Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: January 25, 2022

U.S. puts 8,500 troops on "heightened alert" over Ukraine, Palin defamation lawsuit delayed after she tests positive for COVID, and more

1

U.S. puts 8,500 troops on 'heightened alert' in Ukraine crisis

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened alert" and President Biden is considering sending American forces to Eastern Europe to help NATO allies brace for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon said Monday. "The decision has been made to put these units on higher alert and higher alert only," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a news briefing. "No decisions have been made to deploy forces from the United States at this time." NATO said it was putting forces on standby and sending more ships and fighter jets to reinforce its military resources in Eastern Europe in response to Russia's massing of 100,000 troops near its Ukraine border. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Monday that U.S. citizens in Ukraine "should leave now." Moscow denounced the Western reaction as "hysteria." 

2

Sarah Palin tests positive for COVID, delaying Times defamation trial

Sarah Palin's defamation lawsuit against The New York Times was delayed on Monday after the former Alaska governor tested positive for the coronavirus. "She is, of course, unvaccinated," Judge Jed Rakoff said. Rakoff rescheduled the start of jury selection to Feb. 3. Palin was tested for COVID-19 ahead of the trial. The 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee wants to attend jury selection in person, and plans to testify in the trial. Palin is suing the Times over a 2017 editorial linking an ad by her political action committee to a mass shooting that left six people dead and then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) severely injured. The Times issued a correction and apologized, saying there was no established link. A judge dismissed the case but an appeals court revived it.

3

Judges grant prosecutor special grand jury to investigate Trump election efforts

Fulton County, Georgia, Superior Court judges on Monday granted Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' request to convene a special grand jury to look into pressure former President Donald Trump and others put on Georgia election officials. Willis is considering whether Trump and other officials committed crimes as they urged election officials to overturn Trump's election loss in the state. Willis will be allowed to seat the special grand jury on May 2. It will be allowed to work for up to a year, Christopher Brasher, chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court, wrote in an order. Willis, a Democrat, said in a letter to the chief judge last week that she needed a grand jury with subpoena powers because numerous witnesses have refused to cooperate voluntarily.

4

U.S. stocks bounced back from early Monday plunge, but volatility continues

Markets fell dramatically early Monday but rallied later in the day, closing with modest gains. The S&P 500 fell briefly into correction territory, defined as 10 percent below its recent high, but closed up by 0.3 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.3 percent, its first positive day in seven. The tech-heavy Nasdaq fell by 4.9 percent early Monday but ended the day up by 0.6 percent. Some analysts predicted that the market turbulence could continue as investors brace for more fallout from the Omicron coronavirus wave and rising interest rates. JPMorgan strategist Marko Kolanovic said the "recent pullback in risk assets appears overdone, and … we could be in the final stages of this correction." U.S. stock futures fell early Tuesday.

5

Study shows Pfizer booster remains effective against Omicron for 4 months

Antibodies capable of blocking the Omicron coronavirus variant remain effective four months after a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, according to a new study. The laboratory study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests that a fourth shot (a second booster) will not be necessary just yet, as some people have speculated. "That really shows that at least up to four months, post-dose three, there is still substantial neutralizing activity against Omicron," said Pei-Yong Shi, a microbiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, whose team tested antibodies in the blood of vaccinated people.  Antibodies fade in the months after vaccination. Omicron evaded protection from a second vaccine dose even in the month after it was administered, but a third shot restored strong immune protection.

6

Prosecutor says 3 ex-officers did nothing to help George Floyd

Lawyers gave opening arguments Monday to start the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers accused of violating the civil rights of George Floyd by failing to prevent their former colleague, Derek Chauvin, from killing him. Samantha Trepel, a federal prosecutor, said the three men — Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng — ignored their duties by failing to stop Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd's neck until he stopped breathing. "They watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death," Trepel said in her opening statement. Defense attorneys said Floyd's death after he was detained on suspicion of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit bill was a tragedy, but they argued that their clients committed no crime. One defense lawyer said Chauvin was the senior officer and "called all the shots."

7

Supreme Court to hear challenges to college affirmative action policies

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear challenges to the consideration of race in the admissions process at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Groups backed by longtime affirmative action critic Edward Blum of Maine have sued Harvard and UNC, arguing that Harvard discriminated against Asian-American students and UNC discriminated against Asian-American and white applicants. The high court has repeatedly upheld affirmative action in previous cases, but the latest challenge comes after conservatives gained a larger, 6-3 majority, increasing the likelihood that the court will find the practice unconstitutional. Both schools have said their admissions policies are lawful under Supreme Court precedents.

8

Judges reject new Alabama congressional map 

A panel of three federal judges in Alabama ruled unanimously Monday that Alabama needs to draw a new congressional map that includes "two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it." The GOP-led state Legislature approved a congressional map last year that retains six majority-white districts and one majority-Black district, even though Alabama's population is about 27 percent Black. Alabama's congressional delegation includes six House Republicans and one House Democrat representing the 7th Congressional District. The three judges — one appointed by President Bill Clinton and the other two by President Donald Trump — said the plaintiffs in the three consolidated cases are "substantially likely" to prevail in their claim that Alabama's current congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act. 

9

Biden administration's free N95 masks begin arriving at pharmacies

The first free N95 masks sent out by the Biden administration started arriving in pharmacies around the country on Monday. The administration is distributing the high-quality masks as part of an effort to increase protection and testing to help slow the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is fueling a wave of new COVID-19 cases. The arrival of the first of 400 million N95 masks the government is providing for the public came as free COVID-19 tests are arriving through the mail to people who ordered them. "Last week masks began shipping and arriving at pharmacies and grocers around [the] country. We expect that throughout the week the number of stores and N95s arriving to scale up significantly," an administration official said.

10

Webb telescope arrives at its observation point 

The James Webb Space Telescope reached its intended position beyond the moon Monday after a month-long journey that started with a launch from French Guiana on Dec. 25. From its point of observation nearly a million miles from Earth and beyond the moon, the space observatory will be able to examine the universe in new ways, and look into the atmosphere of exoplanets. Webb's orbit will keep it behind Earth as it orbits the sun, shielding it from heat and keeping it cool so it can observe the universe in infrared light, allowing it to detect faint, distant objects. The telescope, a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, is expected to transmit its first images this summer.

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