Democrats’ divisions bust open as 2020 primary heats up

Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Kamala Harris

Though tame compared to the 2016 primary, the skirmishes over health care and taxes have come unexpectedly early to the 2020 contest. | Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

That didn’t take long.

Barely a month into the 2020 Democratic primary, rifts between the party’s liberal and moderate factions burst open this week — pried loose by an intra-party feud over health care and taxes that could define the battle to take on President Donald Trump.

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It started with Sen. Kamala Harris’ comments at a town hall Monday that she backed eliminating the health insurance industry in order to achieve Medicare for all. Distancing herself from the proposal on CNN the next day, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), cautioned against immediately “changing our entire insurance system where over half of Americans get private insurance.”

It wasn’t just health care. By the end of the week, Democratic contenders were sparring over taxes — specifically the wave of proposals to soak the ultra-rich.

“I’m a little bit tired of listening to things are pie in the sky, that we never are going to pass, are never going to afford. I think it’s just disingenuous to promote those things. You’ve got to do something that’s practical,” implored former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a billionaire.

Elizabeth Warren wasn’t having it. “Billionaires like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg want to keep a rigged system in place that benefits only them and their buddies,” she shot back.

Though still gentle in comparison to the barbs traded by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the height of the 2016 primary, the week’s skirmishes over health care and taxes have come unexpectedly early to the 2020 contest, presaging a volatile year ahead. And despite Democrats’ focus on Trump’s cratering public approval ratings, the week served as a reminder of the party’s own divisions, raising warnings about the prospect of improving Trump’s hand.

“We have no center in either party, and we have extremes in both parties,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “The question is, ‘How does that work itself out? Not well. Not well because it creates greater conflict … If you have greater conflicts, how do you get together around one candidate? The only joining force here is dislike of Donald Trump.”

Policy disputes are a typical part of contested presidential primaries, and Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee, said they are likely to be especially pronounced in a contested race where “you’ve got a bunch of smart people who have been thinking and working in policy for all of their lives.”

“When people step into this arena and get engaged, you’re not going to wait until the very last minute to say how you’re different from your opponent. You’re going to lean into it,” said Harrison, a former South Carolina state party chair. “I think it’s good for the Democratic Party to decide where it is, what it wants, what it values, and what’s going to be the hallmark for the party going into 2020.”

Yet Mike McCauley, an Obama campaign and administration alumnus and Democratic strategist in South Carolina, said he’s been surprised at how early the policy debate has emerged — particularly when the field of candidates isn’t even set.

“But when you have a field that’s this open, maybe that’s how you separate the wheat from the chaff,” McCauley said. “Folks either step in the mud or they shine.”

McCauley lauded Harris’ decision to appear in the CNN town hall this week in Iowa — “I think it took a lot of guts,” he said.

And McCauley predicted that the Harris campaign’s decision to stick by her answer on Medicare for all and eliminating the private health insurance market, while providing the context that she’s also backed less far-reaching bills in the Senate, would strike an early chord not just on the far left, but beyond.

“Owning where you’re at and who you are and not trying to quibble about it or turn tail earns respect from people in places like South Carolina — or Iowa and New Hampshire, for that matter,” he said.

On Thursday, Sanders added to the early catalog of progressive policies coming out of prospective presidential campaigns, introducing legislation that would expand the federal estate tax. Sanders’ office said his plan would raise $2.2 trillion by taxing estates of people who inherit more than $3.5 million — far lower than the current $11 million threshold.

Sanders’ proposal followed the release of Warren’s “ultramillionaire” tax proposal. Harris has proposed an alternative tax break, meanwhile, focused more squarely on middle-income earners. Her plan would give a $6,000 tax break to families earning up to $100,000 annually.

Amid the policy push by progressives, Bill Bloomfield — a prominent California donor who ran against former Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman as an independent in 2012 — said there’s an opening for a moderate Democrat like Bloomberg, whom Bloomfield plans to support if he runs.

The Democrats staking out progressive positions on health care and tax policies, Bloomfield suggested, “are fishing from a small pond.” Meanwhile, Bloomfield said, Bloomberg’s plainspoken, practical approach, combined with his positions on gun control and the work he did to help elect Democrats in the 2018 midterms, give him areas where he can appeal to a broader Democratic electorate and become a surprise in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bloomfield said.

He also sees the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat ex-mayor as the most formidable challenger to Trump in the general election.

“If I were Donald Trump,” Bloomfield said, “I would hope like heck that the nominee isn’t Michael Bloomberg.”

Among progressive Democrats in the top tier of the 2020 field, policy differences on issues ranging from health care to taxes and climate change are relatively minor, and so far, they have drawn less attention than potential candidates’ biographies. Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Sanders and Barack Obama, said Democratic voters are more likely to consider a candidate’s record in 2020 than any policies they propose.

“I think it’s the past that is going to be evaluated a lot harder than these Senate bills that folks are introducing now to try to get some media attention,” he said.

And the week also showcased Democratic unity when Schultz announced that he was considering an independent run for president.

Fearful that a third-party candidacy could siphon votes from the Democratic nominee, potentially handing Trump a second term, Democrats of every stripe piled on Schultz this week, relentlessly criticizing the former Starbucks chief executive.

“He’s kind of uniting the Democrats,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “So the people who maybe felt they were far apart on health policy or tax policy are now all kind of agreeing that we don’t like the way that he’s attacking us.”

On that issue, he said, “You almost see all the different factions uniting.”

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Records show Trump Jr’s calls ahead of Trump Tower meeting weren’t with father: report

Senate investigators have reportedly obtained records showing that Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpBannon in documentary: I was ‘doing the lord’s work’ in White House Trump knocks ‘Da Nang Dick’ Blumenthal after senator questions son’s ‘truthfulness’ Several undocumented workers fired from Trump golf course: report MORE‘s phone calls ahead of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting were not with his father, as Democrats have long suspected.

CNN reported Thursday citing three sources with knowledge of the matter that records obtained by the Senate Intelligence Committee show Trump Jr. was speaking with two business associates.

The network said it had not confirmed the identity of the associates or the content of the calls. The associates were not named in the report, which said the information about the blocked number emerged recently.

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Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump war strategy takes one-two punch US files criminal charges against Chinese firm Huawei Cohen subpoenaed to testify before Senate Intel MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSchumer: Past time for Intel leaders to ‘stage an intervention’ with Trump How to keep government running when lawmakers fail to do their job Top Dem blasts Trump: Officials ‘risk’ lives for intelligence he tosses aside MORE (D-Va.) both declined to comment on CNN’s report to The Hill.

Democrats have long suspected that Trump Jr. had been on the phone with then-candidate Donald Trump before the meeting with Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerChris Christie: Kushner’s dad committed ‘one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes that I prosecuted’ ‘Fox & Friends’ host Kilmeade: Kushner hurt Trump’s ‘first two years’ by blocking Christie The Memo: Divisions linger in Trump World over ‘emergency’ gambit MORE, then-campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDems demand records from Mnuchin on lifting sanctions on Deripaska-tied firms The Hill’s Morning Report – White House digs in for round two of border wall fight Lawmakers push crackdown on foreign lobbyists MORE and a Russian lawyer promising compromising information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Virginia Dems over late-term abortion bill Congressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker The curious case of Kamala and the black vote MORE.

CNN reported that the records obtained by the Senate panel could provide some answers to the question of whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchumer: Past time for Intel leaders to ‘stage an intervention’ with Trump Venezuelan opposition leader pens op-ed in NY Times urging unity Trump says he has not spoken to Whitaker about end of Mueller probe MORE himself had any advance knowledge of the meeting at Trump Tower.

Those involved in the meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya have said it did not bear fruit related to dirt on Clinton, Trump’s then-Democratic rival, and instead largely centered on American adoptions of Russian children.

Veselnitskaya was charged with an attempt to block a federal investigation into money laundering in an unrelated case earlier this month.

CNN reported that it was unclear if special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE had obtained the phone records showing the identity of the private numbers.

The Trump Tower meeting has been a focus of Mueller’s sprawling probe into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

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Trump administration targets rebates blamed for inflating drug prices

Bottles of prescription drugs

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar first hinted to Congress last year he was looking at forbidding all drug company payments to pharmacy benefit managers. | George Frey/Getty Images

The Trump administration on Thursday proposed an ambitious overhaul of the drug purchasing system in its latest bid to lower the cost of medicines.

The Department of Health and Human Services proposed eliminating a legal exemption and making the rebates drugmakers give insurance plans and middlemen in the drug supply chain subject to fines under the federal anti-kickback statute. It plans to create a new legal exemption for prescription drug discounts that are offered directly to patients.

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The rule would fulfill part of President Donald Trump’s drug pricing blueprint. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar first hinted to Congress last year he was looking at forbidding all drug company payments to pharmacy benefit managers — middlemen who negotiate drug prices — by leveraging anti-kickback laws.

Critics said the current “safe harbor” protection that empowers the rebate system creates an incentive for those middlemen and insurers to demand big rebates and then keep them as profits.

Under the current system, rebates are not typically passed through to patients, but insurers say they use the extra cash to keep premiums low.

HHS predicted that the change would lower Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs but increase premiums anywhere from 8 to 22 percent for most enrollees. Asked about rising premiums, a senior HHS official said the question seemed to be a “knee-jerk reaction” to protect the status quo, and that it could come out to a $3 to $5 increase per month.

The administration said that the rule would apply to federal health programs, though private plans may copy the strategy. Congress would need to get involved to push the rule for commercial insurance.

The drug lobby PhRMA applauded the proposal, saying it could especially help patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes who use insulin. But the trade group representing pharmacy benefit managers said efforts to eliminate rebates their negotiate must factor the impact it would have on Medicare beneficiaries’ access to affordable drugs and costs to taxpayers.

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How the Presidency Became a Billionaire’s Ultimate Prize

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

There was a time the presidency was beneath a billionaire’s ambition.

Oh, the son of a billionaire like William Randolph Hearst, John Kennedy or Nelson Rockefeller might draw on dad’s cash to pave a golden path to the White House. But the guys who made their fortunes in industry or finance traditionally disdained the demotion that the presidency represented. The better posterity play was to spend some money to slap your name on a museum or a new philanthropic foundation or to buy a newspaper. If the political itch persisted, the billionaire could always scratch it by buying the presidency for a friend or associate.

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So why then are so many billionaires running for president in the 2020 cycle or shopping for the office? Faux billionaire Donald Trump is obviously in again. (He’s been running since he was elected the first time.) Michael Bloomberg and Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz have taxied their personal jets onto the runway. Fellow plutocrat Tom Steyer was flying in formation with them until early January when he bowed out after assessing his chances, although he’s still a player, having pledged $40 million just to impeach Tump. And don’t forget the coquettish billionaires who’ve visited Iowa or otherwise teased the press with the notice of a candidacy: Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and Bob Iger. This is a bestiary of plutocrats so plentiful it would require Audubon to collect, paint and stuff them for inspection by a political taxonomist.

The first genuine billionaire to aggressively stoop to a run at the presidency, H. Ross Perot, did so twice in the 1990s as a third-party candidate, spending $115 million (in today’s dollars) in the 1992 contest. He won just 18.9 percent of the popular vote, which soured other billionaires on running until Trump launched his 2016 campaign. But Perot’s wacky campaign—he briefly dropped out in July because he believed President George H.W. Bush planned to smear his daughter and spoil her wedding!—infected the billionaire class with the idea. What is Trump but Perot played at grindcore tempo? The decline of party authority and the rise of affordable media combined to lower the barriers to entry, giving wealthy outsiders like them, with no real party loyalty, a new way in. Presidential candidacy, in effect, had become disintermediated.

Compared to the professional presidential candidates who have achieved maximum political socialization by running for city councils, working in state legislatures or other governments, or serving in Congress, the billionaire candidate stands as a loner, somebody who has gotten good at balancing at the top of the hierarchy and barking orders to underlings. This, I think, is the strongest case against a billionaire chief executive (and a flaw apparent every day in Trump): He fancies himself a king whose powers know no limits. We’ve yet to see the kingly side of Schultz, but we have seen Bloomberg’s. Whenever somebody in his inner political circle told Mayor Mike he couldn’t do something he would respond with a version of: “When I started my company, people told me I could never put a computer terminal on every trader’s desk and charge tens of thousands of dollars for financial information, so don’t tell me what I can’t do.” Silence would ensue. If only somebody close to Bloomberg had told him early on, “No problem, Mike, you can be president in a heartbeat!” he would be counting his money in his Bermuda mansion instead of stalking the precincts of New Hampshire.

The modern presidency appeals especially to today’s billionaires who have reached that end point at which additional wealth conveys no additional joy or increase in status. They want a larger stage from which to dispense their pet theories, underlings by the hundreds of thousands, and a whole new org chart to dominate. What else but the White House could give them all they crave? It’s a mistake, of course, as Trump has learned, because the checks and balances of the legislature and the courts prevent a billionaire president from dictating by whim.

Yet the illusion persists, and the appeal of the job increases. The billionaire candidate looks at Trump and says: He’s a venal moron with the vocabulary of the third-grader and the patience of a chihuahua and he convinced a sufficient number of voters to back him! Trump’s success has aroused the other billionaires’ natural competitiveness, making them think they can conjure an Electoral College miracle, too.

The other appeal of the presidency for the end-stage billionaire is that it lends to them a seriousness of purpose. We live in an age where every event is a public relations campaign and where billionaires crave venues for status displays, be they Davos or Des Moines. Even people like Oprah Winfrey, who couldn’t be better known than she already is, can’t resist flirting with a presidential candidacy to see if they can become more notable. Nobody thought that Mark Zuckerberg would ever run for president when he took his “listening tour” in 2017, but that didn’t make the gesture futile. Performing against the political backdrop of meeting folks in the boonies—eating their food, attending their churches and watching them work on the shop floor—added a veneer of humanity to the charmless Zuck.

Another reason the modern billionaire class entertains the idea of running is because a huge underemployed industrial class of consultants and advisers exists to encourage them. Last year, Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti identified the many political pollsters and campaign strategists lining up, invoices in hand, to feed the plutocrats’ White House dreams. Thanks especially to Trump’s victory, it’s become easy money advising billionaires who hunger for White House validation. As for the press, there’s nothing political reporters love more than to chart the rise and fall of political outsiders. For them, the nascent campaign of Howard Schultz has been a feast. His campaign message is what? To bring America back together again?! C’mon, Howard, that’s got as much intellectual meat as one of those frosted cake pops.

The downside of the billionaire primary is that in today’s climate, it can easily become a referendum on their wealth. Nobody is going to beat up on Bloomberg for exploiting the masses, because his business model was about exploiting the wealthy. But they will and have portrayed him as clueless, removed and too privileged to run as a Democrat. In the opening days of his precandidacy, Schultz strolled into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s spinning social media blades. She successfully discounted him on Twitter as a political dilettant after he attacked her soak-the-rich tax policies. Schultz has taken additional beatings from liberals and lefties for his anti-union efforts at Starbucks and the low wages he pays. He’s a hypocrite, who trashes socialism but tried to get Seattle to subsidize his NBA team, the Seattle SuperSonics, by building a new arena. (When the city refused, he sold the team to out-of-towners who moved it to Oklahoma City.) Worse still, Schultz’s critics disparage his beloved coffee!

The billionaire pile-up of Trump vs. Bloomberg vs. Schultz in November 2020 would be the ultimate money-politics event. But will it really happen? American voters are a fickle breed. In just one generation, they’ve gone from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump, oscillating from one kind of candidate to its near opposite. By Election Day, billionaires could enter political eclipse, thanks to Trump’s grandiosity, and voters could be persuaded to load the wealthy candidates in the tumbrels bound for the guillotine. Or the hard freeze of a massive financial downturn could arrive to take the glow off their gilt and boost somebody like Elizabeth Warren, who is already plotting tax war on the super-rich.

From my perch, the best outcome of a Trump-Bloomberg-Schultz race would be a three-way tie in the Electoral College that would tip the election to the House of Representatives. I’d embrace anybody the House elected—as long as he (or she) was worth a billion.

******

Send billions of dollars to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are supporting Bloomberg because he’s so charismatic. My Twitter feed is all in for Schultz because it thinks he’s the guy who drew “Peanuts.” My RSS feed is holding out for the first trillionaire.

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Trump to address abortion controversies in State of the Union speech

Donald Trump giving the 2018 State of the Union.

President Donald Trump, who has publicly supported abortion rights in the past, has maintained strong support from religious conservatives who might otherwise be turned off by his persona thanks to his administration’s attentiveness to their social-conservative agenda. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

white house

The president’s Tuesday night address might also include a ‘warm and fuzzy’ gesture to his recent nemesis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to a White House aide.

President Donald Trump is telling conservative allies he wants to incorporate firm anti-abortion language into his State of the Union address Tuesday, and potentially include an anti-abortion figure among his list of invitees, according to four sources familiar with his plans

Trump sees an opening to energize his evangelical supporters and capture moderate voters who administration officials believe may be turned off by widespread coverage of New York’s newest abortion law, which allows for termination of some pregnancies after the 24-week mark for health reasons.

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The issue is one of many the president will address in a Tuesday night speech, which aides say currently clocks in at about one hour. Although it comes amid an ongoing standoff with congressional Democrats over a wall Trump wants to build along the southern border, people familiar with its contents say it will range widely and include a call for bipartisanship.

Trump is even expected to deliver what one Republican close to the White House called a “warm and fuzzy” overture to his recent nemesis in the border wall fight, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will be sitting a few feet behind the president atop the House chamber’s dais.

Abortion has crested as an issue for conservative legal activists in recent days after New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed the late-term abortion bill last Tuesday. Trump has discussed the issue with prominent conservative Christians, including on a phone call this week with Faith & Freedom Coalition President Ralph Reed, a White House official confirmed to POLITICO.

“The president wants to reaffirm his commitment to pro-life things,” said the Republican close to the White House, adding that Trump doesn’t want his third appearance before a joint session of Congress to be “all fire and brimstone.”

The issue gained more currency on Wednesday after Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, defended a similar bill introduced in his state Legislature. In an interview with The Daily Caller later that day, Trump said he was “surprised” at Northam’s comments.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s biggest evangelical defenders, said the high-profile speech would be an ideal time for the president to weigh in on the debate over late-term abortion.

“The legislation in New York and Virginia is really forcing his hand and he’s reacting to people who have just gone off the rails. I don’t think he’s going to mention it for political reasons because I don’t think it will help him much politically,” Falwell said. “I think he’s doing it because he really believes it’s important to protect life.”

Trump, who has publicly supported abortion rights in the past, has maintained strong support from religious conservatives who might otherwise be turned off by his persona thanks to his administration’s attentiveness to their social-conservative agenda.

It is unclear whether Trump will directly mention the Virginia or New York abortion laws, and to what extent he’ll broach the politically charged topic. Two people who spoke with him recently said it’s unlikely that he would call out Northam by name.

The White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has been known to wait until the day of the State of the Union to share excerpts with allies and to release a list of the president’s and first lady’s guests.

Trump and his team of speechwriters have spent the past several weeks soliciting feedback from a range of outside advisers, agency heads and Republican lawmakers.

A current administration official said White House policy adviser Stephen Miller has taken the lead on developing the speech in Trump’s voice, while much of the heavy lifting is being handled by two other White House speechwriters: Vince Haley and Ross Worthington, who were both involved in last year’s address.

Trump typically takes each new draft back to his private residence to mark up with a black felt-tip pen before discussing his suggestions and additions with Miller.

Despite the divisiveness of a topic like abortion, White House aides say the president’s principal goal is to project a message of unity by closely mirroring the overall tone of his 2018 State of the Union speech, in which he described the public as “one American family,” eschewing the “American carnage” rhetoric of his inaugural address.

“It will focus on the bipartisan achievements we’ve already had, and look toward things that should be areas where we can work together” with Democrats, a White House official said.

“I really think it’s going to be a speech that is going to cover a lot of territory, but part of it is going to be unity,” Trump told reporters on Thursday.

Such talk — and any personal outreach to Pelosi — would mark a stark shift from Trump’s public remarks and tweets throughout the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended last week, during which he bashed congressional Democratic leaders and threatened to invoke emergency powers to pay for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump will be giving his speech a week later than planned thanks to Pelosi, who insisted he delay the annual event until after the government was fully reopened. Trump responded by canceling a military flight that was to take Pelosi and several of her House Democratic colleagues on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan.

White House officials said Trump venerates the annual State of the Union tradition, seeing it as an opportunity to look presidential and put pressure on Democrats to work with him. In addition to discussing border security and immigration, Trump plans to call for bipartisan infrastructure legislation, as well as measures to lower drug prices, two issues on which Pelosi has signaled she is willing to work with Trump.

The president is also expected to touch on trade, which re-entered the news cycle this week as several Chinese officials came to Washington for a fresh round of talks with the administration. Trump might specifically mention a House bill introduced last week by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) that would give him broad authority to raise tariffs in response to actions taken by other countries, even though the legislation is seen as dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled lower chamber.

On immigration, perhaps the most difficult topic Trump must navigate during his remarks, a source close to the White House said he is searching for a way to balance his desire for more forceful immigration enforcement tactics with softer language on the overall issue. This person said Trump thought he did this well during a naturalization ceremony in the Oval Office earlier this month and is even considering inviting one of the newly naturalized citizens to sit in his box during the address.

An initial draft of the speech is already complete, but it remains a work in progress, with senior aides like press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and others offering suggestions.

Speech prep will intensify in the coming days and Trump is expected to do at least one dry run of the address next week, reading from a teleprompter to mimic the conditions of the House chamber.

Whatever his speech text says, one close friend of Trump’s noted that the president can always ad-lib unpredictably, scrambling the best-laid plans of his aides.

“If past is precedent, the hardest job in the room that night is the guy who works the prompter,” the friend said.

Sabrina Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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