Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: June 15, 2021

The U.S. reaches 600,000 coronavirus deaths, NATO focuses on China as Biden reassures allies, and more

1

U.S. reaches 600,000 coronavirus deaths

The U.S. coronavirus death toll surpassed 600,000 on Monday, reaching the tragic milestone even as infection and death rates fall, and the economy reopens, according to a tally by Reuters. The U.S. total amounts to about 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths worldwide. The pain of the losses is preventing many families from returning to something like a pre-pandemic normal with the rest of the nation. "New York City is going back to quote-unquote 'normal' and opening up, but I can assure you that for my family there is no normal," said Shyvonne Noboa of Queens, whose family had 14 infections and one death, her grandfather. President Biden acknowledged the tally, and urged more people to get vaccinated.

2

NATO focuses on China as Biden reaches out to allies

NATO leaders on Monday agreed that the security alliance should take a more forceful stance toward China, saying that its "stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order." The shift came as President Biden tries to reboot America's collaboration with its NATO partners after the organization's clashes with former President Donald Trump, who threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance if other countries didn't spend more on defense. NATO leaders also said in a joint statement that Russia's "aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security." Biden, who meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, warned that if Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies in prison, Russia's relations with the world will suffer.

3

McConnell: Republicans would block a 2024 Biden Supreme Court nominee 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Monday that if Republicans reclaim control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections it is "highly unlikely" they will confirm anyone President Biden nominates to the Supreme Court. McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt he didn't think "either party" would confirm a justice during an election campaign. McConnell, then majority leader, blocked then-President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, now attorney general, to fill the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia's seat in 2016, then pushed through conservative Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg two months before last year's election, expanding the conservative majority to 6-3. Some progressives are urging liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, to retire while Democrats control the Senate.

4

Virginia couple pleads guilty to misdemeanor in Jan. 6 Capitol riot

A Virginia couple, Jessica and Joshua Bustle, pleaded guilty Monday to misdemeanor charges related to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of then-President Donald Trump's supporters. They are the third and fourth people to plead guilty for the riot. The Bustles could face up to six months in jail and fines up to $5,000 after pleading guilty to parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a Capitol building — one of four counts they faced. The FBI said Jessica Bustle posted on Facebook on Jan. 6 that "Pence is a traitor." She admitted to storming the Capitol after attending a "health freedom" rally to express opposition to the coronavirus vaccine. The plea deal could serve as a model for Jan. 6 misdemeanor cases.

5

Supreme Court rules against expanding crack-cocaine sentencing reform 

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that a criminal justice reform law, the First Step Act, doesn't give prisoners the right to seek retroactive reductions in sentences for possession of small amounts of crack cocaine. The law was passed in a rare moment of bipartisanship in the Trump era, easing tough-on-crime sentencing that swelled prison populations and disproportionately affected Black defendants. A Florida inmate, Tarahrick Terry, filed a lawsuit after the First Step Act was passed, asking for a reduction of his 15-and-a-half-year sentence for possessing 3.9 grams of crack cocaine — similar to the sentence for possessing nearly a pound of powder cocaine. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed in a concurring opinion but encouraged Congress to act to correct the "injustice." 

6

S&P 500, Nasdaq climb to record highs

The S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq rose to record highs on Monday ahead of the Federal Reserve's two-day policy meeting, which starts Tuesday. The S&P 500 gained 0.2 percent, while the Nasdaq rose by 0.7 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by nearly 0.3 percent. The Nasdaq's gains came as falling bond yields prompted investors to begin buying growth stocks again. The Fed isn't expected to make any policy changes this week, but traders are focusing on the central bank's meeting in search of clues on whether inflation is causing Fed leaders to consider easing their policies to boost the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Stock futures were steady overnight ahead of the start of the meeting.

7

Woman dies after car hits protesters in Minneapolis

A car plowed into police-brutality protesters in Minneapolis, killing one woman and injuring three other people, police said Monday. The group was participating in a vigil just before midnight Sunday in a neighborhood where a Black man was fatally shot in an arrest attempt this month. "I've never seen anything that horrendous," Zachery James, 28, told The New York Times at the scene. "I watched her body fly." A suspect was pulled from the vehicle and later arrested. Police said drug or alcohol use by the driver might have been a factor in the incident. Police did not identify the victims. Garrett Knajdek identified the woman who was killed as his sister, Deona Knajdek, telling the Star-Tribune that she "constantly (was) sacrificing herself for everyone around her, no matter the cost."

8

Reality Winner transferred from prison to halfway house

Former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner has been transferred from a federal prison to a halfway house four years after her arrest on charges of leaking government secrets about Russian election interference, her lawyer said Monday. Winner pleaded guilty, and her plea deal came with a five-year sentence. She has sought a pardon but her early release was based on good behavior, not special treatment or commutation. "The halfway house can use home confinement as part of it, but it's all at the discretion of the halfway house," her attorney said. "She has begun the reentry process." A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said Winner is still officially in the agency's custody, but is subject to "community confinement." Winner was one of the first people arrested by the Trump administration for leaking secret documents about Russian hacking to journalists.

9

Canadian accused of killing Muslim family with car faces terrorism charges

Canadian prosecutors on Monday filed terrorism charges against Nathaniel Veltman, a man accused of killing four members of a Muslim family with his car in London, Ontario. Veltman also faces one count of attempted murder as part of a terrorist act. Veltman has not yet entered a plea. Veltman is accused of intentionally plowing into the victims — Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal — while they were out for an evening walk earlier this month. A friend of the family, Saboor Khan, said it was right for prosecutors to upgrade the charges. "The family and the community have been terrorized and many of us are afraid to leave our homes," Khan said.

10

High-ranking DOJ official resigns in leak-subpoena fallout

A top Justice Department national security official, John Demers, is resigning following revelations that during the Trump administration the department subpoenaed phone records of reporters and at least two Democrats in Congress, a DOJ official said Monday. The news of Demers' departure as head of the Justice Department's national security division came after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the department would come up with safeguards against abuses when the department tries to track down the sources of leaked government secrets. A day before news broke that Demers will step down at the end of next week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for Demers to testify about the Trump DOJ's subpoenas to Apple and Microsoft seeking data belonging to Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell. Schiff spoke to Garland about the matter on Monday.

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