WASHINGTON — A second senior aide to Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, abruptly quit in recent days as the congressman tries to fend off a Justice Department sex trafficking investigation and mounting public scrutiny, according to three people familiar with the decision.
The aide, Devin Murphy, resigned as Mr. Gaetz’s legislative director on Friday. He told associates that he was interested in writing bills, not working at TMZ — equating the work that Mr. Gaetz’s aides were now handling to the tabloid publication, according to one of the people, who all asked not to be identified discussing a sensitive personnel matter.
His departure last week came hours after Mr. Gaetz’s communications director, Luke Ball, also resigned. They were among the most senior members of the congressman’s staff in Washington and their exits suggest that even as he vows to remain in the House, Mr. Gaetz may be facing a hollowing-out of his support team.
Mr. Murphy, who had worked for Mr. Gaetz since he came to Congress in 2017, declined to comment on Thursday, but his LinkedIn page recorded that he left his position this month. The congressman’s office also declined to comment. One of the people who confirmed Mr. Murphy’s departure said the parting had not been contentious.
Mr. Gaetz faced another setback on Thursday when lawyers for the government and a key ally ensnared in the scandal, Joel Greenberg, said in court that he was likely to plead guilty, indicating he could cooperate with investigators. The Justice Department is scrutinizing whether Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Gaetz ran afoul of federal sex trafficking laws by paying women for sex and having sex with a 17-year-old girl in exchange for something of value.
With few outside allies coming to his defense, Mr. Gaetz’s office issued a statement on Thursday from women who work for him extolling his respect for them. It was signed simply “The Women of the Office of U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz,” without any named signatories.
“Congressman Gaetz has always been a principled and morally grounded leader,” it said. “At no time has any one of us experienced or witnessed anything less than the utmost professionalism and respect. No hint of impropriety. No ounce of untruthfulness.”
Citing media reports about the Justice Department inquiry, the statement said the women “uniformly reject these allegations as false.”
President Biden on Thursday outlined actions he was taking on gun violence in a speech that inaccurately described three firearm “loopholes” he sought to close.
“If you walk into a store and you buy a gun, you have a background check. But you go to a gun show, you can buy whatever you want and no background check,” he said, repeating a familiar refrain among supporters for more gun control.
This was exaggerated. Licensed firearms dealers are required to look up potential buyers in a background check system before a sale is approved. Private sellers are not required to perform such background checks, and some do sell guns at gun shows. But that does not mean that all dealers at gun shows are private, or that all sales at those shows forgo a background check. In addition, 16 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws requiring universal background checks, including at gun shows.
While there is little recent data on the topic, a 1999 study from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or A.T.F., found that half to three-quarters of sellers at gun shows were, in fact, licensed. A survey of gun owners published in 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 22 percent of firearms purchased at gun shows did not include a background check.
Mr. Biden also left out important context when he described the so-called Charleston loophole.
“If the F.B.I. hasn’t — didn’t complete the background check within three days — there’s a process — if it wasn’t done in three days, according to the Charleston loophole, you get to buy the gun,” he said. “They bought the gun and killed a hell of a lot of innocent people.”
It is true that if a background check is not completed within three business days, a firearm seller can proceed with the sale.
In 2015, Dylann S. Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, purchased a firearm two months ahead of the shooting. That purchase was allowed to go forward after the F.B.I. did not explicitly block the sale within three days.
While Mr. Roof admitted to a drug offense a month before he purchased the gun, clerical errors prevented the F.B.I. from seeing that admission in time and blocking the gun purchase.
However, the bureau still had the power to deny a purchase after the fact, and then refer the case to A.T.F. agents to retrieve the gun, something it did not do in the case of Mr. Roof. In 2015, the F.B.I. made 3,648 retrieval referrals.
Additionally, Mr. Biden falsely claimed that gun manufacturing was the “the only industry in America, a billion-dollar industry, that can’t be sued.”
Congress passed a law in 2005 prohibiting lawsuits against firearm manufacturers “for the harm solely caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products or ammunition products by others when the product functioned as designed and intended.” But they can still be subject to other types of lawsuits — for example, for breaches of warranty or if a manufacturer or dealer sells a gun knowing that it would be used in a crime.
The gun industry is also not the only industry to have special protections against lawsuits. For example, technology companies also enjoy a legal shield known as Section 230, which protects websites from liability for content created by their users.
President Biden, calling gun violence in the United States “an international embarrassment,” took a set of initial steps on Thursday to address the problem, starting with a crackdown on the proliferation of so-called ghost guns, or firearms assembled from kits.
Acknowledging that more aggressive actions like banning assault weapons and closing background check loopholes would have to wait for action from Congress, he said it was nonetheless vital to do what he could on his own to confront what he called an epidemic of shootings that are killing roughly 100 Americans a day.
“We’ve got a long way to go — it seems like we always have a long way to go,” Mr. Biden said during an appearance in the Rose Garden, weeks after two mass shootings.
The most substantive of the steps was directing the Justice Department to curb the spread of ghost guns. Kits for these guns can be bought without background checks and allow a gun to be assembled from pieces with no serial numbers.
Mr. Biden said he wanted the department to issue a regulation within a month to require that the components in the kits have serial numbers that would allow them to be traced and that the weapons be legally classified as firearms, with the buyers subjected to background checks.
“I want to see these kits treated as firearms under the gun control act,” Mr. Biden said.
Ghost guns, experts said, have become particularly appealing to criminal organizations and right wing extremists who want untraceable firearms that do not require any background checks. They are often tied to shootings in states like California, which have instituted strict gun laws.
The president on Thursday outlined several other actions he was taking on his own. He said he would require that when a device known as a stabilizing brace effectively transforms a pistol into a short-barrel rifle, that weapon would be subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act. That would subject those guns to extra layers of regulation required to own more serious firearms or silencers, including fingerprinting, a background check and a regular renewal of a license.
The gunman in the Boulder, Colo., shooting last month used a pistol with an arm brace, making it more stable and accurate, the president said.
Mr. Biden said the Justice Department would also publish model “red flag” legislation for states. The measure would allow police officers and family members to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from people who may present a danger to themselves or others.
While the president cannot pass national red flag legislation without Congress, officials said the goal of the guidance was to make it easier for states that want to adopt it to do so now.
“Red flag laws can stop mass shooters before they can act out their violent plans,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he wanted to see a national law.
Outside of mass shootings, gun violence remains the leading cause of death for Black men between the ages of 15 and 34, Mr. Biden said in his remarks, noting that additional funding he has proposed for community violence programs can save lives.
The initiatives announced Thursday do not match in scope his commitment to the issue over the course of his career, particularly his time as a senator. In 1993, Mr. Biden played a key role in the passage of the landmark Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. A year later, he helped authorize a 10-year ban on assault weapons.
Mr. Biden acknowledged there is only so much he can do without Congress. “This is just a start,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
The House passed two gun control bills last month, but they are languishing in the Senate in the face of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for passing most legislation, which requires the support of at least 10 Republicans. Mr. Biden called on the Senate to take action.
Mr. Biden also announced his nomination of David Chipman, a gun control advocate, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The bureau has not had a permanent director since 2015.
While Mr. Chipman’s selection came as welcome news to gun control groups, few nominees put forward by Mr. Biden have faced steeper odds of confirmation in the Senate. Still, his allies think he may be able to win narrow approval given the anguish over recent shootings.
In 2006, lawmakers allied with the National Rifle Association enacted a provision making the position of A.T.F. director, which had previously been a political appointment, subject to Senate confirmation. As a result, only one director, Obama nominee B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed over the last 15 years.
John Boehner, the Republican former House speaker, said in a new memoir that he regretted supporting the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, calling it a partisan attack that he now wishes he had repudiated.
In his book “On the House: A Washington Memoir,” a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Boehner blamed Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, then the No. 2 Republican, with pursuing a politically motivated campaign against Mr. Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.
The Republican-led House voted to impeach Mr. Clinton on two counts in 1998. He was acquitted by the Senate.
“In my view, Republicans impeached him for one reason and one reason only — because it was strenuously recommended to us by one Tom DeLay,” Mr. Boehner wrote. “Tom believed that impeaching Clinton would win us all these House seats, would be a big win politically, and he convinced enough of the membership and the G.O.P. base that this was true.
“I was on board at the time. I won’t hide from that. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I regret it now. I regret that I didn’t fight against it.”
Mr. Boehner’s memoir is full of colorful stories from his time in Congress. He pulls no punches for those he views as far-right bomb-throwers in his party (he saves several particularly forceful insults for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas). He issues a stinging denunciation of Donald J. Trump, saying that the former president “incited that bloody insurrection” by his supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and that the Republican Party has been taken over by “whack jobs.”
Mr. Trump’s “refusal to accept the result of the election not only cost Republicans the Senate but led to mob violence,” Mr. Boehner writes.
Mr. Boehner also details some of Capitol Hill’s most talked-about exchanges, including the time Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska, pulled a knife on Mr. Boehner on the House floor after a critical speech about sweetheart projects going to Alaska.
“Sometimes I can still feel that thing against my throat,” Mr. Boehner writes. (The two would later patch things up, and Mr. Boehner would serve as the best man in Mr. Young’s wedding.)
Mr. Boehner also relays an encounter in his office in which former Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and a leader of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, dropped to his knees to beg for forgiveness after a political coup attempt against Mr. Boehner failed.
“Not long after the vote — a vote that like many of the Freedom Caucus’s efforts ended in abject failure — I was told that Meadows wanted to meet with me one-on-one,” Mr. Boehner recalled. “Before I knew it, he had dropped off the couch and was on his knees. Right there on my rug. That was a first. His hands came together in front of him as if he were about to pray. ‘Mr. Speaker, please forgive me,’ he said, or words to that effect.”
Mr. Boehner said he wondered, in the moment, what Mr. Meadows’ “elite and uncompromising band of Freedom Caucus warriors would have made of their star organizer on the verge of tears, but that wasn’t my problem.”
Mr. Boehner looked down at the man who would later become Mr. Trump’s White House chief of staff.
“I took a long, slow drag of my Camel cigarette,” he wrote. “Let the tension hang there a little, you know? I looked at my pack of Camels on the desk next to me, then I looked down at him, and asked (as if I didn’t know): ‘For what?’”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Thursday addressed the State Department’s failure to protect refugees fleeing the Holocaust, relating the atrocities to the recent rise of anti-Semitism, violence against Asian-Americans, and other human rights crises around the world.
Mr. Blinken, speaking virtually at an event hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, singled out Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state during World War II, for blocking the processing of refugees for all but a “tiny fraction” of applicants, and lying to Congress about the severity of the Holocaust “as thousands of Jews were murdered every day.”
“He had immense power to help those being persecuted,” Mr. Blinken said of Long. “Yet as the Nazis began to systematically round up and execute Jews, Long made it harder and harder for Jews to be granted refuge in the United States.”
Long also withheld cables with reports of the mass killings, Mr. Blinken said, and inflated the number of Jewish refugees that the U.S. had accepted during the war. On Nov. 26, 1943, Long claimed in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. had admitted 580,000 “victims of persecution by the Hitler regime.” In reality, Mr. Blinken said, the U.S. had admitted 138,000 at that time, less than a quarter of the number claimed.
“We live in a time where anti-Semitism is on the rise again in America and around the world,” Mr. Blinken said.
“As always, hatred of the Jews tends to go hand in hand with hatred of others,” he added. “When hateful ideology rises, violence is never far behind, as recent attacks on Asian-Americans have illustrated.” He also spoke of “people imprisoned in modern day internment camps because of what they worship or believe, or tortured for speaking up against tyranny.”
The impact of the Holocaust is personal for Mr. Blinken. His stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was a survivor of the Nazi death camps of Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau, and was liberated by American troops near the end of the war.
His stepfather’s experiences have influenced Mr. Blinken’s interventionist streak in foreign policy. In a press briefing after the speech, Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said that Mr. Blinken was driven by his personal connection to the tragedy of the Holocaust.
“It is precisely why he has spoken so passionately about human rights violations, abuses, atrocities that are taking place around the world,” Mr. Price said.
An expansive bill introducing a rash of new restrictions to voting passed a key committee in the Texas Legislature on Thursday, clearing the way for a full House vote in the coming weeks.
The bill, which passed by party-line vote, would make it a felony for a local election official to proactively mail absentee ballot applications and grants more authority and autonomy to partisan poll watchers. It also significantly expands the criminal punishment for voting-related offenses, adds new requirements and threats of criminal prosecution for those who provide assistance to voters, and prohibits local election officials from making changes without authorization from the state.
The Texas bill is part of a broad push by Republican legislators across the country to impose new voting restrictions in the aftermath of President Donald J. Trump’s loss to Joseph R. Biden Jr. in November. Late last month, Georgia passed a sweeping bill that imposed new limits on voting access and expanded the legislature’s authority over state elections.
Texas is already home to some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, and its Legislature has dedicated part of its spring session to working toward another round of new laws limiting access to voting in the state.
Though Mr. Trump carried Texas by more than 630,000 votes in November, Republican lawmakers have cited the former president’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election as a reason for their effort, claiming the new bills are intended to restore confidence in elections.
This month, the Texas Senate passed its own omnibus bill that, among other provisions, sets new limits on early voting hours, bans drive-through voting, imposes strict limits on election machine distribution and bars election officials from promoting absentee voting, even to voters who are eligible.
Taken together, the bills will have a greater impact on the state’s major cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — rapidly growing areas that are home to a largely Democratic base.
The effort to further restrict voting in Texas has drawn widespread public criticism from civil rights groups, local business leaders, Democrats and some major corporations with their headquarters in Texas. The chief executive of Dell Technologies, the computing company, issued a statement this month criticizing the House bill, known as H.B. 6.
Agree. Free, fair, equitable access to voting is the foundation of American democracy. Those rights – especially for women, communities of color – have been hard-earned. Governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard. HB6 does the opposite, and we are opposed to it. https://t.co/srLRfGxgZF
— Michael Dell (@MichaelDell) April 1, 2021
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, criticized the corporate response to the bill in a news conference on Wednesday, and defended the effort, saying the State Senate bill that passed this month “is not voter suppression, it’s voter security.”
A former local official in Florida who faces an array of federal charges, including a sex trafficking count, is expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer said on Thursday, in an indication that the defendant could cooperate as a key witness against Representative Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation.
A plea by the former elected official, Joel Greenberg, could significantly strengthen the Justice Department’s hand as it investigates Mr. Gaetz and others who met Mr. Greenberg through Florida Republican politics and are being scrutinized on potential sex trafficking violations.
Mr. Greenberg met women through a website that connects people who are willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and allowances, then introduced them to Mr. Gaetz, who along with Mr. Greenberg had sex with them, people familiar with the matter have said.
The prosecutor, Roger Handberg, made the disclosure about the expected plea deal at a status hearing at the federal courthouse in Orlando, as did Mr. Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller.
Mr. Greenberg had been scheduled to go on trial in June, but both sides set a May 15 deadline for a plea deal. If they do not reach an agreement, the case would go to trial, they agreed.
Neither Mr. Handberg nor Mr. Scheller said whether Mr. Greenberg would agree to cooperate with the government’s open investigation. Mr. Greenberg, 36, is likely to face 12 years in prison and legal experts said that if Mr. Greenberg had any hope of reducing that sentence, he would have to cooperate with the Justice Department.
Mr. Greenberg did not appear in court on Thursday. He was sent to jail in March for violating the terms of his bail. He was indicted last year on a count of sex trafficking a 17-year-old in 2017.
Around the time of the indictment, the Justice Department began investigating Mr. Gaetz’s ties to the same girl. Mr. Gaetz, who gained a national profile in recent years as a prominent supporter of President Donald J. Trump, has denied that he paid for sex.
MEXICO CITY — Record numbers of asylum seekers are applying for sanctuary in Mexico — some after arriving at the southwest border of the United States hoping to find a safe haven under President Biden, but hitting a closed door.
In March, the Mexican government received asylum petitions from more than 9,000 people, the highest monthly tally ever, officials said. And they predicted that the surging demand would continue, possibly reaching a total of 90,000 asylum requests by the end of the year, which would also be a record high.
The soaring numbers are in part a reflection of the turmoil at the American border, where the Biden administration is struggling to deal with a surge in undocumented migration and has prevented many asylum seekers from presenting their cases to immigration officials.
Mexico has also become an increasingly attractive destination in its own right for refugees, who have generally found asylum easier to achieve in Mexico than in the United States. Some have also been drawn by the opportunity to reunite with family and friends, and by possibilities of work and a degree of safety that they lacked at home.
The sharp increase has put additional stress on humanitarian groups and on the Mexican government, which has been under pressure from Washington to do more to curb the northbound flows of migrants.
“Enormous amounts are arriving,” Andrés Alfonso Ramírez Silva, general coordinator of the Mexican government agency that processes asylum petitions, said of the caseload. “With the personnel we have, we have to deal with a number that grows and grows and continues to grow.”
For decades, Mexico was essentially a thruway for people from Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world seeking to reach the United States. But in the last few years, Mexico has become a more attractive destination for migrants.
President Donald J. Trump accelerated this process with aggressive efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration, including strategies to discourage asylum seekers by making it more difficult for them to secure sanctuary.
During Mr. Trump’s term, the number of people seeking asylum in Mexico skyrocketed, to more than 70,400 in 2019 from about 14,600 in 2017, according to the Mexican government. Amid the pandemic and a drastic slowdown in global migration, the number of asylum petitioners dropped to about 41,200 last year. But in the last several months, the volume has risen sharply once again.
Oscar Lopez and Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting.
Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia flashed a warning sign for President Biden’s infrastructure ambitions this week, renewing his pleas for fellow Democrats not to ram through a large spending bill without first working to compromise with Republicans who have panned the president’s plans.
In a divided Washington, the chances that such a compromise will materialize are slim — at least for a sprawling spending plan of up to $4 trillion, as Mr. Manchin, a pivotal swing vote in the Senate, and administration officials favor. But even so, Mr. Manchin’s calls for bipartisanship were less an insurmountable obstacle for Democrats than a road map for Mr. Biden if he wants his party’s tiny congressional majorities to deliver him another economic policy victory.
It involves reaching out to Republicans to explore possible areas of compromise while laying the groundwork to steer around them if no such deal materializes.
Mr. Biden has already begun the outreach to Republicans, while senior Democrats in Congress are exploring a budget maneuver that would allow the infrastructure bill to pass quickly with only Democratic votes. Both are aimed at increasing the pressure on Republicans to compromise — and, if they will not, giving Mr. Manchin and other moderate Democrats whose backing Mr. Biden needs the political cover to accept an all-Democratic plan.
“I’m going to bring Republicans to the White House,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday. “I invite them to come. We’ll have good-faith negotiations. And any Republican who wants to get this done, I invite.”
A moment later, he urged Republicans to “listen to your constituents,” arguing that voters across America back infrastructure spending on the scale Mr. Biden envisions — not the scaled-back versions many Republicans have floated.
The comments reflected a huge caveat in Mr. Biden’s willingness to negotiate that Republicans say could scuttle any deal: The president wants to be the one to set the terms of how large the problems are, and of whether the proposed solutions are sufficient.
Behind the scenes, his team is working to soften the ground for bipartisan work. And business lobbyists and some lawmakers remain hopeful that Mr. Manchin’s appeal could prod Mr. Biden and congressional leaders toward a set of mini-compromises on infrastructure.
But some Democrats worry that such compromises could sap momentum for the rest of Mr. Biden’s agenda, including forthcoming proposals for education, child care and more. Others say the opposite: that a few deals would give Mr. Biden and his party traction with voters, and fuel to pass a large spending bill, funded by tax increases, later this year with only Democratic votes.
As mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg grew to view asphalt as his enemy. As governor of Michigan, Jennifer M. Granholm faced a Republican-led Legislature intent on blocking her biggest infrastructure ambitions. As governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo overcame early opposition to an infrastructure plan from moderate members of her own party.
All three are among five cabinet secretaries President Biden has selected to serve as the administration’s salespeople for the American Jobs Plan, which seeks to pour trillions of dollars into infrastructure and other new government programs.
“Every square foot of asphalt, from a mayor’s perspective, is a square foot you have to pay forever to maintain, to resurface, to fill potholes on it,” Mr. Buttigieg, now the transportation secretary, said in a recent interview. “There were roads that maybe saw one car every few minutes that were paved wide enough for four cars side by side. There’s a cost to maintaining that.”
The lessons in asphalt Mr. Buttigieg learned in Indiana informed how he is trying to sell Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan across the country today. “The point is we design for the future and ask what we want to build, instead of redoing everything we’ve done in the past,” he said. In terms of making the case for the ambitious plan, he said, “there’s nothing like being able to say, ‘Here’s how we faced it in my community.’”
Along with Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Granholm, the energy secretary, and Ms. Raimondo, the commerce secretary, the group includes Marcia L. Fudge, the housing and urban development secretary, and Martin J. Walsh, the labor secretary.
Their job is to push the infrastructure plan on Capitol Hill and across the country with voters. They were picked because they lead agencies that oversee the bulk of the proposals in the jobs plan, which covers broadband, public housing, climate change and job training, in addition to roads and bridges.
But they are also former mayors or governors who have tackled the challenges at the local level that Mr. Biden now faces nationwide.
In fact, they all tried — and sometimes failed — to sell their own infrastructure plans, either to a recalcitrant legislature or to resistant members of their own party.
Representative Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican and avid supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, declared on Thursday that he was entering the 2022 race for governor of New York, hoping to emerge as his party’s challenger to embattled Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“The bottom line is this: To save New York, Andrew Cuomo’s gotta go,” Mr. Zeldin, a staunch conservative who represents parts of Long Island, said in a news release.
Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, is in the midst of the greatest crisis of his political life, facing investigations and accusations of sexual harassment. Many of the state’s Democratic leaders have asked Mr. Cuomo to resign, and whether he will ultimately run for re-election next year is an open question.
But any Republican, especially one closely tied to Mr. Trump, would have an uphill battle in a statewide contest in New York. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2002, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one.
Mr. Zeldin’s comments on Thursday previewed how he would seek to position himself in a heavily Democratic state.
“With one-party Democrat rule in New York City and Albany, the light that once shone as a beacon of what America can be has gone dark,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin will be one of at least three declared or potential Republican candidates interested in running for governor who will appear in Albany, N.Y., on April 19 to meet with Republican county leaders to lobby for their support.
Others include Rob Astorino, the party’s 2014 nominee for governor, and Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, seldom says anything he does not mean to say, and seldom apologizes for something he says.
But Mr. McConnell is walking back his sharp rebuke of companies and sports leagues that have come out publicly against a new law that restricts access to voting in Georgia and similar bills in other states.
“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” he said on Tuesday in Louisville. People close to him insisted this was not a mistake, but a pointed warning delivered with classic, tight-lipped zip.
Nonetheless, by Wednesday, in Paducah, Ky., Mr. McConnell reversed course and conceded that he had gone too far.
“I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday,” he said at an event where he insisted that corporate executives were misinformed and acting on distorted portrayals of the Georgia law provided by no less a figure than President Biden.
“They are certainly entitled to be involved in politics,” he added. “So my complaint about the C.E.O.s: Read the damn bill.”
Mr. McConnell’s critics say the episode illustrates his declining powers as a leader of his party, and his waning status as supervillain to Democrats. “He is suddenly powerless and flailing,” said Brian Fallon, a former top Democratic aide in the Senate.
That is wishful thinking, his allies insist.
This misstep aside, it should be no surprise that Mr. McConnell, who has built his political image on fighting campaign finance restrictions, is embracing a role as the No. 1 foe of a voting rights expansion bill being pushed by Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats.
In meetings with colleagues, speeches and media appearances, he has been blistering the wide-ranging plan, which he views as an existential threat to his party’s future, one he claims is based on a “big lie” that Republicans in Georgia and other states are employing racist tactics reminiscent of the Jim Crow era to limit voting.
The phrase — the same one Democrats have used to describe former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — suggests that Mr. McConnell is planning a full-scale effort to define the voting rights bill as corrupt and a blatant power grab.
“Our challenge, of course, is they are going to make this about race somehow, they are going to make this about turnout somehow,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview. “It is about neither. It is about a partisan effort to rewrite the rules in a way they think benefits them.”
Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia became an outcast in his own party after infuriating former President Donald J. Trump by resisting his demands to overturn the state’s election results. He spent weeks fending off attacks from fellow Republicans and right-wing media, and Mr. Trump vowed to retaliate by sending a hard-right loyalist to oppose him in the primary next year.
But the sweeping new voting bill Mr. Kemp signed two weeks ago has provided him a lifeline. The bill severely curtails the ability to vote in Georgia, particularly for people of color. Mr. Kemp has seized on it as a political opportunity, defending the law as one that expands voting access, condemning those who criticize it and conflating the criticism with so-called cancel culture.
It’s an argument he believes may restore him to the good graces of Georgia Republicans after being publicly derided by Mr. Trump, a predicament that has proved fatal to the career aspirations of other ambitious conservatives.
“He knows that this is a real opportunity and he can’t blow it, because I don’t think he gets another layup like this again anytime soon,” said Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer whom Mr. Trump made ambassador to Luxembourg, and is also a close ally of Mr. Kemp.
Since signing the bill into law on March 25, Mr. Kemp has done roughly 50 interviews, 14 with Fox News, promoting the new restrictions with messaging that aligns with Mr. Trump’s baseless claims that the election was rigged against him.
Mr. Kemp’s argument is designed to pump adrenaline into the conservative vein, by focusing on two of the most animating topics of the political right: election mechanics and an ominous portrayal of the Democratic left.
“They folded like a wet dishrag to the cancel culture,” he said, responding to businesses that publicly objected to the legislation, in an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday. “Americans and Georgians should be scared. I mean, what event are they going to come after next?”
If he manages a political reversal of fortune, Mr. Kemp would be the most prominent Republican to find a way to overcome Mr. Trump’s campaign of retribution, and perhaps would provide an early test of the former president’s ability to impose his will on the party’s electoral future.
But whether Mr. Kemp will be able to make amends with Mr. Trump remains unclear. Late Tuesday, the former president signaled how difficult it would be to win him over, releasing a statement slamming Mr. Kemp and Georgia Republicans for not going far enough to restrict voting access in the new law.
“Kemp also caved to the radical left-wing woke mob who threatened to call him racist if he got rid of weekend voting,” Mr. Trump said. “Well, he kept it, and they still call him racist!”
As Beijing has increased its military harassment of what it considers a rogue territory, many experts and administration officials say that if anything can tip the global power struggle between China and the United States into an actual military conflict, it is Taiwan.
In recent days, Beijing has menaced the nation by flying 15 Chinese warplanes near its shores. In response, Biden administration officials are trying to calibrate a policy that protects the democratic, technology-rich island without inciting an armed conflict that would be disastrous for all.
Under a longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy derived from America’s “one China” stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent, the United States provides political and military support for Taiwan, but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.
American officials warn that China is growing more capable of invading Taiwan, a democracy of nearly 24 million people situated off the coast of mainland China, whose status has obsessed Beijing since Chinese nationalists retreated and formed a government there after the country’s 1949 Communist revolution.
Experts are questioning whether the United States should make a more specific commitment to the island’s defense. The debate reflects the core foreign policy challenge seizing the Biden administration as it re-evaluates tenets of American strategy for a new and more dangerous phase of competition with China.
In remarks that raised eyebrows last month, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the military commander for the Indo-Pacific region, described what he sees as a risk that China could try to reclaim Taiwan by force within the next six years.
The United States has long avoided saying how it would respond to such an attack, instead focusing on maintaining a careful balance intended both to avoid provoking Beijing or emboldening Taiwan into a formal declaration of independence that could lead to a Chinese invasion. But some say it is time to warn explicitly that an invasion of Taiwan would mean a costly fight with the United States.
“I think there’s been a shift in peoples’ thinking,” said Richard N. Haass, a former director of policy planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush and now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Haass helped prompt a conversation on the subject last year after publishing an essay in September in Foreign Affairs magazine with his colleague David Sacks.
“The time has come,” Mr. Haass and Mr. Sacks wrote, “for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.”
The idea is gaining traction, including on Capitol Hill, where Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, has introduced a bill that would authorize the president to take military action to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack — making America’s intentions ambiguous no more.
In recent weeks, a number of Republican state legislatures have introduced bills placing new restrictions on transgender rights and medical care.
One of the farthest-reaching measures passed in Arkansas this week, prohibiting gender-confirming treatments or surgery for transgender youths — the first such ban to become law anywhere in the country.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, opposed the bill, after supporting other laws limiting transgender rights. He has been making the case that the legislation not only violates conservative principles but could also hurt Republicans politically.
The Times spoke to the governor about the new law, his belief that Republicans are too enmeshed in the culture wars and whether the party has strayed from fundamental conservative values.
In the interview, Mr. Hutchinson criticized the bill as “the most extreme law in the country.”
“The bill is overbroad, it’s extreme and, very importantly, it does not grandfather in those young people who are currently under hormone treatment, which means that those in Arkansas who are undergoing, under the doctor’s care and parents’ care, hormonal treatment — that would be withdrawn in the middle of that,” Mr. Hutchinson said.
He added, “That’s a terrible consequence of this bill. This is the most extreme law in the country. Arkansas would be the first state to have adopted this bill. And I could not in good conscience sign it with concerns that I had.”
But he defended his signing of two other bills: one barring trans women and girls from participating in sports competitions consistent with their gender identity, and another allowing doctors to refuse to treat trans patients because of religious or moral objections.
“You’ve got to evaluate each one as to whether it’s the proper role of government, whether it makes sense and whether it is the right balance,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “When I saw this third bill come forward, I thought it went too far. And I said: ‘We’ve got to show greater tolerance. We’ve got to show greater compassion.’ And so I didn’t sign that.
Mr. Hutchinson also warned that pushing laws restricting trans rights could hurt the Republican Party with young voters.
“The risk for the party, is that particularly millennials, young people, they want to see more tolerance. They do not believe in judging someone else and making laws that make their lives more difficult,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “And so while the transgender community is very small, there’s a larger group that does not like the government picking on them. And that’s where we lose in the broader population — reflecting intolerance and reflecting a lack of diversity.”
He added, “If you’re going to be a broad-based party, you have to be true to your principles. And it starts with a restraint on government action.”