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Scott Bland is POLITICO’s national politics editor and leading all of POLITICO’s 2022 midterm coverage. To do it, he has a team of about 15 reporters around the country following campaigns.

Despite the cooling temperatures, this is when people like Bland start to sweat.

His job is to ensure readers and listeners aren’t surprised on election night — that POLITICO has considered and reported on all possible outcomes, including the outliers — those black swan scenarios with seemingly low probabilities. Not just the most likely ones, according to conventional wisdom.

The specter of 2016 still haunts newsrooms.

Bland and Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza dissect how 2016 midterm misses can be applied lessons for reporters covering the 2022 elections. Bland also weighs in on pressing questions like; what are the chances of Democrats winning the House while the Republicans take the Senate? Could all of those allegedly flawed Trump-backed candidates sweep their races? And could Biden be the first President since 2002 to avoid a party defeat in the first-midterm election?

Oath Keeper describes group’s large weapons cache ahead of Jan. 6

A member of the Oath Keepers who traveled with the group to Washington D.C. ahead of the Jan. 6 riot described a massive stockpile of firearms and other weaponry that allies had stashed in an Arlington, Va. hotel.

“I had not seen that many weapons in one location since I was in the military,” recalled Terry Cummings, a Florida resident who said he joined the Oath Keepers in 2020 amid concerns about left-wing violence in Portland, Ore. and joined the group leaders’ private chats in advance of their Jan. 6 trip to D.C.

Prosecutors have described that arsenal — known as a “quick reaction force” or QRF — as a key element of the Oath Keeper leaders’ plot to subvert the 2020 election and help forcibly keep then-President Donald Trump in power. The group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, and several regional leaders are charged with conspiring to disrupt the transfer of power and preparing for violence to enforce their will.

Cummings displayed for jurors the AR-15 that he brought with him and contributed to the weapons stash, as well as a box of ammunition.

Justice Department prosecutors spent much of the day — in the second week of what’s likely to be a six-week trial against Rhodes and four co-defendants — revealing encrypted Signal messages between Rhodes and the group’s regional leaders organizing and activating plans to travel to Washington on Jan. 6. Many of those messages described their goal as preventing President Joe Biden from taking office and pressing Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which Rhodes contended would license the group to forcibly prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 election results.

“We armed Americans have one good trick left up our sleeve. It’s the same one Samuel Whitmore [sic] used long ago, right along with all the other farmers who fired the shots heard round the world,” Rhodes wrote to Georgia Oath keepers on Dec. 14, 2020, describing the onset of the American Revolution.

In a Dec. 20, 2020, message to the same Signal chat, Georgia Oath Keeper Brian Ulrich — who has since pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy — said only action by Trump would prevent mass violence and death.

“Trump acts now maybe a few hundred radicals die trying to burn down cities,” he wrote. “Trump sits on his hands, Biden wins, millions die resisting the death of the 1st and 2nd amendment.”

Rhodes and his codefendants, Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell, have contended that their trip was primarily about providing security to VIP attendees of Trump’s speech at the White House Ellipse and that their weapons cache was meant to support the group’s efforts if street violence broke out with counterprotesters on Jan. 6. They note that they never deployed those weapons into Washington, which has strict gun laws, even after a pro-Trump mob broke into the Capitol.

Cummings, a military veteran who is not charged with any crimes related to Jan. 6, said he traveled to Washington with Harrelson and Jason Dolan, who pleaded guilty last year for his Jan. 6-related actions, with the intent of supporting the group’s security details. He recalled meeting the VIP he was tasked with protecting but said he couldn’t recall her name, only that she appeared to be a “Hispanic female.” She remained by the northwest side of the Capitol even as members of the Oath Keepers continued to march toward the Capitol.

Cummings said that at some point as the group marched toward the Capitol, Meggs informed him that the building had been “breached.” He remembered Meggs asking someone whether the group should enter the Capitol.

Cummings left the group after using a port-a-potty outside the Capitol and only reconnected with them after they regrouped outside the Capitol. He recalled Rhodes shrugging off the decision by police to begin using tear gas against rioters.

“Suck it up,” he recalled Rhodes saying. “It’s just CS gas.”

Dream job disappointment: Testifying against Trump

Sarah Matthews has a political resume similar to a lot of conservatives her age. At Kent State, she joined the College Republicans and made her first pilgrimage to the annual CPAC conference in Washington. Matthews interned on Capitol Hill for John Boehner and Sen. Rob Portman, both of Ohio. And then she got a job doing comms for Republicans on the Hill.

But a few years later, in June 2020, she was working for Donald Trump. Like a lot of her colleagues, she was well aware of Trump’s flaws, but she agreed with his policies. When her mentor, Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany invited Matthews to be her deputy, she didn’t think twice. It was a chaotic seven months, marked by the Lafayette Square protest incident, Covid, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Then came Jan. 6.

You probably remember Matthews from her primetime testimony to the Jan. 6 committee in July. She testified about her experience in the White House, as a former deputy press secretary, during the insurrection and how Donald Trump’s actions that day so disgusted her that she resigned that night. The January 6 committee is back next week, on October 13th, for its first hearing since the one at which Matthews appeared.

Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza sat down with Matthews to hear the full story of what it was like for a young Republican to publicly break with the president, upend her career, and experience the full wrath of Trump and his supporters by cooperating with the January 6 committee.

What to know about Christian Walker and his star turn in Georgia’s Senate race

Herschel Walker’s campaign was sent reeling after Monday night’s report that he allegedly paid for a former girlfriend to get an abortion. And before the Georgia Senate campaign had a chance to regain his balance, his son jumped in to deliver another gut punch in real-time.

To the very online crowd, Christian Walker is no stranger. The 23-year-old cuts an interesting profile: He’s built a social media brand on the right railing against “woke liberals” and supporting former President Donald Trump. He’s also been a booster of his father’s Senate campaign in the past, tweeting about introducing him at an event at Mar-a-Lago and posting other positive messages even before Walker’s Georgia Senate campaign.

That, perhaps, lent credibility to his haymaker of a tweet Monday night.

“I know my mom and I would really appreciate if my father Herschel Walker stopped lying and making a mockery of us. You’re not a ‘family man’ when you left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence,” he tweeted in a post that got almost 130,000 likes.

Christian Walker has posted a number of statements and videos against his father in the day since the Daily Beast published an article quoting an unnamed former girlfriend who said Herschel Walker wrote her a $700 check to pay for an abortion. Christian Walker said he aims to put an end to the “lies” that Herschel Walker has put forward about his family values and morality, and restated allegations of abuse that his mother has leveled against Herschel Walker.

The campaign has been hit repeatedly by revelations about Walker’s past, including children Walker hadn’t claimed publicly and inflated, inaccurate statements about his businesses. Now, Walker has denied the Daily Beast’s reporting, which POLITICO has not independently verified.

Herschel and Christian Walker have largely existed on different sides of the Internet until now — a good portion of both men’s social media followers may not have realized the two were related until recently. But now, his son has become a central player in the Georgia Senate race just over a month before Election Day.

Why did Christian Walker start trending?

Christian Walker has more than a quarter million followers on Twitter, as well as more than a half-million on Instagram and 165,000 on TikTok, where he quickly amassed social media clout as a “free speech radicalist” on an app with relatively few conservative influencers of a similar brand compared to other platforms.

On Monday night, Christian Walker took to Twitter around the same time as the Daily Beast published its story.

“Every family member of Herschel Walker asked him not to run for office because we all knew (some of) his past,” he wrote in a tweet before unloading on Walker over his relationship with him and his mother.

Herschel Walker later tweeted on Monday night, “I LOVE my son no matter what.”

Christian Walker has been relatively quiet on the subject of his father’s other children in the past. On Tuesday, he uploaded a 4-minute video on Twitter and Instagram further explaining his past silence, writing that he did one campaign event for his father and then did not want to be involved further. His tone was more serious than his usual high-energy rant videos and podcast episodes.

“This is a candidate issue; this is not a me issue,” Christian Walker said in the video. “I wouldn’t have spoken out if there weren’t all these lies every day.”

What has Christian Walker’s previous role in the Georgia Senate race been?

Christian Walker posted an endorsement picture on Instagram with his father in August 2021, and has come to his father’s defense on social media prior to the initial reporting about Walker having fathered other children. He also once sold Herschel 2022 merch on his website, Cancl, though the page has since been deleted.

In Tuesday’s video, Christian Walker said the story behind his previous endorsement of his father was more complicated than those on the right and left made it seem.

“You know nothing about my life. My parents went through a dirty divorce, I went through a lot as a child,” he said. “You don’t know the ebbs and flows of our relationship… So for everyone making these wild theories and whatever, that’s crazy.

What is Christian Walker’s history with social media?

Christian Walker has had a tumultuous time on social media, particularly TikTok, where he had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in less than a year. He quickly became an outspoken “free-speech radicalist” voice on the app that still has relatively few popular conservative influencers.

He also recently moved from Los Angeles to Miami, leading to a flurry of tweets supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis, even posting a picture with the Republican in August.

Christian Walker’s high-energy tirades, often filmed from his car, ranged from “cancel culture” topics to railing against Pride Month to parroting Trump’s election fraud theories — all of which have often been shot down by angry commenters and parodied by other users.

“‘The rich need to pay their fair share of federal income tax,’” he says mockingly in one older video. “The top 10 percent has paid over 70 percent of federal income tax, sweetheart. So how about you stop smoking weed on the couch all day and you go get a better job.”

He also ran into trouble while a student at the University of California Los Angeles, which put out a statement against his “hurtful language on social media” after fellow undergraduates reported his social media activity. Months later, Christian Walker posted screenshots of other students complaining about him in a class GroupMe, saying the school allowed “your students to treat me like crap” for his conservative beliefs.

In February 2021, Christian Walker’s profile briefly got suspended by the platform, and he has since rebuilt his following to 165,000 people on TikTok. He still garners hundreds of thousands of views per video, but his content has taken a turn from calling out liberals to bashing men who don’t bring enough to their relationships. His audience equally embraced the new bit — all amid commenters asking about Herschel’s other children to no response.

“Your honor, he’s slaying again,” one comment reads. “A broken clock is right two times a day,” other users frequently write under his new videos.

Has Christian Walker mentioned his father’s other children before?

Christian Walker had not previously made direct statements about the allegations against his father, but he has often called out men who have cheated on their spouses on TikTok. Some videos reference other celebrities, like Wild ‘n Out host Nick Cannon, who has fathered 10 children with multiple women, and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, whose messages with a woman who is not his wife recently went viral.

The Levine situation merited a 42-minute episode on Christian Walker’s podcast in September, the longest he’s ever recorded.

Some of Christian Walker’s most-viewed videos and comments have focused on men being unfaithful in relationships.

“Fathers, I’m gonna need you to come back from hanging out with your homeboys and banging people that aren’t your wife and take care of your kids and your baby mamas, do you mind?” Christian Walker said in one of his most viral videos last year.

“Get home and raise your kids!” he said in another June video directed at Cannon.

In Tuesday’s post, Christian Walker said he was breaking his silence about the “random kids across the country” who weren’t raised by his father.

“And you know my favorite issue to talk about is father absence. Surprise! Because it affected me,” he said in the video. “That’s why I talk about it all the time.”

Republicans rally around Walker’s imperiled candidacy

After news broke that Senate candidate Herschel Walker had allegedly paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009, Republicans rallied around his imperiled candidacy.

Walker, the GOP nominee from Georgia, was already dogged by reports of past domestic violence — some of which he has acknowledged. Now he has put their top Senate pickup opportunity in peril with reports of behavior that directly violated his hard-line stance on abortion.

Republicans had another Todd Akin on their hands, some Republican strategists said to each other in text messages, referring to the Missouri Republican whose comments about “legitimate rape” in the 2012 general election cost the party a seat it was supposed to clinch. Others likened Walker to Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who lost the deep-red state to a Democrat in 2017 after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.

But the GOP has little choice but to double down in support of Walker — a flawed candidate party operatives said still remains one of their last hopes of flipping control of the narrowly divided Senate chamber this year amid a shrinking map.

“When the Democrats are losing, as they are right now, they lie and cheat and smear their opponents,” Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Tuesday, echoing in his statement similar comments from other Republicans who dared to publicly weigh in on the allegations, though most incumbents remained silent on the matter while at home during Senate recess. The claims were reported Monday by the Daily Beast; POLITICO has not independently verified the Daily Beast’s reporting.

“That’s what’s happening right now,” Scott continued. “They know they are on the verge of losing the Senate, and they know that Herschel Walker is winning, so they have cranked up the smear machine.”

Scott, putting on a brave face — similar to the president of Republicans’ top Senate super PAC — said the Senate committee remained fully committed to the Georgia race, where the NRSC announced last week it was splitting a new $8.5 million ad buy with the Walker campaign. Scott likened the situation to sexual assault and harassment allegations brought against Supreme Court justices Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, and suggested he believed Walker’s denial of the claim that he paid for the woman’s abortion 13 years ago.

While conceding that the latest allegation presented a public relations problem, in interviews with more than a dozen Republican strategists, operatives downplayed its likely effect. They suggested a wait-and-see approach and largely avoided conceding that Georgia’s first October surprise spelled an end to Walker’s chances.

A top Republican strategist working on Senate races said it still remains to be seen how much the new revelation will matter, noting the extensive media coverage about Walker’s alleged domestic violence and the television ads that have already attacked him over the issue.

“The reality is the Democrats have been running ads for two months saying Herschel tried to murder his ex-wife,” the strategist said of claims by Cindy Grossman that Walker held a gun to her head. “I don’t know that this moves the needle.”

Through a spokesperson, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has repeatedly expressed concern about GOP “candidate quality” this year — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Recent polling shows Walker and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock consistently trading the lead in a margin-of-error race. Walker was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who defended his ally in a statement: “They are trying to destroy a man who has true greatness in his future, just as he had athletic greatness in his past. It’s very important for our Country and the Great State of Georgia that Herschel Walker wins this Election.”

To date this cycle, Republicans have spent $67 million on ads in Georgia, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, a state they’ve seen as one of their top opportunities to flip a Senate seat. The GOP has another $34 million worth of ads booked through the election, putting Democrats on track to outspend them by more than $20 million.

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the conservative evangelical Faith & Freedom Coalition, who has in recent months defended Walker and his commitment to his Christian faith, on Tuesday continued to do so, saying that “an anonymous allegation that is 13 years old is unlikely to resonate with Georgia voters.”

“Voters are far more likely to vote based on inflation, the economy, high gas prices, and the failure of Biden policies, which Raphael Warnock has supported 96 percent of the time,” Reed said, naming Walker’s Democratic opponent. He added that “ Warnock is tied to Biden.”

“That will matter more than personal attacks against Herschel, which have not substantially changed the dynamics of this campaign.”

On whether the revelations might impact Republicans nationwide, Jahan Wilcox, a GOP strategist who previously worked for multiple senators and as a national press secretary for the NRSC, said it won’t.

“Midterm elections are and always have been a referendum on the current White House, and voters will judge President Biden on how he has handled inflation, energy prices and crime,” Wilcox said.

Kevin Bell, a volunteer with several local GOP groups in Georgia, said he doesn’t believe voter sentiment will change as a result of this week’s development.

“That’s just going to fuel the fire for those who didn’t want to vote for him in the first place,” said Bell, who plans to continue his door-to-door canvassing for Walker. “That’s all. And the ones who are on the fence, they may have to think about it a little bit more. But at the end of the day, those strong supporters are still going to vote for Herschel Walker. I guarantee.”

While expressing concerns for the NRSC’s lack of extensive state-level get-out-the-vote operations, Republicans are encouraged by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s own voter mobilization efforts. Kemp, who is up for reelection and polling well ahead of Walker, has made a point to target GOP voters who sat out in 2020 and the state’s January 2021 Senate runoffs as a result of former President Donald Trump’s disproven claims of a rigged election.

But Republicans expect Democrats to seize on the latest Walker scandal in a new barrage of ads, including highlighting Walker’s own 22-year-old son’s scathing criticism of him after the abortion news broke.

“What I would do if I was a Democrat is I would call him a fraud,” said a GOP consultant who has worked on Senate races. “Voters hate a lack of authenticity. He has built his entire post-NFL life on being a Christian and being a good person.”

GOP consultant Chris Mottola noted the polarization of voters in Georgia, a state that, unlike Nevada, Arizona and other top battlegrounds, does not have a large share of swing voters and independents.

“Given the October surprise nature of the attack, voters will be raising questions as to the validity — think of it as Hunter Biden’s laptop in utero,” Mottola said.

In a possible sign of how much media attention the news was receiving, the Georgia Republican Party’s website, which was working Tuesday morning, could no longer be accessed as of 10:30 a.m., leading to a “502 Bad Gateway” error. It included contact information for the party and county chairs.

Danielle Repass, press secretary for the Georgia Republican Party, said the site “is just experiencing a server error, it was not taken down intentionally” and the state GOP is “hoping to have it back up by the end of the day.”

She added that the Georgia Republican Party is “fully committed to ensuring Herschel Walker defeats Raphael Warnock this November.”

Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law said Tuesday morning the super PAC is moving “full speed ahead in Georgia,” where it has $23 million in television and radio advertisements booked through Election Day.

The top Republican spending group, closely aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has already spent $15.5 million on the race, according to AdImpact.

“This election is about the future of the country,” Law said in a statement. “Herschel Walker will make things better, Raphael Warnock is making it worse. Anything else is a distraction.”

And the top anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, which endorsed Walker and has engaged in door-knocking on his behalf, also continues to stand by him.

Mallory Carroll, spokesperson for the group’s Women Speak Out super PAC, said Walker had “denied these allegations in the strongest possible terms.”

“To date, our Georgia field team has visited more than 310,000 homes across the state in support of pro-life candidates like Herschel and against the extremism of Sen. Warnock and Stacey Abrams, and we will continue through Election Day,” Carroll said.

One Republican strategist, however, predicted that the odds of a run-off between Walker and Warnock increased amid the latest scrutiny. Another noted that Democrats have thrown tens of millions “worth of punches and attacks at Herschel so far, and Warnock still can’t get to 50 percent in any poll.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former NRSC chair who also stands by his endorsement of Walker, called the “personal attacks — all too common in political campaigns,” a “diversion from the threats to Georgians’ economic, personal, and national security, which the Democratic majority has made worse, not better.”

Barring any dramatic swings in the polls, which Republicans aren’t expecting, the party will likely continue to pour resources into the state, rather than diverting money to other top battlegrounds.

“You’ve got to play in Georgia,” said the Republican strategist who suggested that Democrats should frame Walker as a fraud. “You have to in order to get to 51.”

Holly Otterbein and Brittany Gibson contributed to this report.

Texts, recordings show Oath Keepers’ early talk of armed resistance to Biden presidency

Within hours of the 2020 election being called for Joe Biden, Stewart Rhodes — leader of the far-right Oath Keepers — began barraging associates with a consistent message: We must pressure Donald Trump to take extraordinary steps to remain in power.

And if he wouldn’t, the Oath Keepers would do it themselves, he said.

Prosecutors highlighted Rhodes’ messages, sent on Nov. 7, 2020, to two Signal groups, one labeled “Old-Leadership” and the other “Friends of Stone,” a reference to Trump confidant Roger Stone.

“The final defense is us and our rifles,” Rhodes sent to the Friends of Stone channel. “Trump has a duty to stand, but so far, her [sic] hasn’t. As Roger Stone said.”

He added: “Trump has one last chance right now to stand. But he will need us and our rifles too. But will he finally act? … So will you step up and push Trump to FINALLY take decisive action? That’s what we must do now. And then if he still refuses to do his duty, we will still have to do ours. And we will.”

The messages underscore that well before Trump had planned any actions to disrupt the transfer of power on Jan. 6, 2021, Rhodes was rallying supporters to oppose the incoming Biden administration and referencing potential armed action to prevent the new administration from taking power.

Prosecutors used the early hours of the seditious conspiracy trial of Rhodes and four Oath Keeper leaders — the most significant case to emerge from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — to highlight how quickly the group began planning to use force to prevent the transfer of power. The government alleges that Rhodes and his top associates planned for an “armed rebellion” to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, amassing firearms ahead of Jan. 6 and joining a pro-Trump mob at the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.

Attorneys for Rhodes and his four codefendants — Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell and Kenneth Harrelson — say their actions were all lawful, even stockpiling heavy weapons in an Arlington, Va. hotel in preparation for a potential escalation of violence. They contend that they had been pressing for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a law that gives the president the power to deploy forces to quell civil unrest. But prosecutors say the law is merely a reference to a National Guard, not an unofficial quasi-militia like the Oath Keepers.

Top Trump allies pushed Trump to consider taking extreme measures, including invoking the Insurrection Act, in a final desperate bid to seize a second term he didn’t win. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was among those who met with Trump in the Oval Office in December 2020 to suggest using the military to seize voting machines in order to justify subverting the election. But he ultimately opted against taking that step, which frustrated Rhodes and his allies, according to messages previously unearthed by prosecutors.

Rhodes’ references to the Insurrection Act in the days immediately after Biden was called the 2020 victor were numerous. In a recorded meeting with 100 members of the Oath Keepers on Nov. 9, 2020 – portions of which were played for jurors Tuesday — Rhodes again said it was his hope to press Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.

“He doesn’t need to build some kind of complicated case about election fraud and collusion and RICO and conspiracy to justify bringing the Insurrection Act,” Rhodes told his associates. “He now has the facts.”

Rhodes then sketched out a plan of action that looked remarkably similar to what later occurred on Jan. 6: “So our mission’s going to be to go into DC, but I do want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside and stay fully armed and prepared to go in armed if they have to. So if this shit kicks off, then you rock and roll, okay.”

Prosecutors also highlighted a message from Meggs, dated Nov. 8, 2020, in which he warns Rhodes about the strict firearms laws in Washington, D.C.

“It will need to be all hand to hand. You can’t even have 9mm ammo in your pocket,” Meggs said in the “Old-Leadership” chat. “Less than lethal mace, pepper spray and stun guns are allowed so that’s probably the only legal option.”

In a subsequent exchange, Meggs added: “And it doesn’t hurt to have a lead pipe with a flag on it.”

Rhodes and his co-defendants contend that their primary concerns were about performing security details for high-profile attendees of pro-Trump events on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021, and their establishment of a weapons cache nearby was standard protocol for the security details they had long organized. Those weapons were never deployed, even as the pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol and sent members of Congress fleeing for safety. Nearly two-dozen members of the Oath Keepers were among the mob and had split up to comb different areas of the Capitol.

The trial of Rhodes and his allies is expected to last six to eight weeks, in what is the most significant prosecution to arise from the Jan. 6 attack to date. Several members of the pro-Trump Proud Boys are also facing seditious conspiracy charges for their involvement in the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol, and they are slated to go to trial in mid-December.

Iran’s supreme leader breaks silence on protests, blames U.S.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded publicly on Monday to the biggest protests in Iran in years, breaking weeks of silence to condemn what he called “rioting” and accuse the U.S. and Israel of planning the protests.

Khamenei said he was “heartbroken” by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police, which set off the nationwide protests. However, he sharply condemned the protests as a foreign plot to destabilize Iran, echoing authorities’ previous comments.

“This rioting was planned,” he told a cadre of police students in Tehran. “These riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees.”

He described scenes of protestors ripping off their state-mandated headscarves and setting fire to mosques, banks and police cars as “not normal” and “unnatural.”

His comments come as nationwide protests sparked by Amini’s death entered a third week despite the government’s efforts to crack down.

Iran’s state TV has reported the death toll from violent clashes between protesters and the security officers could be as high as 41, without providing details. Rights groups have given higher death tallies, with London-based Amnesty International saying it has identified 52 victims, including five women and at least five children.

An untold number of people have been apprehended, with local officials reporting at least 1,500 arrests.

Authorities have repeatedly blamed foreign countries and exiled opposition groups for fanning the unrest, without providing evidence.

The protests over Amini’s death have tapped into a deep well of grievances in Iran, including the country’s surging prices, high unemployment, social restrictions and political repression. Demonstrations have continued in Tehran and far-flung provinces even as authorities have restricted internet access to the outside world and blocked social media apps.

As the new academic year began this week, students gathered in protest at universities across Iran, according to videos widely shared on social media, chanting slogans against the government and denouncing security forces’ clampdown on demonstrators.

Universities in major cities including Isfahan in central Iran, Mashhad in the northeast and Kermanshah in the west have held protests featuring crowds of students clapping, chanting and burning state-mandated headscarves.

“Don’t call it a protest, it’s a revolution now,” shouted students at Shahid Beheshti University in the capital of Tehran, as women took off their hijabs and set them alight, in protest over Iran’s law requiring women to cover their hair.

“Students are awake, they hate the leadership!” chanted crowds of students at the University of Mazandaran in the country’s north.

Venezuela releases 7 jailed Americans; U.S. frees 2 prisoners

Venezuela on Saturday freed seven Americans imprisoned in the South American country in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife who had been jailed for years by the United States on drug smuggling convictions, a senior U.S. official said.

The swap of the Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five years, is the largest trade of detained citizens ever carried out by the Biden administration.

“We are relieved and gratified to be welcoming back to their families today seven Americans who had been wrongfully detained for too long in Venezuela,” said Joshua Geltzer, the deputy homeland security adviser.

It amounts to a rare gesture of goodwill by Maduro as the socialist leader looks to rebuild relations with the U.S. after vanquishing most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of back channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other U.S. officials — secretive talks with a major oil producer that took on greater urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.

Those freed include five employees of Houston-based Citgo — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela right before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-run-oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were hauled away by masked security agents who busted into a Caracas conference room.

Also released was Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department has called “specious” weapons charges, and Florida man, Osman Khan, who was arrested in January.

The United States freed Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting in 2015 and immediately taken to New York to face trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.

Both men were granted clemency by President Joe Biden before the release.

The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the roughly 60 Americans it believes are held hostage abroad or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the U.S. has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela has been holding the largest contingent of Americans suspected of being used as bargaining chips.

At least four other Americans remain detained in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a slapdash attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men who, like Khan, were detained for allegedly entering the country illegally from neighboring Colombia.

The Biden administration did not release another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, an insider businessman who Venezuela considers a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors a corrupt regime enabler. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in Miami federal court on charges of siphoning off millions in state contracts.

The oil executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight years and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s supreme court upheld their long sentences earlier this year. The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department has regarded them — and the two other Americans freed on Saturday — as wrongfully detained.

Arizona GOP chair: DOJ has not attempted to enforce false-elector subpoenas

Federal prosecutors have not taken any steps to enforce months-old subpoenas issued to Donald Trump’s false presidential electors in Arizona, state GOP Chair Kelli Ward indicated in a Friday court filing.

“The grand jury issued subpoenas to each of Arizona’s alternate electors,” Ward’s attorney Laurin Mills wrote in the filing. “The recipients objected to the subpoenas on a wide variety of grounds in late June 2022 and the Government has not responded to those objections or taken any action to enforce those subpoenas.”

Ward was one of dozens of GOP activists who received grand jury subpoenas in June connected to Donald Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election. Those activists, including numerous GOP officials in a handful of states won by Joe Biden, signed certificates claiming to be their states’ legitimate presidential electors — an element of Trump’s effort to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election.

The batch of subpoenas was one of the earliest public signs of DOJ’s rapidly unfolding criminal investigation related to Trump’s effort to remain in power despite his defeat. The wave of subpoenas also coincided with the public hearings held by the Jan. 6 select committee, which highlighted the effort by Trump to assemble false presidential electors to provoke a controversy intended to overturn the election on Jan. 6, 2021.

It’s unclear if DOJ has taken steps to enforce subpoenas issued to false electors in states other than Arizona. It’s also unclear how the false Arizona electors lodged the objections to the grand jury subpoenas that Ward described in her filing, however, the grand jury probe is overseen by Washington, D.C.‘s chief federal district court judge Beryl Howell, who has been adjudicating closed-door disputes throughout the investigation.

Ward, one of 11 false electors for Trump in Arizona, has also been locked in a legal battle since February against the Jan. 6 select committee, which subpoenaed T-Mobile for her phone records as part of its expansive probe. Ward’s description of the status of the grand jury subpoenas came in filings connected to her appeal of a federal judge’s ruling granting the select committee access to her phone logs.

U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa ruled last week that Ward could not block the select committee from accessing her phone logs from T-Mobile. Ward quickly appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As part of her appeal, Ward submitted an update on the status of the grand jury subpoenas.

Two attorneys for Ward, and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment.

Ward contends that the select committee’s bid for her phone records is a political effort to punish a close ally of Trump. But the select committee has said it requires them as part of an effort to piece together contacts between key figures during the chaotic weeks that preceded the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Giorgia Meloni’s Hard Right Playbook

Last Sunday, Italians voted for the most right-wing government since Benito Mussolini. The controversial politician leading the winning coalition, Giorgia Meloni, will become Italy’s first female prime minister.

Meloni has become a darling of sorts for many Republicans in America, who invited her to speak at this year’s CPAC conference. The “Brothers of Italy,” co-founded by Meloni in 2012, was a fringe party with neo-fascist roots. It rebranded itself in recent years as a socially conservative, ultra-nationalist party that’s also a European voice in the growing trans-national culture wars.

From a rooftop bar near central Rome, Ryan Lizza and POLITICO Europe’s Rome correspondent, Hannah Roberts, dig into Meloni’s history, rise, and how she’s likely to lead Italy’s government with EU, NATO, and Russian relationships center stage.