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VAIL, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy was more than 40 minutes into a town hall in rural Iowa when a woman in the crowd posed a pointed question. Or perhaps it was a suggestion.

“I know you want to be president,” she said. “But would you consider being Trump’s vice president?”

The query drew light laughter from attendees and a lengthy response from Ramaswamy. (The short answer: No.)

It also highlighted the central challenge facing the wealthy entrepreneur, who has risen from little-known newcomer to as high as third in some Republican primary polls since joining the race nearly six months ago. While voters are increasingly interested in Ramaswamy, it’s former President Donald Trump who continues to be many conservatives’ favorite.

With the first Republican primary debate in just over a week and the leadoff Iowa caucus five months away, he is delicately working to convince more voters that he could be their nominee and — as much as he says he respects Trump — would be a better 2024 candidate and president.

“The debate will be important, but I think also just continuing on the trajectory we’ve been on,” Ramaswamy said after the town hall held in a cavernous welding company workshed in Vail, Iowa. He returns to Iowa on Saturday for the Iowa State Fair, a rite of passage for presidential candidates.

Ramaswamy described the months leading up to the first debate as “just the pre-season.”

“So we’re entering the regular season of this and I’m coming in with a running start,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”

He says his strategy heading into the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is “speak the truth,” pointing to a banner emblazoned with the word “TRUTH” that serves as his backdrop and has become a campaign theme. The word — in all capital letters and a font and that resembles Trump campaign signage — is emblazoned on placards, T-shirts and stickers.

Ramaswamy says he and others cannot trust the government because the government doesn’t tell the truth. It was what motivated him, he says, to travel to the courthouse where Trump was to appear on charges earlier this month to announce he is suing the Justice Department and seeking all records the department has with information about why Trump was indicted.

Though such a lawsuit is unlikely to be successful before any GOP primary votes are cast, it was a move that struck a balance between defending Trump and drawing positive attention to his own candidacy, at least among the Republican primary electorate.

“That’s what this campaign is already all about, speaking the hard truths, the truth that you might speak at the dinner table, but you don’t feel free to speak in public,” Ramaswamy told the Iowa audience. If he is elected, he said, people will speak those truths again, such as “God is real” and “reverse racism is racism.”

Having just turned 38, Ramaswamy is the youngest person to be a major Republican presidential candidate. Born in Ohio to immigrant parents from India, he earned a biology degree from Harvard University and then finished Yale Law School.

He made his fortune after starting a biotech company, last year founded an asset management firm and is the author of several books, including “Woke, Inc.” His books helped Ramaswamy gain exposure in conservative circles, including on Fox News, as a critic of “ESG,” or looking not just at profit in investments, but also at environmental, social and governance issues, such as a company’s policies on climate. He bemoans that the United States has become a place full of “victims,” and says the country has lost its purpose and its focus on faith, patriotism, hard work and family.

On the stump, Ramaswamy is able to wax on issues ranging from digital currency to his stance on Israel, the U.S. Constitution and the civil service rules regarding mass layoffs of federal employees — rules he says he understands better than any other candidate. He is proud of not needing a teleprompter, and his mix of policy specifics and smooth delivery has won over some voters.

“He’s a great orator, he has a keen intellect and a lot of knowledge,” said Margarite Goodenow, a retiree from Council Bluffs who said she is so far supporting Ramaswamy over Trump. She described the former president as “too toxic” — a position she held before he was indicted in multiple criminal cases — though Goodenow said she will support Trump if he is the nominee.

Ramaswamy says he can use his deep knowledge to accomplish what Trump couldn’t and his other rivals wouldn’t be able to — laying off 75% of the federal “bureaucracy” in his first term, including 50% in year one.

Some 20,000 members of the FBI would be let go as he dismantles the agency, he said. The remaining 15,000 frontline agents would go to work for what he says are more effective agencies, such as the U.S. Marshals Service, to focus on crimes such as child sex trafficking. He also said that by March 31, 2025, he would station the military along the U.S.-Mexico border — positioned every half-mile — to protect against illegal immigration and drugs like fentanyl entering the country.

Those proposals all brought cheers during his recent Iowa stops.

Kelly and Amy Pieper were among the nearly 200 people — hailing from more than eight counties, according to organizers — who turned out for the Ramaswamy town hall in in the northwest Iowa community of Vail, which has a population of fewer than 400. They liked that Ramaswamy would carry forward many of Trump’s policies, but presents himself as more eloquent and optimistic.

“He gives you a sense of hope, not all doom and gloom,” Kelly Pieper said.

“It’s like he’s got Trump ideals but is a more eloquent version. Not this crazy uncle talking,” his wife, Amy Pieper, added. “That’s what we need.”

Not everyone is convinced he can pull it off, however, even if Iowa has been known to provide some surprises.

For Republicans, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum lodged an unexpected 2012 victory, though he later lost the GOP primary to Mitt Romney. On the Democratic side, it was then-Sen. Barack Obama whose 2008 defeat of Hillary Clinton threw that nomination battle into question. And in 2020, Pete Buttigieg, whose highest office was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, finished atop the field alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden later won the nomination and defeated Trump.

That has set up the rare presidential race with a former office holder seeking reelection, making Trump a formidable opponent whose rallies attract thousands more people. Trump’s closest challenger to be Republicans’ nominee so far is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has consistently polled a distant second, with Ramaswamy trailing.

Voters at the Ramaswamy events consistently said they were deciding between the two alternatives to Trump. But like the woman who intimated that Ramaswamy could be Trump’s running mate, Andrew Grove has his doubts about whether the first-time candidate can pull it off.

“His message is on spot. I just don’t know if he has the support to take him over the top, over Trump and DeSantis,” said Grove, 53. He added that DeSantis is “a proven leader” while Ramaswamy has not held public office.

Ramaswamy maintains that he is the only candidate in the GOP field who can deliver the landslide victory that the country needs in 2024 — something akin to Ronald Reagan’s wipeout of his 1984 rival — rather than the kind of tight race the nation saw in 2020. He says he is attracting support from young people and new donors that older candidates are not. Of his roughly 70,000 individual donors, he says, 40% of those making small-dollar contributions are giving to a Republican for the first time.

As for Trump, Ramaswamy responded to the question of being his running mate by speaking warmly of the former president. Ramaswamy was a “hardcore” supporter of the president in 2020, he said, adding that they talk “from time to time,” had dinner together a few years ago and that if he becomes president, Trump probably would be his most useful adviser and mentor.

But he says the America First movement belongs not just to Trump but to “we the people.” And he believes he can be more effective at accomplishing things Trump could not, saying a certain segment of the electorate automatically opposes Trump — through no fault of his own, he said.

“I’m not having that effect on people,” Ramaswamy said.

He noted another key difference as he made his case to top the ticket.

“He’s not the same person he was eight years ago,” Ramaswamy said of Trump.

“I hope certainly and pray that my best days are ahead of me. And I think we might just want a U.S. president whose best days aren’t behind him.”

Sara Burnett, The Associated Press

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NEW YORK (AP) — As he gears up for reelection, President Joe Biden is already facing questions about his ability to convince voters that the economy is performing well. There’s skepticism about the 80-year-old president’s ability to manage a second term. And on Friday, Biden faced a fresh setback when Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to probe his son, Hunter.

Biden’s challenges pale in comparison to his predecessor and possible future rival, Donald Trump, who is facing three criminal indictments, with additional charges expected soon. But the appointment of the special counsel was nonetheless a reminder of the vulnerabilities facing Biden as he wages another election campaign in a deeply uncertain political climate.

There was little immediate sign that Garland’s decision meaningfully changed Biden’s standing within his party. If anything, it underscored the unprecedented nature of the next election. Rather than a battle of ideas waged on the traditional campaign trail, the next push for the presidency may be shaped by sudden legal twists in courtrooms from Washington to Delaware and Miami.

“Prior to Trump, this would be a big deal,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said of Friday’s announcement. “Now, I don’t think it means anything. Trump has made everyone so numb to this stuff.”

Referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, Buckley added, “Because of how dismissive MAGA America is to the very real crimes of Trump and his family, it has numbed the minds of swing voters and Democratic voters or activists who would normally be fully engaged and outraged.”

Polling has consistently shown that Democratic voters were not excited about Biden’s reelection even before Garland’s announcement.

Just 47% of Democrats wanted Biden to run again in 2024, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in April. Democrats’ enthusiasm for Biden’s presidential campaign has consistently trailed behind Republicans’ enthusiasm for Trump’s: 55% of Republicans said they wanted Trump to run again in the AP-NORC poll. And Biden’s approval ratings, at 40% in the most recent Gallup poll, are lower than virtually every other president in the modern era save Jimmy Carter.

Garland announced Friday that he was naming David Weiss, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Delaware, as the special counsel in the Hunter Biden investigation. It comes as plea deal talks involving tax and gun charges in the case Weiss had already been probing hit an impasse.

The appointment of a special counsel ensures that Trump will not stand alone as the only presidential candidate grappling with the fallout of a serious criminal investigation in the midst of the 2024 campaign season.

Of course, the cases are hardly equal in the context of the next presidential election.

There is no evidence that President Biden himself has committed any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Trump has been charged in a plot to undermine democracy for his actions leading up the the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

He’s also facing separate charges for refusing to turn over classified documents after leaving the White House and financial crimes in New York related to a hush money case involving a porn star. And Georgia prosecutors are investigating whether Trump broke state laws by interfering in the 2020 election.

Still, Republicans were hopeful that the new special counsel may ultimately shift attention away from Trump’s baggage while bolstering conservative calls to impeach the Democratic president, a proposal that has divided the GOP on Capitol Hill, which has long sought evidence linking Hunter Biden’s alleged wrongdoings to his father.

Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, has already obtained thousands of pages of financial records from various members of the Biden family through subpoenas to the Treasury Department and various financial institutions as part of a congressional probe. He released a statement Friday accusing Garland of “trying to stonewall congressional oversight.”

Comer vowed “to follow the Biden family’s money trail.”

Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the crowded Republican presidential nomination fight, used the opportunity to put his likely general election opponent on the defensive, referring to the “Biden crime family” and the “Biden cartel.”

“If this special counsel is truly independent — even though he failed to bring proper charges after a four year investigation and he appears to be trying to move the case to a more Democrat-friendly venue — he will quickly conclude that Joe Biden, his troubled son Hunter, and their enablers, including the media, which colluded with the 51 intelligence officials who knowingly misled the public about Hunter’s laptop, should face the required consequences,” the Trump campaign said in a statement.

Back in New Hampshire, Buckley acknowledged that voters are not excited about Biden’s reelection.

“But they’re really not excited about Trump,” he said. “There’s a seriousness around this election. People can say they’re not excited (about Biden). They can say, ‘Oh, he shouldn’t run again.’ But the reality is that he’s the only alternative to Trump.”

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how closely key voters are paying attention.

A Marquette Law School Poll conducted last month found that about three-quarters of Americans had heard about Hunter Biden’s agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of tax evasion and a gun charge. Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to say they have heard “a lot” about the topic, with independents being much less likely to be paying attention.

Democratic strategist Bill Burton suggested the GOP’s focus on the president’s son would backfire.

“From a political standpoint, I think Republicans are stupid to spend so much time talking about the president’s son,” he said. “People are going to be voting on the economy. They’re going to be voting on who’s tougher on social media companies and national security.”

Burton continued, “As a dad, I think it’s pretty disgusting that you would attack someone’s son like this.”


AP polls and surveys reporter Linley Sanders in Washington contributed.

Steve Peoples, The Associated Press

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A federal judge has set off a debate among legal scholars by ordering lawyers for Southwest Airlines to undergo “religious-liberty training” by a conservative Christian legal group.

Critics say that if the judge believes such training is necessary, he should have found a less polarizing group to conduct it.

U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr made the decision after ruling that Southwest was in contempt of court for defying a previous order he issued in a case involving a flight attendant who said she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion. She sued Southwest and won.

Starr, nominated to the bench by former President Donald Trump, said Southwest didn’t understand federal protections for religious freedom. So this week, he ordered three of the airline’s lawyers to undergo religious-liberty training. And he said that the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, “is particularly well-suited” to do the training.

The group has gained attention — and high-profile court victories — opposing abortion, defending a baker and a website designer who didn’t want to work on same-sex marriages, and seeking to limit transgender rights. It frequently cites First Amendment rights in its litigation.

ADF declined to describe its training or to make a representative available for an interview. In an emailed statement, its chief legal counsel, Jim Campbell, said, “The judge’s order calls for ADF to provide training in religious liberty law — not religious doctrine. It is baseless to suggest that people of faith cannot provide legal instruction if their beliefs differ from their audience’s.”

Southwest has appealed Starr’s sanctions, which also include emailing a statement that the judge wrote to its flight attendants to say that airline is not permitted to discriminate based on employee’s religious beliefs. The airline, which is based in Dallas, is already appealing the jury verdict in the flight attendant’s favor.

David Lopez, who was general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Obama administration, said Southwest could argue that training by a conservative Christian group violates the religious rights of its lawyers, especially if any follow other faiths or none at all.

Lopez said the EEOC often insisted on training for employers found to have discriminated, but that the agency and the company would agree on who would conduct that training.

“What happened here, I’ve never seen that,” said Lopez, who is now a law professor at Rutgers University.

ADF is “just one voice” on the subject of religious freedom, Lopez said, “and they are a voice that many people view as being very controversial and very narrow.”

Douglas Laycock, an authority on religious-liberty law who recently retired as a law professor at the University of Virginia, said judges can order extra measures such as training to make sure defendants comply with the rest of an order, but Southwest still has avenues to appeal.

Southwest could argue “that ADF has extreme views on these issues and will give distorted training, and there is something to that,” Laycock said. Or, he said, the airline could argue that ADF is essentially a religious organization, and that requiring Southwest lawyers to take training from the group would violate their rights.

“ADF presents itself as a religious-liberty organization, but it is really a Christian organization,” Laycock said. “It isn’t much interested in anyone else’s religious liberty.”

Steven Collis, director of a law and religion clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, said it is within a judge’s authority to order this kind of training.

“I do think it’s questionable ordering that training to be done by a group that is clearly partisan on issues related to religious freedom,” Collis added. “He could have avoided criticism by ordering this from someone who is a little more neutral … use an academic instead.”

Judge Starr was nominated by Trump in 2019 and confirmed by the Senate, then under Republican control, in a party-line, 51-39 vote.

The nephew of Kenneth Starr, a former federal judge who led the investigations into former President Bill Clinton that led to Clinton’s impeachment in a sex scandal, Starr graduated from Abilene Christian University and earned a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was editor of a conservative law journal.

Starr held senior jobs in the Texas Attorney General’s office. According to a questionnaire he filled out for the Senate Judiciary Committee, he worked on a lawsuit against the Obama administration for telling public schools to let transgender students decide which restrooms to use, defended a state law that banned sanctuary cities for immigrants, and sued to block a plan to defer deportation of some undocumented immigrants.

Starr, who had not previously served as a judge at any level, is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

The Southwest case stems from the airline’s decision to fire Charlene Carter, a flight attendant for more than 20 years, after a series of social media posts and private messages aimed at the president of the flight attendant’s union for attending an anti-Trump, pro-abortion-rights march in Washington in January 2017.

In one message Carter told the union president, “You truly are Despicable in so many ways,” and attached video that purported to show an aborted fetus. An hour later, she sent another video of an aborted fetus.

Carter took the case to arbitration but lost. She then sued, and last year a jury in Dallas awarded her $5.1 million from Southwest and the union. Starr later reduced the judgment to about $800,000 to, he said, comply with federal limits on punitive damages.

Both the airline and the union are challenging the decision before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not decided whether to hear the case.

Carter is represented by lawyers from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which argues that union-represented workers should not be required to pay dues.

After Starr’s ruling this week, foundation President Mark Mix said, “Hopefully this order provides hope to other independent minded workers that their right to express their religious dissent against union and company political agendas cannot so easily be waved away.”

David Koenig, The Associated Press

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said that he has been thinking “seriously” about leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent.

The West Virginia lawmaker, who has raised his national profile as a swing vote on major spending packages in the closely divided U.S. Senate, made the comments on MetroNews “Talkline” on Thursday.

“I would think very seriously about that. I’ve been thinking about that for quite some time. I haven’t made any decisions whatsoever on any of my political direction,” Manchin said. “I want to make sure my voice is truly an independent voice, when I’m speaking I’m speaking about the good the Republicans do and the good the Democrats continue to do.”

Manchin hasn’t officially announced whether he will run for reelection, but two Republicans, Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. Alex Mooney, have already announced their candidacies for his Senate seat. The senator had recruited Justice to run for governor as a Democrat before Justice switched to the GOP at a rally for former President Donald Trump during his first term.

The comments from Manchin on Thursday are the most serious he’s made about a possible switch to independent.

“For me, I have to have peace of mind basically,” he said. “The brand has become so bad. The ‘D’ brand and ‘R’ brand. In West Virginia, the ‘D’ brand because it’s nationally bad. It’s not the Democrats in West Virginia. It’s the Democrats in Washington or the Washington policies of the Democrats. You’ve heard me say a million times that I’m not a Washington Democrat.”

In the Democratic caucus, his colleagues over the past few years have grown weary of Manchin, whose vote is one of two they cannot live without in a 51-49 Senate — but whose nearly constant chides at many in party, particularly Democratic President Joe Biden has left them concerned that he could switch parties and take away their slim hold on power.

One of his most stunning rebukes of his party came in December 2021 when after months of painstaking negotiations directly with the White House, Manchin pulled his support from a $2 trillion social and environment bill, dealing a fatal blow to Biden’s leading domestic initiative in his first year in office.

Months later, in a shocking turn of events, Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer crafted a compromise package to ultimately pass and sign into law a modest domestic bill focused on healthcare and combating climate change.

The Associated Press

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans is the only candidate to lead a merged campaign between two left-leaning parties in the Dutch general election in November, the parties announced Friday.

Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister who is now the European Union’s climate chief, is set to be confirmed as leader of the Labor Party and Green Left campaign Aug. 22 after a vote by members.

In a message Friday on X, formerly known as Twitter, the parties lauded Timmermans as a leader “who gives direction to a green and social course” for the Netherlands. “Who knows how to bridge differences, who wants to restore confidence and who has a clear vision for the future of our country.”

Members of the two parties agreed last month to go into the Nov. 22 election with a shared manifesto and one list of candidates in an effort to unite the center-left vote in the splintered Dutch political landscape.

The last four ruling Dutch coalitions have been led by conservative leader Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

Rutte and his last four-party coalition resigned in July after failing to reach agreement on a package of measures to rein in migration. Rutte, the Netherlands’ longest-serving premier, has announced that he will leave politics once a new coalition is formed after the election.

The Associated Press

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OTTAWA — Canada is joining peers in leveraging sanctions on a trio of people tied to an alleged embezzlement scandal at Lebanon’s central bank.

The sanctions apply to former bank governor Riad Salameh, his brother Raja Salameh and his former assistant Marianne Hoayek.

The three stand accused of involvement in allegedly siphoning commissions from the central bank when it bought bonds, without providing any services of value.

Prosecutors allege those funds were used to buy luxury properties for the three in multiple European countries.

Britain and Washington have also sanctioned Salameh, accusing him of contributing to endemic corruption in Lebanon.

The sanctions come as Lebanon is years into an economic crisis, with soaring costs of living and people fleeing for Europe on rickety boats at levels not seen for decades.

Last week, Canada joined other Western countries in chastising Lebanese officials for “stalling” on an impartial investigation into the deadly explosion at the Port of Beirut, marking the third anniversary of that event.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2023.

The Canadian Press

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Special counsel Jack Smith’s team obtained a search warrant in January for records related to former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, and a judge levied a $350,000 fine on the company for a delay in complying, according to court documents released Wednesday.

The details were included in a decision from the federal appeals court in Washington rejecting Twitter’s claim that a lower court judge was wrong to hold the company in contempt and imposing the sanction.

The filing says Smith obtained a search warrant directing twitter to produce “data and records” related to Trump’s twitter account. The government also got a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting Twitter from disclosing the search warrant. The filing says the court “found probable cause to search the Twitter account for evidence of criminal offenses.”

Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press

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Doug Ford stood at a podium on Wednesday morning with Hamilton Harbour behind him. Read More

LONDON — The BBC said on Friday it had stopped reporting in Russia after parliament passed a law there imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for anyone found to be intentionally spreading “fake” news. Read More

WASHINGTON — The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday said former President Donald Trump may have engaged in criminal conduct in his bid to overturn his election defeat. Read More