Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: December 23, 2020

Trump pardons two people convicted in Russia inquiry, Trump demands bigger stimulus checks, and more 

1

Trump pardons Papadopoulos, Blackwater guards

President Trump on Tuesday granted clemency to 20 people, including former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying in Robert Mueller's Russia inquiry. The wave of 15 lame-duck pardons and five commutations also included four Blackwater guards convicted over the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Trump also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for lying to Robert Mueller's team in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which Trump has long called a hoax. Also included were three former Republican congressmen: Duncan Hunter of California, Chris Collins of New York, and Steve Stockman of Texas. All three were convicted of financial crimes. Trump is expected to issue more pardons in the last weeks of his presidency.

2

Trump demands $2,000 stimulus checks in coronavirus relief bill

President Trump on Tuesday called the $900 billion coronavirus relief package just passed by Congress a "disgrace," saying it was full of "wasteful spending" and failed to meet the needs of millions of Americans. Trump suggested in a video posted to Twitter that he wouldn't sign the legislation unless it is changed. He called on Congress to increase individuals' stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000, saying the initial figure was "ridiculously low" but didn't acknowledge that his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, had proposed it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said via Twitter that Republicans had "repeatedly refused to say what amount the president wanted for direct checks. At last, the president has agreed to $2,000... Let's do it!"

3

Biden warns pandemic's 'darkest days' are ahead

President-elect Joe Biden delivered an end-of-year address on Tuesday, warning that even as the first COVID-19 vaccinations begin in the United States, the "darkest days" in the pandemic are ahead. Biden, speaking in Delaware, urged Americans to "remain vigilant," because public-health experts say "things are going to get worse before they get better" in the pandemic. "Our darkest days in the battle against COVID are ahead of us, not behind us," said Biden. "So we need to prepare ourselves, to steel our spines." He also condemned the Trump administration's lack of response to an alleged Russian cyberattack on U.S. federal agencies, saying the administration "failed to prioritize cybersecurity ... This assault happened on Donald Trump's watch."

4

Newsom picks Alex Padilla to fill Harris' Senate seat

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday chose California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' Senate seat. "Through his tenacity, integrity, smarts and grit, California is gaining a tested fighter in their corner who will be a fierce ally in D.C.," Newsom said. Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat and a Newsom ally, said he was "just tremendously honored and humbled and look forward to bringing my story, and my journey, as an important perspective to the deliberations of the United States Senate." Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, will be the first Latino to represent California in the Senate. Harris was the first South Asian and the second Black woman to serve in the Senate, and the first woman elected vice president.

5

DOJ sues Walmart over alleged role in opioid epidemic

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a lawsuit accusing Walmart of contributing to the nation's opioid epidemic by pressuring its pharmacies to fill potentially suspicious painkiller subscriptions. Walmart allegedly illegally sold thousands of prescriptions its pharmacists "knew were invalid," said Jeffrey Clark, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of DOJ's civil division. The company is required by law to report suspicious orders for controlled substance to the Drug Enforcement Administration, but for years "reported virtually no suspicious orders at all," said Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney in Colorado. Walmart pushed back, denying the allegations and saying that the federal investigation was "tainted by historical ethics violations."

6

Israel's government collapses, triggering 4th election in 2 years

Israel's coalition government collapsed Tuesday night, setting the stage for the country's fourth national election in under two years. The elections were automatically scheduled for March 23 after the Knesset, Israel's parliament, failed to pass an annual budget by a midnight deadline. But that was just the latest in a series of basic steps lawmakers were unable to take under a shaky power-sharing agreement the right-wing and centrist parties struck last spring. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now will face a strong right-wing challenge, with defections from his dominant Likud party threatening his decade-long rule. The campaign will take place as health officials rush to administer coronavirus vaccinations, as Israelis will vote for the second time since the coronavirus pandemic started.

7

Biden picks Miguel Cardona as education secretary

President-elect Joe Biden reportedly has chosen Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona to be his education secretary, fulfilling a promise to nominate a teacher. If the Senate confirms Cardona, he would be in charge of delivering on Biden's plan to give more resources to public schools and make public college tuition-free for families making less than $125,000 a year. The Biden administration will take office as public schools continue to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced millions of students to take classes virtually with no clear picture of when schools will be able to reopen. Biden said earlier this month that his administration will work toward ensuring schools have safety measures in place so "a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days."

8

Pfizer, Moderna testing vaccines against new coronavirus variant

Pfizer and Moderna said Tuesday they were testing their coronavirus vaccines to determine their effectiveness against the more virulent variant of the coronavirus that has started spreading quickly in the United Kingdom and other countries. The new strain has not been confirmed to have entered the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, but given the volume of travel between the U.S. and the U.K., and "the small fraction of U.S. infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected." Moderna said it expected its vaccine would work against the new variant, and Pfizer said it was "generating data" on how well blood samples from immunized people can "neutralize the new strain."

9

Birx says she'll retire after Biden transition

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said Tuesday that she planned to retire after helping the federal government transition to President-elect Joe Biden's administration. "I will be helpful in any role people think I can be helpful in," she told Newsy. "And then I will retire." She added: "I will be helpful through a period of time. And then I will have to say that this experience has been a bit overwhelming. It's been very difficult on my family." Birx faced criticism this week after an Associated Press report that she traveled to her vacation home on Delaware's Fenwick Island over Thanksgiving, accompanied by three generations of her family from two households, after urging urged Americans to limit their holiday festivities to "immediate household" to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

10

Dominion worker sues Trump campaign, conservative media

Eric Coomer, security director at the Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems, has filed a defamation lawsuit against President Trump's campaign and conservative media figures over false charges that he was involved in "rigging" President-elect Joe Biden's victory. Coomer has been driven into hiding by death threats that started after the unsubstantiated allegations. The lawsuit, filed in Colorado, names the Trump campaign, Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, the website Gateway Pundit, Colorado conservative activist Joseph Oltmann, and conservative media Newsmax and One America News Network. Dominion provided vote-counting equipment in several states. It has denied switching any votes, and there is no evidence to suggest it did. Nobody named in the lawsuit made any immediate comment.

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