The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Former State Department official who cast doubt on Burisma claims to testify in GOP probe
WASHINGTON — A Republican-led Senate investigation of Joe Biden and his work in Ukraine as vice president will hear testimony Thursday from a former official who has told colleagues that an energy company at the heart of the inquiry was a nonfactor in U.S. policy toward Ukraine, NBC News has learned.
The man, Amos Hochstein, a former Biden adviser who was a State Department energy envoy in President Barack Obama's administration, is scheduled to testify behind closed doors Thursday in the Senate Homeland Security Committee's investigation. The committee is chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a close ally of President Donald Trump's.
Hochstein is the only witness called by the committee known to have discussed Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, with Biden during his vice presidency. Biden is now the Democratic presidential nominee, and his son's ties to Burisma have been at the center of the committee's monthslong probe.
Hochstein will be among the final witnesses ahead of an interim report the committee is expected to release in late September. Johnson has considered Hochstein's testimony crucial — along with that of Tony Blinken, a top Biden aide who was deputy national security adviser under Obama, who will also testify Thursday. Johnson had considered subpoenas for the two before they agreed to appear before the committee voluntarily. Politico first reported that Hochstein would testify.
Trump and his Republican allies, including Johnson, have argued that U.S. policy toward Ukraine under Obama may have been colored by Biden's desire to protect Burisma — specifically, by advocating for the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor with ties to the Kremlin who had investigated the company. Biden's son Hunter was a member of the Burisma board part of the time that Biden served as the administration's point person on Ukraine, but he was not associated with Burisma during the prosecutor's probe.
Hochstein has told associates that he never changed U.S. policy because of Burisma and was never asked to do so and that Burisma never factored into any policy decisions around energy or Biden's advocacy for a new Ukrainian prosecutor general.
In fact, according to a former Obama administration official, Hochstein has told colleagues that the Obama administration sought to punish Burisma rather than protect it.
Hochstein met with Ukrainian officials in 2015 to urge them to cooperate in the prosecution of Burisma founder Mykola Zlochevsky as the Obama administration sought to clamp down on corruption rampant among Ukrainian oligarchs. That's the same year Trump and other Republicans have alleged Biden was trying to help Burisma.
Democrats have criticized the committee's investigation as overly political, diverting the Senate's most powerful oversight body from issues like the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also criticized the investigation as a "political exercise" during a committee meeting Wednesday after Johnson pulled a planned vote on a subpoena related to the investigation.
Critics also argue that the investigation has been premised on Russian disinformation provided to the committee by people including Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who worked with Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Last week, the Treasury Department said Derkach "has been an active Russian agent for over a decade" in announcing sanctions against him.
In a memo to the FBI, Democratic lawmakers said in July that the investigation has become a vehicle for "laundering" a foreign influence campaign to damage Biden.
Derkach has held a number of news conferences in Ukraine in which he has made unproven corruption allegations against Biden and other officials, including Blinken and Hochstein, using heavily edited tapes. Contacted by NBC News in July, Johnson's office wouldn't say whether it had received "materials" on the Bidens from pro-Kremlin Ukrainians.
The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump late last year over allegations that he improperly pressured Ukraine to manufacture damaging information about Biden to boost his chances of re-election. The Republican-led Senate acquitted him in February.
Johnson has made it clear that his committee's investigation is intended in part to help Trump, who is trailing Biden in national and many battleground state polls with less than seven weeks left before the election. Johnson has repeatedly acknowledged that the investigation is in sync with the presidential election calendar, including at least twice this week.
The committee is preparing to release its report days before the first presidential debate on Sept. 29.
"We are working to get [the report] out as quickly as possible," Johnson told reporters at the Capitol on Monday.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said the investigation amounts to "an attack founded on a long-disproven, hard-core, right-wing conspiracy theory."
Democratic super PACs support Biden with Florida and Arizona Latinos
WASHINGTON — As some Democrats sound alarm bells about Joe Biden's strength with Latino voters, the Democratic presidential nominee is getting some help from outside groups in the key battleground states of Florida and Arizona.
The major Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and the American Federation of Teachers union, are partnering to spend $1.9 million on Spanish language TV in Miami. Priorities USA and Latino Victory Fund are also running $726,000 worth of radio ads in the Phoenix, Tucson, Arizona and Orlando, Florida, which Priorities says is part of a larger $6.8 million campaign focused specifically on Latinos.
“Florida and Arizona each have a huge role to play in Joe Biden’s path to victory, and Latino voters are an essential part of a winning Democratic coalition in these crucial battleground states,” said Guy Cecil, Chairman of Priorities USA.
Recent polls show Biden may be underperforming 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton in the Miami area, where he made his first trip of the campaign Tuesday, especially with Cuban-Americans and others who fled Latin American dictatorships and are now receptive to Republicans' message that Biden is aligned with socialists.
"To win, we need to be vigilant at GOP leadership’s ongoing attempts at voter suppression targeting communities of color, particularly the Latino community. This campaign in Arizona and Florida is a strong reminder to our Spanish-speaking neighbors about the importance of voting in this historic election," said Luis A. Miranda Jr., Chairperson of the Latino Victory Fund.
Billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced he will spend up to $100 million in Florida to support Biden.
Obama urges young voters to plan how they'll vote
WASHINGTON — If you had time to bake sourdough from scratch and do the “Renegade Challenge,” you have time to plan how you’ll vote. That’s the message from former President Barack Obama in a new video Wednesday in which he urges young voters not to play into “cynical” strategies designed to depress the voter turnout.
"Because young people have always been the ones to make change in this country, making change this fall is once again going to depend on you,” Obama said in the new video, released by ATTN. "Since we're still dealing with a pandemic, we've got approach voting just like we do everything else these days — shopping, ordering dinner, pulling off a surprise birthday party over Zoom. We got to plan.”
Aimed at millennial and Gen-Z voters, Obama laid out the different options available to make sure their votes are counted: Voting early in person where available, voting in person on Election Day, or voting by mail.
“Some places call this absentee voting. You might hear it called voting from home. It's all the same, like Donald Glover, and Childish Gambino,” Obama said. Alluding to some of the concern about voting by mail, Obama urged voters to request a ballot “right now, because it might take a little while to arrive.”
"We're not talking Gmail, we are talking throwback, vintage, O-G mail,” he said.
Obama doesn’t mention Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the video, but both Obama and the former vice president’s campaigns have emphasized educating Americans about their voting options. Former First Lady Michelle Obama participated in a network broadcast about voting this week for her nonpartisan group, When We All Vote.
"There are a lot of people out there trying to confuse and mislead you about this election. They're trying to make you cynical. They're trying to get you to believe that your vote doesn't matter,” Obama said in the video. "Do not let them do that. Our democracy is a precious thing, and it's up to all of us to protect it.”
Obama ended the video by pretending he is about to do his own version of the Renegade Challenge, which was a viral Tik-Tok trend this summer. Renegade, in fact, was Obama’s Secret Service code name.
Pennsylvania lawsuit delays sending out mail-in ballots
PHILADELPHIA — Several legal battles are plaguing Pennsylvania’s election officials as they prepare for the Nov. 3 election, the state's first election processing an expected 3 million mail-in ballots, according to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Katy Boockvar.
Officials across the state had planned to send out mail-ballots this week, but the certification of the ballot has been held up due to a lawsuit from the state Democratic party over whether Green Party candidates can be listed on the ballot. Without an official candidate list, county officials can't print the ballots.
Boockvar told reporters on Tuesday that she expects the case to be decided this week. But one county official told NBC News that even if the decision came through on Tuesday, the county would need at least two weeks before ballots could be sent to voters.
“The circumstances of this election are sure to be unique,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters Tuesday. “What is most important in every county throughout Pennsylvania is that every vote is counted and the results are absolutely accurate even if that takes a little more time.”
Wolf called on the statehouse to consider four actions to alleviate the voting process: Allow counties to pre-canvass and pre-process ballots three weeks before Election Day, rather than begin on Nov. 3; allow counties to count eligible ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by the Friday after Nov. 3; and require counties to send mail-in ballots at least 28 days before the election to give counties more flexibility in appointing poll workers to vacant positions.
“The legal challenges Pennsylvania is facing are frustrating. Earlier ballot processing would be a game changer. Anything would be better than on Election Day,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir, who works to run the city’s election, told NBC News.
Op top of the candidate listing complications, the Trump campaign is currently challenging the state’s use of ballot drop boxes.
These setbacks for Pennsylvania are only the first of many hurdles this November's election will include. Sabir told NBC News that given all the challenges this year, he doesn't want an expectation of calling Pennsylvania's results on Election Day.
"Everything's not gonna be done" Sabir said. "I don't even want that expectation set up right now. The elections will not be done tonight."
Pompeo hosts RNC chairwoman at revived Madison Dinners
WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was a guest on Monday at the latest installment of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Madison Dinners,” three people with knowledge of the dinner tells NBC News.
The chair of the Republican Party came to the State Department for the taxpayer-funded dinner in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Also at the dinner were UPS executive Laura Lane, who oversees the shipping giant’s government affairs, and India’s ambassador to the U.S. NBC News saw many of the guests arriving in evening wear.
The State Department says the dinners are foreign-policy focused. But they have come under scrutiny from congressional committees over concerns that Pompeo is using government resources to build a political and future donor network. As RNC chairwoman, McDaniel oversees the GOP’s fundraising operations.
The Republican National Committee and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment. The Indian Embassy in Washington and UPS had no comment.
Pressure grows from rank and file on Hill to find deal on pandemic relief
WASHINGTON — As the stalemate in negotiations between Democrats and the administration on another round of pandemic relief enters its sixth week, a bipartisan group of House members is trying to put pressure on negotiators by releasing what it calls a compromise proposal.
The members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 50 lawmakers divided equally between Republicans and Democrats, say their $1.5 trillion measure is an attempt to meet Democrats and the administration in the middle and provide a path forward. They say that while their bill is not meant to be signed into law, it is meant to get negotiators back to the table.
Talks among House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and the administration have been frozen since early August, when the two sides couldn't agree on how much money to spend.
Some lawmakers in both parties, fretting over inaction ahead of the November election, are calling for a deal. Senate Republicans voted on a slimmed-down Covid-19-related assistance bill last week. While it did not pass, it allowed vulnerable Republicans to campaign on the effort.
The Problem Solvers began meeting shortly after those talks broke down, and they even sat down with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows at least twice.
Their proposal is cheaper than what Pelosi wants, but it includes some of her priorities.
It would extend the federal weekly unemployment benefit at $450 per week, higher than the administration's support of $300 per week and lower than the Democrats' demand of $600 per week. It includes Republican demands for liability protection, and it addresses one of the biggest sticking points between Democrats and the administration in negotiations, state and local funding, by proposing to provide $500 billion for states that have gone into the red during the pandemic.
The proposal also includes funding for a new round of $1,200 payments to eligible Americans and for the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as more money for health care, schools and child care than the Republicans wanted. And it would provide funding for broadband and food assistance programs, which the administration has not supported.
As the election nears, some Democrats are pressuring Pelosi to put a new pandemic relief bill on the floor during the three-week congressional session to show that Democrats are willing to compromise and keep working toward an agreement.
“Families and business in my district have all told me the same thing: they want help getting through the Covid crisis, not the same-old political games," Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., co-chair of the the Problem Solvers Caucus, told NBC News. "With so many people suffering, it’s time for pragmatic solutions, and that’s what this bipartisan roadmap is all about. We hope it will help the negotiators recognize that there is hope for real bipartisan progress."
Some lawmakers are advocating for an updated, cheaper version of the $3.4 trillion House-passed HEROES Act, while others are advocating for votes on individual components of the bill, including unemployment insurance.
"We want a deal on a robust, comprehensive package, and barring that, we'd like the House to take some sort of action on Covid relief," Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., the chair of the New Democrats Coalition, a group of more than 100 moderate-minded, economic-focused Democrats, told reporters on a conference call Monday evening.
Freshman Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., said, "We want to see something done before we leave."
Trump campaign pivots to the economy with eight-figure ad campaign
WASHINGTON — The Trump campaign plans to launch an eight-figure ad buy highlighting the economy as a focus of the presidential race, spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Monday.
The move is designed to elevate a rare issue on which the president holds an advantage over rival Joe Biden in polls, as reported Friday by NBC News. It comes after Trump's recent focus on crime and safety has failed to deliver gains. The news of the upcoming ad campaign was first reported by Fox News.
One Trump ad titled "Kim" features a woman who says: "Joe Biden could never handle the economy after Covid. There's no way." A second ad called "Jobs President" criticizes Biden for the fact that American jobs were "lost to Mexico and China" during his four decades serving in government.
A Fox News national poll released Sunday found that Trump leads Biden by 5 points on the issue of the economy. But Biden leads Trump on who voters trust to handle the coronavirus, law-and-order, racial inequality and Supreme Court nominations. Overall, Biden led 51 percent to 46 percent with likely voters.
Election Day is 50 days away.
Harrison makes Senate race competitive but must beat Graham as Trump is favored to win South Carolina
WASHINGTON — Jaime Harrison is running the strongest race that any Democrat has made in years for a U.S. Senate seat in deep-red South Carolina.
In fact, he raised a whopping $10.6 million in August, outraising incumbent opponent Sen. Lindsey Graham's, R-S.C., entire second-quarter haul in a single month, according to The State newspaper.
But Harrison’s ultimate challenge in this presidential year is getting more votes than Graham when President Trump is the clear favorite to win the state at the top of the ticket in November.
“Jaime Harrison is a strong candidate,” said Jordan Ragusa, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. “He’s definitely the strongest candidate Lindsey Graham has faced. He’s a moderate running in a red state, he’s an African American in a state with a large percentage of African Americans, and he’s a highly visible, well-known figure in South Carolina.”
South Carolina has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1998, but recent polls have Harrison, a former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and currently an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, essentially tied with Graham.
And last month, the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which had listed the race as solidly Republican at the start of the election cycle, moved the contest to Lean Republican.
Should he win, Harrison would join Republican Sen. Tim Scott in representing South Carolina, making the state the first to have two Black senators serving concurrently.
But with the president expected to win at the top of the ballot in this traditionally Republican state, Harrison has a narrow path to victory.
He either has to count on a significant number of Trump voters to cast ballots for him or, as Ragusa says is the more likely possibility, he has to see some Trump supporters voting third party — or not vote at all.
“We see that all the time,” Ragusa said. “It’s often the case that a lot of people vote at the top of the ticket, in this case, president, and then leave down ballot boxes unchecked.”
Graham is not the only Republican incumbent underperforming Trump in their individual states. According to Real Clear Politics, Sen. Martha McSally is polling almost 2 points below the president in Arizona, while Sen. Tom Tillis is underperforming Trump in the polls by nearly 4 points in North Carolina.
Explaining why Graham is vulnerable, Democrats observing this Senate race say the three-term senator has become a more partisan and polarizing figure over his years in office.
Despite his previous record of independence and bipartisanship and initially being a vocal Trump critic during his own presidential bid, Graham has since become one of the president’s closest allies in the Senate.
“When you have someone like Lindsey Graham who has left South Carolina behind and just wants to play political games in Washington, people ask, ‘What happened with Lindsey?’” said Guy King, the Harrison campaign’s communications director.
“Jaime is a candidate that upholds the characteristics and values that South Carolinians hold dear,” King added.
Given his prior willingness to buck the party line, Graham has not always been popular with conservatives. But Ragusa says Graham’s staunch defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh against allegations of sexual assault in 2018 helped the senator stave off a conservative primary challenge, though it may cause him some problems in the general election.
Republicans with knowledge of the contest question the accuracy of the polls and say that while the Senate race may be more competitive this year, voters in the solidly Republican state will ultimately want to maintain the Senate majority — and they know that Graham will hold the party line.
“Lindsey Graham has always been his own man,” said T.W. Arrighi, Graham’s campaign communications director said.
“Some constituents may not agree with Sen. Graham on every issue, but they’ll know exactly where he stands and can trust that he’s putting South Carolina’s interests first,” he added.
Harry Reid predicts Democrats will flip the Senate
WASHINGTON — Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made a bullish prediction Thursday that his party will flip six or seven Republican-held seats in the 2020 election and seize the majority.
“I think we’re going to retake the Senate,” the Nevada Democrat told NBC News. “I think we're going to win in Colorado, Montana, Maine, North Carolina, (Sen. David) Perdue’s seat in Georgia — we're going to win in Arizona. And we’re in good shape in Iowa.”
He added, “If I’m only right on three of those we’ll still take the Senate.”
Reid served as minority leader and majority leader during the last decade of his 30-year tenure in the chamber.
It's a challenging cycle for Senate Republicans, who hold a 52-48 majority and are defending 23 seats, compared to just 12 Democrats are defending. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Republican Arizona Sen. Martha McSally's seat as "lean Democrat", and rates the other six mentioned by Reid as toss-ups.
And while Republicans are defending seats in vulnerable areas, Democrats are mostly defending seats on favorable terrain with the exception of Sen. Doug Jones, Ala., who is in a race that Cook rates as “lean Republican”.
Mark Kelly apologizes for offensive 2018 comment
WASHINGTON — Arizona Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly apologized on Thursday for 2018 remarks where he joked about the changes his astronaut brother underwent after an extended time in space, saying in jest that he's begun acting like a monkey and they've started calling him "Rodrigo."
Kelly made the remarks during a 2018 appearance in New Jersey.
"There was a lot written about his DNA, and how his DNA has changed from his year in space," Kelly said.
He added, "It's gotten so bad that we recently had to release him back into the wild. He's like halfway between an orangutan and a howler monkey. We even changed his name to Rodrigo."
Kelly's twin brother, Scott, is white.
"The video was recirculated earlier on Thursday by Republican Moses Sanchez who ran for Phoenix mayor in in 2018. Sanchez called the comments 'racist.'"
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also tweeted the video and asked for Kelly to answer for the "offensive quote."
"My brother's year in space was really hard on him and we tried to bring some light to his difficult ordeal, but this comment does not do that and I apologize and deeply regret it," Kelly said in a statement.
Trump campaign back on Michigan airwaves for first time in seven weeks
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's campaign has returned to the airwaves in Michigan this week for the first time since mid-July.
The re-elect started running ads in Michigan on Tuesday, data from Advertising Analytics shows. The campaign has reserved $1.2 million in television and radio time in Michigan through Monday, and has another $4 million booked there through the end of the month.
At least three different ads have run in Michigan, according to Advertising Analytics trackers, ads that typify the different strategies Trump is taking in the hopes of closing the gap with Biden.
- One focused on the coronavirus, arguing that America is near the "finish line" for developing a vaccine and that the economy is "coming back to life" but "Joe Biden wants to change that."
- One accusing Biden of being a tool of the "radical left" and a Trojan Horse for their policies
- And one on that claims that while "lawless criminals terrorize Kenosha, Joe Biden takes a knee" while President Trump is trying to protect Wisconsin
Before this week, the Trump campaign hadn't run ads in Michigan since July 21. The campaign is still dark in Pennsylvania, where it hasn't run an ad since July 28.
Biden's campaign has massively outspent Trump in swing states recently — the Democratic campaign spent $86.4 million in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin from July 28 through Sept. 7, compared to the $17.3 million spent by Trump over the same period.
But big spending by GOP outside groups have cut into Biden's large TV spending edge in those states.