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GOP liaison to Arizona reverses course after vowing to resign

The Republican serving as liaison between the Arizona state Senate and the private company conducting a partisan ballot review said Wednesday that he intended to resign, then walked it back.

Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state, said he’d decided to resign when it became clear he would not regain access to the Phoenix fairgrounds where the private company, Cyber Ninjas, continues its examination of millions of ballots cast last November in Maricopa County.

“Right now I’m the liaison in name only,” he told conservative radio host James Harris on Wednesday morning. “I don’t know if that makes me a LINO or what.”

Bennett, who has been the public face of the review, was first barred from entering the audit site Friday after he shared some results with outside election experts, according to The Arizona Republic. Those experts told the paper that what they reviewed indicated the auditors’ vote tally was in line with the results reported by the county.

“I’ve always tried to act as a man of integrity and honesty and I’m sure I don’t accomplish that all the time, but I cannot put a rubber stamp on a product I am being locked out of its development,” he said Wednesday. “I’m going to step down today. I’ll issue a statement later for the press later this morning.”

But by the end of the day, he still hadn’t issued his promised resignation statement, and in a text to NBC News, told NBC News that Arizona state Senate President Karen Fann and he were working up a new, joint statement that would keep him on the team.

“It will include me continuing as Senate Liason,” he said in the message.

Fann, also a Republican, had said in a statement to NBC News on Wednesday that a liaison was no longer needed on site because the tabulation of votes was complete and ballots would be returned to Maricopa County on Thursday.

“At this point, we do not need a Senate liaison on site since all data gathered will now be taken to the auditors labs for analysis,” she said. “After the auditors have submitted their draft report, Ken will be part of this process as the authorized Senate liaison. Ken and the entire Senate team will have full access to all the core audit data to verify their findings. The Senate contract with the auditor explicitly says all data and findings gathered from the entire audit is the property of the Arizona Senate.”

Bennett suggested in a series of interviews earlier this week that he might step down because his exclusion from ongoing processes would make him leery of signing off on a final report.

On Tuesday, Fann said it was “imperative anyone working with the audit is required to adhere to the rules of not disclosing unconfirmed information.”

But in that same statement, she said Bennett “will be involved and a vital part of the draft and final reports to ensure their accuracy with his knowledge and contributions throughout the audit process.”

In his Wednesday morning interview, Bennett said he was “appreciative” of Fann’s statement indicating he would play a role in drafting the final report, “but I’ve got to have access to the source data and everything that will be the building blocks to that final report.”

“I can’t just come in at the last minute and be asked to endorse something that I can’t be a part of really building,” he said.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat critical of the audit, said in a statement that Bennett’s impending resignation “further illustrates the ongoing issues with the sham audit that has gone on far too long.”

She added, “It proves what I have been saying from the very beginning: this exercise lacks transparency and is being run by a group with no election or auditing experience.”

The audit is months behind schedule, though additional avenues of inquiry appear to be expanding.

Fann and Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen authorized new subpoenas earlier this week, The Associated Press reported, requesting even more data from Maricopa County as well as administrator-level access to the voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems. The auditors initially demanded those passwords from the county; Dominion has said it would not cooperate with firms that are not authorized by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

On Friday, Fann also sent Hobbs a request under Arizona’s public records law for “all records concerning any audit or recount of, or litigation concerning, the 2020 general election,” according to a copy of the request shared with NBC News.

Hobbs told NBC News that her office is reviewing Fann’s request but that it “appears to be the kind of nebulous fishing expedition we have come to expect from the Senate President.”

A representative of the Arizona audit did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News. Bennett declined to comment further, noting his intention to release a statement later Wednesday.

Cyber Ninjas founder Doug Logan has promoted election conspiracy theories. The company’s Republican-backed review of more than 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots has been heavily criticized by elections experts and officials, including GOP leaders in Maricopa County who cite the auditors’ inexperience with election reviews and systems.

The Republican-controlled state Senate authorized the review of ballots in Arizona’s most populous county and hired the private company to conduct it after President Joe Biden flipped the state blue for the first time in decades, winning Arizona by more than 10,400 votes last fall. The audit’s findings will not overturn his certified victory in the state.

In his interview, Bennett said he spoke with Logan on Tuesday and reiterated he would give his stamp of approval on the final report only if he was reinstated with full access to the audit. He also said the final report could be “thousands” of pages long.

“If I’m going to put my credibility on the line that it’s something they can trust and believe in, I can’t be locked out until the last minute,” he said.

Bennett’s announcement comes as another public-facing element of the audit — its Twitter account, @ArizonaAudit — was permanently suspended by Twitter along with seven other pro-audit accounts that promoted former President Donald Trump’s lies about last fall’s vote. The suspensions were first reported by BuzzFeed News.

A Twitter spokesperson told NBC News the accounts were barred for violating its rules on platform manipulation and spam.

The conspiracy-infused audit in Arizona has inspired calls from pro-Trump Republicans for similar efforts in a number of other states — including some Trump won. Trump allies from across the country have visited the site of the monthslong audit and have otherwise hyped it.

Voter fraud in U.S. elections is exceedingly rare. Trump’s top cybersecurity official said the election last year was “the most secure in American history,” while then-Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread malfeasance.

In Arizona, prior ballot reviews have affirmed Biden’s win. But those who still question the vote said those counts didn’t go far enough.

In May, Bennett told NBC News the review is aimed at uncovering any flaws with the prior election so legislators can recommend fixes — not about seeking to overturn the results.

“I think it will largely put to rest the people who are most concerned about whether things were done correctly in November of 2020,” he said then.

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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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