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10 things you need to know today: September 23, 2022

Russian-backed separatists launch annexation referendums in four Ukrainian regions, special master tells Trump lawyers to back up any planted-evidence claims, and more


Russia-backed separatists begin annexation referendums in 4 Ukrainian regions 

Russia and pro-Kremlin separatists who largely control four Ukrainian provinces starting holding referendums Friday on joining Russia. The voting will continue to Tuesday. The West and Kyiv have condemned the votes as a "sham." Moscow has indicated the referendums will serve as justification for it to annex the areas, as it did Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The United States and other Western allies say annexation of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia provinces, which account for about 15 percent of Ukraine's territory, would be illegal and invalid. Russian-installed leaders announced plans for the balloting earlier this week as Ukraine continued to expand a counteroffensive that has pushed Russian forces out of parts of Ukraine they seized early in the invasion.


Special master tells Trump lawyers to back up planted-evidence claim

Judge Raymond Dearie, the special master reviewing documents the FBI seized from former President Donald Trump's Florida home, told Trump's lawyers in a Thursday filing to back up any out-of-court claims Trump and his allies have made that agents planted evidence. Dearie said Trump's lawyers must submit a sworn declaration with a "list of any specific items" on the "inventory" of documents taken by the FBI that weren't really at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence before the agents got there. Dearie's order came two days after his first hearing with Trump's lawyers and federal prosecutors, and a day after an appeals court restored the Justice Department's access to about 100 documents marked classified as it pursues its criminal investigation and a national security risk assessment.


Top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, U.S. face off at U.N. Security Council

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western diplomats clashed with their Russian counterpart over Russia's invasion of Ukraine during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday. Blinken said Russia's retreat from the Ukrainian cities of Izium and Bucha exposed evidence of possible war crimes, including the torture and killings of civilians. "Wherever the Russian tide recedes, we discover the horror that's left in its wake," Blinken said. "We cannot, we will not allow President [Vladimir] Putin to get away with it." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied the allegations and said Ukrainian forces have killed civilians in pro-Russian separatist strongholds in the eastern Donbas region. He accused the U.S., France, and Germany of letting Ukraine commit atrocities "with impunity."


Indiana judge temporarily blocks state abortion ban

An Indiana judge blocked the state from enforcing its abortion ban on Thursday, a week after it took effect. Indiana abortion clinics immediately began working on reopening. "People are getting the word that abortion is now legal again, and people are ready to get their health care that they deserve and that they desire," Dr. Katie McHugh, an abortion provider at Women's Med in Indianapolis, told The Associated Press. Owen County Judge Kelsey Hanlon put the ban on hold pending the resolution of abortion clinic operators' lawsuit arguing the law violates the state constitution. The law bans abortions with narrow exceptions. Hanlon wrote that "there is a reasonable likelihood that this significant restriction of personal autonomy offends the liberty guarantees of the Indiana Constitution."


House GOP drops ad buy for Ohio candidate accused of lying about military service

The Republican Party's campaign arm in the House on Thursday dropped an ad buy worth nearly $1 million targeting Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) a day after The Associated Press reported that her GOP opponent, J.R. Majewski, had lied about his military service and other matters on his résumé. Majewski beat two Ohio state legislators in a May primary. Kaptur is one of the longest-serving women in the House, but she is considered one of the most vulnerable House Democrats this year because redistricting put her in a district that former President Donald Trump would have narrowly carried in 2020. Majewski is firmly aligned with Trump's MAGA wing of the GOP. He once painted his lawn with Trump's image.


At least 9 killed in Iran as protests over woman's death grow

The death toll in Iran's ongoing anti-government protests has risen to at least nine, The Associated Press reported Thursday. An anchor on Iranian state TV said as many as 17 people might have died. The clashes between Iranian security forces and protesters started after a hospital reported the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, after the country's morality police arrested her on charges that she violated the Islamic republic's strict dress code. The unrest is the worst Iran has seen in years. Iran's biggest telecom shut down internet access to prevent the protests from spreading. There have been widespread outages on Instagram and WhatsApp, which protesters have used to communicate. Iran's Revolutionary Guard called for prosecuting "anyone who spreads fake news and rumors."


Hurricane Fiona batters Bermuda and heads toward eastern Canada

Hurricane Fiona lashed Bermuda with strong winds early Friday as the Category 4 storm's center passed just to the west of the British island territory, heading north-northeast in the Atlantic with top sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. The storm is expected to approach the Canadian province of Nova Scotia later in the day. The Canadian Hurricane Center issued warnings for "what looks to be a historic storm for eastern Canada." "It's going to hit us in the face," said Halifax, Nova Scotia, Mayor Mike Savage. Earlier this week, Fiona devastated Puerto Rico. President Biden on Thursday promised that the federal government would help the U.S. Caribbean territory recover. "We're not going to walk away," he said.


U.S. reduces plan for donated vaccines as global demand drops

The Biden administration is cutting the number of doses of coronavirus vaccine it plans to donate to other countries this year as demand for the shots falls sharply, Bloomberg reported Thursday. A year ago, President Biden doubled Pfizer's contract, calling for the drugmaker to provide 1 billion dose, at cost, by this month. Under the revised deal, Pfizer will make 600 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine it developed with BioNTech by the end of the year. The administration will have the option to order more, up to the remaining 400 million. The changes will give the government more time to line up countries that want the vaccine. Pfizer said administrative barriers "and vaccine hesitancy" are reducing demand in low- and middle-income countries.


Senate moves toward considering stopgap spending bill to prevent shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday started the process of considering a stopgap spending bill needed to prevent a partial government shutdown at the end of next week. The bill includes billions of dollars for Ukraine, which is expected to help it pass, but lawmakers will continue debating that and other details over the weekend. Schumer reportedly aims to bring up the bill Tuesday. Senate Democrats plan to include Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) legislation to streamline energy infrastructure permits, but Republican leaders said the measures probably wouldn't get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House is ready to consider the legislation quickly under the "same-day rule" once the Senate passes it.


Federal watchdog triples estimate of pandemic relief unemployment fraud

The office of the inspector general of the Labor Department on Thursday tripled its estimate of the pandemic relief funds wrongly distributed due to fraud, including duplicate payments, and money sent to dead people, federal prisoners, or others with suspicious email accounts. The federal watchdog previously said in a statement that about $16 billion in special unemployment insurance went out to fraudulent recipients, but it now says the payments probably totaled $45.6 billion. Investigations have led to criminal charges against more than 1,000 people, the office said. Larry Turner, the inspector general, said in a statement that the funds attracted "fraudsters" looking to exploit the program, "resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments."


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