In Brief: July 31, 2020

Record economic plunge, bleak jobs numbers reveal virus toll

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic sent the U.S. economy plunging by a record-shattering 32.9% annual rate last quarter and is still inflicting damage across the country, squeezing already struggling businesses and forcing a wave of layoffs that shows no sign of abating.

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The economy’s collapse in the April-June quarter, stunning in its speed and depth, came as a resurgence of the viral outbreak has pushed businesses to close for a second time in many areas. The government’s estimate of the second-quarter fall in the gross domestic product has no comparison since records began in 1947. The previous worst quarterly contraction — at 10%, less than a third of what was reported Thursday — occurred in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration.

Soon after the government issued the bleak economic data, President Donald Trump diverted attention by suggesting a “delay” in the Nov. 3 presidential election, based on his unsubstantiated allegations that widespread mail-in voting will result in fraud. The dates of presidential elections are enshrined in federal law and would require an act of Congress to change.

So steep was the economic fall last quarter that most analysts expect a sharp rebound for the current July-September period. But with coronavirus cases rising in the majority of states and the Republican Senate proposing to scale back aid to the unemployed, the pain is likely to continue and potentially worsen in the months ahead.

The plunge in GDP “underscores the unprecedented hit to the economy from the pandemic,” said Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. “We expect it will take years for that damage to be fully recovered.”

2nd US virus surge hits plateau, but few experts celebrate

NEW YORK — While deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. are mounting rapidly, public health experts are seeing a flicker of good news: The second surge of confirmed cases appears to be leveling off.

Scientists aren’t celebrating by any means, warning that the trend is driven by four big, hard-hit places — Arizona, California, Florida and Texas — and that cases are rising in close to 30 states in all, with the outbreak’s center of gravity seemingly shifting from the Sun Belt toward the Midwest.

Some experts wonder whether the apparent caseload improvements will endure. It’s also not clear when deaths will start coming down. COVID-19 deaths do not move in perfect lockstep with the infection curve, for the simple reason that it can take weeks to get sick and die from the virus.

The future? “I think it’s very difficult to predict,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost infectious-disease expert.

The virus has claimed over 150,000 lives in the U.S., by far the highest death toll in the world, plus more than a half-million others around the globe.

From wire sources

Prosecutor: No charges for officer in Michael Brown’s death

CLAYTON, Mo. — St. Louis County’s prosecutor announced Thursday that he will not charge the former police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a dramatic decision that could reopen old wounds amid a renewed and intense national conversation about racial injustice and the police treatment of people of color.

Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s decision marked the third time prosecutors investigated and opted not to charge Darren Wilson, the white officer who fatally shot Brown, a Black 18-year-old, on Aug. 9, 2014. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November 2014, and the U.S. Department of Justice also declined to charge him in March 2015.

Civil rights leaders and Brown’s parents had hoped that Bell, the county’s first Black prosecutor who took office in January 2019, would see things differently.

“My heart breaks” for Brown’s parents, a somber Bell said during a news conference. “I know this is not the result they were looking for and that their pain will continue forever.”

Describing the announcement as “one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do,” Bell said that his office conducted a five-month, unannounced, review of witness statements, forensic reports and other evidence.

Trump, GOP suggest temporary fix for $600 jobless benefit

WASHINGTON — The White House and some of its Republican allies in the Senate are signaling they want to extend, at least temporarily, a $600-per-week expanded jobless benefit that has helped keep families and the economy afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The move looks to be too little, too late to prevent the lapse of the benefit officially on Friday.

Republicans have been fighting to trim back the $600 jobless benefit in the next coronavirus package, but President Donald Trump and some Senate Republicans suggested they could accept keeping the full $600 benefit for now. Late-night talks were expected at the Capitol.

“We want a temporary extension of enhanced unemployment benefits,” Trump said at the White House. “This will provide a critical bridge for Americans who lost their jobs to the pandemic through no fault of their own.”

He added: “It has to be substantial.”

But Democrats have so far rejected a piecemeal approach, saying the next relief bill needs to move as a complete package. Before Trump spoke, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell adjourned the chamber for the weekend while taking a procedural step that could allow voting on a potential compromise next week. Talks so far have yielded little progress.

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Portland prepares for US agents to step back from protests

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon police prepared Thursday to take over protecting a federal courthouse in Portland that’s been a target of violent protests, in a deal between the Democratic governor and the Trump administration that aimed to draw down the federal presence and offered hope for a much-needed detente in a city roiled by two months of unrest.

Portland police cleared out a park across from the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse that demonstrators have used as a staging ground, while state troopers headed into downtown Portland in preparation for their first night policing the protests against racial injustice. It’s not clear if the move will ease tensions in the liberal city, where people are decrying brutality by law enforcement.

Under the deal announced by Gov. Kate Brown, federal agents sent by President Donald Trump were to begin a phased withdrawal Thursday, with Oregon State Police taking over outside the building. But federal officials have pushed back, saying agents wouldn’t leave the city completely but be on standby in case they’re needed.

Trump insisted in a tweet that U.S. officers would stay in Portland until the violence was under control.

“If she can’t do it, the Federal Government will do it for her. We will not be leaving until there is safety!” Trump wrote about Brown, saying that she wasn’t doing enough to control the “anarchists &agitators.”

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Former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain dies of COVID-19

ATLANTA — Herman Cain, former Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of a major pizza chain who went on to become an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, died Thursday of complications from the coronavirus. He was 74.

Dan Calabrese, who authored a post on Cain’s website announcing the death, told The Associated Press that Cain died at an Atlanta hospital early Thursday morning.

Cain had been ill with the virus for several weeks. It’s not clear when or where he was infected, but he was hospitalized less than two weeks after attending Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20. Cain had been co-chair of Black Voices for Trump.

A photo taken at the rally showed Cain, without a mask, sitting closely to other people who also were not wearing any face coverings. A statement on his Twitter account said he tested positive for COVID on June 29 and was hospitalized July 1 because his symptoms were serious.

“We knew when he was first hospitalized with COVID-19 that this was going to be a rough fight,” Calabrese wrote in the website post Thursday.

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AP EXPLAINS: A look at $60M bribery probe unfolding in Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The arrest July 21 of powerful Republican House Speaker Larry Householder and four associates in a $60 million federal bribery case has upended both politics and policy-making in Ohio. The Ohio House removed Householder from his post Thursday in a unanimous, bipartisan vote and replaced him with state Rep. Robert Cupp, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice. Householder retains his legislative seat for now. It remains to be seen how the scandal will impact November’s high-stakes presidential election. Here’s a look at what we know so far:

HOW BIG IS THIS?

Householder, of rural Perry County, is the first speaker in state history to be voted out of the post. He is alleged to be at the top of what prosecutors call the largest money-laundering scheme in state history, and the first in the Southern District of Ohio to involve a racketeering charge against a public official. FBI agents continue to knock on doors across the state. Investigators say Householder and his associates received $60 million funneled through a network of secret accounts in exchange for passing a roughly $1 billion nuclear plant bailout bill last year and thwarting a subsequent repeal effort.

HOW IS POLITICS BEING AFFECTED?

Politicos in both parties are scrambling for position ahead of November’s high-stakes presidential election. Republicans are distancing themselves in some ways from Householder and the other defendants, including former Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges, while also pledging to move forward with integrity. Democrats are painting the GOP as corrupt — House Democratic Leader Emilia Sykes said simply Thursday, “We don’t trust any of them” — while working to explain why they provided key votes to elect Householder speaker and pass the bailout bill. Nine representatives abstained from Thursday’s ouster vote — two speaker candidates and seven others, including Householder.

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‘On our way to Mars’: NASA rover will look for signs of life

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built — a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers — blasted off for the red planet Thursday as part of an ambitious, long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life.

NASA’s Perseverance rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into a clear morning sky in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer. China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach their destination in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles (480 million kilometers).

The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: more than $8 billion.

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NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, pronounced the launch the start of “humanity’s first round trip to another planet.”

“Oh, I loved it, punching a hole in the sky, right? Getting off the cosmic shore of our Earth, wading out there in the cosmic ocean,” he said. “Every time, it gets me.”

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