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)

Democrats in Congress to begin drive to force Trump from office after Capitol violence

By Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats begin their drive to force President Donald Trump from office this week, with a House vote on articles of impeachment expected as early as Wednesday that could make him the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.

“It is important that we act, and it is important that we act in a very serious and deliberative manner,” Representative Jim McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee, told CNN on Monday. “We expect this up on the floor on Wednesday. And I expect that it will pass.”

Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol last week, scattering lawmakers who were certifying Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, in a harrowing assault on the center of American democracy that left five dead.

The violence came after Trump urged supporters to march on the Capitol at a rally where he repeated that his election defeat was illegitimate. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, many of her fellow Democrats and a handful of Republicans say Trump should not be trusted to serve out his term.

“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi wrote to fellow House Democrats on Sunday.

Dozens of people who attacked police officers, stole computers and smashed windows at the Capitol have been arrested for their role in the violence, and officials have opened 25 domestic terrorism investigations.

Trump acknowledged that a new administration would take office on Jan. 20 in a video statement after the attack but has not appeared in public. Twitter and Facebook have suspended his accounts, citing the risk of him inciting violence.

When the House convenes at 11 a.m. (1600 GMT) on Monday, lawmakers will bring up a resolution asking Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the never-used 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which allows the vice president and the Cabinet to remove a president deemed unfit to do the job. A recorded vote is expected on Tuesday.

McGovern said he expected Republican lawmakers to object to the request to invoke the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump. In that case, he said, his committee will provide a rule to bring that legislation to the House for a vote and, 24 hours later, the committee will then bring another resolution to deal with impeachment.

“What this president did is unconscionable, and he needs to be held to account,” McGovern said.

Pence was in the Capitol along with his family when Trump’s supporters attacked, and he and Trump are currently not on speaking terms. But Republicans have shown little interest in invoking the 25th Amendment. Pence’s office did not respond to questions about the issue. A source said last week he was opposed to the idea.

POSSIBLE INSURRECTION CHARGE

If Pence does not act, Pelosi said the House could vote to impeach Trump on a single charge of insurrection. Aides to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who voted against recognizing Biden’s victory, did not respond to a request for comment.

House Democrats impeached Trump in December 2019 for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, but the Republican-controlled Senate voted not to convict him.

Democrats’ latest effort to force Trump out also faces long odds of success without bipartisan support. Only four Republican lawmakers have so far said publicly that Trump should not serve out the remaining nine days in his term.

The lawmakers who drafted the impeachment charge say they have locked in the support of at least 200 of the chamber’s 222 Democrats, indicating strong odds of passage. Biden has so far not weighed in on impeachment, saying it is a matter for Congress.

Even if the House impeaches Trump for a second time, the Senate would not take up the charges until Jan. 19 at the earliest.

An impeachment trial would tie up the Senate during Biden’s first weeks in office, preventing the new president from installing Cabinet secretaries and acting on priorities like coronavirus relief.

Representative Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, suggested his chamber could avoid that problem by waiting several months to send the impeachment charge over to the Senate.

A conviction could lead to Trump being barred from running for president again in 2024.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Chizu Nomiyama)

Trump says he is not involved in potential prosecution of Biden’s son Hunter

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday that he had nothing to do with any potential prosecution of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who has disclosed that his taxes are being investigated by a federal prosecutor in Delaware.

“I have NOTHING to do with the potential prosecution of Hunter Biden, or the Biden family. It is just more Fake News. Actually, I find it very sad to watch!” the Republican president wrote on Twitter.

His Twitter post came a day after Jeffrey Rosen, the incoming acting attorney general, declined to say in an interview with Reuters whether or not he would appoint a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden and his foreign business dealings.

Hunter Biden on Dec. 9 disclosed that his tax affairs were under investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware, part of the Justice Department.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters that the investigation has been ongoing for at least two years, but Attorney General William Barr managed to keep it under wraps ahead of the 2020 election.

An attorney for Hunter Biden could not immediately be reached for comment.

Trump and his allies have raised questions about potential conflicts of interest from Hunter Biden’s position on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma at the time his father was vice president under Democratic President Barack Obama. Trump and his allies also have called for investigations into Hunter Biden’s efforts to raise capital for a Chinese fund.

Among the most active in urging a criminal investigation into the Biden family has been Rudolph Giuliani. Barr set up a special intake process at the Justice Department to vet and investigate tips related to Ukraine, including evidence that Giuliani had gathered.

Giuliani and his attorney Robert Costello were invited on Jan. 29 to the FBI field office in Pittsburgh to meet with Scott Brady, the region’s U.S. attorney, and several other prosecutors and FBI agents to present evidence they had collected concerning Hunter Biden, Costello told Reuters in an interview this month.

“They had two FBI agents taking notes on their laptops,” Costello said, noting that Giuliani “did the vast majority of the speaking.”

Costello added that since that meeting, the top assistant in Brady’s office and he had followed up somewhere between six and 10 times.

It is unclear exactly what became of the information once it was handed to Brady’s office, and whether it was forwarded to the prosecutors in Delaware who are handling the Hunter Biden investigation.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Pete Schroeder and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. resets execution date for only woman on federal death row

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice has rescheduled the execution of Lisa Montgomery, a convicted murderer and the only woman on federal death row, to take place on Jan. 12, a few days before Joe Biden is due to be inaugurated as president of the United States.

Last week, a federal judge temporarily delayed the execution of Montgomery, which had been set for Dec. 8, to allow her two lead lawyers time to recover from COVID-19 in order to file a clemency petition asking President Donald Trump to commute the sentence to life in prison.

In his order, Judge Randolph Moss of the U.S. District Court in Washington ordered the Justice Department to not execute Montgomery before Dec. 31. The Justice Department filed a notice of the new Jan. 12 execution date with the court on Monday.

Trump’s administration resumed carrying out executions earlier this year after a 17-year hiatus, although a dwindling number of state governments have continued to do so throughout.

The federal government executed eight convicted murderers this year, the most federal executions in a single year since at least the 1920s, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Montgomery would be the first women to be executed by the federal government since 1953.

Besides that of Montgomery, Trump’s administration has scheduled four other executions before the Jan. 20 inauguration following the Nov. 3 elections.

Biden, once a supporter of capital punishment, has said he will work as president to end the federal death penalty.

Montgomery, 52, was convicted in 2007 in Missouri for strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant. Montgomery butchered Stinnett to cut the fetus from her womb. The child survived.

Montgomery’s lawyers say Montgomery admits her guilt but deserves clemency because she has long suffered severe mental illness, exacerbated by being gang raped by her stepfather and his friends during an abusive childhood.

Montgomery is being held at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, a prison for inmates with mental illness. Her lawyers say that she has been dressed in a “suicide smock” and given only a crayon with which to write.

“Now, despite Lisa’s deteriorating mental health and a much deeper understanding of the trauma she endured, the government plans to kill her,” Sandra Babcock, one of Montgomery’s attorneys, said in a statement. “No other woman has been executed for a similar crime, because most prosecutors have recognized that it is inevitably the product of trauma and mental illness.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

GM hits reverse on Trump effort to bar California emissions rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – General Motors said on Monday it was reversing course and will no longer back the Trump administration’s effort to bar California from setting its own emissions rules in an ongoing court fight.

GM Chief Executive Mary Barra said in a letter to environmental groups it was “immediately withdrawing from the preemption litigation and inviting other automakers to join us.”

The dramatic rejection of Trump came as GM sought to work with President-elect Joe Biden, who has made boosting electric vehicles (EVs) a top priority. The Detroit automaker has laid out an ambitious strategy to boost EV sales and last week said it will increase spending on EVs and autonomous vehicles by 35% from previous disclosed plans.

The announcement reflects corporate America’s move to engage quickly with the incoming Democratic administration.

Barra said she believes “the ambitious electrification goals of the president-elect, California, and General Motors are aligned, to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions.”

The White House did not immediately comment.

In October 2019, GM joined Toyota Motor Corp, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and other automakers in backing the Trump administration in its bid to bar California from setting its own fuel efficiency rules or zero-emission requirements for vehicles.

California and 22 other states and environmental groups challenged the Trump administration’s determination that federal law bars California from setting stiff tailpipe emission standards and zero-emission vehicle mandates.

Barra was among corporate and labor leaders that met virtually last week with Biden.

Speaking on Monday, Barra said she was “confident that the Biden Administration, California, and the U.S. auto industry, which supports 10.3 million jobs, can collaboratively find the pathway that will deliver an all-electric future.”

The Trump administration in March finalized a rollback of fuel efficiency standards to require 1.5% annual increases in efficiency through 2026, well below the 5% yearly boosts in Obama administration rules it discarded.

Other automakers, such as Ford Motor Co, Honda Motor Co and Volkswagen AG, which announced a deal with California in 2019 on emissions requirements that was finalized in August, did not intervene on the administration’s side in the California fight.

Toyota said Monday that “given the changing circumstances, we are assessing the situation, but remain committed to our goal of a consistent, unitary set of fuel economy standards applicable in all 50 states.”

Other automakers backing the Trump administration include Hyundai Motor Co , Mazda, Nissan Motor Co, Kia Motors Corp and Subaru Co.

GM had drawn the ire of many California officials and environmental groups.

Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign, said “GM tried to prevent California from protecting its people from tailpipe pollution. They were wrong. Now the other automakers must follow GM and withdraw support for (President Donald) Trump’s attack on clean cars.”

In September, California Governor Newsom said the state planned to ban the sale of new gasoline powered passenger cars and trucks starting in 2035 in a bold move to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California is the largest U.S. auto market, accounting for about 11% of all U.S. vehicle sales, and many states choose to adopt its green vehicle mandates.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)

Biden to name Kerry as U.S. climate czar, emphasizing diplomacy’s role in the fight

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team said on Monday former Secretary of State John Kerry will be named climate czar, a sign that Biden views diplomatic skills as vital to the job.

As Biden’s special envoy for climate, Kerry will have a seat on the National Security Council in the White House, marking the first time an official will be dedicated to the issue in that organization, Biden’s transition team said in a statement.

The NSC has played a powerful foreign policy role since it was created in 1947 under President Harry Truman.

Biden has pledged to reverse course on climate from President Donald Trump who doubts mainstream climate science. He yanked the United States out of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate, and dismantled Obama-era climate and environment regulations to boost drilling, mining and manufacturing.

Kerry, 76, called climate change “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” as secretary of state under former President Barack Obama. In travels from glaciers in Greenland to the Solomon Islands, Kerry emphasized cooperation on tackling climate change.

Before the landmark Paris agreement Kerry also pushed for China, the world top greenhouse gas emitter, and the United States, the second-leading polluter, to agree targets on emissions and work toward a global deal.

Kerry, who was also a longtime liberal senator from Massachusetts and 2004 presidential candidate, will likely get a quick start as Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement soon after he comes to office.

Appointing Kerry as climate envoy “sends the strongest possible signal about the importance of climate action to the incoming administration,” said Paul Bodnar, who was a senior director for energy and climate under Obama.

After leaving government Kerry continued to work on climate change. Late last year, Kerry launched World War Zero, a bipartisan group of world leaders and celebrities to combat climate change.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Blinken is president-elect’s pick as U.S. secretary of state – Biden ally

By Matt Spetalnick and Trevor Hunnicutt

NEW YORK/WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – Joe Biden will pick Antony Blinken as U.S. secretary of state, a person close to the president-elect’s transition said on Sunday, elevating one of his most seasoned and trusted aides as he prepares to undo President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

Blinken is a longtime Biden confidant who served as No. 2 at the State Department and as deputy national security adviser in President Barack Obama’s administration, in which Biden served as vice president.

A second Biden ally said that Blinken was Biden’s first choice. An announcement is likely on Tuesday.

Blinken’s appointment makes another longtime Biden aide with a foreign policy background, Jake Sullivan, the top candidate to be U.S. national security adviser, the first source said. Bloomberg News first reported the expected roles.

Biden’s transition team declined to comment. Neither Blinken nor Sullivan responded to requests for comment.

While neither are household names, Blinken and Sullivan have helped Biden formulate a strategy that will include immediate outreach to U.S. allies who have often been antagonized by Trump’s “America First” approach, and to demonstrate a willingness to work together on major global problems like the coronavirus epidemic and its economic fallout.

Biden has vowed to rejoin a nuclear deal with Iran if the country returns to compliance, return to the Paris climate accord, abandon plans to leave the World Health Organization and end a U.S. rule that bans funding of aid groups that discuss abortion. Each move would reverse Trump’s policies and some could take place quickly after Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

Biden is also likely to name Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, media outlets reported on Sunday. Thomas-Greenfield is Black, an expert on Africa policy and held a top diplomatic post in the administration of former President Barack Obama.

‘DIPLOMAT’S DIPLOMAT’

Blinken, 58, has long touted the view that the United States needs to take an active leadership role in the world, engaging with allies, or see that role filled by countries like China with contrary interests.

“As much of a burden as it sometimes seems to play … the alternative in terms of our interests and the lives of Americans are much worse,” he said in an interview with Reuters in October.

When asked if relations with the United States might improve with Blinken replacing Mike Pompeo, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sidestepped the question by saying he does not comment on U.S. domestic affairs.​

He reiterated that China was willing to improve communication, strengthen cooperation and manage differences with the United States.

People familiar with his management style describe Blinken as a “diplomat’s diplomat,” deliberative and relatively soft-spoken, but well-versed in the nuts and bolts of foreign policy.

After Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Trump, Blinken became one of the founders of WestExec Advisors, a Washington consultancy advising corporations on geopolitical risks.

Having practiced law briefly, he entered politics in the late 1980s helping Democrat Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign raise money.

He joined Democratic President Bill Clinton’s White House as a speechwriter and became one of his national security aides.

Under Obama, Blinken worked to limit most U.S. combat deployments to small numbers of troops. But he told Reuters last year that Trump had “gutted American credibility” with his pullback of U.S. troops in Syria in 2019 that left Kurdish U.S. allies in the lurch in their fight against Islamic State.

On the campaign trail, Blinken was one of Biden’s closest advisers, even on issues that went beyond foreign policy.

That trust is the product of the years Blinken worked alongside Biden as an adviser to his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, as national security adviser early in his vice presidency and as the Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair.

Sullivan, formerly a close policy aide to Hillary Clinton, became one of the key policy advisers to Biden. He served as the former vice president’s national security adviser during the Obama administration.

A 43-year-old graduate of Yale, who was also a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and has a reputation as a behind-the-scenes operator, Sullivan took part in secret back channel talks with Iran that led to a 2015 international nuclear deal that Trump subsequently overturned.

He took on a broad portfolio on foreign and domestic policy, including the campaign’s views on the public health and economic response to the coronavirus pandemic, and was quickly chosen to stay on with Biden through the transition.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in New York, Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware, and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Diane Craft, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Toby Chopra)

Trump to meet Michigan lawmakers in bid to overturn electoral defeat

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – President Donald Trump will meet with Republican leaders from Michigan at the White House on Friday as his campaign pursues a bid to overturn the Nov. 3 election following a series of courtroom defeats.

The Trump campaign’s latest strategy, as described by three people familiar with the plan, is to convince Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states won by President-elect Joe Biden, such as Michigan, to set aside the results and determine Trump the winner.

“The entire election frankly in all the swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump,” Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s lawyers, told Fox Business Network on Thursday.

Biden, a Democrat, won the election and is preparing to take office on Jan. 20, but Trump, a Republican, has refused to concede and is searching for a way to invalidate the results, claiming widespread voter fraud.

The Trump team is focusing on Michigan and Pennsylvania for now, but even if both those states flipped to the president he would need another state to overturn its vote to surpass Biden in the Electoral College.

Such an extraordinary event would be unprecedented in modern U.S. history. Trump not only would need three state legislatures to intervene against vote counts as they stand now, but then also have those actions upheld by Congress and, almost certainly, the Supreme Court.

Michigan’s state legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, both Republicans, will visit the White House at Trump’s request, according to a source in Michigan.

The two lawmakers will listen to what the president has to say, the source said. Shirkey told a Michigan news outlet earlier this week that the legislature would not appoint a second slate of electors.

“It’s incredibly dangerous that they are even entertaining the conversation,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told MSNBC. “This is an embarrassment to the state.”

SOUNDING THE ALARM

Biden, meanwhile, is due on Friday to meet Democratic leaders in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after spending most of the week with advisers planning his administration.

Nationally, Biden won nearly 6 million more votes than Trump, a difference of 3.8 percentage points. But the outcome of the election is determined in the Electoral College, where each state’s electoral votes, based largely on population, are typically awarded to the winner of a state’s popular vote.

Biden leads by 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 as states work to certify their results at least six days before the Electoral College convenes on Dec. 14.

Legal experts have sounded the alarm at the notion of a sitting president seeking to undermine the will of the voters, though they have expressed skepticism that a state legislature could lawfully substitute its own electors.

Trump’s lawyers are seeking to take the power of appointing electors away from state governors and secretaries of state, and give it to friendly state lawmakers from his party, saying the U.S. Constitution gives legislatures the ultimate authority.

ROMNEY CRITICIZES TRUMP

Even though election officials have not reported any major irregularities, most prominent Republicans have remained devoted to their leader or quietly acceded. But a few Republicans, including senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have spoken out.

“Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the president has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” Romney said in a statement on Thursday. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”

Other Republican senators including Ben Sasse and Joni Ernst called on Trump to offer proof.

Trump’s attempts to reverse the outcome via lawsuits and recounts have met with little success.

The Georgia Secretary of State on Friday confirmed that Biden won the state after a manual recount and an audit were conducted.

“The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office or courts, or of either campaigns,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican and Trump supporter, told reporters.

Despite the setbacks, the Trump campaign has not abandoned its legal efforts.

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, said on Thursday he planned to file more lawsuits, accusing Democrats of masterminding a “national conspiracy” to steal the election, though he offered no evidence to support the claim.

Biden called Trump’s attempts “totally irresponsible” on Thursday, though he has expressed little concern they will succeed in preventing him from taking office on Jan. 20.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit, Jarrett Renshaw in Wilmington, Delaware, Karen Freifeld in New York and Jan Wolfe and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Daniel Trotta, David Clarke and Chizu Nomiyama)

Biden’s possible attorney general pick has moderate track record: progressive critics

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the federal death penalty and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, but some progressives say a potential pick for attorney general to carry out those reforms may not be the one to enact bold changes.

Sally Yates, 60, is a leading candidate for the job, according to sources. The Atlanta native is perhaps best known for being fired from her position as acting attorney general by Republican President Donald Trump in his first month in office when she refused to enforce his first attempt at banning travelers from Muslim-majority nations.

Her history at the Department of Justice (DOJ) – where Democratic President Barack Obama appointed her as deputy attorney general in 2015, and before that as Atlanta’s top federal prosecutor for about five years – make the adviser to the Biden transition team a safe pick for a role subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, which may still be under Republican control next year.

Asked for comment, a Yates spokeswoman provided a lengthy list of opinion articles, testimony and other records she said demonstrate Yates’ strong commitment to criminal justice reform.

A Biden transition team spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Yates has expressed a measured approach on some criminal justice reforms, including previously voicing some support for the mandatory minimum sentences Biden wants to end – a position some progressives worry may not go far enough at a time of reckoning for the criminal justice system.

“She has done courageous things, but she is a career prosecutor,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor who previously served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines.

“The question will be, if Sally Yates comes in a second time, does she do a better job reading the moment or is she still coming with that DOJ insider lens?”

The United States was rocked by a fresh wave of street protests this year over the killings of Black men and women by police, including George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

CONFRONTING RACIAL INJUSTICE

That has led Democrats, including Biden to rethink policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, that have led to the disproportionate incarceration of African-American men. Biden has also expressed support for approving more clemency petitions from nonviolent offenders.

Yates, during her 2015 confirmation hearing for deputy attorney general, called mandatory minimum sentences “an important tool for prosecutors,” which could nevertheless be used more judiciously due to the “fiscal reality” facing U.S. prisons.

While she was U.S. attorney in Atlanta, her office also sought the death penalty in some cases, and she testified on the Justice Department’s behalf to urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to narrowly limit who could qualify to apply retroactively for a drug sentence reduction.

She was also involved in a controversy surrounding a 2014 clemency project, after Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in protest due to a backlog of 1,000 recommendations sitting in Yates’ office, 100 of which were urging clemency be granted.

In her January 2016 resignation letter, Leff said Yates had blocked her access to the White House, including on cases where Yates had reversed Leff’s clemency determinations. Yates’ defenders say she was passionate about clemency, and personally reviewed every petition herself.

Some former colleagues say Yates deserves credit for important work that began during the Obama administration, much of which has since largely been undone during Trump’s term.

Yates spearheaded efforts to scale back the federal government’s use of private prisons, revamped the Bureau of Prisons’ education program to better prepare inmates for release and urged limits on solitary confinement.

She also persuaded Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder to expand on his new policy scaling back the use of mandatory minimums and later publicly rebuked Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after he reversed these policies in 2017.

“Somebody like Sally is very attuned to what has been happening in the country after George Floyd’s murder,” said Vanita Gupta, who headed the DOJ’s civil rights division during Yates’ tenure and now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human rights. “She is very personally committed to civil rights and criminal justice reform, and I would fully expect that commitment would actually only deepen.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Options dwindling, Trump faces likely setback in Georgia recount

By Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. presidential election battleground state of Georgia is expected on Thursday to affirm Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump after a painstaking recount, which would deal yet another setback to the president’s attempts to cling to power.

Georgia’s top election official, a Republican, has said the manual recount of almost 5 million votes is unlikely to erode Biden’s initial 14,000 winning margin by enough to hand Trump victory in the state.

That would leave Republican Trump with a dwindling number of options to overturn the results of an election in which Democrat Biden won 5.8 million more votes nationwide. Barring a series of unprecedented events, Biden will be sworn in on Jan. 20.

In the state-by-state Electoral College that determines the winner, Biden has captured 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232, well ahead of the 270 needed for victory. The winner in each state is awarded that state’s electoral votes, a number roughly proportional to the population.

Flipping Georgia’s 16 votes would still leave Trump at least two closely contested states away from overturning Biden’s victory. Georgia officials say they expect to release results on Thursday ahead of a certification deadline on Friday.

In Pennsylvania, where Biden won by 82,000 votes, the Trump campaign is asking a judge to declare him the winner there, saying its Republican-controlled legislature should choose the state’s slate of 20 Electoral College voters.

In Wisconsin, the Trump campaign has paid for a partial recount, even though election officials there say that will likely only add to Biden’s 20,000-vote advantage in a state that carries 10 electoral votes.

‘A DEEPER PROBLEM’

Trump’s campaign has filed lawsuits in a number of other states, including Michigan, with scant success so far.

Those legal motions, sprinkled with factual errors, have been dismissed by Biden’s campaign as “theatrics” that are not based on sound law.

Several prominent law firms have pulled out of the operation, leaving Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to spearhead the efforts.

Trump said on Twitter on Thursday that lawyers would discuss a “viable path to victory” at a news conference at noon ET (1700 GMT).

State and federal election officials, as well as outside experts, say Trump’s argument that the election was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud has no basis in fact.

However, it does appear to be affecting public confidence in American democracy. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Wednesday found about half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election.

Arizona’s top election official, Democrat Katie Hobbs, said she and her family had been getting violent threats and urged Trump to stop casting doubt on the result, in which he lost by just over 10,000 votes.

“(The threats) are a symptom of a deeper problem in our state and country – the consistent and systematic undermining of trust in each other and our democratic process,” Hobbs said in a statement.

Trump, who has largely stayed in the White House and kept out of public view since the election, has no public events scheduled for Thursday.

His administration has so far refused to recognize Biden as the winner, which has held up funding and security clearances to ease the transition from one president to another ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Biden said on Wednesday that the delay was preventing his team from planning a new assault on surging coronavirus infections, which is straining the U.S. healthcare system.

(Writing by Andy Sullivan and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Ross Colvin, Lincoln Feast and David Clarke)