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in the statement. "And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House."

On Wednesday night, Biden gave a brief response on the tarmac in Delaware, to Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power regardless of the result of the election.

"What country are we in? I'm being facetious. I said, what country are we in? Look, he says the most irrational things. I... I don't know what to say about it, but it doesn't surprise me," Biden said.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney also commented on the president's words, writing on Twitter Wednesday evening, "Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable."

This is not the first time Trump has stoked baseless fears of widespread voter fraud with mail-in ballots. He has frequently brought it up during rallies and on Twitter, which the social media platform has flagged marking the tweets as a violation of its "Civic Integrity Policy."

During an interview with Fox News earlier this year, Trump didn't commit to accepting the election results either, saying "I have to see."

The president's comments on Wednesday came just hours after protests began in Louisville, Kentucky and across the country, when a grand jury indicted only one officer for allegedly endangering the neighbors of Breonna Taylor during the police shooting that killed her.

The summer was also filled with tension and unrest following the death of George Floyd, and outrage peaked as Trump deployed federal law enforcement to quiet protests in cities throughout the nation.

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Pence defends Trump holding rallies amid coronavirus: 'We're in an election year'

Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesBy JUSTIN GOMEZ and LINSEY DAVIS

(WASHINGTON) -- Vice President Mike Pence defended President Donald Trump's return to holding large rallies, typically with thousands of supporters seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder and not wearing masks, even after 200,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus.

"Well, we're in an election year," Pence told ABC News Live Anchor Linsey Davis on Wednesday. "President Trump and I trust the American people. We truly do believe in this freedom-loving nation that the American people know how to look after themselves, look after their families, and look after their neighbors and look out for the future of this country."

Trump tweeted a photo from his Tuesday night rally in Philadelphia showing just how packed the event was.

Davis showed Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the president's photo and asked him how he can justify such a scene given the conflicting advice of health experts seeking to mitigate virus spread.

"We've trusted governors in our states, and most importantly we've trusted the American people," Pence said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has limited outdoor events and gatherings to 250 people, a figure clearly violated by the Trump Campaign. But it's not just social distancing recommendations that are being ignored at the president's rallies -- very few people are wearing masks.

On Sept. 16, Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield testified before the Senate that he believes "face masks are the single most important public health tool we have," but Trump mocked his Democratic Presidential opponent, Joe Biden, for embracing them.

Asked if he's concerned about the optics of putting political aspirations above American lives, Pence reiterated to Davis that Americans know enough to take care of themselves.

"The American people, really throughout the course of the last eight months, have demonstrated the ability to put the health of their family and their neighbors first," he said.

The president also held his rally just hours after the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed the 200,000 milestone. The U.S., which has about 4% of the world's population, has accounted for 20% of the global death toll.

Davis asked Pence to explain that, but he didn't have a direct answer, instead defending the administration's efforts, which he said "saved hundreds of thousands of lives."

"It's a heartbreaking milestone, and -- and really, our -- our thoughts are will all of the families that have lost loved ones in the course of this pandemic," Pence said. "I'm absolutely convinced that, because of the decisive action of President Trump, because of the dedication of the health officials at the state and federal level, our doctors and nurses in hospitals around the country, and because of the sacrifices the American people made, that we saved hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in the midst of this pandemic."

Pence pointed to Trump's travel restrictions from China that went into effect on Feb. 2, but an ABC News investigation found that some 18,000 Americans returned home from China in February and March.

During the course of 18 on-the-record interviews with Bob Woodward, Trump also admitted during a Feb. 7 phone call that he knew the virus was "more deadly" than the flu even as he held packed campaign rallies through March 2 and repeatedly downplayed its severity.

"I always wanted to play it down," Trump told Woodward, claiming he didn't "want to create a panic."

Over the course of the pandemic, he referred to the virus as being similar to the flu and that it would just "disappear," telling ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos during a town hall in Philadelphia that he actually "up-played" the danger of the disease and had no regrets about his response.

During a rally in Ohio on Sept. 21, Trump falsely claimed that the virus affects "virtually nobody," saying it was only elderly individuals and "that's it." Davis asked Pence if he agreed with Trump's assessment and if this is another example of the president playing down the virus.

"I've never heard the president downplay the coronavirus," he said. "What the president's made clear is that this is an infectious disease that has affected people all across the country."

As the nation mourns the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the vice president said he remembers her as a "tenacious advocate for her judicial philosophy," and told Davis that Trump soon will nominate "a woman who will bring a judicial philosophy in the tradition of Justice Antonin Scalia."

"It'll be his focus entirely on choosing a woman who brings the background, the intellect and the judicial philosophy that is -- that is consistent with justices the president has appointed and the more than 200 federal judges we have appointed to the courts," Pence added.

Trump has said he would announce his nominee from the White House on Saturday.

A leading contender for the vacancy is Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a former Notre Dame law professor who clerked for Scalia. She's a devout Catholic and a favorite pick for religious conservatives who see an opportunity to overturn Roe vs. Wade, though Barrett has not ruled on any abortion-related cases.

"Judge Barrett is an extraordinary jurist," Pence said. "And she's among a number of women that are currently under consideration."

The 2020 presidential campaign has been shaped by mass protests following the deaths of Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, by white police officers, and demonstrations calling for racial justice.

On Wednesday afternoon, a Kentucky grand jury indicted one officer for allegedly endangering her neighbors in the March 13 shooting that killed Taylor, but after months of calls for justice in her case, no others officers involved in her killing were charged.

"What happened to Breonna Taylor was a tragedy," Pence said. Asked by Davis what he would say to protesters who are calling for systemic change, he shifted the question to the scenes of rioting and looting in some American cities, though the vast majority of those protesting racial injustice have been peaceful.

"We're going to stand with law enforcement," Pence said. "We owe our Black families across this country nothing less than safety in our streets, and we're going to continue to work to advance that cause -- and remain very confident that when tragic circumstances arise that are, that justice will be served."

During campaign speeches, Pence routinely tells supporters that "Joe Biden says that America is systemically racist and that law enforcement in his words has a 'implicit bias against minorities.'"

A study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Davis asked Pence if Black and white men are treated equally by U.S. police officers.

"President Trump and I believe the men and women who serve in law enforcement of every race and creed and color, are some of the best people in this country," the vice president responded. "And we reject the notion from Joe Biden and others that there's an implicit bias toward minorities in law enforcement."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Trump argues his nominee needed on Supreme Court in time to vote on election legal challenges


(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump says he is so keen on having his yet-to-be-announced Supreme Court nominee confirmed by Election Day in part so that the justice would be on the bench to vote on any legal disputes related to the election.

“We need nine justices. You need that,” Trump told reporters Tuesday, as he went on to stoke baseless claims that the election will be rife with fraud.

“With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they're sending, it's a scam; it's a hoax. Everybody knows that. And the Democrats know it better than anybody else. So you're going to need nine justices up there. I think it's going to be very important. Because what they're doing is a hoax, with the ballots.”

He doubled down on his position on Wednesday, saying, “I think this will end up in the Supreme Court, and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices," claiming a tied court could be problematic.

“I think it's better if you go before the election because I think this scam that the Democrats are pulling, it’s a scam, this scam will be before the United States Supreme Court. And I think having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation. If you get that. I don’t know that you’d get that. I think it should be eight-to-nothing or nine-to-nothing, but just in case it would be more political than it should be,” Trump said.

The current court is split evenly between conservative and liberal justices so a newly confirmed justice nominated by Trump could theoretically cast a deciding vote.

The Supreme Court effectively decided the 2000 presidential election when it ruled 5-4 in the case of Bush v. Gore, with conservative justices in the majority.

While the president has persisted in suggesting that “unsolicited ballots” will lead to widespread fraud in the election, his claims are overstated and misleading.

The vast majority of states -- 41 out of 50 -- require voters to request an absentee ballot before one is mailed to them. In a minority of states -- nine, plus Washington, D.C. -- ballots will be automatically mailed to registered voters this year; and of those nine states, five already held all-mail elections prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

There is no evidence that mail-in-voting leads to widespread voter fraud.

Trump has not previously so explicitly connected the Supreme Court nomination process to the prospect of a disputed election. Previously, he has said his rationale for an quick nomination process is because he said it is his constitutional duty and he believes it would be good for the country.

Ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will set the timetable for the Senate to consider the president’s nominee, who Trump has said he will reveal during a news conference at the White House on Saturday.

The president’s comments Tuesday came in response to a question about Democrats saying the rushed process so close to an election threatens to tear the country apart.

The president brushed off the critique -- “Oh, I don’t think so” -- before launching into an explanation of why the court may have a role to play in helping to resolve the election.

“So doing it before the election would be a very good thing because you're going to probably see it, because what they're doing is trying to sow confusion and everything else. And, you know, when they talk about Russia, China, and all these others, they will be able to do something here because paper ballots are very simple -- whether they counterfeit them, forge them, do whatever you want. It's a very serious problem,” Trump said.

While the U.S. intelligence community has broadly warned about efforts by foreign adversaries to influence the election, there is no evidence that foreign actors are seeking to counterfeit or forge ballots, as the president baselessly suggested.

Even if a nomination is secured by Election Day, the prospect that that nominee would then sit in judgment of a case relating to the outcome of the president’s election raises concerns about politicization of the court.

The president’s former 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, reacted to the president’s comments in a tweet, calling on voters to challenge what she characterized as “authoritarian” behavior by the president by challenging his presidency at the polls.

“The only remedy for this blatantly authoritarian behavior is for voters to turn out for Biden-Harris in such overwhelming numbers that Trump & the GOP can't steal the election,” Clinton said in a tweet that included a video clip of Trump’s comments.

Alan Morrison, the associate dean of George Washington University Law School, said that if such an event were to come to pass, the recently confirmed justice should recuse herself from the case, though he said he has little expectation she would.

“To many people, it would look as though you were appointed by the president to be on the Supreme Court and his election is now up in front of us and people think that you could sit and judge this objectively, I think there would a lot of protests about that,” Morrison said.

ABC News Kendall Karson contributed to this report.

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'No serious conversation' about packing Supreme Court: Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.


(NEW YORK) -- Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Democratic whip, on Wednesday pushed back on calls for Democrats to add more justices to the Supreme Court next year, if they retake the Senate and White House, as retribution for Republicans' plans to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat just weeks from the election.

"There's no serious conversation among my colleagues about this prospect. It is speculative, it is in the future, if at all," Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told ABC News Chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl and Political Director Rick Klein on the "Powerhouse Politics" podcast.

"We're focused on the job at hand which is to try to make certain that whoever fills this Supreme Court vacancy is someone who will respect the power of the court when it comes to things as basic as the health care of Americans. So this notion of looking at some structural change in the court I can just say is not a serious topic on Capitol Hill at this moment," Durbin said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared to lock in enough Republican support this week for his plan to advance President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court through the Senate, with just Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, opposing the push to fill the vacancy so close to the presidential election.

Durbin admitted that Democrats are essentially powerless to stop the confirmation process at this stage, and can do little more than disrupt committee hearings and delay the Senate Judiciary Committee's consideration of a nominee by one week, through procedural tactics.

"We can certainly delay things, but only for limited periods of time," he said. "It is possible ... that some other Republican senators will have second thoughts as this progresses, but at this point it doesn't look very promising."

In the days following Ginsburg's death, Democrats have accused Republicans of hypocrisy, pointing to their refusal to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee to fill the seat of the late-Justice Antonin Scalia, eight months before the 2016 presidential race.

Republicans have largely rejected that criticism, noting that their party controls the White House and Senate, while Democrats controlled the White House four years ago.

The potential opportunity for Republicans to secure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for decades has incensed liberals, fueling calls from activists and progressives in Congress for Democrats to radically change the Senate -- through adding representation for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and ending the 60-vote filibuster for legislation -- and packing the Supreme Court at the earliest opportunity.

Durbin, who endorsed statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have discussed potential changes that would not be as sweeping as eliminating the legislative filibuster -- which requires 60 votes to advance proposals through the chamber, and is one of the key rules differentiating the Senate from the House of Representatives.

"We understand that there are ways to change the rules, one of those is to eliminate filibuster and make the Senate look like the House, but there are lots of gradations and lots of possibilities out there, short of what I just described," he continued. "There's going to be some serious thought about how effective the Senate is and can be under the current rules."

The veteran Illinois lawmaker, who served with both Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate, encouraged the Democratic presidential nominee to draw a sharp contrast from Trump on the debate stage next week in their first meeting.

"We have gone through a miserable experience with this president, the current president's personality," Durbin said. "Joe Biden is such a contrast and offers the hope that we can start to bring this country back together again. I hope that's the image that comes through the debate."

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Democrats lean on the late-Rep. John Lewis in new voter registration push

Twitter/Nikema WilliamsBY: KENDALL KARSON, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- National Democrats are leaning on the late-Rep. John Lewis -- a towering leader of the Civil Rights Movement who rooted his lengthy political career in the issue of voting rights -- as part of a new push to register voters in some of the most competitive battlegrounds.

Lewis, who was known as the "conscience of the U.S. Congress" and died in July after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, is the centerpiece of a new digital ad released on Wednesday by the Democratic National Committee. It's part of a seven-figure digital investment that is aimed at encouraging voter registration in the hopes of driving up turnout some 40 days before Election Day.

"My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union," Lewis says in the ad, an excerpt from his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In between scenes of individuals of all colors and some of the country's most historic, yet tense, moments on voting rights -- including protests of women fighting for enfranchisement and marches from the civil rights era -- the ad appears to be making overtures to young and minority voters. The two demographics are core to the party's base and chances of potential success in November.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton saw less-than-stellar turnout, particularly among Black voters. Democrats are now launching a full-court press to build out their coalition and tilt the election in former Vice President Joe Biden's favor in the fall.

The prominence of Lewis in the digital ad, titled "Our Sacred Right," echoes his own commitment to voting rights, which began when he was just a teenager. It also makes a compelling case for voters to be engaged in the political process, even if they might be concerned over voter suppression efforts, disillusioned by the hyper-partisanship of Washington or are considering sitting out of the election altogether.

"Not too long ago, people stood in unmovable lines. They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax," an impassioned Lewis says. "Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote."

"And we have come too far together to ever turn back. We must not be silent. We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never, ever before. We must come together and exercise our sacred right," he says, ending the ad.

The new spot, which will run on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, will target voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- states that outline the battlefield this year and all of which are home to tight contests.

In a pair of new ABC News/Washington Post polls released Wednesday, Biden and President Donald Trump are locked in neck-and-neck races in Arizona and Florida, with Trump holding a slight advantage over Biden in both states among likely voters: 51% to 47% in Florida and 49% to 48% in Arizona.

Last week, ABC News/Washington Post polls in Wisconsin and Minnesota show Biden with an edge over Trump among likely voters, 52% to 46% in Wisconsin, and 57% to 41% in Minnesota.

The ad coincides with Tuesday's National Voter Registration Day, which marked a coordinated effort to register voters.

The Biden campaign hosted a virtual rally on Tuesday, featuring the Democratic nominee, who underscored the stakes of the impending election in pre-recorded remarks.

"This is the most important election of our lifetimes," Biden said, before encouraging supporters to register to vote. "It's up to all of to decide what our future is going to look like."

Biden's efforts were supplemented by President Barack Obama and Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, who made similar pleas to voters.

"Now is the time to safeguard our democracy and fight for what we believe in," Obama said in a video posted on Twitter. "All you've got to is make sure your voice is heard."

But the new push comes as the coronavirus continues to stymie get-out-the-vote efforts this cycle.

In 17 out of 21 states, voter registration rates are significantly behind where they were in 2016, according to a new analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, amid the pandemic.

"On average, these 17 states have seen registrations decline by 38 percent this year," the report from the Brennan Center reads. "For some states, the decrease is less than that -- Wisconsin and Colorado are below 2016 rates by 2 percent and 20 percent, respectively -- while other states, like Maryland and Arizona, are below 2016 registration rates by 87 percent and 65 percent, respectively."

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Will President Trump be Re-Elected?