Briefs: Electors meet to formally chose Joe Biden as 46th president

Associated Press

Electors' votes have drawn more attention than usual this year because President Donald Trump has refused to concede

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Presidential electors are meeting across the United States on Monday to formally choose Joe Biden as the nation's next president.

Monday is the day set by law for the meeting of the Electoral College. In reality, electors meet in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cast their ballots. The results will be sent to Washington and tallied in a Jan. 6 joint session of Congress over which Vice President Mike Pence will preside.

The electors' votes have drawn more attention than usual this year because President Donald Trump has refused to concede the election and continued to make baseless allegations of fraud. 

Biden is planning to address the nation Monday night, after the electors have voted. Trump, meanwhile, is clinging to his false claims that he won the election, but also undermining Biden's presidency even before it begins. "No, I worry about the country having an illegitimate president, that's what I worry about. A president that lost and lost badly," Trump said in a Fox News interview that was taped Saturday.

Following weeks of Republican legal challenges that were easily dismissed by judges, Trump and Republican allies tried to persuade the Supreme Court last week to set aside 62 electoral votes for Biden in four states, which might have thrown the outcome into doubt.

Biden aides hope Electoral College vote is GOP turning point

WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden's aides have a message for President Donald Trump and his supporters: It's long past time to move on.

With the Electoral College set to formally elect Biden as president on Monday, his aides say they hope Republicans will consider their own long-term interests (and the country's), accept Trump's defeat and focus their attention on fighting the coronavirus pandemic and staving off economic tumult.

Republicans, by and large, have stood by Trump as he's made unsubstantiated claims of a rigged election, and they show no signs they'll give Biden the semblance of a honeymoon period. Biden will come to power with a narrowly divided Senate — next month's runoff elections in Georgia will decide who will control the Senate — and a thinned Democratic majority in the House as Republicans picked up seats even as Trump lost.

But aides are pointing to Biden's strong approval numbers, tallying a record 81 million votes and an electorate worn by the pandemic in their attempt to nudge Republicans to cooperate. Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to Biden, said the American electorate is looking for Democrats and Republicans to get in sync.

"The agenda that the president-elect is putting forward is very much at the forefront of what people want in their lives," Donilon said. "So, I think the case is going to be that it's going to be in the interest of the country, it's going to be in their own self-interest to get on board and not to get in the way."

US Supreme Court asked to decertify Biden's win in Arizona

PHOENIX — Conservative lawyer Sidney Powell has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decertify Democrat President-elect Joe Biden's victory over Republican President Donald Trump in Arizona.

Powell, who filed the request with the court on Friday night, also asks the justices to bar Biden's electors from casting Electoral College votes on Monday.

Her appeal marks the second petition for review filed with the nation's highest court in challenges to Biden's win in the state. Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward on Friday asked the Supreme Court to review her case seeking to overturn Arizona's election results.

Powell is appealing the dismissal of her lawsuit that alleged voting equipment in Arizona switched votes from Trump to Biden. A lower-court judge dismissed the challenge on Wednesday, ruling no evidence of fraud had been presented and that those who filed the lawsuit lacked legal standing.

Arizona certified its elections results on Nov. 30, showing that Biden had won the state by more than 10,000 votes. 

No evidence of voter fraud or election fraud has emerged during this election season in Arizona. 

COVID-19 vaccine shipments begin in historic US effort

PORTAGE, Michigan — The first of many freezer-packed COVID-19 vaccine vials made their way to distribution sites across the United States on Sunday, as the nation's pandemic deaths approached the horrifying new milestone of 300,000.

The rollout of the Pfizer vaccine, the first to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, ushers in the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history — one that health officials hope the American public will embrace, even as some have voiced initial skepticism or worry. Shots are expected to be given to health care workers and nursing home residents beginning Monday.

Quick transport is key for the vaccine, especially since this one must be stored at extremely low temperatures — about 94 degrees below zero. Early Sunday, workers at Pfizer — dressed in fluorescent yellow clothing, hard hats and gloves — wasted no time as they packed vials into boxes. They scanned the packages and then placed them into freezer cases with dry ice. The vaccines were then taken from Pfizer's Portage, Michigan, facility to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, where the first cargo plane took off amid what airport officials called a "jubilant" mood.

"This is a historic day," said Richard W. Smith, who oversees operations in the Americas for FedEx Express, which is delivering 630-some packages of vaccine to distribution sites across the country. United Parcel Service also is transporting a share of the vaccine.

Helping with the transport of the vaccine has special meaning to Bruce Smith, a FedEx package handler at the Grand Rapids airport, whose older sister, Queen, died after she contracted the coronavirus in May. She was hospitalized in Georgia one day after he saw her on a video chat, and they never spoke again.

US agencies hacked in monthslong global cyberspying campaign

WASHINGTON — U.S. government agencies were ordered to scour their networks for malware and disconnect potentially compromised servers after authorities learned that the Treasury and Commerce departments were hacked in a monthslong global cyberespionage campaign discovered when a prominent cybersecurity firm learned it had been breached.

In a rare emergency directive issued late Sunday, the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity arm warned of an "unacceptable risk" to the executive branch from a feared large-scale penetration of U.S. government agencies that could date back to mid-year or earlier. 

"This can turn into one of the most impactful espionage campaigns on record," said cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch.

The hacked cybersecurity company, FireEye, would not say who it suspected — many experts believe the operation is Russian given the careful tradecraft — and noted that foreign governments and major corporations were also compromised. 

News of the hacks, first reported by Reuters, came less than a week after FireEye disclosed that nation-state hackers had broken into its network and stolen the company's own hacking tools. 

After 110K virus deaths, nursing homes face vaccine fears

After 110,000 deaths ravaged the nation's nursing homes and pushed them to the front of the vaccine line, they now face a vexing problem: Skeptical residents and workers balking at getting the shots. 

Being first has come with persistent fears that the places hit hardest in the pandemic — accounting for nearly 40% of the nation's death toll — could be put at risk again by vaccines sped into development in months rather than years. Some who live and work in homes question if enough testing was done on the elderly, if enough is known of side effects and if the shots could do more harm than good.

"You go get that first and let me know how you feel," said Denise Schwartz, whose 84-year-old mother lives at an assisted living facility in East Northport, New York, and plans to decline the vaccine. "Obviously it would be horrible for her to get COVID, but is it totally safe for someone who's elderly and in fragile health?"

As the U.S. begins shipping out freezer-packed vials of newly approved vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, public health officials say the answer is yes. 

Everyone from members of the military to former presidents have announced their intentions to get the shots, echoing the refrains of others who say the drugs are the product of rigorous review, firm data and independent experts. 

Families marry off daughters to ease finances amid COVID-19

KOIDU, Sierra Leone — The man first caught a glimpse of Marie Kamara as she ran with her friends past his house near the village primary school. Soon after, he proposed to the fifth-grader.

"I'm going to school now. I don't want to get married and stay in the house," she told him. 

But the pressures of a global pandemic on this remote corner of Sierra Leone were greater than the wishes of a schoolgirl. Nearby mining operations had slowed with the global economy. Business fell off at her stepfather's tailoring shop, where outfits he had sewn now gathered dust. The family needed money.

Her suitor was a small-scale miner in his mid-20s, but his parents could provide rice for Marie's four younger sisters and access to their watering hole. They could pay cash.

Before long, Marie was seated on a floor mat in a new dress as his family presented hers with 500,000 leones ($50) inside a calabash bowl along with the traditional kola nut.

Scientists focus on bats for clues to prevent next pandemic

RIO DE JANEIRO — Night began to fall in Rio de Janeiro's Pedra Branca state park as four Brazilian scientists switched on their flashlights to traipse along a narrow trail of mud through dense rainforest. The researchers were on a mission: capture bats and help prevent the next global pandemic.

A few meters ahead, nearly invisible in the darkness, a bat made high-pitched squeaks as it strained its wings against the thin nylon net that had ensnared it. One of the researchers removed the bat, which used its pointed teeth to bite her gloved fingers.

The November nighttime outing was part of a project at Brazil's state-run Fiocruz Institute to collect and study viruses present in wild animals — including bats, which many scientists believe were linked to the outbreak of COVID-19.

The goal now is to identify other viruses that may be highly contagious and lethal in humans, and to use that information to devise plans to stop them from ever infecting people — to forestall the next potential global disease outbreak before it gets started.

In a highly connected world, an outbreak in one place endangers the entire globe, just as the coronavirus did. And the Brazilian team is just one among many worldwide racing to minimize the risk of a second pandemic this century.

John le Carre, who probed murky world of spies, dies at 89

LONDON — John le Carre, the spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War espionage thriller and brought acclaim to a genre critics had once ignored, has died. He was 89.

Le Carre's literary agency, Curtis Brown, said Sunday he died in Cornwall, southwest England on Saturday after a short illness. The agency said his death was not related to COVID-19. His family said he died of pneumonia

In classics such as "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Honourable Schoolboy," Le Carre combined terse but lyrical prose with the kind of complexity expected in literary fiction. His books grappled with betrayal, moral compromise and the psychological toll of a secret life. In the quiet, watchful spymaster George Smiley, he created one of 20th-century fiction's iconic characters — a decent man at the heart of a web of deceit.

"John le Carre has passed at the age of 89. This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit," tweeted novelist Stephen King. Margaret Atwood said: "Very sorry to hear this. His Smiley novels are key to understanding the mid-20th century."

Charley Pride, a country music Black superstar, dies at 86

NEW YORK — Charley Pride, one of country music's first Black superstar whose rich baritone on such hits as "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" helped sell millions of records and made him the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has died. He was 86.

Pride died Saturday in Dallas of complications from Covid-19, according to Jeremy Westby of the public relations firm 2911 Media.

"I'm so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away. It's even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you," Dolly Parton tweeted.

Pride released dozens of albums and sold more than 25 million records during a career that began in the mid-1960s. Hits besides "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" in 1971 included "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone," "Burgers and Fries," "Mountain of Love," and "Someone Loves You Honey."

He had three Grammy Awards, more than 30 No. 1 hits between 1969 and 1984, won the Country Music Association's Top Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year awards in 1972 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. He won the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award last month by the Country Music Association.

"He destroyed barriers and did things that no one had ever done," said Darius Rucker on Twitter. "Heaven just got one of the finest people I know." Tanya Tucker tweeted "I'm just so thankful I got to sing a song with him." Billy Ray Cyrus called him a "gentleman," "legend" and a "true trailblazer."

The Smithsonian in Washington acquired memorabilia from Pride, including a pair of boots and one of his guitars, for the the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ronnie Milsap called him a "pioneer" and said that without his encouragement, Milsap might never gone to Nashville. "To hear this news tears out a piece of my heart," he said in a statement.

Other Black country stars came before Pride, namely DeFord Bailey, who was an Grand Ole Opry member between 1927 and 1941. But until the early 1990s, when Cleve Francis came along, Pride was the only Black country singer signed to a major label. In 1993, he joined the Opry cast in Nashville.

"They used to ask me how it feels to be the `first colored country singer,'" he told The Dallas Morning News in 1992. "Then it was `first Negro country singer;' then `first black country singer.' Now I'm the `first African-American country singer.' That's about the only thing that's changed. This country is so race-conscious, so ate-up with colors and pigments. I call it `skin hangups' — it's a disease."

Pride was raised in Sledge, Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper. He had seven brothers and three sisters.

In 2008 while accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the Mississippi Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts, Pride said he never focused on race.

"My older sister one time said, 'Why are you singing THEIR music?'" Pride said. "But we all understand what the y'all-and-us-syndrome has been. See, I never as an individual accepted that, and I truly believe that's why I am where I am today."

As a young man before launching his singing career, he was a pitcher and outfielder in the Negro American League with the Memphis Red Sox and in the Pioneer League in Montana.

After playing minor league baseball a couple of years, he ended up in Helena, Montana, where he worked in a zinc smelting plant by day and played country music in nightclubs at night.

To ensure that Pride was judged on his music and not his race, his first few singles were sent to radio stations without a publicity photo. After his identity became known, a few country radio stations refused to play his music.

For the most part, though, Pride said he was well received. Early in his career, he would put white audiences at ease when he joked about his "permanent tan."

"Music is the greatest communicator on the planet Earth," he said in 1992. "Once people heard the sincerity in my voice and heard me project and watched my delivery, it just dissipated any apprehension or bad feeling they might have had."

Throughout his career, he sang positive songs instead of sad ones often associated with country music.

"Music is a beautiful way of expressing oneself and I truly believe music should not be taken as a protest," he told The Associated Press in 1985. "You can go too far in anything — singing, acting, whatever — and become politicized to the point you cease to be an entertainer."

In 1994, he wrote his autobiography, "Pride: The Charley Pride Story," in which he disclosed he was mildly manic depressive. He had surgery in 1997 to remove a tumor from his right vocal cord. 

"Charley Pride was a trail blazer whose remarkable voice & generous spirit broke down barriers in country music just as his hero Jackie Robinson had in baseball," tweeted director and producer Ken Burns. 

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