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C.I.A. Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON — The rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is creating intense pressure on the C.I.A. to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country, but the agency has few good options.

The C.I.A., which has been at the heart of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan, will soon lose bases in the country from where it has run combat missions and drone strikes while closely monitoring the Taliban and other groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The agency’s analysts are warning of the ever-growing risks of a Taliban takeover.

United States officials are in last-minute efforts to secure bases close to Afghanistan for future operations. But the complexity of the continuing conflict has led to thorny diplomatic negotiations as the military pushes to have all forces out by early to mid-July, well before President Biden’s deadline of Sept. 11, according to American officials and regional experts.

One focus has been Pakistan. The C.I.A. used a base there for years to launch drone strikes against militants in the country’s western mountains, but was kicked out of the facility in 2011, when U.S. relations with Pakistan unraveled.

Any deal now would have to work around the uncomfortable reality that Pakistan’s government has long supported the Taliban. In discussions between American and Pakistani officials, the Pakistanis have demanded a variety of restrictions in exchange for the use of a base in the country, and they have effectively required that they sign off on any targets that either the C.I.A. or the military would want to hit inside Afghanistan, according to three Americans familiar with the discussions.

Diplomats are also exploring the option of regaining access to bases in former Soviet republics that were used for the Afghanistan war, although they expect that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would fiercely oppose this.

Recent C.I.A. and military intelligence reports on Afghanistan have been increasingly pessimistic. They have highlighted gains by the Taliban and other militant groups in the south and east, and warned that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within years and return to becoming a safe haven for militants bent on striking the West, according to several people familiar with the assessments.

As a result, U.S. officials see the need for a long-term intelligence-gathering presence — in addition to military and C.I.A. counterterrorism operations — in Afghanistan long after the deadline that Mr. Biden has set for troops to leave the country. But the scramble for bases illustrates how U.S. officials still lack a long-term plan to address security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2,400 troops over nearly two decades.

William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, has acknowledged the challenge the agency faces. “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” he told senators in April. “That is simply a fact.”

Mr. Burns made an unannounced visit in recent weeks to Islamabad, Pakistan, to meet with the chief of the Pakistani military and the head of the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s military intelligence agency. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has had frequent calls with the Pakistani military chief about getting the country’s help for future U.S. operations in Afghanistan, according to American officials familiar with the conversations.

Mr. Burns did not bring up the base issue during his trip to Pakistan, according to people briefed on the meeting; the visit focused on broader counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries. At least some of Mr. Austin’s discussions have been more direct, according to people briefed on them.

A C.I.A. spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about Mr. Burns’s travel to Pakistan.

Two decades of war in Afghanistan have helped transform the spy agency into a paramilitary organization: It carries out hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, trains Afghan commando units and maintains a large presence of C.I.A. officers in a string of bases along the border with Pakistan. At one point during President Barack Obama’s first term, the agency had several hundred officers in Afghanistan, its largest surge of personnel to a country since the Vietnam War.

These operations have come at a cost. Night raids by C.I.A.-trained Afghan units left a trail of abuse that increased support for the Taliban in parts of the country. Occasional errant drone strikes in Pakistan killed civilians and increased pressure on the government in Islamabad to dial back its quiet support for C.I.A. operations.

Douglas London, a former head of C.I.A. counterterrorism operations for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the agency was likely to rely on a “stay behind” network of informants in Afghanistan who would collect intelligence on the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the stability of the central government and other topics. But without a large C.I.A. presence in the country, he said, vetting the intelligence would be a challenge.

“When you’re dealing offshore, you’re dealing with middlemen,” said Mr. London, who will soon publish a book, “The Recruiter,” about his C.I.A. experience. “It’s kind of like playing telephone.”

In the short term, the Pentagon is using an aircraft carrier to launch fighter planes in Afghanistan to support the troop withdrawal. But the carrier presence is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and military officials said it would probably redeploy not long after the last U.S. forces leave.

The United States is stationing MQ-9 Reaper drones in the Persian Gulf region, aircraft that can be used by both the Pentagon and the C.I.A. for intelligence collection and strikes.

But some officials are wary of these so-called over the horizon options that would require plane and drones to fly as many as nine hours each way for a mission in Afghanistan, which would make the operations more expensive because they require more drones and fuel, and also riskier because reinforcements needed for commando raids could not arrive swiftly during a crisis.

Pakistan is a longtime patron of the Taliban; it sees the group as a critical proxy force in Afghanistan against other groups that have ties to India. Pakistan’s spy agency provided weapons and training for Taliban fighters for years, as well as protection for the group’s leaders. The government in Islamabad is unlikely to sign off on any U.S. strikes against the Taliban that are launched from a base in Pakistan.

Although some American officials believe Pakistan wants to allow U.S. access to a base as long as it can control how it is used, public opinion in the country has been strongly against any renewed presence by the United States.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told lawmakers last month that the government would not allow the U.S. military to return to the country’s air bases. “Forget the past, but I want to tell the Pakistanis that no U.S. base will be allowed by Prime Minister Imran Khan so long he is in power,” Mr. Qureshi said.

Some American officials said that negotiations with Pakistan had reached an impasse for now. Others have said the option remains on the table and a deal is possible.

The C.I.A. used the Shamsi air base in western Pakistan to carry out hundreds of drone strikes during a surge that began in 2008 and lasted during the early years of the Obama administration. The strikes focused primarily on suspected Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, but they also crossed the border into Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s government refused to publicly acknowledge that it was allowing the C.I.A. operations, and in late 2011 it decided to halt the drone operations after a series of high-profile events that fractured relations with the United States. They included the arrest of a C.I.A. contractor in Lahore for a deadly shooting, the secret American commando mission in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden and an American-led NATO airstrike on the Afghan border in November 2011 that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers.

The Americans and the Pakistanis “will want to proceed cautiously” with a new relationship, said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But, he said, Mr. Biden’s announcement of a withdrawal “has the C.I.A. and the Defense Department, as well as Pakistanis, scrambling.”

American diplomats have been exploring options to restore access to bases in Central Asia, including sites in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that housed American troops and intelligence officers during the war.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke this month with his counterpart in Tajikistan, though it is not clear if base access was discussed during the call. Any negotiations with those countries are likely to take considerable time to work out. A State Department spokeswoman would say only that Mr. Blinken was engaging partner countries on how the United States was reorganizing its counterterrorism capabilities.

Russia has opposed the United States using bases in Central Asia, and that is likely to make any diplomatic effort to secure access to bases for the purposes of military strikes a slow process, according to a senior American official.

While the C.I.A. in particular has long had a pessimistic view of the prospects of stability in Afghanistan, those assessments have been refined in recent weeks as the Taliban has made tactical gains.

While military and intelligence analysts have previously had assessments at odds with one another, they now are in broad agreement that the Afghan government is likely to have trouble holding on to power. They believe the Afghan security forces have been depleted by high casualty rates in recent years. The announcement of the U.S. withdrawal is another psychological blow that could weaken the force.

Intelligence assessments have said that without continued American support, the Afghan National Security Forces will weaken and could possibly collapse. Officials are working to develop options for continuing that support remotely, but the Pentagon has not yet come up with a realistic plan that officials believe will work.

Some current and former officials are skeptical that remote advising or combat operations will succeed. Collecting intelligence becomes far more difficult without a large presence in Afghanistan, said Mick P. Mulroy, a retired C.I.A. officer who served there.

“It doesn’t matter if you can drop ordnance,” he said, “if you don’t know where the target is.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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Jared and Ivanka are so separated from Donald Trump now, they don’t even know who that guy is

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Where to even begin? For example, we find out that “[I]n Bedminster, the Kushner cottage and the Trump cottage are separated by mere tens of feet,” and Javanka are trying so hard to avoid Trump that they’re road tripping there right now! It’s not as if they have a house in Florida and another house in New York they could stay in, in their desperate efforts to “distance” themselves from their unhinged patriarch. It’s not like they lived in Florida when Trump was in Florida, and are heading to New Jersey now that Trump is in Jersey. Nope, they’ll “distance” themselves from him, to the tune of “mere tens of feet,” to show America how no one should associate them all as part of the same team. 

We then learn that Trump is wondering whether Kushner was all that effective being the guy in charge of everything at the White House. As you might recall, Kushner was summarily put in charge of pretty much anything that caught Trump’s attention, without regard to whether he actually had expertise in the matter. (He never did.) As such, at one point or another, Kushner was in charge of Middle East peace, solving the opioid crisis by using “business ideas,” criminal justice reform, American policy toward China, Mexico, and Canada, and—most infamously of all—ran the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Now, Trump is wondering whether maybe, just maybe, Kushner wasn’t the correct answer to those problems after all. Is it because of the 500,000 dead from government incompetence, as Kushner staffed his effort with unpaid interns, spiked a national testing plan, and finally declared that “Free markets will solve this. That is not the role of government”? Of course not! Trump was okay with the mass death event he helped oversee. Nah. Rather, “he questioned whether Kushner “accomplish[ed] peace in the Middle East after all.” 

Let’s pause for a moment. …

Trump thought Kushner accomplished peace in the Middle East. 

Speaking of Trump, CNN informs us that the loser former president is casting about for new people to run his rickshaw operation, as incompetent and chaotic as everything else he touches (remember his blog?). But it won’t be Jared! He has “move[d] to the side,” CNN’s hard-hitting journalism finds. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say he needed a new Jared, because Jared was always more of a policy guy inside the White House, but there was definitely a sense that some part of the puzzle was missing and it was contributing to a lot of internal confusion and chaos,” CNN quotes “a former White House official,” who apparently kept a serious face pretending that Kushner was a “policy guy.”

Here’s Jared Kushner, being a policy guy:

In a White House riven at times by disorder and competing factions, the innovation office represents an expansion of Kushner’s already far-reaching influence  […]

Trump advisers described as an incubator of sleek transformation as opposed to deconstruction […]

Kushner is positioning the new office as “an offensive team” — an aggressive, nonideological ideas factory capable of attracting top talent from both inside and outside of government, and serving as a conduit with the business, philanthropic and academic communities.

“We should have excellence in government,” Kushner said Sunday in an interview in his West Wing office. “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”

It was the first and last time we ever heard of this office, which was tasked with “reimagining Veterans Affairs; modernizing the technology and data infrastructure of every federal department and agency; remodeling workforce-training programs; and developing ‘transformative projects’ under the banner of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, such as providing broadband Internet service to every American.” Literally none of that happened, nor did it solve the opioid epidemic, surprising no one. 

(We did get a lot of mileage out of “infrastructure week” jokes, however.)

There are so many other ways that Kushner is so distant from Daddy Trump, believe you me! CNN reports: “Kushner is not helping Trump cook up plans for a rally later this month, nor is he intensely involved with the former President’s endorsement decisions or frequent public statements, which, sans a social media presence, come via news releases from Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America — again, something Kushner has veered away from.” Kushner also didn’t pick Trump’s dinner entree or took part in his room’s turndown service. And please CNN, write that down so people know how distanced they are. 

Well, except that “the person close to Kushner does note he ‘still speaks on the phone’ to the former President.” But no cooking up any plans, guys. Promise! 

Wait, what’s this next item? STOP THE PRESSES! Ivanka has also distanced herself from her creepy dad! CNN’s crack investigative team reports that “[Ivanka Trump] is focused on her children, and spending time with them, period.” Thank heavens CNN offered anonymity to that source, otherwise who knows how they would’ve gotten that bombshell information? We also know that Ivanka and her family will “perhaps visit the Hamptons, the summer playground of the rich and connected.” 

See? She’s not ONE HUNDRED PERCENT connected to Daddy! Sure, she’ll be tens of feet away from him much of the summer, after following him up from Florida, but she might—“perhaps”—find time to frolic with other wealthy people. And they might be loathe to associate with a family so closely associated with the bigotry and misogyny of the Trump family. So CNN assures us that “Kushner intimates make no bones about the fact that the couple disagrees with the former President’s current pursuits. It’s clear that the close advisory relationship is no more.”

Well, of course not! Trump is no longer president! Ivanka doesn’t get to pretend to be a head of state as bemused world leaders virtually sneer at her. Kushner doesn’t get to murder hundreds of thousands via negligence and not solve the Middle East crisis. Is anyone going to really pretend that they’d be right back at daddy’s side if he ever, god forbid, retook the White House? 

These two desperately want to disassociate themselves from the horrors of the Trump administration they enabled from day one. They are missing out on too many parties, and old friends are refusing to take their calls. 

The big question is why CNN enabled these efforts, since they weren’t even worthy of the National Enquirer. 


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Morning Digest: Colorado just released a new congressional map. We’re not covering it

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Procedures vary in every state, but as a rule, the redistricting process is long, messy, and iterative. Whether handled by a commission, the legislature, or the courts, it’s common to see many proposals introduced and debated. Even as they advance—whether through a vote on a legislative committee, a submission by a court-appointed expert, a proposal from a commission, or any other means—they can always be amended and adjusted along the way, and often are. And of course, even a map passed by lawmakers can be vetoed by a hostile governor, just as a map approved by a court can get overturned on appeal.

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One salient example from a decade ago comes from South Carolina, where bitter GOP infighting nearly resulted in redistricting getting punted to the courts despite the fact that Republicans controlled the legislature and the governorship. A split between the upper and lower chambers saw dissident Senate Republicans join with Democrats to pass a completely different congressional map from the version their counterparts in the House had signed off on, and for a while the standoff seemed insoluble.

After a weeks-long stalemate, though, the rebels finally caved after one leader decided he preferred voting for a map he disliked instead of letting federal judges draw the lines. (As David Jarman wrote at the time, there was “no word on what type of horse’s head was placed in his bed to help him arrive at this decision.”) It was a fascinating illustration of how things can go haywire even in a state under one-party rule, but it also shows why it pays to be cautious before devoting a lot of time and energy to analyzing a map that may never actually be used, especially for a small outfit like Daily Kos Elections.

Things are even more complicated this year, thanks to delays in the production of the granular census data necessary to produce maps with equal-sized districts that comply with the constitutional requirement of “one person, one vote.” The Census Bureau says it will provide this data by Aug. 16, which means that any maps produced before that point are reliant on population estimates, making them vulnerable to court challenges. To insulate such maps from these sorts of challenges, states will have to revise them after receiving the new data—including those that have already passed into law, like the legislative plans in Oklahoma and Illinois.

Rest assured, we will be covering the entire redistricting process thoroughly, with even more fine-grained coverage in our weekly newsletter, the Voting Rights Roundup. But this is most definitely a marathon and not a sprint: In the previous redistricting cycle, the last congressional map wasn’t finalized until June of 2012, when Kansas brought up the caboose (thanks, once more, to Republican disarray). If that precedent holds, the conclusion could be a year away—and that’s not counting the inevitable litigation that will follow. So, as Nathan says, take a deep breath and get ready for the long haul. We will be there the whole way.

Senate

WI-Sen: We haven’t heard much from Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes about a potential Senate bid since he first publicly expressed interest in January, but he still seems very keen to run. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that he recently hired a prominent political consultant and has also been making more official appearances. Barnes, a former state representative, was elected on a ticket with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2018 and would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator.

Governors

MI-Gov: Fox asked former Detroit Police Chief James Craig this week when he expected to make up his mind whether he’d seek the Republican nod, to which he responded, “I’m optimistic, hopefully within a few weeks I should be making a statement on the decision.”

NY-Gov: On Thursday, Attorney General Tish James refused to give a direct answer when reporters asked if she’d rule out a campaign for the Democratic nomination. She instead replied, “The politics stops at the door of the office of attorney general.” When reporter Jimmy Vielkind pointed out that James was literally standing outside the door of the office of attorney general, she laughed and added, “The door of the Capitol.”

James also declined to say when she’d be finished investigating the many allegations that have been leveled against Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying her probe “will conclude when it concludes.”

VA-Gov: Republican Glenn Youngkin’s vast personal fortune means that he can afford to stay on TV from now until November, and he’s making the most of that advantage. The Washington Post reports that Youngkin has spent $2 million on TV and radio spots since he won the GOP nominating convention in early May; Democrat Terry McAuliffe, meanwhile, has restricted himself to digital advertising since his primary victory a little more than two weeks ago.

Youngkin campaigned for the GOP nod by touting himself as an ardent Trumpist, but unsurprisingly, he’s adopted far different messaging since then. Youngkin’s newest spot has him asking, “In our communities, in our houses of worship, right here at work, does anyone really care what political party we belong to?”

House

IA-02: Iowa Starting Line writes that Democratic state Rep. Christina Bohannan’s name has been “making the rounds recently” as a potential opponent for Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, though there’s no word on Bohannan’s interest.

Miller-Meeks won an open seat race last year by all of 6 votes as Donald Trump was carrying this southeastern Iowa seat 51-47, but Team Red’s complete control of state government gives legislators the chance to draw up a friendlier district for her next year. Under state law, a nonpartisan agency proposes maps to the state legislature, but while lawmakers have always adopted them, the GOP now can simply reject the agency’s proposals and implement their own gerrymanders.

NY-22: Former Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi said Thursday that he would not wage a third campaign against Republican Claudia Tenney next year. Brindisi unseated Tenney during the 2018 blue wave but ultimately lost their rematch last year by 109 votes after months of uncertainty.

This seat, which contains Binghamton, Utica, and Rome, backed Donald Trump 55-43, but Tenney’s underwhelming performance could leave her vulnerable even if state Democrats don’t take full advantage of their ability to bypass the state’s new bipartisan redistricting commission to draw up their own maps.

Attorneys General

AZ-AG: Former Arizona Corporation Commission Chair Kris Mayes announced this week that she would seek the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, a GOP-held open seat. Mayes joins state Rep. Diego Rodriguez in the primary.

Mayes worked as Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano’s communication director in 2003 even though she was a registered Republican, and she was later appointed to the Arizona Corporation Commission, the powerful body that regulates utilities. Mayes went on to win statewide races for that office as a Republican, and she left the post at the end of 2010 due to term limits. Mayes says she re-registered as a Democrat in 2019.

Grab Bag

Where Are They Now?: President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he was nominating former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a fellow Democrat, to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


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Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: We have a deal, at least on infrastructure

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Greg Sargent/WaPo:

Joe Manchin is about to extract his pound of flesh. Here’s what Biden must do now.

This is supposed to represent a big loss to the left because it’s less than Biden originally proposed on concrete infrastructure and doesn’t include the “human infrastructure” priorities in Biden’s agenda — investments in children and families, climate and caregiving infrastructure, etc.

But Democrats are proceeding on two tracks. On one is the bipartisan deal. On the other, Sanders, as Senate Budget Committee chair, is crafting a large package that includes many of those other priorities — this one paid for by corporate tax hikes — and would pass by simple-majority reconciliation later.

By all indications, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a lead negotiator in the bipartisan group, is insisting on this deal — or an exhaustive effort at reaching one — as a precondition for supporting a reconciliation package later.

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AP:

Unvaccinated Missourians fuel COVID: ‘We will be the canary’

As the U.S. emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, Missouri is becoming a cautionary tale for the rest of the country: It is seeing an alarming rise in cases because of a combination of the fast-spreading delta variant and stubborn resistance among many people to getting vaccinated.

Intensive care beds are filling up with surprisingly young, unvaccinated patients, and staff members are getting burned out fighting a battle that was supposed to be in its final throes.

The hope among some health leaders is that the rest of the U.S. might at least learn something from Missouri’s plight.

“If people elsewhere in the country are looking to us and saying, ‘No thanks’ and they are getting vaccinated, that is good,” said Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield, which has been inundated with COVID-19 patients as the variant first identified in India rips through the largely non-immunized community. “We will be the canary.”

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Andre E Johnson/Religion Dispatches:

WHERE DID WHITE EVANGELICALISM’S HATRED OF CRITICAL RACE THEORY REALLY BEGIN?

After his appearance on “Tucker,” [Christopher Rufo] received a call the following day from Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who invited him to come to Washington and assist in drafting the Executive Order that President Trump would issue on September 4, 2020. Reflecting on his work, Rufo remarked, “This entire movement came from nothing,” while Wallace-Wells gives all the credit to Rufo for causing the current ‘CRT controversy.’

However, the truth is that before Rufo “discovered” CRT from the footnotes of documents leaked to him by frustrated employees in anti-bias and diversity training classes, white evangelicals had already been laying the groundwork for the attack on CRT. For instance, the libertarian evangelical blog Truth and Liberty warned fellow evangelicals about CRT in Don’t Let Critical Race Theory Infiltrate the Church. The writer argued that CRT is not conducive to the gospel because of its “Marxist” orientation and its “flawed” definition of racism.

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WaPo:

Inside the ‘shadow reality world’ promoting the lie that the presidential election was stolen

Wealthy allies of former president Donald Trump have spent millions on films, rallies and other efforts to tout falsehoods about the 2020 vote.

In this world, ballot reviews like a Republican-commissioned recount now underway in Arizona are about to begin in other key swing states. Conspiracy theories that grow more dizzyingly complex by the day will soon be proven, showing that China or other foreign powers secretly flipped votes for Biden. Trump will be restored as president in months.

These falsehoods are now seeping into civic life, spurring citizens in multiple states to demand that local officials review the 2020 results.

Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state in Washington, said her staff contended with the latest barrage of email and calls just last week. “It told us something had transpired online,” she said, adding: “You can’t disprove the negatives that are being thrown out that are absolutely based on nothing.”

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AJC:

Michigan GOP report debunks election fraud claims, even in Georgia

An analysis produced by Michigan Republican senators concluded Wednesday that voters should be confident in the results of the presidential election, which Democrat Joe Biden won over Republican Donald Trump by 155,000 votes. Biden’s margin of victory was narrower in Georgia, less 12,000 votes.

“I have never doubted that competent, experienced and objective analysis would find what I have said from the beginning that the election was fair and accurate,” Raffensperger said Wednesday. “A similar examination here in Georgia will find that is true as it was in Michigan.”

Instead, some legislators in the Georgia Senate’s Republican majority have said they doubted the integrity of the election, and Raffensperger has become a frequent target of Trump loyalists.

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