The U.S at a glance in the first week of December 2020

The U.S at a glance in the first week of December 2020

 New York City School days: Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week that the city’s public school system—the nation’s largest— would reopen for the city’s youngest and most seriously disabled children beginning Dec. 7, just 12 days after he shut it down amid a spike of coronavirus cases in the city. Officials had faced widespread criticism for shutting schools while letting bars stay open and indoor dining continue. Schools were shut down after New York passed a citywide 3 percent coronavirus test-positivity threshold. The city has now scrapped that trigger point and will instead rely on weekly random testing at each school. At the time schools were closed, only 0.28 percent of students tested positive for the coronavirus. The reopening affects about 190,000 elementary, pre-K, and disabled students from the 1.1 million systemwide; middle schools and high schools will remain closed. “We know that the health realities for the youngest kids are the most favorable,” said de Blasio in explaining his decision.

Washington, D.C. Stimulus standoff: A bipartisan group of senators put forward a roughly $900 billion compromise relief proposal this week that would include a $300 weekly federal unemployment assistance payment and $160 billion for states and local governments. It was quickly rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said that he would instead slip a much smaller $500 billion “skinny stimulus” into the next omnibus package to fund the entire federal government. That would set up a face-off with Democrats ahead of the Dec. 11 deadline to avoid a government shutdown. Several Republicans challenged McConnell on a conference call; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it was “offensive” to make political points with bills like the “skinny stimulus” that had little chance of becoming law. The compromise bill includes a shield for businesses against Covid-19–related lawsuits—a Republican priority that Democrats have opposed.

Washington, D.C. Durham investigation: Attorney General William Barr revealed this week that he’d made U.S. Attorney John Durham a special counsel so that the prosecutor could not be easily fired if his investigation of the FBI continues after President-elect Biden assumed office. Barr said he made the appointment in October using the “same regulation that covered Bob Mueller,” but it was not made public because of proximity to the election. In an interview with the Associated Press, Barr also said that Durham’s investigation into the FBI and Justice Department’s Russia probe had “narrowed considerably” to the actions taken by FBI agents during the probe’s earliest days, when it was known as Crossfire Hurricane. Under federal regulations, only an attorney general can fire a special counsel— and only for misconduct, conflict of interest, or dereliction of duty. In response, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that Barr had “once again used the powers of his office to settle old scores for the president.”

Chino, Calif. Manson murders: Gov. Gavin Newsom overruled state parole officials this week and blocked parole for Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, who’s spent nearly 50 years behind bars for the grisly double murder of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Newsom said Van Houten, now 71, “currently poses an unreasonable danger to society,” and called her explanation of what happened on the night of Aug. 10, 1969, “unsatisfying.” Van Houten has described herself at the time of the killings as a “very weak person” who handed over her life to Manson and his murderous plans. A model prisoner at the state prison in Chino, she has now seen her bids for freedom overturned four times by a governor, two of those by Newsom. She admitted to stabbing Rosemary LaBianca more than a dozen times in the abdomen and holding her down as her fellow Manson family members Charles Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel stabbed her as well. The trio then scrawled “Death to Pigs” and “Rise” in their victims’ blood throughout the house.

Washington, D.C. Pay-for-pardon: A federal judge unsealed court documents this week revealing that the Justice Department is investigating whether go-betweens for a federal convict offered White House officials a bribe—possibly in the form of a political donation—in return for a presidential pardon or commutation. The redacted documents did not name the convict or the two people investigators suspect undertook the alleged “secret lobbying scheme.” Authorities seized more than 50 digital devices in connection with the probe and said they planned to “confront’’ three individuals with emails and other evidence. President Trump called the investigation “fake news.” Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., made the ruling after granting prosecutors access to evidence that may have been protected by attorney-client privilege. The Justice Department said that “no government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation.”

Baltimore Ransomware attack: The Baltimore County Public Schools system reopened this week after spending three school days closed because of what officials described as a “catastrophic” ransomware attack. Authorities offered few details about the attack itself, or whether the district had been in touch with the hackers or had fielded any demands. BCPS had been conducting classes remotely because of the pandemic, and said the attack encrypted data on its network to render it inaccessible and focused on grading and email systems, websites, and remote-learning programs. The district is the 25th largest in the country, with 115,000 students. Officials first detected the intrusion last week, just one day after a state audit noted “significant risks” within the system’s technology infrastructure. School officials quickly shuttered the system one day ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, as well as Monday and Tuesday of this week. Kathleen Causey, chair of the county board of education, called the digital assault “very disturbing.”