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Trump goes after Pence, McConnell in speech to party donors
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was supposed to be a unifying weekend for a Republican Party at war with itself over former President Donald Trump’s divisive leadership. But Trump himself shattered two days of relative peace in his closing remarks to the GOP’s top donors when he insulted the party’s Senate leader and his wife.

Ahead of the invitation-only speech at Trump’s new home inside his Mar-a-Lago resort, the former president’s advisers said he would emphasize his commitment to his party and Republican unity.

Trump veered sharply from prepared remarks Saturday night and instead slammed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as a “stone-cold loser” and mocked McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who was Trump’s transportation secretary.

Trump also said he was “disappointed” in his vice president, Mike Pence, and used a profanity in assessing McConnell, according to multiple people in attendance who were not authorized to publicly discuss what was said in a private session. He said McConnell had not thanked him properly for putting Chao, who was labor secretary under President George W. Bush, in his Cabinet.

McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Trump’s words left some attendees feeling uncomfortable.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not defend Trump as he left Palm Beach on Sunday.

“We are much better off if we keep focusing on the Democrats. Period,” Gingrich said.

Saturday’s speech was the final address of the Republican National Committee’s weekend donor summit in Palm Beach. Most of the RNC’s closed-door gathering was held at a luxury hotel a few miles away from Mar-a-Lago; attendees were bused to Trump’s club for his remarks.

While a significant faction of the Republican Party hopes to move past Trump’s divisive leadership, the location of the event — and the former president’s prominent speaking slot — suggests that the GOP, at least for now, is not ready to replace Trump as its undisputed leader and chief fundraiser.

Ahead of his latest attack on fellow Republicans, Trump’s team reported that his remarks were intended to reinforce his continued leadership role in Republican affairs, a sharp break from past presidents.

“Saturday’s speech will be welcomed words to the Republican donors visiting Mar-a-Lago to hear directly from President Trump,” Trump adviser Jason Miller said. “Palm Beach is the new political power center, and President Trump is the Republican Party’s best messenger.”

The new tension between Trump and establishment-minded Republican leaders comes as GOP officials are trying to play down an internal feud over his role in the party, his commitment to Republican fundraising and his plans for 2024. Trump is also continuing to insist that the last election was “stolen” from him, repeating false claims that Joe Biden won the election only because of voter fraud.

Such claims ultimately fueled the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

McConnell and Chao have been particularly critical of Trump’s role in encouraging the insurrection; Chao resigned her post in protest. Pence, meanwhile, presided over a congressional session that certified Biden’s election victory over Trump.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was among 10 House Republicans who joined every Democrat in voting to impeach Trump for inspiring the Jan. 6 attack. Seven Republican senators later voted to convict Trump, even after he had left office.

“The former president is using the same language that he knows provoked violence on Jan 6. As a party, we need to be focused on the future, we need to be focused on embracing the Constitution, not embracing insurrection,” Cheney told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Trump and his allies have already promised to fuel primary challenges against Cheney and those Republicans who supported his impeachment.

And while the Republican National Committee signaled its commitment to Trump by hosting its spring donor summit at his doorstep, Trump’s commitment to the GOP is far from certain.

Earlier in the year, he raised the possibility of creating a new political party. Just a month ago, Trump’s political action committee sent letters to the RNC and others asking them to “immediately cease and desist the unauthorized use of President Donald J. Trump’s name, image, and/or likeness in all fundraising, persuasion, and/or issue speech.”

GOP officials saw Trump’s weekend participation as a sign that he is willing to lend his name to the party. At the same time, he continues to aggressively accumulate campaign cash to fuel his own political ambitions.

Trump has accumulated a total of roughly $85 million so far, a small fortune that rivals the RNC’s bank account. He has teased the prospect of another presidential run in 2024, but has also positioned himself to play the role of kingmaker for Republicans who may run if he does not.

The weekend gathering featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, among other early 2024 prospects.

In his remarks Friday night, Cotton leaned into the GOP’s culture wars, attacking the Democrats’ positions on transgender youth, voter ID laws and Major League Baseball’s decision to move its All-Star Game to protest Republican voting laws.

DeSantis, who spoke before Trump on Saturday night, also seized on corporations and business leaders who have begun joining the Democrats’ fight against GOP-backed voting legislation moving through state legislatures across the country, including Florida. Critics and voting experts suggest the new laws would make it more difficult for Black Americans and Latinos to cast ballots.

DeSantis specifically warned Saturday that there would be “consequences” for business leaders who pressure lawmakers in Florida as they did in Georgia. But neither DeSantis nor Cotton attacked any fellow Republicans.

Meanwhile, the second-ranking Republican senator, South Dakota’s John Thune, gently condemned Trump’s attack on McConnell.

“I think a lot of that rhetoric is — you know, it’s part of the style and tone that comes with the former president,” Thune said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But I think he and Mitch McConnell have a common goal, and that is getting the majority back in 2022. And in the end, hopefully that will be the thing that unites us, because if we want to defeat and succeed against the Democrats and get that majority back, that’s the best way to do it.”

Vigil honoring S. Carolina shooting victims draws hundreds
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ROCK HILL, S.C. — Hundreds gathered Sunday at the vigil for the prominent South Carolina physician, his wife and two of their grandchildren — all dead at the hands of former NFL player Phillip Adams, authorities said — to reflect on the lasting impression they made on their communities.

People settled on camp chairs and picnic blankets for the service at a park in downtown Rock Hill, dressed in a gamut of bright shades, from vivid green and orange to robin blue. Mourners cried and laughed in equal parts at shared memories of Robert and Barbara Lesslie, and two of their grandchildren, 9-year-old Adah Lesslie and 5-year-old Noah Lesslie.

“The past few days have been certainly filled with much suffering and grief but also peppered with the most amazing treasures sent directly from God,” said Amy Kulbok, one of Robert and Barbara Lesslie’s children, before reading the lyrics to a song written by Adah herself. “Even in the deepest fog, we will find one another and love each other. When people see us, they will see Jesus Christ in you and me.”

According to police, Adams went to the home of Robert and Barbara Lesslie on Wednesday and shot and killed them, two of their grandchildren, Adah Lesslie and Noah Lesslie, and James Lewis, a 38-year-old air conditioning technician from Gaston who was doing work there. He also shot Lewis’ colleague, 38-year-old Robert Shook, of Cherryville, North Carolina, who died at a Charlotte hospital Saturday evening.

The former NFL journeyman then killed himself with a gunshot to the head early Thursday after officers surrounded his parents’ home, York County officials said.

A person briefed on the investigation who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said Robert Lesslie had treated Adams, who lived with his parents not far from the Lesslies’ home.

In a statement to McClatchy Newspapers Friday, Adams’ parents and siblings sent their condolences to the Lesslie, Lewis and Shook families, saying, “The Phillip we know is not a man that is capable of the atrocities he committed on Wednesday.”

On Sunday, the aftermath of the shooting strung together many in Rock Hill, as bubbles drifted through the air and mourners still fresh in their grief linked arms in song in honor of the Lesslies’ lives.

They remembered Robert Lesslie, 70, as a Renaissance man who not only practiced medicine and attended to many in the community but authored books and took up horticulture as a hobby.

Bob Elliott, once an associate pastor at First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Rock Hill, the Lesslies’ church, recalled the first time he saw Barbara Lesslie, known among many as “Ms. B.” During announcements at a worship service, she was rolled down the aisle in wheelbarrow, dressed in a tutu. “Is this allowed?” Elliot recalled wondering.

It was one among many anecdotes shared Sunday about Barbara Lesslie, 69, and her humor and exuberance for life. She joined a comedic skit group that was booked for birthday parties and civic events; she took at-risk teens to the emergency room, the morgue, the prison through an intervention program, those present at the vigil recalled.

“She was ageless. Her personality would be just as aligned with a 15-year-old as a 70-year-old,” said Elizabeth Hartley, a longtime counselor at Camp Joy, a Christian special needs camp in North Carolina where Robert served as the doctor for two decades and Barbara taught Bible lessons to campers.

Robert Lesslie awakened campers each day at 7 a.m. with the bagpipes, an instrument he picked up only in adulthood, said Elizabeth Smith, whose family worked at the camp. Barbara Lesslie’s preparations for Bible classes were so thorough — especially the elaborate visual aids she made that papered the walls — that no other teachers wanted to take her place, added Neal Stroup, the camp’s administrative director.

The grandchildren, Adah and Noah, ran around Camp Joy too, Adah helping to blow up balloons at a camp reunion a couple years ago.

Roger Revell, whose family attends church with the Lesslies, said both of the grandchildren, Adah and Noah, were not only smart, attending Spanish immersion classes, but also kind. He recalled that this year, both of them had graciously re-hid their Easter eggs five times so Revell’s own young daughter could find them over and over again.

Noah had recently been gifted his own set of bagpipes, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Adah, just as precocious, had told people she was reading “Little Women” in just the second grade: “She made most parents feel rather discouraged,” Revell said.

The vigil closed with five minutes of silent prayer — not just for the Lesslies, but also for the Shook, Lewis and Adams families, pastors said — with a hymn playing in the background, as some attendees cried gently.

“You see in Scripture where Jesus himself grieves the loss of Lazarus. But for those of us who are in Christ, we grieve, but we grieve with hope,” said Jamie Dagenhart, an elder at the church. “Because we know that one day, we will be reunited again with Robert and Barbara and Adah and Noah, in heaven.”

State reports more than 1,700 new COVID-19 cases, 26 deaths
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Associated Press

AUSTIN — State health officials reported more than 1,700 new COVID-19 cases and 26 new deaths Sunday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 1,725 new cases Sunday, plus 47 previously unreported cases. Of the 3 million-plus cases for the pandemic in Texas, an estimated 65,106 are active.

Johns Hopkins University data show an average of 3,362 current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas. Per capita rates of new cases being reported show 29 of the top 30 are in West Texas counties.

Meanwhile, 31.5% of the population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 19% have been fully vaccinated.

For Chauvin's trial attorney, it's all about raising doubt

MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson was questioning George Floyd’s girlfriend about the couple buying drugs when he abruptly shifted gears for what seemed an innocuous question: He presumed the couple had pet names for each other. Under what name, he asked, did she appear in Floyd’s phone?

Courteney Ross first smiled at the question, then paused before replying: “Mama.”

The fleeting exchange called into question the widely reported account that Floyd was crying out for his deceased mother as he lay pinned to the pavement. And it appeared to be one in a series of moves aimed at undermining a dominant narrative of Floyd’s death — established through bystander video and saturation news coverage and commentary — of a reckless, arrogant cop ignoring a man’s “I can’t breathe” cries as his life is snuffed out.

At another moment in the trial, Nelson asked a paramedic if he had responded to “other” overdose calls before quickly correcting himself to say “overdose calls” — perhaps a simple mistake, or an attempt to plant the idea that Floyd’s death was an overdose.

Expert witnesses for the prosecution have asserted drugs did not kill Floyd.

Nelson has repeatedly called the bystanders at Floyd’s arrest a “crowd” and “unruly” and suggested there were more people present than seen on camera. He drilled a fire department captain on taking 17 minutes to reach the scene when an ambulance called first arrived much sooner. And he persistently suggested Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds as prosecutors have argued — suggesting instead it was across Floyd’s back, shoulder blades and arm.

“Many times as an attorney, you’ve got some facts that are just … bad for you. But you either want to downplay them or create another narrative,” said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis defense attorney who is closely watching the case.

Any good defense attorney has to try and “take what you can get,” Brandt said. “Sometimes we say in a trial, you want to throw as much mud on the wall as you can and hope some of it sticks.”

Nelson, 46, handles cases ranging from drunken driving arrests to homicides, and is one of a dozen attorneys who take turns working with a police union legal defense fund to represent officers charged with crimes. One of his bigger cases involved Amy Senser, the wife of Joe Senser, a former Minnesota Vikings tight end, who was convicted in a 2011 hit-and-run death.

Nelson has joked with witnesses at times and, perhaps to connect with the jury, made light of his occasional fumbles with technology or mispronunciations of words. He’s a Minnesota native who, during a break in the trial, chatted up Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, asking whether he remembered the fight song for Minneapolis Roosevelt — the high school both attended.

Away from the lighter moments, Nelson has appeared well-prepared even as he goes up against a prosecution team many times larger. He has gone hard and consistently at his chief message: that Floyd’s consumption of illegal drugs is to blame for his death, rather than something Chauvin did. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system.

In the trial’s second week, Nelson played a snippet of officer body-camera video and asked two witnesses whether they could hear Floyd say, “I ate too many drugs.” The audio was hard to make out, but Nelson got a state investigator to agree with his version of the quote. Prosecutors later played a fuller clip and the investigator backtracked, saying he believed Floyd said “I ain’t do no drugs.”

As the state paraded medical experts to testify that Floyd died because his oxygen was cut off, not because of drugs, Nelson challenged the substance of their findings that the amounts detected in Floyd either were small or that people had survived significantly higher levels. But he also frequently framed questions to include the phrase “illicit drugs,” pointed out there’s no legal reason for a person to have methamphetamine in their system, and asked one witness whether he agreed that the number of deaths of people mixing meth and fentanyl had risen.

“This is a typical tactic that we’d say good defense attorneys do,” David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who is watching the trial closely, said. “Not all of them are as subtle or gifted as Eric Nelson.”

When the paramedics first to the scene testified, Nelson’s questions included asking them why they did a “load and go” — that is, putting Floyd in their ambulance and moving a few blocks away before beginning treatment. It implied a delay in potentially life-saving treatment, but also fed into another recurring Nelson theme that prosecutors reject: the officers were distracted from caring for Floyd by a threatening crowd.

Video of the scene worked against the argument, showing about 15 people watching as Floyd was restrained, including several teens and girls, though several were shouting at the officers to get off Floyd and check him for a pulse.

Nelson has at times taken aim at the mountain of bystander, surveillance and body-camera video offered by police, suggesting it only tells part of the story and can be misleading. At one point, Nelson used the phrase “camera perspective bias” to suggest that Chauvin’s knee was not where the camera appeared to show it.

He has also argued that Chauvin was merely following the training he’d received throughout a 19-year career, even as several police supervisors — including Arradondo — testified otherwise. Nelson showed jurors an image from department training materials of a trainer with a knee on the neck of an instructor playing a suspect, and got some witnesses to agree generally that use of force may look bad but still be lawful.

Brandt said anything Nelson can do now – while the state is presenting its case – is huge, and will only serve as building blocks that he can use when he starts presenting his own case.

Schultz said attorneys have to be careful. He noted how Nelson’s questioning of Donald Williams, one of the most vocal bystanders, sparked a backlash on social media. Users accused Nelson, who pressed Williams on whether he was angry and repeated his profanities in court, of perpetuating an “angry Black man” trope.

Some jurors might have felt the same, Schultz said.

“You as the attorney have to sell yourself to the jury,” Schultz said. “And an attorney who risks pushing too far risks being disliked by the jury, and that’s damaging to the case, too.”