A1 A1
Local
Counterclaim filed in Longview doctor's lawsuit against nurse practitioners

Seven former employees of Zeid Women’s Health Center in Longview have filed a countersuit against the clinic, arguing against an injunction placed on them earlier this summer and calling for the facility’s founder to be held financially responsible for their loss of incomes and other damages.

“There is more than one victim here...,” said George Flint, a Frisco attorney representing the nurse practitioners and midwives in their counterclaim against Dr. Yasser Zeid. “These nurses were taking care of hundreds and hundreds of low-income patients in the Longview area. All that support was yanked out from under them. .... At the end of the day, the patients lost their health care providers without an option. These nurses deserve to work.”

The women worked for Zeid providing women’s health care at Special Health Resources as part of a contract between the two entities that no longer exists. The seven providers’ employment with Zeid ended earlier this year under circumstances each side disputes.

They went to work for Special Health Resources, prompting Zeid to sue them and Special Health Resources and seek an injunction to prevent the women from working there. He maintains the women were prevented from working there under a contractual noncompete clause. Judge Alfonso Charles, who presides over the 124th District Court in Gregg County, placed a one-year injunction on the women earlier this year that prevents them from working locally. They were fired from Special Health Resources.

Zeid’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial in November, and the women have appealed Charles’ decision to the state’s 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler. Flint said the women’s attorneys will attempt to coordinate the timing of the appeal and the ongoing litigation in Gregg County.

“We’re saying that the injunction against the nurses prohibiting them from working at SHRT, at that clinic, was wrongful,” he said, explaining that his clients argue that the noncompete clause didn’t include Special Health Resources, but a specific set of health care providers within 20 miles of Longview.

He said that legally “covenants not to compete deserve to be interpreted narrowly.” Flint believes the 12th Court of Appeals will reverse Charles’ decision and determine the covenant not to compete was incorrectly applied.

“Dr. Zeid knew that (the noncompete clause) did not include that clinic, and yet went to court anyway and tried to argue that it did and in the process tried to prohibit the nurses from being able to work really at any clinic” within 20 miles of Longview, Flint said. “A number of these women are longtime residents to Longview with family connections. It’s just not that easy for them to get up and go someplace else.”

The counterclaim was filed Sept. 25. Zeid’s attorney did not immediately return a phone call Thursday.

A statement Zeid Women’s Health Center previously issued in this case said there was a “conspiracy between ZWHC mid-levels and the SHRT CEO who is no longer with the organization.”

“The contractual violations, including the very standard non-compete, are numerous and have been upheld in court ...” the earlier statement says.

“(The women have said) SHRT was not a named entity in the non-compete. Mid-level practitioners must work under a supervising physician, and they have to collaborate with a physician who has privileges in one of the local hospitals to care for their patients when admitted to one of these hospitals,” the statement continued. “The supervising physicians at SHRT were initially all affiliated with entities named in the non-compete, and all physicians the mid-levels worked in conjunction with in order to care for their patients were affiliated with those entities.”

Flint, however, said “these ladies have been run over.”

“Whether or not the rulings are adverse to us, the nurses still want their day in court,” he said. “They feel like they’ve been wronged, and I agree with them. I feel like they’ve been seriously wronged.”


Private sector seeks to profit by detaining migrant kids

SAN BENITO — On a recent day in a remodeled brick church in the Rio Grande Valley, a caregiver tried to soothe a toddler, offering him a sippy cup. The adult knew next to nothing about the little 3-year-old whose few baby words appeared to be Portuguese. Shelter staff had tried desperately to find his family, calling the Brazilian consulate and searching Facebook.

Nearby, infants in strollers were rolled through the building, pushed by workers in bright blue shirts lettered “CHS,” short for Comprehensive Health Services Inc., the private, for-profit company paid by the U.S. government to hold some of the smallest migrant children.

Sheltering migrant children has become a growing business for the Florida-based government contractor, as the number of minors in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. More than 50 babies, toddlers and teens were closely watched on this day inside the clean, well-lit shelter surrounded by chain link fences.

The children, many in matching black pants and gray sweatshirts, are officially under the custody of the federal government. But a joint investigation by The Associated Press and FRONTLINE has found that the Trump administration has started shifting some of the caretaking of migrant children toward the private sector and contractors instead of the largely religious-based nonprofit grantees that have long cared for the kids.

So far, the only private company caring for migrant children is CHS, owned by Washington, D.C.-area contractor Caliburn International Corp. In June, CHS held more than 20% of all migrant children in government custody. And even as the number of children has declined, the company’s government funding for their care has continued to flow. That’s partly because CHS is still staffing a large Florida facility with 2,000 workers even though the last children left in August.

Trump administration officials say CHS is keeping the Florida shelter on standby in case they need to quickly provide beds for more migrant teens, and that they’re focused on the quality of care contractors can provide, not about who profits from the work.

“It’s not something that sits with me morally as a problem,” said Jonathan Hayes, director of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. “They’re not getting any additional money other than the normal grant or contract that would be received. We’re not paying them more just because they’re for profit.”

Asked during a White House visit Thursday about the AP and FRONTLINE investigation, President Donald Trump’s health secretary, Alex Azar, pushed back and said the findings were “misleading.” But he did not address the government’s ongoing privatization of the care for migrant children.

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly joined Caliburn’s board this spring after stepping down from decades of government service. He earlier had served as homeland secretary, where he backed the idea of taking children from their parents at the border, saying it would discourage people from trying to immigrate or seek asylum.

Critics say this means Kelly now stands to financially benefit from a policy he helped create.

Houston’s police chief, Art Acevedo, who served on a federal advisory panel with Kelly, said the retired general told him firsthand that he believed enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy would serve as a deterrent.

“What’s really the motivator, the deterrence or the dollar?” said Acevedo, who signed an Aug. 14 letter with dozens of law enforcement leaders asking Trump to minimize the detention of children. “I would question that if he’s getting one dollar for that association.”

Kelly did not respond to requests for comment. But in a statement, Caliburn’s president, Jim Van Dusen, said: “With four decades of military and humanitarian leadership, in-depth understanding of international affairs and knowledge of current economic drivers around the world, General Kelly is a strong strategic addition to our team.”

Earlier this year after leaving government, Kelly was widely criticized by activists who spotted him in a golf cart at the facility in Homestead, Florida.

One teenage girl who spoke with AP and FRONTLINE said she and other children were constantly watched while detained inside Homestead, not allowed to touch each other, and there were alarms on the windows.

“It looks like a camp, but sometimes it seems like a jail because you feel very trapped,” said the girl, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety.

All teens were transferred out of Homestead in August after critics _ ranging from members of Congress to onsite protesters _ said holding that many migrant children in a single facility was abusive. Meanwhile CHS was getting more business housing migrant children. Today it’s operating six facilities including three “tender age” shelters in the Rio Grande Valley that can house the youngest, infants and toddlers. And CHS has plans underway to run a 500-bed shelter in El Paso, Texas, the company said.

“The United States is the country in the world that detains the most children for immigration reasons, and probably for the longest period of time. No other country comes close,” said Michael Bochenek, a Human Rights Watch attorney who serves on a U.N. research team examining the global detention of children. “To have private companies move into the area of the care and custody of children in detention-like settings is especially troubling.”

HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement runs migrant children programs by funding 46 organizations that operate more than 165 shelters and foster programs for over 67,000 migrant children who came to the U.S. on their own or were separated from parents or caregivers at the border this budget year.

Overall, the federal government spent a record $3.5 billion caring for migrant children over the past two years to run its shelters through both contracts and grants.

During that time, CHS swiftly moved into the business of caring for migrant children, an AP analysis of federal data found. In 2015, the company was paid $1.3 million in contracts to shelter migrant children, and so far this year the company has received almost $300 million in contracts to care for migrant kids, according to publicly available data. The company also operates some shelters under government grants.

The Obama administration also grappled with how to handle large numbers of children crossing the border. In the 2014 budget year, some 68,000 migrant kids were apprehended at the border, as compared with 72,000 this year. President Barack Obama’s head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, said the difference between now and five years ago was how quickly the government reunited kids with their families or other sponsors.

Under Trump, the numbers of detained children grew in part due to new, strict requirements to screen every adult in a potential home, which significantly slowed reunifications until the policy ended late last year.

The government doesn’t disclose the names of individual shelters, nor how many children are in each one. But confidential government data obtained by the AP shows that in June nearly one in four migrant children in government care was housed by CHS. That included more than 2,300 teens at Homestead and more than 500 kids in shelters in Brownsville, Los Fresnos and San Benito, Texas. For each teen held at Homestead at that time, it cost taxpayers an average $775 per day.

At the time, a total of 13,066 migrant children were being held in federally funded shelters. Those numbers have dropped sharply over the summer. By early October, HHS said there were 5,100 children in their care.

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, who until recently helped run adult custody programs at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said some former ICE staff now work at HHS, and have brought the concept of privatization as another model for detaining migrant children. He said it mirrors a similar shift that occurred with ICE’s adult immigration detention centers, where populations soared after immigrants were moved from county jails and into for-profit, private facilities.

“The Office of Refugee Resettlement has acted like they have a kind of a shield and they don’t work with DHS. They say we are the children people, you are the enforcement people, but that is blurred now,” Lorenzen-Strait said.

After 18 years in federal service, he recently quit in frustration over concerns about government actions including the treatment of migrant children. He went to work for nonprofit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service which places migrant children in foster homes.

“These aren’t commodities. They’re kids, and they don’t need to have big box stores serving them,” he said. “This isn’t Amazon.com. You can’t just order up migrant care.”

At the CHS shelter in San Benito the doors are locked and the routines rarely vary. There is one case manager for every eight children, who sleep four to a room. Spanish language signs in the hallways explain how to report abuse.

In a windowless science classroom girls are handed worksheets about natural disasters _ hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanos. For an English lesson, they can complete sentences: “Today is _____,” read one. “Tomorrow will be _____.” No one had filled them in.

“We do a little bit of verbal, ABCs, colors and months,” a veteran teacher explained. “They’ll come in here, some of them with no English.”

In their downtime some of the girls watch telenovelas, paint their nails, braid their hair. At lunchtime, there’s a clatter as some teens joke to one another across the cafeteria. Other girls stay silent.

This fall, about 50 migrant children were at San Benito, but at its peak in December, 2018, there were almost twice as many.

Melissa Aguilar, the executive director of CHS’s shelter care programs, said her trained, professional staff doesn’t separate children, they care for them.

“We’re doing the best that we possibly can,” she said, dodging a passing stroller as she led a reporter down a hallway. “The children are borrowed. They’re borrowed for our purpose, right? So a lot of times when something is borrowed, you take care of them better than you would something that is your own.”

Washburn University law professor David Rubenstein, whose research focuses on the privatization of immigration detention, sees red flags in a private business model for migrant child care. While privatization can reduce bureaucracy and make care more efficient, there are fewer ways to hold for-profit providers accountable, he said.

“The profiteering incentive comes at the cost of cutting programs or rights or treatment or conditions in these facilities,” he added. Also, having Kelly on the board “makes people mistrust government.”

“They might have gotten those contracts anyway, it’s hard to prove, but for appearances, that’s not a good look,” he said.

After Kelly stepped down as leader of the U.S. military’s Southern Command in January 2016, he joined an Obama administration advisory council that studied ICE’s continued use of privately operated immigration detention facilities for adults. Later that year, the federal government announced plans to phase out privately run prisons and further study immigration detention.

While on the committee, Kelly joined the board of DC Capital Partners, a financial firm that would go on to found Caliburn in February 2016. He stepped down from that board _ comprised of former senior diplomatic, intelligence, and military officials _ in January 2017, divesting because Trump picked him for the Cabinet.

Just over a year later, DC Capital Partners bought CHS, a company with a troubled past. The firm agreed in 2017 to pay out $3.8 million to settle an investigation involving allegations that it double billed and overcharged the federal government for medical services.

Despite the fraud settlement, CHS went on to win a no-bid contract to operate Homestead. At the time, federal officials said they didn’t have to open the bidding to competitors, typically the way taxpayer dollars are spent, because there was “unusual and compelling urgency.”

The government’s justification for the no-bid contract said there could be increased “industry participation” in bidding for migrant child care contracts going forward.

No-bid contracts can lead to higher costs. CHS, a contractor, typically hires locally, staffing up as quickly as it can, hiring hundreds of people through online ads and at community job fairs. In contrast, nonprofits typically are paid through grants. They have screened staffers on call, who can be flown in if a shelter needs to care for a sudden increase of children for a short period.

As a result, although Homestead temporarily closed in August, there are still about 2,000 people working there, said Hayes. In contrast, a nonprofit that operates a now-empty 500-bed shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, has just two security guards onsite but is ready to ramp up as needed.

CHS’s business plan going forward depends on having more kids in their shelters, according to a prospectus its parent company Caliburn filed last year to go public with a $100 million stock offering.

“In a recent shift, the U.S. federal government has started to transition to utilizing private contractors for medical and shelter maintenance,” said the prospectus. “We believe that as a result of our past performance and longstanding relationship with HHS, we are positioned to be a leading provider of these services.”

Kelly and other corporate directors including retired Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, retired Adm. James G. Stavridis and retired Rear Adm. Kathleen Martin could have received at least $100,000 a year for their service and advice, and a $200,000 bonus if the company went public.

The prospectus warned of “negative publicity” surrounding care of migrant children, past and future. Nonetheless, it said the work presents a financial opportunity.

Caliburn withdrew its proposal to go public earlier this year citing “variability in the equity markets.”

The Obama administration gave CHS its first contract at Homestead after a competitive bidding process. But when the government needed to house a new surge of children in 2016, a traditional religious-based organization was soon deemed better equipped to quickly take in children, former HHS officials said.

Maria Cancian, a former HHS deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration, said that during their first try at Homestead, CHS could not ramp up as quickly as the government expected.

“They had promised they will have this many (beds and staff) by this date, and we don’t have very flexible standards,” said Cancian. “We had expectations around how quickly we were going to be able to ramp up and we were unable to do that.”

Nonprofit providers, however, have faced criticism of their own. Earlier this year, a review of 38 legal claims obtained by the AP _ some of which have never been made public _ showed taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $200 million in damages from parents who said their children were harmed while under care from nonprofit foster providers and other shelters.

Former financial executive Thomas Cartwright says separating and holding children in shelters is bad, but profiting from it is worse.

In a citizen whistleblower complaint to the SEC, Cartwright, who wanted to use his financial acumen to advocate for social causes, said Caliburn’s revenues could increase from $65 million in 2017 to about $275 million to $325 million per year just from the child detention business. Caliburn failed to warn potential investors about the risks of “operating the only for-profit prison for children in the United States on Federal land,” he wrote.

Those undisclosed risks include a proposed law in Congress that calls for stricter background checks for childcare workers and increased federal oversight of shelters.

CHS said their profit seeking had no impact on the care the children received.

“There is a profit. There is a price incentive, but it’s not a detention incentive. The question about, ‘Is there incentive to detain children?’ Absolutely not, because that will close down the moment that there’s no children,” Aguilar said.

While CHS is the first private company providing shelter to migrant children, other private companies have been involved for more than five years in providing other services relating to the care of migrant children. The GEO Group, for example, runs several migrant family shelters. Defense contractor General Dynamics Information Technology, whose board includes Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis, has contracts to review children’s case files and make sure they are reunited with their parents or in safe homes, often with other relatives. Intelligence contractor MVM, Inc. holds contracts to transport migrant children by bus, van or even airplane.

Going forward, the government plans to stand up its own facilities for migrant children and bring in providers, undefined at this point, who would get paid to run them. Site searches are underway to open shelters with about 500 beds each in Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, according to HHS spokesman Mark Weber.

The idea is, in part, a response to widespread criticism about very large shelters.

But child trauma expert Ryan Matlow at Stanford University, who has met with children inside the largest facilities, said 500 is still too large for the children’s welfare.

“I don’t think, in that sort of setting, that kids can receive the individual attention and care that they need, that’s typical of child development,” he said.

Matlow said migrants can face cumulative physical and emotional damage _from depression to heart disease _ due to the trauma of separation and detention.

Weber said the agency hopes to better manage large surges in the number of children and teens arriving at the border, which have in the past led the Obama and Trump administrations to open emergency influx shelters that lacked state licensing and full background checks.

“We’re in the process right now of looking for standard, state licensed shelters that we’d have vacant and ready to go in times of a surge,” said Weber. “When you look at the economics of standing up, closing down, all the confusion that it creates, it just is a better long-term investment for the country, and actually for the kids.”


Police
Police: Henderson ISD trustee paid teens to damage opponent's vehicle, steal signs

From staff reports

Henderson ISD Trustee Jon Best paid two teenagers to slash the tires and contaminate the gas tank of the vehicle belonging to his challenger in the upcoming school board election, according to a criminal complaint filed in Rusk County.

Best, a school board trustee since 2004, was arrested by Rusk County sheriff’s deputies Sept. 27 on a charge of criminal mischief and released that day from the Rusk County Jail on $10,000 bond.

The complaint said Best, 59, “intentionally and knowingly” caused between $2,500 and $30,000 in damage to a pickup owned by Adam Duey.

Duey, who is challenging Best for a three-year term on the District 5 seat Nov. 5, reported Sept. 20 to the sheriff’s office about his tires being slashed, the complaint said.

The complaint said Duey introduced himself to Best, who replied, “I will destroy you,” and tried to intimidate Duey.

Duey reported his engine died shortly after he repaired his tires, and he suspected his gas tank had been contaminated, the complaint said. The complaint added Duey said he reported his campaign signs were stolen and believes the sign thefts and damage to his truck were “politically connected.”

A series of game camera photos taken Sept. 25 showed a pickup owned by Adam Roberson, an employee and tenant of Best, was involved in stealing another campaign sign, according to the complaint. The photos also showed a teenage boy getting out of the passenger door and collecting the sign.

Roberson told authorities the 17-year-old who stole the sign is a friend of his son, the complaint said. He also said his 16-year-old son drove the vehicle without his permission.

Contacted by authorities, the teens confessed to accepting $40 in cash from Best to steal Duey’s signs, the complaint said. The 16-year-old said Best gave him Duey’s address and admitted to accepting $100 in cash to slash the truck’s tires and putting “a handful” of sugar in the gas tank while it was parked on Duey’s property.

The 16-year-old also said Best told him to “sabotage” Duey, the complaint said, and a third-party consent phone call between Roberson and Best corroborated the allegations.

When asked whether he wanted additional signs stolen, Best said, “No ... I can sit on stage and say I don’t know nothing about it,” according to the complaint.


Local
Correction

A story on Page 1B Sunday contained incorrect information on the rescue of three pets from a house fire in the 8900 block of FM 2204 in the Elderville area. The homeowner said a neighbor rescued one dog, he and the neighbor rescued a second dog and the third dog crawled out of the house. The neighbor said he and his wife took the dogs to a veterinarian for treatment.

An item in the Best Bets listing on Page 4B Friday should have said Hallsville’s Western Days parade is 10 a.m. Saturday.


Trump publicly calls on China to investigate Bidens

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday publicly urged China to investigate Democratic challenger Joe Biden, a new request that a foreign government assist his reelection campaign adding to the extraordinary pattern of conduct at the center of a fast-accelerating impeachment inquiry.

With his brazen and direct appeal to the Chinese, delivered before journalists assembled on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump seemed to make a mockery of the charge that he abused the power of his office by pressing his Ukrainian counterpart to examine unfounded allegations of corruption by Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump’s plea to China for an investigation into the Bidens came almost immediately after he addressed his acrimonious trade war with China. “I have a lot of options on China,” Trump warned, “but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”

When a reporter then asked what he had hoped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would do following their July 25 phone call, Trump replied, “If they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens.”

Trump went on to say, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened to China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

Trump’s remarks underscored his claim that he did nothing improper by calling on a foreign power to investigate a domestic political opponent, a move his critics consider an egregious violation of his constitutional oath.

Trump and his allies have provided no evidence to back up their claims of wrongdoing. Hunter Biden joined the board of an investment advisory firm whose partners included Chinese entities shortly after visiting China in 2013 with his father while he was vice president. George Mesires, an attorney representing Hunter Biden, has said that his client acquired a 10 percent equity stake in the firm in October 2017, and as of this summer that stake was worth about $430,000.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democratic leaders denounced Trump’s China comments and appeared dumbfounded that the president had given them live ammunition to use against him in their impeachment proceedings.

“The president of the United States encouraging a foreign nation to interfere again to help his campaign by investigating a rival is a fundamental breach of the president’s oath of office,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told reporters. “It endangers our elections, it endangers our national security, it ought to be condemned by every member of this body, Democrats and Republicans alike.”

House investigators deposed the first major witness in the Ukraine matter, Kurt Volker, who resigned last week as U.S. special envoy for Ukraine after being named in the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry. Volker testified Thursday that he warned Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani that his information about the Bidens was untrustworthy and that his Ukrainian sources were unreliable, according to two people familiar with his testimony.

Also Thursday came the revelation that Trump ordered the swift removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, earlier this year after hearing concerns from Giuliani, as well as former Texas congressman Pete Sessions, among others, outside of the administration, a senior administration official confirmed. Trump’s role in the ambassador’s ouster was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Giuliani complained in a recent interview with The Washington Post that Yovanovitch obstructed efforts to persuade the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. “She is running around the streets of Ukraine going against the elected president of the United States,” Giuliani said.

Congressional Republicans, who rarely speak a cross word about the president, barely blinked at his China remark. The muted response from GOP lawmakers about Trump’s call for China to investigate Biden presented a stark contrast to earlier this week, when many spoke out after the president tweeted congratulations to Chinese President Xi Jinping in celebration of the 70th anniversary of communist rule in Beijing.

By Thursday, however, most of those voices fell silent on Trump’s latest Chinese assertion. Minutes after Trump called on China to investigate Biden, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted a link to a letter he sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that morning asking her to suspend the impeachment inquiry until she answers questions about the process.

Rather than condemning Trump’s appeal to the Chinese, McCarthy prodded the speaker for clarity on whether the House would vote on an official impeachment inquiry, or whether Republicans would get subpoena power to call their own witnesses.

“As you know, there have been only three prior instances in our nation’s history when the full House has moved to formally investigate whether sufficient grounds exist for the impeachment of a sitting President,” McCarthy wrote. “I should hope that if such an extraordinary step were to be contemplated a fourth time it would be conducted with an eye toward fairness, objectivity and impartiality.”

Pelosi responded to McCarthy’s missive by noting that his request came “shortly after the world witnessed President Trump on national television asking yet another foreign power to interfere in the upcoming 2020 elections.”

“As you know, our Founders were specifically intent on ensuring that foreign entities did not undermine the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi wrote.

Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., a deputy whip on Pelosi’s leadership team, said Trump’s comment “certainly strengthens our case that this president is abusing his power in a way that is really dangerous for America.” He speculated that Trump intentionally was “trying to say openly and publicly the things he knows he’s going to get caught having said privately in order to normalize and soften the reaction.”

Kildee recalled that during the special counsel’s Russia investigation Trump insisted that “he would never enlist foreign interference. . . . ‘No collusion! No collusion!’ Then he gets caught colluding with Ukraine. I think he’s now decided that the only way he can survive this is to do what he has been doing in secret in a very public way in order to normalize it.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., usually one of the president’s loyal defenders, said in an interview Thursday that he did not agree with the call for China to investigate the Biden family.

“I don’t want to go down that road,” Graham said. He tried to explain Trump’s request by adding, “It’s the president pushing back. He feels like everyone is coming after him all the time and he hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Vice President Mike Pence, traveling in Arizona, was a voice of support. Asked about Trump’s call for China to investigate the Bidens, the vice president told reporters, “I think the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from his position as vice president in the last administration.”

Pence had a different position in 2016 when he was running for vice president. During his debate with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Pence said, “This is basic stuff. Foreign donors, and certainly foreign governments, cannot participate in the American political process.”

Trump, meanwhile, continued his defiant stance Thursday, lashing out at Democrats and the media as he deviated from prepared remarks promoting Medicare, making an official White House event feel like a campaign rally. Addressing residents of The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, Trump mused about staying in office beyond his legal limit of two terms.

“If you want to drive them crazy, just say eight more years or 12 more years or 16 . . . you’d really drive them into the loony bin,” Trump said. “That’s why they do the impeachment crap, because they know they can’t beat us fairly.”

Trump mocked Biden’s standing in the Democratic nominating contest and said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was his likeliest opponent because “she came up from the ashes.” He called the Democrats “maniacs” and suggested that if they take back the White House “the country’s going to go to hell.”

Trump also went on an extended rant about CNN’s coverage of him and then proposed creating a state-run television news network to compete with the independent media.

“We ought to start our own network and put some real news out there because they are so bad,” Trump said. He added, “We are looking at that. We should do something about it, to put some really talented people and get a real voice out there, not a voice that’s fake.”

Trump also bizarrely accused pharmaceutical companies of being behind the House Democrats’ push for impeachment because of his administration’s work to lower drug prices.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the hoax didn’t come a little bit from some of the people that we’re taking on,” Trump said, later singling out the pharmaceutical industry. The president provided no evidence for his claim.

Asked to respond, Holly Campbell, a spokeswoman for the industry group PhRMA, said, “Not to be so frank, but it is ridiculous you are asking me about it. Of course we are not.”