Posted on

Russia arrests 350 protesters demanding Alexei Navalny’s release

Russian police on Saturday arrested hundreds of protesters who took to the streets in temperatures as low as minus-58 degrees to demand the release of Alexei Navalny, the country’s top opposition figure.

Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent and durable foe, was arrested on Jan. 17 when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a severe nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Authorities say his stay in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence in a criminal conviction in a case that Navalny says was illegitimate. He is to appear in court in early February to determine if he will serve the 3½-year sentence in prison.

More than 350 people were detained in protests in the Far East and Siberia, according to the arrests-monitoring group OVD-Info, and large demonstrations were expected in the afternoon in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in the European section of the country.

Several thousand people turned out for a protest in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, and demonstrations took place in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, the island city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and the country’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk, among other locations.

Thirteen people reportedly were arrested at the protest in Yakutsk, a city in eastern Siberia where the temperature was minus-50.

In Moscow, thousands of people were converging on the downtown Pushkin Square as the protest’s planned start neared. A police public-address system repeatedly blared messages telling people not to gather closely because of pandemic health concerns and warning that the protest was unlawful.

Helmeted riot officers sporadically grabbed participants and pushed them into police buses.

Moscow police on Thursday arrested three top Navalny associates, two of whom were later jailed for periods of nine and 10 days.

Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.

Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repressions.

He has been jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds in cases that he said were politically motivated. He suffered significant eye damage when an assailant threw disinfectant into his face and was taken from jail to a hospital in 2019 with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction but that many suspected was poisoning.

Daria Litvinova and Jim Heintz write for the Associated Press.

Posted on

Twin suicide bombings strike Baghdad, killing 28 people

A pair of suicide bombers hit a crowded market in Baghdad on Thursday, Iraq’s civil defense agency said, killing at least 28 people, injuring scores more and reigniting fears of a return to the days when such attacks were a daily occurrence in the Iraqi capital.

The first of the bombers approached Tayaran Square, a major intersection in Baghdad’s downtown area near Bab Sharqi, an open-air market for used clothing and surplus military gear. Sometime before 10 a.m., the attacker pretended to be sick to draw people to him, then detonated his explosive-laden vest, according to officials and local media.

As onlookers rushed to help the casualties, the second suicide bomber blew himself up, leaving behind a trail of mangled corpses and blood-streaked piles of used clothing.

Yehia Rasool, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, tweeted in the attack’s aftermath that the bombers were being pursued by security forces when they detonated their vests.

Local media reported that security personnel deployed around the Green Zone — Baghdad’s heavily fortified government and diplomatic enclave — and sealed its main gate.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. But the modus operandi — the use of vests, the wait for rescue workers and onlookers to gather before a second explosion — bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State terrorist group.

It was the first suicide attack to hit Baghdad since a January 2018 bombing that also targeted Tayaran Square. If it does prove to be the work of Islamic State, it would mark a major setback for Iraqi security forces in their fight against the group.

In 2014, Islamic State had taken over one-third of the country. For years before that, it had regularly conducted such attacks in Baghdad with impunity, dispatching operatives with vests and belts loaded with explosives and ball bearings, or bomb-laden vehicles that transformed quotidian situations such as traffic jams into potential death traps.

In response, authorities installed miles of cement barriers known as T-walls and set up checkpoints that balkanized Baghdad, a city of 10 million people. But the measures did little to prevent a daily onslaught of bombings.

By late 2017, a U.S.-supported campaign against Islamic State succeeded in clawing back all territories under the group’s control, pushing die-hard Islamic State adherents into the remote and mountainous areas of northern and western Iraq. Baghdadis enjoyed a growing sense of security that saw the dismantling of checkpoints and the removal of cement barriers. Even the Green Zone opened to regular traffic.

Thursday’s attack represented a serious intelligence and security lapse, said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst and fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, who had visited the Bab Sharqi area Wednesday.

“Daesh has clearly made an effort to do this,” he said, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym, “to get two suicide bombers with vests and get past all the checkpoints.” He added that the attackers had probably had a workshop for suicide vests within the city’s limits rather than coming from outside the capital, where security is tighter.

The attacks spurred a wave of condemnations, including from Iraqi President Barham Salih, who said the bombings confirmed that “dark groups” were targeting “the national needs and aspirations of our people for a peaceful future.”

“We stand firmly against these rogue attempts to destabilize our country,” he added.

Diplomats in Baghdad also spoke against the violence.

“Horrified to hear about today’s suicide bombing at Al-Tayaran Square in #Baghdad. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims,” tweeted Martin Huth, the European Union’s ambassador in Iraq.

“I condemn the resurgence of such repugnant attacks against Iraq and Iraqis in the strongest terms!”

Others on social media and elsewhere expressed fear that the attacks represented a harbinger of Islamic State’s resurrection.

“The explosion in Tayaran square is an indicator of the return of terror once more … and it is definitely an indicator of the weakness of the security institutions once again,” tweeted Ali Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Independent High Commission for Human Rights.

Jiyad, the analyst, said that there had already been indications of the terrorist group’s comeback.

“Daesh is already out there. It’s already active,” he said, citing attacks throughout 2020 that had grown in both numbers and audacity, including regular mortar salvos on rural areas near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in recent months as well as attacks on soldiers and pro-government militias in November and December.

“It’s a low-level insurgency, yes, not like when Daesh had territorial control, but unfortunately this ability to attack central Baghdad shows that they can target Iraqis as they did in the past.”

Posted on

Biden to offer legal status to 11 million immigrants

Hours ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration, incoming White House officials released more details of the president-elect’s ambitious legislative proposals on immigration reform, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million people and a series of executive actions, among them an immediate stop to construction of fencing along the southern border.

The incoming administration described its package as a common-sense approach to modernizing and restoring humanity to the immigration system following four years of President Trump’s systematic crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration.

The U.S. Citizenship Act, which officials said will be sent to Capitol Hill on Inauguration Day, offers an eight-year road map to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States without legal status. If approved, it would prioritize three categories of people to immediately receive green cards: farm workers, those with temporary protected status and beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children.

To qualify, immigrants must have entered the U.S. no later than Jan. 1.

The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security may make an exception to the Jan. 1 presence requirement and grant a waiver for family unity and other humanitarian purposes if an immigrant was deported on or after Jan. 20, 2017, and was physically present for at least three years prior to removal.

The proposed overhaul also includes an expansion of refugee admissions, an enforcement plan deploying increased surveillance- and enforcement-related technology along the border, and increases in per-country visa caps.

Although many advocates of immigrants celebrated Biden’s move, some longtime immigration experts cautioned that the bill would probably not make it into law in its current incarnation, if at all.

Roberto Suro, a public policy professor at USC who has followed immigration issues for decades, said that the bill probably would be stymied and take a back seat to other top priorities: a raging pandemic, economic recovery, impeachment procedures and Cabinet confirmations.

“This is his opening bid to a long process. Nobody expects this to be the final bill,” Suro continued. “If enacted — and that is a big if — reality will be much different. The reality will be what it takes to get 10 Republican votes in the Senate and that’s going to cost.”

Biden’s plan would grant millions of immigrants an interim status for five years, including work authorization and the ability to travel abroad, followed by green cards if they pass background checks and pay taxes. Three years after becoming permanent residents, they could apply for citizenship.

The bill also includes provisions to address the root causes of migration. It funds a $4 billion, four-year interagency plan to increase assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, conditioned on their governments’ ability to reduce the corruption, violence and poverty causing people to flee.

And it establishes designated processing centers throughout Central America where people can register for refugee resettlement and other lawful migration avenues, such as the Central American Minors program, an Obama-era program discontinued by President Trump that aimed to reunite children with U.S. relatives.

Incoming White House officials said the legislation prioritizes “smart” border controls by authorizing additional funding to increase technology that can expedite screening and scan for narcotics and other contraband. The funding would also go toward safety and professionalism training for border patrol agents and more special agents at the DHS office who are charged with addressing criminal misconduct by employees.

Officials did not say how much additional money would be authorized, how soon that could take place or whether any would be allocated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for enforcement operations beyond the border regions.

The bill would recapture unused visas, eliminate lengthy wait times, increase per-country visa caps and increase diversity visas — which allow randomly selected people from countries with relatively limited immigration to the U.S. — to 80,000 per year from 55,000. It would offer work permits to dependents of H-1B work visa holders and allow immigrants with approved sponsorship petitions to join family in the U.S. while they wait for green cards to become available.

It would also eliminate the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims and raise the cap on U visas for victims of certain crimes to 30,000 from 10,000 per year.

In immigration courts, the legislation would expand discretion for judges to review cases and grant relief, expand training for judges, improve technology and fund legal counsel for children and particularly vulnerable immigrants.

And the bill would replace the word “alien” with “noncitizen” in immigration laws, a symbolic but significant move away from a classification that immigrants have long considered dehumanizing.

Officials said Biden will simultaneously announce a series of executive actions to expand DACA, end Trump’s 2017 travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, extend temporary deportation protections for Liberians and immediately pause wall construction, as well as investigate the legality of the wall funding and contracting methods. He will also repeal Trump’s executive order that did away with priorities for immigration enforcement and made all immigrants targets for deportation.

Suro, of USC, said the bill probably will not see congressional floor action until at least the fall or beginning of 2022.

“All of a sudden we are looking at the midterm election where the House hangs in the balance and the Senate as well,” he said. “Any Republican who is up in 2022 or 2024 who votes for any kind of legalization is guaranteed to face a primary challenge from the Trump wing of the party. And they all know that.”

Posted on

Inauguration 2021: Photos of Kamala Harris sworn in as VP

Doug Emhoff, left, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Jill Biden and President-elect Joe Biden look down the National Mall as lamps are lighted to honor the nearly 400,000 American victims of the pandemic at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Posted on

Inauguration 2021: Howard University celebrates alumna Harris becoming vice president

When Kamala Harris was sworn in as the nation’s first female, Black and Asian American vice president, celebrations ricocheted across the country — but especially among the Howard University community, Harris’ alma mater.

“This is a great day for Harris, for Howard and for our country as a whole. It is a great day for the African American community, the South Asian American community and all American communities. Harris’ ascendence is a powerful symbol of the progress our country has made,” said Howard President Wayne Frederick in a statement.

“To be sure, that progress has been inconsistent, and our country is far from perfect. But we would be remiss to overlook the significance of what Harris’ inauguration represents. That a Black woman can rise to hold the second-most powerful office in the entire country, especially in the midst of continuing inequality, injustice and intolerance, is a decisive testament to our country’s values and its future trajectory.”

Members of the university community used the hashtag “HU2WH” on Twitter to mark Harris’ achievement of a historic first — the ascension of a historically Black university alumna to the White House.

The Howard University clock tower played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as Harris was sworn in as the 49th vice president.

“I’m so excited to see Vice President Kamala Harris be inaugurated,” said Kylie Burke, a junior political science major from the Bay Area. “I couldn’t be more proud of the California senator and Howard alumni who made it. Happy Inauguration Day!”

“As a Black woman pursuing a career in international affairs, she gives me the perseverance and confidence to keep going,” said Destiny Middlebrooks, a recent graduate. “When I’m questioning myself I look up and I see an alum elected to the vice president of the United States, and I think to myself, why can’t I?”

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

Posted on

Lawmakers question Biden’s Pentagon nominee

President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Pentagon, retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, reassured lawmakers Tuesday that he endorses civilian control of the military and could effectively oversee the armed forces despite his decades in uniform.

“I would not be here, asking for your support, if I felt that I was unable or unwilling to question people with whom I once served and operations I once led, or too afraid to speak my mind to you or to the president,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing.

Austin’s nomination, only four years after another recently retired general, James N. Mattis, was confirmed to run the Pentagon, has run into resistance from some lawmakers wary of granting another exception to the principle that the U.S. military should be under civilian oversight. Before Austin can be confirmed, the House and Senate must vote to waive a law that requires nominees for defense secretary to have been out of the military for more than seven years. Austin retired just short of five years ago.

Installing his national security team quickly is a priority for Biden, not only because he wants to reverse or modify some Trump administration policies but because of diplomatic, military and intelligence problems he will face early in his term.

If confirmed, Austin — a 1975 West Point graduate who rose to command U.S. forces in the Middle East — will be the first Black Defense secretary.

Though lawmakers from both parties have voiced varying levels of opposition to granting a waiver, a senior Biden transition official said Congress likely will approve one, and Austin would comfortably win Senate confirmation.

“I’ve never been all that concerned about the seven years, but others have,” said committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who oversaw the hearing but will be giving up the leadership post when the Democrats assume control of the Senate, probably Wednesday.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who is taking over as chairman, had voiced misgivings about granting another waiver during the Trump administration. He said Tuesday that Austin could “mitigate” the concerns, “if you demonstrate your commitment to empowering civilians” at the Pentagon.

At least two Democrats on the committee have announced their opposition to granting Austin a waiver: Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Some may vote against the waiver and then vote for Austin’s confirmation. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has also said he opposes waiving the law, as have several House members.

Before Mattis’ waiver, only one had ever been approved — for retired Gen. George C. Marshall, who served one year in the Pentagon post 70 years ago.

Austin appeared in person at the hearing, while most lawmakers appeared by video. He acknowledged that being one of the top civilian members of Biden’s national security team would require shifting his perspective but vowed to rely on civilian appointees in the Defense department and to work with Congress.

Among other issues, as secretary Austin would face debates about whether to continue Trump’s policies of moving toward withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and whether to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump rejected. He would also likely be tasked with helping to restore allies’ faith in U.S. defense commitments, which has frayed considerably under Trump.

Referring to his decades in the Army, including his time in command in Iraq and as overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Austin said, “In war and in peace, I implemented the policies of civilians elected and appointed over me.”

But, he added, “I know that being a member of the president’s Cabinet — a political appointee — requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform.”

Austin vowed to purge the military’s ranks of “racists and extremists” and to address sexual harassment, a rampant problem in the armed forces. Echoing Biden, he said the most immediate challenge facing the country is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden, as vice president in the Obama administration, worked closely with Austin during the troop drawdown in Iraq in 2010 and 2011, when Austin was in Baghdad as the top commander of U.S. forces. Austin recommended that President Obama keep as many as 24,000 troops in Iraq, but the White House, including Biden, opposed the plan.

The two worked closely when Austin was in charge at Central Command and U.S. troops went back into Iraq in 2015 after the Islamic State took over large parts of the country. Biden came to admire Austin’s publicity-averse style and willingness to carry out White House decisions loyally, even if he disagreed with them, associates said.

Austin also worked with Biden’s late son Beau, who served on the general’s staff in Iraq; they attended Mass together and stayed in touch following their deployments — another important bond with the president-elect.

Posted on

Americans voice anguish, hope as Biden prepares to take office

Few U.S. presidents taking the oath of office have found themselves on quite the razor’s edge of peril and promise as Joe Biden. Scourge to some, savior to others, he is the calm after a raucous four-year carnival, a leader who must quell a pandemic, restore an economy and mend a nation at war with itself as he at last steps into the role he has desired for decades.

American presidential inaugurations have often come against the backdrop of momentous events — the Civil War, the Great Depression, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights era. For Biden, at 78 the oldest president ever to take office, the burdens are great, with many of those he will govern refusing to recognize the very legitimacy of his victory.

Together with a trailblazing vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, Biden on Wednesday inherits a country shadowed by insurrection and contagion. The two will take their oaths of office on the steps of a Capitol overrun by marauders just 14 days earlier, as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus shudders its way past 400,000 and financial hardship tightens its grip on millions of American families.

Across the country, many Americans saw a moment of national ideals tested, and sometimes found wanting.

In the high desert of New Mexico, a retired university professor ruefully remembered the “city invincible” dreamed of by Walt Whitman, poet of democracy. On the Florida campus of a historically Black university, built on the site of a former slave plantation, a young female student wondered whether this was a longed-for time to “breathe a little more, a little easier.”

An Arizona pastor who once supported President Trump now repudiates a man he sees as “leading us into civil war.” An Oregon registered nurse who treats COVID-19 patients sought to bridge a bitter divide by reaching out to protesters who carried weapons but scoffed at face masks. A Texas carpenter defiantly declared he would “die for Trump.”

Discord and disillusionment, interspersed with gestures of grace: In the tumultuous events of recent weeks, and the hazy outlines of what lies ahead, some heard the cadences of a particularly American story.

“To Whitman, democracy is an experiment,” said Bruce Noll, a retired University of New Mexico professor. “It has to be renewed constantly by every generation.”

Fifty-one years ago, Noll, 77, memorized much of Whitman’s epic poem “Leaves of Grass” and performed it in the poet’s persona, eventually touring 27 states and five foreign countries. He was hiking outside Albuquerque on Jan. 6, he said, when a friend called him in tears with word of the Capitol being stormed by a mob of extremist Trump supporters.

Whitman’s line, he said, immediately came to mind: “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible.”

“The good part about what happened,” Noll said, “is making people think about the Constitution and what democracy is supposed to be — what are we really about, and what is America supposed to mean.”

Across the country and at the opposite side of the age spectrum, Arriell Drayton, a 21-year-old junior at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, said life these days sometimes feels like “a tense movie running on repeat.”

But she was heartened by the impending inauguration, especially the ascent of Harris, a Black woman, to the vice presidency. At times during Trump’s tenure, “I have felt truly at a disadvantage, at a loss,” Drayton said.

“That is starting to ease,” she said. “I feel as a Black woman I can breathe a little more, a little easier.”

During the racial justice protests that broke out after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis last year, Drayton joined other Florida A&M students in marches in the city and outside the state capitol. She calls the moment “our civil rights movement,” but is under no illusions about the American racial landscape changing overnight.

“It’s a movement that will have twists and turns,” she said, “and will take time.”

Time made all the difference for Kevin Wenker, a lifelong Republican who cast his ballot four years ago for Trump. A pastor who leads Mount Zion Lutheran Church in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, he said he still considered himself a conservative, but in November, he voted for Biden.

“I don’t recognize my country,” the 70-year-old pastor said.

After Trump’s praise of the “fine people” among those who engaged in deadly 2017 white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., and now the president’s unstinting efforts to overturn the 2020 vote, Wenker saw a man “leading us into civil war.” The Capitol insurrection horrified him.

“I’m very distressed at the state of our nation,” the pastor said. “Our country has to do something about this moment we are in.”

His views have cost him congregants, and he has gotten into arguments with his sister, who lives in Sacramento and still backs Trump. At his church, he prays for both political parties — and for both the outgoing and incoming presidents.

Trying to bridge different worlds is a daunting task. But a few days ago, on an impulse, Kimberly Edwards decided to give it a try.

The 44-year-old registered nurse lives in Lincoln City, an Oregon coastal town where she works in a hospital emergency room. She and her husband, Mike, 45, a teacher and Army veteran, had driven an hour to Salem, the state capital, to do some shopping. Outside the Capitol, they spotted a group of men in tactical gear, carrying long guns.

The couple, politically liberal, asked what the armed group was protesting, and a man in his 20s, who gave his name as Ace, said he and his companions represented “people who are having their rights being stripped away from them.”

The back-and-forth conversation continued for a time.

“I’m not saying you can’t have your guns,” Kimberly Edwards told the men. “I’m just saying you’re here, and it looks intimidating.”

The discussion grew heated. One of the men told her to stop talking about things she didn’t understand. She listened to what they had to say, and shared some knowledge of her own: what happens to COVID-19 patients she treats, some of whom fell gravely ill after eschewing face coverings.

Afterward, she said the exchange had been worthwhile, if frustrating.

“With extremes on all sides,” she said, “it’s very hard to get anything done in the middle.”

In Austin, Texas, Bobby Marshall, a 63-year-old carpenter with a leather jacket and black hat, saw no downside to the Trump years. He was one of a small group of supporters of the president who gathered over the weekend outside the heavily guarded state Capitol complex, a gathering that was calm despite fears of violence in advance of the inauguration in Washington.

“We have lived well, been able to work,” Marshall said. “Salaries are good, stock market is up, until this COVID thing came along. What is there to complain about?”

Echoing the president’s own angry rhetoric, and channeling the conspiratorial churn that courses through the loosely organized but angry cohort of extremist Trump backers, he blamed “antifa, BLM, communists” for any disorder in his state or elsewhere in the country.

“They will never take Texas,” Marshall said. “I would die for Trump.”

In Phoenix, Noemi Romero hoped simply for an end to the fear. An immigrant who came with her parents to Arizona from Mexico when she was 3 years old, the 29-year-old was without resident papers until 2018 when she registered for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Romero, now a family advocate for the Puente Human Rights Movement, said she and the immigrants she works with live with constant anxiety that “our families and communities could be detained, arrested or separated.”

For her, the change of administrations is welcome. Biden has said he plans to quickly propose an eight-year pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants residing in the country illegally, as well as a quicker route to green cards for DACA recipients like her.

But hope was tinged with skepticism. In 2013, during Biden’s vice presidency, Romero was arrested and spent three months in detention after a raid at the business where she worked. Back then, Joe Arpaio, later the recipient of a Trump pardon following his dire maltreatment of immigrants, was Maricopa County sheriff.

Romero was measured in her assessment of the president: Trump, she said, was “a very careless person.” Now she will wait to see what happens under a new president.

“Anyone can make promises,” she said. “There are a lot of people in our community who are looking forward to change under Biden. We hope he keeps his word.”

King reported from Washington, Kaleem from Phoenix, Read from Salem and Lee from Tallahassee. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Austin contributed to this report.

Posted on

How to watch Biden light, bell ceremony for COVID-19 victims

A salve is coming in the form of light: At 2:30 p.m. Pacific today, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are scheduled to illuminate the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool in Washington, D.C., turning it into a small sea of light honoring the 400,000-plus Americans who have died from COVID-19.

Their actions are part of a nationwide memorial hosted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which is inviting all Americans to join in the remembrance.

The event will be livestreamed on CBS News.

Individuals are invited to ring bells at 2:30 p.m. or light candles in their windows. Select buildings in cities across the country will be bathed in amber light. That includes Los Angeles City Hall and the towering LAX Gateway Pylons, which will glow golden.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is joining in, flipping on Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” installation at 2:30. It typically lights up at dusk, as it’s solar powered.

As of Tuesday, President Trump’s final full day in office, U.S. coronavirus deaths were nearly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II. The event today will be the first lighting of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, the official inauguration website said.

“We invite Americans across the country to come together for a national moment of unity and remembrance,” the inaugural committee said.

Posted on

Make America California Again? That’s Biden’s plan

After four years of being relentlessly targeted by a Republican president who worked overtime to bait, punish and marginalize California and everything it represents, the state is suddenly center stage again in Washington’s policy arena.

California is emerging as the de facto policy think tank of the Biden-Harris administration and of a Congress soon to be under Democratic control. That’s rekindling past cliches about the state — incubator of innovation, premier laboratory of democracy, land of big ideas — even as it struggles with surging COVID-19 infections, a safety net frayed by the pandemic’s toll, crushing housing costs and wildfires, all fueling an exodus of residents.

There is no place the incoming administration is leaning on more heavily for inspiration in setting a progressive policy agenda.

The revival in Washington of the California model of governance was cemented by Democrats’ recent recapture of the Senate majority, and comes after a Trump-era hiatus during which the state was road-testing ambitious new policies. Another factor: California Sen. Kamala Harris is about to become vice president.

“California has never had a Democrat on a national ticket, much less a ticket that won,” said former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. “Kamala Harris will be in all the meetings and have the last word with the president after they are over. She’ll be sharing ideas, innovations and breakthroughs from California that might help solve problems on the national level.”

Other Californians will be doing the same from Biden’s Cabinet. Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra is nominated to run the massive Health and Human Services Department. The nominee for Treasury secretary, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, is a professor at UC Berkeley, as is the nominee for Energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm. Longtime California resident Alejandro Mayorkas is the nominee to run the Department of Homeland Security.

And in Congress, of course, San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi will be running point on the California agenda as House speaker.

Not that Biden needs the nudge. He’s been pushing to nationalize some of the state’s pioneering efforts on climate action, workers’ rights, law enforcement and criminal justice, healthcare and economic empowerment since he was vice president in the Obama era. He continued to champion the cause while he and Harris were still rivals in the 2020 presidential race.

The incoming administration is embracing some of California’s most pioneering initiatives, such as programs for rapidly decarbonizing the electricity grid and tuition-free college, as well as more obscure, incremental policies. Also on the new White House agenda will be measures to ban mandatory arbitration clauses in employee contracts and a revival of a “Cash for Clunkers” program aimed at providing incentives to get polluting cars off the road — signature California policies.

Even some ideas that haven’t worked out so well in California are on the national agenda now. Biden is a fierce proponent of high-speed rail, as well as new protections for gig economy workers that California voters diluted in November.

“California has this mantle of leadership, but along with that can come the stumbles of being the first adopter,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). “It’s an innovative and imaginative place that tends to set trends and blaze trails. It’s too big and too influential not to inform our country’s policy direction going forward.”

California’s influence will be felt in how Americans power their homes and cars, and even in how they save for retirement.

California is not just about pushing the envelope, it is about tearing it apart,” said former state Senate leader Kevin de León, who helped the state implement some of the innovative ideas the incoming administration wants to pursue. “The state is full of disruptors and malcontents who are impatient and have no problem challenging the status quo.”

De León worked for years to enroll all California workers in an “auto-IRA” program that would automatically direct a small share of their earnings to a 401(k)-style savings account. He was motivated by the experience of his aunt, a housekeeper and one of the millions of Californians who was toiling in a low-wage job without any retirement safety net beyond Social Security.

“This was a woman, salt of the earth, who always worked fingers to bone,” De León said. “Yet I am her IRA, I am her pension plan. Her story is not unique. You have millions of Californians and tens of millions of Americans who are retiring into poverty.” The CalSavers program that De León was able to help create in California is a template for Biden’s agenda on retirement security.

California’s plan to remove carbon-emitting power sources from its electricity grid entirely by 2045 also inspired the incoming administration. Biden is proposing an even more aggressive timeline, looking to move the grid to zero emissions nationwide by 2035.

The state’s plan was the most ambitious of its kind when it was approved in 2018, a snub at Trump’s unrelenting push to revive demand for fossil fuels. It moved several other states to push up their decarbonization timelines. “My thinking was we had to be a beacon of hope and opportunity while Trump was trying to undo all of our policies at the national level,” De León said.

When Trump moved to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, California committed to meeting its objectives regardless, and launched a successful crusade to persuade 23 other states to do the same. Biden is now preparing to re-enter the accord. California’s landmark tailpipe emissions standards that the Trump administration worked furiously to erode are again central to that effort, helping to push the nation’s vehicle fleet toward electrification.

An environmental task force set up last year with members across the Democratic Party’s spectrum — co-chaired by former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, since appointed to Biden’s Cabinet as climate envoy — urged the incoming administration to seek counsel from California. “Immediately convene California, due to its unique authority, and other states with labor, auto industry, and environmental leaders to inform ambitious actions,” the group’s report advised.

Biden’s agenda will also be informed by California’s setbacks.

The rolling blackouts the state recently endured pointed to the need for more innovation, public investment and oversight to keep pace with green-energy goals. The state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases fell short in curbing pollution in marginalized communities, triggering protests that may have cost California’s chief air regulator a post in Biden’s Cabinet as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Likewise, the disastrous delays in delivering unemployment relief checks during the pandemic, and associated rampant levels of fraud, scuttled the Cabinet prospects of California’s labor secretary. (Biden did pick an official from the state government, Isabel Guzman, to run the Small Business Administration.)

The national movement to protect gig economy workers was dealt a damaging blow when California voters in November sided with ride-sharing companies and other technology firms, who were eager to carve big loopholes into the state’s landmark law meant to protect those workers.

Supporters of the policies say the setbacks in California are part of the road-testing. They signal to federal leaders what tweaks are needed before a national rollout.

One California policy Biden promises to replicate aims to reduce the high rate of Black women who die while giving birth or within a year of it. Though the program helped the state make significant progress driving down the overall maternal mortality rate, it didn’t narrow the racial gap. Black women still account for 40% of deaths. The Biden camp says it will propose additional actions to confront racial inequities in healthcare.

In the case of the gig worker rules California created — and which Biden favors — activists in the state are looking to the president-elect to revive protections like those undermined by Proposition 22. Robert Reich, Labor secretary in the Clinton administration, said in an email that Biden could potentially pre-empt California’s industry-backed initiative with federal action, a move he said would be “vitally important.”

Whether Biden will go that far is unknown. Either way, the incoming administration has made clear it is looking to California as it moves to overhaul labor rules. The state has “the nation’s foremost set of laws to protect workers,” Reich wrote. Those laws, he said, give employees more rights than anywhere else in the country on issues that include overtime, employer retaliation, wage theft, discrimination and protection from sexual harassment.

“We’ve shown you can have progressive policies and enjoy economic growth,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from Silicon Valley.

Khanna recently touted those policies on a podcast hosted by progressive filmmaker Michael Moore. The title of the episode was notable considering that Moore savaged the Bay Area in his 1989 film “Roger and Me” as a hornet’s nest of self-indulgent liberals.

He called last month’s show “Make America California Again!”

Posted on

U.S. rebukes Mexico over drug case against ex-defense minister

The U.S. Department of Justice berated Mexico late Friday for releasing hundreds of pages of evidence in a drug trafficking case against a former Mexican defense minister, saying the publication of sensitive information shared in confidence violates a mutual aid treaty.

Mexico’s decision to make the documents public raises doubts about future law enforcement collaboration between the two countries, a Justice Department statement said.

“Publicizing such information violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States, and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations,” said the statement from an agency spokeswoman.

The statement also addressed Mexico’s decision not to charge the nation’s ex-defense chief with any crime.

Retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as defense minister from 2012-18, was arrested on drug trafficking charges at Los Angeles International Airport last year but was later released to presumably face charges at home after an intense lobbying campaign by Mexican diplomats.

On Friday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that Cienfuegos would not face charges in Mexico and accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of fabricating a case against him.

“Why did they do the investigation like this?” López Obrador said. “Without support, without proof?”

The Mexican president called U.S. drug agents incompetent and suggested that the timing of the Cienfuegos arrest shortly before the November U.S. presidential election may have been politically motivated. He ordered the release of evidence collected in the case by U.S. authorities because he said it would bolster his claims.

The Department of Justice statement defended its case against Cienfuegos, saying that the evidence released “show(s) that the case against General Cienfuegos was, in fact, not fabricated.”

“A U.S. federal grand jury analyzed that material and other evidence and concluded that criminal charges against Cienfuegos were supported by the evidence,” the statement said.

The evidence included thousands of intercepted cellphone messages between two alleged cartel members discussing a man they refer to as “Padrino.”

U.S. prosecutors say Padrino, or the Godfather, was a code name for Cienfuegos. Mexican prosecutors have called that assertion into doubt.

The documents also contain screenshots of messages said by prosecutors to be from Cienfuegos alerting the men to upcoming military operations and discussing delivery of bribes.

Cienfuegos was arrested Oct. 15 and charged with helping Mexico’s H-2 cartel smuggle tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States. U.S. prosecutors say he not only protected the cartel, but used the military to attack its rivals.

Current military leaders were incensed when Cienfuegos was arrested and pushed López Obrador to win his release.

The Mexican president did that, in part by threatening to withhold future security cooperation with the U.S. unless Cienfuegos was freed.

Mexico’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, vowed that Mexico would conduct an investigation of Cienfuegos that would “meet the highest standards of effectiveness and honesty.”

Cienfuegos was not placed under arrest after he was returned by U.S. officials to Mexico. And less than two months after he returned to Mexican soil, officials cleared him of wrongdoing.

Security experts who analyzed the documents released by Mexico said it was difficult to draw conclusions from them.

“They’re missing context,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

He added that without further clarification, it’s impossible to know “the overall narrative of the accusation and how these pieces fit in.”

Ernst said the Mexican government lost credibility by simply releasing the documents. He said López Obrador appears to be sending a message to the incoming U.S. administration “not to develop any overly ambitious thoughts concerning inducing change in Mexico.”

López Obrador’s actions, he said, also highlight the growing power of the armed forces in Mexican civilian affairs. Troops now lead the fight against illegal immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread theft of fuel from gas lines. They run the country’s biggest infrastructure projects and will soon control the nation’s ports and border crossings.

The effort to protect Cienfuegos from prosecution was about “protecting the deal the López Obrador government has struck with the military, in which impunity and the right to continue to self-govern are traded for their acting as a core pillar of the [the president’s] political project,” Ernst said.

The DEA has not responded to requests for comment.

Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of foreign operations, defended the U.S. case against Cienfuegos in an interview, saying U.S. agents and prosecutors would have clearly identified “Padrino” as the ex-defense minister before having detained him.

“We do not file formal charges or indict someone who is not fully identified,” Vigil said. “That’s just not something we do.”

“The federal prosecutors are very conservative,” he said. “They’re not going to indict anybody unless they have very solid evidence.”