Barrett sworn in at court as issues important to Trump await
WASHINGTON — Amy Coney Barrett was formally sworn in Tuesday as the Supreme Court’s ninth justice, her oath administered in private by Chief Justice John Roberts. Her first votes on the court could include two big topics affecting the man who appointed her.
The court is weighing a plea from President Donald Trump to prevent the Manhattan district attorney from acquiring his tax returns. It is also considering appeals from the Trump campaign and Republicans to shorten the deadline for receiving and counting absentee ballots in the battleground states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County filed legal papers at the court Tuesday arguing that Barrett should not take part in the Pennsylvania case. It’s not clear if she will vote in the pending cases, but she will make that call.
Barrett was confirmed Monday by the Senate in a 52-48 virtual party line vote. She is expected to begin work as a justice on Tuesday after taking the second of two oaths required of judges by federal law. No justice has assumed office so close to a presidential election or immediately confronted issues so directly tied to the incumbent president’s political and personal fortunes.
Barrett declined to commit to Democratic demands that she step aside from any cases on controversial topics, including a potential post-election dispute over the presidential results.
At 48, she’s the youngest justice since Clarence Thomas joined the court in 1991 at age 43.
Other election-related issues are pending at the high court, which next week also will hear a clash of LGBTQ rights and religious freedoms. The fate of the Affordable Care Act is on the agenda on Nov. 10, and Trump himself last week reiterated his opposition to the Obama-era law. “I hope they end it,” he said in an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”
On Friday, Barrett, the most open opponent of abortion rights to join the court in decades, also could be called upon to weigh in on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. The state is appealing lower court rulings invalidating the ban. Abortion opponents in Pittsburgh also are challenging a so-called bubble zone that prevents protesters from getting too close to abortion clinics.
The court put off acting on both cases before Barrett joined the court, without offering any explanation in the Mississippi case. It ordered Pittsburgh to file a response to the appeal filed by the protesters, who call themselves sidewalk counselors.
It’s not clear that the public will know how Barrett voted in the two abortion cases because the court typically doesn’t make the vote counts public when it is considering whether to grant full review to cases.
Barrett is joining the court at an unusual moment. The justices are meeting remotely by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic, both for their private conferences and public argument sessions, at least through the end of 2020. The public can listen to the arguments as they take place, a change also resulting from the court’s response to the pandemic.
After her first private conference with her new colleagues on Friday, two weeks of arguments begin on Monday. In an institution that pays strict attention to seniority, Barrett will go last in the private and public sessions.
As she settles into her new office at the court, Barrett will be joined by four law clerks, usually recent law school graduates who have experience working for federal judges.
When the court reopens to the public and the justices return to the courtroom, Barrett is expected to assume several duties reserved for the court’s junior justice. She will be a member of the committee that oversees the court’s public cafeteria, and the person who takes notes and answers the door when someone knocks during the justices’ private conferences.
New protests loom as Europeans tire of virus restrictions
MILAN — Italy braced Tuesday for more protests in cities nationwide against virus-fighting measures like regional curfews, evening shutdowns for restaurants and bars and the closures of gyms, pools and theaters — a sign of the growing discontent across Europe with renewed coronavirus restrictions.
Police in the financial capital of Milan arrested 28 people after protests turned violent on Monday night when police blocked their procession to the regional government headquarters. And in Italy’s industrial northern city of Turin, at least 11 people were arrested, including a pair who smashed the window of a Gucci boutique and stripped a mannequin of its lemon yellow trousers.
Italy is not the only country facing unrest. All of Europe is grappling with how to halt a fall resurgence of the virus before its hospitals become overwhelmed again.
Nightly curfews have been implemented in French cities and in Spain, and restaurants and bars in Italy must close at 6 p.m. Schools have been closed in Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic. German officials have ordered de-facto lockdowns in some areas near the Austrian border and new mask-wearing requirements are popping up weekly across the continent, including a nationwide requirement in Russia.
“We would all like to live like before, but there are moments where you have to make tough decisions,” French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Tuesday as the government held emergency meetings on the pandemic.
Yet in this new round of restrictions, governments are finding a less compliant public, even as the continent has seen over 250,000 confirmed deaths in the pandemic and last week recorded 46% of the world’s new infections, according to the World Health Organization.
Over the weekend, police used pepper spray against protesters angry over new virus restrictions in Poland. Spanish doctors staged their first national walkout in 25 years on Tuesday to protest poor working conditions, and other protests were planned in the Netherlands.
In Britain, anger and frustration at the government’s uneven handling of the pandemic has erupted into a political crisis over the issue of hungry children. The Conservative government is under huge pressure to keep giving free school lunches to children from lower-income families when schools close during the current midterm break and the Christmas holidays.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s Cabinet was preparing a new decree Tuesday with 5 billion euros ($5.8 billion) in economic remedies for those hurt by the new restrictions that took effect Monday. Professional soccer is playing in empty stadiums and Italy’s cultural venues, like Milan’s La Scala opera house, are drawing the curtains on an already money-losing season.
The violence of protests that erupted in major Italian cities from Milan to Turin to Naples indicated that the promise of government relief offered little salve to frustrations over a tightening of personal freedoms after a relatively care-free summer, and as many businesses are still trying to get back on their feet.
Taxi drivers in Turin occupied a central square, restaurant owners banged pots and pans in front of the prefect’s office in Cremona, hundreds marched in Treviso, north of Venice, and young people blocked traffic and threw firecrackers in Viareggio on the Tuscan coast.
Italy’s national prosecutor for terrorism and organized crime, Federico Cafiero de Raho, on Tuesday said subversives had infiltrated peaceful protests in the country. He said they included proponents of the extreme right and anarchists on the extreme left.
Investigators have also looked into indications that organized crime in the Naples area provoked violence at a peaceful protest.
Italy, the first Western country caught up in the pandemic, has seen as many as 20,000 new cases a day in the resurgence. Some 13,000 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized — up from summertime lows in the hundreds — and nearly 1,300 ICU beds are occupied.
“These are difficult days,” said Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza. “In all of Europe, the wave is very high. We must react immediately and with determination if we want to avoid unsustainable numbers.”
France is warning of possible new lockdowns, include extending existing curfews, fully keeping residents at home on weekends or all week and closing non-essential businesses. Since curfews were imposed a couple of weeks ago, French police have issued 14,000 fines, the interior minister said Tuesday. Doctors are seeing growing pressure on France’s emergency services and intensive care wards, where COVID patients now take up more than half of the beds.
In Spain, the Canary Islands was seeking to pass a law demanding that visitors arrive at the popular archipelago off northwest Africa with proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
Russia, which has the fourth highest tally of 1.5 million confirmed cases, is resisting a second lockdown after most restrictions were lifted this summer. But with cases rising at over 15,000 a day, the health agency ordered all Russians to wear masks in crowded public spaces, including public transport, and in closed spaces like taxis and elevators.
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said the European Union’s open borders might even need to be shut down again to “take the heat out of this phase of the pandemic.”
“There’s no question that the European region is an epicenter of disease right now,” he said.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said even more stringent measures should be applied to stop the virus.
“If it’s let go freely, it can create havoc, especially when we don’t have vaccines at hand,” he said. “Governments should do their share and citizens should do their share … we should not give up.”
Pompeo, Esper drive U.S. anti-China message in India visit
NEW DELHI — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense chief Mark Esper stepped up the Trump administration’s anti-China message in India on Tuesday, exactly a week ahead of America’s presidential election.
With President Donald Trump in a tight race for a second term against former Vice President Joe Biden, Pompeo and Esper sought to play on Indian suspicions about China to shore up a regional front against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. They also lauded joint cooperation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
In talks with their Indian counterparts, Pompeo and Esper signed an agreement expanding military satellite information sharing and highlighted strategic cooperation between Washington and New Delhi with an eye toward countering China. The two men paid tribute to Indian troops killed in defense of their country, including 20 who died earlier this year in an incident with China.
“The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty.” Pompeo said, referring pointedly to ones posed by the Chinese Communist Party,
“Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation — the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” he said.
In a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pompeo and Esper discussed the coronavirus pandemic, security and defense cooperation, and “shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said U.S. principal deputy spokesperson Cale Brown.
Esper earlier said the two countries’ focus must now “be on institutionalizing and regularizing our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future.” That, he said, is particularly important “in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing actions by China.”
Just hours before the meetings began, the Trump administration notified Congress of plans for a $2.37 billion sale of Harpoon missile systems to Taiwan — the second major arms sale in two weeks to the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province. China reacted to the first sale by announcing sanctions on U.S. defense contractors.
Shortly before the Harpoon sale was announced, Pompeo met late Monday with Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to laud “the strong partnership between the United States and India,” declaring it to be “critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world,” the State Department said in a statement.
Regardless of domestic U.S. election considerations, it is a critical time in the U.S.-India relationship as China looms large over the Indo-Pacific.
Heightened border tensions between New Delhi and Beijing have added to Chinese-American animosity that has been fueled by disputes over the coronavirus, trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, human rights and disputes between China and its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, India is looking to emerge from a shell of internal issues, including unrest in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, as it faces twin threats from China and Pakistan.
Tuesday’s meetings come during a flareup of military tensions between India and China in a disputed mountainous region where tens of thousands of soldiers have been engaged in a standoff since May. Trump has offered to help defuse tensions but has yet to receive any indication of interest from either side. India and China fought a monthlong war over the region at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, and some fear a similar confrontation before this winter sets in.
Pompeo has made no secret of the Trump administration’s desire for India’s help in the U.S. bid to isolate China. Since Trump became president, the U.S. and India have steadily ramped up their military relationship. When Trump visited India in February, the two sides concluded defense deals worth over $3 billion. Bilateral defense trade has increased from near zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2019.
The talks in New Delhi on Tuesday follow a meeting that Pompeo had earlier this month in Tokyo with his counterparts from India, Japan and Australia, which together make up the four Indo-Pacific nations known as “the Quad.” The Quad is seen as a counterweight to China, which critics say is flexing its military muscle throughout the region.
Pompeo will head back to Washington by way of Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia, where he plans to press each nation to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients.
The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment.
“We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices,” the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, Dean Thompson, said last week. “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity, and we stand ready to partner with Sri Lanka for its economic development and growth.”
The Chinese Embassy said the comments were a blatant violation of diplomatic protocols and also chided the U.S. for organizing Pompeo’s 24-hour visit and imposing a major logistical burden on the country, which is the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “Does this approach truly prove your respect to the host country? Is it helpful to local epidemic prevention and control? Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan people?” the embassy said in a statement.
‘We’re working on it:’ Pope’s COVID advisers and the mask
ROME — Pope Francis’ decision to forego wearing a mask has been noticed, with some concern, by the commission of Vatican experts he appointed to help chart the Catholic Church’s path through the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath.
The Rev. Augusto Zampini, one of the key members of the pope’s COVID-19 commission, acknowledged Tuesday that at age 83 and with part of his lung removed after an illness in his youth, Francis would be at high risk for complications if he were to become infected with COVID-19.
“He has started to use the mask now,” Zampini said in response to reporters’ questions. “And I hope he will use it in the general audiences, when he is close to the people. If you’re in an open space, we know that it’s different. But well, we are working on that.”
Francis has courted some criticism for declining to wear a mask when indoors, even though Vatican regulations call for masks indoors and out when social distancing cannot be guaranteed. While Francis’ lung condition could help explain his decision to forego the mask, he donned one for more than two hours last week when he presided over an indoor and outdoor interreligious prayer service in downtown Rome.
Yet the following day, Francis went maskless during his indoor general audience in the Vatican auditorium, including when he shook hands with a handful of similarly maskless bishops and leaned in to speak privately to each one. On Saturday, he met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who arrived wearing a mask only to take it off for the audience in the pope’s library.
Photos of the maskless leaders caused a mild stir in Spain over the weekend, but the prime minister’s office dismissed it by saying the delegation was following Vatican protocol rules. Spain last week became the first country in Western Europe with more than 1 million confirmed virus cases.
The Vatican has declined to respond to questions about Francis and masks.
Zampini said the recent rise in infections in the tiny city state have commission members and the Vatican as a whole concerned. Thirteen Swiss Guards and a resident of the hotel where Francis lives have recently tested positive.
“We are very worried,” Zampini said, noting that the Vatican has strong regulations about keeping social distancing and washing hands within the territory. “We have all protocols in place, but still we have cases.”
He acknowledged, though, that the contagion within the Vatican has merely driven home the danger of the virus so that the Vatican itself can be witness to what the rest of the world is experiencing and help be part of the solution.
The commission is working to address the current needs of the church around the world with concrete acts of assistance, while also developing policy recommendations for how governments and institutions can re-think global economic, environmental, social, health care and other structures to be more equitable and sustainable.
Hurricane warning for New Orleans as Zeta swirls over Mexico
CANCUN, Mexico — Storm-weary Louisiana is once again under a hurricane warning, with Zeta leaving Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on a path that could hit New Orleans Wednesday night.
Zeta, the 27th named storm in a very busy Atlantic season, made landfall as a hurricane just north of the ancient Mayan city of Tulum with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph). It weakened to a tropical storm as it crossed over land, but it was expected to regain strength over the Gulf of Mexico.
Zeta’s top winds were 70 mph (110 kph) early Tuesday, and it was centered about 540 miles (865 kilometers) south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. If Zeta makes landfall in Louisiana, it will be the fifth named storm to hit the state this year, joining Cristobal, Laura, Marco and Delta.
Zeta was still drenching the northern Yucatan as its center moved over the water. Quintana Roo state Gov. Carlos Joaquin said via Twitter early Tuesday that early reports indicated his state suffered no major damage, nor were there reports of deaths or injuries. He said airports were open and business activity could resume Tuesday morning, though beaches would remain closed until the surf calms.
In Playa del Carmen, between Tulum and Cancun, Mexican tourist Elsa Marquez held up her beach towel Monday so it flapped in the wind, rattling with the strong gusts Monday a few hours before Zeta’s arrival.
“This is our first experience (in a hurricane) and the truth is we are a little afraid because we don’t know what will happen, but here we are,” said Marquez, who was visiting the resort from the north-central state of Queretaro.
Another tourist, Mario Ortiz Rosas from the western state of Michoacan, looked at the rising waves, noting: “I didn’t plan for this, but it looks like it is going to get complicated.”
Some boats that normally carry tourists in Cancun took refuge in a nearby lagoon channel, anchored among the mangroves to avoid the battering wind, waves and storm surge. Boat captain Francisco Sosa Rosado noted they had to perform the same maneuver barely three week ago, when the area was hit by a stronger Hurricane Delta, which made landfall with top winds of 110 mph (175 kph).
“With Delta, the gusts of wind were very strong … the anchor lines were at risk of breaking,” Sosa Rosado said. “I hope it won’t be as bad with this hurricane.”
Quintana Roo state officials reported nearly 60,000 tourists in the state as of midweek.
Zeta broke the record for the previous earliest 27th Atlantic named storm that formed Nov. 29, 2005. It’s also the 11th hurricane of the season. An average season sees six hurricanes and 12 named storms.
There have been so many storms this season that the hurricane center had to turn to the Greek alphabet after running out of assigned names.
Zeta is the furthest into the Greek alphabet the Atlantic season has gone. There was also a Tropical Storm Zeta in 2005, but that year had 28 storms because meteorologists later found they missed one, which then became an “unnamed named storm.”
Bomb at seminary in Pakistan kills 8 students, wounds 136
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A powerful bomb blast ripped through an Islamic seminary on the outskirts of the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar on Tuesday morning, killing at least eight students and wounding 136 others, police and a hospital spokesman said.
The bombing happened as a prominent religious scholar during a special class was delivering a lecture about the teachings of Islam at the main hall of the Jamia Zubairia madrassa, said police officer Waqar Azim. He said initial investigations suggest the bomb went off minutes after someone left a bag at the madrassa.
TV footage showed the damaged main hall of the seminary, where the bombing took place. The hall was littered with broken glass and its carpet was stained with blood. Police said at least 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of explosives were used in the attack.
Several of the wounded students were in critical condition, and hospital authorities feared the death toll could climb further. Authorities said some seminary teachers and employees were also wounded in the bombing.
Initially police said the bombing killed and wounded children studying at the seminary but later revised their account to say that the students were in their mid-20s.
Shortly after the attack, residents rushed to the seminary to check up on their sons or relatives who were studying there. Many relatives were gathering at the city’s main Lady Reading Hospital, where the dead and wounded students were brought by police in ambulances and other vehicles.
Some Afghan students studying at the seminary were also among the wounded, officials said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the bombing and asked authorities to ensure the provision of best possible medical aid to the victims.
“I want to assure my nation we will ensure the terrorists responsible for this cowardly barbaric attack are brought to justice,” Khan said.
The bombing drew condemnation from the country’s opposition party, which has been holding rallies meant to force Khan’s government to quit.
The United Nations’ children’s agency, UNICEF, also condemned the attack. In a statement, its representative in Pakistan, Aida Girma, said “education is the fundamental right of every girl and boy, everywhere. Schools must never be targeted.”
From his hospital bed, a wounded student, Mohammad Saqib, 24, said religious scholar Rahimullah Haqqani was explaining verses from the Quran when suddenly they heard a deafening sound and then cries and saw blood-stained students crying for help.
“Someone helped me and put me in an ambulance and I was brought to hospital,” he said. Saqib had bandages on both arms but he was listed in a stable condition.
Another witness, Saeed Ullah, 24, said up to 500 students were present at the seminary’s main hall at the time of the explosion. He said teachers were also among those who were wounded in the bombing.
A video filmed by a student at the scene showed the Islamic scholar Haqqani delivering a lecture when the bomb exploded. It was unclear whether the teacher was among the wounded.
Mohammad Asim, a spokesman at the Lady Reading Hospital, said eight students died and they received dozens of wounded people, mostly seminary students.
The attack comes days after Pakistani intelligence alerted that militants could target public places and important buildings, including seminaries and mosques across Pakistan, including Peshawar.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Peshawar which is the provincial capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. The province has been the scene of such militant attacks in recent years, but sectarian violence has also killed or wounded people at mosques or seminaries across Pakistan.
The latest attack comes two days after a bombing in the southwestern city of Quetta killed three people. The Pakistani Taliban have been targeting public places, schools, mosques and the military across the country since 2001, when this Islamic nation joined the U.S.-led war on terror following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Mohammad Khurasani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, condemned Tuesday’s bombing. In a statement, he described the attack as a cowardly act, claiming that the country’s institutions were behind it.
Since then, the insurgents have declared war on the government of Pakistan and have carried out numerous attacks, including a brutal assault on an army-run school in the city of Peshawar in 2014 that killed 140 children and several teachers.
Associated Press writer Asim Tanveer contributed to this report from Multan, Pakistan.
Case count grows in COVID-19 outbreak at Tacoma hospital
TACOMA — CHI-Franciscan on Monday reported that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma has grown.
The Tacoma-based health system said it is continuing to work with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in its investigation.
“There are currently seven employees and four patients who have tested positive. Public health investigations are underway to identify the root of possible transmission and connections between cases,” the health system said Monday evening.
“More than 1,000 employees have been tested out of an abundance of caution, and 834 results have been received as of October 26. We are working closely with public health and will follow their guidance regarding ongoing employee testing protocols.”
It added that all rooms on the seventh floor, the epicenter of the investigation, have been deep cleaned.
The first COVID-19 cases involved in the current investigation were first reported Oct. 22. At that time, two patients and one worker were reported to be infected.
The health system said all of the patients involved so far tested negative initially, then later tested positive. Suspected and confirmed COVID patients are placed in isolation, according to the health system.
The hospital is currently restricting new admissions and visitors on the seventh floor.
“Some currently scheduled in-patient procedures may be postponed if it is medically safe to do so,” the health system said.
CHI Franciscan has faced recent outbreaks at other facilities in its system, including St. Michael Medical Center and Franciscan Medical Group Cardiothoracic clinic, both in Kitsap County, and St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor.
Al Qaeda Feels Losses in Syria and Afghanistan but Stays Resilient
American drones and U.S. allies killed several Qaeda leaders and operatives in the past week. But the organization has “ingrained itself in local communities and conflicts,” according to the U.N.