Politics Headlines

adamkaz/iStockBy DEENA ZARU and ARIELLE MITROPOULOS, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are heading to Minnesota on Friday, as the Midwestern state becomes among the first to begin early in-person voting in the 2020 general election.

It has been nearly half a century since Minnesota voted for a Republican presidential candidate, but it is seen as a potential swing state following Trump's narrow loss in 2016 to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the North Star State has also been at the forefront of the national debate on race and racism in America following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, which sparked a massive civil rights movement in the U.S.

Trump is set to hold an event in Bemidji in Beltrami County, which is split between the 7th and 8th congressional districts. Trump won the county in 2016, with 50.6% of the vote. The 7th Congressional District had historically voted Democrat in the past, but in 2016 Trump carried the district by a 15-point margin.

Meanwhile, Biden will host an event in Duluth in the 8th Congressional District at a union training center. Duluth, which casts almost a quarter of the rural north's total vote, swung for the Democratic ticket by 37 points in 2012 and by 29 points in 2016.

Ahead of Biden and Trump's visits, Gov. Tim Walz urged both campaigns to comply with Minnesota's COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Trump has consistently cast himself as the "law and order" president; however, his campaign has consistently flouted health guidelines amid the pandemic, holding large rallies across the country where thousands gathered in close quarters, often without masks.

Why Trump is in a 'jam' in Minnesota

Minnesota is increasingly seen as a potential swing state in the presidential election, given Trump's near victory against Clinton in 2016. Trump lost the Midwestern state's 10 electoral votes by a slim margin to the former secretary of state, who won by about 44,500 votes or 1.5%.

The president has repeatedly voiced his conviction that he would have flipped the state in 2016 if he had made one more appearance prior to the election.

"One more speech, I would have won," Trump told his supporters during a campaign event on Aug. 17, at the Mankato Regional Airport.

Since the last presidential election, there has been an uptick in Republican support. Two House seats, in the 1st and 8th congressional districts, previously held by Democrats, flipped in 2018.

But according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday, women, suburban residents and independents are among the groups lifting Biden to a substantial lead in Minnesota, where he holds a clear advantage, 57% to 41%.

Political scientist Larry Jacobs, the founder of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, told ABC News that "deep disapproval" in the president's handling of the pandemic is central to why he is in a "jam" in Minnesota.

"I think it's a sense that the country is in the wrong direction. I think he's continued to deeply offend women and so there's a tremendous gender gap," he said, adding that "the problems you've seen in other states, they exist in Minnesota. The president is losing among women and the coronavirus is hurting him."

The new ABC News poll results show that views on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic are defining the 2020 race.

Biden leads Trump by 22 points in trust to handle the coronavirus, as well as 24 points on equal treatment of racial groups, 17 points on handling health care, 14 points on discouraging violence at political protests and 11 points on crime and safety. But when it comes to who can best handle the economy, it is a dead heat.

Why 'turnout' is key for Biden

For decades, Minnesota has had an unbroken Democratic streak, voting for Democratic presidential candidates as far back as Jimmy Carter in 1976. Since 1932, it has voted Republican only once -- for Richard Nixon in 1972. But according to Jacobs, dynamics in the state have shifted in recent decades and this is reflected in the 2020 landscape.

Describing the state as "polka-dotted," Jacobs said that rural areas are red, urban areas are blue and the suburbs are purple.

Democratic support grows the closer you get to the more highly populated "urban core" -- the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where Trump "has large deficits," Jacobs explained. Meanwhile, Trump's support is "coming from mostly rural areas," he added, "particularly the northern part of the state, which was once a Democratic stronghold," as well as southern Minnesota.

The rural north, known as the Iron Range, was an industrial base known for mining and the production of iron ore and there, Democrats like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale were victorious, but that has since "collapsed" and become a Republican stronghold, Jacobs said.

In a campaign press release on Wednesday, Biden staked claim to the Iron Range, saying he was proud to be endorsed by labor, including the United Steelworkers, who backed him after six Iron Range mayors pledged their support for Trump in August.

"I think one of the big issues is going to be turnout in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It there's a large turnout, that's going to be good news for Democrats," Jacobs said. "If there's a huge turnout in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Trump's gonna have a very difficult time, and I think the suburbs will probably signal where the state's gonna go If it's closer."

According to the new ABC News poll, Biden has a 16-point lead in the Minnesota suburbs, a 21-point lead with independents and a vast lead with women, leading Trump 67% to 31% in the state and with a 40-point lead among suburban women.

Trump pitches 'law and order' as Biden leads in trust

Streets throughout the U.S. have been rocked by protests in response to the police killings of unarmed Black men and women across the country -- an issue that has become central to both the Trump and Biden campaigns.

And in Minnesota, where Floyd was killed, the energy is high and tensions are palpable.

Leslie Redmond, president of the NAACP's Minneapolis chapter, told ABC News that even before the coronavirus plagued the nation, Black people in Minnesota "were already in a state of emergency," facing "some of the worst racial disparities" economically and socially.

"COVID-19 really shut the world down and George Floyd and his murder really kind of opened the world back up," Redmond said. "Before George Floyd was murdered, people weren't even really coming outside like that, and then you have people willing to risk their own health to protest in the state. The thing that's really killing us is white supremacy. And I think that that's really powerful. And I think that that has ignited a number of people, and I'm hoping that the protests can lead over to the voting as well."

According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, views on the protests and the president's response are also impacting the choices of voters.

Non-whites make up small shares of likely voters in Minnesota, at 13%, and about two-thirds support Biden.

The president, who is casting himself as a "law and order" candidate, has blasted the protests and repeatedly criticized the leadership of Democratic officials, including Walz, blaming them for the ongoing violence, looting and riots that have erupted amid the unrest.

Last month, Trump held an event in Manakota, where he spoke to a crowd of supporters, and voiced his support for the local police department and those impacted by some of the destruction of local businesses that ensued following the protests.

Biden has criticized the violence but has been steadfast in his support for protesters. He also met with Floyd's family in June ahead of the funeral in Minneapolis and vowed to focus on police reform and battling systemic racism if elected.

People who back recent protests over police treatment of Black people back Biden by 86% to 12% in Minnesota, while about three-quarters of those who opposed them support Trump. Meanwhile, registered voters support such protests by 55% to 40% in Minnesota and trust Biden over Trump to handle equal treatment of racial groups by 24 points and Biden in handling crime and safety by 11 points over Trump.

Absentee ballot requests rise as early voting begins

Minnesotans will be among the first Americans to cast their ballots at a voting booth this fall, when they head to the polls on Friday for the state's first day of in-person voting.

Meanwhile, mail-in voting is becoming an increasingly popular option for those hoping to avoid gatherings amid the pandemic. As of Sept. 11, 863,052 absentee ballots for the November general election had already been requested.

In last month's primary, six in 10 voters in the state voted by absentee ballot. In past elections, the number of absentee voters has hovered around 24%.

Voters in Minnesota have until Oct. 13 to request a mail-in or absentee ballot. In addition, the state extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be received -- by 8 p.m., within one week of Election Day. The previous rule was that ballots had to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

In order to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots by mail, Minnesota agreed to drop the witness requirement from its mail-in voting process for both the 2020 primary and the general elections.

Minnesota often leads the nation in voter turnout, and by beginning the early voting process on Sept.18, the state law is giving Minnesotans 46 days to cast their votes.

Grace Wachlarowicz, assistant city clerk and director of Elections & Voter Services in Minneapolis, told ABC News that 114,891 mail ballots will be sent out to voters on Friday.

The state has also implemented a number of safety measures, which Wachlarowicz says will be followed "stringently," including sanitization, appropriate spaces, and curbside voters for voters who choose to cast their ballots in-person. Additionally, the governor's July 25 executive order requires that masks be worn in public places, including polling places, though no voter will be denied the right to vote if he or she refuses to wear a mask.

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Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesBy ABC News

(MOOSIC, Pa.) -- Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president and former vice president, appeared in a town hall held in Moosic, Pennsylvania, hosted by CNN on Thursday.

His appearance follows President Donald Trump's ABC News town hall with uncommitted voters on Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Below, ABC News fact checks what Biden said during the town hall event:

Biden misstated attorney general's comment on slavery, lockdowns

BIDEN'S CLAIM: Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper to respond to those "who say it's individual liberty to not wear a mask." Biden said, "Well let me tell you something. You know I -- What Bill Barr recently said is outrageous. That it's like slavery. You're taking away freedom. I would tell you what takes away your freedom. What takes away your freedom is not being able to see your kid, not being able to go to the football game or baseball game, not being able to see your mom or dad sick in the hospital, not being able to do the things. That's what's cost us our freedom."

FACT CHECK:
Biden seemed to be referencing comments made by Attorney General Bill Barr Wednesday at a Constitution Day celebration hosted by Michigan's Hillsdale College.

At the event, Barr said that "other than slavery" coronavirus lockdowns were "the greatest intrusion of civil liberties in American history." The attorney general's remarks got almost immediate push back from lawmakers and others who condemned his language.

But while Barr was commenting on lockdowns caused by the virus, Biden was responding to a question about wearing masks. Barr did not make any comparison between mask wearing and slavery Wednesday.

Biden was trying to call attention to Barr's comments as at odds with American history -- echoing much of the criticism the attorney general received.

Later in the town hall, Biden referenced the remarks again after Cooper asked him about them -- but incorrectly said that Barr said lockdowns were equivalent to slavery; Barr said slavery was worse.

"Quite frankly, they're sick," Biden said of the comments. "Think about it. Did you ever think, any of you, you'd hear attorney general say that following the recommendations of the scientific community to save you and other people's lives is equivalent to slavery?"

Biden mixes up source for impact of masks

BIDEN'S CLAIM: When Cooper asked how Biden will get the proper messaging out to all Americans to keep them informed as to how to properly protect themselves and others from this pandemic, the former vice president said that even though he does have the authority to require a universal mask mandate, he would propose safety guidelines for states to follow and implement.

"I cannot mandate people wearing masks, but we've just been told, if we should expect another 215,000 dead by January, but if we wore a mask, we would save 100,000 of those lives," Biden said. "His own CDC director contradicted him recently. He said if, in fact, you just wore this mask, nothing else but this mask, you would save between now and January another 100,000 lives."

FACT CHECK: The current director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, has not, in fact, claimed that 100,000 lives could be saved if Americans wore masks universally.

Biden may have been referring to a former CDC director, Tom Frieden, who tweeted on Monday: "Masks work, and 100,000 deaths in the US could quite possibly have been prevented, simply and cheaply, if we all wore masks, washed our hands, and watched our distance."

During his Senate testimony on Wednesday, Redfield did state that masks may be a more effective protection against the coronavirus than any potential vaccine.

Biden could have also been referencing a forecast model created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which predicted that if Americans wore masks universally, nearly 117,000 lives could be spared by Jan. 1, 2021.

Later in the town hall, Biden did appear to refer to the IHME model, saying there could be another 215,000 American lives lost by January. Nearly 200,000 Americans have died so far, and the IHME model currently projects there could be a total of 415,000 coronavirus related deaths in the U.S. by January.

Biden would not be first president without Ivy League degree

BIDEN'S CLAIM:
"When you guys started talking on television about 'Biden, if he wins will be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president.' I said, 'Who the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president?' I'm not joking," Biden said.

FACT CHECK: Despite his suggestion, Biden would not be the first president without an Ivy League degree, as several presidents in the country's history did not receive a college degree at all.

Biden would be the first president since Ronald Reagan to be elected president without an Ivy League education.

The Biden-Harris ticket is the first since the 1984 ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro to have two non-Ivy League graduates and if successful, the first winning ticket since 1976 with Jimmy Carter and Mondale.

The 2020 Democratic nominees do make history with Harris as the first graduate from a Historically Black College and University to appear on a major party ticket.

Biden misleads when saying he wants to grow fracking industry

BIDEN CLAIM: Biden was asked if he'd "support the continuation of fracking safely" and "growing the industry."

"Yes, I do," Biden said, later adding, "We can put to work right away 250,000 people from the iron workers and other disciplines making union wages, capping those wells that are leaking methane and are a danger to the community."

FACT CHECK: Biden's response that he supported the continuation of fracking accurately reflected his environmental plan, but Biden doesn't want to add new fracking on public lands. He wants to move away from fracking to eventually get net-zero emissions. So when he answered yes to "growing the industry," it was misleading.

At the town hall, Biden was challenged on why fracking should continue if it contributes to climate change. He argued a transition to clear energy was necessary to keep people employed.

"Fracking has to continue because we need a transition," he said. "We're going to get to net zero emissions by 2050 and we'll get to net zero power emissions by 2035. But there is no rationale to eliminate right now fracking, number one. Number two, those jobs that are out there, whether it's a IBEW worker or whether it's an iron worker or the steel worker."

Biden's environmental plan calls for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for a massive investment in clean energy, including training fossil fuel workers for clean energy jobs.

During an address in August, Biden said, "I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me."

In July 2019, Biden was asked during a CNN debate if there would be a place for fossil fuels, like coal and fracking, in a Biden administration. "We would make sure it's eliminated," he answered. After his comment, Biden's campaign clarified that he was referring to public land.

Biden correctly characterized past statements on 'locking down' country

BIDEN'S CLAIM: Biden was asked about a recent interview he did with ABC World News Tonight Anchor David Muir.

"I was asked if, in fact, there was a national emergency, and every -- everyone -- all the experts said lock it down," Biden said. "We're not talking about locking down the whole country."

FACT CHECK: Biden fairly characterized the exchange he had with Muir last month.

"You talk about the science. If you're sworn in come January, and -- and we have coronavirus and the flu combining, which many scientists have said is a real possibility, would you be prepared to shut this country down again?" Muir asked.

Biden replied, "I will be prepared to do whatever it takes to save lives because we cannot get the country moving until we control the virus. That is the fundamental flaw of this administration's thinking to begin with. In order to keep the country running and moving and the economy growing, and people employed, you have to fix the virus, you have to deal with the virus."

"So if the scientists say shut it down?" Muir asked.

"I would shut it down, I would listen to the scientists," Biden said.

At a news conference a couple weeks later, Biden clarified his answer to Muir.

"There's going to be no need, in my view, to be able to shut down the whole economy," he said. "I got asked by David Muir a question, if I was asked to shut everything down. I took that as a generic question if -- am I going to follow the science? I am going to insist -- and I insist now, without any authority, that every responsible person in this country, when they're out in public or not with the cohort that they have lived with because they know they haven't spread it to their husband, wife, etc., that they wear a mask."

Biden went on to say he would look to set criteria for certain towns and areas and potentially lock those down, thus eliminating the need for a national shut down, and added: "We're not talking about locking down the whole country."

In any case, state and local officials -- not the president -- are responsible for most decisions about whether to shutter businesses, close schools and enact other coronavirus-related restrictions.

Biden incorrectly states that Trump hasn’t condemned white supremacists

BIDEN’S CLAIM: Biden was asked by a retired police chief about the “violence taking place in our cities across this country.”

"I've condemned every form of violence, no matter what the source is," Biden said. "No matter what the source is. The president has yet to condemn, as you’ve probably noticed, the far-right and the white supremacists and those guys walking around with the AK-47s and not doing a damn thing about them."

He added, "I'm waiting for the day when he says, 'I condemn all those white supremacists, I condemn all those militia guys as much as I do every other organizational structure.'"

FACT CHECK:
Biden is correct that Trump has not condemned white supremacists recently, but Trump has done so in the past.

Two days after violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 -- after first equating violence from white supremacists with those protesting -- Trump said, “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.”

A month later, the president signed a congressional resolution condemning white supremacy.

In 2019, following shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump said, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. ”

"These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul,” he added.

Though the president has condemned white supremacy, he has yet to condemn one of his supporters who screamed “white power” during a golf cart parade in Florida, captured in a video he retweeted this year. He created a firestorm by sharing the video and thanking the "great people" of the Florida residential community where the parade took place.

The president deleted the tweet hours later. At the time, White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement, "President Trump is a big fan of The Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video."

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USPSBy LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- State election officials condemned the Postal Service this week for distributing an informational mailer about absentee voting that they said would confuse voters, urging them to check state guidelines instead, and prompting embattled Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to vow Thursday that he "will do better next time" -- without explaining when next time would be.

A 6-by-9-inch postcard is threatening to broaden the growing rift between state election officials and the U.S. Postal Service, with each side accusing the other of further muddying the already complex state-by-state rules for absentee voting.

The informational mailer, distributed by the Postal Service to every residential address across the country in recent days, was supposed to encourage those interested in voting by mail to "plan ahead" by requesting a ballot more than two weeks before the election, then returning the ballot at least one week before the election.

But that message almost immediately attracted the ire of state leaders, whose public reactions ranged from "missed the mark" to "disinformation." Those officials accused the Postal Service of confusing voters, as the mailers' advice ran counter to some states' voting rules and conflicted with others that automatically send ballots to registered voters.

Their frustration was compounded by the Postal Service's unwillingness to coordinate their outreach with the states, even after state leaders explicitly asked DeJoy to do so.

During a conference call with state leaders on Thursday, DeJoy said it was his "intent" to coordinate with election leaders, but conceded he failed to do so and promised to "do better next time." The Postal Service has defended their mailer as "general all-purpose guidance" for voters and maintained it was not intended to replace state-specific absentee voting rules.

Election experts said the fallout could serve to further undermine the already fragile relationship between Postal Service executives and election chiefs and, by extension, threaten to sow confusion ahead of what is expected to be a record-breaking year of mail-in voting.

Regardless of who is at fault, election experts said the fallout could serve to further undermine the already fragile relationship and, by extension, threaten to sow confusion ahead of what is expected to be a record-breaking year of mail-in voting.

Tammy Patrick, a former state election liaison to the Postal Service, warned that "any time there is wrong information in the public square it is problematic."

"Voters are going to be inundated with information in the coming weeks," said Patrick, who is currently a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund. "We want to be sure that we're calling out any sort of activity or action -- on behalf of anyone in the elections environment or ecosphere -- that could impact negatively the voter or the voting process."

In Colorado, where Secretary of State Jena Griswold has already filed a lawsuit against DeJoy and the Postal Service over the postcards, a federal judge has temporarily halted further mailers from being distributed in the state.

Griswold's complaint claims the mailer threatens to "disenfranchise Colorado voters" and is "incorrect in several material ways," specifically noting that registered voters in the state automatically receive a ballot in the mail, rendering moot the Postal Service's guidance that prospective voters should request their ballot 15 days before the election.

The state acknowledged in court documents Wednesday that it was not the Postal Service's intention to sow confusion, but added that, "by providing disinformation to Colorado households, the Postal Service hurt, rather than helped, Colorado voters."

That sentiment was shared by election leaders in other states. Wayne Thorley, Nevada's deputy secretary of state for elections, told a local news station, "I don't think USPS had any sort of malice or were trying to confuse voters intentionally, I just think they missed the mark a little bit in not realizing how different each states election laws are."

"Unfortunately," Thorley continued, "the postcard has caused some confusion in Nevada."

Others reacted in harsher terms, slamming the Postal Service for promulgating information that could confuse voters.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said the "inconsistencies between the guidance offered on the USPS postcard and California Elections law" left him "deeply concerned about the potential for voter confusion." In Utah, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox sought to correct "misinformation" in the postcard in a press release. New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way warned on Twitter that information on the Postal Service's mailer "conveys certain information that does not apply to NJ voters."

The dismay expressed by election leaders across the country could have been avoided, according to Maria Benson, a spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State. Benson said this specific issue was raised during a meeting with DeJoy last month -- before the mailers were distributed.

"During the Aug. 27 meeting with the Postmaster and USPS staff, we urged staff to share any mailer with NASS first, so that we could help with any edits that may be necessary because of the differing election laws around the U.S.," Benson said. "No draft, however, was shared with us before it began to be sent in the mail."

Patrick echoed that sentiment, calling it "unfortunate" that the Postal Service neglected to confer with state leaders.

"The postal service has never done anything like this before," Patrick said. "When you look at the mailer, if they have added a half a dozen words it would have been a lot better."

On Thursday, during his conference call with the state election leaders, DeJoy said he "previewed the fact that the mailer was coming in our last call," and it was the Postal Service's "intent to give you a heads-up to see the mailer in advance."

"But it started hitting households ... the same day we sent it to NASS, which we understand was not enough of a heads-up for you," DeJoy continued. "We will do better next time."

DeJoy added that the mailer was distributed as a way "to craft one common message to encourage voters to inform themselves on how to vote by mail effectively."

"The concern that some of you have voiced about the mailer underscores why we set out to create one message and not state-specific guidance," he said.

The mailer dispute marks the latest chapter in the increasingly fraught relationship between election leaders and the mail agency. In July, a letter from the Postal Service warning election officials in 46 states and the District of Columbia that their absentee voting rules were "incongruous" with the agency's mail delivery service standards irked many state leaders.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to cast doubt on the viability of absentee voting in states that plan to send ballots to all registered voters in the coming weeks. In a pair of tweets Thursday morning, Trump claimed without evidence that "the new and unprecedented massive amount of unsolicited ballots" will lead to "MAYHEM" and mean the "Election result may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED."

Despite the unrelenting controversy, the Postal Service maintains it will have sufficient resources to execute absentee mail ahead of the November election.

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Ksenia Shestakova/iStockBy BENJAMIN SIEGEL and LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The United States Postal Service drafted plans to distribute 650 million reusable cotton face masks to Americans last spring -- five to every household -- as the country grappled with the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak, according to USPS internal documents obtained by a watchdog group.

The draft was among nearly 10,000 pages of USPS documents turned over to American Oversight in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails, memos and legal correspondence released illustrate how the agency struggled to address the pandemic in its earliest weeks, as front-line postal workers feared for their safety and executives worried about disruptions to the agency's service and funding.

According to the draft release, the agency, working with the Department of Health and Human Services, would first send masks to areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates at the time -- including Louisiana's Orleans and Jefferson parishes; King County, Washington; New York; and Wayne County, Michigan.

"Our organization is uniquely suited to undertake this historic mission of delivering face coverings to every American household in the fight against the COVID-19 virus," the then-postmaster general and CEO, Megan J. Brennan, said in the prepared release.

The White House declined to comment on the draft proposal, referring questions to the Department of Health and Human Services.

An HHS spokesperson said roughly 600 million of the total 650 million masks have been delivered under Project America Strong as "part of a multi-prong approach to re-opening the American economy while limiting the spread of COVID-19."

A spokesman for the Postal Service did not respond to a message seeking comment.

"There was concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic," one administration official told The Washington Post about the proposal.

Instead, the initiative, announced by the Trump administration under the "Project: America Strong," was a more targeted program to send face masks to critical infrastructure sectors, companies and health care, community and religious organizations.

The program is no longer accepting new requests for face masks, according to its website, and instead encourages applicants to purchase face masks elsewhere or make their own.

President Donald Trump said on Aug. 12 that the government would also send 120 million face masks to schools ahead of the fall.

"The Postal Service connects every single person in American, and the president could have used it for public health, but he didn't," Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, told ABC News, calling out Trump. "An opportunity to deliver science-based public health tools to every person in the country was lost."

"Giving out masks to everyone doesn't mean that people will necessarily wear them, but it does send a strong message that mask wearing is a public health imperative," Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former health commissioner of Baltimore, told ABC News.

Trump has been criticized by public health experts for failing to aggressively promote the widespread use of masks across the country to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

While the White House claims Trump supports mask wearing, he initially downplayed needing to wear one himself, and said he couldn't imagine sitting behind the Resolute Desk with a mask on.

He wasn't seen wearing a mask in public until July, when he visited wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and tweeted that wearing a mask was "patriotic."

But he continued sending mixed messages on the subject this week. After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Robert Redfield, told Congress on Wednesday that masks might offer better protection than a vaccine from COVID-19 -- comparing the research about the effectiveness of masks to the unknown efficacy of the vaccines still in development -- Trump told reporters Redfield "made a mistake" with his comments.

"A lot of people think that masks are not good," Trump said in an ABC News town hall with undecided voters on Tuesday.

When pressed on his comments by ABC News' chief anchor, George Stephanopoulos, Trump only said he had heard that from "waiters."

"Our entire response has been hampered by mixed messaging," Wen told ABC News. "At this point, it's way beyond mixed messaging, we're talking about an absolutely disruptive message that goes against public health."

USPS itself has also struggled to keep its workforce healthy. In a video released Thursday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy revealed that more than 11,000 USPS employees have contracted COVID-19 to date -- and 87 of those infected have died.

DeJoy, who took control of the beleaguered agency in June, has come under immense scrutiny in recent months after a set of cost-cutting initiatives slowed mail delivery service during the summer months.

Congressional Democrats have accused DeJoy, who is a longtime Republican donor and Trump ally, of deliberately slowing mail service as part of an effort to undermine absentee voting in the upcoming election. On Thursday, a federal judge in Washington State ordered USPS to halt those measures, reportedly calling the company's actions "a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service" ahead of the November election.

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NoDerog/iStockBy ASHLEY BROWN and CHEYENNE HASLETT, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin says "all roads to the White House go through Wisconsin," but the party is also hoping that adding the fictional cities of Pawnee and Florin to the itinerary will help former Vice President Joe Biden's chances in November.

Wisconsin Democrats raised $4.25 million in a star-studded virtual event featuring the cast of The Princess Bride performing a live-streamed reading of the beloved 1987 movie script on Sunday. It was the largest-ever grassroots fundraiser for the state party, which held another celebrity reunion fundraiser Thursday featuring the cast of the hit sitcom Parks and Recreation. Thursday's event had raised more than $430,000 as it wrapped up, according to Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler.

"There are tens of thousands of people who've been watching tonight," Wikler said during the livestream, "instead of watching Donald Trump give a speech in Wisconsin today … which I think speaks volumes about differences in approach in a pandemic," he added, taking a dig at the president's in-person rally Thursday in Mosinee, Wisconsin.

Thursday night's event featured Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza, Retta, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Jim O'Heir, Ben Schwartz and show creator Michael Schur.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin said all proceeds are going towards the push to help Biden defeat President Donald Trump in the state -- a development that surely would have pleased Poehler's Parks and Rec character of Leslie Knope, whose ideal man, according to Schur, had "the mind of George Clooney and the body of Joe Biden."

"I have really fond memories, and we all do, of getting to work with so many on both sides of the aisle," Poehler said of one episode in which Biden and other political figures guest starred. "And Vice President Biden was certainly one of them."

Scott and Plaza anchored the fundraiser, starting with a Q&A session on how to apply for and mail-in absentee ballots in Wisconsin.

Wikler attributed the haul for Sunday's fundraiser -- which included Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn and Rob Reiner, among other celebs -- not only to the star power involved, but also the unique circumstances of the current election season.

"It's a new model for or a kind of grassroots engagement and fundraising and volunteer mobilization that really is the product of an election that matters so, so intensely for everyone," Wikler told ABC News ahead of Thursday's fundraiser, "and a pandemic that puts people in front of Zoom screens across the country on a regular basis."

Wikler also said that the state party's connection to Hollywood was forged in part by The West Wing actor Bradley Whitford, who grew up in Madison.

"Brad has a long history of coming back to his home state to help Democrats with campaigns," said Wikler, "and after the coronavirus hit, the usual in-person events stopped making sense."

That prompted Whitford and the party to host a podcast fundraiser reuniting several other West Wing cast members ahead of the Democratic National Convention in mid-August.

"And that was so successful that we just started brainstorming, 'who else might be up for doing something like this?'" said Wikler.

From there, a member of the state's Democratic Party was able to get in touch with Elwes, who was eager to set up a Princess Bride reunion.

The event drew more than 110,000 viewers on Sunday night. Supporters only had to donate $1 to register, but the average donation was about $30, according to a Democratic Party of Wisconsin staffer. One hundred thirty thousand people ended up donating in total.

Since then, other states have shown interest in a similar event to bring the characters of Westley, Princess Buttercup and Inigo Montoya back to life to help benefit Democrats.

"We've been approached by some other battleground states," Elwes told MSNBC Thursday morning about helping Democratic Party efforts outside of Wisconsin, "and so we're looking at doing some other table reads, yeah."

Separately, the Biden and Trump campaigns reported August fundraising figures of $364.5 million and $210 million, respectively, with Biden reportedly outspending Trump in television ads across battleground states, including Wisconsin.

"President Trump's campaign has invested heavily in a muscular field operation and ground game that will turn out our voters, while the Biden campaign is waging almost exclusively an air war," wrote 2020 Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien in a statement earlier this month, adding, "We like our strategy better."

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NoDerog/iStockBy QUINN SCANLAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday delivered three key wins for state Democrats' push to expand voting access, including extending the deadline by three days that mail-in ballots need to be received in order to be counted -- a move that will potentially lead to thousands more ballots being counted in a state where in 2016, only 44,292 votes decided the outcome of the presidential election.

Not only will mailed ballots that are postmarked on or before 8 p.m. on Election Day and received by 5 p.m. the Friday after it be counted, but any ballots that arrive within that time frame without a postmark, or with an unreadable postmark, will be presumed to have been sent before the cutoff point, unless evidence indicates otherwise.

The extension also makes it more likely that the outcome of the election won't be known for days -- potentially weeks -- after Nov. 3. In Pennsylvania, county election officials can't start processing mail in ballots at all until the polls open on Election Day."

Thanks to legislation enacted in November 2019, any Pennsylvania voter could opt to vote by mail this year, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, upending daily life -- and elections -- across the country. But state and local election officials couldn't have anticipated just how much that infrastructure would need to be scaled up for the 2020 election cycle. There was a 17-fold increase in applications to vote by mail for the June primary, and Gov. Tom Wolf ended up extending the mail-in ballot deadline for six counties, including Philadelphia and its suburbs, by one week the night before that election, citing the sheer volume of applications they received coupled with the civil unrest that was unfolding during that time.

In mid-August, the U.S. Postal Service sent letters to 45 states, warning that some of their respective deadlines around mail-in ballots "are incongruous with the Postal Service's delivery standards," underscoring what local election officials in the Keystone State had already believed -- that the one-week turnaround time from when applications are due and when ballots are due, normally by 8 p.m. on election night, would be unworkable even in a non-pandemic year.

"That's a joke, that's not ever going to happen ... I wouldn't put that particular issue on the Post Office whatsoever," Lee Soltysiak, chief clerk for Montgomery County, told ABC News back in May, explaining how even if a voter applied online at the deadline, the time it takes for an office to process that application, approve it, put the ballot in the mail and have the voter fill it out and mail it back, it would likely be late.

"There's a weekend involved. There's a Sunday involved. It's not getting back to a voter services office by 8 p.m. on Tuesday," he said.

Besides changing the deadlines, the only real relief voters -- and county election officials can have, is a means to avoid having to return the ballot by mail: Enter secure ballot drop boxes.

The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee sued to prevent them from being used in Pennsylvania, arguing the way counties moved to implement them, by bypassing the state legislature, was unconstitutional.

The state Supreme Court's decision Thursday on this issue delivered a blow to the Republican effort, which was put on hold by a federal judge to allow state courts the opportunity to weigh in on the matters involved.

"We need not belabor our ultimate conclusion that the Election Code should be interpreted to allow county boards of election to accept hand-delivered mail-in ballots at locations other than their office addresses including drop-boxes," Thursday's ruling read.

In another loss for the Trump campaign, the state Supreme Court ruled that Pennsylvania's requirement that poll watchers can only observe in the counties in which they are registered to vote is constitutional, citing the fact that elections are county-run. Republicans were pushing to allow voters statewide to monitor election sites, regardless of what county they lived in.

"Given that Pennsylvania's General Assembly chose a county-based scheme for conducting elections, it is reasonable that the Legislature would require poll watchers, who serve within the various counties of the state, to be residents of the counties in which they serve," the ruling stated. "Thus, there is a clear rational basis for the county poll watcher residency requirement, and we determine, therefore, that this requirement should be upheld."

In another lawsuit, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Green Party presidential ticket will not be on the ballot, paving the way for ballots to start being printed and distributed to voters after being put on hold while the legal battle played out. In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein won more votes in Pennsylvania than the margin separating President Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. While it's impossible to know whom every one of those voters would have cast ballots for -- if anyone -- had Stein not been on the ballot, the Green Party's platform is more in line with Democrats' than Republicans'.

However, it wasn't all wins for Democrats on Thursday.

In the state Democratic Party's lawsuit, the state Supreme Court ruled that mail ballots not properly returning in the secrecy envelope "must be disqualified," concluding "that the Legislature intended for the secrecy envelope provision to be mandatory."

Additionally, in a separate ruling, the court decided that third parties delivering ballots on behalf of voters is forbidden under state law.

Trump cheered that ruling on Twitter.

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iStock/KuzmaBY: KATHERINE FAULDERS, AARON KATERSKY, and LEE FERRAN, ABC News

(MILWAUKEE) -- A superseding indictment filed Thursday against former associates of President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani appears to draw the first direct connection in the ongoing criminal case to a part of the alleged criminal enterprise and the fees that were paid to Giuliani.

The superseding indictment against Giuliani's two former business partners, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, added a wire fraud conspiracy charge against Parnas and another defendant, David Correia, while also detailing a new alleged scheme regarding how, according to prosecutors, the men illegally induced an investor to give $500,000 to their company, Fraud Guarantee, in 2018.

The detail appears to be a reference to a $500,000 loan given by investor and pro-Trump Republican donor Charles Gucciardo that Parnas allegedly used to pay Giuliani.

Gucciardo's lawyer Randy Zelin told ABC News last year that he invested in Fraud Guarantee the $500,000 because, "he believed that Mr. Giuliani -- the former Mayor of New York City; former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York; and, the first name in cybersecurity -- was in front of, behind, and alongside the Company which would catapult the Company into the world of cybersecurity and investor protection."

Giuliani never participated in any advertising for Fraud Guarantee and Giuliani's attorney has previously said he never authorized any of the defendants in the case to make representations about his involvement in the company.

At the same time, prosecutors in their indictment Thursday accused Parnas, Correia and Fruman of enticing their victim to make the $500,000 loan based on false representations of how much money Fraud Guarantee was valued at the time.

Zelin did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment on the superseding indictment Thursday.

New charges had been expected, after federal prosecutors said late last year they were likely to add charges to the campaign finance case.

“The FBI and the American public expect that it will be our fellow citizens whose voices determine the outcome of our Nation's elections, not deliberately corrupt behavior, or foreign influence disguised as legitimate activity," Bill Sweeney, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said Thursday. "The FBI is determined to disrupt this type of behavior, and our investigation is ongoing.”

Parnas and Fruman were indicted by the Southern District of New York in October 2019 on charges including conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud, false statements to the Federal Election Commission and falsification of records as part of an alleged scheme to circumvent federal campaign finance laws against straw donations and foreign contributions ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Both men, who have each pleaded not guilty, were arrested at Dulles International airport as they were about to leave the country in October, 2019. Each carried several phones, tablets and laptops which were seized on the spot, prosecutors have said. The government has been extracting information from all of them. Their trial is set for February. Correia has also pleaded not guilty.

The criminal charges against Parnas and Fruman touched off an investigation of Giuliani's business dealings. The former mayor of New York City has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.

According to the original indictment, Parnas had been working with Giuliani in the effort to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and to oust then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and career foreign service officer Marie Yovanovitch, whose removal in April 2019 figured prominently in the impeachment hearings against Trump.

The duo had allegedly helped arrange meetings between Giuliani and former and current Ukrainian officials.

Yovanovitch later said that the decision to recall her was based on "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives" that she was disloyal to Trump.

Parnas cooperated with House impeachment investigators.

Giuliani has acknowledged receiving $500,000 in payments for work he did for a company owned by Parnas and Fruman, telling ABC News at the time that he was retained by Parnas' business, Fraud Guarantee, to do consulting work. Giuliani insisted any money he took came from domestic, not foreign, sources.

Prosecutors also allege that Parnas and Fruman enlisted help from former Texas Republican Congressman Pete Sessions to have Yovanovitch recalled as ambassador.

Sessions, who was not charged, told ABC News in October 2019 he was cooperating with the federal probe of Parnas and Fruman.



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TriggerPhoto/iStockBy KATHERINE FAULDERS, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- A former top White House official has joined the ranks of other past Trump administration officials speaking out against President Donald Trump's reelection.

Olivia Troye, who served as Vice President Mike Pence's homeland security adviser, described her time in the White House as "terrifying" and says the president "could have saved lives" in his response to the coronavirus pandemic in a video released Thursday.

"When we were in a task force meeting, the president said, 'Maybe this COVID thing is a good thing. I don't like shaking hands with people. I don't have to shake hands with these disgusting people.' Those disgusting people are the same people that he claims to care about, these are the people still going to his rallies today who have complete faith in who he is," Troye said in the video released by "Republican Voters Against Trump."

"If the president had taken this virus seriously, or if he had actually made an effort to tell how serious it was, he would have slowed the virus spread, he would have saved lives," she added.

Troye has been a Republican her whole life and announced she will be voting for former Vice President Joe Biden because the country is at a time of "constitutional crisis."

Pence called Troye a "disgruntled employee" who's "decided to play politics" at a roundtable with the Coronavirus Commission for Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes at the White House Thursday.

"Well, I haven't read her comments in any detail, but it reads to me like one more disgruntled employee has left the White House, and has decided to play politics during an election year," he said. "I think my staff has indicated that she made no comments like that when she was serving on our team here at the White House coronavirus task force, and I couldn't be more proud of the work we've done all along the way."

The anti-Trump group Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform -- or REPAIR for short -- has also released an initial list of "advisers" comprised of many former senior U.S. government officials.

Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security launched the group. Troye is an adviser to the group, along with Josh Venable, the former chief of staff at the Department of Education.

The group describes themselves as "a group of current and former senior U.S. government officials and conservatives -- including from the Reagan, Bush 41 and 43, and Trump administrations -- seeking to restore principled leadership in Washington, refocus the Republican Party's priorities, and repair the American republic."

ABC News' Justin Gomez contributed to this report.

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ABC NewsBY: CHEYENNE HASLETT, WILL STEAKIN, and SOO RIN KIM, ABC News

(MILWAUKEE) -- President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Wisconsin on Thursday will not only kick off a precarious string of large, in-person campaign events for the president across crucial swing states, but it'll also be held in a state and county that's seeing a spike in coronavirus cases as the country nears 200,000 deaths from the pandemic.

The rally, taking place at an airport hangar in Mosinee, Wisconsin, comes as the county hosting the event, Marathon County, saw 925 positive coronavirus cases as of Sept. 16 and as the president publicly clashed with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over a timeline for a vaccine.

After a brief pause in packed rallies over the summer, the president has returned to full-steam ahead with less than 50 days to go until Election Day. He has begun holding multiple packed rallies each week that often break local guidelines and ignore the recommendations his own administration is promoting, though in Wisconsin and nationally, Trump continues to trail Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls.

"This week, the COVID-19 activity level for Marathon County is: HIGH," reads the county's coronavirus online dashboard. "High" is defined as a "significant increase in cases in the past two weeks."

Fourteen people have died between July 15 and Sept. 7.

"In the past several days we have seen an increase in the daily number of COVID cases reported to the Marathon County Health Department," department spokesperson Judy Burrows told ABC News, adding that the county has yet to experience the "exceptionally large increases that some other Wisconsin communities are seeing."

Cases across Wisconsin have skyrocketed in the past couple weeks, with the state reporting a record of 2,034 cases on Thursday.

State and local officials have attributed much of the increase in cases across the state to a spread among college students. According to data released by the state, there has been a significant jump in cases in the 18- to 24-age range, which tends to include college students.

Despite that, the Trump campaign said the event is moving forward.

This will be Trump's second visit to Wisconsin in the past month -- the president held a rally on Aug. 17 in Oshkosh, which is in Winnebago County.

There, signs of a surge in cases showed a week after the president's visit, with a steeper spike over the past week. The county reported a record 149 cases on Thursday.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, a spokesperson for the state's health department, however, told ABC News that there's only been one case linked to the Trump rally in Oshkosh.

"As part of their routine interview, people who have COVID-19 are asked about any large gatherings they attended," Goodsitt said. "One person who has tested COVID-19 positive reported being at the Oshkosh visit. However, they reported other possible exposures as well. So we can't say this event was or was not the cause."

Goodsitt said one possible explanation for the surge in Winnebago County could be the return of students to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, adding that the health department doesn't have specific case counts related to the university.

And while the airport hanger rally will be mostly outdoors and the Trump campaign said it will check temperatures, provide hand sanitizer and masks -- if recent Trump rallies are any indication, most supporters do not wear masks and no social distancing will be enforced.

The rally will likely violate state policy even if those precautions are taken. In social-distancing guidance updated last week, the state advised the public to "avoid gatherings of 10 or more people." Marathon County does not have its own policy that prohibits large gatherings, Burrow said, but the county encourages "anyone who attends any large gatherings to do what they can to protect themselves: wear a mask, social distance and stay home if you are sick."

"Large gatherings of many people provides more opportunity for the virus to spread from person to person," Burrows said.

Trump's rally has drawn strong rebuke from Democrats, who say they fear it'll only push Wisconsin further from a return to normal life.

"There is so much that needs to be done, and we don't need to have him coming here to Marathon County, which had record-high COVID-19 cases just yesterday, for this super spreader event," said Tricia Zunker, a Democratic candidate for Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District, which represents Marathon County.

Zunker said the county is "working so hard to, you know, get students back in buildings," but that Trump's visit Thursday will do "the complete opposite."

"I think it's a completely dangerous event that he's having here," Zunker said, speaking at a press conference ahead of the visit.

Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, warned that Marathon County was not a place "where we should be pouring gasoline on the fire."

Trump's visit "really illustrates the difference between how Democrats are responding to this crisis, versus how Trump is pretending it's not happening," Wikler said in a phone interview with ABC News ahead of the rally.

Biden, Trump's opponent, visited Wisconsin for the first time this year at the beginning of September. He met with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot by police in Kenosha and held a community meeting at a church with about 20 mask-wearing attendees.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris also visited Wisconsin earlier this month. Similarly, Harris held a small event that mandated masks and social distancing.

Asked if Biden will be waiting for the statewide spike in cases to fall before he returns, Wikler said only that any visit Biden makes will look different than Trump's.

"What you're not going to see is big indoor mask-less rallies from Biden or any other Democrat here," Wikler said. "Biden is very focused on Wisconsin and I'm confident that we will see more of him, but anything that you see from a Democratic campaign will be grounded in public health research and great care for the communities that are affected."

While the president's rally in Wisconsin is outside at an airport hangar, it's unclear if social distancing or masks recommendations will be adhered to Thursday. But at recent rallies, it hasn't been enforced or required.

The Wisconsin Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

The president will next head to Bemidji, Minnesota, on Friday night, Fayetteville, North Carolina, Saturday night, and Swanson, Ohio, on Monday -- with more rallies yet to be announced for the rest of next week.

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ABC NewsBY: LAURA ROMERO, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- An independent commission set up by the Trump administration has unveiled a host of recommendations it says could help nursing homes "reduce the suffering and to save the lives of residents and staff" as they continue to wage a deadly battle against the coronavirus, though some critics say the commission didn't go far enough to help America's most vulnerable because it does not address enforcement of federal quality of care standards.

In April, as the coronavirus pandemic swept through nursing homes across the country, Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, announced the commission would be tasked with enhancing strategies for infection control and prevention and strengthen protocols to identify COVID-19 in facilities and mitigate its spread. The commission was made up of 25 appointed members, including infectious disease experts, directors and administrators of nursing homes, academics, state authorities, clinicians and a nursing home resident.

In its final report released on Wednesday, six months later, the independent task force laid out 27 recommendations with an emphasis on a national testing strategy, providing facilities with at least three months’ worth of personal protective equipment and continuing to ensure proper units are available for infected or possibly infected residents.

The 186-page report also calls for better communication among residents, staff and families, increased registered nurse and infection preventionist presence in facilities, more professional development opportunities for certified nursing assistants and a stronger long-term care infrastructure.

“The Commission urges CMS, as the lead federal agency with nursing home quality and safety oversight, to lead, to advocate, and to ensure accountability for nursing homes and their residents and staff in the national pandemic response,” the commission wrote.

While the report does not explain how the recommendations will be funded, the commission noted that some members voiced strongly that CMS should make no unfunded mandates. "If CMS implements the recommendations and actions steps in this report, it must do so in a way that ensures funding mechanisms are in place to support them," the commission wrote.

Nursing homes have been especially devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Almost 12,000 facilities nationwide have reported COVID-19 among their residents and staff, which has led to more than 50,000 deaths among residents in long-term care facilities, according to CMS.

In the report, the commission noted that the recommendations will likely be inadequate to enable nursing homes to prevent the next crisis unless accompanied by a more general “sustainable, systems-level change." The commission wrote that nursing homes need to be “reimagined to ensure they can protect the safety and foster the well-being of some of the most vulnerable members of our population.”

“The time has come for a turning point in nursing home care. The Commission envisions a person-centered, resilient system of care that is better for the next generation — one that more deeply values and respects older adults and people with disabilities as vital to the fabric of American society,” the commission wrote.

Although, the recommendations made to CMS are not legally binding, Jeannee Parker Martin, the President and CEO of the elder advocacy group LeadingAge California and one of the commission's members, said that CMS will decide which of the recommendations are most critical to undertake immediately.

In a press release, CMS said the commission’s findings align with the actions the Trump administration and CMS have taken to contain the spread of the virus and to “safeguard nursing home residents from the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The Trump Administration’s effort to protect the uniquely vulnerable residents of nursing homes from COVID-19 is nothing short of unprecedented,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. “In tasking a contractor to convene this independent Commission comprised of a broad range of experts and stakeholders, President Trump sought to refine our approach still further as we continue to battle the virus in the months to come. Its findings represent both an invaluable action plan for the future and a resounding vindication of our overall approach to date.”

But some nursing home advocates say the report does little to set higher standards for nursing homes.

Eric Carlson, directing attorney at Justice in Agin and one of the Commission’s members, did not endorse the report, saying it failed to address enforcement of federal quality of care standards.

“With limited exceptions, these recommendations and action steps do not address accountability of nursing homes and their operators,” said Carlson in a statement. “The result is an imbalanced report that gives a misleading impression of CMS’s role. “

Michael Brevda, an attorney at the Boca Raton-based Senior Justice Law Firm echoed those sentiments.

“The Commission’s Final Report misses an opportunity to create and enforce real nursing home quality standards,” Brevda told ABC News. “ Administrative fines for adverse incidents like bedsores, medication mistakes and fall injuries would greatly deter bad nursing home care.The woefully unregulated nursing home industry we’ve lived with for decades has been plagued with bad actors and poor resident care.”

“We can change this through legal accountability,” Brevda continued. “Sadly, the Commission's Final Report misses the mark.”

For Toby Edelman, a senior policy attorney for the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance for the elderly, the report is “far too easy” on both nursing facilities and the federal government.

“The report essentially treats nursing facilities as having no responsibility for the tens of thousands of resident and staff deaths,” Edelman told ABC News. “This kid-glove treatment is not justified when research studies document that facilities with better staffing levels have fewer cases and fewer deaths.”

“During the pandemic, the federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach,” Edelman continued. “....it left states and facilities on their own to respond to the crisis – to figure out appropriate practices, to get and require testing of residents and staff, to get and use personal protective equipment.”

In August, a new mandate by CMS required nursing homes to test all staff and conduct widespread testing among residents. Nursing homes that fail to test residents and staff could face fines under the measure announced by the Trump administration. Federal agencies announced they would provide point-of-care testing kits to 15,000 nursing homes around the country. A spokesperson for CMS told ABC News last week that just over 13,000 machines and nearly 5 million point-of-care tests have been shipped to 13,343 facilities so far.

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iStock/YinYangBY: ALISA WIERSEMA, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the Green Party presidential ticket would not be included on the state's general election ballot this year.

The move Thursday comes three days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court similarly decided Howie Hawkins and his running mate, Angela Walker, would not be on their state's ballot.

According to the Pennsylvania ruling, Hawkins and Walker were disqualified from appearing on the ballot because "procedures for nominating a candidate for office by nomination papers were not strictly followed." The issue was rooted in the fact that Hawkins and Walker were replacing another set of Green Party candidates on the ticket, Elizabeth Scroggin and Neal Gale, but the submitted documents for the initial candidates' filing were inadequate which ultimately barred those candidates, and their replacements, from appearing on the ballot.

Although losing representation on the ballots of two pivotal battlegrounds served a gut punch to the third-party ticket, Democrats could breathe a sigh of relief. In 2016, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by just over 44,000 votes, while winning Wisconsin by nearly 23,000 votes. At the time, Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party candidate had accumulated more votes in each state than the difference by which Trump beat Clinton.

The ruling clears the way for Keystone State officials to begin certifying ballots, which they previously were unable to do due to a lack of a finalized candidate list. Once the ballots are certified, they can be printed and disseminated to voters across the state.

Northampton County Chief Registrar Amy Cozze says her office has already been processing ballot applications for at least a month. In an interview with ABC News on Monday, Cozze said she was expecting a resolution to the hold up to come by the end of the month.

"We're ready to send ballots out when the state certifies them ... we keep telling people at the end of September, we'll begin mailing them, that's what we anticipated," she said.

Cozze, whose county was among the state's three pivot counties in 2016, said people would still have plenty of time to fill out and return their ballots under such a timeframe, a notion that's been echoed by the Pennsylvania Secretary of State's office.

"Courts in Pennsylvania have been very, very good about expediting any cases that have to do with an election ballot," Wanda Murren, the Pennsylvania Department of State's communication director said in a recent interview with ABC News.

"They totally understand what the counties are up against, and all of the many, many processes that need to be carried out," she added.

As soon as the ballots are certified, finalized and printed, Murren said voters can essentially use their mail ballots to vote early and in-person.

"A voter can go to the county election office, fill out an application for a mail ballot in person, hand in that application, get a ballot right then and there, vote and hand it back. So, it's a mail ballot but it can actually be done in person," she said.

Murren says her office will be promoting this kind of voting option across the state, and believes ballots are going to be ready in most counties by the end of September.

It remains to be seen how widely this process would be utilized given ongoing pandemic conditions.

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iStock/Raghu_RamaswamyBY: LUKE BARR, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the bureau works for nobody but the American people after Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday night that its agents work for him.

In remarks at Hillsdale College's "Constitution Day" celebration, Barr recounted what he described as his own meetings with FBI agents in which he posed the the question: "Whose agents do you think you are?"

"These people are agents of the attorney general," Barr said. "I don't say this in a pompous way, but that is the chain of authority and legitimacy in the Department of Justice."

When asked by Florida Rep. Val Demings about the comments, Wray said he had not heard them yet.

"Well, I'm not familiar with that particular comment from the attorney general," he said. "I will say, we, the FBI, work for the American people."

Wray's appearance in front of the committee was part of the annual Worldwide Threats hearing in which agency heads provide an evaluation of threats facing the U.S. One notable agency head was missing, though -- acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

Wolf, who was subpoenaed to appear, defied the order to come before the committee, citing his pending nomination as secretary for the department. The department instead offered to have the senior official performing the duties of deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Ken Cuccinelli, testify in Wolf's place, but the committee declined, according to the DHS.

Senate Homeland Security committee staff met with Wolf about his confirmation Thursday, two committee aides and the DHS confirmed to ABC News. It is unclear whether the meeting took place during the time he was supposed to be testifying in front of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Democratic members expressed disappointment that Wolf was not in attendance, while Republican members defended him and the department, accusing Democrats of conducting political theater.

In Wolf's absence, Wray was left in the hot seat to face questions about everything from the assessment of the nation's election security to various threats from homegrown violent extremists.

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

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

The FBI director said that the agency has seen "very active" efforts by the Russians to influence the 2020 election and that Russians are focusing on using social media and other proxies to "sow divisiveness and discord."

The focus of these efforts by the Russians is to "primarily to denigrate (former) Vice President (Joe) Biden, and what the Russians see is kind of an anti-Russian establishment," Wray said, adding that the bureau's partnerships with social media companies are crucial for combatting misinformation and disinformation in 2020.

"There are things that they can do and they have resources to take responsibility for things that are happening on their own platforms, much more quickly, and -- and within greater legal flexibility under their terms of use in terms of service than we could do."

Asked about the history of widespread voter fraud since both the president and attorney general have baselessly argued that a mass expansion of mail-in voting will result in that outcome, Wray said there was no such historical precedent.

"We have not seen a danger of a coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election," Wray said. "We've certainly investigated voter fraud committed by mail, it's typically been at the local level."

Wray was pressed repeatedly by both Democrats and Republicans about the particular ideology of protesters involved in some of the violent unrest across the country since the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, and on numerous occasions Wray said that the FBI doesn't investigate ideology but rather criminal behavior.

"We're agnostic about the ideology, we don't investigate the ideology, but when the ideology inspires violence, we will investigate the violence aggressively," he said.

Wray also said that the FBI has taken on more than 1,000 ongoing domestic terrorist investigations since the start of 2020 and that the FBI has arrested 120 people who have wanted to carry out violent acts in the United States.

He added that of the racially motivated attacks that the FBI has investigated and prosecuted, those expressing a white supremacist ideology are responsible for the majority of incidents.

"People subscribing to some kind of white supremacist type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that," he said.

Wray was quick to say that all those charged for racially-motivated attacks fit the "category of anti-government anti-authority, which covers everything from anarchist violent extremists to militia types -- we don't really think in terms of left right."

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Official White House Photo by Joyce N. BoghosianBy ELIZABETH THOMAS and ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump is facing backlash after blaming blue states for the coronavirus death toll during a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday.

"So we’re down in this territory," Trump said, pointing to a graph that the White House first unveiled in the spring which showed two estimated ranges of possible death tolls depending on efforts to slow the spread of the virus. "And that’s despite the fact that the blue states had had tremendous death rates. If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at. We’re really at a very low level. But some of the states, they were blue states and blue state-managed."

New York, California, and New Jersey – all lead by Democrats– were among the states with highest number of deaths from coronavirus. However, both Texas and Florida, which are Republican led, are also in the top five states in terms of coronavirus deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. These five states also have the largest populations in the country and were the first to tackle major outbreaks of the virus, suggesting that there is no scientific coloration between political party of state leaders and the spread of the virus.

The president's comments drew widespread criticism from Democrats.

"Trump continues to politicize the coronavirus," the Democratic National Committee tweeted shortly after the briefing. "COVID isn't a red state or blue state issue. 9 of the 10 states with the most infections per capita have Republican governors. This virus has impacted all Americans."

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer gave a scathing rebuke of Trump on the Senate floor Thursday morning, asking twice during his remarks "what kind of a demented person" would say that American lives lost in certain states don't count.

"Yes, Mr. President, if you don't count the total number of Americans who have died you might think it's not so bad," Schumer said. "If you close your eyes and pretend that half of the country doesn't exist some might think you didn't do such a spectacularly awful job."

Trump has long blamed and blasted Democratic governors for their handling of the pandemic, even accusing them of exploiting the pandemic for political reasons. But yesterday was the furthest the president has gone in politicizing the pandemic which has claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans.

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Official White House Photo by Shealah CraigheadBy ALEXANDER MALLIN, ABC News

(HILLSDALE, Mich.) -- Attorney General William Bar took sharp aim at federal line prosecutors and compared coronavirus lockdowns to slavery in remarks at Hillsdale College's "Constitution Day" celebration Wednesday evening.

"Even the most well-meaning people can do great damage if they lose perspective," Barr said. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target."

In a question and answer session following his remarks, Barr argued that governors who have continued limiting movement and gatherings in their states due to the COVID-19 pandemic run the risk of infringing on their citizens' constitutionally protected liberties. Barr made the extraordinary argument that the idea of "putting a national lockdown" and "stay at home" orders was -- "other than slavery" -- "the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history."

Barr suggested that, prior to his leadership, the Department of Justice was run similar to a preschool by allowing line prosecutors to make decisions separate from an approval process designated by politically confirmed appointees.

"Name one successful organization or institution where the lowest level employees' decisions are deemed sacrosanct -- there aren't. There aren't any letting the most junior members set the agenda," Barr said. "Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it's no way to run a federal agency."

Barr's remarks come as he has repeatedly faced pushback within the department from federal career prosecutors involved in cases related to allies of President Donald Trump, such as self-proclaimed "dirty trickster" Roger Stone and Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Career prosecutors resigned from both cases after what they believed were Barr's improper interventions in matters of direct political interest to Trump.

And just last week, a top prosecutor for U.S. attorney John Durham, assisting him in his probe of the Russia investigation, resigned from the DOJ. The Hartford Courant reported the resignation was related to pressure from Barr to produce an interim report prior to the November presidential election.

In his remarks, Barr clearly sought to reassert his authority over career officials -- repeatedly taking shots at what he suggested were politically rogue agents acting against the interests of the true leader of the nation's top law enforcement agency, himself.

Barr recounted what he described as his own meetings with FBI agents where he posed them the question, "Whose agents do you think you are?"

"These people are agents of the attorney general," Barr said. "I don't say this in a pompous way, but that is the chain of authority and legitimacy in the Department of Justice."

The remarks amount to the sharpest public rebuke in recent memory by an attorney general aimed at officials employed by his own department, tasked with the often-grueling daily work of enforcing federal law around the nation.

"Line prosecutors ... are generally part of the permanent bureaucracy," Barr said. "They do not have the political legitimacy to be the public face of tough decisions and they lack the political buy-in necessary to publicly defend those decisions."

"The attorney general, senior DOJ officials and U.S. attorneys are indeed political, but they are political in a good and necessary sense," Barr added.

Barr argued that the DOJ in recent years "has sometimes acted more like a trade association for federal prosecutors than the administrator of a fair system of justice based on clear and sensible legal rules."

The statement appears to be an echo of his arguments in the wake of his extraordinary decision to drop charges against Flynn, who he has cast as a victim of overzealous prosecutors from former special counsel Robert Mueller's office.

"In case after case, we have advanced and defended hyper-aggressive extensions of the criminal law. This is wrong and we must stop doing it," Barr said. "We should want a fair system with clear rules that the people can understand. It does not serve the ends of justice to advocate for fuzzy and manipulable criminal prohibitions that maximize our options as prosecutors. Preventing that sort of pro-prosecutor uncertainty is what the ancient rule of lenity is all about."

The remarks also mark a continuance of Barr's recent unapologetic tour where he has freely expressed openly partisan positions while accusing his opponents of being responsible for tearing down the norms in U.S. society. All the while, he has spent much of the time defending his own extraordinary and sometimes unprecedented actions intervening in department matters of direct political interest to Trump.

At one point, Barr even took an underhanded and unprompted shot at Mueller's prosecutors in a portion of his remarks where he argued that because the Obama administration lost more cases before the Supreme Court than the Trump administration, accusations by Democrats that Trump officials are acting "lawlessly" are completely unfounded.

"Again, the Obama administration, you know had some of the people in Mueller's office writing their briefs for the Supreme Court so maybe that explains something," Barr said. "You know, they're not crowing so much after they got whooped in the Supreme Court."

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ABC NewsBy ANNE FLAHERTY, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump's public rebuke of a top public health official is sowing confusion on the nation's vaccine timeline and reviving criticism of political meddling in the government's pandemic response.

Trump's challenge of Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a White House press briefing on Wednesday comes just weeks ahead of the election and with much of the public already questioning the CDC's ability to stave off political interference.

The U.S. is expected in coming days to hit the 200,000 mark for deaths tied to COVID-19.

"We now see the undermining of the public's trust of our key institutions at the very moment we should be shoring up that trust," Rich Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, wrote in an op-ed in Scientific American.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden put it in more political terms.

"I trust vaccines. I trust scientists. But I don't trust Donald Trump. And at this point, the American people can't, either," he said Wednesday.

At a press conference with reporters, Trump knocked as a "mistake" Redfield's assessment that most Americans wouldn't see a vaccine until the middle of 2021. He also dismissed Redfield's suggestion that wearing a mask might even be more effective than the vaccine, because a vaccine is only effective if it produces an immune response whereas a mask provides an immediate physical barrier.

Redfield had said earlier that day it's possible vaccine doses would be available in November or December, but in limited supply.

"If you're asking me 'When is it going to be generally available to the American public?' so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we're probably looking at third, late-second quarter, third quarter 2021," Redfield told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But Trump didn't like the timeline, bluntly telling reporters just hours later in a White House press briefing: "That's incorrect information."

The president said he even called the CDC director, a political appointee, after the Senate hearing to talk about it.

"I think he just made a mistake. He just made a mistake. I think he misunderstood the question probably," Trump said.

But the timeline laid out by Redfield is one widely cited by other health officials, and it's never been disputed.

The idea is that once a vaccine candidate or multiple candidates are found to be safe and effective -- likely sometime this fall, after clinical trials -- the U.S. immediately will have some 100 million doses on hand because of investments in advance production.

The first batches could be deployed in early 2021 to the most vulnerable populations, including older Americans in nursing homes, health care workers and the estimated 80 million people in the U.S. living with comorbidities. As a result, health officials and industry experts are anticipating the broader public likely would see the vaccine pop up at pharmacies and in doctor's offices closer to mid-year.

In Senate testimony on Wednesday, Redfield reiterated that timeline and estimated that even if a vaccine candidate were found today, it would take six to nine months to inoculate the entire country.

Mark Meadows, Trump's chief of staff, on Thursday went so far as to try to dismiss Redfield's credentials on vaccine delivery.

"The CDC is not developing the vaccines. It's actually pharmaceutical," Meadows said. "We're working with different troops. ... And so while Dr Redfield may have a timeline in mind, to my knowledge he hasn't had intimate discussions with those processes."

When asked if he indeed misspoke and whether the timeline had changed, a spokesman for Redfield said the director indeed had misunderstood the question in his testimony. Less than an hour later though, the spokesman asked to retract the statement and has not said since whether Redfield stands by his testimony.

A person familiar with the matter said the statement initially provided to ABC News that confirmed Trump's account of the vaccine timeline had not been properly cleared.

Redfield did, however, issue a statement on the importance of masks: "I 100% believe in the importance of vaccines and the importance in particular of a COVID-19 vaccine. A COVID-19 vaccine is the thing that will get Americans back to normal everyday life. The best defense we currently have against this virus are the important mitigation efforts of wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing and being careful about crowds."

The competing narratives came the same day a top communications official for Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo, announced he would take 60 days of medical leave. Earlier in the week, he had posted an online rant against government scientists, accusing them without evidence of "sedition" and suggesting that Trump supporters might need to arm themselves ahead of the election.

In clips of the video obtained by Yahoo News, Caputo specifically criticized the CDC's scientific studies on the pandemic.

John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, said it's critical that the federal government and vaccine developers are precise -- not political -- about how they talk about vaccines now that development is close.

"We have to provide realistic expectations if we are to build public trust," said Brownstein, an ABC contributor.

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