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

Biden marks nation’s Covid grief before inauguration pomp

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hours from inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden paused on what might have been his triumphal entrance to Washington Tuesday evening to mark instead the national tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic with a moment of collective grief for Americans lost.

His arrival coincided with the awful news that the U.S. death toll had surpassed 400,000 in the worst public health crisis in more than a century — a crisis Biden will now be charged with controlling.

“To heal we must remember,” the incoming president told the nation at a sunset ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. Four hundred lights representing the pandemic’s victims were illuminated behind him around the monument’s Reflecting Pool.

“Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights into the darkness … and remember all who we lost,” Biden said.

The sober moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration — typically a celebratory time in Washington when the nation marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power — was a measure of the enormity of loss for the nation.

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Trump expected to pardon former strategist Bannon

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is expected to pardon his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, as part of a flurry of last-minute clemency action that appeared to be still in flux in the last hours of his presidency, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, stressed that Trump has flip-flopped repeatedly as he mulls his final clemency action, and warned the decision could be reversed until it’s formally unveiled.

Trump is expected to offer pardons and commutations to as many as 100 people in the hours before he leaves office at noon Wednesday, according to two people briefed on the plans. The list is expected to include names unfamiliar to the American public — regular people who have spent years languishing in prison — as well as politically connected friends and allies like those he’s pardoned in the past.

Bannon has been charged with duping thousands of investors who believed their money would be used to fulfil Trump’s chief campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border. Instead, he allegedly diverted over a million dollars, paying a salary to one campaign official and personal expenses for himself.

Bannon did not respond to questions Tuesday.

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‘Shameful’: US virus deaths top 400K as Trump leaves office

As President Donald Trump entered the final year of his term last January, the U.S. recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Not to worry, Trump insisted, his administration had the virus “totally under control.”

Now, in his final hours in office, after a year of presidential denials of reality and responsibility, the pandemic’s U.S. death toll has eclipsed 400,000. And the loss of lives is accelerating.

“This is just one step on an ominous path of fatalities,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and one of many public health experts who contend the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis led to thousands of avoidable deaths.

“Everything about how it’s been managed has been infused with incompetence and dishonesty, and we’re paying a heavy price,” he said.

The 400,000-death toll, reported Tuesday by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the population of New Orleans, Cleveland or Tampa, Florida. It’s nearly equal to the number of American lives lost annually to strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, flu and pneumonia combined.

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McConnell: Trump ‘provoked’ Capitol siege, mob was fed lies

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday explicitly blamed President Donald Trump for the deadly riot at the Capitol, saying the mob was “fed lies” and the president and others “provoked” those intent on overturning Democrat Joe Biden’s election.

Ahead of Trump’s historic second impeachment trial, McConnell’s remarks were his most severe and public rebuke of the outgoing president. The GOP leader is setting a tone as Republicans weigh whether to convict Trump on the impeachment charge that will soon be sent over from the House: “incitement of insurrection.”

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”

The Republican leader vowed a “safe and successful” inauguration of Biden on Wednesday at the Capitol, where final preparations were underway amid heavy security.

Trump’s last full day in office Tuesday was also senators’ first day back since the deadly Capitol siege and the House vote to impeach him for his role in the riots — an unparalleled time of transition as the Senate prepares for the second impeachment trial in two years and presses ahead with the confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet.

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2 Guard members made extremist statements about inauguration

WASHINGTON (AP) — Twelve U.S. National Guard members have been removed from securing President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration after vetting by the FBI, including two who made extremist statements in posts or texts about the Wednesday event, Pentagon officials said. There were no specific threats to Biden.

Two other U.S. officials told The Associated Press that all 12 were found to have ties with right-wing militia groups or posted extremist views online. The officials, a senior intelligence official and an Army official briefed on the matter, did not say which fringe groups the Guard members belonged to or what unit they served in. The officials were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity. The officials told the AP they had all been removed because of “security liabilities.”

Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard, confirmed that Guard members had been removed and sent home but he said only two cases were for inappropriate comments or texts related to the inauguration. He said the other 10 were for other potential issues that may involve previous criminal behaviour or other activities, but were not directly related to the inaugural event.

Their removal from the massive security presence at the nation’s capital comes as U.S. defence officials have been worried about a potential insider attack or other threat from service members following the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 by Trump supporters. The FBI has been working to vet all 25,000 National Guard in town. Officials have said that the Pentagon has found no intelligence so far that would indicate an insider threat.

But the FBI has also warned law enforcement officials about the possibility that right-wing fringe groups could pose as members of the National Guard, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the matter.

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Biden immigration plan opposed by GOP, conservative groups

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican lawmakers and conservative groups opposed President-elect Joe Biden’s forthcoming immigration plan Tuesday as massive amnesty for people in the U.S. illegally, underscoring that the measure faces an uphill fight in a Congress that Democrats control just narrowly.

In a further complication, several pro-immigration groups said they would press Biden to go even further and take steps such as immediate moratoriums on deportations, detentions and new arrests. Coupled with the discomfort an immigration push could cause for moderate Democrats, liberals’ demands illustrated the pressures facing Biden as four years of President Donald Trump’s restrictive and often harsh immigration policies come to an end.

“It simply wouldn’t have happened without us,” Lorella Praeli, co-president of the liberal group Community Change, said of Biden’s victory. “So we are now in a powerful position.”

Biden plans to introduce the legislation shortly after being inaugurated Wednesday, a move he hopes will spotlight his emphasis on an issue that’s defied major congressional action since 1986. Its fate, as written, seemed in doubt.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who will become Senate majority leader this week, said Trump’s impeachment trial, confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet nominees and more COVID-19 relief will be the chamber’s top initial priorities. “I look forward to working together with him” on the measure, Schumer said — a choice of words that might suggest changes could be needed for it to pass Congress.

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Exhausted hospital chaplains bring solace to lonely, dying

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Inside hospital rooms across America, where the sick are alone without family to comfort them, the grim task of offering solace falls to overworked and emotionally drained hospital chaplains who are dealing with more death than they’ve ever seen.

Last week nearly a dozen died on a single day at the 377-bed Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, a gleaming, modern medical facility that is tucked into the northwest corner of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Three more passed — within a span of 45 minutes — the next day.

As he has each day for the past 11 months, Chaplain Kevin Deegan sits with the sick and dying, clad in a facemask, face shield, gloves and full body cover. He prays with them, holds their hands, gently brushes their foreheads and reassures them there is nothing to fear.

Grieving families, unable to enter the hospital because of the deadly virus, watch through the iPad he’s carried into the room with him.

“All right, Miss Leticia, it’s Chaplain Kevin. We’re going to say some prayers now. Ok, my dear?”

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Justice Dept. won’t charge Sen. Burr over stock sales

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Richard Burr said Tuesday that the Justice Department has told him it will not prosecute him over stock sales made during the coronavirus pandemic, ending an insider trading investigation that led him to at least temporarily step aside from a powerful committee chairmanship last year.

Prosecutors had investigated for months whether the North Carolina Republican and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee had exploited advance information when he unloaded as much as $1.7 million in stocks in the days before the coronavirus caused markets to plummet.

“The case is now closed,” Burr said in a statement. “I’m glad to hear it. My focus has been and will continue to be working for the people of North Carolina during this difficult time for our nation.”

His lawyer, Alice Fisher, described the investigation as a “thorough review” and said Burr, who has said he will not seek reelection when his term ends in 2022, would remain focused on “the safety and security of North Carolinians and the United States as a whole.”

A Justice Department spokesman confirmed it would not bring charges but declined further comment. The New York Times was first to report on the decision to not bring charges.

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AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s farewell falsehoods

On his way out, President Donald Trump claimed credit for things he didn’t do and twisted his record on jobs, taxes, the pandemic and much more. Falsehoods suffused his farewell remarks to the country.

As well, in noting Americans were “horrified” by the storming of the Capitol this month, he brushed past the encouragement he had given to the mob in advance and his praise of the attackers as “very special” people while they were still ransacking the seat of power.

A look at some of his statements Tuesday:

COVID-19

TRUMP: “Another administration would have taken three, four, five, maybe even up to 10 years to develop a vaccine. We did in nine months.”

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From Gaga to Garth, Miranda to Moreno: Celebs join inaugural

Like so much this past year, the inaugural celebration will be like no other: pared down, distanced, much of it virtual. But for actor Christopher Jackson — the original George Washington in Broadway’s “Hamilton” — performing in a virtual “ball” is a way of participating in an essential rite of American democracy.

“I’m glad to play a part in it,” says Jackson, who will perform at the quadrennial ball for the Creative Coalition, a fundraiser for arts education and one of the more prominent unofficial events surrounding Joe Biden’s inauguration. “It’s a great honour, and I’m very grateful that we have allowed our system to continue to work in the way it was intended.”

Jackson — not to mention former co-star and “Hamilton” creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda — joins a slew of celebrities descending on Washington, virtually or in person, for entertainment surrounding the inauguration of Biden and Kamala Harris. Although the festivities have been radically scaled down due to the raging coronavirus pandemic and security threats, a steady stream of A-list names have signed on, headlined by Lady Gaga singing the national anthem on the West Front of the Capitol, with Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks also performing.

Other top-tier performers will be part of “Celebrating America,” a 90-minute, multi-network evening broadcast hosted by Tom Hanks that officially takes the place of the usual multiple inaugural balls. Miranda will contribute a classical recitation, joining musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, John Legend, Demi Lovato, Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake and Bon Jovi. Hosts Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria will be joined by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, chef Jose Andres, labour leader Dolores Huerta and Kim Ng, the first female general manager in MLB history.

The inaugural committee has made sure to blend this high-powered list with ordinary Americans and inspiring stories. Segments will include tributes to a UPS driver, a kindergarten teacher and Sandra Lindsay, the first in New York to receive the COVID-19 vaccine outside a clinical trial. The show will be carried by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, MSNBC and PBS as well as the committee’s social media channels and streaming partners.

The Associated Press

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