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Biden’s once-warm relationship with Cuomo grows chilly

WASHINGTON — Facing political heat on his left flank in his bid for a third term three years ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called in a favor from Joe Biden, asking him to deliver the keynote address at New York’s Democratic Convention. His longtime friend didn’t disappoint, with remarks that underscored their close political and personal bond.

“We were raised in homes — one Italian, one Irish — where we were taught that the greatest sin anyone could commit, and I mean this literally, was the abuse of power, whether it was the government abusing power, or the abuse of economic power, or physical power,” Biden said at the time. “It was the ultimate sin. We were taught, you had an obligation to speak out and speak up wherever you saw that abuse.”

Now, it is the allegations of just such an abuse of power that has the president keeping his distance as Cuomo faces the biggest crisis of his career.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the president had not spoken to the governor beyond publicly calling on him to resign a day before, after a scathing report from the state attorney general accused him of sexually harassing 11 women and violating state and federal laws.

“The president believes Governor Cuomo should do the right thing, resign and leave space for future leadership in New York,” she said.

What no White House official will address is whether Cuomo has attempted to reach the president or other senior members of his team. A spokesperson for Cuomo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Within the West Wing, no formal edict has been issued about contacts with Cuomo, who has faced mounting bipartisan calls to step down, or his staff. One White House official said it would be unnecessary to remind anyone of potential fallout should even back-channel communication efforts be underway among the Biden and Cuomo camps.

In one case, a Biden official simply ignored multiple phone calls from a Cuomo ally Tuesday.

Biden’s own words a day before on the issue were carefully chosen, and seemed reluctantly spoken. It took two questions for him to answer with a simple, “Yes,” about whether Cuomo should resign — a testament to the difficulty of the moment and disappointment he feels privately at Cuomo’s downfall, as one source close to the president put it.

That posture most likely can’t last long, as Cuomo remains governor of one of the largest states in the country amid an ongoing pandemic.

In a 165-page report released Tuesday, Attorney General Letitia James alleged that Cuomo had violated state and federal law by harassing almost a dozen women, touching some of them inappropriately and using the power of his office to retaliate against one. Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing and ignored bipartisan calls to resign, including one from President Joe Biden, a longtime ally.

Tuesday was also the day Biden’s Covid team held its biweekly call with the nation’s governors — a call Cuomo himself used to run as chairman of the National Governors Association until he was replaced by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, a Republican, a month ago.

The call took place just as James held a news conference to release the findings of her months-long investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, and multiple participants on the call said Cuomo did not participate. The White House says it will continue to engage as needed with state officials on relevant official business.

“We’re going to continue to work with the administration in New York, with leaders in New York to continue to fight Covid,” Psaki told reporters Wednesday. “That will continue, and obviously if leadership changes in this state, we will work with a different leader.”

The Biden-Cuomo relationship had run deep, reflecting a bond both personal and political.

As vice president, Biden turned up in New York often to help advocate for shared policy priorities like a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, or infrastructure. Cuomo pushed for a complete overhaul of LaGuardia Airport in Queens after Biden’s admonishment of it as “third-world.”

“It is especially nice to have a friend in the federal government who you can call on from time to time who can be a little helpful in greasing the wheels of justice, let’s call it, and the vice president’s office was very, very helpful in expediting this project,” Cuomo said as Biden joined him for the groundbreaking of the updated airport in 2016.

A year before, even as Cuomo had publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he privately counseled Biden to consider the race. And when Cuomo faced a progressive primary challenger in his bid for a third term in 2018, Biden agreed to deliver a keynote address at the state party convention, arguing that the incumbent “has never backed away from his progressive principles.”

But the relationship has gone beyond politics.

Cuomo, who had served as New York’s attorney general at the same time Beau Biden was Delaware’s, showed up unannounced as part of a receiving line of hundreds of mourners when Biden’s eldest son was lying in state at Delaware’s State Capitol. Biden embraced Cuomo, first with a hug and then a kiss, and later clasped Cuomo’s face during an extended chat.

When Biden spoke at Cuomo’s 2018 convention, he confided how much he idolized the governor’s late father Mario Cuomo, also a New York governor, describing him as “the only person I’ve ever been engaged with politically I thought was better than me.”

And he spoke of Andrew Cuomo bearing the same burden as his son of having to follow in a father’s footsteps, quoting George W. Bush as saying of his father: “I inherited all his enemies and only some of his friends.”

For now, as some of Cuomo’s political rivals at home take steps to remove him from office, the White House has taken a hands-off approach.

Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York Democratic Party, said Wednesday that no White House officials have contacted him to discuss Cuomo’s status, with his efforts to push his longtime ally to resign coming at the behest of Democratic officials across New York.

“I think that the circle around the governor is just getting smaller, and I just think that this is just a matter of time before reality sets in,” he said.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is highlighting Biden’s refusal to go further.

“If Biden really wants Cuomo to resign, why won’t he call him?” asked spokesperson Tommy Pigott.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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