Ex-Treasury employee gets prison for leaks on Trump campaign officials

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former senior U.S. Treasury Department employee who pleaded guilty to conspiring to give a reporter sensitive information about Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others was sentenced on Thursday to six months in prison.

Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former senior adviser in Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods in Manhattan.

Edwards was accused of making unauthorized disclosures of suspicious activity reports (SARs) – used by banks to alert law enforcement to potential money laundering and other crimes – to a BuzzFeed News reporter using an encrypted messaging program.

Prosecutors said the more than 2,000 reports leaked over one year concerned Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, who both oversaw Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as well as the Russian embassy in Washington and other individuals.

The reports were a basis for articles concerning former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Edwards, 43, of Quinton, Virginia, had sought no prison time, after being charged in October 2018 and pleading guilty in January 2020.

Before being sentenced, she called herself a whistleblower who went to the media after uncovering suspicious conduct elsewhere at the Treasury Department.

Citing principles from her American Indian background, she said before being sentenced she could not “stand by” in silence, but apologized for her disclosures.

Woods said “blowing the whistle through proper channels is an incredibly valuable exercise,” but that Edwards went too far by disclosing about 50,000 records, including the SARs.

“Dr. Sours Edwards decided to abuse her position of trust,” he said.

Federal prosecutor Kimberly Ravener said Edwards’ “rampant disclosure of private information” was “unparalleled” in FinCEN history, and could have a chilling effect on banks’ willingness to file detailed SARs.

“She claimed that she followed procedure. But she made up her own,” Ravener said.

Edwards was also sentenced to three years supervised release. The BuzzFeed reporter, Jason Leopold, was not accused of wrongdoing. He embraced Edwards after meeting her outside the courthouse following the sentencing.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan McDermid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Biden keeps U.S. refugee cap at Trump-era 15,000

By Steve Holland and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden signed an order on Friday limiting U.S. refugee admissions this year to the historically low 15,000 cap set under his predecessor Donald Trump, a senior administration official said, shelving a plan to raise it to 62,500 and drawing the ire of refugee advocates and some Democratic lawmakers.

The decision was a blow to advocacy groups that wanted the Democratic president to move swiftly to reverse the refugee policies of the Republican Trump, who had set the 15,000 figure as a way to limit immigration. The senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, forecast “much increased admissions numbers in future years.”

Biden, who took office in January, had signaled two months ago plans to raise the cap to 62,500 during the 2021 fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, but held off on actually doing so.

The president’s decision appears to have been tied to concerns over the optics of admitting more refugees at a time of rising numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, and to not wanting to look “too open” or “soft,” another U.S. official with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Republicans have blamed Biden for the situation at the border, faulting his moves to reverse other Trump-era hardline immigration policies.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden pledged in February to increase the number of refugees admitted in the next fiscal year to 125,000.

Under the presidential determination signed by Biden, the United States will offer refugee status to a wider part of the world than had been allowed by Trump by changing the allocation of refugee slots, the senior administration official said.

Under Biden’s new plan, the 15,000 slots would be allocated this way: 7,000 for Africa, 1,000 for East Asia, 1,500 for Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1,500 from the Near East and South Asia, and 1,000 for an unallocated reserve.

The senior administration official said the United States would use all 15,000 slots and that officials were prepared to consult with Congress should there be a need to increase the number to address unforeseen emergencies.

‘UTTERLY UNACCEPTABLE’

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter that Biden’s move was “completely and utterly unacceptable.”

“Biden promised to welcome immigrants, and people voted for him based on that promise,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Democratic U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal called Biden’s decision not to raise Trump’s “harmful, xenophobic and racist refugee cap” unconscionable.

Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner and White House adviser under Trump, said on Twitter that Biden’s decision reflects concern that border issues could lead to losses for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. Miller said he would favor “zero” refugee admissions.

Refugee advocates called the decision unjustified given that there are around 35,000 refugees who have already been vetted for security and cleared for entry to the United States, with a total of about 100,000 at various stages in the pipeline.

Refugee groups previously expressed frustration that Biden had delayed issuing the cap for months, which left refugees who were scheduled to travel stranded. Mark Hetfield, president of the HIAS resettlement agency, said around 700 flights were canceled due to the holdup.

“One can’t help but guess that they are conflating the refugee issue with what is happening at the border with the refugee program, which is a real disservice,” Hetfield told Reuters.

Refugees are processed differently in the U.S. immigration system than asylum seekers arriving at U.S. borders and ports of entry.

An increasing number of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America, many seeking asylum, have been among the those detained at the border in recent months. The refugee program offers a pathway for people to apply abroad to resettle in the United States. Advocates were dismayed by the small number of slots for Central Americans in the announced cap.

Refugee admissions reached historic lows under Trump, who portrayed refugees as a security threat and made limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the United States a hallmark of his presidency.

If resettlement continues at the current pace, Biden “is on track to resettle the lowest number of refugees of any president in U.S. history,” according to the International Rescue Committee refugee advocacy group. The group called Biden’s action “a disturbing and unjustified retreat.”

Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project advocacy group, said the initial goal of 62,500 might have been ambitious, but “symbolism matters” even if the United States was unable to meet the target this year.

“President Biden came into office promising to be an ‘ally of the light, not the darkness,'” Varghese said in a statement. “But to many refugees today, that light became a flicker.”

(Additional reporting by Ted HessonEditing by Will Dunham, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Senators vote to proceed with Trump’s impeachment trial, but conviction may prove elusive

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Senate voted largely along party lines on Tuesday to move ahead with Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on a charge of inciting the deadly assault on the Capitol, but conviction appears unlikely barring a major shift among Republicans.

The Senate voted 56-44 to proceed to the first-ever trial of a former president, rejecting his defense lawyers’ argument that Trump was beyond the reach of the Senate after having left the White House on Jan. 20.

Democrats hope to disqualify Trump from ever again holding public office, but Tuesday’s outcome suggested they face long odds. Only six Republican senators joined Democrats to vote in favor of allowing the trial to take place, far short of the 17 needed to secure a conviction.

Convicting Trump would require a two-thirds majority in the 50-50 Senate.

The vote capped a dramatic day in the Senate chamber. Democratic lawmakers serving as prosecutors opened the trial with a graphic video interspersing images of the Jan. 6 Capitol violence with clips of Trump’s incendiary speech to a crowd of supporters moments earlier urging them to “fight like hell” to overturn his Nov. 3 election defeat.

Senators, serving as jurors, watched as screens showed Trump’s followers throwing down barriers and hitting police officers at the Capitol. The video included the moment when police guarding the House of Representatives chamber fatally shot protester Ashli Babbitt, one of five people including a police officer who died in the rampage.

The mob attacked police, sent lawmakers scrambling for safety and interrupted the formal congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s victory after Trump had spent two months challenging the election results based on claims of widespread voting fraud.

“If that’s not an impeachment offense, then there is no such thing,” Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, who led a team of nine House members prosecuting the case, told the assembled senators after showing the video.

He wept as he recounted how relatives he brought to the Capitol that day to witness the election certification had to shelter in an office near the House floor, saying: “They thought they were going to die.”

In contrast to the Democrats’ emotional presentation, Trump’s lawyers attacked the process, arguing that the proceeding was an unconstitutional, partisan effort to close off Trump’s political future even after he had already departed the White House.

“What they really want to accomplish here in the name of the Constitution is to bar Donald Trump from ever running for political office again, but this is an affront to the Constitution no matter who they target today,” David Schoen, one of Trump’s lawyers, told senators.

He denounced the “insatiable lust for impeachment” among Democrats before airing his own video, which stitched together clips of various Democratic lawmakers calling for Trump’s impeachment going back to 2017.

HOUSE MANAGERS’ CASE ‘COMPELLING, COGENT’

Trump, who was impeached by the Democratic-led House on Jan. 13, is only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, and the only one to be impeached twice.

His defense argued he was exercising his right to free speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment when he addressed supporters before the Capitol attack.

Bruce Castor, one of Trump’s lawyers, said the storming of the Capitol by hundreds of people “should be denounced in the most vigorous terms,” but argued that “a small group of criminals,” not Trump, were responsible for the violence.

Most legal experts have said it is constitutional to have an impeachment trial after an official has left office.

“Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened. And yet that is the rule that President Trump asks you to adopt,” Democratic Representative Joe Neguse told the senators.

Most of the senators at the trial were present in the Capitol on Jan. 6, when many lawmakers said they feared for their own safety.

Several Republican senators said they found Trump’s defense, particularly Castor’s argument, disjointed and unclear.

“The House managers made a compelling, cogent case. And the president’s team did not,” said Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who voted to advance the trial.

Cassidy had voted to block the trial on constitutional grounds last month, a Republican effort that failed 55-45. He was the only Republican to switch sides on Tuesday, a move that prompted the Republican Party in his home state, Louisiana, to issue a statement repudiating his decision.

Watching the proceedings on TV at his Florida resort, Trump was unhappy with Castor’s performance, said a person familiar with the situation.

After the Senate adjourned for the day, Castor told reporters: “I thought we had a good day,” and said he did not anticipate making any adjustments to his planned defense in response to the criticism.

The trial could provide clues on the Republican Party’s direction following Trump’s tumultuous four-year presidency. Sharp divisions have emerged between Trump loyalists and those hoping to move the party in a new direction. Democrats for their part are concerned the trial could impede Biden’s ability to swiftly advance an ambitious legislative agenda.

But few Republican senators appear willing to break with Trump.

Senator Josh Hawley, who helped lead the opposition in the Senate to the presidential election results, predicted that Tuesday’s vote would ultimately reflect the chamber’s final decision.

“That’s probably going to be the outcome, right there,” Hawley told reporters.

One year ago, the then-Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump on charges of obstructing Congress and abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter in 2019.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice, Susan Cornwall, Karen Freifeld and Steve Holland; Writing by Joseph Ax and Alistair Bell; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Trump impeachment trial to open with fight on constitutionality

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial, on a charge of inciting last month’s deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol, opens on Tuesday with a debate over the constitutionality of the Senate trying a president after he has left office.

Trump’s lawyers plan to open the trial on Tuesday by questioning whether the U.S. Constitution allows the Senate to hold an impeachment trial for a president after he has left office, as Trump did on Jan. 20.

Most Senate Republicans have embraced that argument, which strongly suggests that Democrats will be unable to garner the two-thirds majority needed to convict in the 100-member Senate. Democrats and many legal scholars reject the Republicans’ constitutional interpretation.

Senate Democrats are expected to prevail in Tuesday’s vote on the constitutionality of the trial. A Republican effort to block the trial on those grounds was defeated 55-45 last month.

Trump, a Republican, was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on Jan. 13 on a charge of inciting an insurrection, becoming the only president to have been impeached twice and the only former president to face a Senate trial.

Eager to get beyond debates over the constitutionality of the trial, a group of nine House Democratic impeachment managers prosecuting the case will present arguments that “will be more like a violent-crime criminal prosecution, because that is what it is,” a senior aide told reporters. The managers aim to prove Trump “incited a violent insurrection to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power. That is the most serious of constitutional crimes,” an aide said.

“When you have such a serious charge, sweeping it under the rug will not bring unity – it will keep the sore open, the wounds open. You need truth and accountability. I believe the managers will present a very strong case,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, told reporters.

The trial could provide clues on the direction of the Republican Party following Trump’s tumultuous four-year presidency. Sharp divisions have emerged between Trump loyalists and those hoping to move the party in a new direction.

The House Democrats face a high bar, needing the votes of at least 17 Republicans as well as all 48 Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them to secure a conviction. Democrats also hope to disqualify Trump from ever again holding public office.

FOUR DAYS OF ARGUMENTS

On Wednesday, the prosecution and defense will turn to the merits of the charge. They have a total of 32 hours evenly divided over no more than four days to present their cases.

The arguments would begin midday on Wednesday. The proceedings could be extended further as senators would have time to question both sides.

If House managers want to call witnesses or subpoena documents, the Senate would have to vote to allow those. Trump lawyers and House managers could question witnesses – a far more exhaustive procedure than Trump’s first impeachment trial, which had no witness testimony.

Trump’s defense is also anchored in the argument that he was exercising his constitutional right to free speech in urging backers to “fight” to overturn the election result.

His lawyers said in a pretrial document that Trump was using the word “fight” in a “figurative sense,” adding: “Notably absent from his speech was any reference to or encouragement of an insurrection, a riot, criminal action, or any acts of physical violence whatsoever.”

One year ago, the then Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Trump on charges of obstructing Congress and abuse of power related to his pressure on Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter in 2019.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Trump faces Tuesday deadline to deliver formal response to impeachment as trial looms

By Richard Cowan and James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment trial takes shape this week, as Democrats outline their case.

Trump is due to file a response to the impeachment charge on Tuesday but replaced his lead legal counsel over the weekend.

His new team, led by lawyers David Schoen and Bruce Castor, will have just over a week to get ready before the trial begins Feb. 9.

Even so, Democrats seeking his conviction on one count of “incitement of insurrection” face an uphill climb.

They must convince at least 17 of the U.S. Senate’s 50 Republicans that Trump is guilty of inciting supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in November’s presidential election.

As Trump left office on Jan. 20, a vote to convict would have little practical impact. But it could clear the way for a vote to prevent him from holding public office in the future.

House Democrats, who will be prosecuting the case in the Senate, will submit a pre-trial brief laying out their case against Trump. They are also due to indicate as soon as Tuesday whether they plan to call witnesses – a flash point in last year’s impeachment trial.

Trump’s response to the charge likely will indicate whether he will continue to argue that he lost the presidential election because of widespread voter fraud.

Most Republican senators now are lining up against conviction. Many argue that Congress does not have the power to impeach a former president. They also have maintained that another trial will hurt efforts to unify the country in the post-Trump era.

Republican Senator Rob Portman, who last week said he would not seek re-election amid the nation’s deep political divisions, signaled that it would not help Trump if his defense is simply reasserting the former president’s claims of election fraud.

“If the argument is not going to be made on issues like constitutionality, which are real issues and need to be addressed, I think it will not benefit the president,” Portman said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Trump’s legal team could also argue that Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech on Jan. 6 when he addressed his supporters outside the White House before they marched to Capitol Hill.

Schoen previously represented Trump’s longtime advisor Roger Stone, who was convicted in November 2019 of lying under oath to lawmakers who were investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump pardoned Stone in December.

Castor is a former Pennsylvania district attorney known for his decision to not prosecute entertainer Bill Cosby in 2005 after a woman accused Cosby of sexual assault. In 2017, he sued Cosby’s accuser in the case for defamation, claiming she destroyed his political career in retaliation.

Whichever tack defense lawyers take, the 100 Democratic and Republican senators who will serve as jurors are anticipating a trial of possibly only a few days, far shorter than Trump’s first trial, which lasted three weeks.

With the exception of Senator Mitt Romney, Republicans stuck with Trump during that trial. He was acquitted on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress stemming from his attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden.

Trump labeled that episode a Democratic “witch hunt.” And while the circumstances were far different from this second impeachment, they share the same underlying accusations that Trump was resorting to extreme and impeachable actions to win re-election in 2020.

Last year, Republicans who then controlled the Senate blocked witness testimony or the introduction of additional evidence against Trump.

Democrats, who currently hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, will have more say over how this trial will be conducted. But they are not expected to win enough Republican votes to secure Trump’s conviction.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an ardent Trump supporter, said on Fox News last week that Republicans would prolong the trial for “weeks if not months” if Democrats called witnesses – which could impede Biden’s legislative agenda.

Some Democrats and Republicans have suggested the Senate should reprimand Trump, rather than convict him.

Republican Senator John Cornyn warned against that as well.

“It used to be that losing an election was considered to be punishment, at least in the political sense,” Cornyn told reporters last week.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and James Oliphant; Editing by Andy Sullivan & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Analysis: What will survive of U.S.-Middle East policy under Biden?

By Maayan Lubell and Rami Ayyub

TRUMP HEIGHTS, Occupied Golan Heights (Reuters) – Trump Heights, Trump Square, Trump train terminal: Israel isn’t shy about honoring Donald Trump, who is widely admired among Israelis for his staunch support of their country.

But in the Palestinian territories, no U.S. president was openly reviled as much as Trump, or depicted in such unflattering terms in portraits and effigies across the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

In four years, Trump overturned decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Joe Biden will want to undo many of those changes during his presidency, but his freedom for maneuver will be limited.

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, signaled that countering Iran would be central to Biden’s Middle East agenda.

But Blinken said the United States was “a long way” from rejoining the 2015 pact with Iran – restraining Tehran’s nuclear program – which the United States quit under Trump.

Biden and his team have said they will restore ties with the Palestinians that were cut by Trump, resume aid and reject unilateral actions, such as construction of Israeli settlements on occupied territory.

But Blinken said the U.S. embassy in Israel would remain in Jerusalem, which Trump recognized as Israel’s capital.

Four Trump-brokered diplomatic deals between Israel and Arab states are also likely to remain – they have bipartisan support in Washington and brought a strategic realignment of Middle East countries against Iran.

So too is Trump’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

Biden’s challenge will be how to walk back not just Trump-era policy – and the polarization triggered by the man who said he had “done a lot for Israel” – without being accused of retreating altogether from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“He will try to project an image of fairness and balance,” Michele Dunne, Director of the Middle East Program at the U.S. based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters.

“There is no question that Biden’s policies towards the Middle East will be quite different from those of Trump; the question is how different they will be from those of (former President Barack) Obama… I doubt that Biden sees the conflict as ripe for U.S. diplomacy right now.”

TRUMP AND NETANYAHU

Trump was broadly in lockstep on Middle East policy with his closest ally in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As well as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Trump backed Israeli settlements in the West Bank, territory that the Palestinians seek for a state.

Israel’s investment in its West Bank settlements between 2017-2019 increased by almost half against the last three years in office of Obama, according to official Israeli data provided to the U.S. State Department and seen by Reuters.

One day before Biden’s inauguration, Israel issued tenders for more than 2,500 settlement homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, on top of hundreds more announced by Netanyahu last week.

Relations with the Palestinians reached a new low after Trump cut off $360 million annual funding to UNRWA, the United Nations agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, reduced other aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington D.C.

Blinken returned to long-standing, pre-Trump, diplomatic norms at his senate hearing.

“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said.

But he added: “Realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”

In Gaza, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini was optimistic of change, and that things might ease up for the Palestinian refugees that his agency cares for.

“We indeed have informal contact with the incoming new administration. We heard all the messages we are receiving that there are intentions to resume the partnership,” he told Reuters.

THE TRUMP BRAND

For many Israelis, the Trump brand has not been tarnished by the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6.

In Trump Heights, a tiny Golan Heights settlement, work is underway to house 20 new families who will move in by the summer. A giant black and gold sign at the gate has been restored after vandals stole the ‘T’.

“We are keeping the name Trump Heights, we are proud of the name. President Trump deserves gratitude for all the good deeds he did for us,” Golan Regional Council Head Haim Rokach told Reuters.

An Israeli cabinet minister this week reaffirmed his support for Trump’s name to adorn a future train terminus near Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and at Trump Square roundabout in Petah Tikva he remains popular. “We will miss him,” said Alon Sender. “He was good for Israel.”

(Additional reporting by Rami Amichay, Adel Abu Nimeh, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ali Sawafta, Writing by Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Factbox: Seven states that are deciding the U.S. presidential election

(Reuters) – The U.S. presidential election will be decided in seven states where votes are still being counted that could swing the outcome to either Republican President Donald Trump or his challenger Joe Biden.

Biden held a lead in four of the states that together award 43 Electoral College votes, which could just allow the Democrat to reach the 270 votes he would need to win, while Trump led in three that hold 51 Electoral College votes, which would push his total to 265.

Here’s a state-by-state look:

ARIZONA

Electoral votes: 11

Rating: Leaned Democratic ahead of the vote

Vote counting: This one appears to be in the Biden column, but only two of the six news organizations that Reuters is following have called Arizona for Biden, and Edison Research has not yet done so. All absentee ballots had to arrive by the close of polls on Election Day. Ballots could be scanned and tabulated starting 14 days before Tuesday.

GEORGIA

Electoral votes: 16

Rating: Leaned Republican ahead of the vote

Vote counting: No organization had yet to call the presidential contest. Trump has a lead but Biden could make up ground in the uncounted votes around Atlanta. Absentee ballots had to be received by clerks by the close of polls on Election Day. Ballots could be opened and scanned on receipt, but they could not be tallied until after the polls closed on Tuesday. Officials in Fulton County, home to Atlanta and a tenth of all Georgians, warned on Tuesday that its vote count would not be finalized until Wednesday.

PENNSYLVANIA

Electoral votes: 20

Rating: Leaned Democratic ahead of the vote

Vote counting: No organization had yet to call the presidential contest in Pennsylvania. Trump appeared to have a substantial lead but many of the outstanding mail-in ballots yet to be counted were from strongly Democratic areas. Absentee ballot counting began at 7 a.m. on Election Day. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling by Pennsylvania’s top court that officials in the state could accept mail-in ballots three days after Tuesday’s election, so long as they were postmarked by Election Day.

WISCONSIN

Electoral votes: 10

Rating: Leaned Democratic ahead of the vote

Vote counting: Two of the six news organizations that Reuters is following have called Wisconsin for Biden, and a third has called Biden the apparent winner, pending a potential recount. Edison Research has not yet called the race. Biden held a thin lead within the margin that would allow the Trump campaign to call for a recount. The state’s election officials could not count mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 26. Ballots could not be counted until polls opened on Tuesday.

MICHIGAN

Electoral votes: 16

Rating: Leaned Democratic ahead of the vote

Vote counting: No organization has yet to call a winner in the presidential contest in Michigan, though Biden held a small lead. Absentee ballots had to arrive at clerks’ offices by the close of polls on Election Day. Some densely populated jurisdictions in the state, such as Detroit, began sorting absentee ballots on Monday, but the vast majority did not. Clerks could begin scanning and counting absentee ballots at 7 a.m. on Tuesday. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said on Wednesday the state would have a clearer picture by the end of the day.

NORTH CAROLINA

Electoral votes: 15

Rating: Leaned Republican ahead of the vote

Vote counting: No organization has yet called a winner in the presidential election, though Trump held a lead. Edison and three news organizations have called the governor’s race for incumbent Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

North Carolina absentee ballots could be scanned weeks in advance, but results could not be tallied before Election Day. In a defeat for Trump, the U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to block the state’s plan to tally ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday and arrive by Nov. 12.

NEVADA

Electoral votes: 6

Rating: Leaned Democratic ahead of the vote

Vote counting: No organization has yet to determine a winner in the presidential election. Biden held a razor-thin lead but final results could be delayed until later in the week. Absentee ballots could be processed upon receipt starting 14 days before the election, but results are not released until election night. Mail-in ballots postmarked by Tuesday will be counted so long as they arrive within seven days after the election.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Julia Harte, Rich McKay, Brendan O’Brien, Jarrett Renshaw and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone and Angus MacSwan)

Judge reviews ballot counting in suburban Philadelphia county

(Reuters) – A federal judge in Pennsylvania on Wednesday weighed arguments by Republicans seeking to stop a suburban Philadelphia county from counting mail-in and absentee ballots that voters had been permitted to correct.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage in Philadelphia appeared skeptical of arguments by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, which lawyers for Montgomery County election officials and the Democratic National Committee said could disenfranchise voters.

A decision could have implications for the national presidential race between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Results in several states are unclear, and Pennsylvania is a battleground as mail-in ballots are tabulated. Trump appeared at the White House early Wednesday to falsely claim victory in the presidential race and make unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit had been filed by Kathy Barnette, a conservative political commentator projected to lose her race for a House seat in the state’s 4th Congressional district, and Clay Breece, chairman of the Republican Committee in Berks County.

They accused Montgomery County election officials of having illegally “pre-canvassed” ballots for mistakes and allowing voters to correct them, and sought a temporary restraining order blocking them from being counted.

Thomas Breth, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, likened the case to the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore settled a dispute over vote-counting in Florida, enabling Republican George W. Bush to capture the White House.

“It pains people to mention Bush Gore, but that’s the analysis that applies,” Breth said.

“It is creating the same situation that Florida created in 2000,” with “all of these different counties treating ballots in non-uniform manners,” he added. “There’s a solid argument that you’re voting twice.”

Savage, however, questioned Breth on the fairness of blocking voters from correcting mistakes on their ballots.

“So what happens to my vote?” the judge asked.

Breth said it could be “potentially disqualified.”

“But I was never given the opportunity” to fix it, Savage responded. “I am losing my vote.”

Election officials countered that there was no equal protection violation, and accused the plaintiffs of filing a last-minute lawsuit to undermine voters’ right to vote.

“No one is changing their ballot. No one is voting twice,” said Michele Hangley, a lawyer for the election officials.

She added that voters like the plaintiffs “don’t have a free-floating right to police other people’s votes.”

County officials estimated that only 49 votes were at issue in the lawsuit, while the plaintiffs estimated 1,200.

Savage was appointed to the bench by Bush in 2002.

As of 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT), Barnette trailed Democratic incumbent Madeleine Dean in their House race by 15 percentage points with 84% of the vote counted, The New York Times said, citing data from the National Election Pool/Edison Research.

Dean was ahead by 16 percentage points in Montgomery County, portions of which comprises most of the district.

The case is Barnette et al v Lawrence et al, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. 20-05477.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Tom Hals in Wilmington,; Editing by Alistair Bell)

As America counts, the world holds its breath for U.S. election outcome

By Luke Baker, Libby George and Daria Sito-Sucic

LONDON/LAGOS/SARAJEVO (Reuters) – A day after Americans voted in a bitterly contested election, the rest of the world was none the wiser on Wednesday, with millions of votes still to count, the race too close to call and a mounting risk of days or even weeks of legal uncertainty.

Donald Trump’s pre-emptive declaration of victory at the White House was condemned by some U.S. political commentators and civil rights groups, who warned about the trampling of long-standing democratic norms.

Most world leaders and foreign ministers sat on their hands, trying not to add any fuel to the electoral fire.

“Let’s wait and see what the outcome is,” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. “There’s obviously a significant amount of uncertainty. It’s much closer than I think many had expected.”

But while Raab and others urged caution, the Slovenian prime minister broke ranks, congratulating Trump and the Republican party via Twitter.

“It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump and @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears,” wrote Janez Jansa, one of several east European leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who are fervent Trump allies. “Congratulations @GOP for strong results across the #US.”

The latest vote tally showed Democrat challenger Joe Biden with a lead in the Electoral College – 224 votes to 213, with 270 needed for victory – but with counting still be completed in at least five major ‘battleground’ states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia.

In 2000, the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore hinged on Florida. It was ultimately decided in Bush’s favor by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling five weeks after the vote.

In his comments, Trump suggested the Supreme Court – to which he has nominated three of the nine justices – would have to decide the winner again.

On Twitter, the hashtags #Trump, #Biden and #USElections2020 were trending from Russia to Pakistan, Malaysia to Kenya and across Europe and Latin America, underscoring how much every region of the world sees the outcome as pivotal.

In Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies have accused of trying to interfere in the election, there was no official reaction.

But Pro-Kremlin lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, advised Russians to stock up on popcorn to watch the show he predicted was about to unfold, saying U.S. society was fatally split.

“The result of the elections is the worst outcome for America,” Nikonov, who welcomed Trump’s 2016 win, wrote on Facebook. “Whoever wins the legal battles half of Americans will not consider them the lawful president. Let’s stock up on large quantities of popcorn.”

‘IT AFFECTS US ALL’

In Australia, crowds watched the results roll in while drinking beer in an American bar in Sydney.

“The news is so much better when Trump is in,” said Glen Roberts, wearing a red ‘Make Europe Great Again’ baseball cap. “You never know what he said, it’s so good. I think it’ll be less interesting if Trump loses.”

Others were quick to underline the ramifications of the U.S. vote worldwide. “I think it affects us all, what happens over there really matters for the next four years over here,” said Sydney resident Luke Heinrich.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading civil rights groups, warned about the need to reserve judgment on the results until every vote is counted. With a very high number of mail-in ballots this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, full tallies are expected to take days in some states.

Executive director Kenneth Roth said premature declarations of victory were dangerous.

“Autocrats might be perfectly happy to undermine democracy in the United States by welcoming a premature declaration of victory,” he said.

China, whose relations with the United States have sunk to their worst in decades under Trump, said the election was a domestic affair and it had “no position on it”.

Chinese social media users, however, were quick to mock the failure of the U.S. electoral system to deliver a quick and clear result.

“Whether he wins or loses, his final mission is to destroy the appearance of American democracy,” one user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform wrote on Wednesday.

“Let Trump be re-elected and take the U.S. downhill,” another wrote.

In Nigeria, one leading politician, Senator Shehu Sani, said the uncertainty in the United States was reminiscent of Africa.

“Africa used to learn American democracy, America is now learning African democracy,” he tweeted to his 1.6 million followers.

(Reporting by Luke Baker in London, Libby George in Lagos and Daria Sito-Sucic; Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Crispian Balmer in Rome, Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw, Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Tony Munroe and Gao Liangping in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson)

After a campaign like no other, Americans rendering final verdict at polls

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Doina Chiacu

WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans cast votes on Tuesday in the bitterly contested presidential race between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden after a tumultuous four years under the businessman-turned-politician that have left the United States as deeply divided as at any time in recent history.

Voters lined up at polling places around the country casting ballots amid a coronavirus pandemic that has turned everyday life upside down. Biden, the Democratic former vice president who has spent a half century in public life, has held a strong and consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president.

But Trump is close enough in several election battleground states that he could piece together the 270 state-by-state Electoral College votes needed to win the election.

Trump is hoping to repeat the type of upset he pulled off in 2016 when he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton despite losing the national popular vote by about 3 million ballots. Trump is aiming to avoid becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.

It is possible that it could be days before the result is known, especially if legal challenges focused on ballots sent by mail are accepted in the event of a tight race.

There was a sense of anxiety among voters and concern about possible unrest after a campaign with heated rhetoric. There were buildings boarded up in anticipation of possible protests, including in Washington and New York City. A new fence was erected around the White House.

Polls opened in some Eastern states at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT). The most closely watched results will start to trickle in after 7 p.m. EST (2400 GMT) when polls close in states such as Georgia.

Biden made another appearance on Tuesday morning in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania. Speaking to supporters using a bullhorn in Scranton, the city where he was born, Biden returned to some of his familiar campaign themes, promising to unite Americans and “restore basic decency and honor to the White House.”

Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday morning, Trump said the crowds he saw on Monday during his frenetic last day of campaigning gave him confidence that he would prevail.

“We have crowds that nobody’s ever had before,” said Trump, who has been criticized by Democrats for holding packed rallies in defiance of social-distancing recommendations during the pandemic. “I think that translates into a lot of votes.”

The voting caps a campaign dominated by a pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 Americans and put of people millions out of work. The country this year also was shaken by protests against racism and police brutality.

Biden, who has framed the contest as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, promised a renewed effort to combat the public health crisis, fix the economy and bridge America’s political divide.

Trump has downplayed the pandemic, saying the country is “rounding the corner” even as numerous states set single-day records of new infections in the final days of the campaign.

More than 99 million Americans voted early either in person or by mail, motivated not only by concerns about waiting in lines on Election Day amid the pandemic but also by extraordinary levels of enthusiasm after a polarizing campaign.

The record-shattering total is nearing three-quarters of the total 2016 vote, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. Experts predict the vote could reach 160 million, exceeding the 138 million ballots cast in 2016.

While there were long lines in some places, in many states lines were shorter, perhaps a reflection of the massive early vote.

In McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, about a dozen voters lined up, bundled in jackets and hats on an unseasonably chilly morning.

“He’s a bit of a jerk, and I appreciate that,” Martin Seylar, a 45-year-old welder who had just finished his shift, said of Trump, his preferred candidate. “He doesn’t get everything that he says done, but the way I see it is he’s trying, versus where everybody else blows smoke at us.”

In Detroit, Republican voter Nick Edwards, 26, cast a ballot for Biden but voted for Republican candidates for Congress.

“Honestly, decency in the White House,” Edwards said when asked about his main concern. “When someone leads the party, they need to hold those values, as well. I don’t think Trump encompasses that.”

Some crucial states, such as Florida, begin counting absentee ballots ahead of Election Day and could deliver results relatively quickly on Tuesday night. Others including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are barred from processing the vast majority of mail ballots until Election Day, raising the possibility of a prolonged vote count that could stretch for several days.

U.S. stocks opened higher on Tuesday, as investors wagered that Biden would prevail and usher in fresh stimulus spending.

CONTROL OF CONGRESS AT STAKE

Voters on Tuesday will also decide which political party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, with Democrats pushing to recapture a Senate majority and expected to retain their control of the House of Representatives.

Trump, 74, is seeking another four years in office after a chaotic first term marked by the coronavirus crisis, an economy battered by pandemic shutdowns, an impeachment drama, inquiries into Russian election interference, U.S. racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.

Trump, looking tired and sounding hoarse after days of frenetic campaigning, struck a decidedly less belligerent tone on Tuesday than he did on the trail over the weekend. He was expected spend most of Tuesday at the White House, where an election night party is planned for 400 guests, all of whom will be tested for COVID-19.

Biden, 77, is looking to win the presidency after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. He mounted unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008.

Biden started his day at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, his Roman Catholic church near Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent some time at his son Beau’s grave with Beau’s daughter, Natalie. Beau Biden died of cancer at age 46 in 2015.

The two candidates have spent the final days barnstorming half a dozen battleground states, with Pennsylvania emerging as perhaps the most hotly contested. Biden will have made at least nine campaign stops in Pennsylvania between Sunday and Tuesday.

Biden’s polling lead has forced Trump to play defense; almost every competitive state was carried by him in 2016.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington; Michael Martina in Detroit; Nathan Layne in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania; and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Joseph Ax and John Whitesides; Editing by Paul Thomasch)