In Brief: October 17, 2020

Virus surges in key battleground states as election nears

MADISON, Wis. — Rising coronavirus cases in key presidential battleground states a little more than two weeks before Election Day are the latest worry for election officials and voters fearing chaos or exposure to the virus at polling places despite months of planning.

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The prospect of poll workers backing out at the last minute because they are infected, quarantined or scared of getting sick has local election officials in Midwest states such as Iowa and Wisconsin opening more early voting locations, recruiting backup workers and encouraging voters to plan for long lines and other inconveniences.

Confirmed virus cases and deaths are on the rise in the swing states of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin broke records this week for new coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations, leading to the opening of a field hospital to handle COVID-19 patients. Gov. Tony Evers said he plans to activate the Wisconsin National Guard to fill any staffing shortages at election sites.

White House puts ‘politicals’ at CDC to try to control info

NEW YORK — The Trump White House has installed two political operatives at the nation’s top public health agency to try to control the information it releases about the coronavirus pandemic as the administration seeks to paint a positive outlook, sometimes at odds with the scientific evidence.

The two appointees assigned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters in June have no public health background. They have instead been tasked with keeping an eye on Dr. Robert Redfield, the agency director, as well as scientists, according to a half-dozen CDC and administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government affairs.

The appointments were part of a push to get more “politicals” into the CDC to help control messaging after a handful of leaks were “upsetting the apple cart,” said an administration official.

From wire sources

When the two appointees showed up in Atlanta, their roles were a mystery to senior CDC staff, the people said. They had not even been assigned offices. Eventually one, Nina Witkofsky, became acting chief of staff, an influential role as Redfield’s right hand. The other, her deputy Chester “Trey” Moeller, also began sitting in on scientific meetings, the sources said.

It’s not clear to what extent the two appointees have affected the agency’s work, according to interviews with multiple CDC officials. But congressional investigators are examining that very question after evidence has mounted of political interference in CDC scientific publications, guidance documents and web postings.

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Biden email episode illustrates risk to Trump from Giuliani

WASHINGTON — A New York tabloid’s puzzling account about how it acquired emails purportedly from Joe Biden’s son has raised some red flags. One of the biggest involves the source of the emails: Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani has traveled abroad looking for dirt on the Bidens, developing relationships with shadowy figures, including a Ukrainian lawmaker who U.S. officials have described as a Russian agent and part of a broader Russian effort to denigrate the Democratic presidential nominee.

Yet Giuliani says foreign sources didn’t provide the Hunter Biden emails. He says a laptop containing the emails and intimate photos was simply abandoned in a Delaware repair shop and the shop owner reached out to Giuliani’s lawyer.

That hasn’t stopped the FBI from investigating whether the emails are part of a foreign influence operation. The emails have surfaced as U.S. officials have been warning that Russia, which backed Trump’s 2016 campaign through hacking of Democratic emails and a covert social media campaign, is interfering again this year. The latest episode with Giuliani underscores the risk he poses to a White House that spent years confronted by a federal investigation into whether Trump associates had coordinated with Russia.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that intelligence agencies had warned the White House last year that Giuliani was the target of a Russian influence operation. The newspaper, citing four former officials, said that assessment was based on information including intercepted communications showing Giuliani had been in contact with people tied to Russian intelligence.

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Life on the line: Early voters wait ‘as long as it takes’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Americans are accustomed to standing in line. They queue up for airport security, the latest iPhone, COVID tests, concerts or food. But the line of voters building before sunrise outside Mallard Creek High School in a distant suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday was different.

It was a living chain of hundreds of people who stepped into place — around the building, down some stairs and past a fleet of idled yellow school buses — determined to be counted in the elemental civic ritual of voting, which seems even more consequential in the bitterly fought 2020 presidential election.

“If you want the United States to remain united, you need to vote,” said Monique Sutton, 52 and a nurse practitioner. “Because if we get any further away from each other, I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to come back.”

The rush to vote early is a phenomenon that has shattered early turnout records across critical Mecklenburg County, battleground North Carolina and the nation, driven both by Democratic enthusiasm and a pandemic that has claimed more than 217,000 American lives.

President Donald Trump captured North Carolina by 3 percentage points in 2016 and almost certainly must win the state again to defeat his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won Mecklenburg, the county that’s home to Charlotte. But Trump took the neighboring counties by roughly similar margins.

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Grisly beheading of teacher in terror attack rattles France

PARIS — For the second time in three weeks, terror struck France, this time with the gruesome beheading of a history teacher in a street in a Paris suburb. The suspected attacker was shot and killed by police.

French President Emmanuel Macron denounced what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack” and urged the nation to stand united against extremism. The teacher had discussed caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with his class, authorities said.

The French anti-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation for murder with a suspected terrorist motive. Four people, one a minor, were detained hours later, the office of anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said without elaborating. Police typically fan out to find family and friends of potential suspects in terror cases.

Macron visited the school where the teacher worked in the town of Conflans-Saint-Honorine and met with staff after the slaying. An Associated Press reporter saw three ambulances at the scene, and heavily armed police surrounding the area and police vans lining leafy nearby streets.

“One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught … the freedom of expression, the freedom to believe or not believe,” Macron said.

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Trump on defense, courting voters in two must-win states

MACON, Ga. — Backed into a corner and facing financial strains, President Donald Trump went after his opponent’s family and defended his own struggle to contain the pandemic on Friday as he fought to energize his sagging reelection bid in the nation’s Sun Belt. With Election Day looming, Democrat Joe Biden pushed to keep voters focused on health care in the Midwest.

Trump campaigned in Florida and Georgia, neighboring states he carried four years ago and must win again to extend his presidency. His decision to devote Friday evening’s prime-time slot to Georgia in particular highlighted the serious nature of his challenge: Far from his original plan to expand into Democratic-leaning states, he is laboring to stave off a defeat of major proportions.

No Republican presidential candidate has lost Georgia since George H.W. Bush in 1992. And earlier this week, Trump had to court voters in Iowa, a state he carried by almost 10 points four years ago.

In Macon, he cited support from former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker to win favor from his rally crowd. “How good was Herschel Walker?” Trump said as the Georgia crowd roared. “He’s on our side, and he’s an incredible guy.”

Trump had tried the same strategy Wednesday in Iowa, bringing wrestling legend Dan Gable onstage.

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Justices to weigh Trump census plan to exclude noncitizens

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up President Donald Trump’s policy, blocked by a lower court, to exclude people living in the U.S. illegally from the census count that will be used to allocate seats in the House of Representatives.

Never in U.S. history have immigrants been excluded from the population count that determines how House seats, and by extension Electoral College votes, are divided among the states, a three-judge federal count said in September when it held Trump’s policy illegal.

The justices put the case on a fast track, setting arguments for Nov. 30. A decision is expected by the end of the year or early in January, when Trump has to report census numbers to the House.

Trump’s high court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, could take part in the case if, as seems likely, she is confirmed by then.

Last year, the court by a 5-4 vote barred Trump from adding a census question asking people about their citizenship. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month, was part of that slim majority. Barrett would take Ginsburg’s seat.

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Trump changes course, approves California relief for 6 fires

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — President Donald Trump’s administration abruptly reversed course and approved California’s application for disaster relief funds to clean up damage from six recent deadly and destructive blazes that have scorched the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday.

“Just got off the phone with President Trump who has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request. Grateful for his quick response,” Newsom said in a brief statement.

Neither he nor the White House gave details on why the administration shifted positions less than two days after it initially denied the state’s request for a declaration that officials said could provide the state with hundreds of millions of dollars.

The reversal came the same week the Pacific Gas and Electric utility cut off service to more than 40,000 Northern California customers to prevent powerful winds from damaging equipment and sparking wildfires amid a fall heat wave. Electricity was restored to most customers by Friday evening, PG&E said.

Preliminary inspections found 30 instances of weather-related damage, including downed power lines in areas where winds were the strongest, PG&E said.

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Watchdog org: Trump ‘16 campaign, PAC illegally coordinated

New documents from a former Cambridge Analytica insider reveal what an election watchdog group claims was illegal coordination between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and a billionaire-funded pro-Trump super PAC.

The legal complaint touches on some of the same people involved in today’s hotly contested presidential race and provides a detailed account alleging that Trump’s last campaign worked around election rules to coordinate behind the scenes with the political action committee.

The now-defunct British data analytics firm violated election law by ignoring its own written firewall policy, blurring the lines between work created for Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Make America Number 1 super PAC, according to an updated complaint the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission.

The complaint also alleges that Cambridge Analytica — which improperly acquired and used 87 million Facebook users’ profiles to predict their behavior — had a shared project calendar for both entities, among other evidence.

“The idea that this spending was at all independent is farcical and these emails underscore that,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney for the government oversight group, whose new filing supplements a complaint filed four years ago. “Cambridge Analytica not only misused people’s personal data, but it was a conduit for the wealthy family that owned it to unlawfully support the Trump campaign in 2016.”

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GOP senator mispronounces Kamala Harris’ name at Trump rally

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. David Perdue mocked Kamala Harris, his Senate colleague and the Democratic vice presidential nominee, on Friday by repeatedly mispronouncing her name at a Georgia rally for President Donald Trump.

Perdue was wrapping up his remarks at an event in Macon when he referred to Harris as “KAH’-mah-lah? Kah-MAH’-lah? Kamala-mala-mala? I don’t know. Whatever.” The audience laughed.

A spokesperson for Perdue said the first-term senator “didn’t mean anything by it.”

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Harris’ political opponents have repeatedly mispronounced her name since she became the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent on a national ticket. Democrats say the mispronunciations smack of racism. Her first name is pronounced “KAH’-mah-lah” — or, as she explains in her biography, “‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark.”

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are among the top Republicans who have repeatedly mispronounced it. A few Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, have said it incorrectly, too.

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