Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: December 21, 2021

Fast-spreading Omicron now accounts for 73 percent of new U.S. COVID cases, the EPA unveils tightest auto emissions rule yet, and more

1

Omicron surges, accounting for 73 percent of new COVID cases 

The new Omicron coronavirus variant has spread explosively and now accounts for 73 percent of U.S. cases, after increasing six-fold in one week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. Cities across the United States on Monday continued to step up restrictions to combat the surge, as rising Omicron infections added to ongoing cases from the previously dominant Delta strain. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (D) announced that the city, one of many where cases are spiking, would require proof of vaccination for people entering some indoor spaces, including restaurants and gyms. Washington, D.C., revived an indoor mask mandate as daily infections jumped to three times the level seen at the beginning of December.

2

EPA tightens auto pollution rule to cut carbon emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced that it had finalized a rule cutting limits on tailpipe emissions to reduce climate-warming carbon dioxide pollution. The change requires U.S. vehicles to get an average of 55 miles per gallon of gasoline by 2026, the tightest standard yet and an increase from about 38 miles per gallon today. The new rule will prevent the release of 3.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide through 2050, the EPA said. The change essentially restores an Obama administration standard, which called for automakers to hit an average of 51 miles per gallon by 2025 but was cut back by the Trump administration to about 44 miles per gallon.

3

Manchin says White House staff poisoned talks and rejected spending counteroffer

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) hit back Monday against White House staffers who accused him of breaking a promise by rejecting President Biden's $2 trillion Build Back Better plan. Manchin said Biden aides were the ones who poisoned negotiations. Manchin, whose vote Democrats must have to pass the bill in the evenly divided Senate, objected to the cost. He had proposed an alternative $1.8 trillion package that included universal prekindergarten for 10 years, expanding Obamacare, and providing hundreds of billions of dollars for climate measures, The Washington Post reported Monday, citing three people familiar with the matter. But his counteroffer left out extending the expiring expanded child tax credit, a key part of Biden's economic stimulus that has dramatically reduced child poverty.

4

Trump sues to block N.Y. attorney general inquiry into his business

Former President Donald Trump on Monday filed a lawsuit against New York Attorney General Letitia James, asking a federal court in Syracuse to block James' civil fraud investigation into Trump's real estate company. James is seeking to question Trump about whether the Trump Organization inflated the value of its properties to get better loans, and undervalued buildings to lower its tax bills. Trump and his company accuse James of targeting him for political reasons in violation of his constitutional rights. "By filing this lawsuit, we intend to not only hold her accountable for her blatant constitutional violations, but to stop her bitter crusade to punish her political opponent in its tracks," Trump's attorney, Alina Habba, said in a statement.

5

Last 12 missionaries kidnapped in Haiti made daring escape, group says

The last 12 of the 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries kidnapped by a gang in Haiti in October were not released, but freed themselves in a daring escape last week, Christian Aid Ministries said Monday. Five others were released earlier under unspecified circumstances. The last 12 captives, including an infant and 3-year-old child, escaped last Wednesday night and walked about 10 miles through difficult gang territory and "eventually found someone who helped to make a phone call for help," the Ohio-based missionary group said. "They were finally free." The 400 Mawozo gang had captured the group as the missionaries were returning from a visit to an orphanage, and demanded $1 million per person in ransom. It was not immediately clear whether any ransom was paid.

6

Jury starts deliberating in ex-officer's trial for Daunte Wright's death

Jury deliberations began Monday after prosecutors and defense attorneys gave closing arguments in the manslaughter trial of former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter, who fatally shot Black motorist Daunte Wright while yelling "Taser" in April. Potter, who faces first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, is accused of recklessly handling her gun and killing Wright, 20. She said during the trial that she didn't mean to shoot Wright and was sorry. Defense attorney Earl Gray said Wright died during the traffic-stop-turned-arrest due to his own "rash and reckless conduct." Prosecutor Erin Eldridge said Potter was responsible for what happened even if she mistakenly shot Write when she meant to stun him with her Taser. "Accidents can still be crimes," he said.

7

Alex Jones sues Jan. 6 committee and says he'll plead the 5th

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a vocal backer of former President Donald Trump and operator of the far-right Infowars website, has filed a lawsuit against the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, seeking to block the panel from obtaining his phone records and forcing him to testify next month. Jones has said he plans to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and that the committee rejected his offer to provide written answers to their questions. He also said he does not intend to produce any documents because he feels his "journalistic activity" is protected under the First Amendment. Jones is the latest of several Trump supporters who have sued the panel.

8

Trump waves off boos after revealing he got COVID booster

Former President Donald Trump was met with boos after announcing to a mostly unmasked crowd that he had received a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Newsweek reported Monday. Appearing Sunday with former Fox host Bill O'Reilly at the American Airlines Center in Dallas during the final stop of their "History Tour," Trump confirmed his booster status and even told those chiding him (and presumably O'Reilly, who also said he is boosted) to stop being critical of people for getting vaccinated. "Look, we did something that was historic, we saved tens of millions of lives worldwide when we, together, all of us, we got a vaccine done," Trump said, according to Newsweek. "This was going to ravage the country far beyond what it is right now, take credit for it ... It's great, what we've done is historic. Don't let them take it away."

9

Philippines typhoon death toll rises further, exceeding 300

The death toll in the Philippines from Super Typhoon Rai continued to rise on Monday and early Tuesday, reaching at least 375 people as search crews reached more devastated areas. The storm crashed into the country's southeastern islands on Thursday with high winds and heavy rains. Rescue teams said they had encountered "complete carnage" in some coastal areas left without power, phone service, or sufficient drinking water. "There are some areas that look like it has been bombed worse than World War II," the chair of the Philippines Red Cross, Richard Gordon, told the BBC. The governor of the Dinagat Islands, Arlene Bag-ao, said on Facebook that the "fields and boats of our farmers and fisherfolk have been decimated."

10

Report says glaciers melting fastest in Himalayas

Himalayan glaciers are melting at an "exceptional" rate that is outpacing the loss of glaciers in other parts of the world, according to a peer-reviewed study published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports. The Himalayan mountains, often referred to as the "third pole," are home to the third-largest collection of glaciers after Antarctica and the Arctic. Researchers, using satellite images and digital models, found that the Himalayas' 15,000 glaciers had shrunk by about 40 percent from the peak during the so-called Little Ice Age 400 to 700 years ago. Current losses are at least 10 times the average rate of past centuries, with recent acceleration coinciding "with human-induced climate change," said report author Jonathan Carrivick, deputy head of the University of Leeds School of Geography.

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