AP News in Brief at 12:04 a.m. EST

Year 2: Biden plans more public outreach, less legislating

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden launched into his second year in office Thursday with a new focus on making fatigued Americans believe they’re better off under his leadership as he embraces a pared-back agenda before the midterm elections.

The persistence of the coronavirus, rising inflation and congressional gridlock have exacted a bitter toll on Biden’s approval rating and threaten a midterm routing for his party, but the president sees no need for a major shift in direction.

Instead, Biden told Democratic National Committee members during a virtual grassroots event Thursday that Democrats broadly have to offer a clearer contrast with Republicans going forward. He said the contrast he hopes to paint is between Democrats’ agenda and the lack thereof from the Republican Party, which he said was “completely controlled by one man, that’s focused on relitigating the past” — a veiled reference to former President Donald Trump and his continued false claims that he won the 2020 election.

“That’s the choice we have to present before voters: Between the plans we have to improve the lives of the American people, and no plan, none at all,” Biden said.

White House aides have also previewed subtler changes to how Biden devotes his time, with a greater emphasis on speaking directly to Americans and less time in the weeds with lawmakers crafting legislation.

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Jan. 6 committee requests interview with Ivanka Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House committee investigating the U.S. Capitol insurrection is asking Ivanka Trump, daughter of former President Donald Trump, to voluntarily cooperate as lawmakers make their first public attempt to arrange an interview with a Trump family member.

The committee sent a letter Thursday requesting a meeting in February with Ivanka Trump, a White House adviser to her father. In the letter, the committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Ivanka Trump was in direct contact with her father during key moments on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win.

The riot followed a rally near the White House where Donald Trump had urged his supporters to “fight like hell” as Congress convened to certify the 2020 election results.

The committee says it wants to discuss what Ivanka Trump knew about her father’s efforts, including a telephone call they say she witnessed, to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject those results, as well as concerns she may have heard from Pence’s staff, members of Congress and the White House counsel’s office about those efforts.

“Ivanka Trump just learned that the January 6 Committee issued a public letter asking her to appear,” her spokesperson said. “As the Committee already knows, Ivanka did not speak at the January 6 rally.”

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US sanctions Ukrainian officials accused of helping Russia

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Treasury Department levied new sanctions Thursday against four Ukrainian officials, including two current members of parliament who administration officials say are part of a Russian influence effort to set the pretext for further invasion of Ukraine.

The sanctions name parliament members Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn and two former government officials. According to Treasury, all four have been intimately involved in disinformation efforts by Russia’s federal security service, known as the FSB.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the four men were at the heart of a Kremlin effort begun in 2020 “to degrade the ability of the Ukrainian state to independently function.”

The new sanctions were announced less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden said he thinks Moscow will newly invade Ukraine. He warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country would pay a “dear price” in lives lost and a possible restriction in access to the global banking system if it does.

Biden faced criticism from Republicans and Ukrainian officials that he invited a limited Russian invasion by suggesting in comments to reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. would react with a measured response if there was only a “minor incursion.” Administration officials immediately sought to clarify his remarks, and Biden himself did so on Thursday.

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Supreme Court won’t speed challenge to Texas abortion limits

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the latest setback for abortion rights in Texas, the Supreme Court on Thursday refused to speed up the ongoing court case over the state’s ban on most abortions.

Over dissents from the three liberal justices, the court declined to order a federal appeals court to return the case to a federal judge who had temporarily blocked the law’s enforcement. The court offered no explanation for its action.

The Texas ban is thus likely to remain in effect for the foreseeable future, following a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to send the case to the Texas Supreme Court, which is entirely controlled by Republican justices and does not have to act immediately.

Abortion providers had asked the high court to countermand the appellate order, which they said in court papers has no purpose other than to delay legal proceedings and prevent clinics from offering abortions beyond around six weeks of pregnancy.

The law has devastated abortion care in Texas, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. “Instead of stopping a Fifth Circuit panel from indulging Texas’ newest delay tactics, the Court allows the State yet again to extend the deprivation of the federal constitutional rights of its citizens through procedural manipulation,” Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. “The Court may look the other way, but I cannot.”

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US charges Belarus with air piracy in reporter’s arrest

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. prosecutors charged four Belarusian government officials on Thursday with aircraft piracy for diverting a Ryanair flight last year to arrest an opposition journalist, using a ruse that there was a bomb threat.

The charges, announced by federal prosecutors in New York, recounted how a regularly-scheduled passenger plane traveling between Athens, Greece, and Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 23 was diverted to Minsk, Belarus by air traffic control authorities there.

“Since the dawn of powered flight, countries around the world have cooperated to keep passenger airplanes safe. The defendants shattered those standards by diverting an airplane to further the improper purpose of repressing dissent and free speech,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release announcing the charges.

Ryanair said Belarusian flight controllers told the pilots there was a bomb threat against the jetliner and ordered it to land in Minsk. The Belarusian military scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet in an apparent attempt to encourage the crew to comply with the flight controllers’ orders.

The journalist and activist who was arrested, Raman Pratasevich, ran a popular messaging app that helped organize mass demonstrations against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The 26-year-old Pratasevich left Belarus in 2019 and faced charges there of inciting riots.

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Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats were picking up the pieces Thursday following the collapse of their top-priority voting rights legislation, with some shifting their focus to a narrower bipartisan effort to repair laws Donald Trump exploited in his bid to overturn the 2020 election.

Though their bid to dramatically rewrite U.S. election law failed during a high-stakes Senate floor showdown late Wednesday, Democrats insisted their brinksmanship has made the new effort possible, forcing Republicans to relent, even if just a little, and engage in bipartisan negotiations.

The nascent push is focused on the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that created the convoluted proces s for the certification of presidential election results by Congress. For more than 100 years, vulnerabilities in the law were an afterthought, until Trump’s unrelenting, false claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election culminated in a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol.

An overhaul of the Gilded Age statute could be Democrats’ best chance to address what they call an existential threat to American democracy from Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election. But with serious talks only beginning in the Senate and dwindling time before this year’s midterm elections, reaching consensus could prove difficult.

“We know history is on the side of voting rights, and we know that forcing leaders to take stands will ultimately move the ball forward,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday.

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Florida man charged after 4 found dead at Canada-US border

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — A Florida man was charged Thursday with human smuggling after the bodies of four people, including a baby and a teen, were found in Canada near the U.S. border in what authorities believe was a failed crossing attempt during a freezing blizzard.

The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota said Steve Shand, 47, has been charged with human smuggling after seven Indian nationals were found in the U.S. and the discovery of the bodies.

Court documents filed Wednesday in support of Shand’s arrest allege one of the people spent a significant amount of money to come to Canada with a fraudulent student visa.

“The investigation into the death of the four individuals in Canada is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation of which Shand is suspected of being a part,” John Stanley, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, said in court documents.

According to documents, a U.S. Border Patrol in North Dakota stopped a 15-passenger van just south of the Canadian border on Wednesday. Shand was driving and court documents allege he was with two undocumented Indian nationals.

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Jury in federal trial in Floyd killing appears mostly white

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A jury of 18 people who appeared mostly white was picked Thursday for the federal trial of three Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd’s killing, a case that the judge told potential jurors has “absolutely nothing” to do with race.

The jurors chosen to hear the case against former Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Kueng appeared to include one person of Asian descent among the 12 jurors who would deliberate if no alternates are needed, and a second person of Asian descent among the six alternates, with all others appearing white. The court declined to provide demographic information.

Thao, who is Hmong American; Lane, who is white; and Kueng, who is Black, are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority as Derek Chauvin, who is white, used his knee to pin the Black man to the street. The videotaped killing triggered worldwide protests, violence and a reexamination of racism and policing. Opening statements are scheduled for Monday.

The single day of jury selection was remarkably rapid compared with Chauvin’s trial on state charges, where the process took more than two weeks. The apparent jury makeup would also sharply contrast with Chauvin’s jury, which was half white and half nonwhite.

Responding to a potential juror who said he wasn’t sure he could be impartial “due to my color,” U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson sought to reassure him and other jurors in the pool.

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Aiming to make CDC nimble, agency director has rankled many

NEW YORK (AP) — From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the top U.S. public health agency has been criticized as too slow to collect and act on new information.

Now, increasingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also being criticized for moving too fast.

One year into Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s tenure as director, her bid to make the CDC more agile is being challenged by political pressures, vocal scientists and the changing virus itself. In its haste, some experts say, the agency has repeatedly stumbled — moving too quickly, before the science was clear, and then failing to communicate clearly with local health officials and the public.

“I think they are absolutely trying to be more nimble — and that’s a good thing. I don’t criticize that,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “I criticize the fact that when you’re doing this quickly, in an evolving environment, you can’t just put it out there and think that people understand it.”

Walensky has said that she came to the CDC thinking about ways to speed data collection and reporting. She once told The Associated Press that she didn’t want the agency to spend months gathering data that gets published after it’s useful. “Like, no one will care,” she said.

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Penn pledges to work with NCAA, support transgender swimmer

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The University of Pennsylvania said it will work with the NCAA under its newly adopted standards for transgender athletes.

Swimmer Lia Thomas, who competed for the men’s team at Penn before transitioning, has qualified to compete in March at the 2022 NCAA swimming and diving championships. She is set to race in the women’s 200-yard, 500-yard and 1,650-yard freestyle.

“Penn Athletics is aware of the NCAA’s new transgender participation policy,” the Ivy League school said Thursday in a statement. “In support of our student-athlete, Lia Thomas, we will work with the NCAA regarding her participation under the newly adopted standards for the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.”

Under the new guidelines, approved by the NCAA Board of Governors on Wednesday, transgender participation for each sport will be determined by the policy for the sport’s national governing body, subject to review and recommendation by an NCAA committee to the Board of Governors.

When there is no national governing body, that sport’s international federation policy would be in place. If there is no international federation policy, previously established IOC policy criteria would take over.

The Associated Press

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