In Brief: August 2, 2020

Negotiators report progress in coronavirus relief talks

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers reported progress on a huge coronavirus relief bill Saturday, as political pressure mounts to restore an expired $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

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“This was the longest meeting we’ve had and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was part of the rare weekend session. “We’re not close yet, but it was a productive discussion — now each side knows where they’re at.”

Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after meeting for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The Democratic leaders are eager for an expansive agreement, as are President Donald Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But perhaps one half of Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing difficult races this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.

Prior talks had yielded little progress and Saturday’s cautious optimism was a break from gloomy private assessments among GOP negotiators. The administration is willing to extend the newly expired $600 jobless benefit, at least in the short term, but is balking at other Democratic demands like aid for state and local governments, food stamp increases, and assistance to renters and homeowners.

South Africa hits 500,000 confirmed cases, still not at peak

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa on Saturday surpassed 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, representing more than 50% of all reported coronavirus infections in Africa’s 54 countries.

Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced 10,107 new cases Saturday night, bringing the country’s cumulative total to 503,290, including 8,153 deaths.

South Africa, with a population of about 58 million, has the fifth-highest number of cases in the world, behind the U.S., Brazil, Russia and India, all countries with significantly higher populations, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say the true toll of the pandemic worldwide is much higher than confirmed cases, due to limited testing and other reasons.

“Half a million is a significant milestone, because it shows we’ve entered a stage of rapid increases. We may reach 1 million cases very quickly,” said Denis Chopera, a virologist based in Durban. “What we know for sure is that the figures are an underestimate and that this virus will be with us for a long time to come.”

From wire sources

Microsoft in advanced talks to buy TikTok’s US business

NEW YORK — Microsoft is in advanced talks to buy the U.S. operations of TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video app that has been a source of national security and censorship concerns, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity to the negotiations.

The potential deal would be a victory for both companies, making Microsoft Corp. a major player in the social media arena and providing relief to TikTok and its parent company, Bytedance Ltd., a target of President Donald Trump’s.

Trump said Friday that he would take action as soon as Saturday to ban TikTok in the United States. Trump’s comments on Friday aboard Air Force One came after published reports that the administration is planning to order China’s ByteDance to sell TikTok.

“As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” Trump told reporters Friday on Air Force One as he returned from Florida.

Trump said he could use emergency economic powers or an executive order to enforce the action, insisting, “I have that authority.” He added, “It’s going to be signed tomorrow.”

From wire sources

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Joe Biden nears final decision on running mate

WASHINGTON — As Joe Biden nears the announcement of his vice presidential choice, the top contenders and their advocates are making final appeals.

The campaign hasn’t finalized a date for naming a running mate, but three people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the plans said a public announcement likely wouldn’t happen before the week of Aug. 10. That’s one week before Democrats will hold their convention to officially nominate Biden as their presidential nominee.

Biden said in May that he hoped to name his pick around Aug. 1 and told reporters this week that he would “have a choice in the first week of August.” He notably stopped short of saying when he would announce that choice.

Running mates are often announced on the eve of a convention. As Biden prepares to make his choice, a committee established to vet running mates has provided him with briefing materials. Biden will likely soon begin one-on-one conversations with those under consideration, which could be the most consequential part of the process for a presidential candidate who values personal connections.

The leading contenders include California Sen. Kamala Harris, California Rep. Karen Bass and Obama national security adviser Susan Rice. The deliberations remain fluid, however, and the campaign has reviewed nearly a dozen possible running mates.

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NASA astronauts aim for Florida coast to end SpaceX flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The first astronauts launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company departed the International Space Station on Saturday night for the final and most important part of their test flight: returning to Earth with a rare splashdown.

NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken bid farewell to the three men left behind as their SpaceX Dragon capsule undocked and headed toward a Sunday afternoon descent by parachute into the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite Tropical Storm Isaias’ surge toward Florida’s Atlantic shore, NASA said the weather looked favorable off the coast of Pensacola on the extreme opposite side of the state.

It will be the first splashdown for astronauts in 45 years. The last time was following the joint U.S.-Soviet mission in 1975 known as Apollo-Soyuz.

Space station commander Chris Cassidy rang the ship’s bell as Dragon pulled away, 267 miles (430 kilometers) above Johannesburg, South Africa. Within a few minutes, all that could be seen of the capsule was a pair of flashing lights against the black void of space.

US Marshals put Fyre Festival merchandise up for auction

NEW YORK — More than three years after the highly publicized Fyre Festival famously fizzled out in the Bahamas, merchandise and other “minor assets” are up for sale — courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service.

In a release Thursday, the U.S. Marshals announced that 126 items from the festival will be auctioned off, with proceeds going toward the victims of Billy McFarland.

McFarland acknowledged defrauding investors of $26 million in the 2017 Fyre Festival and over $100,000 in a fraudulent ticket-selling scheme after his arrest in the scam. He was sentenced to six years in prison in October 2018. Now 28, he’s serving his sentence at a low-security prison in Ohio, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

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“This Fyre Festival-branded clothing and other items that were seized from Billy McFarland were originally intended to be sold at the Fyre Festival itself but were kept by McFarland, with the intent to sell the items and use the funds to commit further criminal acts while he was on pre-trial release,” U.S. Marshal Ralph Sozio of the Southern District of New York said in the release.

The festival, billed as an ultra-luxurious event and “the cultural experience of the decade,” was supposed to take place over two spring 2017 weekends on the Bahamian island of Exuma. Models and celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski had promoted it on social media.

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