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Scott Heins/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- The Federal Election Commission on Friday granted Mike Bloomberg's campaign an additional 45 days to file his mandatory personal financial disclosure form.

That extended deadline, March 20, means the multibillionaire former mayor of New York City won't have to disclose additional details on his considerable private fortune until more than two weeks after Super Tuesday.

Millions already will have voted in states on which Bloomberg is staking his entire 2020 gambit -- slightly fewer than than half of the delegates in the race will be on the table.

Bloomberg's campaign cites his late entry into the Democratic primary as the reason, along with the intricacies of his paperwork.

"Mr. Bloomberg, who became a candidate for President of the United States on November 21, 2019, has made diligent efforts to prepare his report," Bloomberg's counsel wrote in requesting the extension. "Nevertheless, due to the complexity of his holdings and the need to obtain certain information from third parties, Mr. Bloomberg needs additional time to gather and review his financial information and complete and file his report."

The FEC's decision comes as Bloomberg has poured unprecedented sums into his bid for the White House, blanketing the airwaves with ads, and a staff swelling to more than 1,000 fanned out across 33 states, including every single one voting on Super Tuesday.

Pushed for additional details regarding what kind of "complexity" his holdings might have, his campaign declined to comment.

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Melissa Kopka/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration announced a set of proposals on Friday that will loosen school and summer meal guidelines, further weakening one of former first lady Michelle Obama's signature policy efforts.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended the new proposals in a statement Friday saying they will "empower schools to give their very best to our children nationwide."

"Our proposed changes empower schools to give their very best to our children nationwide and have the potential to benefit nearly 100,000 schools and institutions that feed 30 million children each school day through USDA’s school meal programs," Perdue said in the statement.

The Trump administration in 2018 finalized its rollback of school lunch regulations under former President Barack Obama, which was later challenged in court by a group of states. ABC News previously reported that some of the changes finalized by the Trump administration included allowing schools to offer additional milk flavors and curbing Obama-era regulations on sodium limits.

Friday’s proposed rules build onto the 2018 regulation, according to the USDA statement.

"Under the school meals proposed rule, school nutrition professionals have more flexibility to serve appetizing and healthy meals that appeal to their students’ preferences and subsequently reduce food waste," the statement said.

The agency highlighted proposed new rules that would allow schools to "offer more vegetable varieties." In addition, schools would have the ability to "adjust fruit servings" and make it easier to "offer meats/meat alternatives," for breakfast, among other things.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) -- a group that has previously challenged the administration in court over previous school meal guideline changes -- weighed in on USDA's newest proposal.

Colin Schwartz, CSPI's deputy director of legislative affairs, in a statement called the rule an "assault on children’s health [that] continues today under the guise of ‘simplifying’ school meals."

"In practice, if finalized, this would create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, French fries, and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day," Schwartz said.

Nancy Roman, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America also responded, claiming the proposals "appear to be a step in the wrong direction."

"Putting politics aside, the science of the past few years suggests that we should be increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables at each meal," Roman said in a statement. "Young children especially need more exposure to unprocessed, easy-to-eat, fruits, vegetables, and greens."

The proposals were announced on the former first lady's birthday.

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Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday denied having knowledge of any surveillance conducted on former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch -- whose ouster is now at the center of the impeachment process -- but he said the State Department will investigate whether any occurred.

“We will do everything we need to do to evaluate whether there was something that took place there,” Pompeo said during an interview with conservative radio host Tony Katz. “I suspect that much of what’s been reported will ultimately prove wrong, but our obligation, my obligation as Secretary of State, is to make sure that we evaluate, investigate.”

Ukrainian police had already announced earlier this week that they were investigating the alleged surveillance.

In the radio interview, Pompeo also denied being acquainted with Lev Parnas, the former associate of Rudy Giuliani who handed over a trove of text messages and other materials to Congress that included revelations texts about a possible surveillance effort.

“I’ve not met this guy, Lev Parnas, to the best of my knowledge. I’ve never encountered, never communicated with him,” Pompeo said.

In text messages between Republican congressional candidate Robert Hyde and Parnas that have been made public, Hyde appeared to suggest to Parnas that he had people following Yovanovitch's movements in Ukraine.

Beyond providing the new trove of documents, Parnas has also gone public with claims that he was involved in a scheme to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation into the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Parnas said on CNN Thursday night that he and Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine “was all about 2020, to make sure [Trump] had another four years.”

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Niyazz/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The Democratic National Committee announced the qualifying rules for the Democratic debate on Feb. 7, the first matchup after voting begins, which will be hosted by ABC News, ABC's New Hampshire affiliate WMUR-TV and Apple News.

The slightly modified criteria for the debate, which is sandwiched evenly between the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, includes the previous criteria of qualifying through the polling and grassroots thresholds but it also includes a new, second pathway to qualify. Any candidate who is awarded at least one pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention based on the results of the Iowa caucuses, as reported and calculated by the Iowa Democratic Party, will be able to participate.

On caucus night, 41 pledged delegates are up for grabs in Iowa.

To clinch a podium on the debate stage, candidates can also meet both the polling and grassroots fundraising requirements, with the same thresholds as the January debate. The polling requirement will no longer include Iowa polls because, as the DNC says in its news release, "a candidate’s support in Iowa will be reflected through the results of the Iowa caucus instead of Iowa-specific polling."

The first pathway of the polling requirement is the four-poll threshold: candidates must earn at least 5% support in four national or early state polls from New Hampshire, Nevada and/or South Carolina. In order to count as qualifying polls, the polls must be sponsored by different organizations, or if sponsored by the same organization, cover different geographical areas.

The second pathway is the early state polling threshold: Candidates must get at least 7% support in two early state polls, again from only New Hampshire, Nevada and/or South Carolina. Unlike the first path, these polls can be sponsored by the same organization and can also be conducted in the same geographical area.

The polls must be released between Dec. 13 through Feb.6, the day before the debate. Additionally, the polls must be sponsored by one of the organizations or pairs of organizations from the following list determined by the DNC: The Associated Press; ABC News/Washington Post; CBS News/YouGov; CNN; Fox News; Monmouth University; NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist; NBC News/Wall Street Journal; NBC News/Marist; New York Times/Siena College; Nevada Independent/Mellman Group; Quinnipiac University; University of New Hampshire; USA Today/Suffolk University; Winthrop University.

The DNC said it could add another Nevada-specific and/or South Carolina-specific polling sponsor to this list.

To meet the grassroots fundraising threshold, candidates must accrue at least 225,000 individual donors and a minimum of 1,000 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states, U.S. territories or the District of Columbia.

Candidates have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Feb. 6 to hit this threshold.

With the donor requirement still intact, the rules appear to preclude presidential contender Michael Bloomberg from qualifying for the debate since he is self-funding his campaign and not soliciting any donations. He has met the polling threshold, according to an ABC News analysis.

"I hope the DNC change its rules – I’d gladly participate – but I’m not going to change my principles," Bloomberg wrote in a CNN op-ed. "So I’m traveling the country taking my message directly to voters – and as a result, President Trump is now finally facing opposition from a candidate in the battleground states."

The DNC outlined the new rules on Friday for the crowded field of 12. More details for this debate, including moderators, will be announced at a later date.

Under these new rules, the candidates who appear to have cleared the polling and grassroots fundraising thresholds, according to an ABC News analysis, are former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, billionaire Tom Steyer and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Andrew Yang, the political novice who missed the cut for the January debate but was the only candidate of color who participated in the December clash, has met the donor requirement but remains two polls shy of crossing the polling threshold, according to an ABC News analysis. None of the other candidates have a single qualifying poll.

The New Hampshire debate, which will be held at St. Anselm College in Manchester, will air across ABC, WMUR-TV, which is owned by Hearst Television, Apple News and on ABC News Live, ABC's streaming channel available on the ABC News site, app, and OTT media services.

The DNC previously announced two other debates that will held throughout the month of February. NBC News and MSNBC, in partnership with The Nevada Independent, hosts a Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas prior to Nevada's caucuses. CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute co-host the debate before South Carolina's primary on Feb. 25 at The Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina and Twitter will be a debate partner.

Qualifying criteria for those two debates have yet to be announced.

Throughout 2019, the party imposed more rigorous qualifying rules as the primary season deepened -- oftentimes putting the committee at odds with the presidential contenders, leading to lower-polling candidates being excluded from the stages.

This is the second debate hosted by ABC News following September's matchup at Texas Southern University, a public, historically black university in Houston, which was co-hosted with Univision. That debate featured a roster of 10 candidates, with Biden and Warren, the two polling front-runners at that point in the primary, tangling on the same stage for the first time. They have since stood shoulder-to-shoulder at center-stage in every matchup succeeding that debate.

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ablokhin/iStock(ALEXANDRIA, Va.) -- Virginia is slated to begin its five-day ban on weapons from Capitol grounds Friday night in anticipation of Monday's Lobby Day against pending gun control legislation.

Efforts by gun rights groups Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America to block Gov. Ralph Northam's order still were being debated in Virginia's Supreme Court as the ban was planned for 5 p.m.

Northam and state law enforcement leaders said they'd received credible threats that targeted Richmond Capitol Square and that the ban would help ensure there wasn't a repeat of the violence at 2017 Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally, at which James Alex Fields drove into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer.

"I took this action to protect Virginians from credible threats of violence," Northam said in a statement Thursday.

Virginia's state legislature, which has its first Democratic majority in over 20 years, is considering several major gun control measures, including universal background checks, a ban on assault rifles and a red-flag law that would give judges and cops the authority to remove guns from individuals believed to be threats.

Virginia gun rights activists are planning a rally at Capitol Square and have invited others who share their views from other states to join them.

"Without relief from this court, petitioners and thousands of other rally participants will be irreparably denied their right to bear arms," the Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America wrote in their filing to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Law enforcement authorities, however, stressed that the threats are real.

On Thursday, the FBI arrested three alleged members of a neo-Nazi group who had with them guns and ammunition.

Law enforcement sources told ABC News they were detained under suspicion that they would travel to Richmond "in anticipation of a possible race war."

The four-day ban lifts at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

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Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Former Vice President Joe Biden earned the endorsement of Alabama's lone Democratic U.S. House member Friday morning, Rep. Terri Sewell, the 11th member of the Congressional Black Caucus to back Biden’s presidential bid and another sign of his strength with a key constituency needed to win the party’s nomination: African-American voters.

Sewell, the first African-American woman ever to represent Alabama in Congress, was courted by a number of 2020 Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who traveled to Selma with the congresswoman in April to promote her plan for affordable housing.

Sewell’s endorsement was timed with Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, where she will appear with the former Vice President at an event in South Carolina, and gives Biden a boost in a key Super Tuesday state.

“Donald Trump is the biggest threat to Dr. King’s legacy! I believe that Joe Biden is the best democratic candidate to beat Trump and, therefore, protect the causes central to the life’s work of Dr. King,” Sewell said in a statement announcing her support.

Biden currently leads the Democratic 2020 field with endorsements from the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, and was outmatched only by California Sen. Kamala Harris before she ended her presidential bid in early December.

The endorsement comes as a Washington Post/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month showed Biden with an entrenched lead over his other Democratic rivals with African-American voters, a group whose support he will need to both earn the party’s nomination and defeat President Trump in November.

The poll showed nearly half, 48%, of black Democratic-leaning voters voters say they are siding with the former vice president, while 20% support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and 9% support Warren.

"For most Democrats, they are looking for a candidate that can be President Trump and Vice President Biden is perceived by most Democrats, and particularly African Americans, to be the candidate who could most beat Trump," said Fredrick Harris, a political science professor at Columbia University, with a focus on African American politics.

Advisers to Biden have consistently cited the former vice president’s ability to build a broad coalition of support as evidence he is the candidate best suited for the Democratic nomination, as no candidate has secured a position at the top of the ticket without gaining a majority of support from African American voters since 1992.

The struggle to chip away at Biden’s support among black voters in part led both Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, two of the party’s most prominent African-American competitors for its presidential nomination, to end their bids for the White House, and still plagues another top contender, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In the Washington Post/Ipsos poll, only 2% of black Democratic-leaning voters are backing the former U.S. Navy Intelligence officer.

Earlier this month Buttigieg picked up his first endorsement from a member of the CBC, Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown, who also now serves as the campaign’s first national co-chair.

With the departures of Harris and Booker from the 2020 race, only two other members of the CBC have endorsed candidates currently running: Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley is backing Warren, while Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar is backing Sanders.

While Biden’s record on race relations and civil rights has come under more intense scrutiny during the 2020 race, the former vice president and longtime Delaware senator often touts his experience as a former public defender and early advocate for voting rights, and names Dr. King and former Attorney General Robert Kennedy as his two political heroes.

“I'm extremely proud of my record on civil rights. That's why I have more people in the African-American community supporting me than anybody else. That's why the president picked me. I make no apologies for my record on civil rights. It’s been as good or better than anybody in politics,” Biden said during an education forum last month in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, referencing the fact that then-candidate Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, picked the then-senator to be his running mate.

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Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump, while honoring the college football national champions from Louisiana State University amid his Senate trial on Friday, called out Democrats, saying "they are trying to impeach the son of a bitch."

Trump made the comment as he invited the team back to the Oval Office for photos at the Resolute Desk, after he said some "good presidents and some not so good presidents" have sat at the desk.

"But they got a good one now," Trump said. "Even though they are trying to impeach the son of a bitch. Can you believe that?"

While touting the success of the record-breaking LSU Tigers, he also made sure to highlight his own successes as president -- including the signing of the partial trade agreement with China on Wednesday and the Senate passage of a new trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico on Thursday.

He continued to talk up the U.S. military -- claiming his administration catches terrorists much like a football team would take out their opponents.

“We’ve got the greatest military … we’ve taken out the terrorists just like your football team would have taken out those terrorists," he said. "So we’re doing good."

Trump also mentioned a record "all-time high" for the U.S. stock market, what he's called an economic victory.

"So that will be 149 times in the past three years," he said, turning to LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. "That's not bad. Coach, that's good, right?"

The president did talk football at the ceremony, giving shoutouts to various LSU players such as Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback Joe Burrow, cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and wide receivers Ja'mar Chase and Justin Jefferson. He also went down a list of some of the most well known plays and games of the season.

When last season's champions, Clemson University, visited to the White House in March, Trump fed them fast food from McDonald's and Chick-fil-A. He said the team ate so much food "we didn't know what the hell to do."

The LSU Tigers gave the president a jersey with "Trump" on the back, displaying the number 45.

"I thought he was giving me the Heisman trophy … He’s just giving me a jersey," Trump joked.

Louisiana federal and state lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Cassidy, Reps. Mike Johnson, Garret Graves and Steve Scalise, Attorney General Jeff Landry and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, also attended the ceremony.

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Ken Starr is seen here during a 2018 interview with ABC News. (ABC News)(WASHINGTON) -- Former independent counsels Ken Starr and Robert Ray are expected to join President Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial legal team, a source familiar with the plans told ABC News Friday.

Former Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz is joining the team as well, his office confirmed in a statement. It said he will help argue in the president's defense on the Senate floor.

"Professor Dershowitz will present oral arguments at the Senate trial to address the constitutional arguments against impeachment and removal.," the statement said. "While Professor Dershowitz is non partisan when it comes to the Constitution—he opposed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and voted for Hillary Clinton— he believes the issues at stake go to the heart of our enduring Constitution. He is participating in this impeachment trial to defend the integrity of the Constitution and to prevent the creation of a dangerous constitutional precedent."

A senior administration official confirmed that Starr, Ray and Dershowitz will be part of the president's team.

Starr was a central player in the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone and one of the president's personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, will still be leading the defense, according to the source.

The developments come ahead of opening arguments in the trial scheduled to begin Tuesday.

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hermosawave/iStock(NEW YORK) -- The traditional kick-off of election season is usually associated with the state of Iowa, when caucus-goers spend hours attempting to lobby support for their top choice candidates in hopes of helping presidential hopefuls establish an early lead in the nominating process.

But as Iowans prepare to brace frigid temperatures to cast their ballots on Feb. 3, voters in another chilly state directly to the North may be the ones to lay claim over casting the actual, in-person first votes of 2020 through early voting.

Among the first states to start in-person early voting is Minnesota, where voters will begin to head to the polls as early as Friday - weeks before the state’s March 3 primary on "Super Tuesday," when the bulk of the nation’s primary contests are held, apportioning nearly one-third of the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination on one night.

"The earliest people who vote are either the people in situations where they just need to vote early, like our military abroad...or it's these people who are hardcore voters," said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who specializes in elections and voter turnout. "They're very engaged, they follow the candidates, they're very confident as who they're going to vote for. And that's the theme, I think, plays out through the early voting period."

But a rush to the ballot box might not overwhelm polling places opening their doors on Friday, McDonald said.

"In a chaotic presidential nomination contest like what we have right now with multiple candidates, what you often see is that voters tend to hold on to their ballots much longer than they will when we get to the general election," he continued. "Right now, people don't know, really, who to vote for. We still have candidates dropping out."

The option to cast votes early is a departure from how Minnesotans have voted for nearly three decades under the caucus system, which required real-time and in-person attendance up until this cycle.

“When we had caucuses, we were requiring people to show up, you know, during a two and a half hour window on Tuesday night during the middle of winter to cast their votes and you know, [it] was very restrictive,” Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said in an interview with ABC News.

Minnesota party officials believe the expanded flexibility will result in record turnout at the polls, meaning that a significant number of votes could be cast across the battleground state weeks before its official primary date. Democrats are pouring resources into the state early, as the party aims to safeguard its blue territory from GOP gains through organizing tactics.

The expected increase in voter turnout could also serve as an indicator for the eventual presidential matchup in the general election, and Minnesota Democrats are also bracing for a flood of political efforts from the Trump campaign.

“Trump's a little bit of a trophy collector, right? And there's no bigger trophy for a Republican running for president than winning Minnesota,” Martin said.

In 2016, President Trump lost the state by a margin of two points, and has been open about wanting to tip the scales in 2020. At a campaign rally in Minneapolis in October 2019, the president made clear that winning the state was a priority in his campaign strategy, as he took a swipe across the aisle at Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar while promising to win the second time around.

“How do you have such a person representing you in Minnesota? I am very angry at you people right now,” Trump said at the time, adding, “She is one of the big reasons that I am going to win, and the Republican Party is going to win Minnesota in 13 months.”

Trump’s focus on Minnesota hits close to home on the campaign trail for Senator Amy Klobuchar who has enjoyed a steady rise in the polls over the last few months, particularly in the early states. She has said she is confident in her ability to face off with the president.

As Klobuchar maps out her winning strategy beyond Iowa, she will be in the state Friday as voters begin to cast ballots to kick off early voting.

But the Land of 10,000 Lakes only slightly beats out Vermont, another Super Tuesday state, as the earliest state to conduct in-person early voting.

Voters in Vermont, a state home to Sen. Bernie Sanders and one that the presidential contender is likely banking on in his second pursuit for the Democratic nomination, can start heading to the polls on Jan. 18.

But the distinction of issuing the first early voting ballots of the 2020 timeline, in this case, does not include people who vote absentee by mail. Voters in both New Hampshire and North Carolina have already started requesting absentee ballots, ahead of Minnesota and Vermont.

Those absentee ballots started trickling out of New Hampshire to military and overseas voters in December, according to the secretary of state's office. On Monday, North Carolina began mailing absentee by mail ballots to voters who requested them, and any registered voter in North Carolina may vote absentee by mail. In Virginia, in-person absentee voting began on Thursday.

Minnesota and Vermont aren't the only non-early states who will start the electoral process before the nation’s first four primaries and caucuses. A slew of states are poised to begin early voting throughout the month of February, allowing voters to cast ballots early on days interspersed between the first four nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Illinois, a state holding its primary on March 17, begins early voting on Feb. 6, sandwiched in between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.

Between the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses, seven states will begin early voting, including the delegate-rich Texas, another Super Tuesday state.

Closing out the month of February with early voting are another five states, which are all holding primaries in March, including: Massachusetts, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan and Oklahoma.

Among the first four early states, only Nevada will be holding early voting from Feb. 15 to Feb. 18 prior to caucus day.

The benefits of early voting range from the convenience factor to producing higher turnout rates. In the 2018 midterm elections, which saw record highs for early voting, the total number of Texans who cast ballots during the early voting period surpassed the total vote (early plus Election Day) in 2014.

At this stage in the Democratic race, heightened expectations for early voting are driven by the competitiveness of the primary, according to McDonald.

"I don't expect the level of turnout on the Republican side to be the same as on the Democratic side because there's just different levels of competition there," McDonald told ABC News. "We know that competition is one of the key determinants for turnout."

But early voting could provide significant insights into voting patterns and behavior ahead of a competitive primary season and the critical 2020 general election.

"I think probably the more interesting dynamic will be on the Democratic side," McDonald said, adding, "we'll be able to look at the racial composition of the Democratic primary voters" across states that include race on the voter file, including a number of southern states like Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.

"For like Biden to do well in South Carolina, we’ll want to see if the level of engagement among African Americans is at least the same level as it was in 2016," the last time there was a competitive Democratic primary, McDonald offered as an example.

But more broadly, early voting could potentially signal the level of engagement among America’s electorate -- a key indicator that could decide the trajectory of the 2020 race.

"We might also get some clues about what's going on with overall levels of engagement, just by looking at the total number of voters who have been participating," he added.

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ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Lev Parnas, Rudy Giuliani’s former business associate, said on CNN Thursday night that his view of his and Giuliani's efforts in Ukraine was that “it was all about 2020, to make sure [Trump] had another four years.”

“That’s the way everybody viewed it,” Parnas said. "There was no other reason for doing it."

The statement came during Parnas’ second night of back-to-back television interviews, during which he implicated President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Rep. Devin Nunes, and the Trump legal team in activities central to the House impeachment investigation and Trump's Senate trial.

In Parnas' second night appearing on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show Thursday, he alleged that former Energy Secretary Rick Perry also played a direct role in the plan to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into opening an investigation into former Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Parnas recalled that Perry called Giuliani when Perry was on his way to Zelenskiy 's inauguration "to ask him what to discuss, and Rudy told him to make sure to give [Zelenskiy] the message" that Zelenskiy should announce the opening of an investigation into Biden.

Perry then called Giuliani after the inauguration to confirm "that he spoke to Zelenskiy, and Zelenskiy's going to do it,” Parnas alleged.

The effort did lead Zelesnkiy to make a general announcement about investigating corruption -- but when it didn't mention Biden, "Giuliani blew his lid," Parnas recalled.

It “wasn't supposed to be a corruption announcement," Parnas explained. "It had to be about Joe Biden and Hunter Biden and Burisma.”

Parnas explained that this happened on several occasions. "Every time somebody would meet Zelenskiy" to press him to announce a Biden investigation, Parnas said, Zelenskiy would "agree -- and then [he] would walk it back."

Perry, who has been described by colleagues as one of the "three amigos" in the Trump administration's policy on Ukraine, has insisted that he's "extremely comfortable" that there was no quid pro quo, saying he had only been focused on addressing corruption in Ukraine and encouraging American companies to do business there.

He confirmed at that time that he encouraged the president to call Zelenskiy "multiple times" during a press conference in Lithuania, but said that he never encouraged Trump to talk about the Biden family.

"Not once, as God as my witness, not once was a Biden name -- not the former vice president, not his son -- ever mentioned," Perry said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in October.

Parnas, during Thursday's CNN interview, also stressed that he would be “very willing” to testify at the Senate impeachment trial and that he would be the “best witness.”

"I should be their No. 1 witness, because I'm the one that got all the dirt," Parnas said. "Why do they need Biden? Call me."

When asked why he hasn't been asked to testify, Parnas said, "I think they're afraid of me."

During both the CNN and MSNBC interviews, Parnas detailed a specific conversation he said he had with the president about then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Parnas recalled sitting with Trump at a super PAC dinner and saying something negative about Yovanovitch to Trump, which prompted Trump to immediately turn to an adviser and say, "fire her.”

Parnas said Pompeo and then-national security adviser John Bolton refused to fire Yovanovitch despite being repeatedly pushed by the president. Parnas said he thought it was becoming “comical.”

Parnas’ interview appearances have touched off a new round of debate among lawmakers over the need for witnesses at the impeachment trial. Democrats argue that Parnas' first-hand account would be important testimony, while Republicans have remained largely unmoved.

During his first appearance with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Parnas said he believes "President Trump knew exactly what was going on" with Parnas' activities in Ukraine, including his efforts to have Yovanovich removed from her post as the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv.

"[President Trump] was aware of all of my movements," Parnas said. "I wouldn’t do anything without the help of Rudy Giuliani or the president."

Pressed on the president’s insistence that he does not know him, Parnas said, "He lied."

Reactions to Parnas’ claims differed sharply.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, in a statement Thursday morning, attacked Parnas' credibility and dismissed his claims by insisting the president did nothing wrong.

"These allegations are being made by a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison," Grisham said in the statement. "The facts haven’t changed -- the President did nothing wrong and this impeachment, which was manufactured and carried out by the Democrats, has been a sham from the start."

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, however, said that Parnas’ claims raised “lots of serious questions,” and Sen. Chris Murphy said Parnas’ statements “fit neatly into what we’ve already heard.”

Separate from the House impeachment probe, Parnas last year was charged in the Southern District of New York with circumventing campaign finance laws to channel foreign money into Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. He has pleaded not guilty.

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narvikk/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A century-long battle to amend the Constitution to cement equal rights for Americans regardless of sex is coming to a head soon.

On Jan. 15, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, crossing the three-fourths of the union threshold specified in the Constitution for its adoption.

However, the amendment may not see the light of day for a while, due to legal technicalities over a Congress-issued deadline, which are bound to lead to long court fights.

Here's a look at how the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, began and progressed, and where it will go in the weeks to come.

Origins in the suffrage movement


Activist Alice Paul pushed to have national protections for women and formally called for the ERA in 1920. Three years later, Congress introduced the amendment, which was authored by Paul. However, both the House and Senate sat on the proposal for decades.

Civil rights movement prompts action


Throughout the 1960s, women's rights groups and civil rights organizations lobbied Congress to pass the amendment and send it to states for ratification. Their efforts included rallies, disrupting hearings and public campaigns.

Their efforts paid off when, in 1971, the amendment passed in the House, followed by the Senate a year later. There was bipartisan approval for the amendment, which read, "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

The amendment would give American women more protections and would be the basis for laws that granted equal pay and prohibited gender discrimination, according to experts.

Off to the states, the battle begins


When Congress sent its resolution to the states for ratification in 1972, it came with some stipulations, including a seven-year deadline to meet the 38-state minimum. Article V of the Constitution, though, does not give a specific time limit to ratify any potential amendment.

Although the ERA had big name supporters, such as the AFL-CIO, there was some opposition, particularly from conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. She argued that the ERA would disrupt social norms and lead to hardships for housewives and possibly women being drafted into the military.

By the end of 1979, only 35 state legislatures ratified the ERA including Nebraska, Texas, Michigan and Oregon. Congress extended the deadline by another three years, but no additional state houses gave their seal of approval.

New push in the '90s


Although activists continued to lobby for the three additional states to ratify the ERA, there was little to no activity among those legislatures for a quarter-century. ERA supporters, however, were still determined, especially after the 27th Amendment was passed in 1992.

That amendment was originally sent to the states for ratification in 1789 and didn't meet its minimum state count until 1992. ERA proponents have argued that the deadlines issued by Congress in 1972 were part of the resolution to send it to the states and not in the actual wording of the amendment itself.

New millennium, new states


In 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA, and a year later, Illinois approved the amendment. More and more advocates began calling on their elected officials to ratify the amendment including celebrities such as Alyssa Milano and Patricia Arquette.

In January, Virginia's state legislature, which had recently gained a Democratic majority after more than 20 years, ratified the amendment, passing the threshold.

Legal roadblocks make future murky


The congressional deadlines set in the original 1972 resolution continue to be a major impediment to ERA's adoption. Some legal experts contend that those deadlines prohibit ratification and the process would have to start over. However, others have argued that Article V doesn't deter ratification once the threshold is met.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Legal Counsel (OLC) released an opinion before the Virginia vote that stated the amendment "is no longer pending before the States," because of the expiration. The National Archives and Records Administration, which has to certify the amendment, said in a press release it would comply with the OLC's opinion save for a court order.

Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told ABC News it is likely a lawsuit will be filed against the National Archives that will compel them to ratify the amendment.

There are bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate that seek to remove the deadline, which would negate any legal argument, according to experts.

"It's taken almost a century, but it's closer than we have ever been. We're determined to cross the finish line," Carol Jenkins, co-president and CEO of the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women's Equality, told ABC News.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



izanbar/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. senators settled into their political foxholes on Thursday upon the kickoff of President Donald Trump's historic impeachment trial, saying they would take their duties as jurors seriously while also declaring that the upcoming proceedings were either – depending upon their party – necessary to save the country or a complete waste of time.

"I'm ready for this trial to end," South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told ABC News' Mariam Khan. "And all the evidence I've seen has nothing to do with the facts as far as I'm concerned."

"They've given us two very weak articles of impeachment," added Republican Sen. David Perdue. "Our job is to look at what they've brought us and decide if that rises to the level of impeachment."

For the Democrats, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, speaking at a news conference, drew comparisons to President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, and accused Trump of hiring "henchmen" to do his dirty work and then blocking all efforts by Congress to hold him accountable.

"Nothing we do while we serve in the United States Senate will be more important than putting country above party in this procedure," Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.

"The case is already overwhelming," he later added.

If there was any doubt of the hyper partisan atmosphere, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York declared: "We want the truth, and maybe some Republicans would rise to the occasion."

Trump's Senate impeachment trial officially began Thursday afternoon on a blustery January day in Washington as a group of House lawmakers – designated "impeachment managers" -- marched across the Capitol carrying two articles that accused the president of abusing his power in office and obstructing Congress.

During the House impeachment inquiry, the Democratic majority gathered evidence of a pressure campaign orchestrated by Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to get the newly elected Ukrainian government to announce an investigation that would take aim at the president's chief political rival, Democrat Joe Biden.

According to documents and witness testimony, Trump last July ordered a hold on nearly $400 million in security assistance for Ukraine – money the new democratically elected government desperately needed to fend off Russian troops at its border -- and refused to lift the hold despite the White House being warned that doing so was possibly illegal.

As the Senate chamber prepared for the formalities of a trial this week, new evidence in the case continued to spill out. Lev Parnas, a close associate of Giuliani facing criminal charges provided phone texts and other documents that described the two men's push for a Ukrainian announcement on Biden, while also telling media outlets that the president "knew exactly what was going on."

On Thursday, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, a federal government watchdog, ruled that the White House budget office indeed broke the law by withholding aid at President Trump's direction.

Trump again called the allegations a "hoax" and insisted that he didn't know Parnas, despite Parnas' close relationship with Giuliani.

"I don't know him at all, don't know what he's about, don't know where he comes from, know nothing about him." Trump said.

Several Senate Republicans seemed unmoved by the new evidence.

"To me, the source of evidence, at best is questionable … The people involved are sketchy at best. I am ready to move on," said Graham.

Added Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana: "I don't want America, once the Senate finishes its work to say ‘well, we just got run over by the same truck twice.'"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that Republicans were content in burying their heads in the sand.

"They're afraid of the truth," she said.

Late Thursday, GOP moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine put out a statement trying to clarify where she stands on the question of witnesses and new evidence. "There's been a lot of mischaracterization and misunderstanding about my position on the process the Senate should follow for the impeachment trial," she said.

"While I need to hear the case argued and the questions answered, I tend to believe having additional information would be helpful. It is likely that I would support a motion to call witnesses at that point in the trial just as I did in 1999," she said, referring to the Clinton impeachment trial, where the question of witnesses was voted on only after opening arguments.

"Prior to hearing the statement of the case and the Senators asking questions, I will not support any attempts by either side to subpoena documents or witnesses," she added.

The partisan rancor though was left for outside the Senate chamber, as 99 senators signed their names in a book promising to uphold "impartial justice." One senator, James Inhofe, R-Okla., was in his home state because of a medical issue involving a family member.

Reporters described the room as completely silent as each member approached the book with Chief Justice John Roberts observing quietly.

Told to minimize distractions, many senators sat with few materials in front of them. Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, took a Bible from his desk and began reading.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



jganser/iStock(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Republican lawmakers in Florida submitted a batch of anti-LGBTQ bills this week with just hours to spare before the 2020 legislative deadline.

If signed into law, the four bills would walk back local ordinances that protect LGBTQ employees, legalize the controversial practice of "gay conversion therapy" and imprison doctors for up to 15 years if they provide certain transition-related medical care to transgender youth. Conversion therapy is a discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation through psychological or spiritual means. It is grounded in the belief that being LGBTQ is abnormal or unnatural and is banned in more than a dozen states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The bills -- submitted late Monday by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, Sen. Dennis Baxley, Rep. Bob Rommel, Sen. Joe Gruters, Rep. Michael Grant, Sen. Keith Perry, and Rep. Byron Donalds -- sparked outrage among many LGBTQ advocates and their allies.

The lawmakers submitted four pieces of legislation, each with a companion bill in the House and the Senate.

Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, said the "draconian legislation" would attack the rights of the state's LGBTQ population and make the 2020 legislative session "one of the most hostile to LGBTQ Floridians in recent memory."

"This is the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida legislature in recent memory,” Equality Florida Public Policy Director Harris Maurer said in a statement. "It runs the gamut from openly hostile legislation that would arrest and imprison doctors for providing medically necessary care, to legislation that would carelessly erase critical local LGBTQ protections."

The group called on leaders within the Florida House and Senate to denounce and defeat the proposed laws.

Florida Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, who considers himself the state's first openly gay African American legislator, spoke out against the bills immediately, calling them discriminatory and shameful.

"It's shameful that Republican lawmakers are wasting tax dollars attacking Florida's most vulnerable communities rather than prioritizing the issues that impact everyday people's lives," Jones said in a statement. "Clearly they've decided that discrimination and hate are central to their election-year platform despite our state's incredible diversity."

Gina Duncan, the group's director of transgender equality, took particular issue with the Vulnerable Child Protection Act, introduced by Sabatini and Baxley. If signed into law, the legislation would make it a second-degree felony for doctors to provide gender reassignment surgeries and hormone therapies to children seeking to transition to the opposite sex -- even if they have their parents' consent.

"Transgender youth are some of the most at-risk in our community. It is outrageous that conservative legislators would threaten their health and safety," Duncan said. "Medical professionals, not politicians, should decide what medical care is in the best interest of a patient. Forcing a doctor to deny best practice medical care and deny support to transgender youth can be life-threatening."

Baxley pushed back against Equality Florida's characterization of the his bill and accused the organization of trying lump eight different bills into one category.

"These are very different topics. My sole interest is the wellbeing of a child. I'm not trying to address the whole phenomena of how we're adapting to the changes in mores and views on LBGTQ community," Baxley told ABC News on Thursday. "I don't share their views, but I have no condemnation of anyone, OK. To me, those are personal issues."

He said he was inspired to draft the bill after hearing about civil disputes between parents who had different opinions about how they should deal with their child's gender dysphoria, a condition where a person feels like there's a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. He cited a case where one parent wanted to take medical action -- such as sterilizing the child or seeking hormone therapies -- to affirm the child's preferred gender, but the other parent was against it.

Baxley said the proposed bill protects children from having their parents make decisions about their health that the child may regret later in life.

"We're seeing some prominent lawsuits, particularly with divided husbands and wives, about what's to be done regarding the child's care. And obviously, if they're going to court, I think we need to do some kind of policy clarification on what's appropriate," Baxley said. "I am trying to start that discussion, as difficult as it is, but I think we have a responsibility in protecting children."

Equality Florida said Baxley's bill would go against the best medical practices recommended for transgender youth. Many doctors say it’s easier for a person to transition to the opposite sex if they begin the process early, but Baxley said young people dealing with gender dysphoria should be able work through those issues without medical intervention during childhood.

"During adolescence, they're trying on all kinds of things when they're in middle school and high school trying to figure life out," Baxley said. "But I'm very concerned about protecting children from medical procedures that could be damaging to them physically."

"There's a lot of people that have transgender lives that don't undergo surgeries that permanently change their physical makeup," he added. "Let them make these life decisions as they become adults. When you start these heavy hormonal treatments and you're talking about the sterilization of a child, these are very weighty issues to be making for them while they're children."

It's unclear exactly how likely the bills are to pass. They were each introduced by individual members, not committees, which would give them a better chance of advancing.

Baxley said he's more concerned with starting a discussion.

"The way a legislator starts a discussion is to file a bill. It will make people start thinking about that issue to come up with a public policy that is appropriate," he said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Zach Gibson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., revealed in an interview Thursday that she has been living with symptoms of alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.

In an interview with The Root, the freshman lawmaker said her desire to be honest with her supporters at home and abroad, many of whom identified with her signature Senegalese twist hairstyle, spurred the decision to disclose her condition.

"I think it's important that I'm transparent about this new normal," she said.

Alopecia causes a body's immune system -- which is supposed to fight external pathogens -- to attack its own hair follicles, resulting in hair loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is neither painful nor contagious, and in some cases, hair may even grow back.

There is no cure for alopecia, though, and its cause is uncertain. Experts believe an undefined combination of environmental and genetic factors can trigger the disease.

Pressley said that she first discovered signs of the condition in the fall last year, when she noticed small patches of missing hair during a hair appointment.

She soon started finding "sinkfuls of hair" and tried to stymie the progression of the disease with a variety of techniques.

"Every night I was employing all the tools that I had been schooled and trained in throughout my life as a black woman because I thought that I could stop this," she said, adding that she didn't want to sleep because she feared waking up to more lost hair and facing down "a person who increasingly felt like a stranger" to her in the mirror.

Pressley said that she came to the decision in December to eventually disclose her condition while hiding in a restroom stall in the U.S. Capitol -- right after voting to impeach President Donald Trump.

She had worn a wig that day, but said, "I couldn't recall the last time I'd ever felt more naked."

Despite well-meaning efforts to comfort her -- some have tried reminding her of the India Arie song "I Am Not My Hair" -- Pressley said her hair was a "synonymous and conflated part" of her personal and political identities, and that at the end of the day, "I still want it."

She said that she thinks making her condition public will help her come to terms with her condition.

"It's about self agency. It's about power. It's about acceptance," Pressley said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- After Chief Justice John Roberts swore in senators for the trial of President Trump on Thursday, several Republican senators described the gravity of the moment, while, at the same time, wondering whether partisan politics has diminished the magnitude of impeachment.

“It felt like ‘my gosh – this is more serious than the House gave it,’” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, told ABC News. “And it’s unfortunate that they diminished the seriousness, the constitutional seriousness of their charge, but thank God that the Founders knew that there would need to be another body that would lend the seriousness to it and to protect against partisan political impeachment.

"So, that’s how it felt like to me. I did contemplate a few times: 'I wonder if there’s anybody thinking we might have gone too far after sensing the gravity of the moment?'” he said.

Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun added that there was a “somber” mood in the chamber as the historic moment played out.

“We’ve known we’re going to come to this day and we’re here and for me personally it was a somber feeling when you listen to the articles, and you know how important this is in a historical context,” Braun said. “I think most of us wonder how we’ve gotten into this twice in 20 years, so I think that, ah, that’s probably the big question – what’s underlying politics to put us in a spot like this? I think there’s a lot of polarization out there.”

“Once you sit down, you raise your hand, take the oath and listen to the particulars of what we’re dealing with, with the Chief Justice sitting there, all senators assembled - it’s a big deal,” Braun added. “I’m just hoping for the future of the country that this isn’t something that easily occurs.”

GOP Sen. Roy Blunt had a similar reaction after being sworn in by the chief justice.

“It impresses -- the historic nature of the moment. Relatively few times in the history of the country we have approached this,” Blunt, R-Mo., told ABC News, adding he wondered “if in the last 46 years we've allowed this [impeachment] to become too routine.”

Opening arguments in the trial are set to begin next Tuesday, following a long weekend.

Cramer said that a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday, finding Trump violated law by withholding aid from Ukraine, makes an impeachment trial “more interesting” but stressed it’s up to the House managers to get into that subject – not for senators to force the trial to take a new direction.

“I want to wait and start hearing from both sides and then ask the questions and then be informed by that,” Cramer said. “I think at this point we’re all in jury-mode and that’s the best way to proceed. It’s really up to the House managers to make the case for these things. I’m certainly open to it and want to wait to see what they say.”
 
Cramer, however, said the Senate’s goal “ought to be to get through this as quickly as possible” although he expressed a preference for witness reciprocity, underscoring that he’d be “surprised if there weren’t witnesses.”

“Whether it’s one for one, two for two, or four for four, I think each witness will be presented and will be voted on based on the merits of that witness and what they may have to offer,” Cramer said. “I can tell you I would be one that would strongly advocate for something like reciprocity and I certainly wouldn’t expect that only one side gets to present their case.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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