TPM News

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — New proposals to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional districts rolled in Thursday in a high-stakes gerrymandering case, meeting a court-ordered deadline to submit maps of boundaries for the state Supreme Court to consider adopting for this year’s election.

Pennsylvania’s House Democrats and Senate Democrats each submitted a plan Thursday, as did a group of Republican activists who intervened in the case. The registered Democratic voters who sued successfully to invalidate the current map planned to submit a map and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf may also. Each can submit as many suggested maps as they like.

The midnight deadline gives justices four more days to impose new boundaries under a timeline the divided court set to keep May’s primary election on schedule.

Pennsylvania’s congressional map — drawn by Republicans to get Republicans elected — is widely viewed as among the nation’s most gerrymandered. Upending it could boost Democrats nationally in their quest to capture control of the U.S. House and dramatically change the state’s predominantly Republican, all-male delegation. Meanwhile, sitting congressmen, dozens of would-be candidates and millions of voters could find themselves in different districts.

Republican lawmakers say they will swiftly ask federal judges to block a new map, and contend that the Democratic-majority court had no power to invalidate the congressional boundaries or draw new ones.

The court will be advised by Stanford University law professor Nathan Persily, who has assisted judges drawing districts in North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Georgia and Maryland. The justices could pick a submitted map, or rely on Persily to draw one.

Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate majority leader, Jake Corman, on Thursday warned anew that the tight timeline would create chaos in Pennsylvania’s congressional primaries, and the court-ordered process would unconstitutionally usurp the role of the governor and Legislature.

“We’re going to have a Stanford professor come into Pennsylvania,” Corman said. “He’s going to act as the prosecutor by presenting the evidence, he’s going to act as the juror by evaluating the evidence and he’s solely going to act as a judge by ultimately ruling on the evidence and produce a map, one person, to the court for the people of Pennsylvania to live under.”

Corman also attacked Wolf for backing the court, saying Wolf’s “loyalties to the Democrat National Committee and making Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House is more important than his loyalties to the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

Leaders of the state Legislature’s huge Republican majorities submitted a map Friday, although Wolf rejected it, saying it was as gerrymandered as the 6-year-old map it would replace.

That map, crafted by Republicans who controlled the Legislature and governor’s office after the 2010 census, succeeded in its aim: Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in three straight elections, even though Pennsylvania’s statewide elections are often closely divided and registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.

In drawing it, Republicans broke decades of precedent and created bizarrely shaped districts in what Franklin and Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna called “the worst gerrymander in modern Pennsylvania history.”

The court threw it out last month, saying it unconstitutionally put partisan interests above other line-drawing criteria, such as eliminating municipal and county divisions and keeping districts compact.

The revised map Republicans submitted reduced splits and ironed out some of the most contorted boundaries. It also kept nearly 70 percent of residents — and every congressman — in their old districts in what Republicans called an effort to minimize disruption, although it shifted key Democratic challengers into new districts and Wolf criticized it as keeping “nearly 70 percent of residents in districts the court found unconstitutional.”

The court gave no direction to protect incumbent lawmakers or to keep previous districts largely intact. Meanwhile, the NAACP wrote to Wolf and top lawmakers last week to warn against redrawing two Philadelphia-based districts to “disenfranchise the vast and robust communities of color.”

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PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — A Broward County Sheriff’s Office report says Nikolas Cruz confessed to being the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

According to the report, he told interrogating officers that he “began shooting students that he saw in the hallways and on school grounds” on Wednesday afternoon.

The report adds that Cruz told officers he “brought additional loaded magazines to the school campus and kept them hidden in a backpack until he got on campus to begin his assault.”

Cruz told investigators that as students began to flee, he decided to discard his AR-15 rifle and a vest he was wearing so he could blend in with the crowd. Police recovered the rifle and the vest.

The police report adds that Cruz purchased the rifle in February 2017, but does not say where it was purchased.

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Steve Bannon, the Trump administration’s former chief strategist, was interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller over multiple days this week, NBC News reported Thursday, citing two unnamed sources familiar with the proceedings.

Bannon served as the Trump campaign’s chief executive from August 2016 through the end of the campaign, and was in Trump’s ear until he left his White House post in August 2017, making him a valuable interview for Mueller’s investigators.

NBC News reported that Bannon spent “some 20 hours in conversations with the team led by Mueller.”

Bannon returned to his job leading the far-right outlet Breitbart News after leaving the White House, only to leave that role early this year after losing favor in Trump’s circles for criticizing the President’s son in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

NBC News also noted that Bannon had appeared before the House Intelligence Committee again on Thursday to answer Russia-related questions. Members of both parties in that committee have openly considered sanctioning Bannon for refusing to answer their questions. CNN reported Thursday that Bannon claimed to have been instructed by the White House to invoke executive privilege in response to a broad range of questions. 

“The only questions he would answer were questions that had been scripted, literally scripted for him by the White House,” NBC News quoted the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), as saying Thursday. “Whenever we sought to probe anything beyond the four corners of the specific wording of the question, he refused to answer. That’s not how executive privilege works.”

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Editor’s Note: Numerous news outlets, including TPM, reported Thursday on claims made by Jordan Jereb, the leader of a Florida white supremacist group, that Nikolas Cruz, the alleged shooter in the Parkland school shooting, was a member of Jereb’s group. Within hours, several experts and observers had cast doubt on those claims. And on Thursday afternoon, Jereb appeared to walk back the claims in social media posts. As a result, we’ve substantially updated our original story on Jereb’s claims to reflect the new information.


Jordan Jereb, the leader of a Florida white nationalist group, initially claimed on Thursday that Nikolas Cruz, who is alleged to have killed 17 people in a school shooting on Wednesday, was a member of his organization.

But within hours, it appeared that Jereb had walked back that claim. Jereb says he leads the group Republic of Florida (ROF), a white supremacist organization seeking the “creation of a white ethnostate.”

Someone posting under the name “Jordan Jereb” on Gab, a social media website frequently used by white nationalists, suggested he had been mistaken in claiming Cruz was a member of the group.

The Anti-Defamation League first relayed Jereb’s claims that Cruz was a member of ROF.

Jereb repeated the claim to the Daily Beast, the Associated Press and the Tallahassee Democrat.

And ABC News reported that three former schoolmates of Cruz’s, who were unnamed in the report, had said he was a member of the group, too. The report said the schoolmates claimed Cruz “marched with the group frequently,” and that they’d seen Cruz and Jereb “often” together.

However, soon after these reports emerged, Lt. Grady Jordan of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office told the Tallahassee Democrat that the office hadn’t found a connection between Cruz and the group.

Experts and reporters who follow the white nationalist movement expressed doubt over Jereb’s claims, and commenters on servers known for movement chatter have claimed the stories of Cruz’s affiliation with the group are a hoax.

Asked about the reports later Thursday afternoon, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who is investigating the school shooting, said “it’s not confirmed at this time. There’s so much– we’ve heard that. We’re looking into that. And we’ll just keep following on with that.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a blog post on its website, said of Jereb: “It may seem odd that Jereb would bring attention to his group by claiming a connection to Cruz, but Jereb has always been somewhat of a publicity seeker. In 2014, in fact, he wrote us to complain that we had not already listed ROF as a hate group. In April 2017, Michael Tubbs, the leader of the Florida chapter of the League of the South, a well-known hate group, wrote that Jereb ‘never misses a photo op’ and called him ‘a nut job who should be avoided.’”

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The hardline immigration legislation the White House backed in order to protect so-called “Dreamers” failed to overcome a filibuster Thursday. It was the fourth immigration-related legislation to go down Thursday afternoon, as the Senate considered measures to codify the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.

The White House-supported bill, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), imposed steep cuts on legal immigration, while giving immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as minors a pathway to citizenship. President Trump endorsed the bill, while his administration lobbied aggressively against the bipartisan DACA bills also considered Thursday.

A vote on advancing the legislation failed 39-60, well short of the 60 votes it needed to move forward. It garnered significantly less support than the two other DACA bills the Senate voted on Thursday.

With the failure of all the bills, the fate of hundreds of thousands of immigrants are in jeopardy. Trump rescinded last year the Obama-era program that protected them from deportation. However, that move is in legal limbo due to lawsuits against Trump’s decision.

The Senate voted also voted on a fourth immigration-related bill Thursday that did not address DACA, but rather targeted sanctuary cities. It too fell short of the 60 votes required to move forward.

The first vote was on narrow deal to protect DACA recipients that was sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE). The second was on the sanctuary city legislation, which was sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA).

The third piece of immigration-related legislation to go down Thursday afternoon was sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Angus King (I-ME), and backed by a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Common Sense Coalition.” It would given young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children a pathway to citizenship. It provided $25 billion over 10 years in border security, including for the “construction of physical barriers.” It would also block green card holders from sponsoring adult children for immigration, meaning that those immigrants would have to wait until they become citizens before sponsoring their adult children.

It received 54 votes in its favor and 45 against the legislation.

It was considered the best opportunity for the Senate to put up the votes it would need from both parties to overcome a filibuster. The Department of Homeland Security had blasted the bill for creating a “mass amnesty” and for “destroy[ing]” the DHS’ ability to “to remove millions of illegal aliens.”

Immigration advocates were skeptical of it, but most preferred that legislation over no protection for DACA recipients.

The DACA program shielded young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation. Their fate remains in jeopardy, and thousands had already had lost their protected status by the time the Senate took up the issue.

Two courts have blocked Trump’s move to terminate the program — and previous DACA recipients can reapply for protection while the case remains in legal limbo. The administration has asked the Supreme Court to consider taking up one of the cases and overturning the decision.

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SEATTLE (AP) — The former chief counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges that he stole immigrants’ identities and used them to defraud banks and credit card companies out of more than $190,000.

Raphael Sanchez, 44, resigned Monday, the same day prosecutors filed charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He entered his pleas Thursday at U.S. District Court in Seattle, acknowledging to the U.S. Magistrate Judge John L. Weinberg that his victims were vulnerable due to their immigration status.

Prosecutors said that beginning in 2013, Sanchez stole the identities of seven people in various stages of immigration proceedings. The Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section and Sanchez’s lawyer, Casey Stamm, agreed to recommend a term of four years in prison when he’s sentenced May 11.

“Raphael Sanchez is a good person who has made serious mistakes,” Stamm said in a written statement. “Mr. Sanchez does not offer excuses for his acts; rather, he simply provides his sincere and immense regret.”

Sanchez is the second lawyer in ICE’s Seattle office to run into legal trouble in recent years. Jonathan Love pleaded guilty in 2016 to a charge that he forged documents in an effort to deprive an immigrant of the legal permanent resident status to which he was entitled.

The latest case drew condemnation from immigrant rights advocates.

“The prosecution of ICE Chief Counsel Raphael Sanchez underscores the perception that ICE is a rogue agency,” Rich Stolz, executive director of the immigrant rights group OneAmerica, said in a written statement.

“When law enforcement officials are the ones being investigated for crimes they have committed, and when long-time community members are being torn from their families due to unauthorized status alone, one must ask whether any increased investment in immigration enforcement makes sense for the nation, or for ICE, an agency that still needs to get its own affairs in order.”

The agency did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.

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After criticizing the “finger pointing” that takes place after mass shootings like the attack at a Florida high school Wednesday, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urged Congress to take the “lead” on enacting changes that could stop gun massacres in the U.S. “It’s their job,” she claimed.

“We’ve seen, you know, lots of finger pointing back and forth,” she said during an interview with conservative radio personality Hugh Hewitt. “But we need to have a conversation at the level where lawmakers can actually impact the future, because going back and putting myself in the seat of one of those families impacted, you know, one of these shootings is one too many. And we have got to have an honest conversation and Congress has to lead on this. It’s their job.”

DeVos also said that there have been “far too many” of these “situations” before, and reiterated her opinion that it was Congress’s responsibility to curtail school shootings.

“Congress needs to be holding hearings on these issues. And we’ve seen lots of discussion about this every time we’ve had another incident,” she said. DeVos’s call for congressional action echoed statements earlier Thursday by another member of the administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who also suggested Congress should take action to address mass shootings without specifying what form that action should take.

DeVos also told Hewitt that law enforcement needs to do more to track people with early warning signs of disturbing behavior, another stance that members of the Trump administration have repeated in the wake of the shooting Wednesday that left 17 dead. According to CNN, the FBI was given a tip in September about a person with the same YouTube username as the alleged shooter who made a comment on a video saying “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

“There apparently were lots of signs and I think it’s critically important that we have a much more robust conversation around tracking and tackling mental health issues and really bringing this all together because it seems to be clear that this young man put up lots and lots of signals and warning signs,” DeVos said.

On Thursday morning, Trump said that there were “many signs” that the alleged shooter was “mentally disturbed” and urged people to report “such instances” to law enforcement.

Listen to the full interview with DeVos here.

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In a change of heart, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) will announce on Friday that he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, challenging Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), the Bismarck Tribune reported Thursday.

The paper cited a person close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who spoke to Cramer about the race.

The news would be a boost for the GOP as it seeks to maintain control of the Senate this fall. It currently holds a 51-49 edge.

Cramer’s apparent reversal came only about one month after he confirmed that he would not run and would instead run for re-election in the House.

The congressman had been Republicans’ favorite candidate to challenge Heitkamp, and his decision not to run had been a blow to the GOP’s chances to flip the Senate seat. Cramer is an ally of President Donald Trump, who carried North Dakota 63 to 27 in 2016.

Both Trump and McConnell had urged Cramer to run for the Senate, and it appears McConnell made another appeal since Cramer passed on the race.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Thursday fell short of calling for any kind of additional restriction on the purchase of high-powered semi-automatic rifles, like the one allegedly used to murder 17 people on Wednesday.

Though he didn’t entirely rule out such efforts in a speech on the Senate floor — “I‘m not saying don’t focus on the gun part,” he said at one point — Rubio repeatedly emphasized that new gun laws were unlikely to prevent shooting massacres like Wednesday’s. 

The senator, an ally of the gun manufacturers’ lobby, was criticized Wednesday for again failing to offer legislative answers to America’s frequent gun massacres.

“I do think that in some circles, it isn’t fair or right to create this impression that somehow this attack happened yesterday because there is some law out there that we could have passed to prevent it,” Rubio said toward the end of a lengthy speech in which he wavered between dismissing gun control efforts and advising against saying “there is nothing we can do.”

“If there was such a law that could have prevented yesterday, I think a lot of people would have supported it,” he said.

“You read in the newspaper that they used a certain kind of gun and therefore let’s make it harder to get those kinds of guns,” Rubio said earlier in his remarks, referring to the AR-15 that police said Nikolas Cruz used Wednesday, and which is responsible for many of the deadliest shooting incidents in modern American history.

“I don’t have some sort of de facto religious objection to that, or some ideological commitment to that per se,” Rubio said. “There’s all kinds of guns that are outlawed and weaponry that’s outlawed and/or special category.”

“The problem is we did that once, and it didn’t work for a lot of reasons,” he continued. “One of them is there is already millions of these on the street. And those things, they last 100 years. And so you could pass a law that makes it hard to get this kind of gun in a new condition, but you’re going to struggle to keep it out of the hands of someone who’s decided that’s what they want to use, because there are so many of them out there already that would be grandfathered in.”

Rubio listed the ways gun restrictions would fail.

“You can do a background check,” he said. “The truth is in almost all these cases I cited, the individual either erroneously passed a background check or would have passed it or did.”

“Even if they couldn’t pass the background check, then they could buy them the way MS-13 does, and other gangs and other street elements do, from the black market.” 

“Again, not because we shouldn’t have a background check. I’m just trying to be clear and honest here,” he said. “If someone has decided I’m going to commit this crime, they will find a way to get the gun to do it.”

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a law that makes it harder. It just means understand, to be honest, it isn’t going to stop this from happening. You could still pass the law, per se, but you’re still going to have these horrible attacks.”

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