Pfizer and BioNTech to Supply U.S. With Additional 100 Million Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine

(WASHINGTON) — Pfizer said Wednesday it will supply the U.S. government with an additional 100 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine under a new agreement between the pharmaceutical giant and the Trump administration.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said that will bring their total current commitment to 200 million doses for the U.S. That should be enough to vaccinate 100 million people with the two-shot regimen. The government also has an option to purchase an additional 400 million doses.
“This new federal purchase can give Americans even more confidence that we will have enough supply to vaccinate every American who wants it by June 2021,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. The cost to taxpayers: $1.95 billion for the additional 100 million doses.

To aid vaccine production, the government said it is using its authority under a Cold War-era law that allows it to direct private manufacturing.
Pfizer’s vaccine was the first to be approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. It has now been joined by another two-shot vaccine from Moderna, developed in close collaboration with the National Institutes of Health. The government began shipping the Pfizer vaccine to states last week, and the one from Moderna this week.
The priority groups for first vaccination include health care workers and nursing home residents. Gradually more Americans will have access to the free vaccines, which have been shown to be highly effective in clinical studies undertaken so far.
Separately, HHS announced it has joined forces with another big pharma company — Merck— to support the large-scale manufacture of a promising treatment for patients suffering from severe COVID-19 illness.
The treatment, still under investigation and not yet approved by the FDA, is known as MK-7110. It has the potential to minimize the damaging effects of an overactive immune response to COVID-19. This immune overdrive unleashes a cascade of effects on the human body, complicating the life-saving efforts of doctors and nurses.
The government is paying Merck about $356 million to fast-track production of its treatment under the auspices of Operation Warp Speed, a joint effort between HHS, the Pentagon, and drug companies to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. It’s the same collaboration that led to Moderna’s vaccine. The money will allow Merck to deliver up to 100,000 doses by June 30, if the FDA clears the treatment for emergency use.
The current wave of COVID-19 is straining hospitals in a number of states, from California to Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma to Rhode Island. Having better treatments would help keep patients out of intensive care, improving their chances of survival and reducing the burden and stress on hospital staff.
Under the Pfizer deal announced Wednesday, the company will deliver at least 70 million of the additional vaccine doses by June 30, with the remaining 30 million to be delivered no later than July 31.
“With these 100 million additional doses, the United States will be able to protect more individuals and hopefully end this devastating pandemic more quickly,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our work with the U.S. government and healthcare providers around the country.”
Pfizer initially had a contract through Operation Warp Speed to supply the government with 100 million doses of its vaccine. The drugmaker will receive nearly $2 billion for that deal as well.
The Associated Press previously reported that the government was close to reaching the just-announced deal with Pfizer in exchange for helping the company gain better access to manufacturing supplies.
A law dating back to the Korean War gives the government authority to direct private companies to produce critical goods in times of national emergency. Called the Defense Production Act, it’s expected to help Pfizer secure some raw materials needed for its vaccine.
“Operation Warp Speed and the Department of Health and Human Services are using the Defense Production Act to support the production of the six OWS-related vaccines, including Pfizer,” said HHS spokesman Michael Pratt. “Through the selective application of DPA authorities, OWS helps prioritize access to the critical materials and supplies necessary to expand vaccine production in support of U.S. government contracts.”
The other four vaccines are undergoing trials to determine their effectiveness and better understand their overall safety.
Pfizer and BioNTech undertook their own vaccine development, maintaining a more arms-length relationship with the government. But approval of their vaccine won them immediate name recognition, raising hopes of taming a pandemic that has killed more than 320,000 Americans and hobbled much of the economy. Local TV stations across the country began broadcasting scenes of doctors and nurses garbed in hospital scrubs receiving the first vaccinations. Some polls showed easing skepticism about getting vaccinated.
After early failures with testing, Trump administration officials are hoping to write a very different ending with vaccines. Operation Warp Speed has financed the development, manufacture and distribution of millions of doses, with the goal of providing a free vaccine to any American who wants one.
Operation Warp Speed is on track to have about 40 million doses of vaccine by the end of this month, of which about 20 million would be allocated for first vaccinations. Distribution of those doses would span into the first week of January. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots to be fully effective.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

Diplomats, Family Push for Release of Detained ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero

On Christmas morning, a little before 8 a.m., Anaise Kanimba will be clutching a cup of tea in the kitchen of a borrowed Washington home she now shares with her mother, staring at her cellphone and waiting for her father to call from a Rwandan jail. With just five minutes given him for the call by Rwandan authorities, she may be the only one of six children to wish her father Merry Christmas.
The weekly calls are the only contact Anaise, her mom and her siblings have had with their father, Paul Rusesabagina, in almost four months since the man credited with saving more than a thousand Rwandans from genocide disappeared from Dubai on August 27th. Days later, the Rwandan government tweeted that he was in their custody and the family says Rusesabagina was tricked into boarding a plane to a country he fled more than 20 years ago, and delivered into the hands of a political leader who has become his nemesis.

Anaise, 28, says her father doesn’t want to answer their questions in these calls. Instead, he fires queries at them: how are their jobs during the pandemic; how are the grandchildren in their first semester at college? He doesn’t like questions. “We don’t know who is listening,” she says.
To the American public, Rusesabagina is best known as the dramatized hero of the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda, a Hutu credited with saving more than 1,000 Tutsi Rwandans, including his own wife and two nieces, from the genocide that killed an estimated million or more in 1994. The former hotel manager, played by actor Don Cheadle, was even awarded the U.S. medal of freedom by the Bush Administration for his bravery.
But to former Tutsi rebel leader and current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the one-time hotelier is a dangerous political opponent, having used his fame to criticize Kagame’s civil and human rights record, and to openly support a political opposition movement blamed for bloody armed attacks on Rwandan civilians — though Rusesabagina denies any links to that violence.
The case also highlights lame duck U.S. President Donald Trump’s inability or unwillingness to rescue Rusesabagina, a 66-year-old cancer survivor with U.S. legal status who lives in San Antonio, Texas, from Kagame’s grip. Trump had previously spent much diplomatic capital in getting Americans home. And while the White House claims to have secured the release of dozens of hostages and detainees, a number of high-profile Americans are still languishing in foreign prisons, like Iranian-Americans Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs, held hostage by an arm of the Taliban, the Citgo 6 Americans held by Venezuela’s Maduro regime, and journalist Austin Tice, believed held by the Syrian regime.
Distracted by his election defeat, Trump has given little attention to Rusesabagina’s extrajudicial rendition to Dubai, where the hero hotelier thought he was taking a smaller plane onward to Burundi to visit Christian church groups. Instead, Rusesabagina’s lawyers say, he was tied up by Rwandan security aboard the jet, and flown to Kigali, where he awaits trial on Jan. 26th on murder and terrorism charges. If he makes it that long. His family says he hasn’t gotten the heart medicine they’ve sent to him at Mageragere Prison on the outskirts of Kigali, and he complains of headaches, dizziness and rising blood pressure. They say diplomats who’ve visited him say he’s gaunt from weight loss. The jail is reportedly beset by an outbreak of COVID-19.

Courtesy Carine KanimbaPaul Rusesabagina with his family on New Year’s Eve last year.
The Trump Administration has made little public comment, beyond a State Department official, Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy, tweeting his call for the Rwandan government “to provide humane treatment, adhere to the rule of law, and provide a fair and transparent legal process for Mr. Rusesabagina.” A State Department spokesman emailed TIME Wednesday that U.S. diplomats had visited Rusesabagina in prison, adding that they “will continue to follow this case closely and raise our concerns with the Rwandan government,” regarding human rights.
Rusesabagina’s lawyers say his treatment has been anything but fair or transparent, with Rwandan authorities adding multiple terrorist-related offenses, presented piecemeal over the last several months, and only allowing him to meet with his chosen lawyer twice. The Rwandan embassy in Washington says Rusesabagina was “lawfully arrested and brought back to Rwanda through legal and commonly accepted practices” and that he and 18 co-accused suspects are to stand trial for charges including membership to a terrorist group, financing terrorism, arson and robbery. “Mr. Rusesabagina has not been secretive nor silent about his criminal intent and has gone further by positing (sic) a video on social media openly calling for a war on Rwandans,” an embassy spokesman emailed, adding that he is in good health, with access to healthcare.
Rusesabagina’s past comments to a coalition of exiled Rwandan opposition groups, the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, haven’t helped his case. The coalition has an armed wing that the Rwandan government blames for deadly attacks that it says killed at least three civilians near Rwanda’s border with Burundi in the summer of 2018, charges the group denies. Rusesabagina’s spokesperson Kitty Kurth, who has helped run his U.S.-based nonprofit, says he called on the UN to investigate those incidents. But later that year, he also gave a speech, widely circulated online, calling on opposition groups “to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda. As all political means have been tried and failed, it is time to attempt our last resort,” he said. The Rwandan embassy in Washington says the widely reported video was removed from the opposition group’s website after Rusesabagina’s arrest, but it provided a link to another version. In a jailhouse interview this fall, he told The New York Times he meant change via diplomacy, not violence, and that he did not remember making such a video.
His family insists Rusesabagina has no ties to violence. His daughter Carine Kanimba, 27, tells TIME from Brussels that the remarks are “40 seconds of words,” not something he’s actually done, and she called on the Rwandan judge to take into account his “20-plus years” of peaceful activism. His Washington-based lawyer Peter Choharis says if the Rwandan government had solid evidence linking him to actual crimes, it would have issued an international arrest warrant, and sued for his deportation to Rwanda, as the Kigali authorities have successfully done for similar cases in the past. The Justice Department and State officials declined to comment on whether Rwanda had shared any such information. Watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch have not been able to locate such a warrant.
Unwilling to wait for the Trump Administration to act, the family has taken more creative measures, suing the Athens, Greece-based charter company, GainJet Aviation S.A., in Texas court for aiding in what they say is an illegal kidnap of a legal U.S. resident under U.S. law. One of the family’s attorneys, Robert Hilliard, told reporters they have proof from invoices of GainJet’s involvement, adding that the company “had an independent responsibility as an international jet charter service to protect the safety of all of their passengers, not just those paying the bills,” and should have issued a “MayDay” alert when Rusesabagina was “bound and tied” before the jet landed in Rwanda. The company did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
Kagame has insisted to reporters that his political opponent wasn’t kidnapped. “There was no any wrongdoing in the process of his getting here. He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do, and he found himself here,” the president told reporters in September.

Lawrence Jackson—APPresident Bush awards Paul Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9, 2005.
Rusesabagina’s rendition follows a familiar playbook, says Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch, who was expelled from the country in 2018 for cataloguing the disappearance of “scores” of Kagame’s political opponents by security forces that Mudge says committed war crimes to take power in 1994, and keep it. “Rwanda is willing to go over international borders, to find people and trap people that it deems opponents” and “completely disregard both international norms and standard international treaties,” to silence critics, he says. The State Department’s 2019 human rights report decried Rwandan security forces’ unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearance and torture of political opponents.
Kagame and Rusesabagina weren’t always rivals. Hotel Rwanda director Terry George says that Kagame celebrated the film at its premiere in Kigali in 2005. “He said this would be very helpful for Rwanda to tell people around the world about the genocide,” the Irish filmmaker says of his evening spent seated next to Kagame and his wife. The enmity started later, George says, as Rusesabagina’s global star rose, and he published his 2006 autobiography, “An Ordinary Man,” where he criticized Kagame’s human rights record, calling him a “classic African strongman.” That’s when Rwandan-based newspapers started to claim the film “was a Hollywood fabrication,” George says.
Western diplomats are quietly warning Kagame that he may think he’s won the battle by silencing Rusesabagina with a presumed guilty verdict to come, and a long jail sentence he’s unlikely to survive. But U.S. officials have explained to him that this case could backfire, earning the enmity of the incoming Biden Administration, and turning Rusesabagina into a martyr, according to U.S. officials speaking anonymously to describe the discussions.
Jailing the former hotelier is playing badly for Kagame in the U.S. and Europe. The Clooney Foundation and American Bar Association have warned that they’ll be monitoring the Rusesabagina trial. And bipartisan outrage is building on Capitol Hill over how Rusesabagina was seized. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont says the imprisonment and “the manner in which he arrived in Rwanda, have raised concerns in the U.S. Congress about the Rwandan Government’s motivations, the rights of international air travelers, and our relations with that government.” Leahy calls the facts of the case against the hotelier “murky” but says there are “compelling humanitarian reasons why it should be promptly and satisfactorily resolved.”
If Kagame is allowed to succeed, there’s nothing to keep him from continuing the practice of secret renditions against his political opponents, says Philippe Larochelle, a member of Rusesabagina’s international legal team. “You can’t tie people up and put them on planes and take them, and give them no legal recourse, and interrogate them when they are terrified out of their wits, without a lawyer present,” he says. “It can’t be okay, to do this, no matter who the accused is.”
By contrast, Rusesabagina’s Washington lawyer Choharis says, Kagame would undermine his critics with a grand gesture if he releases him on humanitarian grounds, just after the holidays and right before the Biden Administration takes office.
In Washington, Boston and Brussels, Rusesabagina’s grown children are working to keep their father in the public’s eye. They have no faith in the trial going his way, but they do have hope that Kagame will follow his past practice of pardoning dissidents once he thinks they’ve gone through a suitably public shaming.
Anaise, who works in the international aid field, has taken leave from her job to lobby and plead for her father’s release in Washington, D.C., scrambling to learn how to pull the levers of power, during a pandemic that means she can meet almost no one in person. Her sister Carine is doing the same in Brussels. They are originally Paul’s nieces, adopted after their parents were killed in the genocide.
Paul’s wife Taciana tears up thinking of spending the holidays without him, for the first time since the tense years following the genocide, when he returned to work at his hotel before again being forced to flee.
Anaise says it will be a painfully empty New Year’s Day for her, as it’s also her birthday, which she says her father always insists on ringing in with birthday cake at 1am, the hour she was born.

Millions of Americans Face Food Insecurity. The Biden Administration Must Make Helping Them a Priority

As 2020 draws to a close, and as we break bread with our loved ones this holiday season, we might consider turning our thoughts and prayers towards our neighbors who aren’t so lucky. In the richest country on earth, approximately 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, are suffering from food insecurity, a level of hunger in this country not seen since the Great Depression.
We don’t call them bread lines or soup kitchens like we did back then, but millions of Americans are lining up at food banks and being fed at places of worship because they can’t afford to consistently put food on their tables.

During the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration recognized the need for the government to step in to help feed hungry Americans and created the Food Stamp program. It was a Secretary of Agriculture from Iowa—the visionary Henry Wallace—who oversaw it and forever changed food policy in America.
While assistance to families through today’s version of the Food Stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has increased during this pandemic, given the number of hungry Americans it isn’t nearly enough. In March, states were allowed to seek waivers to allow all SNAP participants to receive the maximum benefit. The new Coronavirus relief bill increases that benefit by 15% for the next six months. But the relief bill does not significantly expand eligibility beyond some children under six, some college students, and allowing applicants to have their unemployment benefits not count as income. First, and fundamentally, Americans need food in their bellies. Expanding SNAP to more people is the way to do it.
Congress includes $13 billion in funding to support food assistance in the current relief package, but given the growing number of hungry Americans, these investments are not nearly enough. The chance for big, visionary change when it comes to family food security will come in the Biden Administration. In fact, it’s quite possible that getting it right when it comes to feeding our families is the prerequisite for getting anything else done.
Biden can advance what are the most ambitious and transformative policy goals of any modern President — on the economy, on healthcare, on climate — only if the kitchen table issues are taken care of. Leaving Americans standing in line for food boxes, putting their children to bed hungry, and choosing between rent, meals, and prescription drugs is not only immoral, but will stall any larger support for progressive policies. Using the power of government to make sure people have enough to eat is consistent with who we should be as a country.
Tom Vilsack, Biden’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture, was a champion of nutrition programs when he served in this position in the Obama administration. One of President-elect Biden’s best opportunities to demonstrate his administration’s capability to “Build Back Better,” will be by allowing Vilsack to initiate a smart, effective, and efficient buildup of SNAP.
The near-term opportunity is to expand SNAP to everyone on unemployment and others devastated by the economic free fall, including undocumented workers who are a critical part of America, our economy and our ability to feed ourselves. Add restaurants to the list of places Americans can use SNAP until the crisis is resolved and it could help support countless small restaurants that are in deep trouble as well as become another destination for farmers’ produce.
Revisions to SNAP should also include a simplification of the P-EBT program, which was intended to help families with school age children offset the loss of breakfasts and lunches while schools were closed, but has been so plagued by administrative problems that thus far no state has been able to distribute this food aid during the current school year. And we should get help to members of our military and their families who need it. Due to a technicality in the law, many military families are ineligible for food assistance despite the fact that up to 18 percent of military and veteran households have had someone seek food assistance, according to the advocacy group Blue Star Families.
While food banks are an important option of last resort, the current USDA is making them the option of first resort for millions of Americans. That’s a mistake. Our government will spend $4.5 billion by the end of the year to purchase and distribute food to food banks that are in direct competition with our grocery industry. Many of these food banks lack the capacity, staffing and systems to effectively distribute this food. Expanding SNAP would help solve the problem, cutting out the waste and redundancy in the USDA program and allowing the hungry to shop at local grocery stores instead of waiting in hours-long lines at food banks that were never designed for this kind of demand.
The depth and severity of this crisis — which affects rural and urban communities, Republicans and Democrats alike — should awaken an empathy and urgency that has thus far been lacking in many of those who represent our interests in Washington.
Vilsack has the opportunity to demonstrate to Congressional Republicans that instead of being an example of “socialism,” expanding SNAP is smart, efficient government. For every $1.00 taxpayers invest in SNAP, they get a return of more than $1.50.
SNAP has one of the lowest rates of waste, fraud, and abuse of any federal program and despite concerns held by some about the potential for moral hazard, the evidence argues that people leave the program as soon as they are able to. At a time that so many local employers are struggling, we should remember that it is delivered by American businesses. The alternative is more food lines distributing boxes filled with groceries that are determined by what’s available instead of what the consumer needs, food lines that completely bypass small businesses and farmers’ markets in our communities.
SNAP expansion also presents Biden and Vilsack with the opportunity to lead a meaningful additional investment in rural America, one that will both satisfy an urgent need (rural Americans use SNAP at a higher percentage than urban Americans) and provide economic opportunity for family farms and agricultural jobs. That’s good for our rural communities and it also happens to be good for the Democratic party’s long-term prospects in a part of America that often feels taken for granted.
Henry Wallace helped galvanize rural political support for FDR’s New Deal. Remaking SNAP to give families in need both nutrition and dignity could be Vilsack’s Henry Wallace moment, a bold move for a new administration at a time when our fellow Americans need it.

The Midnight Sky Is Occasionally Poetic and Often Boring—But It Features One Truly Terrific Performance

Sometimes a downer of a movie can make you feel a little better about life, serving as a reminder that things aren’t as bad as they could be. The Midnight Sky, a glum science-fiction reverie directed by George Clooney—and based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight—may serve that function for some people. At its best, the film shimmers with a thoughtful, poetic moodiness. At its worst, it’s pretty damn slow. But Clooney—who also stars, as a crabby, obsessive scientist bearing the comically hifalutin name Augustine Lofthouse—is at the very least a thoughtful filmmaker, and The Midnight Sky is made with obvious care. What’s more, he’s modest enough to make himself a fairly muted presence, allowing his supporting players to shine.

As The Midnight Sky opens, a cataclysmic event—it goes unnamed and undescribed, a spooky touch—has destroyed most of the Earth’s population. Nearly every inhabitant of an Arctic scientific-research station has evacuated in advance of encroaching danger, but grizzle-bearded Augustine, who is gravely ill, has stayed behind. His passion has always been seeking out new planets that might prove sustainable to Earthlings, though his devotion to science is so dogged that he’s had little use for actual human beings. But as life on Earth, including his own, slouches toward an end, he feels bound to warn a returning space-exploration crew that they’re better off staying in space. The signal at the station isn’t powerful enough to reach them; he must set out in the frigid cold for another base, miles away, that might have a stronger antenna. The twist is that although he believes he’s alone at his deserted outpost, a stowaway suddenly appears, a young girl who hasn’t gone off with the others. She doesn’t speak, but the two learn to communicate, and grudging affection ensues. Augustine learns that the girl’s name is Iris. (She’s played by Caoilinn Springall.) Together, the two set off on their perilous journey.
Meanwhile, we learn a little more about that ship, the Aether, and its crew, Adewole (David Oyelowo), Sully (Felicity Jones), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) and Maya (Tiffany Boone), the least experienced of those aboard. The scenes aboard the Aether have a kind of lost-in-space cozy warmth, and it becomes easy to see these astronauts as individuals with deeply human anxieties and longings. Sanchez is especially fond of sweet Maya, who reminds him of his daughter. Sully is pregnant, and though she seems perfectly cool with the idea of having a tiny human being inside her while she’s floating around in nowheresville, Jones’ aura of no-nonsense practicality suggests she knows how high the stakes are. Best of all is Chandler as the deeply homesick Mitchell: in one scene, he has breakfast with his family, rendered as holograms—they chat and laugh and flutter around him, as he sits there eating his sad bowl of space oats. Mitchell’s heartsickness is like a spirit-ghost that sticks close by him, so intense you can almost see it. Chandler, always a wonderful actor, takes this small role and turns in one of the finest performances of the year, tucked into a movie that doesn’t measure up to him.

Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX—© 2020 NETFLIX, INC.Kyle Chandler as Mitchell, an astronaut missing home
Clooney certainly cares a lot about every project he takes on. As a director, maybe he sometimes even cares too much. His overly cerebral approach can result in seriously unleavened movies (like the dirty-politics parable The Ides of March, from 2011), though a less conscientious guy couldn’t have made the elegant, fiery Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), an account of journalist Edward R. Murrow’s tireless battle to bring down anti-Communist crusader Joseph McCarthy. In The Midnight Sky, Clooney’s portrayal of Augustine has a great deal of somber dignity; he’s brainy all right, but with none of the groovy jauntiness of the astronaut Clooney played in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Clooney is both a fine actor and an immensely charismatic presence. But even if he has every right to take on grave, serious-minded roles, there’s something dispiriting about seeing him as a forlorn, graying, beaten-down survivor, a brilliant scientist left alone to ponder the mess he’s made of his personal life—albeit with a tiny sprig of hope at the movie’s end. But maybe Augustine’s purpose is to cheer us up in a perverse way. Our lives could be worse; we could be him, a sad-sack scientist who looks like a woodcarving in a medieval cathedral, or a bummed-out Santa who’s let himself go. This is George Clooney, bona fide movie star, at the close of 2020. Maybe the end of the world really is upon us.

California Gov. Newsom Picks Close Ally to Fill Kamala Harris’ Senate Seat – and Not Everyone Is Pleased

(LOS ANGELES) — California is getting its first Latino U.S. senator. For Gov. Gavin Newsom, it’s a political gamble.
The Democratic governor Tuesday named Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. When Padilla goes to Washington, the former state legislator will become California’s first Latino senator since the state’s founding 170 years ago.
In picking a personal friend and fellow Democrat, Newsom had his eye on history and pragmatism — he turned to someone he could trust with a year of uncertainty looming, including a possible recall election while the pandemic rages unabated.

Newsom also rejected pleas from a host of prominent Black leaders to replace Harris, the Senate’s only Black woman, with another African American woman, such as U.S. Reps. Karen Bass or Barbara Lee.
About six hours after the Padilla announcement, Newsom’s office said he would nominate Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who is Black, to fill Padilla’s seat once he goes to the Senate. If confirmed, she would become the first Black woman to hold the office, giving Newsom two history making picks in one day.
Given the timing, however, it appeared the choice was intended at least partly to quell criticism after Newsom passed over other Black women for Harris’ post.
In passing over Black women for the Senate seat “many people believe the governor will pay a political price,” Kerman Maddox, a Democratic consultant and fundraiser who is Black, said in an email. “It’s a terribly insensitive decision” with the nation in the midst of a reckoning over racial injustice.
“If Governor Newsom thinks our disappointment with the Kamala Harris replacement will be tempered by appointing an African American woman to be California secretary of state, he clearly does not know this constituency,” Maddox added. “When I heard the news about the secretary of state appointment, my anger meter went from disappointment to being downright angry.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is Black, called the Senate decision “a real blow to the African American community.”
The hectic day of political maneuvers only underscored the risks that came with them.
The mannerly, soft spoken Padilla will begin his truncated term facing the prospect of a tough reelection fight in 2022, when he is likely to see challengers from within his own party in the heavily Democratic state. Padilla’s current job was also being eyed by other possible contenders, who could challenge Weber if she is confirmed by the Legislature. Beyond a possible recall, Newsom is expected to seek a second term in 2022.
Padilla quickly formed a political committee to begin raising money and released a campaign-style ad introducing himself as the new senator.
It frames him as the epitome of the American dream, the son of immigrant parents — a short-order cook who never went to high school and a housekeeper — who earned an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became a political prodigy of sorts, becoming Los Angeles City Council president at 28, the youngest ever, before being elected to the Legislature and then secretary of state.
Newsom called him a “tested fighter” who would be a fierce ally for the state in Washington. Harris congratulated Padilla in a tweet, calling him a “dear friend” who would be a champion for California.
There were common threads connecting the most visible contenders for the soon-to-be vacant seat: blue-chip resumes and racially diverse backgrounds that would stand out in a chamber filled with mostly older, white men.
But Padilla had an asset no one else would bring to the job. He is a close friend and political confidant of the governor — Padilla ran Newsom’s aborted 2009 campaign for governor and was an early supporter when he ran again in 2018.
With Padilla, Newsom gets a political soul mate and a loyalist. A brief video that captured the moment when Newsom offered Padilla the post revealed their familiar, almost brotherly rapport: That’s what Newsom called him at one point, “brother.”
In an interview, Padilla said he believed their personal relationship was “absolutely” a factor in his selection, describing them as “good partners.”
He said he had known Newsom since his days on the Los Angeles council, when the governor was mayor of San Francisco. Then they worked together when he was in the Legislature and Newsom was lieutenant governor, and more recently in their current roles.
Because of timing he could not predict, Padilla will become part of an ascendant class of Latinos going to Washington with the arrival of Biden administration, which will include California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the president-elect’s pick for health secretary.
The pick, while straining ties with Blacks, was widely praised by Latinos, the state’s largest single demographic group, representing about 40% of the population of 40 million.
“I do think for the Latino community it is a historic moment,” Padilla said.
Padilla goes to Washington with a political profile not unlike Harris, the senator he will replace.
As the state’s chief elections officer, Padilla gained a national reputation for voting reform and presided at a time of record voter enrollment and participation. Under his watch, the state hit 22 million registered voters.
While in the state Senate, he was known for his involvement in environmental and health and safety issues, including phasing out single-use plastic bags and requiring restaurants to disclose nutritional information on their menus.
Padilla lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons, ages 5, 7 and 13.
Padilla was welcomed by Republicans with a blast of criticism for awarding a $35 million voter education contract ahead of the November election to SKDKnickerbocker, a firm with ties to Joe Biden’s campaign. The payment has been held up by the state controller.
In 2022 “we are confident voters will reject a Los Angeles liberal career politician,” Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed.

Netanyahu’s Coalition Government Collapses After Budget Bill Failure – Triggering Israel’s 4th Election in 2 Years

Israel’s brittle governing coalition collapsed after just seven months, sending the election-fatigued country to its fourth vote in two years.
The campaign will feature a new challenger who might win enough support to dethrone the long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, polls suggest. The ballot is to take place on March 23 after parliament failed to approve a national budget for the second year in a row.
The grudging alliance between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz had been formed expressly to avoid another vote after three inconclusive matchups, and to combine forces to contain the coronavirus outbreak. A fourth race, after long months of policy paralysis, will be especially bruising as the virus defies efforts to tame it, talk of a third national lockdown is percolating, and unemployment is a steep 15%.

“I didn’t want elections,” Netanyahu said late Tuesday, shortly before parliament disbanded.—
The budget crisis was the ostensible reason the alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White unraveled. Parliament automatically disbanded as the midnight Tuesday deadline to approve a spending plan expired.
But while the partnership gave Israel its first permanent government since December 2018, it seemed destined to fail from the start. Distrust bled through their coalition agreement, while squabbling extended to issues as granular as gay conversion therapy and as sweeping as annexing West Bank land the Palestinians want for a state.
In the background hovered the power-sharing agreement with Gantz that many think Netanyahu never intended to honor, and the prime minister’s corruption trial, which he could derail by forming a more pliant coalition that would pass legislation shielding him from prosecution.
“Netanyahu is taking us to elections just so he doesn’t have to show up in court,” Gantz said in a statement. The prime minister’s trial on bribery and fraud charges is set to kick into high gear in February.
Their marriage of inconvenience broke down after Likud reneged on its pledge to support a two-year budget through 2021. The tussle was as much about politics as economics. A one-year plan would have given Netanyahu a loophole to bring down the government over next year’s budget before Gantz could become premier next November.
The men made a last-ditch effort to avert the vote after popular former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar bolted Likud earlier this month to form his own party. But rebel lawmakers in both Blue and White and Likud forced a new election early Tuesday by rejecting a bill that would have briefly extended the budget deadline to give Netanyahu and Gantz more time to try to reach a compromise.
Both leaders will enter the contest badly weakened. Support for Netanyahu has sunken following a bungled reopening of the economy after the government was installed in mid-May. Protests against his leadership have drawn thousands across the country weekly since late June.
Polls suggest the nationalist Sa’ar might be able to siphon off enough voters from both the right and center to unseat the country’s longest-serving leader.
Gantz’s Blue and White, which splintered after he teamed up with Netanyahu, is now hovering dangerously close to the threshold for entering parliament, the surveys show.
“Israel’s ongoing political crisis will continue as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister and a government cannot be formed without him,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute research center.
“We enter this election with a clear advantage in polls for the political right, but also the growing possibility of a coalition that refuses to cooperate with Netanyahu.”
–With assistance from Ivan Levingston.

President Trump Pardons 15, Including Allies Charged in Russia Probe and 2 Ex-GOP Congressmen

(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned 15 people, including a pair of congressional Republicans who were strong and early supporters, a 2016 campaign official ensnared in the Russia probe and former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad.
Trump’s actions in his final weeks in office show a president who is wielding his executive power to reward loyalists and others who he believes have been wronged by a legal system he sees as biased against him and his allies. Trump issued the pardons — not an unusual act for an outgoing president — even as he refused to publicly acknowledge his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who will be sworn in on Jan. 20.

Trump is likely to issue more pardons before then. He and his allies have discussed a range of other possibilities, including members of Trump’s family and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Those pardoned on Tuesday included former Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, two of the earliest GOP lawmakers to back Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Trump also commuted the sentences of five other people, including former Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas.

Sandy Huffaker–Getty ImagesRep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) speaks to campaign staffers during a visit to one of his headquarters on Nov. 6, 2018 in Santee, Calif.
Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump to be president, was sentenced to two years and two months in federal prison after admitting he helped his son and others dodge $800,000 in stock market losses when he learned that a drug trial by a small pharmaceutical company had failed.
Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing campaign funds and spending the money on everything from outings with friends to his daughter’s birthday party.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the pardons for Hunter and Collins were granted after “the request of many members of Congress.” She noted that Hunter served the nation in the U.S. Marines and saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the group announced Tuesday night were four former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.
Supporters of Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, the former contractors at Blackwater Worldwide, had lobbied for pardons, arguing that the men had been excessively punished in an investigation and prosecution they said was tainted by problems and withheld exculpatory evidence. All four were serving lengthy prison sentences.
The pardons reflected Trump’s apparent willingness to give the benefit of doubt to American servicemembers and contractors when it comes to acts of violence in war zones against civilians. Last November, for instance, he pardoned a former U.S. Army commando who was set to stand trial next year in the killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker and a former Army lieutenant convicted of murder for ordering his men to fire upon three Afghans.
Trump also announced pardons for allies ensnared in the Russia investigation. One was for George Papadopoulos, his 2016 campaign adviser whose conversation unwittingly helped trigger the Russia investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years. He also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who was sentenced to 30 days in prison for lying to investigators during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Van der Zwaan and Papadopoulos are the third and fourth Russia investigation defendants granted clemency. By pardoning them, Trump once again took aim at Mueller’s probe and advanced a broader effort to undo the results of the investigation that yielded criminal charges against a half-dozen associates.
The pardons drew criticism from top Democrats. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the president was abusing his power.
“Trump is doling out pardons, not on the basis of repentance, restitution or the interests of justice, but to reward his friends and political allies, to protect those who lie to cover up him, to shelter those guilty of killing civilians, and to undermine an investigation that uncovered massive wrongdoing,” Schiff said.
Last month, Trump pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and months earlier commuted the sentence of another associate, Roger Stone, days before he was to report to prison.
Trump has granted about 2% of requested pardons in his single term in office — just 27 before Tuesday’s announcement. By comparison, Barack Obama granted 212 or 6%, and George W. Bush granted about 7%, or 189. George H.W. Bush, another one-term president, granted 10% of requests.
Also among those pardoned by Trump was Phil Lyman, a Utah state representative who led an ATV protest through restricted federal lands.
Lyman was serving as a Utah county commissioner in 2014 when he led about 50 ATV riders in a canyon home to Native American cliff dwellings that officials closed to motorized traffic. The ride occurred amid a sputtering movement in the West pushing back against federal control of large swaths of land and came in the wake of an armed confrontation Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had with Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees.
Lyman spent 10 days in prison and was ordered to pay nearly $96,000 in restitution. The Trump administration in 2017 lifted a ban on motorized vehicles in parts of the canyon but left restrictions in place through other areas where Lyman led his ride.
Two former U.S. Border Patrol agents were also pardoned, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, convicted of shooting and wounding a Mexican drug smuggler near El Paso, Texas, in 2005.
Others on the list included a Pittsburgh dentist who pleaded guilty to health care fraud, two women convicted of drug crimes, and Alfred Lee Crum, now 89, who pleaded guilty in 1952 when he was 19 to helping his wife’s uncle illegally distill moonshine.
Crum served three years of probation and paid a $250 fine. The White House said Crum has maintained a clean record and a strong marriage for nearly 70 years, attended the same church for 60 years, raised four children, and regularly participated in charity fundraising events.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller Jill Colvin, Michael Balsamo in Washington and Michelle Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

Acting defense chief visits Afghanistan during troop pullout

WASHINGTON (AP) — Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday, meeting top leaders during the American troop withdrawal. The Pentagon said Miller met Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in the country. Miller’s stop in Kabul is the second visit by senior defense […]