Briefs: Two town halls showcase the very different politics in election 2020

Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as he walks off stage after speaking at a campaign rally at Pitt-Greenville Airport, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Greenville, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Associated Press

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden squared off, in a way, in dueling televised town halls that showcased striking differences in temperament, views on racial justice and approaches to a pandemic that has reshaped the nation.

Coming just two and a half weeks before Election Day, the events Thursday night offered crystalizing contrasts and a national, if divided, audience. But it seemed unlikely to have produced a needed moment for a president running out of time or opportunities to appeal beyond his core base.

He was defensive about his administration's handling of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 217,000 lives in the United States, and evasive when pressed about whether he took a required COVID-19 test before his first debate with Biden. Angry and combative, Trump refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy group — and only testily did so regarding white supremacists. 

The Republican president also appeared to acknowledge revelations from a recent New York Times report that he was in debt and left open the possibility that some of it was owed to a foreign bank. But he insisted that he didn't owe any money to Russia or any "sinister people" and suggested that $400 million in debt was a "very, very small percentage" compared to his overall assets. 

Biden denounced the White House's handling of the virus, declaring that it was at fault for closing a pandemic response office established by the Obama administration in which he served. Though vague at times, he suggested he will offer clarity on his position on expanding the Supreme Court if Trump's nominee to the bench is seated before Election Day. 

Avalanche of early votes transforming 2020 election

More than 17 million Americans have already cast ballots in the 2020 election, a record-shattering avalanche of early votes driven both by Democratic enthusiasm and a pandemic that has transformed the way the nation votes. 

The total represents 12% of the all votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, even as eight states are not yet reporting their totals and voters still have more than two weeks to cast ballots. Americans' rush to vote is leading election experts to predict that a record 150 million votes may be cast and turnout rates could be higher than in any presidential election since 1908.

"It's crazy," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who has long tracked voting for his site ElectProject.org. McDonald's analysis shows roughly 10 times as many people have voted compared with this point in 2016.

"We can be certain this will be a high-turnout election," McDonald said.

So far the turnout has been lopsided, with Democrats outvoting Republicans 2-1 in the 42 states included in The Associated Press count. Republican have been bracing themselves for this early Democratic advantage for months, as they've watched President Donald Trump rail against mail ballots and raise unfounded worries about fraud. Polling, and now early voting, suggest the rhetoric has turn his party's rank-and-file away from a method of voting that, traditionally, they dominated in the weeks before Election Day.

DEA recruits cite 'monkey noises' among claims of racism

At the Drug Enforcement Administration's Training Academy in Virginia last year, an instructor on the firing range called out a name that was shared by two trainees, one Black and one white.

When both responded, the white instructor clarified, "I meant the monkey."

That behavior, as alleged in an internal complaint, didn't stop there. The instructor also was accused of going on the loudspeaker in the tower of the outdoor firing range to taunt black trainees by making "monkey noises."

"We were like, 'It's 2019. That shouldn't even be a thing that we're dealing with,'" said Derek Moise, who did not hear the noises himself but recalled the discomfort they caused his fellow Black trainees who did. "Everybody knows what those sounds and noises stand for."

As the DEA continues a decades-long struggle to diversify its ranks, it has received a string of recent complaints describing a culture of racial discrimination at its training academy in which minorities are singled out, derided with insults and consistently held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, according to interviews with former recruits and law enforcement officials and records obtained by The Associated Press. 

White House puts 'politicals' at CDC to try to control info

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

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

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

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

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

Virus curbs widen England's north-south rift, stir animosity

LIVERPOOL, England — Liverpool, the English port city that gave the world the Beatles, weathered decades of industrial decline before becoming a celebrated symbol of urban renewal. Now, the coronavirus is putting the city's hard-won revival in jeopardy, and raising tensions between the north of England and the wealthier south.

Scarred by abandoned buildings and government neglect during the 1980s, Liverpool made itself vibrant again by promoting local culture, nightlife, soccer and ties to the Fab Four. However, Liverpudlians retained their mistrust of London politicians, and the virus pandemic has brought it to the surface. 

As the first area in England slapped with strict new restrictions to curb the resurgent coronavirus that have shuttered pubs and imperiled thousands of jobs, Liverpool again feels it's being punished by policies made in Britain's capital, 180 miles (290 kilometers) to the south.

"At the beginning, when we all went into lockdown, it made sense. We were all doing it for a reason, and that was fine," said pub owner Fiona Hornsby, who reluctantly shuttered her Bridewell bar in accordance with new curbs on business and socializing the government imposed this week.

With the complex localized restrictions, "it's almost like we're being separated, divided. It just doesn't feel right at all," she said.

Virologist: Milan surge spreading to at-risk populations

MILAN  — Italy has two weeks to stop the rising rate of transmission of coronavirus or it risks "following in the footsteps" of European neighbors where exponential spreads have ushered back harsh restrictions, a virologist on the front lines says.

Italian health officials have declared that the resurgence of COVID-19 has reached an "acute phase." Massimo Galli, the director of infectious diseases at Milan's Luigi Sacco hospital, said Italy's surge — which hit pandemic highs of new daily infections this week — is not the result of record testing, as policy makers have suggested, but a sign of a real return among the population most at risk. 

It only takes a look at Sacco's COVID-19 ward, a few steps from Galli's office, to raise the alarm. 

"We have a situation that reminds one quite distressingly of the one that we already have experienced,'' Galli told The Associated Press, referring to the peak in March and April when the surge in infections resulted in a one-day record of 969 deaths. 

Already in Milan, he said, the number of elderly patients or those with other risk factors is growing, indicating a spread beyond the expansion seen in late September, when most new positives were among people caught by contact tracing and screenings, for example people returning from vacation. 

Court hearing resumes in plot to kidnap Michigan governor

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Five of the men accused in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will return to federal court Friday as a hearing on whether there is enough evidence to charge them continues. 

A federal judge also plans to consider whether two of the men, including the Michigan man described by federal authorities as the ringleader of the effort, should remain in jail before trial. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Berens on Tuesday ordered Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta held without bond until trial, saying their repeated participation in discussions about abducting Michigan's Democratic governor and surveillance of Whitmer's vacation home validated the decision. Berens is scheduled to make bond decisions Friday for Adam Fox and Ty Garbin. 

A sixth man, Delaware resident Barry Croft, was separately ordered to be transferred to Michigan earlier this week. 

The preliminary hearing began Tuesday and featured hours of testimony by a lead FBI agent on the Michigan case, revealing new detail about investigators' use of confidential informants, undercover agents and encrypted communication to thwart the purported scheme. 

Thai PM rejects calls to resign, braces for renewed protest

BANGKOK — Thailand's prime minister rejected calls for his resignation Friday as his government stepped up efforts to stop student-led protesters from rallying in the capital for a second day in defiance of a strict state of emergency.

Police closed roads and put up barricades around a major Bangkok intersection where the protesters have vowed to gather again to push their core demands, including that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha leave office, the constitution be amended and the nation's monarchy undergo reform. 

Police in riot gear moved into the area, while malls in the normally busy shopping district were closing early. Nearby mass transit stations were being closed to stop crowds of protesters from getting near the area. In addition to the security measures, heavy monsoon rains threatened to keep crowd numbers lower than the thousands that gathered the night before.

The student protesters said they would simply rally just down the street at another large intersection.

Prayuth's government declared a strict new state of emergency for the capital on Thursday, a day after protesters gathered in a different part of the city heckled a royal motorcade. Such actions are unprecedented in Thailand, where those waiting for a royal motorcade regularly sit on the ground or prostrate themselves.

Ex-Mexico army chief arrested in LA on drugs, money charges

MEXICO CITY — Former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who led the country's army for six years under ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, has been arrested on drug trafficking and money laundering charges at Los Angeles International Airport, U.S. and Mexican sources said Thursday.

Two people with knowledge of the arrest said Cienfuegos was taken into custody on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warrant. One of the people said the warrant was for drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

The DEA declined to comment Thursday night.

Mexico's Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, wrote on his Twitter account that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau had informed him of the retired general's arrest and that Cienfuegos had a right to receive consular assistance. 

A senior Mexican official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to give details of the case, said Cienfuegos was arrested when he arrived at the Los Angeles airport with his family. His family members were released and he was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Twitter changes hacked content rules after Biden story furor

Twitter said late Thursday it was changing its policy on hacked content after an outcry about its handling of an unverified political story that prompted cries of censorship from the right. 

The social media company will no longer remove hacked material unless it's directly shared by hackers or those working with them, the company's head of legal, policy, trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde, said in a Twitter thread. 

And instead of blocking links from being shared, tweets will be labeled to provide context, Gadde said. 

"We want to address the concerns that there could be many unintended consequences to journalists, whistleblowers and others in ways that are contrary to Twitter's purpose of serving the public conversation," she said. 

Twitter and Facebook had moved quickly this week to limit the spread of the story published by the conservative-leaning New York Post, which cited unverified emails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son that were reportedly discovered by President Donald Trump's allies. The story has not been confirmed by other publications.

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