North Carolina asked feds to open vote fraud case last year
By MICHAEL BIESECKER and GARY D. ROBERTSON
Saturday, December 22
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s top elections official issued an urgent plea nearly two years ago for the Trump administration to file criminal charges against the man now at the center of ballot fraud allegations that have thrown a 2018 congressional race into turmoil.
N.C. Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach warned in a January 2017 letter first obtained by The Associated Press that those involved in illegally harvesting absentee ballots in rural Bladen County would likely do it again if they weren’t prosecuted.
Josh Lawson, the top lawyer for the elections board, said Friday that Strach’s memo was followed less than a month later with the first of several in-person meetings during which state investigators provided FBI agents and federal prosecutors with evidence accusing Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. and others of criminal activity.
“Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process,” Strach wrote in the letter, dated 10 days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. “The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections.”
At the time, there was only an acting U.S. attorney in office. Later in 2017, Trump’s appointee arrived, but took no action to prosecute the matter. Instead, he assigned his staff to focus on a different priority — prosecuting a handful of non-citizens who had allegedly voted.
A spokesman for Robert J. Higdon, Jr., who took over as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in September 2017, has declined to comment on why no charges were filed following the state’s criminal referrals against Dowless and other Bladen County political operatives. Justice Department spokeswoman Kelly Laco in Washington also declined to comment on Friday.
Higdon’s office issued a media release in August of this year touting charges against 19 foreign nationals it said voted in North Carolina in the 2016 presidential election, during which more than 6.9 million ballots were cast in the state. The cases were filed in the wake of Trump’s false claim that he lost the 2016 popular vote to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton because millions of illegal immigrants had cast ballots across the country.
But court filings reviewed by AP show several of the cases built by Higdon’s office were against longtime legal permanent residents or those who had been granted citizenship only to have authorities later determine they had been untruthful on their applications. At least four have pleaded guilty, with the only sentence meted out so far going against an Italian man who has lived legally in the United States since 1985. The judge in the case gave him a $200 fine and no prison time.
State elections board Chairman Joshua Malcolm declined Thursday to evaluate how U.S. prosecutors handled the board’s referral of its 2016 Bladen County elections investigation, saying the board has a “very particular role.” The agency’s staff has legal authority to investigate elections crimes, but cannot make arrests or file criminal charges.
After federal prosecutors took no action, documents show the elections board referred the case to state prosecutors in January 2018. No charges were filed before the November general election, which was marred by voting irregularities involving absentee ballots cast in Bladen and two neighboring counties. Authorities say Dowless is the subject of an investigation into those irregularities.
“Our role is to investigate matters … and to refer matters to prosecutors and law enforcement officials to carry out their responsibility,” said Malcolm, a Democrat. “We don’t control what happens once we make a referral.”
The board has refused to certify the results of the November general election for the state’s 9th congressional district. Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes in 2018’s only still unresolved House election, according to unofficial results. State leaders from both parties now concede a do-over election might eventually be needed, though GOP officials have sought to put the blame for the mess squarely onto the elections board.
The board plans to weigh the evidence against Dowless and others at a Jan. 11 public hearing.
Investigators are looking into whether Dowless, 62, ran an illegal operation to collect large numbers of absentee ballots from voters in at least three counties with the intent of aiding the GOP candidates.
A convicted felon, Dowless didn’t respond this week to messages seeking comment. His lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said that any speculation regarding her client and the 9th District election is premature and unwarranted. Through his attorney, Dowless has declined to be interviewed by state investigators.
Harris, the GOP congressional candidate, said in an interview last week that it was his decision to hire Dowless, though he denied knowledge of any potential wrongdoing.
Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker reported from Washington.
Follow Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck and AP reporter Gary D. Robertson at http://twitter.com/garydrobertson
AP-NORC Poll: Nearly 6 in 10 say Trump impeded Russia probe
By ERIC TUCKER and EMILY SWANSON
Friday, December 21
WASHINGTON (AP) — A majority of Americans say they believe President Donald Trump has tried to obstruct the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, though the public is divided on whether he should be removed from office if he’s found to have stymied the probe, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Meanwhile, the survey shows Americans are somewhat less likely to say Congress should remove Trump from office if he directed his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to arrange hush money payments to cover up claims of extramarital relationships during the 2016 campaign.
Still, opinions on both matters see a stark partisan divide.
The poll was conducted just after federal prosecutors in New York implicated Trump in illegal payments to a former Playboy model and an adult-film actress and after special counsel Robert Mueller revealed that discussions over a possible Trump Tower in Moscow extended longer than had been previously known. It was done amid signs of intensifying legal danger for Trump, whose actions face scrutiny in New York and in Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Overall, 42 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 56 percent disapprove. Those numbers have held steady for most of the year. About 8 in 10 Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, while just 1 in 10 Democrats say the same.
The swirling investigations are helping define public opinion, creating clear divisions about whether and for what Trump should be impeached and to what extent he might be culpable of wrongdoing.
A majority of Americans — 58 percent —think the president has tried to impede the Russia investigation, while 4 in 10 say he has not. An overwhelming share of Democrats, 90 percent, say the president has sought to obstruct the probe, compared with 22 percent of Republicans.
The survey also shows that if Mueller’s investigation finds that Trump did not personally have inappropriate contacts with the Kremlin but nonetheless tried to obstruct the FBI’s work, 51 percent of Americans think Congress should take steps to remove him from office, while 46 percent think it should not.
The special counsel’s obstruction investigation has shadowed the president for a year and a half, unfolding alongside his inquiry into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to sway the election and the separate campaign finance probe in New York. The last month has produced bombshell developments in the investigation, including Cohen’s sentencing, allegations that Trump’s former campaign chairman lied to prosecutors and a judge’s unexpected upbraiding of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Jonathan Levine, a 64-year-old financial services professional in Connecticut, said he was especially concerned by reports that negotiations over a Trump Tower in Moscow continued deep into the 2016 campaign.
“He’s running to be president of the United States. The United States is ideologically opposed to Russia, so he’s accidentally dealing with the enemy, accidentally in bed with the enemy,” Levine said. “Obviously he should have discontinued negotiations in Moscow when he turned the campaign on full time.”
Levine said he could support impeachment if there were appropriate hearings and solid evidence. But there are major partisan divides about what constitutes an impeachable offense.
About 8 in 10 Democrats and 2 in 10 Republicans think Trump should be removed from office if he committed obstruction. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats and only about 1 in 10 Republicans think Congress should take steps to impeach him if he directed illegal payments.
Overall, 45 percent said Congress should take steps to remove him from office if he orchestrated the hush money payments. Slightly more, 53 percent, said Congress should not take steps to remove Trump for that.
About 4 in 10 think he broke the law when it comes to directing Cohen’s payments, and about as many say the same of his ties to Russia. About 2 in 10 think Trump has done nothing wrong, with the remainder saying his actions were unethical, but not illegal.
About 7 in 10 Democrats believe Trump has done something illegal involving Russia. Among Republicans, 55 percent say Trump has done nothing wrong when it comes to Russia, while 35 percent think he has done something unethical but not illegal.
Matthew Behrs, a maintenance coordinator from Plymouth, Wisconsin, is among those unconvinced by the allegations. He said he was skeptical of the impact Russia actually had on the election and wondered why Mueller hadn’t provided direct evidence of collusion if the problem was so prevalent.
“If there was this collusion, why wasn’t this (over in) three months,” he said. “Here are the emails, here’s the contact, here’s the collusion. Here it is.”
Nearly 7 in 10 Democrats find illegality for Trump in Cohen’s payments, while just 7 percent of Republicans say the same. Among Republicans, 49 percent think Trump did something unethical, but not illegal, while 44 percent think he did nothing wrong.
The poll finds rising confidence among Democrats of the fairness and impartiality of Mueller’s investigation. Overall, about a third of Americans say they’re extremely or very confident that the inquiry is fair and impartial; another quarter say they are moderately confident. Roughly 4 in 10 say they’re not confident.
Democrats are more likely to express confidence today compared with a year ago, 51 percent to 38 percent. Just 14 percent of Republicans say they are confident, which is unchanged from last year.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,067 adults was conducted Dec. 13-16 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.
AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/
Mattis’ permanent replacement likely to face close scrutiny
By LOLITA C. BALDOR
Wednesday, December 26
WASHINGTON (AP) — The departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a week will thrust President Donald Trump’s largely unknown choice for acting Pentagon chief into the military hot seat and shift attention to the search for a permanent replacement who will probably face sharp Capitol Hill questioning about the administration’s murky foreign policy.
Trump tweeted Sunday that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over as acting head of the department on Jan. 1, elevating a former Boeing Co. senior executive with little experience in international affairs. Shanahan worked for Boeing for more than three decades and was a senior vice president when he became Pentagon deputy in July 2017. And his time on the job has been mainly focused on the business side of the department and its budget in excess of $700 billion.
A White House official said that in the new year Trump wants to focus on streamlining purchases at the Pentagon, an issue on which Shanahan has already been working. The official asked not to be identified publicly discussing personnel matters.
But there are looming policy questions about the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, including critical decisions about how the Pentagon will carry out Trump’s order last week to pull all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, and withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American forces in Afghanistan.
Both decisions trigger massive logistical challenges to get the troops and equipment out of both warzones safely, without further inflaming U.S. allies or boosting the aspirations of the enemy.
A key unanswered question is what the administration will do for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which have gotten weapons and training to fight Islamic State insurgents. The SDF will face almost certain attacks from Turkey, the Syrian government and IS once the U.S. leaves, and officials don’t know if the Syrian rebels will have to return the weapons to the U.S.
Shanahan hasn’t been to either warzone, and officials say he’s likely to depend heavily on Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford is scheduled to leave the job and retire Sept. 30, and Trump has already said he is nominating Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief, as the next chairman.
Dunford, who was in Afghanistan on Monday with a USO show, has been telling troops that so far the mission in Afghanistan has not changed, said his spokesman, Air Force Col. Pat Ryder. Ryder said Dunford “told them that they’re American soldiers, they have a mission to do, and to just get after it.”
Mattis’ departure signals an acrimonious end to a tense relationship between him and Trump that had eroded in recent months. Mattis hand-delivered a scathing resignation letter to the president on Thursday in protest over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
In the letter, Mattis made clear that he didn’t see eye to eye with a president who has expressed disdain for NATO. That drew a critical tweet from Trump on Monday.
“We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade,” Trump tweeted. “General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!”
The reaction to Mattis’ departure, however, sparked shock and dismay on Capitol Hill. U.S. officials said the fallout angered Trump and fueled his decision to accelerate the Mattis departure.
U.S. officials said they don’t know if Shanahan will be Trump’s nominee to replace Mattis. During a White House lunch with conservative lawmakers Saturday, Trump discussed his options. They were “not all military,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was there.
Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was asked whether Trump wanted a Pentagon leader willing to challenge him or someone in lockstep with his views, and he said “a little bit of both.”
Names that are quietly beginning to surface include some of the civilian leaders of the military services such as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Army Secretary Mark Esper, an acknowledgement that someone who has already undergone Senate confirmation is considered a safer bet.
Shanahan did not serve in the military. His father was in the Army and deployed to Vietnam.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, then a master’s in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition to work in Boeing’s commercial airplanes programs, Shanahan was vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems and of Boeing Rotorcraft Systems. In a March 2016 report, the Puget Sound Business Journal called Shanahan a Boeing “fix-it” man who was central to getting the 787 Dreamliner on track after production problems in the program’s early years.
Although Monday was a federal holiday and the Pentagon was fairly empty, Mattis was at his desk. Shanahan had already left for the holiday, but he has canceled a planned vacation and is expected back in Washington on Tuesday night. His offices were staffed Monday.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Darlene Superville and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
Canada to embark on campaign to win release of citizens
By ROB GILLIES
Saturday, December 22
TORONTO (AP) — Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Saturday that Canada will embark on a campaign to win the release of two citizens detained by China in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive.
Freeland said on a conference call with reporters that the arrests constitute a worrying precedent that has resonated with the country’s partners.
“We’re going to keep working with a broad group of allies to raise this issue,” she said, noting that Canadian ambassadors will be reaching out to governments across the world.
Freeland said she spoke with China’s ambassador to Ottawa on Friday and made Canada’s first demand for the immediate release of ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor. The U.S., the U.K. and the EU also issued statements in support of Canada.
Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Nine days later, the Chinese detained Kovrig and Spavor on vague allegations of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China.
Freeland’s declarations mark a tougher tone from Canadian officials. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been criticized by the opposition for his largely muted response and for not phoning his Chinese counterpart.
Freeland said that that Canada is honoring its extradition treaty with the United States and emphasized that Canada has freed Meng on bail. “She has been given absolute access to due process and the independent Canadian judicial system,” Freeland said. “That is how Canada operates.”
Rob Malley, president of the nongovernmental organization that Kovrig worked for, the International Crisis Group, said the Kovrig case should concern anyone who engages with China.
“If China can arrest & detain someone, deny access to a lawyer, provide no justification — then why would a member of the business community, or an academic, feel safe travelling there?” Malley tweeted.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department reiterated a call for the Canadians’ release and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement the U.K. is confident that Canada is respecting its extradition treaty with the U.S. and said he is “deeply concerned” that China may have detained the two Canadians for political reasons. The EU, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that the “declared motive” for their detention “raises concerns about legitimate research and business practices in China.”
The show of support from allies is significant for Canada, which has felt relatively isolated in recent months. In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted support for an arrested Saudi activist.
The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave. No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada.