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Newsclips - January 17, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 17, 2021

Embattled Texas AG Paxton’s fundraising was drying up before he filed lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden victory

Campaign contributions to embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton all but dried up last fall after senior staff accused the Republican of abusing his office to help a friend and political donor. But Paxton’s fortunes reversed in December when, cheered on by President Donald Trump, he filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in four key battleground states. In the days after mounting the unsuccessful legal bid, Paxton raked in nearly $150,000 — roughly half of his entire campaign haul in the last six months of 2020. Still, Paxton raised just $305,500 in total, a tiny amount compared to other statewide elected officials who raised millions of dollars to support their campaigns.

Paxton’s own fundraising reports have typically been in seven figures. Campaign spokesman Ian Prior did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The low fundraising numbers show Paxton’s political career “is on life support,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “He went all in to back Trump and the far right and it was a losing play,” Rottinghaus said. Paxton, in his second term, is up for reelection in 2022. His campaign account has about $5.5 million cash on hand. Some of Paxton’s biggest campaign expenses in the second half of 2020 were legal fees, including $75,000 paid to two attorneys. Those lawyers are representing Paxton in his five-year battle against a securities fraud indictment, but they said the payment was unrelated to that case. “The funds are for a legal matter occurring while in office, unrelated to the securities fraud case,” said one of the attorneys, Philip Hilder, though he did not elaborate. Paxton cannot use campaign funds to pay the attorneys in his securities fraud case because the felony charges he faces do not relate to his duties as an officeholder. After he was indicted in summer 2015, Paxton created a separate legal account funded by friends and family meant to pay for these lawyers. He’s raised more than half a million dollars for that fund.

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Dallas Morning News - January 15, 2021

Vaccine fast-track: Texas lawmakers get offer to skip the line for COVID-19 inoculation

State lawmakers are receiving the coronavirus vaccine — regardless of whether they are currently eligible under state guidelines — through a back channel facilitated by Austin’s top health authority and a local hospital system, The Dallas Morning News has learned. Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director for Austin Public Health, confirmed to The News on Thursday that he organized the vaccination effort with Ascension Seton. In the past few weeks, Escott knows at least five to 10 legislators of both parties who were vaccinated through this process. The hospital is cooperating at Escott’s request, an Ascension Seton spokesperson said, adding most of those vaccinated were eligible under state guidelines that prioritize healthcare workers, the elderly and those with certain medical vulnerabilities. But Escott said all lawmakers should be inoculated as soon as possible.

The flood of lawmakers coming to Austin for the legislative session threatens to be a superspreader for the virus across the region, Escott said. He also continues to be concerned about government continuity — that if too many legislators get sick it could disrupt the lawmaking process. On Friday, a member of the Texas House confirmed he had tested positive after spending three days on the House floor. Several of his colleagues are now in self-quarantine. Escott said he pushed, unsuccessfully, for the state to put lawmakers on a priority list for the vaccine. Unless that happens, he plans to continue offering it to lawmakers and key staff. But the move has been unpopular with some legislators who said they turned down the offer because it was unfair for them to receive the vaccine before more vulnerable constituents. Three House Democrats — Vikki Goodwin and Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Erin Zwiener of Driftwood — told The News they declined the vaccination opportunity. The issue throws into sharp relief many of the current difficulties Texas is experiencing with the vaccine rollout. As demand outstrips supply, there is widespread confusion over where to get the vaccine and disagreement over who deserves to get the shots first. Escott knew fast tracking lawmakers would be controversial.

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Houston Chronicle - January 15, 2021

Why was Texas unable to stop a second COVID surge months in the making?

For a second time, a surge in COVID-19 cases has pushed Texas hospitals beyond their base capacity, thwarted the state’s plan to reopen businesses and spurred a wave of deaths that health experts say was avoidable. Instead of effectively mitigating a virus that already has killed more than 30,000, Texas is enduring one of its darkest chapters of the COVID-19 pandemic as state officials scramble to vaccinate 29 million residents. Critics of Gov. Greg Abbott’s October reopening guidelines say state leaders are repeating many of the same mistakes from last summer’s crisis by opting against tighter restrictions, fighting local officials’ efforts to close high-risk businesses and relaying mixed messages to the public.

City and county leaders are sending conflicting signals of their own, urging residents to stay home and avoid crowds while doing little to enforce mask rules or capacity limits, citing a lack of manpower. And many of their constituents simply have tuned out the partisan bickering and given up on following health guidelines. Fatigued after 10 months, some members of the public largely have resumed their normal lives, gathering unmasked with others, ensuring the virus continues to spread. Those pushing for more action say Abbott could permit rules that stop short of a full-scale shutdown, such as limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery, that would preserve businesses while still doing more to contain the spread. “I understand there’s businesses, and we don’t want the economy to be completely devastated, but I think we were aggressive on opening up things early, and we weren’t aggressive on pulling things back when things were starting to get serious,” said Kirstin Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

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Associated Press - January 16, 2021

Third confirmed coronavirus variant is reported in Texas

A third confirmed case of a variant of the coronavirus was been reported Saturday in Texas by Dallas County Health and Human Services. The agency reported that a Dallas man in his 20s with no history of travel outside the United States tested positive for the variant first identified in the United Kingdom and known as B.1.1.7.

Texas is among a handful of states with at least one known case of the new variant, but state health officials say there is no evidence it causes more severe disease and that current vaccines are expected to still be effective. “The emergence of strain B.1.1.7, while inevitable given the mobility of the modern world and the fact that we are a major transportation hub, means that there is a strain that is 70% more contagious in our community and it will grow quickly," Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said. Texas reported a Houston-area man as its first case of a person infected with the new variant on Jan. 7. The state health department on Saturday reported more than 240,000 new cases and 381 additional death and has reported more than 2 million cases and more than 31,00 deaths since the pandemic began.

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CNBC - January 17, 2021

Trump retains overwhelming support from Republicans after deadly U.S. Capitol attack: NBC poll

President Donald Trump retains overwhelming support from Republican voters in the final days of his term, an NBC News poll conducted after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol shows. Nearly nine in 10 Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, according to the survey, a figure virtually unchanged from just ahead of the November contest. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans said they approved of Trump before the election, compared to 87% in the most recent poll.

The poll, which comes as Trump faces an unprecedented second impeachment trial in the Senate, suggests that Republican support for the president did not waver as a result of the Jan. 6 attack in Washington, in which Trump supporters violently delayed the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. The data foreshadows the political trouble GOP leaders could face if they attempt to sideline the outgoing president. Trump and his allies have threatened to work against Republicans who refused to back his attempts to reverse the results of the 2020 election. Overall, Trump’s approval rating was 43%, well within the same narrow range throughout his entire term in office. Trump’s approval was 44% in February of 2017, shortly after he was inaugurated. Experts have said that the stability of Trump’s ratings reflect an extraordinarily polarized U.S. electorate. The poll was conducted between Sunday and Wednesday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on Wednesday by a vote of 232-197. Every Democrat and 10 Republicans voted to impeach.

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State Stories

Austin American-Statesman - January 16, 2021

These Texans have been charged in the Capitol riot — so far

At least four Texans are among the more than 100 people charged so far in connection with the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The FBI continues to comb the country for people who stormed the Capitol, halting proceedings in the House and Senate to certify Joe Biden's election victory. The four-hour incursion left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer. Many of the perpetrators left extensive digital fingerprints of their activities that day, including photographs and videos from inside the Capitol. Here's what we know about the four Texans charged so far:

Larry Brock: The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Grapevine was identified by his ex-wife through the FBI’s special “Most Wanted” page for Capitol Violence and charged Thursday in federal court in Fort Worth. Photos show Brock in combat gear carrying zip tie restraints in the Senate chamber just minutes after Vice President Mike Pence and senators had been evacuated. "He means to take hostages. He means to kidnap, restrain, perhaps try, perhaps execute members of the U.S. government," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Weimer said of Brock in court, according to media reports. The zip restraints, also known as flex cuffs, were particularly worrisome to law enforcement because the mob can be heard on multiple videos chanting “Hang Mike Pence” while walking through the Capitol.

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Austin American-Statesman - January 15, 2021

Why advocates are hopeful for environmental agenda in legislative session

State lawmakers will have their hands full during this year’s legislative session managing coronavirus pandemic response efforts, redrawing district lines for state and congressional districts, and balancing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget during a turbulent economic period. But environmental advocates are hopeful that legislators will tackle other serious issues that could affect the state’s future, including reducing emissions and improving safety regulations for energy producers and storage facilities. “We recognize that some of these priorities of ours will be very difficult to pass,” said Cyrus Reed, interim director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Part of our job is to raise the profile of these issues. Some are more long-term struggles, and others are, I think, immediately achievable.”

Recent explosions and fires involving petroleum and chemical storage tanks plus a president-elect with an ambitious climate change agenda have advocates feeling optimistic that lawmakers could take action during this year’s session. A continuing priority for environmental advocates in Texas is to push legislators to take further steps to tackle air pollution by studying ways to reduce harmful emissions and fully funding programs aimed at reducing pollution. That includes adequately funding regulatory agencies responsible for oversight. “We continue to always be concerned about all of these issues and ensuring that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission have sufficient staff to inspect and ensure companies comply with the rules,” Reed said. “That’s an important issue that comes up every session, because these agencies have been underfunded and we need more boots on the ground.”

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Austin American-Statesman - January 15, 2021

The scooter story: It's been a bumpy, up-and-down ride for e-scooters in Austin

Rental scooters faced down eradication in Austin in 2020, with several companies leaving the market when use cratered as COVID-19 took hold locally. But today, the zippy two-wheelers appear to have found a modicum of stability in the Austin market. Love 'em or hate 'em, the electric micro-mobility devices now appear like they are here to stay. But getting to this point has not been easy for companies like Lime and Bird, Austin's remaining stand-up scooter operators. Scooter rental companies with punchy names like Skip, Spin, Scoot and Jump all tried to make Austin's sidewalks and streets a bedrock for their success. In total, 14 such companies took a shot at building their brand in Austin since 2018.

Today, only three operators remain – Lime and Bird, along with Wheels, which operates sit-down scooters. An American-Statesman review of licenses and permits shows the fast-paced entry into the Austin market of scooters, dockless e-bikes and other shared devices that fall under the umbrella of micro-mobility. The rapid rise and fall of so many companies reflects how Austin's ecosystem for scooters evolved from a wild west of unprofitable venture capital-funded startups to a regulated space where a few industry leaders have emerged. Especially downtown, it became hard to drive, walk or bike a single block without seeing at least one scooter. "The industry itself was moving about 200 miles per hour before COVID hit, and then all of a sudden it came to a screeching stop," said Joseph Al-Hajeri, shared mobility services supervisor for the city of Austin.

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Austin American-Statesman - January 17, 2021

Stephanie Rubin: Legislature must help Texas kids recover from the pandemic

(Rubin is CEO of Texans Care for Children.) This pandemic is hard on all Texans — including kids. So now that the state legislative session is gearing up, children are counting on legislators to give them the best chance at recovery. Before COVID, legislators were about to launch interim hearings on several issues focused on child well-being, including health care, education and foster care. Since then, COVID exacerbated and revealed the depths of those challenges — which could linger much longer than the pandemic unless the Legislature takes action now. And the clock is ticking on time-sensitive policy issues for many kids: infants and toddlers who won’t get a second chance at healthy early childhood brain development, young students who have had trouble learning to read during virtual school, or kids at risk of abuse or suicide.

Let’s start with health care. The pandemic showed that quality, affordable health care must be available to all Texans, including families with jobs in child care, restaurants, grocery stores, or other low-wage sectors that often don’t provide health insurance. To support healthy babies and moms, legislators should extend Medicaid health insurance to moms for a full year after pregnancy, building on legislators’ work creating the Healthy Texas Women Plus program last session. Lawmakers can also support healthy kids by ensuring Medicaid insurance for children of low-wage workers lasts for 12 straight months. To support healthy Texans, legislators should also fully fund health and human services, including the women’s health services facing proposed state cuts, under-funded Early Childhood Intervention services for toddlers with disabilities, and staff to help kids and pregnant women enroll in health insurance. To do that during a revenue shortfall, legislators can tap the rainy day fund, federal COVID relief funds, and federal Medicaid expansion dollars. Yes, with COVID reshaping the landscape, it’s time to pass Medicaid expansion to shore up the state budget, pump up our economy, and connect more workers with health care. Beyond health care, the pandemic has also disrupted student learning. To help students get on track, legislators should fully fund education — keeping the commitments they made last session — even as enrollment dips due to the pandemic. To ensure students can concentrate on academics after this year of prolonged stress and trauma, the Legislature should ensure school districts can implement the strong student mental health steps passed last session.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 15, 2021

Bexar County nonprofits’ COVID-19 relief efforts get boost from Humana

Health insurer Humana has committed more than $2.5 million to COVID-19 relief efforts across Texas, with about 20 percent going to organizations that benefit San Antonio area residents. Communities In Schools of Texas received $250,000 for a crisis fund for students in the largest school districts in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. The fund provides assistance for rent, utilities, food, clothing and personal hygiene items during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bexar County Community Health Collaborative got $260,000, which will be spent on training and certification with job placement support for additional community health workers. The workers serve hundreds of low income families within Bexar and surrounding counties as part of the collaborative’s Community Hub Model. “Humana’s generous investment will allow us to increase workforce capacity needed to connect more families to any resources they need,” said Elizabeth Lutz, the collaborative’s executive director. The donations come from the Louisville-based company’s Medicaid business, Humana Healthy Horizons, and its philanthropic arm, The Humana Foundation.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 16, 2021

Hospitals full. Thousands infected with coronavirus each week. San Antonio pays the price for failing to flatten the curve.

These days, Amanda Salinas scarcely has time to catch her breath. Six days a week, when she goes to Northeast Baptist Hospital for her nursing shift in the emergency department, she is met with the grim reality of San Antonio’s COVID-19 surge. People on stretchers crowding the hallways. Waiting room lines longer than she ever has seen. Patients languishing in the emergency room for days, sometimes for so long that they are discharged before a bed becomes available for them upstairs. Hospital staff weary from working under arduous conditions, with little respite, for the better part of a year.

This isn’t the first surge Salinas has endured. She has worked at the hospital under a state contract since summer, when San Antonio was pummeled by its first major wave of coronavirus infections. This time, things are different. “The first one was manageable. This one is way worse,” Salinas said. “This is the worst I’ve seen.” With about 1,400 COVID-19 patients in hospitals on any given day, San Antonio is contending with its greatest coronavirus crisis yet. Hospitals, health care workers and local officials are scrambling to ward off disaster. “The boat is leaking, and so the health systems are running around trying to patch the ship, make sure it stays afloat,” said Dr. Jason Morrow, a University Hospital palliative care physician and UT Health San Antonio associate professor. “But somebody keeps pouring more and more water in.” They are bracing for the possibility that San Antonio’s hospital systems could become overrun with patients, a worst-case scenario referred to as “Crisis Level 3” in a local emergency plan. Scarce resources would be devoted to those with the best chance of short-term survival, with the goal of saving as many people as possible.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 14, 2021

'This is how it’s spreading': Val Verde official says woman broke quarantine for San Antonio concert

A South Texas official called for personal accountability after a woman with COVID-19 attended a San Antonio concert. Lewis Owens, the Val Verde County Judge, posted a Facebook video Sunday noting that residents were asking county leaders and the local health authority what officials were doing about a spike in coronavirus cases. "It’s not up to us anymore folks," Owens said. "It’s up to y'all."

Owens gave the example of a Val Verde County resident who went to the Cody Johnson concert Friday at Cowboys Dancehall. The woman had tested positive for the virus and left quarantine to attend the concert. The woman was seen in Snapchat videos wearing a mask around her wrist, according to Owens. She initially told contact tracers she had left home after fighting with her mother, but eventually confessed she had gone to the country concert. "People say that we need to do a better job. No. Y'all need to do a better job," Owens said. "That’s how this s*** is spreading. People like her bring that stuff back and they kill families and kill their parents or whatever." A citation was issued to the woman. Owens told his constituents that he plans to release her name publicly when the citation process is complete. After the concert, Cowboys Dancehall received two citations for violating San Antonio's emergency orders, for a total of seven since March. The city warned the venue its certificate of occupancy will be revoked if it receives another citation.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 15, 2021

A new crop of Texas-led lawsuits awaits Joe Biden's White House

President-elect Joe Biden has big plans for his first 100 days in office, when he’s vowed to roll back the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, push policies addressing climate change and potentially forgive student debt for thousands of Americans. He’s also said he’ll push a mask mandate to combat COVID-19 and wants Congress to pass another massive stimulus package. And in the longer term, Biden has talked about rewriting the tax code to raise taxes on the rich. Texas is almost certain to fight him every step of the way.

The state is about to be back on the front lines battling against the federal government, a long tradition for its Republican leaders, from former Gov. Rick Perry to Gov. Greg Abbott — who as the state’s attorney general famously said, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” Abbott’s successor, Attorney General Ken Paxton, has been just as committed to pushing back on federal laws and mandates championed by Democrats. Most recently he led a failed lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s victory in four battleground states at the U.S. Supreme Court. Paxton did not respond to a request for comment. As Biden takes office next week, many expect the state to pick up where it left off after suing the Obama administration dozens of times to stop initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, scrap protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and end the Affordable Care Act. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation — which filed the Obamacare challenge that Paxton joined and is now before the Supreme Court — is gearing up to start grinding out challenges to a slew of White House priorities regarding immigration, energy and taxes.

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Dallas Morning News - January 16, 2021

‘Ted’s been cancelled’: Cruz’s 2024 ambitions hobbled by Capitol riot, but he could rebound in Biden era

Backlash against Sen. Ted Cruz continues to mount over the shocking spectacle of a riot at the Capitol, and the deadly episode has cast a dark shadow over his ambitions. Already reviled by the left, the Texan has been targeted in the past week with petitions demanding he resign and lose his license to practice law. Democrats have called for the Senate to expel him. The chair of the House homeland security panel wants him added to the “no fly” list.

But the Biden era that starts at noon Jan. 20 may give the two-term Republican a shot to revive his reputation, allowing him to reprise the role of conservative foil for a Democratic president that he milked in the Obama years. “Cruz is very talented, really savvy. Obviously ambitious. The first time he ran for president he did really well. I would never count him out. But it’s hard to argue that the last few weeks have been helpful,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. “Cruz has angered a lot of people who otherwise could be helpful to him in a future campaign.” Cruz didn’t address the mob that stormed the Capitol and he has forcefully denounced the violence. But as one of the leading voices amplifying President Trump’s demand to overturn the election, he’s been swept up in the fallout from the riot. Through aides, the senator declined interview requests and did not respond to the demands for his resignation and other sanctions.

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Dallas Morning News - January 17, 2021

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Customs and Border Protection just picked a fight with the Chinese Communist Party

The federal government has a powerful tool at its disposal in the fight against human trafficking and forced labor. It’s one that should be used more. It’s called a Withhold Release Order (WRO), and it allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to halt the import of goods made by slaves. The government has had this power since 1930, but has only recently ramped up its use. In 2016, Congress closed a loophole in the law, and in the years since then CBP has issued more WROs than ever before. Between 1930 and 2019, CBP issued 51 WROs. Last year alone it issued 13 and detained almost 300 shipments worth $50 million.

Not surprisingly, the country from which the most flagged shipments comes is China. On Wednesday, the CBP announced a broad new WRO against the entire Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for cotton and tomato products produced there. That action may affect hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods, though a precise scope is hard to estimate. According to Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of the CBP Office of Trade, the U.S. imported more than $9 billion worth of cotton goods and more than $10 million worth of tomato products from China last year. Smith’s office couldn’t provide an estimate of what percentage of those imports came from Xinjiang. But forced labor almost certainly exists in China outside of one province, and this week’s order applies not only to raw goods from Xinjiang but from all goods produced with materials from there, some of which may be imported to the U.S. from other countries. Scott Nova, executive director at a labor rights organization called Worker Rights Consortium, told The Associated Press that Wednesday’s WRO could affect as much as 20% of the global cotton supply.

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Dallas Morning News - January 16, 2021

Dallas man urged armed return to Capitol to ‘hunt these cowards down,’ authorities say

A third North Texan has been arrested after a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, with federal authorities saying he urged an armed return to hunt down Democrats and others. Troy Anthony Smocks, 58, faces a charge of knowingly and willfully transmitting threats in interstate commerce. He was taken into custody Friday, authorities said. According to authorities, Smocks traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, the day before the deadly riot at the Capitol.

The following day, police said, he posted on Parler — a Twitter-like social-media site popular with conservatives and others who believe Twitter censors their speech — about the insurrection, writing that Trump’s supporters would return to Washington on Jan. 19, and that they would be armed. “We will come in numbers that no standing army or police agency can match,” he wrote, according to a criminal complaint. Smocks traveled back to Texas the next day, authorities said, and continued posting about a return to the Capitol. “Prepare our weapons, and then go get ’em,” he wrote, according to the complaint. “Lets hunt these cowards down like the Traitors that each of them are. This includes RINOS, Dems, and Tech Execs.” His posts were viewed tens of thousands of times, police said. Authorities noted that, although he used the account name “@Colonel007” on Parler, Smocks is not a member of the military or a colonel in any law-enforcement organization.

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Dallas Morning News - January 15, 2021

Dallas lawyer Sidney Powell’s Texas roots: Ambition, prestige and a propensity for conspiracy theories

Decades before Sidney Powell joined President Donald Trump’s “elite strike force team” of lawyers alleging voter fraud without evidence, the lawyer made her name in Texas legal circles. She rose to national prominence in her battle to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, alleging voter fraud at the hand of election companies, including far-reaching conspiracy theories. In one press conference with Trump’s lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Powell claimed that Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, directed Dominion voting machines to take votes from Trump and flip them to President-elect Joe Biden.

Trump’s legal team dropped Powell soon after. One Trump campaign official told The Washington Post that Powell “was too crazy even for the president.” Powell’s allegations of voter fraud are “garbage,” said Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “It’s a lot of nonsense stapled together in a way that is designed to look impressive to someone who is not very technically literate,” Sanchez said. “But it’s just obviously nonsense to anyone who is minimally technically literate.” Powell has still been involved in Trump’s fight against the election results, filing lawsuits riddled with spelling errors and expert witnesses who lack expertise. Trump even discussed tapping Powell to be the special counsel overseeing an investigation of voter fraud, a plan his advisers, including Giuliani opposed, according to The New York Times.

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Houston Chronicle - January 17, 2021

Galveston-based border wall contractor finds itself at center of federal whistle-blower lawsuit

On a gray, blustery Tuesday in Alamo, Texas, President Donald Trump stood in front of a completed portion of the border wall on the southern Texas-Mexico border and touted the completion of 452 miles during his term. “We reformed our immigration and achieved the most secure southern border in U.S. history,” Trump proclaimed. Unmentioned in Trump’s remarks was that 163 miles of the wall are being built by a Galveston-based contractor accused in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit of illegally hiring Mexican nationals to guard border-wall construction sites in California.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant unsealed a complaint filed by two former contract employees of Sullivan Land Services Co. (SLS) — a construction company founded and operated by brothers Todd, John and William “Billy” Sullivan. The complaint also alleges that SLS hired “unvetted workers” to work on its job sites at the border, and allowed a subcontractor to construct an illegal dirt road to ferry armed Mexican nationals across the border to provide security, all with the approval of an Army Corps of Engineers supervisor. High-level employees of SLS as well as Ultimate Concrete of El Paso, its subcontractor on the project, allegedly made false statements not only about the hiring of Mexican workers, but also overcharging for construction costs. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the false-claims allegations and notified the court in December that it would not intervene, allowing the case to proceed in federal court without DOJ involvement. Through a spokeswoman, Liz Rogers, the Sullivans declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

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Houston Chronicle - January 16, 2021

Far-right media personality 'Baked Alaska' charged in Capitol riot, arrested in Houston

A far-right media personality known as "Baked Alaska" was arrested Friday in Houston on federal charges for entering the U.S. Capitol during last week's violent insurrection, according to federal officials. The man live-streamed his own profanity-filled rampage through the Capitol in a video used as evidence against him. Anthime Joseph Gionet is charged with knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building without lawful authority and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, according to a criminal complaint filed last week in U.S. district court.

Gionet entered the Capitol between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. alongside a throng of Trump supporters who smashed windows, desecrated lawmakers' offices and fought with law enforcement officials. Five people died during the riot. In a 27-minute video posted to DLive, a streaming platform, Gionet chronicled his involvement in the riot. The video was later posted to YouTube and Twitter where FBI agents discovered it, according to court documents. Nearly three minutes into the live-stream, Gionet flips the camera to show his face, which is "clearly identifiable," an FBI investigator reported. Gionet can be heard remarking, "Unleash the Kraken, let's go" and "Occupy the Capitol let's go. We ain't leaving this bitch." He repeatedly encourages other protesters not to leave, according to the criminal complaint. At one point, the video captures him entering an office and sitting on a couch with his feet on a table. He accused a law enforcement officer of shoving him, though no shoving can be seen on the video, and yelled at the officer, calling the person an "oathbreaker."

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Houston Chronicle - January 17, 2021

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Purge of Trump, Parler show Big Tech firms have too much power

There’s no question that disinformation — outright lies or the misrepresentation of facts — is a worsening plague on our democracy. It is not limited to any party, ideology or sector — nor do its purveyors respect any boundaries of basic decency and fairness. Because of this, mounting pressure from concerned citizens and government officials to rid the internet of the worst offenses, and offenders, has led Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies to take strong action.

Often, these severe steps are welcome, as was the case with Alex Jones, the Austin-based creator of InfoWars.com whose loathsome videos were banned by Twitter and YouTube in 2018. A menace for decades, Jones’ reach wasn’t curtailed until he engaged in a prolonged harassment campaign against the grieving parents of children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. Jones branded one of the worst mass killings in American history a hoax and their parents liars, causing some to receive death threats. It’s hard to fathom a more deserving recipient of the social media death sentence than Jones. Yet, the recent response to President Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube was a cacophonous mix of cheers and outrage, even though the move came only after the president’s relentless posting of false claims about voter fraud spurred thousands to storm the U.S. Capitol in a deadly clash that rattled the underpinnings of American democracy. The logic of banning Trump amid escalating threats of violence is clear. But so is the reason for concern. America is a country where censorship is viewed as an Orwellian harbinger of tyranny, a country where the commitment to free expression is so strong that words of hate enjoy the same protection as words of prayer.

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KUT - January 15, 2021

DPS closes Texas Capitol grounds, citing 'armed protests' planned by 'violent extremists' ahead of the inauguration

Anticipating violence from armed demonstrators, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it will close the state Capitol grounds ahead of Inauguration Day. The grounds will be closed Saturday through Wednesday. In an announcement Friday evening, DPS Director Steve McCraw said the agency was acting out of an "abundance of caution" and that it had been made aware of events planned by "violent extremists" ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol this week and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events to conduct criminal acts,” McCraw said. “As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and enforce the rule of law.” In a bulletin to law enforcement this week, the FBI said it expects gatherings of armed demonstrators at all 50 state capitols ahead of Inauguration Day. Austin Mayor Steve Adler tweeted shortly before DPS announcement that his office "was aware of upcoming gatherings" at the Capitol. The Austin Police Department told KUT on Friday it had seen unconfirmed reports of "militia or extremist" groups assembling at the state Capitol, and that it would be on alert over the next week. "APD said it was not aware of any credible threats to the public, but maintains a heightened security posture," a spokesperson said. Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas Gregg Sofer warned his office would pursue federal charges against Capitol demonstrators who "threaten to harm others, commit acts of violence, destroy property or attack law enforcement."

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 17, 2021

Attorney, education nonprofit executive will enter a packed race for Fort Worth mayor

A lawyer who left a Fort Worth city government post in 2019 to head an education nonprofit intends to join a swelling list of candidates in the mayor’s race. Mattie Parker, a former chief of staff for the mayor and council, said that she was ready to emerge from background government roles and succeed Mayor Betsy Price in the city’s top elected office. Price announced last week that she would not seek a sixth term. After considering the elements of a city at a turning point that she could improve, Parker, 37, said that she intends on Tuesday to file to run for mayor. Parker lives with her husband and children in the Ridglea North neighborhood.

Parker is CEO of Cradle to Career, part of the nonprofit Tarrant To and Through, which is focused on education and increasing the number of students who attend college and complete other post-high school training. “I think I have, I know I have, a very unique skill set,” she said. Parker directed for five years policy and strategy as the chief of staff for Price and the Fort Worth City Council. She was previously district director and campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, chief of staff for State Rep. Phil King and former Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick’s executive assistant. Parker said that beyond education quality, her vision for the city includes steadying a novel coronavirus pandemic-altered economy. Fort Worth must welcome entrepreneurs and businesses that will attract young employees, she said. Parker also said that she would focus on public safety and efforts to be certain that the city is inclusive. Parker, who was raised in Hico, in Central Texas, on her family’s ranch, is the sixth candidate to enter the race. Councilmembers Brian Byrd and Ann Zadeh, Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples and two political newcomers, Mike Haynes and Chris Rector, are also candidates in the May 1 election.

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Brownsville Herald - January 15, 2021

DSHS announces vaccine supply to ramp up in February

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Friday that doses of COVID-19 vaccines would be distributed at capacity to registered health care providers next month however, it’s unclear how likely that is to occur as a report on Friday by the Washington Post states that reserves of the vaccine had already been depleted. Dr. Emilie Prot, regional medical director for DSHS Region 11, announced that as of Feb. 1, the state would be able to distribute doses to the providers authorized to administer the vaccine at capacity. “So let’s say there’s a provider that can get 1,000 people vaccinated per day, (DSHS) will start giving them a 1,000 vaccines per day to allocate out, but that will start Feb. 1,” Prot said during a weekly news conference call on Friday.

She explained that the federal government was holding on to second doses of the vaccines which are administered to individuals who have already received a first dose. The two doses are needed for the vaccines to achieve full effectiveness which is reported to be 95%. On Tuesday, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced they would be releasing second doses that were held on reserve. “They’ve been saving that second dose because we were unsure, and they were unsure, about the capability of the manufacturer to get that same number of vaccines prepared and ready for distribution,” Prot said. However, on Friday afternoon, the Washington Post reported those reserves had already been depleted, claiming the Trump administration had started shipping out the doses in December. Prot, though, indicated that the increased supply to providers next month was at least partly due to the ability of laboratories and and manufacturers to speed up production. Right now, there are still not enough doses of the vaccines to meet the demand but Prot asked that people be patient.

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Fox News - January 15, 2021

Van Duyne urges GOP House members to 'refuse any and all' Big Tech money over 'censorship'

Freshman GOP Rep. Beth Van Duyne is calling on House Republican colleagues to "refuse any and all contributions" from Big Tech companies, saying they are using their "power" to "silence conservative voices." In a letter to House Republicans on Friday, Van Duyne, R-Texas, who was elected in November and recently sworn in, called out Big Tech companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and said they "have frequently abused their power and market dominance to effectively censor conservative voices."

"Last week, this censorship reached a new, concerning level as Twitter permanently banned the President of the United States," Van Duyne wrote. "Other companies quickly followed suit, with Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and others banning the president." Van Duyne said the permanent suspension of Trump from the platforms "has revealed a stunning double standard," slamming the social media companies for allowing content from leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and Iran to continue to use their platforms. "This stunning double standard makes clear Twitter is not looking out for their users’ safety — they are wielding their dangerously influential market power to actively censor voices their top brass disagrees with," Van Duyne wrote. Van Duyne said that she hopes the new Congress "will continue investigating and analyzing whether our laws are effectively governing how these companies are able to operate." "In the meantime, we need to put our money where our mouth is," Van Duyne wrote to colleagues.

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Texas Standard - January 15, 2021

New Texas House rules reflect COVID-19 risks; don’t allow public to testify virtually

As the Texas House of Representatives’ session got underway this week, debates continued about how the body would address COVID-19 risks, including about the impact of the virus on voting in the House chamber and on public access to the legislative process. Scott Braddock is editor of the Quorum Report. He told Texas Standard that the 150 House members will not be allowed to cast floor votes from home or from other remote locations, but they can vote from laptops while at the Capitol. The goal is to facilitate social distancing. “They have given them laptops that are supposedly secure laptops that they can vote from,” Braddock said. “[Members can vote from] the gallery or from rooms that are immediately adjoining the Texas House floor, so they can do that spacing a little bit better … or they can still vote from their desks on the House floor.”

One reasons House leaders wanted to prevent remote voting is that it could look like a precedent for election procedures in the future. Conservative opponents of remote voting for their constituents don’t want to allow it in the House. Lawmakers also have said the process of legislating is better done in person, where persuasion can be brought to bear. “Legislating – it’s a very intimate process,” Braddock said. “It’s an eyeball-to-eyeball kind of thing.” Public input rules have also shifted because of COVID-19. “Under the House rules, in committees other than redistricting, only two lawmakers have to be present in the room for it to constitute a quorum, so they can listen to testimony on various pieces of legislation,” Braddock said. That testimony must be offered in person, even though lawmakers can attend meetings virtually. Rules governing the 2021 redistricting process have already put Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides, with Republicans voting down all changes Democrats proposed to the deliberation process, without making specific responses to the proposals. “The reason you don’t talk about redistricting when you’re a Republican is that this is going to end up in a courtroom,” Braddock said. “Redistricting is something that’s always heavily litigated.”

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times - January 15, 2021

Gov. Abbott denounces 'violence and mayhem' at US Capitol

Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking to a conservative audience Thursday evening, denounced the deadly violence by the supporters of President Donald Trump last week at the U.S. Capitol. "Protest is expected in the United States of America, but it must be done peaceably," Abbott said during a conference by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, holding its policy orientation for Republican lawmakers as the 2021 legislative session gets underway. "Violence and mayhem are not protected by the United States Constitution. What happened to desecrate our Capitol was irresponsible, disrespectful, should never have happened. And we need to ensure it will never happen again."

The Republican governor's appearance came one day after Congress again voted to impeach president Donald Trump, this time for his incendiary comments Jan. 6 to supporters, some of whom later attempted overtake the Capitol. Five died in the violence, including a Capitol police officer. Abbott did not mention Trump during the question-and-answer session with the Texas Public Policy Foundation moderator. Nor did he mention the president's debunked claim central to the insurrection that Democrat Joe Biden's victory in the Nov. 3 presidential election was gained through theft. But Abbott did suggest that conservative viewpoints are becoming increasingly muzzled, even more so in the wake of the Capitol riot. "We need to erect safeguards for conservative speech," he said. Abbott, who did not take questions from reporters after his remarks, did not provide examples of limits on conservative speech. But two days after Trump was permanently barred from Twitter for his posts during and after the rioting, Abbott used Twitter to call for sanctions against social media outlets that limit expression. "Canceling conservative speech is hostile to the free speech foundation America was built on," the governor tweeted on Jan. 8. "There is no reason why social media organizations that pick & choose which speech they allow to be protected by the liability protections" under federal law.

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County Stories

Austin American-Statesman - January 11, 2021

New Williamson sheriff axes deputies, others resign, including those in Javier Ambler's death

Nearly 20 employees of the Williamson County sheriff’s office, including two deputies involved in the death of Javier Ambler II, have resigned or been fired as newly elected Sheriff Mike Gleason reboots a beleaguered department that has been under scrutiny for months. Other deputies who also have departed in the past two weeks include several highlighted by the American-Statesman in an ongoing investigation into questionable force and law enforcement tactics used during the tenure of former sheriff Robert Chody.

Gleason, who took office Jan. 1 after becoming the first Democrat elected to a countywide position in nearly 30 years, said he wants to restore the department’s reputation and rebuild badly damaged community trust. He said that effort began with asking all of former Chody’s command staff to resign and informing others that they would be placed under investigation for possible policy violations during Chody’s tenure. Several of those deputies had been department stars, featured on the department’s social media accounts and the now-defunct TV reality show “Live PD.” “We were not shy about, ‘If we uncover something criminal that we would prosecute you,’” Gleason told the Statesman. “I think a lot of people just wanted to move on down the road.” Deputy J.J. Johnson resigned Dec. 31, Chody’s last day in office, while deputy Zach Camden left at the end of November, following the election, according to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Chody did not discipline them — and his chief deputy commended them — for how they handled Ambler’s arrest in March 2019.

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National Stories

Politico - January 16, 2021

Trump blows up the Arizona GOP on his way out

The Trump era did more damage to the Republican Party in Arizona than almost anywhere else. Over the past two years, Republicans lost both Senate seats. In November, the state flipped Democratic in a presidential race for the first time since 1996. The GOP state party chair is currently at war with the governor. President Donald Trump’s fingerprints are on all of it, yet the state party will likely pass a resolution next week to officially “support & thank” the president. It’ll also vote on measures to censure three prominent Republicans who were deemed insufficiently beholden to Trump: Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the wife of the late senator.

The adulation is an expression of GOP grassroots loyalty to Trump, but it’s also a portrait of a party that’s run aground in service to him. His defeat has triggered attempts to adopt an even harder pro-Trump line, raising questions about the party’s ability to compete in an increasingly diverse state that’s edging leftward. “The craziness from the state Republican Party … it’s pretty embarrassing,” said Kirk Adams, a former Republican state House speaker and former chief of staff to Ducey. “We have been fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories and stolen election rhetoric and, really, QAnon theories from the state Republican Party since before the election, but certainly after.” He said, “What’s … consequential is the effect the state Republican Party is having on the Republican brand in the state of Arizona.” The fallout has been swift. Several thousand Arizona Republicans have abandoned the party since the U.S. Capitol riot that Trump helped to incite, with the majority of the defectors re-registering without a designated party, according to state elections officials. Business leaders are publicly recoiling from the GOP after party officials thrust Arizona into the center of Trump’s failed effort to overturn the election results, further dividing an already fractured party.

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Politico - January 15, 2021

Trump weighing a pardon for Steve Bannon

President Donald Trump is considering granting a pardon to Steve Bannon, his former White House chief strategist and top campaign aide, who was charged with swindling donors to a private crowdsourcing effort to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The potential pardon would follow a wave of reprieves the president has recently granted to political allies who have been convicted, charged or reportedly under federal investigation. Two additional batches of pardons are expected — one on Friday night and one Wednesday morning before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, according to one of the people.

Trump is expected to leave Washington Wednesday morning. Bannon, the former executive chairman of the right-wing Breitbart News, was one of four men indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in August on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in connection with their roles in the non-profit group “We Build the Wall.” Trump sought to distance himself from the project at the time of Bannon’s arrest, saying it was “done for showboating reasons” and describing it as “inappropriate.” Bannon has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and is due to stand trial in May 2021. The president had previously severed ties with Bannon — who was fired from the White House in 2017 — began talking again a couple months ago to strategize ways to overturn the election, according to a third person. Bannon served as de facto campaign manager during the final months of the 2016 presidential race. After he was fired from the White House, Trump said he had “lost his mind.”

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Wall Street Journal - January 16, 2021

Some GOP freshmen mock masks, embrace gun rights, spar with colleagues

Some freshman Republican lawmakers are stirring up controversy just days into their terms, drawing attention well beyond their districts as well as criticism from colleagues in both parties. Republicans including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado are entering the spotlight at a combustible time. Some have loudly refused to wear masks used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and objected to metal detectors placed at the entrances to the House chamber after the U.S. Capitol riot. Colleagues are questioning whether freshman lawmakers’ words played any role in stoking anger among President Trump’s supporters before the assault. Mr. Trump was impeached Wednesday over his exhortations to the crowd.

“It’s been a hell of a first 10 days,” said freshman Rep. Nancy Mace (R., S.C.), 43 years old, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. She voted to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s win, voted against President Trump’s impeachment and has followed House rules. “This was not what I thought Congress was going to be like,” she said. Outspoken freshmen aren’t a new phenomenon. Two years ago liberal House Democrats charged into Washington, where their outspokenness, social-media savvy and willingness to tangle with party leaders raised their wattage above lawmakers who had toiled in the Capitol for years. Now some first-term Republicans are using social media to elbow into the debate over the most divisive issues in the nation. This year’s crowd of high-visibility Republicans began to emerge last year, when Mrs. Greene won a House GOP primary, following Ms. Boebert’s upset primary victory in her state. Both were ardently pro-Trump and had expressed interest in QAnon far-right-wing conspiracy theories alleging a “deep state” within the government. They each distanced themselves from QAnon before winning general election victories in November.

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The Guardian - January 17, 2021

Joe Manchin: the conservative Democrat with leverage in a split Senate

There’s a meme going around concerning Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. It shows a futuristic city of gleaming skyscrapers and flying cars and an accompanying caption that reads something like: “West Virginia after Manchin has used all the leverage he has in the next Congress.” In other words, people expect Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in the federal government, to wield power like never before thanks to the 50-50 split in the Senate left by Democrats’ double win in the Georgia runoff races.

Manchin, a three-term senator and former governor of West Virginia, is the most well-known of a set of moderate Republicans and Democrats who can decide whether to slow down legislation to a crawl or open a pathway to it becoming law. “There is going to be an important role for him to play as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat regardless of who won control of the Senate,” said Nick Rahall, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia. Democrats have the slimmest of majorities in the Senate. The divide is Democrats control 50 seats and Republicans control 50 seats, which means when Kamala Harris becomes vice-president and her replacement, Alex Padilla of California, is sworn in as senator, Harris will be the tie-breaking vote.

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Newsweek - January 7, 2021

45 percent of Republican voters support storming of Capitol building: poll

Almost half of Republicans support the pro-Trump protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on this month, putting them at odds with Democrats who largely oppose the actions of the demonstrators, a poll has found. The survey released by YouGov on Thursday morning found that 45 percent of Republican voters backed the attack on the Capitol building, while 43 percent said they "strongly or somewhat" opposed the protesters' behavior.

Six percent of Republicans were unsure while a further 6 percent said they were unaware of the events. By comparison, an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters (96 percent) said they were strongly or somewhat opposed to the actions of pro-Trump protesters—actions that led to four deaths and at least 52 arrests. Only one in five independents told pollsters they backed the protests, while more than two-thirds (67 percent) said they were opposed. Almost three-quarters of all voters (71 percent) either strongly or somewhat opposed the actions of demonstrators, with only a minority (21 percent) saying they supported the storming of the Capitol. Asked whether they believed the breach of the building was a threat to democracy, 62 percent of all registered voters told YouGov it was. Thirty-two percent said it was not.

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Associated Press - January 16, 2021

State capitols boarded up, fenced off, patrolled by troops

A double row of chain-link fencing circles the Arizona State Capitol. Windows on the Illinois and Ohio statehouses have been boarded up. National Guard troops in camouflage and flak jackets and heavily armed state troopers were stationed at state capitals across the U.S. in advance of protests planned for Sunday. With the FBI warning of potential for violence at all state capitols, the ornate halls of government and symbols of democracy looked more like heavily guarded U.S. embassies in war-torn countries.

Governors have declared states of emergency, closed capitols to the public and called up troops ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week. They are trying to avoid a repeat of the mob rioting that occurred Jan. 6, when supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving a Capitol Police officer and four others dead. Details were vague, but demonstrations were expected at state capitols beginning Sunday and leading up to Biden taking the oath of the office Wednesday. Signs of ramped-up security were in abundance from Atlanta to Sacramento, California, throughout the week. SWAT officers stood guard at the Georgia State Capitol. A bomb-detecting dog sniffed its way through the capitol in Jackson, Mississippi. State troopers were poised on the roof of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. Sections of temporary fencing that encircled many state capitols were locked together in Sacramento with handcuffs. National Guard troops patrolled the California Capitol and streets of downtown Sacramento on Saturday.

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The Hill - January 16, 2021

Manchin: Removing Hawley, Cruz with 14th Amendment 'should be a consideration'

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said the Senate should consider removing Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) via the 14th Amendment over their objections last week to the Electoral College results. Speaking to PBS’s “Firing Line” on Friday night, Manchin said the Senate should explore the option after a violent mob, riled up by President Trump and convinced by Republicans such as Hawley and Cruz that the election was fraudulent, ransacked the Capitol in one of the darkest points in American democracy.

“That should be a consideration,” Manchin responded when asked if the 14th Amendment should be triggered. “He understands that. Ted’s a very bright individual, and I get along fine with Ted, but what he did was totally outside of the realm of our responsibilities or our privileges.” The third section of the 14th Amendment reads that no lawmaker holding office “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.” Critics of Hawley and Cruz, who led the effort in the Senate to object to the presidential election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, said the amendment applies to the two senators, whom they blame for inciting the riot with their rhetoric echoing concerns of election fraud and irregularities. Last week’s mayhem resulted in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer and a rioter who was shot by another officer while trying to breach a window in the building.

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Newsclips - January 15, 2021

Lead Stories

Austin American-Statesman - January 14, 2021

Texas House, Senate agree on masks, differ on COVID-19 testing in new rules for governing in pandemic

The Texas House unanimously approved rules Thursday for how to govern during the coronavirus pandemic, with the Senate adopting its own guidelines one day earlier. Lawmakers in the two chambers both decided to generally require masks but differed on COVID-19 testing. The Senate unanimously approved rules that would require its 31 members to receive a negative COVID-19 test to enter the chamber or a committee hearing room each day. The House's 150 members will not be required to be tested to come to the House floor.

"Testing alone does not protect all," Rep. Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican and one of the authors of the House rule, explained. "It's a screenshot in time." House members may require testing in their offices, "but it will not be required of anyone just so they can participate in their state government," Hunter added. The Senate's more strict testing rules may lead Senate leaders to confer with their House counterparts to determine procedures for members visiting the other chamber. All visitors in the Senate must pass a coronavirus test, available in a tent outside the Capitol's north entrance, before attending a committee hearing or entering the gallery, which overlooks the Senate floor and where social distancing will be enforced. Wristbands will be given to those who test negative.

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NBC News - January 14, 2021

As law enforcement braces for more violence, state capitols come into focus

Federal and state law enforcement agencies are bracing for violence planned by radical conservatives and extremists in Washington in the days before the inauguration. And while significant preparations have been put in place around the U.S. Capitol, there is growing concern that statehouses around the country will be targeted, many of which have already been the scene of armed protests, arrests and violence. More than a dozen flyers are circulating online advertising pro-Trump rallies at state capitols, according to a social media analysis by NBC News. “Freedom is a right,” one popular flyer reads; “Refuse to be silenced,” says another.

As part of its response to an increase in online activity and organization efforts that could lead to further violence, Facebook has been tracking many of these flyers across alternative sites popular with militia groups and QAnon followers and pre-emptively blocking them, according to a spokesperson who asked not to be named for safety concerns. State capitols, long seen as meeting places for activists to protest and sometimes clash with counterprotesters, are on alert. The FBI reportedly sent a memo to law enforcement agencies across the country warning of possible armed protests at all 50 state capitols starting next week, citing in part chatter on social media. Social media platforms have taken unprecedented steps in recent days to keep their sites clear of content that might incite further violence — including the suspension of President Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts — but threats of violence at events persist online. Now mostly relegated to less popular and alternative apps, the events are more difficult for other extremists to find but also for law enforcement and researchers to track. That may help stop another mass mobilization in Washington, but it is less effective for extremists at the state level who are now less reliant on online organizing and recruiting, said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches disinformation.

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Associated Press - January 14, 2021

Texas solicitor general latest exit in embattled AG's office

Texas' solicitor general who did not join embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton's failed efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election confirmed Wednesday he is resigning. Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins did not say why he was leaving in a statement released by the attorney general's office, but he offered praise for his outgoing boss, calling Paxton a “stalwart advocate for Texas.” Still, the departure continues a dramatic shakeup of Paxton's office that began in September when his top deputies accused the Republican of bribery and abuse of office on behalf of a donor. All eight of his accusers have since quit or been fired, and their accusations are the focus of an FBI investigation into Paxton.

“Kyle Hawkins fought for Texans’ rights every step of the way," Paxton said in the statement. "His dedication to safeguarding rights is very much appreciated.” Hawkins, whose last day will be Feb. 1, did not respond to a request for comment. Paxton's office issued the statement after The Associated Press reported earlier Wednesday that Hawkins was resigning. Solicitor general is a prominent post in Texas that includes leading and arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and is a job once held by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But in December, Hawkins conspicuously left his name off a Texas lawsuit backed by President Donald Trump that asked the Supreme Court to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory. The court's rejection of the case amounted to a stark repudiation of a legal claim that was widely regarded as dubious. Neither Hawkins nor the attorney general's office have addressed why he did not join the election challenge. Hawkins argued a major case before the Supreme Court as recently as November, during the latest Republican-led effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

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The Hill - January 15, 2021

Republicans scramble to contain fallout as donors distance themselves

Republicans are scrambling to contain the fallout as major donors freeze political contributions and distance themselves from lawmakers who voted to overturn the Electoral College results. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who voted to reject electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, has been calling existing donors trying to calm nerves, saying that – despite the riots at the Capitol that were an effort to impede the transition of power – he and his party can work with the incoming Biden administration. But many big-name corporations and businesses have indicated they’re in no rush to resume contributions to Republicans who objected to the presidential election results.

McCarthy made a round of calls to donors on Wednesday, according to multiple sources. At least one call was made up of friendly major donors who largely didn’t push back. The leader's remarks seemed more scripted than not. He took three questions, and then had to run to the airport, one source said. “He’s trying to calm down donors. I think he’s trying to assure them that they want to work with President Biden and the vote did not mean that they won’t support Biden initiatives, like infrastructure, debt ceiling, COVID relief,” a Republican donor said. Corporations are targeting the 147 GOP lawmakers who voted to challenge the 2020 election results in Arizona or Pennsylvania last week, even after the deadly attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. One lobbyist described McCarthy calls to donors: “I would equate it to trying to get a plane out of a spin, trying to level the wings.” But many corporations are not just questioning the GOP’s ability to work with Democrats, they are trying to distance themselves from the ugly scenes in D.C. last Wednesday. Comcast was the top corporate donor to McCarthy’s leadership PAC and campaign committee, with its individuals and PAC donating $87,600 in 2020. The company is now suspending contributions to lawmakers who voted against the election results, saying that the violence at the U.S. Capitol last week was “appalling.”

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State Stories

KSAT - January 14, 2021

‘We wanted to be heard’: Texas lawmaker explains why he attended Trump rally in DC on day of deadly insurrection

A Texas state representative from the Hill Country who was in Washington, D.C. last week for a rally in support of President Donald Trump later downplayed the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol during a talk radio appearance. State Representative Kyle Biedermann, a Trump-aligned Republican in the Texas House representing Kendall, Comal and Gillespie counties, told Dallas-area talk radio host Chris Salcedo that “a few radicals...caused the trouble” at the Capitol.

(The FBI has arrested or is seeking out dozens of far-right Trump supporters and white nationalists after they were seen inside the Capitol.) The lawmaker’s comments came during a Jan. 7 appearance on the show, as Biedermann described why he traveled to Washington D.C. for the rally the day before. Biedermann said he attended the ‘Save America Rally’ from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., which was held at The Ellipse, a park south of the White House, about two miles away from the Capitol. There, Trump and his allies rallied supporters, who had traveled to the nation’s capital to protest the certification of the election, to “fight like hell” and march to the Capitol. Around 1 p.m., a violent mob laid siege to the house of Congress, killing five. Dozens of Capitol police officers were injured, including one fatally. “We came because we wanted to be heard and we’re sick and tired of what’s been going on by the elite media and the elite politicians who continue to ignore us,” Biedermann told Salcedo the next day.

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Dallas Morning News - January 14, 2021

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson blasts county after walkups allowed at COVID-19 vaccine mega site

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson says the city could end its agreement with Dallas County to vaccinate North Texans after he learned Judge Clay Jenkins and county officials unilaterally allowed people 75 and over to walk up without registering at the Fair Park site. The last-minute, and temporary, decision was a reversal that’s added more confusion to rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. In a letter to Jenkins obtained by The Dallas Morning News, Johnson said that while he supports allowing eligible residents to walk up to the South Dallas mega vaccination site, the public is being given contradictory information on how to get a shot. And it’s preventing residents from getting inoculated as soon as possible.

“If Dallas County Health and Human Services does not make a good faith effort to partner with the City of Dallas going forward, we will be forced to re-evaluate our contract,” Johnson said. “Our taxpaying residents deserve and should expect clear communication, equitable access, and effective management as we navigate this pandemic.” Jenkins, in an email to Johnson obtained by The News, called his letter “inaccurate.” He also suggested an unnamed city council member contributed to the confusion. “Community outreach efforts were made to reach seniors in underserved and hard-hit zip codes in Dallas after the unauthorized sharing of a back link to sign up for appointments was broadcast by at least one Dallas City Council Member and led to our Monday-Wednesday appointments being filled by persons who did not receive an invite for an appointment,” he wrote.

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Dallas Morning News - January 14, 2021

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Trump: ‘We’re in a worse place today than we were before he came in’

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who once reportedly called President Donald Trump a “moron” behind closed doors, is now disparaging — on the record — his former boss’s grasp of affairs both foreign and domestic. “His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited,” the former Exxon Mobil chief told Foreign Policy magazine in an interview released this week. The Texan added: “It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.”

There’s never been love lost between Tillerson and Trump, particularly after the president fired his first secretary of state by tweet. Trump bashed the Texan as “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell,” while Tillerson called Trump an “undisciplined” leader who “doesn’t like to read.” But until now, Tillerson hadn’t been quite so detailed in his frustration. “I used to go into meetings with a list of four to five things I needed to talk to him about, and I quickly learned that if I got to three, it was a home run, and I realized getting two that were meaningful was probably the best objective,” he told Foreign Policy. He explained that he started “taking charts and pictures with me because I found that those seemed to hold his attention better.” “If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that, and I could build on that,” Tillerson told the outlet. “Just sitting and trying to have a conversation as you and I are having just doesn’t work.” Asked by Foreign Policy how Trump made informed decisions if the president had a hard time focusing during briefings and didn’t read briefing material, Tillerson didn’t hesitate. “Well, that’s the key,” he said. “I’m not sure many of those decisions were well-informed.” The interview with Foreign Policy was conducted before Trump incited a mob to march on the Capitol — an event that led the House this week to impeach the president for a second time. And given the magazine’s audience, the conversation focused almost exclusively on foreign affairs.

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Dallas Morning News - January 14, 2021

Judge frees Larry Brock, facing charges in Capitol riot, despite warnings from FBI

Air Force veteran Larry Rendall Brock Jr was released from custody on Thursday following a detention hearing in federal court. Brock, 54, of Grapevine, was identified in photos as part of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol last week. An FBI agent told a judge Thursday that the decorated Air Force veteran spoke of committing violence in furtherance of a coming civil war and rebellion against the U.S. government.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cureton ordered Brock released on restrictive conditions following the detention hearing. Brook Antonio, a federal public defender, argued that his client is charged with misdemeanors and isn’t accused of hurting anyone. “It’s an allegation of a trespass with craziness going on,” he said. “That’s all we have.” Antonio said the government has no evidence that Brock is dangerous. “He came to D.C. unarmed,” he said. “It’s all talk.” Weimer said more serious federal charges against Brock are expected. In ruling not to detain the defendant, Cureton cited his “long and distinguished military career.” Earlier in the hearing, John Moore, a Dallas FBI agent specializing in domestic terrorism, testified about Brock becoming radicalized in recent months over unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election. The agent also said Brock was fired from a job in 2018 for making threatening and bigoted remarks. Moore said he spoke to some of Brock’s Air Force Academy classmates who said his “rhetoric started to get pretty hostile” following the November election.

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Dallas Morning News - January 14, 2021

For the record, Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger also opposed impeachment of Trump

Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger, one of four Republicans who didn’t vote on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, said Thursday that she would have voted no if she hadn’t been in quarantine. “The violent siege of the Capitol was unacceptable and a dark and infamous day for our country, but healing the wounds of last week cannot begin with a partisan impeachment process aimed at settling political scores. For that reason I would have cast my vote against the impeachment of the President,” Granger said in a statement provided by her office.

Many lawmakers cast ballots by proxy but Granger disapproves of that practice, adopted by the House during the COVID-19 pandemic to minimize crowding in the chamber and allow lawmakers with health issues to stay away. Granger, who turns 78 on Monday, tested positive for Covid-19 on Jan. 4, two days before the riot at the Capitol. She also missed votes that day on objections to President-elect Biden’s victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Now in her 13th term, she is the senior Republican on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls over a $1 trillion in federal spending. Every Democrat in the House, including the 13 from Texas, voted to impeach. Ten Republicans joined them. In the Texas delegation, 22 Republicans voted against impeachment. Granger would have made it 23 if she had been there.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 14, 2021

Crowley ISD, North Texas schools ‘monitoring situation’ after rumored racist threats

Tara Sheehan began hearing from parents in Crowley on Monday, all of them concerned about a rumor of a disturbing racist threat that had been spreading over Facebook. The calls, largely from people with Black or Hispanic children, kept coming, Sheehan said — eventually more than 50 through this week. A Facebook message from a community member, captured in a screenshot that circulated widely, describes how her brother was approached by two co-workers about a KKK group with a violent plot to kidnap Black or brown children before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The rumored threat concerned so many in the community that Crowley Mayor Billy P. Davis issued a statement on the city’s Facebook page saying police have been made aware of it. It is “unsubstantiated” by law enforcement at this time, Davis said, but the city and its police “take any threat seriously.” The Crowley Independent School District has issued a statement, too, saying due in part to concerns spreading on social media there will be a larger police presence at schools. The proactive decision, according to the statement, “is being made out of an abundance of caution.” The rumored threat additionally alleges a plan for racist violence against kidnapped children on Inauguration Day. This comes after the deadly Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., where a group, encouraged by President Donald Trump at a rally, stormed into the building with Confederate flags prominently displayed. The rioters hoped to stop the certification of Biden’s election victory. Sheehan, who operates a Facebook group called Crowley Moms in the Know, told the Star-Telegram she has become a sort-of unofficial advocate for many parents with children in Crowley schools. She has heard from people concerned about children being kidnapped, or even that there would be bombs planted on Inauguration Day. Starting Monday, she began sending messages to Crowley ISD, the police, Mayor Davis, even the FBI.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 14, 2021

‘I’m not going to give up.’ 25 years after Amber’s abduction, mother hopes for answers

Donna Williams remembers every little detail of her daughter, Amber Hagerman. She remembers how the 9-year-old with long brown hair and freckles was filled with a boundless love of life — of going to school at Arlington’s Berry Elementary, playing with her collection of Barbie dolls, riding her pink bicycle with her younger brother, Ricky Hagerman. Amber, whose straight bangs covered her forehead, was an “innocent and sweet little girl,” Williams said on Wednesday morning. She loved the Disney princess Pocahontas. She loved acting like a “little mommy” to Ricky. Amber and Ricky were riding their bikes together on Jan. 13, 1996, in a laundromat parking lot blocks away from their Arlington home, when Ricky left and Amber stayed behind. An eyewitness saw her weaving in circles alone in the parking lot, with a carefree look on her face, according to Arlington police.

The witness saw a man then walk up behind her and lift her from underneath her arms, throwing her into his black pickup truck as she kicked and screamed. It was the last time Amber would be seen alive, as four nights later a resident of the Forest Ridge apartments about six miles away found her dead along a creek, the water washing away some potential evidence as to who her killer could be. Her murder shocked her family, Arlington and America as a whole, leading to the creation of the nationwide Amber Alert system named for her. Though 25 years have passed since the killing, it still feels as if it were yesterday to Williams, whose memories of her daughter haven’t faded. She remembers her sweetness, and the last words she ever heard her speak: “OK, Mommy, I will. I love you, Mommy.” “I miss her voice. I miss her touch. I miss her hugs,” Williams said Wednesday in the parking lot where her daughter was abducted. “I remember everything about her. There’s nothing I’ve forgotten about her. She is the love of my life.” As she addressed the media on the 25th anniversary of her daughter’s abduction, occasionally stopping to collect herself from the tears, she offered a plea to the man whose identity has eluded police all these years: “Please, turn yourself in. Give Amber justice.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 15, 2021

Crystal Mason: Like my illegal voting charge, Capitol riot shows racism in criminal justice

(Crystal Mason is a Tarrant County resident. She is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the national ACLU, and the Texas Civil Rights Project, along with criminal defense attorneys Alison Grinter and Kim Cole.) The world watched in horror last week as a mostly white mob violently desecrated our nation’s Capitol. I watched in horror, too. Then, I felt angry. The rioters stormed the Capitol believing lies about mass voter fraud met little resistance from police. I thought of the violence used against people peacefully protesting police brutality last summer. Even at George Floyd’s burial near Houston in June, there was an excessive federal law enforcement presence, including snipers. All that for a congregation of unarmed Black people mourning their loved one.

Then, I thought of my own case. I have become all too familiar with double standards as a Black woman dealing with the criminal justice system in Texas. I was charged with illegally voting after I submitted a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Despite the fact that I didn’t know the state considered me ineligible and that the ballot was never counted, I was sentenced to five years in prison after a one-day trial. How can the inequality in how Black and white Americans are treated in the criminal justice system — from police interaction to the courts — be so obvious yet allowed to continue? Despite the conspiracy theories about the 2020 vote, election integrity exists. Full-fledged equality for Black Americans, however, does not. In my case, the election system worked and my provisional ballot was never counted. The actual cases of election fraud in Texas do not involve people like me — who believed they were simply fulfilling their civic duty. They involve people such as a Tarrant County justice of the peace who actually forged signatures but was given only probation.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 15, 2021

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: Texas children falling behind in school due to COVID-19. How the Legislature can help

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar delivered good budget news Monday as lawmakers began their session: The expected budget shortfall isn’t quite as big as feared. There will still be belt-tightening, though, so forgive school superintendents who’ve seen their state funding yo-yo over the years if they appear jittery until the final gavel bangs in May. The challenge is that in 2019, when the coffers were packed after years of a strong economy, the state assumed a greater share of overall education funding in hopes of curtailing growth of local property taxes. Lawmakers simply can’t lurch in the other direction. Districts will need steady budgets, at a minimum, to overcome the lingering challenge of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on learning across two different academic years.

The state’s last massive budget shortfall, in 2011, brought the first education funding cuts in modern memory. The impact was felt for years. It can’t happen again. Funding remains the top issue, but it’s far from the only education matter lawmakers must tackle. In this session, lawmakers must assess how bad the isolation of the pandemic has been for students, especially those most at risk of lost learning, and support solutions to fix it. It’s not a question of whether students have fallen behind in the era of distance learning; it’s how much. And there are ample signs it’s bad. In Fort Worth, the number of students failing at least one class this school year has skyrocketed, Star-Telegram reporter Silas Allen found. In Dallas, half of students have slipped in math, and a third in reading. Distance learning was necessary as the pandemic erupted, but the tradeoff has been costly. Lawmakers must help districts make up the gaps. They should take a reparative approach, not a punitive one. First, we need to know exactly how bad the problem is. That means testing. Texas has had a sea change over student testing in recent years, after decades of ever-increasing stakes for test results. Parents and teachers revolted against “teaching to the test,” for good reasons.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 15, 2021

Tarrant County’s COVID spike is worst in Texas: ‘The chickens have come home to roost’

There’s really no good way to get into this, other than to rip the band-aid straight off: The last few weeks, Tarrant County has struggled to control the coronavirus pandemic worse than anywhere in Texas. On Wednesday, its two-week new case count for COVID-19 was 35,515, the highest number in the state. It had been at about 38,000 two days earlier and marked a rise from around 17,000 in late December. Its new case rate of 17.6 per 1,000 population on Wednesday was nearly double the state’s rate of 9.7, and higher than any large Texas county. (Harris County was at 6.7). Even Los Angeles County, seen as a national epicenter for spread — and so troubling that its Rose Bowl football game was moved to Arlington — has fared better. Its cases per 1,000 for the last two weeks was 15.7.

Elected officials have dismissed the potential danger of case counts and focused on hospitalizations, but those rates have also been troubling. On Jan. 1, the same day AT&T Stadium hosted the Rose Bowl, 99% of adult ICU beds in Tarrant County were occupied. It was the highest share throughout the pandemic and the peak of a steady rise from levels that hovered around 80% in the early fall. (Of total county hospital beds, about 85% have been occupied in recent days.) As the state reels from its highest COVID hospitalization levels yet, Tarrant County is a clear driving force. It represented 11% of Texas’ total hospitalizations on Monday, despite having just 7% of the state’s residents. More populous Dallas County, also facing a surge in infections and record hospitalizations, has consistently had about 300 fewer daily hospitalized COVID patients than Tarrant over the last week. Deaths have risen, too. Lately, Tarrant County has been seeing around 15 to 30 coronavirus deaths per day. As of Wednesday, its population-adjusted daily average death rate for the last seven days was about 40% higher than Dallas’ and all of Texas’. The pandemic has affected the state’s big metros with differing levels of severity through the last 10 months, but Tarrant County’s last couple of weeks have been as bad as the worst weeks of any of the top five most populous counties.

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Houston Chronicle - January 15, 2021

Joe Jaworski: Texas House should suspend Attorney General Ken Paxton for encouraging Capitol riot

(Joe Jaworski is a national mediator, former mayor of Galveston and a declared candidate for Texas Attorney General.) The Jan. 6 morning President Donald Trump urged his supporters to head to the Capitol, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, one of the president’s de facto lawyers, spoke at a rally in support of Trump and added his kindling to the bonfire: “What we have in President Trump is a fighter. And I think that’s why we’re all here,” Paxton said to attendees that morning. “We will not quit fighting. We’re Texans, we’re Americans, and the fight will go on.” Four hours later the Capitol was breached. The rioters scaled marble walls; they smashed windows to gain entry. They carried the Confederate battle flag into the United States Capitol. The secessionist standard originated during the Civil War, but it never entered the Capitol during that time or since — until Jan. 6. The mob filched memorabilia of their occupation, including an attempt at taking the carved wooden podium bearing the seal of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick was killed by the mob.

Paxton’s moment was several days in the making. Two days before the mob broke through the Capitol’s barriers Paxton advertised on his Twitter account that he was “confirmed” to attend a “March to Save America” and that “all patriots need to be present to stand with President Trump.” The day before the riot, Paxton tweeted: “Someday they will say that on Jan 6, 2021 ‘some people did a thing’ ... those people were Patriots and what they did was save a nation.” Over the last four years Americans became accustomed to such charged rhetoric. We always let it go. After the events of Jan. 6 we can no longer ignore inciting language. The First Amendment protects all kinds of ill-mannered speech, but the Bill of Rights doesn’t preclude political repercussions for elected leaders who know better than to encourage rioting. The Texas Legislature convened on Tuesday, and the Texas House should immediately use its constitutional power of impeachment to suspend Paxton from office for his outrageous behavior which includes encouraging violence at the United States Capitol, filing frivolous litigation in the United States Supreme Court weeks before the riot, firing his office’s whistleblowing leadership, exposing Texas taxpayers to costly judgments and private attorneys fees, and his alleged activities in using his office to support his major political donor Nate Paul. The Dallas Morning News reports that two sources told the newspaper that Paxton has admitted to having an affair with an aide later hired by Paul.

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Houston Chronicle - January 14, 2021

HISD trustees deadlocked on selection of board president

Houston ISD trustees remained deadlocked Thursday evening on who to select as their 2021 board president, an unusual standoff that illustrated the lack of clear governing majority on the closely watched body. After 10 rounds of voting on board president candidates yielded no resolution, trustees agreed to end a six-hour meeting and delay choosing a board president until Jan. 21. Some trustees argued the impasse reflected a slate of strong candidates, while others expressed unease about the stalemate.

“I do believe one week of us resting and thinking things over will be a help,” said Trustee Myrna Guidry, who joined the board in December and represented a potential swing vote. HISD’s school board has grappled with in-fighting in recent years, resulting in embarrassing episodes that hurt the district’s reputation, but in 2020 trustees avoided major blemishes. Board members face multiple challenges headed into 2021, including choosing a permanent superintendent, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with ongoing litigation over the state’s effort to strip power from the elected board. Although HISD’s board president has no additional voting power, the chosen leader often establishes the tone for the nine-member board. The president is responsible for setting meeting agendas with the superintendent, presiding over meetings and serving as a lead spokesperson for the board, among other tasks.

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Houston Chronicle - January 14, 2021

H-E-B beats out Apple, Facebook on Best Places to Work in 2021 list

H-E-B beat out Apple and Facebook on a new list of top workplaces. On Tuesday, Glassdoor announced the winners of its annual Employees’ Choice Awards, honoring the Best Places to Work in 2021. The awards are based on anonymous feedback by employees about their work environment and employer. H-E-B came in at No. 10 on the 100 Best Places to Work list, for companies with 1,000 or more employees. The San Antonio-based grocer rose seven spots from its place on last year's ranking.

"COVID-19 is in the driver’s seat and every employer has been impacted. This year’s winning employers have proven, according to employees, that even during extraordinary times, they’ll rise to the challenge to support their people," said Christian Sutherland-Wong, Glassdoor chief executive officer, in a statement. Early in the pandemic, H-E-B temporarily bumped the pay of hourly employees by $2 an hour as they worked to keep shelves stocked. In October, the company gave employees a $500 bonus for their contributions. Bain & Company, a Boston-based management consulting firm, earned the top spot on Glassdoor's ranking, followed by tech company NVIDIA and restaurant chain In-N-Out. H-E-B ranked ahead of Facebook (No. 11) and Apple (No. 31), as well as competitors Trader Joe's (No. 35) and Wegmans Food Markets (No. 36). One anonymous H-E-B employee review raves about an "awesome manager" and "great pay with regular raises," but warns that the store gets busy and customers "aren't always the nicest." Houston's MD Anderson Center Center also made the list, coming in at No. 90.

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Houston Chronicle - January 14, 2021

CenterPoint Energy has a hedge fund problem — and its solution could cost consumers

CenterPoint Energy, the Houston-based regulated utility that supplies electricity to the Houston area, has been facing a crisis of late. Electricity customers have repeatedly criticized the company for recurring reliability problems. Its share price has fallen 20 percent during the past year while the broader S&P 500 index increased 14 percent. The company is operating under its third CEO in less than a year. CenterPoint executives acknowledge that investors are disappointed, and they promised last year to launch a board level business review committee.

The solution? CenterPoint, which expanded into oil and gas pipelines and bought a Midwestern utility with coal plants in recent years, is going back to the basics by focusing on reliability, replacing aging power poles and lines, and clearing trees from overhead lines. CenterPoint is following the lead of other U.S. utilities and returning to its roots as a regulated transmission and distribution power company. It hopes to capitalize on the growing demand for electricity as electric vehicles grow in popularity, electric heat continues to replace oil and gas furnaces and take advantage of a regulatory system that allows spending on reliability and other improvements to be added to consumer rates. CenterPoint officials hope to recover most of the $16 billion that it’s investing in the improvements over the next five years by getting the costs included into the pool of regulator-approved assets known as the customer rate base. CenterPoint can then earn a 9.4 percent return on equity — essentially profit — on assets approved by regulators, a move that could drive up the cost of electricity for consumers and businesses.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 14, 2021

Texas mayors urge Biden administration: Send vaccines directly to big cities

A group of mayors representing some of the United States’ most populous cities — including Austin, San Antonio and Houston — is asking President-elect Joe Biden to give them direct access to coronavirus vaccines. In a Wednesday letter, the 22 mayors urged the Biden administration to establish a national vaccine distribution plan for cities, instead of allocating all available doses to state governments. “Cities have consistently been on the front line of our nation's COVID-19 response,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote on Twitter. “I'm proud to join my mayoral colleagues in requesting that the Biden Administration prioritize a direct line of vaccines to our communities. We must do all we can to expand and improve access.”

Direct shipments of the vaccine would allow local leaders to plan and connect directly with their constituents, including disadvantaged communities, and help distribute vaccines more swiftly, the mayors argue. “While it is essential to work with state and local public health agencies, health care providers, pharmacies, and clinics, there is a need to be nimble and fill gaps that are unique to each local area,” they wrote. “Very few cities are receiving direct allocations, and as a result, the necessary outreach needed to lay the groundwork for your vaccination goals are not being met.” The mayors of the country’s three largest cities — New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago — also signed onto the letter. The request comes as the country receives widespread backlash for a sluggish vaccine rollout; just 37 percent of the total doses allocated to states so far have been put into people’s arms, according to a Bloomberg News tracker.

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Austin Chronicle - January 14, 2021

Will the Texas Legislature take on police reform?

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus introduced the George Floyd Act in August, at the height of protests against police brutality that were unfolding across the nation. The omnibus package – prefiled as House Bill 88 by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D­-­Hous­ton – will likely be the main vehicle legislators use to send reform to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk, after he and other GOP leaders joined Democrats in expressing their revulsion at the misconduct that led to Floyd's death in police custody in Minne­a­polis. It would ban the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers in Texas, create new ways for victims of police brutality to hold officers accountable, require officers to intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force as in Floyd's case, and end arrests for some misdemeanor offenses. At the time, the bill was welcomed as a potential defining achievement of the 87th Texas Legislature. As the summer gave way to fall and winter, the GOP held on to control of the Lege, and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, attention to criminal justice reform wavered. But the riot at and invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 – and the light resistance the seditious MAGA mob encountered from police, when compared to last summer's protests – has resharpened the focus on reform.

"When there were African American and Hispanic people protesting over police brutality, there was an abundance of law enforcement and all sorts of military force on the streets," Thompson told us. "But that didn't happen in the nation's Capitol. It just baffles me that people cannot understand that there is something wrong here. I would like to believe this will motivate lawmakers to go further with police reform." The George Floyd Act takes aim at the "qualified immunity" that shields law enforcement from personal civil liability for on-the-job misconduct, allowing officers to be sued in state district courts and providing an opportunity for redress and compensation for survivors of illegitimate police violence. It also bans chokeholds (as Austin did last summer) and requires officers to attempt de-escalation tactics before resorting to force, as well as establishing a duty to intervene. These statutory actions may increase compliance with similar rules that already exist in the general orders of many police forces, including Austin's, but that are often not followed. The act's ban on arrests in misdemeanor cases that are only subject to fines and citation offers a chance for redemption for Democrats. Procedural mistakes by House Dems in 2019 led to the dramatic failure of the Sandra Bland Act despite its support from both parties, a loss that still stings for reform advocates. Even as the George Floyd Act would create checks on police power, Abbott has demanded the authority to seize control of municipal police forces. This is mostly an effort to punish Austin for its de-policing efforts, but, in the drafted (but not yet filed) bill language prepared by the Texas Legis­lative Council, it would apply to other large cities as well if Abbott determines "the municipality is providing insufficient municipal resources for public safety."

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Austin American-Statesman - January 13, 2021

In conversation with UT's medical school, Dr. Anthony Fauci looks ahead to post-pandemic nation

In a virtual lecture with UT Dell Medical School on Thursday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, shared his thoughts on a post-pandemic nation and how to prepare for another virus outbreak in the future. Fauci spoke with Dell Medical School Dean Clay Johnston and Dr. Kenneth Shine, courtesy professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Medical School, after receiving the Ken Shine Prize in Health Leadership award. The accolade is an annual UT Dell Medical School honor given to those who make significant advancements in health.

While Fauci did not speak specifically on how the coronavirus is affecting Texas, he said he believed the federal government could collaborate better with local leaders to prepare for the end of the coronavirus pandemic and any sort of outbreak to come. "To say the federal government is going to dictate everything that's going to happen, I don't think works because of the diversity among the states," Fauci said. "To say to the states, you are on your own, even though the states do desire in certain things to be on their own, there has to be some commonality of direction because the states, as hard as they try, do still look for guidance from the federal government," he added. "I've always been one who feels that there needs to be a bit more collaboration and cooperation between the federal government and the states." Moving forward into a post-pandemic nation, Fauci said his recommendation would be for federal leaders to set aside a yearly budget to prepare for any future pandemics. Fauci said that budget could be used to create a pandemic health care team, which could serve underprivileged communities when not needed for outbreak response. "One of the horrible things is the extraordinary impact that this outbreak has had on our economy, to the tune of trillions of dollars," Fauci said. "So, if you take a small slice of that and say we lost trillions and trillions of dollars this year, maybe a small slice to have a readiness there is not wasted money at all," Fauci said. "And, when you're not responding to an outbreak, there are a lot of other good things you could be doing in the community from a health standpoint."

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Daily Beast - January 14, 2021

Matthew McConaughey keeps flirting with alt-right darlings

When Matthew McConaughey’s book, Greenlights, first debuted last fall, the memoir included an interesting acknowledgement. In the back of the book, McConaughey thanks Jordan Peterson—a controversial Canadian professor and public speaker who has risen to prominence by fearmongering about “political correctness” on college campuses, advocating for men’s rights, and battling a bill meant to protect trans and nonbinary people. Peterson is just one of several controversial figures who have coalesced in the past few years within the so-called “intellectual dark web”—a lot that also includes podcaster Joe Rogan and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, among others. But that moniker belies the true mundanity of these guys’ belief system—most of them largely spend their time complaining about anything that smacks of “political correctness” and waiting for the yet-t0-be-seen Armageddon that “cancel culture” will surely one day usher in.

For instance: Peterson’s name recognition skyrocketed in 2016, as he misrepresented and fought against Canada’s C-16 bill—which aimed to enshrine protection for gender identity under Canada’s Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed it was totalitarian-oriented legislation that would make misgendering people punishable by law—a provision that was nowhere to be found in the actual legislation. He also stated in a video that he refused to use students’ and fellow professors’ proper pronouns, deeming them “compelled speech.” So, what’s a guy like Matthew McConaughey—an Oscar winner whose easygoing attitude has allowed his early-career role catchphrase “All right, all right, all right” to follow him for decades—doing reading a twerp like that? Alas, it appears he’s decided that Peterson and his ilk make some good points. This week, McConaughey appeared on Peterson’s podcast, about a year or so after the actor said he’d begun corresponding with Peterson. “Many of the things you said I had been thinking about, but I heard you putting them into words and contexts, I was like, Wow, that’s what I’m talking about, that’s what I'm trying to get to,” McConaughey told Peterson. “And a lot of it goes back to self-determination, which we've talked a lot about. Self-authoring.”

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Dallas Observer - January 14, 2021

How many ICU beds are left in Dallas? Take a number.

The number of new cases of COVID-19 setting records in Dallas County as the pandemic rolls into its first anniversary, but local authorities still can't agree on one vital number: How many intensive-care unit beds are still empty? Variances in the reporting of ICU bed counts from different sources are creating uncertainty regarding the severity of the situation in hospitals across the area. Mayor Eric Johnson in particular continues to tweet numbers for available ICU beds that are significantly higher than other sources. “Does anyone there have an explanation for why @Johnson4Dallas's hospital stats say there are over 100 icu beds available, but @JudgeClayJ says it's like 20? This is very confusing and readers might like to know why,” Jeff Helfrich tweeted on Jan. 3.

The gap in ICU bed numbers between those shared daily by Johnson and other sources is significant. Over a six-day period recently, Johnson’s available ICU bed count was an average of 168 beds more than what Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins reported. As of Jan. 8, Johnson said 165 ICU beds were available in the city while Jenkins reported just 15 in the entire county. Johnson’s data is also contradicted by numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services' dashboard, which shows just 46 available ICU beds for region E as of Jan. 11, an area that includes Dallas and most of North Texas. The same day, Johnson tweeted that over three times that number of ICU beds were available in Dallas alone. The variance has two main causes: differences in what is being reported and differences in the consistency of reporting. Johnson’s numbers appear to include a large set of beds that are not counted by other sources. His spokesman Tristan Hallman said Johnson’s count pediatric ICU beds as well as a number of ICU beds at hospitals that are unlikely to be used by COVID-19 patients, such as those at a spinal trauma center. In contrast, Jenkins only shares available and fully staffed adult ICU beds and excludes pediatric, neonatal and mental health ICU beds that adults with COVID can’t use.

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Midland Reporter-Telegraph - January 14, 2021

Feds charge Jenny Cudd for role in Capitol riot

Former Midland mayoral candidate Jenny Cudd was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors Wednesday morning for her participation in riots earlier this month at the U.S. Capitol. She was released on a personal recognizance bond that afternoon. Fellow Midlander Eliel Rosa, who was granted political asylum after moving to the U.S. from Brazil, was also charged and released Wednesday. Rosa and Cudd traveled to Washington, D.C. together and both entered the Capitol building after riots broke out there, according to posts on Cudd’s since-deleted social media pages. In an excerpt of one Facebook live video that’s been viewed on Twitter more than 7 million times, Cudd said, “We did break down Nancy Pelosi’s door and somebody stole her gavel.”

The two Midlanders have been charged with entering and remaining on restricted grounds, a class A misdemeanor, and disorderly conduct or violent entry, a class B misdemeanor. They face up to a year-and-a-half in prison if convicted on both charges, as well as a $100,000 fine. There was an initial appearance for Cudd and Rosa in federal court Wednesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Griffin. Both were brought into the courtroom from a rear entrance, handcuffed at their wrists and ankles and with chains on their waists connecting to those handcuffs. Griffin said during the hearing they would be processed by the U.S. Marshals and released on PR bonds. Cudd and Rosa were seen leaving the courthouse together shortly after their court appearances. Currently, there are no conditions on their release, such as traveling restrictions, but the U.S. Department of Justice can request that restrictions are added. A second hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 21 in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey in D.C. That hearing will be held virtually, at which time Cudd and Rosa will enter their pleas.

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New York - January 14, 2021

Ted Cruz’s former staffers are ‘disgusted’ by his new low for Trump

Ted Cruz has long had a public reputation as an unctuous asshole. Even so, his staffers have tended to hold him in high regard as a kind and geeky man who treated his underlings well even while his fellow senators loathed him. Now though “most of Cruzworld is pretty disgusted” with the senator for choosing to back Donald Trump’s absurd claims of widespread election fraud, in the words of one former aide. As another former aide put it, “everyone is upset with the direction things have gone, and the longer they’ve been with the senator, the more distaste they are expressing.” Intelligencer spoke to more than half-a-dozen former Cruz staffers who have spent the past week trying to reconcile the man they once believed in with the politician they saw on January 6 when — hours after a mob tore through the Capitol — Cruz voted to throw out electoral votes from states that voted for Joe Biden, just as the rioters and Trump wanted. They say their former boss has become unrecognizable to them.

They have asked themselves and each other how the candidate who began his political career as an unwavering “constitutional conservative” could allow himself to fall in line with Trump’s fraudulent and delusional election challenge; how the man they once viewed as deeply principled has been so willing to behave so cravenly. When Cruz first ran for the Senate in 2011, he boasted about fighting against the Bush administration in court as Texas’s solicitor general to make clear his willingness to stand up to politicians from either party when they violated the Constitution. “Personally, it’s painful. It sucks,” that former Cruz aide told Intelligencer. “We’ve always backed him because the country deserves principled conservative leadership … I’d say he got unlucky the Capitol was stormed by a mob, but in reality he placed himself at the political mercy of others.” Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide in his Senate office, told Intelligencer: “the biggest conversation I’ve had with fellow Cruz supporters is, ‘Was he always this way or did he change?’” Carpenter, who has become a vocal Trump critic, said she “could have never imagined that he could have gone down this road” and that she could have never envisioned that the political career of a legal scholar with a reverence for the Constitution would “culminate in a stand to potentially cancel votes in a way that defied any standards of federalism and constitutionalism.”

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County Stories

San Antonio Express-News - January 13, 2021

Facing legal challenge and lacking signatures, Recall CPS petition campaign comes to an end

Four months after launching a petition campaign seeking to make sweeping changes at CPS Energy, organizers said Wednesday they’d collected 14,000 signatures — 6,000 shy of what they needed to put the initiative on the city ballot in May. But it may not have mattered if the organizers had reached the 20,000-signature threshold, anyway. In a stealthy legal maneuver, lawyers for CPS Energy argued in court in November that the petition was invalid because it violated the covenants of bonds that CPS sold. The “Recall CPS” reforms would change how CPS is governed. One would have abolished the city-owned utility’s board of trustees and replaced it with City Council members.

Such a move would violate the agreements investors made — which include CPS’ governance structure — when they purchased CPS bonds. Without investors’ approval, Judge Tim Sulak of Travis County agreed the petition’s reforms would violate the bond covenants. Earlier this month, lawyers for the San Antonio Water System — which is facing its own petition challenge to how it’s managed — made the same argument in a Travis County court. In a news conference Wednesday, organizers blasted CPS’ effort to nullify the petition. They argued the reforms they proposed would not have affected CPS’ ability to generate revenue and pay its bond debt. In addition to putting the City Council in charge of CPS’ board of trustees, the petition sought to replace CPS’ current CEO, Paula Gold-Williams, as well as force the utility to restructure its rates and shut down the Spruce coal-fired plant by 2030. “This ballot measure … would have brought much-needed reform to CPS Energy,” said Dee Dee Belmares, the lead organizer behind the petition. “It would bring more transparency, accountability and public participation, and finally put a pathway in place for CPS Energy to close the Spruce coal plant.”

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City Stories

Houston Chronicle - January 14, 2021

Houston police officer resigns after being linked to Capitol takeover

A longtime Houston Police Department officer believed to have joined a violent mob at the nation’s Capitol resigned Thursday amid a growing federal probe into the insurrection. The officer, Tam Pham, dropped off his resignation with Chief Art Acevedo ahead of his disciplinary meeting Friday with the top law man — though the chief earlier expressed doubt that the officer would attend. The chief — after receiving a tip about Pham’s possible involvement — reviewed the officer’s social media and found photos suggesting that he entered the Capitol building during the deadly takeover. Acevedo said he then contacted the FBI’s Houston Division, which opened a federal investigation into the officer’s East Coast trip.

Acevedo expects federal charges to be filed against the officer. The special agent in charge of the FBI’s Houston field office stressed that federal investigators — without acknowledging the police officer — are using tips and “advanced technical and scientific tools” to tie local residents to the Capitol mob. “Our agents and analysts have been gathering evidence, sharing intelligence, and working with federal prosecutors toward bringing appropriate charges,” Perrye Turner said Thursday in a statement. In Washington, the FBI there has spent more than week sharing dozens of photos of rioters in an attempt to identify and then arrest them. At least 32 people — including two Virginia police officers — have been charged federally in connection to the violent mob. A tip on Tuesday led law enforcement to the latest arrest of a retired Boothwyn, Pa., firefighter in suspicion of hitting three U.S. Capitol Police officers with a fire extinguisher.

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National Stories

Washington Post - January 14, 2021

Biden unveils $1.9 trillion economic and health-care relief package

President-elect Joe Biden laid out a $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan Thursday night that will serve as an early test of his ability to steer the nation out of a pandemic disaster and rapidly deteriorating economy — and his promise to unite a divided Congress. The wide-ranging package is designed to take aim at the twin crises Biden will confront upon taking office Wednesday, with provisions delivering direct aid to American families, businesses and communities, and a major focus on coronavirus testing and vaccine production and delivery as the pandemic surges. Biden is aiming to get GOP support for the measure, although at nearly $2 trillion the price tag is likely to be too high for many Republicans to swallow. But after campaigning as a bipartisan dealmaker, Biden wants to at least give Republicans the opportunity to get behind his first legislative effort as president.

The package is titled the “American Rescue Plan.” Biden described it as a package of emergency measures to meet the nation’s immediate economic and health-care needs, to be followed in February by a broader relief plan he will unveil in his first appearance before a joint meeting of Congress. Thursday’s proposal comes at a critical time for the nation. More than 4,200 people in the United States died of the coronavirus on Tuesday, a new daily record. The economic recovery appears to be backsliding, with jobless claims spiking to a new high since August, as nearly 1 million people filed for unemployment last week. It also comes six days before Biden’s inauguration and a day after the House of Representatives impeached President Trump, highlighting the president-elect’s challenge of trying to get his top agenda item passed as the Senate is likely to be enmeshed in an impeachment trial. Biden has expressed the hope that the Senate can simultaneously move forward on his agenda while weighing impeachment, although it’s unclear how well that might work in practice.

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CNN - January 14, 2021

'Kill him with his own gun': Police describe facing the mob at the Capitol

As DC Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone lay on the ground at the US Capitol building, stunned and injured, he knew a group of rioters were stripping him of his gear. They grabbed spare ammunition, ripped the police radio off his chest and even stole his badge. Then, Fanone, who had just been Tasered several times in the back of the neck, heard something chilling that made him go into survival mode. "Some guys started getting a hold of my gun and they were screaming out, 'Kill him with his own gun,'" said Fanone, who's been a police officer for almost two decades.

Fanone, one of three officers who spoke with CNN, described his experience fighting a mob of President Donald Trump's supporters who'd invaded the Capitol in an insurrection unheard of in modern American history. Federal officials have said the details of the violence that come out will be disturbing. "People are going to be shocked by some of the egregious contact that happened in the Capitol," acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin said Tuesday in reference to attacks on police officers. Fanone, a narcotics detective who works in plain clothes, heard the commotion at the Capitol and grabbed his still brand-new police uniform that had been hanging in his locker and put it on for the first time, he said. He raced to the building with his partner and helped officers who were being pushed back by rioters. But Fanone, who said he'd rather be shot than be pulled into a crowd where he had no control, was suddenly in his biggest nightmare as an officer. And in those few moments, Fanone considered using deadly force. He thought about using his gun but knew that he didn't have enough fire power and he'd soon be overpowered again, except this time they would probably use his gun against him and they'd have all the reason to end his life. "So, the other option I thought of was to try to appeal to somebody's humanity. And I just remember yelling out that I have kids. And it seemed to work," said the 40-year-old father of four.

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Bloomberg - January 14, 2021

Trump struggles to build legal team as impeachment trial nears

President Donald Trump, on the eve of facing a historic second impeachment trial for inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week, is having trouble finding a legal team to defend him. Allies of the outgoing president have been canvassing Washington’s legal landscape looking for representation but so far are coming up short. Lawyers who defended him in the previous impeachment trial, including Jay Sekulow and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, have said no this time, according to people familiar with the matter.

Other lawyers who have defended Trump at times, including former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, Eric Herschmann, Pat Philbin and Marc Kasowitz aren’t interested in joining a team this time, the people said. Some of the lawyers who don’t want a role have privately said what Trump did was indefensible. More broadly, a number of prominent law firms have refused to engage in any legal representation involving the president’s actions following the Nov. 3 election. “I’m not terribly surprised that top tier conservative attorneys who a Republican president might normally turn to would not be interested in jumping on this particular grenade,” said Keith Whittington, a politics professor at Princeton University. “Those who might have been sympathetic to defending the president in other contexts such as his first impeachment don’t necessarily want to defend what he’s done here -- both because they aren’t easy to defend and they’ll tarnish people’s professional reputation down the road.” It’s unclear when the Senate will hold a trial following the House vote Wednesday to impeach Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has some discretion on when she sends the impeachment article to the Senate, which Republican leader Mitch McConnell made clear won’t reconvene until Jan. 19. That means a trial can begin at the earliest the following day, when President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated.

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The Hill - January 15, 2021

Trust between lawmakers reaches all-time low after Capitol riots

Hefty fines to enforce the use of masks and metal detectors to enter the House chamber. Censure resolutions. And a call for investigating whether some lawmakers aided insurrectionists. Trust between the two parties has reached an all-time low — and it’s raising questions about how they can possibly work together on much of anything as the new session of Congress begins when some lawmakers don’t even feel safe around each other.

Much of the physical damage in the Capitol from last week’s attack by a violent mob egged on by President Trump has since been repaired: The tear gas residue and garbage in the hallowed halls are gone, and new glass panes were installed in the entrance to the Speaker’s Lobby where a rioter was fatally shot. But the emotional trauma still lingers, with daily reminders of how much things have changed from just a week ago. The Capitol complex now resembles a police state with thousands of heavily armed National Guard troops patrolling the grounds. “How could I feel comfortable thinking that someone that I’m in a committee room with or could be sitting across the aisle from, or something of that nature, helped plan an insurrection in the United States Capitol? How can I do that? I mean, how can anyone do that?” asked House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). Tensions flared again this week when numerous GOP lawmakers refused to adhere to new safety measures for the House chamber, prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to enact extraordinary rules that would levy thousands of dollars in fines against those who don’t comply.

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Associated Press - January 14, 2021

Nation’s jobless claims soar to highest level since mid-August as resurgent virus infects economy

The number of people seeking unemployment aid soared last week to 965,000, the most since late August and a sign that the resurgent virus has likely escalated layoffs. The latest figures for jobless claims, issued Thursday by the Labor Department, remain at levels never seen until the virus struck. Before the pandemic, weekly applications typically numbered around 225,000. They spiked to nearly 7 million last spring, after nationwide shutdowns took effect. Applications declined over the summer but have been stuck above 700,000 since September.

The high pace of layoffs coincides with an economy that has faltered as consumers have avoided traveling, shopping and eating out in the face of soaring viral caseloads. More than 4,300 deaths were reported Tuesday, another record high. Shutdowns of restaurants, bars and other venues where people gather in California, New York and other states have likely forced up layoffs. Some states and cities are resisting shutdowns, partly out of fear of the economic consequences but raising the risk of further infections. Minnesota allowed in-person dining to resume this week. Michigan is poised to do the same. Some bars and restaurants in Kansas City are extending their hours. Economists say that once coronavirus vaccines are more widely distributed, a broader recovery should take hold in the second half of the year. The incoming Biden administration, along with a now fully Democratic-led House and Senate, is also expected to push more rescue aid and spending measures that could accelerate growth.

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