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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann
WASHINGTON — Less than a month after losing the state’s races for governor and attorney general, Wisconsin Republicans are trying to strip the powers of the incoming Democrats, representing a brazen partisan power grab in this important battleground state.
State GOP lawmakers will hold a hearing Monday on their package of efforts to weaken Gov.-elect Tony Evers — who beat Republican Scott Walker in November, 49.6 percent to 48.4 percent — and could approve the measures as early as Tuesday, per The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Republicans proposals in this lame-duck session include, the paper adds:
- making it difficult for Evers and incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, to withdraw from the GOP lawsuit challenging Obamacare;
- eliminating Evers’ ability to choose a leader of the state’s Economic Development Corporation;
- limiting early voting in elections to just two weeks (a similar effort was found unconstitutional in 2016);
- moving the state’s 2020 presidential primary from April to March, to potentially reduce the turnout for a state Supreme Court contest set for April;
- and requiring Evers to get permission from state lawmakers to ban guns in the state Capitol.
Evers has cried foul. “I view this as a repudiation of the last election. I will take any steps possible to assure the people of Wisconsin that I will not invalidate those votes,” the governor-elect told the Journal Sentinel over the weekend.
Republicans maintain they’re correcting giving outgoing Gov. Scott Walker too much power. “Maybe we made some mistakes giving too much power to Gov. Walker and I’d be open to looking at that to see if there are areas we should change that,” the Assembly’s GOP speaker told reporters after the election.
No matter the rationale, what Wisconsin Republicans are trying to do isn’t a good look for American democracy — changing the rules after you lose. (The essential question to ask: Would they be making these moves if they won in November?) Indeed, it’s similar to what we saw two years ago in North Carolina, where Republicans worked to curb the powers of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
And it would be quite the political epitaph for Scott Walker, who came into power in 2011 by taking away collective-bargaining power from public employees, who survived a recall in 2012, who was re-elected in 2014, who ended his 2016 presidential bid prematurely and who lost his re-election race last month.
Today’s GOP isn’t Bush 41’s party anymore
The big political news over the weekend, of course, was the passing of former President George H.W. Bush; he was 94 years old.
His remains will travel from Houston to Washington D.C, where he will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol and where a funeral ceremony will be held at the National Cathedral on Wednesday. After that, his remains will return for Houston for another funeral service at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on Thursday, and then he will be taken to Texas A&M University.
Politically, what stands out about Bush’s passing is how different his party — and his presidency — looks from the current GOP and current president. He raised taxes to help balance the budget (despite his “read my lips” promise), while the current GOP continues on its tax-cutting course.
He separated campaigning (which he did in brutal fashion in 1988) from governing, while the current president launched his re-election campaign as he was being inaugurated.
And he stood for world and international order after the collapse of the Soviet Union (“The restraint, the caution, the lack of spiking the football that they showed was, I think, an enormous achievement,” Barack Obama said of Bush and his presidency on “60 Minutes”), versus “America First.”
To be sure, all parties change from their past presidents. (Remember when Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over”?) But the transformation of the Republican Party from Bush 41 to Bush 43 to Trump has been remarkable.
NYT: No ‘course correction’ for GOP after big midterm losses
The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin: “With a brutal finality, the extent of the Republicans’ collapse in the House came into focus last week as more races slipped away from them and their losses neared 40 seats. Yet nearly a month after the election, there has been little self-examination among Republicans about why a midterm that had seemed at least competitive became a rout.”
“President Trump has brushed aside questions about the loss of the chamber entirely, ridiculing losing incumbents by name, while continuing to demand Congress fund a border wall despite his party losing many of their most diverse districts. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, Republicans swiftly elevated their existing slate of leaders with little debate, signaling a continuation of their existing political strategy.”
Last week, we asked where the pivot would be for Trump and GOP. Well, it looks like there’s been no pivot.
Investigation of voter fraud continues in NC-9 race
Here’s the latest on the allegations of voter fraud in that congressional election in North Carolina: “North Carolina officials voted Friday to continue investigating fraud in the 9th Congressional District election, potentially delaying certification of the results for weeks and leaving open the possibility that a new election could be called,” the Washington Post writes.
“The decision cast new uncertainty on the race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, who are separated by only 905 votes out of 283,317 ballots cast, according to unofficial returns. The Associated Press on Friday announced it was revoking its projection that Harris won the southeastern North Carolina seat. The inquiry further roiled a state already divided over issues of voting rights, voter suppression and fraud.”
More: The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has collected at least six sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen County, near the South Carolina border, who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without filling them out. Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested. Among the allegations is that an individual who worked for the Harris campaign coordinated an effort to collect and fill in, or discard, the ballots of Democratic voters who might have otherwise voted for McCready. Several of the affidavits come from elderly African American voters. It is illegal to take someone else’s ballot, whether to turn it in or discard it.”
The uncalled House races of 2018 (one)
CA-21 (NBC retracted its call of Republican David Valadao as the winner)
Democrats are currently at +39 under NBC’s count, and they’d be at +40 if they end up winning CA-21.
Trade ceasefire with China boosts global markets
“A truce between U.S. and Chinese leaders on trade tariffs provided boosted global markets on Monday, fueling a nearly one percent surge on world stocks and pushing emerging currencies higher against the dollar,” per Reuters. “The gains came after China and the United States agreed at the weekend to halt additional tariffs on each other. The deal prevents their trade war escalating as the two sides try to bridge differences with fresh talks aimed at reaching a deal within 90 days.”
Nadler: Cohen revelations are proof that Russians had ‘leverage’ over Trump
Meanwhile, “New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that new revelations from one of President Trump’s allies amount to proof that Russia had ‘leverage’ over Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign,” NBC’s Ben Kamisar writes.
“In an exclusive interview on ‘Meet the Press,’ Nadler said that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s admissions last week related to his role in securing a Trump Tower in Moscow during the time of the GOP presidential primary raise the specter of a compromised presidential candidate, and now president, that should trouble the American people. ‘The fact that he was lying to the American people about doing business in Russia and the Kremlin knew he was lying gave the Kremlin a hold over him,’ Nadler said.”
Ex-Obama aides say Beto reminds them of the ex-president
And in 2020 news, here’s NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald: “Rep. Beto O’Rourke may have lost in Texas, but he’s winning in Obamaland. Aides to the former president and the man himself say O’Rourke’s campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, gave them flashbacks to Obama’s precocious political rise and has positioned the young white congressman as an early if unlikely heir to the first black president’s ‘hope and change’ mantle.”
“Obama and his coterie are personally closer to any number of other potential candidates, especially former Vice President Joe Biden, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a photograph of Obama and O’Rourke together. Obama didn’t even endorse O’Rourke in his Senate campaign. But in O’Rourke, Obama veterans see not only an inspiring political celebrity, but, like Obama, a tactical innovator who eschewed the political industrial complex of pollsters and consultants and used technology in new ways to connect directly with supporters and multiply the force of his fundraising and ground game.”
Man at the center of North Carolina election fraud allegations has complicated past
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By Ben Kamisar, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Rich Gardella
WASHINGTON — Leslie McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of election fraud allegations that have roiled North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, has a long and colorful history as a political operative in the district.
The candidates he works for often perform better than expected among absentee voters in one of the district’s counties, one reason he’s been hired by a variety of political campaigns over the years.
But public records paint a more complicated picture, linking him to past accusations of improper ballot collection and showing he spent time in prison on a felony fraud conviction unrelated to elections.
Dowless has come under increased scrutiny since the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement voted not to certify Republican Mark Harris’s apparent 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th district congressional race. The board, a state agency charged with the administration and certification of elections, instead called for a public hearing by Dec. 21 to investigate “claims of irregularities and fraudulent activities related to absentee by-mail ballots.”
Under state law, the board has the power to order a new election in a given contest if it determines there were enough widespread “irregularities or improprieties” to “taint the results of the entire election and cast doubt on its fairness.”
On Friday, the board publicly named Dowless a person of interest in its investigation although it has been looking into activities surrounding Dowless since at least 2016.
Much of the concern from this past election center on Harris’s commanding advantage in absentee ballot results in Bladen County, a rural area between Fayetteville and Wilmington in the southeastern part of the state.
The Republican won more than 61 percent of Bladen County’s mail-in ballots, a puzzling margin considering just 19 percent of accepted mail-in ballots belonged to registered Republican voters.
Other possible anomalies in the absentee ballot data, including in nearby Robeson County, have also raised questions among experts and investigators.
Dowless’s stated specialty is his “get-out-the-vote” efforts, specifically with absentee ballots in Bladen County.
And his candidates have been successful there — a Washington Post analysis found that at least five candidates who Dowless worked for since 2010 performed markedly better on mail-in absentee ballots from Bladen than they did outside of the county.
One of those races was the 2018 Republican primary, where Harris dethroned incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger, helped by winning 437 of the 456 Bladen County absentee ballots. Harris won the district by 829 votes overall.
Red Dome Group, an area political consulting firm, assisted the campaign during the primary and general elections on a variety of tasks, including with the press, strategy and specific outreach efforts for absentee voting in Bladen County. New federal election filings show that Red Dome specifically conducted “Bladen absentee” work. The campaign still owes Red Dome more than $34,000 for that work, the filing shows.
Red Dome hired Dowless as an “independent contractor,” the organization’s founder, Andy Yates, confirmed to the Charlotte Observer.
Documents released by the board of elections point to Dowless as the central figure in an absentee-ballot harvesting operation, where handful of people were requesting absentee ballots for voters and then paid associates subsequently signed those ballots certifications as witnesses.
According to an NBC News analysis of Bladen County Board of Election documents released by the state board, Dowless turned in 590 absentee ballot request forms from late August to late October 2018. A Jessica Dowless turned in another 185 applications. The entries on the document were handwritten, with signatures for both Dowlesses.
Links to McCrae Dowless are also seen on completed absentee ballot certifications, which witnesses must sign to ensure the ballot was filled out accurate to the voter’s wishes.
At least 86 returned ballots include witness signatures from those with ties to Dowless—either those who share a last name with him or have been linked to him in some capacity. By state law, two witnesses must sign a certification affixed to the outside of a mailed-in ballot.
Jessica Dowless and Sandra Dowless also signed a handful of absentee ballot certifications.
Dozens of certifications were also signed by Lisa Britt. Under her signature, Britt lists the same address as Sandra Dowless, her mother and McCrae Dowless’ ex-wife. But residents of their public housing complex say she only sometimes stays there.
It is not illegal to request absentee ballots for numerous voters, nor to sign as a witness to dozens of returned ballots — although there are some restrictions that bar candidates and campaign staff, or certain senior-care providers from serving as witnesses.
But it is illegal if witnesses sign certifications for ballots that were not completed by the voter. It’s also illegal at any point for a third party to take possession of a voter’s ballot.
So far, there have been multiple allegations of illegal activity.
In their interviews with WSOC TV, both Kinlaw and Eason said that Dowless paid them to pick up absentee ballots from voters. The two women said they were unaware that was against the law.
Two Bladen County voters told NBC News that Britt came to their homes to collect their absentee ballots as well, a charge that Britt denied to Buzzfeed News.
Britt also appears to have signed her name on Robeson County ballot certifications.
Dowless did not respond to multiple attempts by NBC News to reach him for comment, but he previously denied wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer.
Red Dome did not responded to requests for comment, but has also previously denied knowledge of wrongdoing.
The state board of elections has subpoenaed the Harris campaign and Red Dome, along with the campaign of Bladen County Sheriff James McVicker, who has also worked with Dowless, in connection with its investigation.
There are links between Harris and Dowless outside of Red Dome too, but no evidence that the candidate knew about any improper ballot handling.
Pete Givens, a former Republican candidate for the Charlotte City Council, told NBC News that Harris took him to meet Dowless, where Dowless described his strategy to hand out absentee ballot request forms.
Givens said that everything Dowless described to him during that meeting was within the law and that he was unaware of Dowless’s criminal history. But while Givens briefly paid Dowless for help with the process, no Dowless associates every worked for Givens’ campaign and Givens stopped using those methods after a few months because it wasn’t working for the campaign.
Harris released a video statement on Twitter on Friday that said his campaign is cooperating fully, and that he was unaware of any wrongdoing.
“If this investigation finds proof of illegal activity on either side, to such a level that it could have changed the outcome of the election, then I would wholeheartedly support a new election to ensure all voters have confidence in the results,” he said.
The latest controversy is not Dowless’s first brush with either the law or accusations of mishandled ballots.
After Dowless won reelection to the Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation Board in 2016, an unpaid position, he filed a complaint with the North Carolina Board of Elections alleging possible absentee-ballot fraud by his opponents. While he won his seat convincingly, his top opponent won more than 29 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate.
But two voters also filed complaints to the board in that race claiming impropriety by those linked to Dowless.
One said that after a Dowless associate helped her family fill out absentee ballot request forms, they never received those ballots. When they tried to vote in person, they were told they couldn’t because they had already voted by absentee ballot.
The second complaint by a voter whose absentee application was signed by a Dowless associate claims that another man briefly took possession of her family’s ballots because he said he had to show them to his boss to get paid. He ultimately did not return the ballots within the window he promised to, but it was unclear if he ever did so.
When questioned by the state board of elections about those complaints, Dowless denied wrongdoing, but showed little familiarity with the complaint he filed against his opponent.
He went on to deny paying staffers for each ballot they requested, directing staffers to either fill out another person’s ballot or asking his associates to take possession of another voter’s ballot.
The board said Friday that it’s been investigating possible irregularities since.
The episode was covered by the radio show This American Life on WBEZ Chicago at the time.
Just weeks before the 2018 election, the board mailed letters to Bladen County voters who had requested absentee-by-mail ballots warning them not to let someone fill in or turn in their ballots.
A source familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity told NBC News that the letter was sent in direct response to tips of an alleged scheme by Dowless.
Decades earlier, Dowless pleaded guilty to felony insurance fraud in 1992, and to bouncing $1560 and $15 checks, according to court documents.
In 1991, the Fayetteville Observer reported that Leslie McCrae Dowless and his wife, Sandra Kay Hooks Brown Dowless were accused of taking out a life insurance policy on a dead former employee of Dowless. To obtain the policy, he was accused of forging the dead man’s signature and fraudulently dating it to days before his death.
The alleged scheme was briefly successful, as the couple received a check for more than $163,000 from the insurance company, the paper wrote.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Offender registry shows that Dowless served six months in jail on the insurance fraud charge, which was served concurrently with shorter sentences for a worthless check.
–Rich Gardella contributed from Washington, Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed from Bladen County, NC and Steve Swicegood contributed from Charlotte
Trump picks Gen. Mark Milley as next top military adviser
Breaking News Emails
By Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Saturday that he’s picked a battle-hardened commander who oversaw troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to be the nation’s next top military adviser.
If confirmed by the Senate, Gen. Mark Milley, who has been chief of the Army since August 2015, would succeed Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford’s term doesn’t end until Oct. 1. Trump said the date of transition is yet to be determined.
Trump tweeted the announcement, saying “I am pleased to announce my nomination of four-star General Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the United States Army – as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replacing General Joe Dunford, who will be retiring. I am thankful to both of these incredible men for their service to our Country!”
Dunford is a former commandant of the Marine Corps and commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan. Milley commanded troops during several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump’s decision, which he announced before leaving Washington to attend the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, caught some in the Pentagon by surprise on Friday. Normally an announcement on a new chairman wouldn’t be expected until early next year. The officials said the Air Force chief, Gen. David Goldfein, was also a strong contender for the job, but they indicated that Milley has a very good relationship with the president.
Trump hinted earlier Friday that he would make an announcement on Saturday, when he attends the game and is expected to perform the coin toss to decide which team gets the ball first. “I can give you a little hint: It will have to do with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and succession,” he said.
As the Army’s top leader, he helped shepherd the groundbreaking move of women into front-line infantry and other combat positions, while warning that it would take time to do it right.
Milley is known as a charismatic, outgoing leader who has not been afraid to offer candid and sometimes blunt assessments to Congress. Last year he admonished the House Armed Services Committee for its inability to approve a defense budget, slamming it as “professional malpractice.” And in 2016, he told lawmakers, in answer to a direct question, that women should also have to register for the draft now that they are allowed to serve in all combat jobs.
As the Army’s top leader, he helped shepherd the groundbreaking move of women into front-line infantry and other combat positions, while warning that it would take time to do it right. More recently, he has worked with his senior officers to reverse a shortfall in Army recruiting when the service fell far short of its annual goal this year.
He also played a role in one of the Army’s more contentious criminal cases. While serving as head of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Milley was assigned to review the case of former Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years.
Milley made the early decision to charge Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl was eventually found guilty, reduced in rank to private, dishonorably discharged and fined $10,000, but was spared any additional prison time.
A native of Winchester, Massachusetts, and a fervent supporter of the Boston Red Sox and other city teams, Milley received his Army commission from Princeton University in 1980. An infantry officer by training, he also commanded Special Forces units in a career that included deployments in the invasion of Panama in 1989, the multinational mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina to implement the Dayton Peace Accords, and the Iraq war.
The Milley move starts a series of military leadership changes in coming months, including successors in 2019 for Adm. John Richardson as the chief of Naval Operations, Gen. Robert Neller as commandant of the Marine Corps, and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Trump also will pick a replacement for Milley as Army chief.
Goldfein began his term as Air Force chief of staff in 2016, so wouldn’t be expected to step down until the summer of 2020.
Trump says John Kelly to leave chief of staff role by year end
Breaking News Emails
By Kalhan Rosenblatt
President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that his chief of staff John Kelly would be leaving the position by the end of the year.
Trump made the announcement on the White House South Lawn before departing for the Navy vs. Army football game.
“John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We will announce who will be taking John’s place,” Trump said, adding that there might be an interim chief of staff. “I appreciate his service very much.”
Kelly’s departure has been expected, according to sources within the White House.
His tenure has been marred by conflict since he took the position in the summer of last year. Reports have described disagreements between Kelly, the president and West Wing staff.
Recent clashes with first lady Melania Trump made his already tenuous position even more so, NBC News reported last month.
Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, initially began his tenure in the Trump administration serving as the secretary of Homeland Security. He was tapped by Trump as chief of staff in July 2017 after his predecessor, Reince Priebus, was ousted following six months on the job.
During his time in the West Wing, speculation mounted that Kelly has been frustrated and exhausted by his role and Trump’s temperament.
Among the leading candidates to replace him is Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers.
Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement that Kelly was departing “what is often a thankless job” and called him a “force for order.”
“John Kelly is a patriot. Service to America is part of his DNA, and our country is better for his duty at the White House,” Ryan said.
Trump also announced on Saturday that he had picked Gen. Mark Milley as his nominee to succeed Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Mark Milley, he is a great gentleman, he’s a great patriot, he’s a great soldier,” Trump said Saturday.
On Friday, Trump announced he plans to nominate William Barr for attorney general.
Milley and Barr both must be confirmed by the Senate before assuming the positions.
If confirmed by the Senate, it would be Barr’s second stint as head of the Justice Department. He served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.
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