10 things you need to know today: March 31, 2022
Russia says Ukraine talks not "particularly promising," Collins becomes 1st Republican to say she'll vote to confirm Jackson, and more
Russia dismisses talk of progress in Ukraine negotiations
Russia on Wednesday downplayed reports of progress at this week's peace talks with Ukraine as Russian forces intensified their offensive in eastern Ukraine. "No one said that the sides have made headway," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. "We can't point to anything particularly promising." On Tuesday, Moscow negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to discuss peace once a draft deal was ready. Russia promised to reduce operations around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to "increase mutual trust," but renewed shelling in those areas made Ukrainian and Western leaders skeptical. With Russia, Zelensky said, "you can trust only concrete results."
Collins says she will vote to confirm Jackson
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Wednesday that she would vote to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, assuring President Biden's nominee of a measure of bipartisan support. Collins is the first Republican to publicly back Jackson, the first Black woman ever nominated to the high court. The moderate Collins was long considered the most likely Republican to vote for Jackson, and Biden reportedly called her at least three times to discuss the vacancy left by Justice Stephen Breyer's retirement. Collins praised Jackson's "sterling academic and professional credentials," and said the judge "possesses the experience, qualifications, and integrity to serve" on the Supreme Court. Democrats are confident they will be able to confirm Jackson in the evenly divided Senate by late next week.
Biden to order massive oil-reserve release
President Biden is preparing to announce the release of up to 1 million barrels of oil per day from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve for up to 180 days to help bring down high gasoline prices. The order could come as soon as Thursday when Biden addresses his plans to fight high pump prices, The Washington Post reported. Oil and gasoline prices have jumped since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, and the United States and its allies hit Moscow with harsh sanctions. Crude oil traded at nearly $105 per barrel on Wednesday, up from $60 a year ago, but fell 4 percent after the plan was reported. The average U.S. price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $4.24 on Wednesday, according to AAA, up from $3.60 last month and $2.90 last year.
Reports: Aides afraid to tell Putin about Ukraine failures
Declassified U.S. intelligence indicates that aides misinformed Russian President Vladimir Putin about setbacks in his invasion of Ukraine because they were afraid to tell him the truth, the White House said Wednesday. "One of the Achilles' heel of autocracies is that you don't have people in those systems who speak truth to power or who have the ability to speak truth to power," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. "And I think that is something that we're seeing in Russia." Putin's isolation due to the pandemic and his public scolding of advisers who disagree with him have contributed to the problem, leaving Putin without accurate information about his army's failures and the use of conscripts on the front lines in Ukraine.
Biden tells Zelensky U.S. to give Ukraine another $500 million in aid
President Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday and told him during the call that the United States would give Ukraine an additional $500 million in "direct budgetary aid" as it battles Russia's invasion. That would bring total U.S. aid to $2.5 billion, according to Fox News. The two leaders also discussed U.S. efforts to provide security assistance requested by Ukraine, and other ways to help Ukraine's military, the White House said. Zelensky tweeted that he and Biden "shared assessment of the situation on the battlefield and at the negotiating table," and "talked about specific defensive support, a new package of enhanced sanctions, macro-financial and humanitarian aid." The White House also said it would take in up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
NASA astronaut returns with Russians after longest spaceflight for an American
Two Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei landed in Kazakhstan on Wednesday after a historic mission to the International Space Station amid soaring tensions between Russia and the United States over Ukraine. Vande Hei spent 355 days in space, setting a record for the longest single spaceflight for an American. The Soyuz spacecraft touched down under a parachute in a remote area at 7:28 a.m. Eastern, and rescue crews rushed to the capsule, setting up a medical tent to quickly check the astronauts' health. Rob Navias, a NASA public affairs official, said on a space-agency broadcast that it was "a perfect landing, a bull's eye touchdown," with "the crew feeling fine, everything going by the book."
Governors in 2 more states sign transgender sports bans
Oklahoma and Arizona on Wednesday became the latest states to ban transgender women and girls from competing as females in state school athletics, from kindergarten to college. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, signed the bans into law. "When it comes to sports and athletics, girls should compete against girls. Boys should compete against boys. And let's be very clear: That's all this bill says," Stitt said to justify the exclusion of trans girls. Arizona's ban applied to trans girls at both public schools and private institutions that compete against them. Ducey also signed another bill banning gender-affirming care for trans youth. Critics say these bans harm transgender youth who already often struggle with being isolated and excluded at schools.
U.S. plans to end Title 42 border policy in May
The Biden administration is preparing to lift an emergency public health order imposed early in the coronavirus pandemic to curb immigration over land borders, The New York Times and CBS News reported Wednesday, citing people familiar with the plan. Federal officials are expected to announce the change as early as this week. It would take effect in May, making it possible again for asylum seekers to enter the United States without being promptly sent back in the name of fighting coronavirus infections. Federal authorities are bracing for the possibility that the lifting of the order, known as Title 42, will spark a new surge of migrants from Central America and other areas to the southwest border.
Meta reportedly paying consultants to turn public against TikTok
Meta, the parent company to Facebook, is paying one of the "biggest Republican consulting firms" in the U.S. to try and "turn the public against" online video app TikTok, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The firm Targeted Victory has been working to "undermine" TikTok by implementing a national media and lobbying campaign that places "op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook," according to the Post. The firm has also been pushing political reporters and local politicians to move against TikTok, Facebook's biggest competitor. Operatives were "encouraged to use TikTok's prominence as a way to deflect from Meta's own privacy and antitrust concerns," the Post reported.
Bruce Willis, diagnosed with aphasia, retires from acting
Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with aphasia and will retire from acting, his family said in an Instagram post Wednesday. The family said his illness was "impacting his cognitive abilities." According to Mayo Clinic, aphasia "robs you of the ability to communicate." It can come on abruptly due to stroke or head injury, or slowly from a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease. "We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him," said the statement from Willis' daughters Rumer, Scout, Tallulah, Mabel, and Evelyn Willis, his wife Emma Heming Willis, and his ex-wife Demi Moore.