Over 1 million calls inundated FEMA’s new COVID-19 funeral assistance hotline on first day

April 19, 2021

More than ne million callers dialed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency‘s new funeral assistance program hotline on its first day, April 12,  the agency told CNN—signalling an increased need for funeral aid as the nation’s coronavirus death toll continues to climb.

FEMA launched its funeral program for families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 after January 20, 2020. They are now able to apply for up to $9,000 in assistance per burial.

But the hotline’s rollout was marked by busy signals and “technical issues,” caused by the massive volume of calls.

A FEMA spokesperson told CNN Thursday that nearly one million calls came into the agency within the first 90 minutes after the phone lines opened.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, FEMA acting Administrator Robert Fenton described the influx of calls to the agency’s hotline, pointing to “60,000 calls, 58,000 registrations. 1,700 have already come back with documentation. Hopefully we’ll start funding that next week.”

“That represents about 10% of the deaths so far,” Fenton said during a Senate subcommittee hearing on FEMA’s COVID response.

Fenton also acknowledged the hotline’s bumpy rollout, saying there “was definitely congestion on the line, and we had a couple of technical issues with the service.” But, he added, the agency “cleaned that up by the second day.”

While FEMA has aided families with disaster-related burial costs in the past, the COVID-19 effort is the largest of its type. Some $2 billion was allocated as part of the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December; while the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package last month bolstered it by providing the agency with an additional $50 billion to use for coronavirus-related costs.

The program’s requirements include that the death certificate must indicate that the death was attributed to or likely caused by COVID-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms, and that the death occurred in the US or its territories. There is no deadline to apply for the funeral assistance, the agency has said.

Due to the sensitive nature of the program, FEMA decided to register applicants by phone rather than online. More than 5,000 agents have been contracted to take calls “with a commitment to spend as much time as is needed with each applicant,” the agency spokesperson said.

Fenton also emphasized the focus on empathy during these conversations, telling lawmakers: “We want to make sure that we empathetically and compassionately help everyone that had a loss.”

Asked about his most difficult challenge throughout his 25-year career, Fenton reflected on how the pandemic has had “the biggest impact I’ve ever seen” and the most deaths.

“What it’s done to our country. Shut down our economy. The impact it’s had. Far beyond physical damage that we traditionally see in other disasters. It’s just been far greater than any other disaster I’ve been to … I would put that up there with 9/11 and Katrina,” he said.

To apply for COVID-19 Funeral Assistance, go to this page on the FEMA website.

Research contact: @CNN

Biden sanctions Russia, expels diplomats over election interference

April 16, 2021

President Joe Biden on Thursday declared that the United States faces a “national emergency” over an array of malign actions from Russia. In retaliation, Biden said he is imposing new sanctions on the Russian government and expelling ten Kremlin diplomats from the United States, Yahoo reports.

The moves are part of an intensifying U.S. campaign to punish Moscow over its attempted interference in the 2020 U.S. election, its occupation of Crimea, and other actions. They are sure to escalate already rising tensions between the two nations and are likely to be met with some Russian reprisal, including the expulsion of U.S. diplomats. The moves also come as Russia has amassed military forces near its border with Ukraine, alarming the international community.

The new penalties also follow a y conversation between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, April 13,, during which Biden proposed the two meet in a third country in the coming months.

Conversely, after four years of fealty toward Putin from former President Donald Trump, President Biden’s  new sanctions are sure to be met with approval by many U.S. lawmakers from both parties, although some are likely to say they do not go far enough. For example, based on the information released by the Administration, there did not appear to be any penalties aimed at stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, a step a number of Democrats and Republicans have urged.

In a statement, the White House characterized the administration’s actions as intended “to impose costs on Russia for actions by its government and intelligence services against U.S. sovereignty and interests.”

The Treasury Department‘s Office of Foreign Assets Control released information on several of the sanctions. The office said that it “took sweeping action against 16 entities and 16 individuals” who sought to influence the outcome of the election last November under orders from Russian government leaders.

“Treasury will target Russian leaders, officials, intelligence services, and their proxies that attempt to interfere in the U.S. electoral process or subvert U.S. democracy,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. “This is the start of a new U.S. campaign against Russian malign behavior.”

With regard to Russia’s actions in Ukraine—where Putin still claims the Crimea region as its own—Yahoo reports that OFAC  has“designated five individuals and three entities” for sanctions. OFAC Director Andrea Gacki said in a statement that the designations would “impose additional costs on Russia for its forceful integration with Crimea and highlight the abuses that have taken place under Russia’s attempted annexation.”

Finally, under the authority of a new executive order signed by Biden on April 15, the Treasury Department announced a series of punitive measures including “the implementation of new prohibitions on certain dealings in Russian sovereign debt, as well as targeted sanctions on technology companies that support the Russian Intelligence Services’ efforts to carry out malicious cyber activities against the United States.”

In a letter notifying Congress of his executive order, Biden wrote that his directive would declare “a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States posed by specified harmful foreign activities” of the Russian government.

Biden specifically cited Russia’s efforts to “undermine the conduct of “democratic elections and institutions in the U.S. and its allies, its “malicious cyber-enabled activities,” and its use of “transnational corruption to influence foreign governments.”

Other malign behavior mentioned by Biden included the targeting of dissidents and journalists outside Russia, the undermining of security in areas where the United States. has national security interest, and the violation of international law.

Research contact: @Yahoo

Report: Capitol Police were instructed to use ‘kid gloves’ on MAGA rioters on January 6

April 15, 2021

Despite being tipped that “Congress itself is the target” on January 6, Capitol Police were ordered not to use their most powerful crowd-control weapons, according to a scathing new watchdog report obtained in advance by The New York Times.

Indeed, officers were instructed by their leaders not to use their most aggressive tactics to hold off the mob, according to a scathing new report by the agency’s inspector general.

In the 104-page document, Inspector General Michael A. Bolton, criticized the way in which the Capitol Police prepared for and responded to the insurrection on January 6. The report was reviewed by the Times and will be the subject of a Capitol Hill hearing on Thursday, April 15.

Bolton found that the agency’s leaders failed to adequately prepare despite explicit warnings that pro-Trump extremists posed a threat to law enforcement and civilians; and that the police used defective protective equipment. He also found that the leaders ordered their Civil Disturbance Unit to refrain from using its most powerful crowd-control tools—like stun grenades—to put down the onslaught.

The report offers the most devastating account to date of the lapses and miscalculations around the most violent attack on the Capitol in two centuries.

Three days before the siege, a Capitol Police intelligence assessment warned of violence from supporters of President Donald Trump who believed his false claims that the election had been stolen. Some had even posted a map of the Capitol complex’s tunnel system on pro-Trump message boards.

“Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th,” the threat assessment said, according to the inspector general’s report. “Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.”

But on January 5, the agency wrote in a plan for the protest that there were “no specific known threats related to the joint session of Congress.” And the former chief of the Capitol Police has testified that the force had determined that the likelihood of violence was “improbable.”

Bolton concluded such intelligence breakdowns stemmed from dysfunction within the agency and called for “guidance that clearly documents channels for efficiently and effectively disseminating intelligence information to all of its personnel.”

 “Mr. Bolton’s findings are scheduled to be discussed on Thursday afternoon, when he is set to testify before the House Administration Committee. He has issued two investigative reports — both classified as “law enforcement sensitive” and not publicly released — about the agency’s shortcomings on Jan. 6. He is also planning a third report.

CNN first reported on a summary of the latest findings.

Research contact: @nytimes

Schumer urges Republicans not to block anti-Asian hate crimes measure

April 14, 2021

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said Tuesday that he plans to bring a bill targeting anti-Asian hate crimes to the floor this week—and urged Republicans not to block it, NBC News reports.

“Combating hate in the Asian American community can and should be bipartisan,” Schumer said at a press conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Asian American lawmakers.

According to NBC, Schumer noted he needs 60 senators to vote to proceed to the legislation—which means that, even if all 50 Democratic members were to vote in favor of taking up the bill, they would still need support from 10 Republicans.

“I hope it’ll be many more than 60. Who would oppose this very simple, but necessary legislation?” Schumer asked.

The legislation, which Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced in March, would direct the Department of Justice to expedite the review of COVID-19-related hate crimes reported to law enforcement agencies and help them establish ways to report such incidents online and perform public outreach.

The bill also would direct the attorney general and the Department of Health and Human Services to issue best-practices guidance on how to mitigate racially discriminatory language in describing the COVID–19 pandemic.

If the bill advances to debate, Schumer said he intends to hold a vote on a bipartisan amendment from Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), stemming from their own anti-hate crime proposal. Their bill would streamline the national reporting systems used by law enforcement agencies and train them in investigating hate crimes. It would also create a hate crimes hotline, establish programs to rehabilitate offenders, and expand assistance and resources for victims.

Pelosi, meanwhile, said a similar measure proposed by Representative Grace Meng (D-New York) will be marked up in committee in the House in the next week and will get passed immediately on the floor.

Research contact: @NBCNews

Scoop: Cindy McCain set to land Biden ambassadorship

April 13, 2021

Politico’s Playbook ran a scoop on Monday, April 12—reporting that President Joe Biden is preparing to name Republican Cindy McCain to a coveted ambassador post in Western Europe in what would be his administration’s first Republican appointee to a Senate-confirmed position.

McCain is undergoing vetting to be nominated for U.S. ambassador to the U.N. World Food Programme, a mission based in Rome, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. This comes after the Administration declined to install at least one member from the opposing party in a Cabinet position—a practice of three consecutive presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) before Donald Trump broke the streak.

Cindy McCain, the wife of the late military hero and Senator from Arizona John McCain,  gave Biden a critical boost in Arizona with her endorsement of the Democrat over Trump. In doing so, she helped Biden become the only Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since Clinton in 1996.

McCain, 66, is undergoing a background check for the post, Politico notes. The Biden administration is expected to announce most of its ambassadors at the same time, rather than individually.

As chair of the McCain Institute board of trustees, McCain has worked on curbing world hunger and human trafficking. During the 2008 campaign, she traveled to Georgia with the U.N.’s World Food Programme to visit wounded soldiers after a Russian invasion and also monitored the program’s work in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Research contact: @politico

Biden to unveil commission to study possible expansion of Supreme Court

April 12, 2021

President Biden was scheduled to unveil a bipartisan commission to study structural changes to the Supreme Court on Friday, April 9, according to three people knowledgeable sources, The Washington Post reports.

The move follows the appointments of three conservatives to the court during the Trump Administration: Neil Gorsuch in 2017, Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, and Amy Coney Barrett in 2020—and comes amid liberal calls for expansion to blunt the court’s conservative majority.

The commission—envisioned to include as many as three dozen people—will fulfill Biden’s campaign promise create a group to study changes to the court.

According to the Post, Biden has said he is “not a fan of court-packing,” but he faced pressure during the campaign from liberals to back changes, including court expansion, after Republicans pushed to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett shortly before the 2020 election.

The commission, however, is likely to disappoint liberals who are looking for quick action. Most of the commission’s members are academics, and they will come from a range of political backgrounds. Bob Bauer, a top lawyer on Biden’s campaign, and Cristina Rodriguez, a professor at Yale Law School, will chair the commission, which will be run out of the White House Counsel’s Office.

Other members include Caroline Fredrickson, the former president of the American Constitution Society, and Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor.

The three people familiar with the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement. The White House declined to comment.

Research contact: @washingtonpost

Biden targets ‘ghost guns’ and ‘red flag’ laws in new gun control measures

April 9, 2021

In a Rose Garden speech on March 8, President Joe Biden announced that he would introduce regulations to limit “ghost guns;” and would make it easier for people to flag family members who shouldn’t be allowed to purchase firearms with a series of executive actions taken in the wake of recent mass shootings, NBC News reported.

The actions Biden intends to take are limited—and will still likely face legal opposition from gun rights advocates, who view any efforts to limit access as a violation of the Second Amendment.

The changes come in the wake of shootings in Georgia and Colorado and focus not just on trying to limit mass shootings, but also at reducing other forms of gun violence, such as suicides and domestic violence, Biden said.

“Gun violence in this country is an epidemic and it is an international embarrassment,” Biden said in remarks he made in the Rose Garden. He was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney General Merrick Garland. A number of Democratic congressional members, gun control advocates, and local officials also attended.

Biden also announced he is nominating David Chipman, a gun control advocate, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF.

The White House detailed the planned executive actions, arguing that Biden’s instructions to the Department of Justice will curb access to guns, NBC News said.

Biden directed the DOJ to write rules that will reduce the proliferation of “ghost guns,” homemade firearms often made from parts bought online and that do not have traceable serial numbers. Biden said he wants kits and parts used to make guns to be treated as firearms where the parts have serial numbers and are subject to a background check.

Biden also sought to reduce access to stabilizing braces, which can effectively turn a pistol into a more lethal rifle while not being subject to the same regulations that a rifle of similar size would be. Biden said the alleged shooter in Boulder appears to have used one of these devices.

Finally, he asked the DOJ to publish model “red flag” laws for states to use as guides. Red flag laws allow family members or law enforcement agencies to petition state courts to temporarily block people from obtaining firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others. Biden said states with such red flag laws have seen a reduction in the number of suicides.

Biden directed the DOJ to issue a report on firearms trafficking, which hasn’t been done since 2000. He also will announce support for programs aimed at “reducing gun violence in urban communities through tools other than incarceration,” according to a fact sheet shared by the White House.

The new guidelines are bound to face opposition from both sides of the aisle in Congress, NBC noted.

“The idea is just bizarre to suggest some of the things we are recommending is contrary to the Constitution,” Biden said.

And he has vowed to do more. In a call with reporters Wednesday night, administration officials stressed that Thursday’s actions were just the first step and that Biden would still pursue legislative solutions to gun violence.

“This is an initial set of actions to make progress on President Biden’s gun violence reduction agenda,” one official said. “The administration will be pursuing legislative and executive actions at the same time. You will continue to hear the president call for Congress to pass legislation to reduce gun violence.”

“The job of any president is to protect the American people, whether Congress acts or not,” Biden said. “I’m going to use all the resources at my disposal to keep the American people safe from gun violence. But there’s much more that Congress can do to help that effort.”

Biden asked Congress to pass legislation already through the House to tighten background checks and reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. He also called again for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; and removed liability protections for gun makers.

Research contact: @NBCNews

 

Ten more members of Congress join NAACP lawsuit against Trump, Giuliani for inciting Capitol riot

April 8, 2021

Ten members of Congress who were trapped in the House gallery as rioters breached the Capitol on January 6 are adding their names to a lawsuit first filed in February against former President Donald Trump and his former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, CNN reports.

The lawsuit—first brought by House Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and the NAACP— accuses Trump and Giuliani of conspiring with extremist groups. the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. to incite the riot at the Capitol.

The amended lawsuit now details the personal stories of each member, describing how they narrowly escaped the mob, and how some still have nightmares and anxiety months later.

“As I sat in my office on January 6th with rioters roaming the hallways, I feared for my life and thought I was going to die,” Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said in a statement. “This invasion was a direct result of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and words. His calls to gather in Washington on January 6th and his message to ‘be strong’ thwarted the functioning of our Constitution.” Cohen reveals in the lawsuit that he escaped to his office near the Capitol when the mob invaded it on January 6, sitting with the lights turned off and a baseball bat in his hand for protection for two to three hours.

According to the CNN reports, the members joining the lawsuit are: Cohen, Reps. Karen Bass of California, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Veronica Escobar of Texas, Hank Johnson Jr. of Georgia, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, Jerry Nadler of New York, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Maxine Waters of California.

Nadler and Waters were especially outspoken and fiery critics of Trump during his presidency. Nadler led the first House impeachment of Trump in late 2019, and, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he called for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office the day after the Capitol insurrection. Trump was ultimately acquitted in both Senate impeachment trials.

“Those responsible for placing me and my colleagues in danger must face accountability for their criminality,” Nadler said in a statement. “This violence was anything but spontaneous; it was the direct result of a conspiracy to incite a riot, instigated by President Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.”

Waters spoke out forcefully against Trump before the House impeachment vote in January, calling him “the worst President in the history of the United States.” In the lawsuit, Waters discloses that following the January 6 attack she increased the number of security personnel who travels with her to and from her California home.

The lawsuit was the first civil action filed against the former President related to the attack at the U.S. Capitol, and it cited a scarcely used federal statute passed after the to combat violence from the Ku Klux Klan. The law allows civil actions to be brought against people who use “force, intimidation, or threat” to prevent anyone from upholding the duties of their office.

The lawsuit is backed by the NAACP, and its president, Derrick Johnson, accused the former President of inciting “a meticulously organized coup … that placed members of Congress and the integrity of our democracy in peril.”

In addition to Trump and Giuliani, the far-right extremist groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are also named as defendants. This newly filed amended complaint additionally names as defendants the Warboys, which operated in conjunction with the Proud Boys; and Enrique Tarrio, the alleged leader of the Proud Boys and Warboys.

Attorneys for Trump and Giuliani have not responded to requests from CNN for comment.

Research contact: @CNN

Study: Fears of ‘White people losing out’ permeate Capitol rioters’ towns

January 7, 2021

Most Americans take the Capitol rioters at their word—accepting that their motive for breaching the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was to stop the Congress from verifying the election of Democratic President Joe Biden.

However, The New York Times reports, when the political scientist Robert Pape of The University of Chicago began studying the issues that motivated the 380 or so people arrested in connection with the attack against the Capitol, he found something very different: Most of the people who took part in the assault came from places, his polling and demographic data showed, that—goaded by then-President Trump– were awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture.

Indeed, if Pape’s initial conclusions— published on Tuesday in The Washington Post—hold true, they would appear to connect the January 6 insurrrection  to the once-fringe right-wing theory called the Great Replacement— that an indigenous European (e.g., White) population is being replaced by non-European immigrants.

What’s more Pape’s conclusions appear to link the January 6 riot to events like the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 where crowds of white men marched with torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

“If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups,” Pape told the Post, adding,  “You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

One fact stood out in Pape’s study, conducted with the help of researchers at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats—a think tank he runs at the University of Chicago. Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic white population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists. This finding held true, Pape determined, even when controlling for population size, distance to Washington, unemployment rate, and urban or rural location.

Law enforcement officials have said that between 800 and 1,000 people entered the Capitol on January 6—and prosecutors have spent the past three months tracking down many of them in what they have described as one of the largest criminal investigations in U.S. history. In recent court filings, the government has hinted that more than 400 people may ultimately face charges, including illegal entry, assault of police officers and the obstruction of the official business of Congress.

According to the report by the Times. Pape determined that only about 10% percent of those charged were members of established far-right organizations like the Oath Keepers militia or the nationalist extremist group the Proud Boys. But unlike other analysts who have made similar findings,

In an effort to determine why the mob that formed on January 6 turned violent, Pape compared events that day with two previous pro-Trump rallies in Washington, on November 14 and December 12. While police records show some indications of street fighting after the first two gatherings, Pape said, the number of arrests were fewer and the charges less serious than on January 6. The records also show that those arrested in November and December largely lived within an hour of Washington while most of those arrested in January came from considerably farther away.

The difference at the rallies was former President Donald Trump, Pape said—noting that Trump promoted the January 6 rally in advance, saying it would be “wild” and driving up attendance. He then encouraged the mob to march on the Capitol in an effort to “show strength

Pape said he worried that a similar mob could be summoned again by a leader like Trump. After all, he suggested, as the country continues moving toward becoming a majority-minority nation and right-wing media outlets continue to stoke fear about the Great Replacement, the racial and cultural anxieties that lay beneath the riot at the Capitol are not going away.

“If all of this is really rooted in the politics of social change, then we have to realize that it’s not going to be solved—or solved alone—by law enforcement agencies,” Pape said. “This is political violence, not just ordinary criminal violence, and it is going to require both additional information and a strategic approach.”

 “We really still are at the beginning stages,” he said.

Research contact: @nytimes

Power play: Putin signs law enabling him to serve two more terms as Russia’s president

April 6, 2021

On April 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin—who already has served two decades as his nation’s leader—signed into law a change to the country’s constitution that will allow him to run for two more six-year terms; thereby granting himself the chance to remain in power until 2036, CBS News reports.

A copy of the new law was posted on the government’s legal information website on Monday, confirming that the legislation—the success of which was really never in doubt — had been finalized. Prior to the new law, Putin would have been required to step down after his fourth and current term in 2024. 

But in March last year, Valentina Tereshkova, a lawmaker from Putin’s ruling party, proposed the constitutional change during a discussion in the State Duma (congress). After Tereshkova, who is a Soviet cosmonaut and was the first woman to go to space, suggested the amendment, Putin himself showed up in the parliament building and offered his backing for the idea, undermining earlier speculation that he might seek to maintain power by taking another role.

In principle, CBS notes, this option would be possible, but on one condition,” Putin told lawmakers in a televised speech a year ago. “If the constitutional court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the constitution.”

Putin said then that the Russian president was “the guarantor of the country’s security and domestic stability” and that the country should avoid political upheavals. “Russia has fulfilled its plan when it comes to revolutions,” he said.

In July last year, Russians were given the opportunity to vote on a raft of constitutional reforms, including the change to the limit on presidential terms. Other measures included a proposed ban on same-sex marriages, new language mentioning for the first time the importance of “faith in God,” and measures meant to protect “traditional family values” and forbidding top officials from holding dual citizenship.

Russians could either vote for or against the whole package of changes, but there was little doubt even as ballots were cast about the outcome. The vote was seen widely as an effort to demonstrate Putin’s broad support in the country.

Political opposition leader and outspoken Putin critic Alexey Navalny—who is currently on hunger strike as he serves a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence on charges he insists are politically motivate— criticized the vote last summer as a populist spectacle designed to give the Russian leader the right to be “president for life.”

“I know that in two years, instead of working normally at all levels of the state, all eyes will be on the search for potential successors,” Putin said in an interview with state-run television last year. “We must work and not look for successors.”

He’s said at the time that he might consider running for a fifth term, but insisted that he hadn’t yet made a final decision.

Research contact: @CBSNews