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Trump denies downplaying virus, casts doubt on mask usage | Govt-and-politics



Trump sought to counter his admission to journalist Bob Woodward that he was deliberately “playing it down” when discussing the threat of COVID-19 to Americans earlier this year. Despite audio of his comments being released, Trump said: “Yeah, well, I didn’t downplay it. I actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action.”

“My action was very strong,” Trump added. “I’m not looking to be dishonest. I don’t want people to panic.”

Trump also insisted he was not wrong when he praised China’s response to the virus in January and February, saying he trusted Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader. “He told me that it was under control, that everything was and it turned out to be not true,” Trump said,

Trump also suggested the virus would disappear without a vaccine, claiming the nation would develop a herd immunity with time, but he didn’t mention the lives that would be lost along the way.

“It’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen,” Trump said. “But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly.”

The questions from uncommitted voters were pointed and poignant: a diabetic man who said he felt he’d been thrown “under the bus” by mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic; a Black woman with a disease that left her uninsurable until the Obama health care law came along who is worried that she could lose coverage again; a Black pastor who questioned Trump’s campaign motto to “Make America Great Again.”

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Proposed Republican rules changes anger Montana Democrats | 406 Politics




Democrats on the Joint Rules Committee refused to attend, calling the meeting illegitimate and something they didn’t want to lend credibility to through their participation. They threatened to sue over any rules the committee created. The Joint House Rules Committee doesn’t normally meet outside of legislative sessions, which in Montana take place in odd-numbered years. The one exception is when lawmakers meet for the first time after the November election to make first preparations for the session to start the following January.

“Under these circumstances, it is illegitimate and without precedent,” said Rep. Kimberly Dudik, a Rules Committee member and Missoula Democrat. “We want to make clear that any actions made by this group will have no effect and they will be challenged in court as the illegitimate actions that they are.”

There was an awkward moment at the start of the meeting, in which Thomas stuttered finding the right description for what session of the Legislature the committee represented. In November, the Joint Rules Committee will be populated by lawmakers fresh off elections and less than two months away from the coming session, which they will refer to by number as their assembly. Thursday’s committee was comprised of the 2019 session lawmakers, some of whom term out in three months, after which they won’t be participating under the rules they’re proposing.

Republicans in leadership chastised Democrats for not attending the meeting. There was an attendance problem for GOP committee members as well. For the committee to function, there needs to be a quorum of lawmakers from both branches of the Legislature. There weren’t enough Senate lawmakers attending to make voting on the proposed resolutions possible.

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Polish ruling party forming minority govt, rejects partners | Govt-and-politics




Polish ruling party forming minority govt, rejects partners

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a news conference following joint meetings of the government of the Lithuania and the government of the Poland at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius, Lithuania, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

An official with Poland’s conservative governing party said Friday that the the country’s right-wing coalition government has collapsed.

Marek Suski said the Law and Justice party will continue to run Poland as a minority government, without the junior partners that were part of the right-wing coalition.

“Our former coalition partners should be packing up their desks,” Suski said

Law and Justice has been governing with the support of two small parties, one led by the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro.

The announcement Friday morning came after Ziobro and his party members refused to vote for an animal welfare bill which powerful Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński proposed.

Kaczyński, 71, is a lawmaker in parliament and has no official government role, but he is widely understood to be Poland’s dominating political force, deciding government policies and appointments.

The lower house of parliament, or Sejm, approved provisions of the proposed bill that include the prohibition of breeding fur animals and limitations on ritual slaughter.

Law and Justice managed to get the bill passed with the support of opposition lawmakers.

Suski confirmed that Kaczyński told members of Law and Justice’s junior partners in a closed-door meeting before the vote that “the tail cannot wag the dog.”

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How Republicans Undermined Ex-Felon Voting Rights in Florida




MIAMI — Jeff Gruver voted for the first time ever in March, casting an enthusiastic ballot for Bernie Sanders in Florida’s presidential primary.

He was planning to vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in November until he found out on Friday he would not be voting at all. A federal appeals court ruled that Floridians with felony criminal records like himself would be ineligible to vote unless they paid back all their outstanding court fines and fees — in his case, at least $801.

He does not have the money. And he does not want to take any risk that his vote could be deemed illegal. Like more than a million other former felons, he has found that even an overwhelming 2018 vote in favor of a state referendum to restore voting rights to most people who had served their sentences does not necessarily mean that they will ever get to vote.

Instead, how a landmark vote to restore former felons’ rights in Florida ended up gutted last week is a cautionary tale about the messy process of citizen-led ballot initiatives and how a dominant political party can exert its power long after voters have spoken on Election Day.

“The political climate in Florida — it just kind of feels rigged by one group in power over the other,” said Mr. Gruver, 34, who runs a homeless shelter in Gainesville and more than a decade ago did a total of about 10 months in jail for cocaine possession and violating the terms of his probation.

The roller coaster for people like Mr. Gruver has played out like this: Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved amending the State Constitution to restore the franchise of former felons, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, but the state’s Republican lawmakers and governor severely restricted the effort. A 2019 law requiring the payment of court fines and fees was found unconstitutional in May, but the appeals court overturned that ruling less than two months before the presidential election. Five of the six votes to uphold the additional requirements for the restoration of voting rights came from judges appointed to the court by President Trump.

When voters passed the referendum, known as Amendment 4, civil rights groups celebrated what was billed as a potentially game-changing expansion of the electorate in the nation’s biggest battleground state. White people like Mr. Gruver represent a majority of the state’s former felons. But Black residents are disproportionately represented: More than one in five potential Black voters in Florida were barred from casting a ballot.

Nearly two years later, most former felons remain shut out of the ballot box over their inability to pay legal financial obligations. Of the about one million former felons in Florida — a conservative estimate — at least three-quarters owe court debt. Between 70 and 80 percent are indigent and unable to pay.

And even those who can pay face a Catch-22: Because there is no central database of court fines and fees, it is difficult or impossible to establish how much anyone owes. As of May, the state had failed to process any of the more than 85,000 voting registration applications submitted by former felons since Amendment 4 passed in late 2018.

“It has been a very long slog to change public opinion on the re-enfranchisement of felons, and it took millions of dollars and a lot of effort to get that initiative passed,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor. “The idea that felons would then have to pay money in order to vote after being enfranchised is depressing.”

In the past year, the governors of Kentucky and Iowa — the only remaining states that disenfranchised all former felons — signed executive orders restoring voting rights to those who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation. Unlike Florida, neither required payment of fines, court fees or restitution. The fines and fees in Florida fund the routine operations of the criminal justice system and are not restitution payments to crime victims.

Florida is hardly the only state where legislators have taken aim at a measure that voters had approved.

Missouri’s Republican-controlled Legislature has placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that bills itself as a package of clean-government reforms but actually undoes a 2018 amendment that took redistricting out of the Legislature’s control and gave it to a nonpartisan state demographer. Utahans narrowly voted in 2018 to make political map-drawing a nonpartisan affair, only to see that state’s Republican Legislature water down the measure to allow politicians to retain effective control of the process.

And a host of legislatures nettled by voter-approved initiatives in 2018 have passed laws making it substantially harder for citizens to get initiatives on the ballot.

Florida’s Amendment 4 said voting rights would be automatically restored for former felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Once the measure took effect in January 2019, felons started registering.

Few expected that anywhere close to a million newly eligible voters would immediately begin casting ballots. But proponents of Amendment 4 thought the measure was self-executing, meaning that no additional legislation was required. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and the Legislature, which Republicans have controlled for more than two decades, had other ideas.

As the end of the 2019 legislative session neared, legislators tacked on the requirement for former felons to repay outstanding court fines and fees to an unrelated elections bill. Republicans argued the restrictions were reasonable because proponents of Amendment 4 said in court testimony and campaign websites before the 2018 election that court fines and fees would be repaid, though none of those costs were cited in the ballot text.

“The way the Legislature dealt with this impacts everyone equally,” said State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican of St. Petersburg. “You have to complete all terms of your sentence, period, and we don’t look at Republicans or independents or libertarians separately.”

But Franita Tolson, a University of Southern California law professor and expert on elections law, said the financial costs to cast a ballot and the fact that Florida has no mechanism in place for former felons to verify if they have outstanding court debt harkens to poll taxes imposed after the Civil War.

“That was the whole point of poll taxes in the post-Reconstruction era: It was about keeping people away from the polls, not about paying the tax,” she said.

Indeed, in May, Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee ruled that the Legislature’s provisions amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

The DeSantis administration, relying on the shifting politics of the courts, appealed. It requested that the 11th Circuit consider the appeal en banc — that is, that it be heard by all of the court’s judges instead of the usual three-judge panel — because of the case’s exceptional importance.

The appeals court granted the state’s request, which proved hugely consequential: A previous three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit had unanimously sided with the former felons in February after they requested a temporary injunction to keep the Florida law from taking effect. But two of those judges have senior status, which excluded them from the en banc hearing. So the former felons lost two friendly judges and instead faced 10 jurists, five appointed by Mr. Trump, who were not bound by the previous panel’s earlier decision.

Instead of granting a permanent injunction, as Judge Hinkle had at trial, the majority of the en banc appeals judges — including all five Trump nominees — ruled 6 to 4 that the lower court judge had misapplied the law.

Requiring former felons to pay back every court cost “promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote,” Chief Judge William H. Pryor Jr. wrote for the majority.

Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case, said justice should have nothing to do with the ability to pay fines and fees.

“The idea that they are somehow insufficiently rehabilitated because they aren’t wealthy, that just struck me as absurd,” she said.

The appeals court also ruled that Florida did not have to create a uniform system for former felons to know if they owe any court debt, a conclusion that struck Justin Levitt, a voting law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama administration, as wrongheaded.

“The notion that Florida has a right to disenfranchise you because all terms and conditions must be met, but we’re not telling you which terms are left to meet?” he said. “That’s Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. And there’s no law in Lucy pulling the football away. That’s just cruelty.”

The state’s elections division and 67 clerks of county courts have struggled since the referendum passed to put a patchwork of systems in place to try to screen former felons for their eligibility. Florida will issue advisory opinions to individuals who ask about their cases, but only 12 have been posted to the Division of Elections website.

The uncertainty has led to speculation for months that perhaps a wealthy philanthropist could step in and pay off former felons’ financial obligations en masse. The clock has almost run out for the 2020 election — the voter registration deadline is Oct. 5.

It is not certain whether either party would benefit disproportionately from a restoration of voting rights, but one name sometimes invoked has been the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, who ran in this year’s Democratic presidential primary and has vowed to spend $100 million in Florida to help Mr. Biden win the state.

“We are looking at a variety of different ways to spend our money,” said Howard Wolfson, an executive with Bloomberg Philanthropies and an adviser to Mr. Bloomberg. “We are aware of this issue.”

Patricia Mazzei reported from Miami, and Michael Wines from Washington.

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