The U.S. at a glance
Blue Ash, Ohio
Treason talk: President Trump this week accused Democrats of “treasonous” and “un-American” behavior because they did not clap during parts of his State of the Union address. During a speech at an Ohio manufacturing plant meant to tout the Republican tax cuts, Trump mocked Democratic lawmakers, asking why they didn’t applaud when he mentioned falling unemployment for black and Hispanic workers. “Even on positive news like that, really positive news like that, they were like death and un-American,” Trump said. “Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Shall we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.” A White House spokesperson later said the remarks were intended to be “tongue in cheek.” Nevertheless, Democrats and some Republicans criticized Trump’s choice of words. “Treason is not a punch line, Mr. President,” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Amtrak crash: Two people were killed and more than 100 injured this week when an Amtrak passenger train traveling on the wrong track smashed into the back of a freight train in South Carolina, the third fatal Amtrak crash in two months. Investigators said that the passenger train veered onto a side track in the middle of the night because of a disabled signal system. Despite the conductor’s frantic effort to slow it down, the train then crashed into a stationary locomotive at about 55 miles per hour, killing the conductor and an engineer. Last week, an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat struck a garbage truck in rural Virginia, killing one person inside the truck. Three people were killed in December when an Amtrak train derailed on a Seattle overpass, with numerous cars left dangling over a busy freeway during the morning commute.
Gerrymandering slap: The U.S. Supreme Court this week refused a request from Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania to block a decision nullifying the state’s congressional map before this year’s midterm elections. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in January that the map outlining the state’s 18 congressional districts violated the state’s constitution, because of flagrant gerrymandering that favored Republicans. Pennsylvania officials now have until Feb. 15 to submit a new map. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not to intervene was expected, as Pennsylvania’s decision was based entirely on state law. The new map is expected to help Democrats in their efforts to regain the House of Representatives in November. Although Pennsylvania voters are closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans hold 13 of the state’s 18 House seats.
Felon voting rights: Florida’s policy of banning felons from voting until they petition the government was ruled unconstitutional last week in a blistering decision by a federal judge, who called the approach “nonsensical.” The current system, implemented by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, requires felons to wait a minimum of five years after completing their sentence and then apply to the state’s clemency board to have their voting rights restored. The four-member board, headed by the governor, meets four times a year, averaging 75 cases per meeting and denying voting rights more than half the time, including when an applicant has received a traffic ticket. There is a backlog of more than 10,000 petitions. Judge Mark Walker cited several instances in which applicants invoked their conservative beliefs to win over the board. “No standards guide the panel,” Walker wrote. “The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.”
Drug experts sidelined: President Trump’s opioids task force is pushing aside drug policy professionals in favor of political appointees with little to no experience in the field, Politico.com reported this week. The “opioids cabinet” headed by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has yet to invite the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which has overseen federal drug policy since the Reagan administration, to one of its meetings. Conway, a pollster and political strategist, has no experience in public health or law enforcement. Nor do many others charged with the White House’s opioids response, including Andrew Giuliani, Rudolph Giuliani’s 32-year-old son, who is developing a “Just Say No” public education campaign. Some on Capitol Hill have also complained about a lack of outreach from Conway’s cabinet. “I haven’t talked to Kellyanne at all, and I’m from the worst state for [opioid abuse],” said West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.
Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Rocket launch: Billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX this week successfully launched the most powerful rocket ever sent into space by a private firm, bringing the entrepreneur one step closer to his ultimate ambition: sending humans to Mars. The Falcon Heavy, which is capable of lifting 140,000 pounds to low-earth orbit, is also the most powerful American rocket launched since NASA’s final Space Shuttle flight in 2011. SpaceX recovered the right and left rocket boosters, which touched down in unison at a Cape Canaveral landing pad 10 minutes after liftoff. The reusable boosters make the Falcon Heavy cheaper to operate than any other rocket, at $90 million per flight. The center booster, which was supposed to land on a ship in the Atlantic, hit the water and was lost. In a nod to one of Musk’s other companies, the Falcon Heavy launched a red electric Tesla convertible into orbit, with a spacesuit-wearing mannequin behind the wheel. It is expected to travel around the sun for millions of years.