Robert Mueller’s Office Has Asked The FBI To Investigate Allegations That A Woman Was Offered Money To Accuse Him Of Sexual Harassment

The special counsel’s office on Tuesday announced that it has referred allegations that a woman was offered money to falsely accuse Robert Mueller of sexual harassment to the FBI for investigation, in a rare public acknowledgement.

“When we learned last week of allegations that women were offered money to make false claims about the Special Counsel, we immediately referred the matter to the FBI for investigation,” Peter Carr, the spokesperson for the special counsel’s office, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.

The statement, made to several outlets on Tuesday, followed an apparent effort by a woman to connect with journalists — including BuzzFeed News — about the financial offer.

The story became public on Twitter overnight Tuesday after Jacob Wohl — a far-right Trump supporter who is most recognizable as being in President Donald Trump’s replies — tweeted that he expected “scandalous” news about Mueller to be forthcoming.

That prompted Scott Stedman, an investigative journalist who has been active on Twitter tracking the Mueller investigation and related Russia topics, to respond to Wohl and detail on Twitter that he believed “false accusations” were forthcoming against Mueller.

He cited contact from “a woman who claimed to be a former associate of Mueller” who said that she was offered money “to come forward to make up sexual assault allegations.” He continued that further efforts to investigate the matter raised questions about the reliability of the woman as a source.

On Oct. 18, BuzzFeed News received the same email from a woman with the subject line, “Urgent News Tip.” The woman, who did not request confidentiality, said she’d been contacted by a man who offered her money to accuse Mueller of sexual harassment when she and the now-special counsel worked at the same law firm. The man told her he was working on behalf of Jack Burkman, an attorney who is best known for promoting conspiracy theories about the death of former DNC staffer Seth Rich and offering tens of thousands of dollars in reward money for information on the case.

The woman, whom BuzzFeed News is not naming, said the man knew details about where she lived and the exact amount of her family’s credit card debt. The man offered to help her pay it off in exchange for signing an affidavit that Mueller sexually harassed her. She wrote in the email to BuzzFeed News that she did not interact with Mueller much when they worked together, but he “was never inappropriate.”

BuzzFeed News asked to speak with the woman, but she did not respond. Four days later, she emailed that she was “working with someone at the New Yorker to expose these hucksters.” She identified the reporter as “Jane.” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Oct. 29, the woman emailed BuzzFeed News to say that earlier in the day, “a man with a Russian or Eastern European (not sure) called me up from a blocked number, saying that it was my final chance, to take the offer and make the accusations.” The woman did not return a request to speak further about this.

Natasha Bertrand from The Atlantic responded to Stedman’s initial tweet on Tuesday morning, writing, “Can confirm.” Mayer then responded that the whole thing is a “stupid hoax.”

Shortly after the first report of the statement from the special counsel’s office, Burkman announced plans to provide more information about the allegations on Thursday, claiming to have a client who would reveal sexual assault allegations at a news conference.

Burkman did not immediately respond to requests for comment through a public relations firm that he has worked with in the past or through his radio website.

This Program Used To Protect Crime Victims From Deportation, But Not Any More

Immigration attorneys and advocates have begun steering some undocumented crime victims away from a visa program intended to protect them from deportation because they fear applicants face a higher chance of being sent out of the country under President Trump’s new anti-immigration policies. The shift primarily affects victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking, who represent around 75% of those granted the U visa, according to one survey.

Created by Congress in 2000 to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes, the program grants a path to permanent residency to victims of “mental or physical abuse.” For most of the program’s existence, judges have typically paused removal proceedings for those with pending U visa applications, and the agency that reviews the cases, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has rarely passed information about applicants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“In the past it was very different, because there was no harm in trying,” said Evangeline Chan, director of the Immigration Law Project, a legal service provider in New York City. “If we felt they were eligible, we put forth the strongest application we could, and if it was denied the person just stayed at the status they were before. We weren’t concerned ICE would take deportation proceedings against them.”

But in recent months, that changed.

Now, Chan said, “Some people may be eligible for U visas, but it’s too risky for them to apply. I don’t remember a time when things were as risky as they are now.”

Citing an executive order from the White House, USCIS in June said it would make it a priority to initiate deportation proceedings against certain undocumented immigrants, including those who have been convicted of low-level crimes, who currently face charges, or who file incomplete visa applications. An August order by the Attorney General’s Office narrowed judges’ authority to delay processing deportation cases. The policies, along with incidents of ICE detaining crime victims before they’ve had a chance to apply for a U visa, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear that some police chiefs have blamed for a sudden drop in domestic violence reports in Latino communities. Now, many immigration attorneys and advocates worry that by advising their clients to seek U visas, they are unwittingly putting them in harm’s way.

“I don’t remember a time when things were as risky as they are now.”

“It has created unprecedented barriers for seeking safety,” Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said of the federal policies targeting previously protected immigrants. “We can’t give them false promises. We just don’t know what will happen.”

USCIS did not respond to a request for comment.

This is the latest in a string of new policies imposed since Trump took office and aimed at curbing lawful paths to residency and citizenship. On Tuesday, he floated the idea of ending automatic citizenship for people born in the US to non-citizens, even though the US Supreme Court has ruled that this would violate the Constitution.

Under the administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement policies, local law enforcement officials worry that crime victims are less likely to come forward. In the first three months of 2017, the number of domestic violence reports in Houston dropped by 43% from the previous year among Latinos, but by just 8% across the board. Over that stretch in Los Angeles, Latinos reported 25% fewer sexual assaults than the previous year, a decline not present among any other demographic. The police chiefs in both cities said they believed deportation fears were the cause.

For years, local law enforcement officials have credited the U visa program with helping them build trust with immigrant communities. The largest share of U visa recipients — nearly half — are domestic violence survivors.

“There’s value in a program like this,” said Sgt. Armando Carbajal, of the Phoenix Police Department. “The whole point of the visa is that it would make someone more willing to help law enforcement.”

Every year since 2010, USCIS has filled the annual U visa quota of 10,000, a mark originally set by Congress in 2000. The number of annual applicants, and those deemed qualified for a U visa, has continued to rise even as the cap has remained the same. In 2017, more than 36,000 people petitioned for the visa; just 2,100 were denied, and the rest were added to a growing backlog. As of April 2018, USCIS counted around 122,000 pending cases. If you file an application today, it’ll be at least four years until the agency reviews it, according to USCIS’s latest estimate.

While they wait, applicants hover in a dangerous limbo: By applying for one of the visas, they’ve reported their undocumented status to the federal government without receiving any legal protections in exchange.

USCIS has the power to trigger deportation proceedings or forward cases to enforcement agents for anyone whose application is denied. But for years, this wasn’t much of a concern. More than a dozen immigration lawyers and advocates who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they couldn’t recall any instance of a person facing removal proceedings right after getting denied a U visa. They attributed this to the Obama administration’s policy of focusing enforcement on undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes.

“In the past, the general understanding was that they reserve the right to do it, but they will not take any adverse actions if a case is denied,” Elise Griesmyer, an attorney with the St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigration Legal Assistance in Houston, said of her conversations with USCIS agents. She’d previously assured her clients thinking about applying for U visas that they had nothing to worry about, she said, but now, “When we have encountered clients who fear putting their name on the board, we can make no guarantees about how their information is used.”

Some immigration lawyers told BuzzFeed News that, in this new landscape, they hesitate to send off applications that have anything more than the slightest chance of rejection — including for applicants who have been deported in the past, have even minor criminal records, or are unable to collect all the documents required. The concern is that the agent reviewing the application might classify any errors or omissions as evidence of “fraud or willful misrepresentation,” a deportable offense.

“Now we have to think twice about the types of cases we want to recommend for U visas,” said Laura Garcia, an attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. “We’re a lot more cautious than we already were.”

Tim Isaacson, who runs Immigrant Hope Atlanta, an advocacy group that provides legal services, described the case of one client currently weighing whether to apply. A man robbed him, he reported the crime to police, and officers arrested the alleged assailant, who is awaiting trial. “He meets all the requirements,” Isaacson said, but there’s a chance he will get denied because the crime might not have been violent enough. “There wasn’t any blood.”

“What do you do?” Isaacson said. “Is it worth the risk?”

For some, the answer is no. One woman who’d recently fled an abusive partner was “too scared to even file a case” to police, Isaacson recalled. “Even though this is a way to get legitimate status, it was just too daunting for her to do.”

In past years, undocumented crime victims had incentive to apply — and, by extension, report the crime to police — even if they weren’t certain they qualified for a U visa. Putting their name on the list granted them, at minimum, the security of knowing that they’d get to stay in the country until their cases were heard, even if they were picked up by immigration authorities.

“Having a case like a U visa pending was really helpful,” Griesmyer said. “Judges would delay removal cases as long as necessary.”

Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ August directive to reduce immigration court delays, however, some judges have begun moving these cases forward, declining to grant the continuances that had become the norm, according to attorneys in Texas, Georgia, New Mexico, and North Carolina.

While judges have disagreed over exactly how to interpret Sessions’ directive, one reading is that it bars them from pausing a case merely because a defendant has a pending U visa application.

Lawyers are witnessing the consequences in the courtroom.

“What do you do? Is it worth the risk?”  For some, the answer is no.

“All I see are denials [of continuances] for every U visa pending applicant in every situation,” said Maureen Abell, an immigration attorney at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. “The judges are affording it so much less weight.”

She said one of her clients, a 22-year-old who’s lived in the US for five years, has had a pending application since 2015 but now faces deportation after a judge declined the request for a continuance in August, days after the Sessions directive.

“I don’t know that I necessarily am saying you shouldn’t apply for a U visa,” Abell said. “But I am certainly advising people that a pending U visa offers much, much less protection than it used to.”

It can be a difficult choice for those with few options to begin with. Garcia, the immigration attorney in New Mexico, said that while she has warned her recent clients about the new hazards associated with U visas, so far they’ve all decided to put their names on the list anyway.

“They might not think the risk is that much greater than the risk they already carry just moving around the city,” she said.

Facebook daily visits growth slows as sales miss forecasts

Facebook logo is seen on an android mobile phone.Image copyright Getty Images

Facebook’s user growth has slowed and revenue has failed to meet forecasts, according to the firm’s latest results.

An average of 1.49 billion people used Facebook’s social media service on a daily basis in September, up 9% on last year but below expectations of 1.51 billion.

Growth remained flat in the US and Canada and fell in Europe.

Facebook said sales rose by 33% in the third quarter to $13.7bn (£10.7bn), however they narrowly missed forecasts.

The Silicon Valley firm – which has been hit by security breaches and concerns about “fake news” – warned investors in July that its previously blockbuster growth would slow.

The company has boosted spending on security and other areas, while allowing users to limit advertising more easily.

Most of its new users live in regions that are less profitable than in the US.

Facebook said more than 2 billion people use at least one of its apps – which also include WhatsApp and Instagram – every day.

But the newsfeed in its original Facebook network remains the core of its advertising business, even as people increasingly opt for other kinds of activities, like private messages.

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, said he is confident that the firm’s ad business will catch up to the shift in behaviour but warned investors to expect 2019 to be another year of “significant investment”.

Image copyright Getty Images

In the third quarter, expenses increased 53% year-on-year to $7.9bn.

Facebook said it expects costs to grow 40% to 50% in 2019.

Profits were $5.1bn, up 9% thanks in part to a lower-than-expected tax rate.

George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown said the firm was “doing the right thing by focusing on faster-growing platforms like Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger”.

“The catch is he’s sacrificing a lot of profit,” he said.

Facebook shares were volatile in after-hours trade, reflecting the mixed results. Since the July warning, Facebook’s share price has lost about a third of its value.

Twitter Just Launched A Midterms Page And It’s Already Surfacing Trolls And False, Hyperpartisan News

Twitter launched an events page for the upcoming US midterm elections on Tuesday. And already it is surfacing tweets from popular online figures who have engaged in past conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns on the platform.

The page, which was shared by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, features tweets broken down into “Top Commentary” and ‘Latest,’ while a separate tab on mobile devices features news stories, and a further state-by-state breakdown of election-related content from users.

In the first major election cycle since the 2016 presidential campaign, which was marred by foreign actors and disinformation campaigns on social platforms, companies like Facebook and Twitter are under more pressure than ever to clean up their networks and surface more truthful, newsworthy content. And while some content comes from the verified accounts of political candidates and journalists, a BuzzFeed News review of Twitter’s new midterms page revealed tweets from known conspiracy theorists; users promoting disinformation about candidates; and accounts with few followers, no profile photos, and low tweet counts — all signs of bot or spam accounts.

A spokesperson for Twitter told BuzzFeed News said that the midterms elections portal was like many of the pages the company creates for events including basketball games or natural disasters. An algorithm curates tweets based on certain keywords, and any content associated with those keywords is populated. The Twitter spokesperson did not specify what keywords were being used for its midterms elections page. The page, the company noted, was designed less for Twitter power users and more for newer users searching useful news ahead of the election.

Trump’s rhetorical style again adds scrutiny to power of words

President Trump’s rhetorical style, under intense scrutiny amid the tragedies and threats of the past week, is nothing new.

From the opening moment of his presidential campaign in 2015, Mr. Trump has prided himself on his practice of stirring up hornet’s nests. The mockery, the winking calls to violence, the provocative policy moves, the incendiary language seen by critics as fear-mongering – these are not gaffes. They’re tools with an eye toward an end: winning.

On Tuesday came another such move – word of a planned executive order targeting “birthright citizenship.” The goal, Trump told Axios, is to end the practice of bestowing US citizenship on anyone born on US soil, regardless of whether their parents are citizens. The idea sparked an immediate uproar, and argument over the 14th Amendment, which has long been interpreted to offer wide citizenship rights.    

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Many legal experts were skeptical of the idea’s chances in court. But the timing seems plain: One week before the midterm elections, Trump is fueling the divisive immigration debate, with an eye toward making sure his supporters turn out to vote.

For Trump’s purposes, this rhetorical style – both in tone and substance – is effective. Or at least, it can be interpreted as such. After all, he rode it all the way to the presidency.

When asked Monday night on Fox News if he should dial back his rhetoric, in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting at a synagogue and the discovery of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, he pointed to his supporters’ reaction.

“You saw the group saying, ‘No, don’t tone it down, don’t tone it down,’ ” he told Fox host Laura Ingraham, referring to his rally Saturday in Murphysboro, Ill., hours after 11 Jewish worshipers were fatally gunned down in Pittsburgh.

Trump has long faced calls to “tone it down” – even, he says, from his own family. At a campaign rally in Boca Raton, Fla., in March 2016, on the eve of the Florida primary, he spoke of how his wife and daughter Ivanka wanted him to act more “presidential.”

“I sort of like the other way better,” he said playfully.

As a candidate, Trump’s message often was, “Elect me, and you’ll see just how presidential I can be.” But in office, he has largely ignored that demand, opting to remain in campaign mode. At a rally last March, he mimicked “presidential style” as over-the-top boring, before reverting to his usual combative persona.

“The idea of being provocative is obviously something that’s been part of his personal doctrine for a while,” says Republican pollster David Winston, a longtime adviser to the Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

But “the thing about success is, it’s blinding,” Mr. Winston adds, both in politics as well as in other arenas. “Because you are successful, you assume everything you did was correct.” That can cloud a person’s ability to critique his own performance – or improve on it.

Some Trump supporters themselves make a similar point. In focus groups and in interviews at rallies, some wish out loud that he would cut back on the tweeting and strike a more presidential tone.

The president and his defenders, including White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and son Eric Trump, argue that some of the comments deemed to be overly provocative or offensive were just meant to be entertaining.

When the president praised a Montana congressman last week for body-slamming a reporter during a special election last year, and mimicked the incident, Trump faced criticism for seeming to encourage a violent act.

The president’s son begged to differ. “Stop, he wasn’t the guy who body-slammed anybody,” Eric Trump said when questioned about the Montana rally during an appearance on Fox News. “He can have fun.”

Moreover, that was “exactly why my father won,” the younger Trump added. The public is tired of “perfectly scripted” politicians who memorize sound bites and have no charisma, he said.

Experts on presidential rhetoric say there’s something to the argument that the president is just trying to entertain his audience.

“It might not be a very good excuse, but in some of those instances, it may actually be true,” says Martin Medhurst, a professor of communication and political science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “This man is nothing if not a showman.”

Still, he adds, “it’s hard to distinguish that from his everyday practices of belittling, and name-calling, and all the things that are clearly not meant to be humorous.”

On the more serious question of whether the president can be held responsible for inciting violence, following the Pittsburgh massacre and the pipe bomb incident, Mr. Medhurst and others say it’s impossible to draw a direct line between a president’s rhetoric and another person’s actions.

But presidential rhetoric matters – especially at a time of growing political polarization, a trend that long preceded Trump’s election. 

“When you inflame threats, you don’t do much to help Americans come together,” says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and author of a book on the presidential bully pulpit. “You can mouth a few words about, ‘We need to come together,’ but when the rest of the rhetoric does not encourage that, it reinforces social divisions that have been rising since Ronald Reagan’s day.”

Republicans argue that Democrats have also been guilty of inciteful language, pointing to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement, “When they go low, we kick them.” Then there’s former Vice President Joe Biden, who boasts that if he and Trump were in high school, he’d “take him behind the gym” and beat him up.

Indeed, and when a disgruntled gunman burst into a newsroom in Annapolis, Md., last June, killing five people, Trump wasn’t blamed – despite his rhetoric repeatedly attacking the media as the “enemy of the people.” In the Annapolis case, the gunman was known to have a specific grievance with the newspaper.

To critics, the “both sides” argument is a dangerous form of false equivalency. And it minimizes the fact that the president has the biggest megaphone in the world.

In the annals of the American presidency, Trump is unique in his ability to dominate public discussion, says Edwards.

But just as striking is the content of the message.

“Trump’s rhetoric is a rhetoric of fear,” Edwards says. “He emphasizes threats to personal safety – claims that violent crime is soaring, that Islamic terrorists are a dire threat – and to personal economic status, from foreign trade, global warming, immigration, regulation, the Affordable Care Act. All of these are going to ruin your life.”

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Manulife shares rise after rules over insurance deposits clarified

Two of Canada’s largest life insurance companies welcomed a Saskatchewan government decision that clarifies the rules for a type of insurance policy that’s been the focus of civil suits against them.

Manulife Financial Corp. and IA Financial Group say they expect substantial aspects of the litigation against them will be resolved as a result of the revised provincial regulations.

Institutional investors argued in a Saskatchewan court last month that there shouldn’t be limits on how much they can deposit into side accounts associated with a type of universal insurance policy offered in the 1990s.

Manulife and IA argued in their defence that the side accounts associated with the insurance policies weren’t intended as investment vehicles and therefore there should have limits on how much money they can accept.

A report from short-seller Muddy Waters after the trial warned Manulife could face “billions of dollars of losses” if it lost the case. Manulife disagreed with the report, but its shares fell to a 2018 low within days of the Oct. 4 report.

Amendments to Saskatchewan insurance regulations, published Monday, say insurers aren’t allowed to accept deposits in excess of what’s required to pay premiums over the policy’s eligible period.

Manulife stock rose four per cent on Tuesday to $21.02.

JEFFREY LIPTON in BARBADOS – https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/manulife-iafinancial-insurance-deposits-1.4884707?cmp=rss

In election run up, voters eye health care as top concern

Olivia Sheldon is one of those voters who’s still deciding who to vote for in a hotly contested Senate race. But she knows one issue she cares about a lot: health insurance.

“Health care definitely needs some work,” she says. “I would love to have some reform.”

Ms. Sheldon is an expectant mother who, at age 24, has a job in retail and is studying for a degree in psychology. And for this resident of the mountain town of Harpers Ferry, what’s needed doesn’t fit neatly on either side of a debate that typically pits ideals of government-provided care against reliance on free-market principles.

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“I want the government support,” she says, citing the high costs of medical care. “But I want [government] out of the doctor’s office when I’m in for an appointment.”

Her views point toward an important reality of the 2018 election: No single issue looms larger on the campaign trail than health care ​– the subject of nearly half of all campaign ads for federal races. Voters want both low prices and high-quality care, and they show support for a strong government role on health policy, up to a point.

In this campaign cycle, one core tenet of Obamacare has moved front and center: that people shouldn’t face higher insurance prices because of preexisting conditions. Americans widely support that idea, and Democratic candidates have put Republicans on the defensive over the issue in key races such as the one here in West Virginia.

Yet even as a majority of voters say they trust Democrats more than Republicans on health care – and as proposals of “Medicare for all” gain a following in some quarters – policy experts don’t see an easy path toward meeting voter aspirations.

“There is not a magic bullet on health care, …  regardless of what the political parties say,” says Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere Health, a Washington-based consulting firm. Referring to the Medicare-for-all idea, he adds: “It’s not easy to create a single-payer system in the United States that saves a lot of money.”

WHAT THE PARTIES ARE OFFERING

The two major parties offer starkly different visions on health care.

Republicans focus on ever-rising costs and the risk to both individual pocketbooks and federal deficits. Their preferred solutions emphasize longstanding conservative ideals of consumer choice, competition, and flexibility for state-level innovation on policy. The Trump administration has moved to make slimmed-down insurance plans available to Americans who don’t feel they can afford Obamacare.

But that, coupled with other moves, has left them vulnerable to attack – with GOP candidates scrambling to insist that they, too, support protecting people with preexisting conditions. At least in their rhetoric, the 2018 race has made it a principle both parties agree on, backed solidly by public opinion.

“Hardworking West Virginia families are hurting,” GOP Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey says in an interview on the campaign trail, noting “skyrocketing premiums.” He pledges to repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) – but then adds in the next breath, “we also need to protect people with preexisting conditions.”

Here in West Virginia, a state that Trump won by a wide margin in 2016, state Attorney General Morrisey is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in a close race, though most polls have shown Senator Manchin leading.

Manchin, a former West Virginia governor who has long positioned himself as a centrist, symbolizes how Obamacare is no longer the liability for Democratic candidates that it’s been in past election cycles.

In one TV ad Manchin charges that a Morrisey-backed lawsuit against the ACA seeks “to take away health care from people with preexisting conditions.” The ad is tailor-made for this conservative-tilting state, as Manchin destroys a document representing the lawsuit – and sends an I’m-not-liberal signal by using a shotgun to do it.

Most Democratic candidates aren’t toting guns in their ads, but the health care emphasis here in the Mountain State has been echoed in other close congressional races across the nation. 

For most Democrats, the core ideal for health care policy is universal coverage – something Obamacare aspired to but didn’t achieve. As a next step, Democrats in solid-blue districts or states are pitching “Medicare for all.” But, as appealing as the idea of government-funded health insurance sounds to many Americans, many also question how to pay for it.

QUESTIONS IN WEST VIRGINIA

The skepticism is evident in Inwood, a small town in Northeastern West Virginia where Morrisey recently held a rally.

“I don’t think that’s realistic…. Where do you get the money,” says rally attendee D.J. Beard, referring to a single-payer (government) system. A resident of nearby Glengary, Mr. Beard says he’s registered as an independent and sees a role for government. He himself is on Medicaid and out of work due to a health challenge.

But he thinks Republicans “are looking out for the people” while, from what he’s heard from European acquaintances, single-payer is not a model for the US to aspire to.

His view hints at why Americans have given mixed responses when asked in polls if they’d support switching outright to a single-payer system. By contrast, polls have found majority public support for the idea of a public health-plan offered alongside other options. A CBS News poll this month found 65 percent of Americans in favor of that idea.

And a Pew Research Center poll last year found 60 percent support for the idea that it is government’s responsibility to ensure health care for all, up from 47 percent who felt that way in 2014.

“Those on the right just celebrate everything that Trump says,” says Scott Flanders, chief executive officer of eHealth, an online marketplace for insurance plans. “Those on the left want to brand anything that isn’t the ACA as bad.”

He says the reality is more complex – that millions of Americans can’t afford Obamacare plans, that many are seeing premiums and deductibles soar even when they have insurance through their employer, and that “Medicare itself is headed toward an unsustainable path.” 

Still, for now Democrats appear to have momentum on the issue. They have fodder for saying Republicans have sought to undercut the ACA’s protections. The lawsuit Morrisey backed, along with officials from other states, seeks to overturn the whole law (including its guarantees that premiums won’t hinge on one’s medical condition) as unconstitutional.

In other races, GOP lawmakers are under attack for supporting legislation undercutting the ACA. Where Republicans say they’re still seeking to protect people with preexisting conditions, while promoting greater choice in insurance markets, Democrats say those safeguards are far from ironclad.

MEANWHILE, MORE FROM WASHINGTON

The partisan battle over health policy has been ramping up in recent days.

The Trump administration has sketched a new plan aiming to tame prescription-drug costs within Medicare by linking prices to what’s paid in other advanced nations.

The administration also announced a move to let states get waivers from Obamacare, potentially opening the door to states using federal dollars to subsidize insurance plans that are cheaper, but which offer less coverage than ACA-compliant plans.

Already, another Trump move is expanding short-term health plans as a cheaper alternative to Obamacare. Critics call it “junk insurance” since the coverage isn’t complete. Mr. Flanders of eHealth argues the plans are a “constructive” adjunct to Obamacare, helping many of some 28 million uninsured Americans to afford some coverage rather than none.

Many Democrats meanwhile say that Medicare for all, paid for with cost controls coupled with some tax hikes, can offer solid insurance to every American.

It’s possible that a single-payer system could help the US cover more people at a lower overall cost, says Mr. Sloan, the policy expert at Avalare, but he adds, “it’s hard.”

“To do that, the United States would have to cut a lot of health care spending,” he says. And that could mean reductions in everything from drug prices to physician reimbursements to other areas where the US spends more than other nations. “There’s a lot of stakeholders [and entrenched interests] in place that that would affect.”

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Russia Is Meddling In The Midterms. The White House Just Isn’t Talking About It.

The Department of Homeland Security recently gathered its top election officials and representatives from other federal agencies and states in Arlington, Virginia, to spend several hours walking reporters through election-day disaster scenarios and how the government would respond. The session focused on two scenarios: an adversary tinkering with some element of the US voting apparatus and a concentrated disinformation campaign intended to trick US voters.

“We haven’t seen any compromises, or any sort of access to election equipment, across the United States, at this point,” Chris Krebs, a DHS official, assured reporters after the walkthrough, in the only on-the-record portion of the meeting, the first ever of its kind.

That has been a common refrain from US officials this year, one that has been reiterated for months by every official in the division of DHS that oversees election security: Even though Russian military hackers broke into the Illinois state voter registration database in 2016, tried to do that with dozens of other states, and sent spear-phishing emails to county election workers, they haven’t bothered this year.

But that’s less reassuring than it sounds. A few hours after Krebs made his comment, the Department of Justice dropped a bombshell indictment that it had been working on for months: Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the “troll factory” propaganda farm that special counsel Robert Mueller charged with a litany of crimes related to trying to influence the 2016 election, was still at it in 2018. The Justice Department alleged that Elena Khusyaynova, an IRA accountant, had engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the US by helping to craft an army of fictitious social media personalities designed to inflame American political tensions.

If that indictment seemed to come out of nowhere, that’s in part because the US government had said nearly nothing about Russian meddling for months — even though there were plenty of signs Russia was still engaged, as it had been for years, in stirring up online trouble through fake personas.

Why the silence? Critics blame President Donald Trump for the government’s failure to sound the alarm more forcefully.

“The intelligence community, by its very nature, is not always able to go public with what steps they are taking to protect the integrity of our elections. That’s where presidential leadership comes in — and unfortunately, we still have a president who remains reluctant to acknowledge the severity of this threat, and refuses to step up to fight it,” Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told BuzzFeed News.

Trump’s reluctance is born no doubt from the finding of the US intelligence community that Russia favored Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 — a reluctance that remains despite the fact Trump’s own intelligence officials and the Republican head of the Senate Intelligence Committee have reiterated that conclusion. In August, the White House ordered Senate Republicans to kill a bipartisan election security bill, saying it wasn’t necessary — out of fear perhaps that it would remind people of those uncomfortable conclusions about the 2016 election.

While it would normally fall to the National Security Council to talk about Russian meddling online, Trump’s current national security adviser, John Bolton, sees it as far from a priority.

Speaking in Moscow last week, Bolton downplayed the idea that Russian influence operations had actually been effective.

“There’s no possibility that the outcome of the election would have been changed,” Bolton said, contradicting previous intelligence community reports, and mistakenly referring to the IRA as the “Internet Research Association.”

This spring, Bolton infamously eliminated the role of cybersecurity coordinator, the job that managed cybersecurity policies among federal agencies under previous administrations.

“Firing the NSC cybersecurity official who would otherwise be responsible for coordinating these efforts across agencies was just another demonstration that President Trump doesn’t take this seriously,” Warner said.

That’s left it primarily to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to let the public know when they’ve moved against accounts they suspect are spreading Russian propaganda. Facebook’s first such announcement about the IRA came in 2017, and as recently as August it admitted it had discovered and “removed pages, groups and accounts that can be linked to sources the US government has previously identified as Russian military intelligence services,” a reference to the GRU.

But whether those announcements are enough to give US voters confidence that Russian meddling is under control is uncertain. Russia’s IRA, which is owned by a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is still active but far less obvious than it was in 2016, in part because its employees have done a better job of covering their tracks with simple tactics like consistently using a VPN and posting during hours when Americans are active, rather than during Russian work hours. There was even a short period in 2018 when the IRA “went dark” and US spies were unable to conclusively track its activity, according to a person familiar with the US intelligence community’s ongoing monitoring.

Another expert on Russian meddling, Ben Nimmo, an Atlantic Council researcher who sifted through all of Facebook’s deleted IRA activity through the summer of 2018, said the difference may be the efforts the Russians are making to hide what they are doing.

“The trolls are trying a lot harder to cover their tracks,” he said. “Which means I don’t think we can say that what we have from Twitter and Facebook is the definitive list of everything they did this year.”

And it’s not just the IRA.

While there hasn’t been a repeat of what happened to the Democrats — where a foreign country not only hacked into a political party’s computer system but released emails to inflict political damage — it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

According to Microsoft, at least two significant US politicians were targeted this year by the same Russian GRU military intelligence unit that Mueller’s July indictment accused of interfering during the 2016 campaign. One was Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat running for reelection this year, and whose seat is pivotal for the balance of power in the Senate.

The other hasn’t been publicly identified, but New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who’s pushed for sanctions against Russia, saw her office peppered with phishing attacks. (Shaheen’s office said it doesn’t know if she was the other GRU target.)

There’s been a surge in other candidates targeted by hackers in 2018, all Democrats, though to date there’s no substantial, public investigation that shows who’s behind any of them.

Hans Keirstead, a California Democrat who lost his primary bid to challenge Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, perhaps the most favorable candidate to Russian President Putin, also faced a multi-pronged hacking campaign.

Another Democratic House candidate in California who lost his primary, David Min, was successfully hacked. Tabitha Isner, running for a House seat in Alabama, was targeted. Phil Bredesen, running for a Senate seat in Tennessee, told the FBI earlier this year that his campaign received carefully curated phishing emails, but didn’t fall for them.

Whether Democrats make riper targets than Republicans or are simply more likely to publicize them isn’t clear. The DNC, eager to address its misfortunes from 2016, has actively courted the press about its cybersecurity initiatives. The Republican Party, in contrast, has been reluctant to talk about the subject, and didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether any of its candidates had seen hacking attempts. The FBI declined to comment for this story.

The tactic isn’t confined to just Russia, or at least isn’t any longer. Facebook recently announced it had undergone a second round of excising a coordinated Iranian political influence campaign, though it’s clear its operators are learning and adapting.

That operation, “has evolved to become more like the Russian one,” said Nimmo of the Atlantic Council. “It’s mainly based on social media (not websites), and posts engaging content, mostly memes,” he said, and focuses on “divisive content,” like the IRA.

But for the White House, that sort of influence operation simply isn’t a major concern. In Bolton’s speech, he changed the subject: “If you want to talk about a really massive influence effort on the American political system, I suggest you read Vice President Pence’s speech on China’s efforts.”

In that speech, delivered Oct. 4, Pence spoke at length about various ways in which the Chinese government is trying to influence America. His examples of election interference, however, were limited to noting that recent Chinese tariffs largely targeted Trump-supporting US farm areas. Trump himself accused China of election meddling in September, but has only mentioned the country taking out a large ad in an Iowa newspaper as proof.

India’s Modi stakes claim to future – and past – with world’s tallest statue

On his small organic farm in Gujarat, the western home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lakhanbhai Musafir flings out his arm in disgust in the direction of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Statue of Unity – billed as the tallest statue in the world.

“Modi calls this development,” says Mr. Musafir, an advocate for local tribes. “It’s his obsession to make himself immortal, like Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.”

Towering over the Narmada River, the $410 million statue depicts Vallabhbhai Patel, known as Sardar Patel, one of the most important figures in India’s fight for independence from Britain, and an icon of national unity. The bald, stoop-shouldered subject presents an image of humility – though at nearly 600 feet tall, and clad in some 1,850 metric tons of bronze, it is commanding all the same.

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Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Unity will be inaugurated on Oct. 31 opposite the Sardar Sarovar Dam, marking the official launch of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 2019 election campaign. As a symbol, however, it may represent a different kind of unity from the multicultural, secular one that has defined India’s identity since the election of its first prime minister in 1947, and the framing of its Constitution two year later.

Modi’s party, which has brought Hindu nationalism to the forefront of Indian politics, is on the hunt for a new hero, historians and political analysts say. And though Patel was not a vocal supporter of “Hindutva,” as that ideology is called here, the BJP is now claiming Patel as one of their own – one of several cases in which the party has been accused of rewriting history with a Hindu nationalist bent.

Patel stands in stark contrast to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, says Tarun Vijay, a former BJP member of parliament.

Patel was not a “half-converted Englishman,” he says. “Patel belonged to the Indian soil…. He had the firmness of Napoleon – unshakeable, rock-like decisiveness.”

Under Nehru’s leadership, India adopted a Constitution that guaranteed the rights of religious minorities and enshrined separate laws on issues like marriage and inheritance for Hindus, Muslims (about 13 percent of the population), and Christians (some 2 percent). For many people, that multicultural vision remains the fundamental ethos of India.

But for Hindu nationalists, that “pseudo-secularism,” as some call it, is an affront. Their core ideology of Hindtuva, or Hinduness, envisions a state in which Hindu faith and culture are front and center – and that many fear will leave minorities second-class citizens. And since Modi’s election in 2014, his critics argue Hindu nationalists have used increasingly bold tactics to make that vision a reality: from rewriting textbooks and stacking academic institutions, to emboldening mobs who have killed two dozen people for allegedly eating or transporting beef.

IRON MAN OF INDIA

Modi launched the project and lay its foundation stone in 2013, amid the lead-up to the 2014 general election, as he wooed moderates with business-friendly reform. At the time, he had been chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, including during 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslim. His administration’s response to the attacks has been hotly debated, with many researchers blaming officials for failing to quell the violence.

Now, as he begins his campaign for re-election in 2019, the statue has become fraught with political meaning, says Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.

Early Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP’s precursors, did not take a leading role in India’s struggle for independence. And it was a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, because he felt Gandhi had proved too accommodating to Muslims. By building a mammoth statue of Patel, Modi hopes to gain his own iconic freedom fighter, analysts say.

“The BJP desperately needs to seize upon Patel because it has no other reverential figures” from the freedom movement, Dr. Ganguly says.

For Hindu nationalists, Patel presents a compelling alternative to Nehru – whose great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is the present leader of the Congress Party, the main opposition.

Known as “the Iron Man of India,” Patel helped convince some 550 princely states to cede their power to the new government after independence. He thus suits many nationalists’ craving for muscular leaders, some analysts observe – reflected in how the movement has embraced a warrior-like version of the Hindu deity Rama and the monkey-god Hanuman who fought beside him; and even in Modi’s boasts about having a 56-inch chest.

Right-wingers have also suggested that Patel opposed Nehru’s interpretation of secularism, and would have forged a different country had he been India’s first leader, says Mujibur Rehman, an assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University who recently authored a book on the Hindu right, titled “Rise of Saffron Power.” Patel was a life-long member of the Congress Party, but Hindu nationalists have long argued that he envisioned a more assimilationist secularism devoid of “appeasement” of minorities.

“They see him as an anti-Nehru figure that the Congress [Party] did not explore [as a potential prime minister], and say therefore things have gone wrong in our country,” Dr. Rehman says.

At times, Patel opposed faith-specific policies that Nehru had supported, says Hindol Sengupta, the author of a recent biography of Patel titled “The Man Who Saved India.” For example, during the division of British India into majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan, which displaced millions of people, Nehru pushed to reserve the homes of Muslims who fled to Pakistan for other Muslims. Patel, meanwhile, argued the homes should be offered to anyone.

“Patel was strongly secular. He wanted parity for all faiths,” says Mr. Sengupta. “He argued that the principle of division had already divided the country. Now what remained must be one nation.”

Patel also opposed Nehru’s decision to let the United Nations determine the fate of the Kashmir region, still contested today.

“For decades, one party devoted all their energies to serve one family,” Modi said in a parliamentary speech in February, excoriating the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. “If Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation.”

LOOK ON MY WORKS

The Sardar Sarovar Dam that the statue overlooks has been at the center of protests and court cases for decades, over disputes about displaced villages and environmental impact. The dam has already displaced hundreds of villages; now, the statue will add another 16 to that number, according to Mr. Musafir, the tribal activist.

“We told the government if you spend 10 million rupees ($140 million) to repair the existing canals, the farmland of this entire area can be irrigated, but they said they don’t have the staff or the money,” he says. “Yet to build this one statue they are spending 30 billion rupees ($410 million).”

But by locating the giant statue opposite the massive dam, the BJP also highlights technological progress, which Modi has promoted in plans for “smart cities” and bullet trains. Constructed at enormous cost and projected to attract 15,000 tourists a day, Patel’s statue includes an elevator up its spine that allows visitors to look out over the dam through Patel’s eyes.

Amarsingh Tadvi, whose construction crew may work on related projects, is a fan of the statue – and the man it depicts.

“Nehru thought about his family and his family’s development. But Patel was more selfless,” he says.

As for Modi, “he’s a great man of India. Modi and development are like the two sides of a coin.”

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Halloween arrives, and Canadians embrace the season wholeheartedly

New to Toronto, I get asked many questions: about how I find the schools or the public transportation system. There’s another topic that has come up with confusing frequency too.

“Have you ever experienced Halloween in Toronto?” asked one father in the schoolyard in the still balmy days of September. “Enjoy your first Halloween in Toronto,” said a Spanish journalist when I introduced myself as a newly arrived colleague.

By October the house decorations in my neighborhood came out, giving the impression that every other home is inhabited by that one Halloween-crazed family on your street. There are ghosts and goblins hanging from trees, plastic gravestones peering out from flower beds and severed hands strewn across front lawns. Neighbors have giant blow-up cats and spiders on their front porches and have wrapped their front doors in bright yellow “caution” and “danger” tape. This is not just a single fanciful block; this is the entire neighborhood.

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When I asked a woman two doors down about it, she said she’d be celebrating and decorating her house too. “For the community,” she explained.

Never a fan, this year I found myself at the dollar store purchasing that “danger” tape – not for me, but for the people who walk past my front door.

There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the way Canadians celebrate Halloween, a tradition that has its roots in paganism, was Christianized, and then commercialized in North America. Yet perhaps, at least in my neighborhood, it seems to be more about togetherness than any great passion to don a witch’s hat or string some cobweb around the shrubbery.

Folklorists trace Halloween back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Nicholas Rogers, in his book “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,” says the feast marked the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the onset of winter, a time of stock-taking and preparations.

Halloween came to North America with Irish and Scottish migration in the 19th century and underwent many iterations. “Halloween’s capacity to provide a public space for social inversion or transgression held it in good stead at a time when other potentially raucous holidays were becoming more institutionalized and domesticated,” argues Mr. Rogers. It morphed from a family affair to a party co-opted by adults, and later to a time to reaffirm gay and feminist values.

In popular culture, Halloween is viewed as an American secular holiday. According to digital coupon company RetailMeNot, 73 percent of Americans plan to celebrate it this year. But it’s a phenomenon in Canada too. “It’s become bigger and more celebrated than it ever has,” says Chris Ainsworth, who founded the Canadian Haunters Association, a group of hardcore Halloween enthusiasts who turn their homes into elaborate haunted houses each year.

In 2014, the Retail Council of Canada made news saying Canadians were now outspending Americans per capita on Halloween, to the tune of $1 billion annually. The estimate has remained stable, says Diane Brisebois, the council president. That’s not because enthusiasm has waned, she says, but because prices have been driven down.

Some here bemoan the creep of the commercial in the festivities. But in some ways the holiday has also returned to its roots as a community-centered activity.

And perhaps that’s why everyone gets so excited about Halloween in Toronto, a metropolis that is known as a “city of villages.”

In my neighborhood, Halloween revolves around two-block Lavinia Avenue, dubbed “Halloween Street,” where residents say they have to get help handing out candy to the children who pack the pavement every year. In the past two years they have moved it beyond just a boon to candy manufacturers, starting a food drive for the Daily Bread Food Bank. “If we are doing it as a community event, we decided we should make it more of a community event beyond massive commercialization,” says Alexandra Devlin, a mother of three young children on the street.

Some of her neighbors will take off an afternoon of work to decorate their homes, even hire an electrician to rig lighting and sound effects. She admits she finds the obsession with Halloween a bit strange. Yet she participates willingly – again because she is part of the community.

Ms. Brisebois agrees there is something to the “community spirit” behind Canadians’ embrace of Halloween. “Canadians still like to meet their neighbors, to talk, to share, it is a Canadian trait, so Halloween is another way of getting a bit closer,” she says. “Maybe the biggest difference between Canadians and Americans is that Canadians really get excited, all hyped up about Halloween, I don’t know if it’s because of our weather and the thought that winter is coming, but people really embrace it.”

And as Ms. Devlin puts it, there is no middle way, at least on “Halloween Street.” “You are all in,” she says, “or you best turn off your lights and go to the movies for the night.”

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