May 2, 2021

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told 60 Minutes in an interview that aired Sunday that the U.S. is not trying to "contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down," but rather uphold the "rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to. Anyone who poses a challenge to that order, we're going to stand up and defend it."

China, Blinken said, is "the one country in the world that has the military, economic, diplomatic capacity to undermine or challenge the rules-based order that we care so much about and are determined to defend." When asked by CBS's Norah O'Donnell if he's ever seen China be "so assertive or aggressive militarily," Blinken said no, and over the last few years, he's witnessed China acting "more repressively at home and more aggressively abroad. That is a fact."

China, which has the world's largest navy, has three new warships patrolling the South China Sea and is flying jets over the western Pacific Ocean. O'Donnell asked Blinken if he believes the U.S. is heading toward a military confrontation with China. "I think it's profoundly against the interests of both China and the United States to get to that point, or even head in that direction," he replied.

Blinken was on the line during President Biden's first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and said Biden "made clear that in a number of areas we have real concerns about the actions that China has taken, and that includes in the economic area and ... the theft of intellectual property." O'Donnell brought up estimates that China's gross domestic product could surpass the U.S. as early as 2028, and Blinken said that even if China becomes the world's wealthiest country, that won't necessarily translate to it becoming the world's most powerful.

"A lot depends on how it uses that wealth," he continued. "It has an aging population. It has significant environmental problems. ... But here's the way I think about it, writ large: If we're talking about what really makes the wealth of a nation, fundamentally it's its human resources and the ability of any one country to maximize their potential. That's the challenge for us, it's the challenge for China. I think we're in a much better place to maximize that — that human potential — than any country on Earth, if we're smart about it." Catherine Garcia

6:57 a.m.

India set another global COVID-19 record Friday, reporting 414,188 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours plus 3,915 new deaths. Both numbers are believed to be significant undercounts. With daily deaths remaining above 3,800 for the past 10 days and hospitals running out of beds, oxygen, and other critical supplies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing increasing pressure to put the country back under lockdown for 2-4 weeks or launch some other coordinated central response to the pandemic.

An earlier strict lockdown is credited with India's success, until March, in containing the coronavirus outbreaks, but it took a terrible economic toll on India and especially its poorest citizens. Modi so far has left it up to India's 28 states to set their own mitigation measures, and fewer than a dozen have instituted some lesser restrictions.

India isn't alone in battling new variant-driven waves of COVID-19, and Egypt, Turkey, and other countries are ""trying to ensure they aren't hit by an India-style disaster," The Associated Press reports. "They face many of the same risks, including large populations that have shirked restrictions and fragile health systems shaken under the strain." In wealthier nations, aggressive vaccination campaigns have sent cases and deaths on downward trajectories.

Worldwide, however, there have been more COVID-19 cases reported over the past two weeks than in the first six months of the pandemic, World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom said. India and Brazil account for a large share of those numbers, "but there are many other countries all over the world that face a very fragile situation," he added. "What is happening in India and Brazil could happen elsewhere unless we all take these public health precautions." Peter Weber

5:31 a.m.

The Federal Election Commission announced Thursday that it will not investigate possible campaign finance violations by former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, tied to a $130,000 hush payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen had paid Daniels right before the election to keep her from disclosing an extramarital affair she says she had with Trump.

The payment was not reported on Trump's campaign filings. Cohen, who said he paid off Daniels and another woman on Trump's behalf and on his orders, was jailed in 2018 for violating campaign finance laws, tax evasion, and lying to Congress.

The FEC deadlocked over investigating Trump in a closed-door meeting in February, with two Republican commissioners voting to drop the issue, two Democratic commissioners voting to push forward, one Republican commissioner recusing himself, and the sixth commissioner, an independent, absent. The FEC's nonpartisan general counsel's office had advised investigating Trump, reporting in December it found "reason to believe" his campaign had "knowingly and willfully" violated campaign finance laws.

The two voting GOP commissioners, Trey Trainor and Sean Cooksey, explained in a letter that they "voted to dismiss these matters as an exercise of our prosecutorial discretion," arguing that "the public record is complete" due to Cohen's punishment and "pursuing these matters further was not the best use of agency resources."

The two Democratic commissioners, Ellen Weintraub and Chairwoman Shana Broussard, disagreed, noting that agency staff had recommended an investigation. "To conclude that a payment, made 13 days before Election Day to hush up a suddenly newsworthy 10-year-old story, was not campaign-related, without so much as conducting an investigation, defies reality," they wrote.

Cohen told The New York Times in a statement that "the hush money payment was done at the direction of and for the benefit of Donald J. Trump," adding: "Like me, Trump should have been found guilty. How the FEC committee could rule any other way is confounding." Peter Weber

4:19 a.m.

"The CDC just announced that they expect to see a sharp decline in COVID cases in the U.S. by July," Jimmy Fallon said on Thursday's Tonight Show. "So get ready for Etsy's newest item, bikinis made from recycled masks."

Meanwhile in Washington, "House Republicans want to kick Liz Cheney off of their leadership team because she refuses to side with Trump and say the election was stolen," Fallon said. "You could tell Republicans also upset Dick Cheney, because they were like, 'We should totally ditch Liz, she's such a....'" — and here he made a Darth Vader joke.

"I've got to give props to Liz Cheney for risking her political career to stand up for what she believes in," Trevor Noah said at The Daily Show. But "loyalty to Trump is a defining principle of the GOP right now, and if she doesn't agree with that, it doesn't make much sense for her to be one of the party's leaders." Most Republicans say they believe President Biden did steal the election, "and even now, there are still efforts going on to overturn the results in close states, including a big one in Arizona," he said. "And if you're wondering how a bunch of conspiracy nuts are going to turn a Biden win into a Trump win, the answer is, in the craziest way possible."

"The GOP is now so committed to the deranged lie that Trump actually won the election," they're punishing Liz Cheney "simply for living in reality," Late Night's Seth Meyers sighed Wednesday night. "You think I want to side with Liz Cheney? For one thing, she's never met a war she didn't support, and I'm afraid that if I'm too nice to her, her dad will invite me hunting and shoot me in the face. But this isn't about Liz Cheney.... it's about why she's being punished."

Jimmy Kimmel skipped Liz Cheney for Caitlyn Jenner, who sat down with Sean Hannity to discuss her gubernatorial bid. "This is how well Caitlyn Jenner understands the plight of everyday Californians here in L.A.," he said on Kimmel Live. "She mentions this airplane she flies, multiple times. They had this town hall in her own airplane hangar," the setting for an anecdote about rich friends fleeing in private jets to avoid seeing homeless people. "Is it transphobic to call a trans person an ignorant a-hole?" he pondered. Peter Weber

2:07 a.m.

Zach Vraa turned his quarantine hobby of making ice cream into an actual business, with his one-of-a-kind creations regularly selling out in just one minute.

Vraa, 29, is the founder of A to Z Creamery in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. At the beginning of the pandemic, he was working in sales; while at home, he started using the ice cream machine his mom bought for his birthday. He came up with different flavor combinations, like Lucky Charms with black cherry frosting, and posted photos of his concoctions online. People asked if they could buy his ice cream, and Vraa started selling a few pints of each flavor. The demand was there: for every 10 pints he had available, Vraa received 100 messages from customers wanting the ice cream.

"That's when I kind of figured out, 'Wow, I need to start doing this full scale in a full commercial kitchen,'" Vraa told KARE 11. Now, he can make 300 pints a week, with the base and toppings all made from scratch. No flavor is too out there — Vraa has made an Everything Bagel ice cream, topped with a garlic cream cheese swirl — and none are ever repeated.

Vraa puts up one flavor for sale every week, and they typically sell out in a minute. The lucky people able to purchase a pint come down to the creamery to pick up their orders, and Vraa told KARE 11 that "every time I open the door and see the line wrapping around the corner, it's a feeling that never gets old." Catherine Garcia

1:59 a.m.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is almost certainly going to be ousted as No. 3 House Republican next week, even though she voted with former President Donald Trump more often (93 percent) than her likely replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) — as Stefanik's conservative critics point out. While Stefanik has morphed from Trump skeptic to enthusiastic booster, Cheney has transformed from one of those "hold-their-noses-and-deal-with-him" establishment Republicans into, finally, Sen. John McCain's political "heir," Susan B. Glasser writes in The New Yorker.

After Trump tried to co-opt "the Big Lie" this week to refer to his false claims that he won the 2020 election, Cheney shot back that "the 2020 presidential election was not stolen," and "anyone who claims it was is spreading the big lie." Predictably, House Republicans turned against Cheney and sided with Trump, who "has learned the lesson of previous demagogues: the bigger and more flagrant the untruth, the better to prove the fealty of his party," Glasser writes.

"It's all got to do with fealty to Trump and the Big Lie and the fact that Liz is a living reproach to all these cowards," Eric Edelman, a friend of Cheney's, told The New Yorker. Glasser continues:

Cheney's rupture with the House Republican Conference has become all but final in recent days, but it has been months in the making. Edelman revealed that Cheney herself secretly orchestrated an unprecedented op-ed in The Washington Post by all 10 living former defense secretaries, including her father, warning against Trump's efforts to politicize the military. The congresswoman not only recruited her father but personally asked others, including Trump's first Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, to participate. ... The Post op-ed appeared on Jan. 3, just three days before the insurrection at the Capitol. [Susan Glasser, The New Yorker]

More quietly, Cheney and her husband circulated a 21-page memo among House Republicans on Jan. 3, debunking Trump's false election fraud claims and warning her colleagues about the "dangerous precedent" of voting to overturn the election, Glasser reports. Not even Cheney allies expect her to win this last stand, but "if Trump does manage to reinvent 'the Big Lie' in service of his own corrupt ends, Cheney will at least have forced members of her party into admitting, on the record, that they are making a choice between truth and Trump's untruth — and choosing the latter." Read the entire article at The New Yorker. Peter Weber

1:30 a.m.

In an overture to the MAGA crowd, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) appeared on Steve Bannon's radio show Thursday, saying that to win in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans have to "run with support" from former President Donald Trump and "his coalition of voters."

Stefanik is the frontrunner to replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the House Republican Conference chair, should Cheney get ousted from the position. Cheney is a Trump critic, while Stefanik, who emerged as one of Trump's biggest defenders during his first impeachment, has doubled-down on her support. "I'm committed to being a voice and sending a clear message that we are one team," Stefanik told Bannon, "and that means working with [Trump] and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress."

Several conservative pundits, media personalities, and organizations have accused Stefanik of being too moderate, with the Club for Growth going so far as to call her "a liberal." Voting records show she sided with Trump 78 percent of the time, compared to Cheney at 93 percent, and while many of his fans are railing against Stefanik, Trump likes her and considers Stefanik a "Republican star."

Stefanik also told Bannon she "fully" supports Arizona's Republican-controlled Senate holding an unusual audit of the November presidential election in Maricopa County. Maricopa County election officials already conducted two audits and discovered no evidence of voter fraud, but Trump continues to spread false claims that the election was rigged against him.

"We want transparency and answers for the American people," Stefanik said, later telling Bannon she wants to "be able to fix and strengthen our election security and election integrity." The audit has come to the Justice Department's attention, with the Civil Rights Division asking the Arizona Senate to explain the steps being taken to ensure the ballots are secure and no one is committing voter intimidation. Catherine Garcia

12:38 a.m.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) has won over former President Donald Trump, but has some work to do if she wants to get his base on her side.

Over the last several months, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House Republican Conference chair, has criticized Trump over his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and pushed back at his false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. She's likely about to be ousted from her position, and Stefanik is considered the frontrunner to replace her. Trump on Wednesday endorsed Stefanik, but not long after, some of his biggest supporters publicly expressed their doubts about the congresswoman.

Former Fox Business host Lou Dobbs dubbed her a "RINO," and Big League Politics, a site founded by former Breitbart employees, called her out for only recently backing Trump, saying she is a "wolf in sheep's clothing," Politico reports.

During Trump's impeachments, Stefanik was one of his loudest defenders, but prior to that, she spoke out against his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and was against his policies of separating migrant children from their families at the border, Politico reports. The American Conservative Union has given Stefanik a lifetime grade of 44 percent, compared to Cheney's lifetime grade of 78 percent. A look at her votes shows Stefanik sided with Trump 78 percent of the time, with Cheney several points higher at 93 percent.

Put all of this together and you have "the identity of a swamp creature," conservative political consultant Ryan James Girdusky told Politico. Girdusky isn't "a fan of Liz Cheney," he added, and believes she "should have never been in House leadership. However, we are exchanging Liz Cheney, who at least votes correct, even though she bashes Trump publicly, [for] somebody who doesn't bash Trump publicly but votes with them almost none of the time." Read more at Politico. Catherine Garcia

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