February 23, 2021

As a whole, the United States is experiencing its most sustained and significant decline in confirmed COVID-19 infections since the virus first reached the country last year, but the situation does vary by region. On Tuesday, the question of why cases in New York City, the original U.S. epicenter, don't seem to be declining as quickly as the rest of the country.

On Monday, for instance, New York's 14-day decline in cases was just 1 percent. Compared to the 40 percent national decline over that same period, that's pretty slow. Nobody has pinpointed a singular explanation (and there likely isn't one), but there are some simple, plausible theories you've probably heard before over the last 11 months.

The most obvious one would be testing. The city government has reportedly hinted that it considers its testing program more robust than elsewhere, so it's still picking up more mild or asymptomatic cases of the virus, generally speaking, and a big drop in hospitalizations does seem to back up that notion. Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver theorized the disparity grew even more pronounced in recent weeks because bad weather limited the number of people who could access testing in many places.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the question himself Tuesday, arguing that his city also was starting from a high peak. Tim O'Donnell

3:38 a.m.

The Senate on Thursday confirmed former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, 64-35, to lead the Energy Department, with 14 Republicans joining all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to give President Biden his 10th Cabinet-level appointee (plus one deputy secretary). After her confirmation, Granholm tweeted that she's "obsessed with creating good-paying clean energy jobs in all corners of America in service of addressing our climate crisis" and "impatient for results."

Granholm repeated her priorities on MSNBC Thursday night. "I am all about bringing clean-energy jobs" to communities, especially those, like Michigan, reliant on fossil fuels, she told host Chris Hayes. "I am totally obsessed about how to create good-paying jobs in America," and the clean-energy sector "is the biggest opportunity for us."

The market is shifting toward green energy, regardless of what politicians prefer, and the Energy Department's 17 national labs are creating ways to not only expand renewable energy but also "decarbonize fossil fuels," Granholm said. "And honestly, if we can bring the supply chains for all of these clean-energy products to the United States, instead of letting our economic competitors eat us for lunch, the jobs that could be created for us in the U.S. — good-paying jobs — are boundless."

Biden has sent the Senate more nominations, and gotten fewer of them confirmed, than any recent president, Axios reports, citing a count by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post.

"The new president is facing a pandemic without a surgeon general or head of the Department of Health and Human Services, he confronts an economic crisis without his leaders at Labor or Commerce, and domestic terrorism is on the rise with no attorney general," Axios notes. You can track Biden's nominations at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

2:41 a.m.

Illinois state Rep. Chris Miller (R), the husband of freshman U.S. Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.), acknowledged Thursday that his pickup truck was parked in a restricted area outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot, but he said the "Three Percenter" militia sticker on the back window doesn't mean anything.

"Army friend gave me decal," Miller told The Daily Beast in an email late Thursday. "Thought it was a cool decal. Took it off because of negative pub." He said he "never was member" of the militia and "didn't know anything about 3% till fake news started this fake story and read about them." Online sleuths had linked him to the truck visible in footage from a CBS News report, earlier Thursday.

The Three Percenters, founded in 2008, are a "radical militia group" implicated in leading the Jan. 6 siege along with the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers,and other far-right extremist groups, the FBI said in an affidavit filed in the case against alleged rioter Robert Gieswein. Their name comes from the apocryphal claim that only 3 percent of U.S. colonists fought in the Revolutionary War, and they fashion themselves as the same kind of tyranny-stomping "patriots."

Miller's wife, Mary Miller, is most famous for favorably quoting Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at a "Moms for America" rally outside the Capitol on Jan. 5. "Hitler was right on one thing: whoever has the youth has the future," she told the rally, apologizing later when video of her comments went viral but insisting that "some are trying to intentionally twist my words to mean something antithetical to my beliefs." Peter Weber

1:48 a.m.

In Brazil, where the coronavirus is spreading uncontrollably, the COVID-19 death toll surpassed 250,000 on Thursday evening.

There have been 251,498 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Brazil since the pandemic began a year ago, the country's Health Ministry said. This is the world's second-highest death toll, after the United States. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's right-wing president, has criticized efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, slamming lockdowns, ignoring social distancing measures, and taunting people who wear masks.

Every day over the last two weeks, Brazil has averaged more than 1,000 daily deaths — the highest numbers since July. Christovam Barcellos of the Fiocruz research institution told Reuters Brazil is experiencing a "second plateau. It's not a second wave, because we've been over five weeks with 1,000 deaths per day."

The new coronavirus variant first found in Amazonas state that is believed to be more contagious has now been detected in at least 17 Brazilian states. Public health experts have been calling on Brazilian mayors and governors to impose lockdowns to keep the variant from spreading far and wide, but the measures that are being implemented, like nighttime curfews, won't do nearly enough.

"Right now, Brazil is the largest open-air laboratory, where it is possible to observe the natural dynamics of the coronavirus without any effective containment measure," neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis tweeted on Tuesday. "Everyone will witness the epic devastation." Last month, he warned that if Brazil did not enter a lockdown to limit travel and gatherings, "we won't be able to bury our dead in 2021."

Vaccination efforts are now underway, but are off to a slow start. More than 210 million people live in Brazil, and the country has only secured 16 million doses and distributed about half. Brazil is using the vaccine developed by China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd., which researchers say is effective against COVID-19 variants first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Tests are now underway to see if it works on the Amazonas variant. Catherine Garcia

1:27 a.m.

Bloomberg's Tim O'Brien, one of the few journalists who has seen former President Donald Trump's tax returns, told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell on Thursday night he will sleep better now that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance finally has eight years of Trump's financial documents, from 2011 to 2019. Trump "is very afraid of what's in these documents, I think," because they put him in serious criminal jeopardy, O'Brien said, but he isn't the only one implicated.

O'Brien went on to explain why he thinks it's likely Trump's chief accountant, Allen Weisselberg, is likely to flip on Trump. "The thing to really focus in on here is that it's not just the tax records that Cy Vance has now," O'Brien said. "He probably has reams and reams of the accountant's work product. This is a criminal case, they're going to need to prove criminal intent on the part of Trump, his three eldest children, Allen Weisselberg, and anyone else in the Trump Organization who's fallen under the parameters of this investigation. And if there are email and notes and other records of communication about what they intended to do when they inflated the value of buildings so they could get loans against them and then turned around and deflated the value of the buildings so they could pay lower taxes on them, and there's a communication around that that predates any of these tax entries, that is gold for a prosecutor."

A few hours earlier, O'Brien told MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace that the particular eight years of documents Vance's team has "is important, because it predates Trump's ascent into the White House, and I think helps build the narrative around the money trail and Trump's motivations for his destructive and obscene dance with people like Vladimir Putin. It's a shame they couldn't go back further — think this is one of the tragic misses of Robert Mueller's investigation, he could have gone back further, I think, than Cy Vance is able to into Trump's finances."

O'Brien also underscored that the investigation implicates at least Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, and "it also targets people inside the Trump Organization who might flip on Trump if they're exposed to criminal liability," but "the brass ring in all of this is that if Trump has a criminal conviction, he cannot run for president again, and that's looming over this entire thing as well." Peter Weber

12:35 a.m.

During a meeting with advisers on Thursday, former President Donald Trump shared that he is going to form a new super PAC and has tapped former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to run it, several people familiar with the matter told Politico.

The meeting was held at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, and the attendees included Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; former campaign managers Brad Parscale and Bill Stepien; former deputy campaign manager Justin Clark; former White House social media director Dan Scavino; and senior adviser Jason Miller. Miller told Politico that Trump's fans will be "impressed with the political operation being built out here," and more details will be released "in the coming weeks."

Lewandowski served as Trump's first campaign manager, and after being fired in June 2016, he remained close to Trump and spent time with him at the White House. Nothing about the new super PAC is set in stone, people familiar with the matter stressed to Politico, and Trump could change the plan at any moment.

Trump already has a leadership PAC called Save America, which he launched after the election. While Trump was falsely claiming the election had been stolen from him, Save America was raising tens of millions of dollars, and had $31.5 million in the bank at the end of December, Politico reports. Leadership PACs are limited in how much they can raise from individual donors, but super PACs can solicit and spend unlimited amounts of money. Trump associates say he wants to play a major role in the 2022 midterms, primarily so he can seek revenge against Republicans who backed his impeachment and didn't help him overturn the election results. Catherine Garcia

12:17 a.m.

Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on Thursday effectively killed a Democratic push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, ruling that the measure doesn't pass muster under the budget reconciliation rules Democrats are using to pass the package with a simple majority in the Senate.

Two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), have already said they would vote against including the $15 minimum wage provision in the relief package, dealing it a near-fatal blow in the 50-50 Senate. But many supporters of the wage hike were nonetheless irritated that an obscure, unelected Senate official was the one to ax the broadly popular measure. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among them, but he also had a Plan B.

"In the coming days, I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don't pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages," Sanders said in a statement. "That amendment must be included in the reconciliation bill." Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) echoed Sanders, saying he's "looking at a tax penalty for mega-corporations that refuse to pay a living wage."

The House is scheduled to vote on the $1.9 trillion package, including the $15 minimum wage, on Friday, but the measure can be amended when it arrives in the Senate. If they reconfigure the minimum wage increase as a tax penalty, which is "likely to qualify under the reconciliation rules," Bloomberg News reports, "Democrats have less than three weeks to draft the changes, convince all 50 senators who caucus with the party to support the tax increases — and the specifics of the minimum-wage hike. ... Targeting only large, profitable companies could help assuage concerns from some moderate Democrats who are hesitant to support large-scale tax increases." Peter Weber

February 25, 2021

A new Amnesty International report states that in late November, soldiers from Eritrea who had been fighting in the Tigray region of Ethiopia entered the city of Axum and "systemically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians" in a "massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity."

Amnesty International interviewed 41 witnesses and survivors for the report. There have long been tensions between the Ethiopian federal government and leaders in Tigray, and in early November, members of the national military began clashing with Tigrayan forces. The Ethiopian government denies that Eritrean soldiers are in the country, contradicting newly appointed members of Tigray's interim government. Eritrea's government has called The Associated Press' earlier reporting of the Axum massacre "outrageous lies."

Witnesses told Amnesty International that on Nov. 19, Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces took control of Axum after waging a large-scale offensive. Over the course of nine days, soldiers executed people and looted stores, hospitals, and homes. After a small group of local militia members attacked their base, the soldiers began opening fire in the streets and raiding homes.

The worst violence occurred on Nov. 28 and 29, before the annual Axum Tsion Mariam festival. Witnesses told Amnesty International unarmed civilians were shot as they ran from soldiers, and others were taken from their homes, lined up, and executed. Most of the victims were men. "All we could see on the streets were dead bodies and people crying," one witness said.

"The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's director for East and Southern Africa. "Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum." Muchena added that this "atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum's residents were plunged into days of collective trauma and violence, mourning, and mass burials." Since fighting began in the region, Tigray has largely been cut off from the outside world, and Amnesty International is calling on the Ethiopian government to let in humanitarian workers, human rights groups, and journalists. Catherine Garcia

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