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National News

    President Donald Trump may not divert $89 million intended for a military construction project in Washington state to build his border wall, a U.S. judge in Seattle ruled Thursday. The U.S. Supreme Court and some other courts have said the administration can begin diverting billions of dollars in military spending to the wall. But U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled Thursday that a case brought by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson contains different arguments which are not covered by those decisions. Rothstein found that diverting the money is unlawful because it would take money that Congress appropriated for military construction and use it for domestic law enforcement. The $89 million was intended for a pier at Naval Base Kitsap west of Seattle. But it was part of $3.6 billion in military construction spending that Trump has tried to divert to build 175 miles of fencing in four states on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Washington attorney general said losing that construction money would cost the state $2.6 million in tax revenue over the next two years, and that’s enough to give Washington standing to challenge the administration’s plans in court.
  • A government whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging that some federal workers did not have the necessary protective gear or training when they were deployed to help Americans evacuated from China during the coronavirus outbreak. The complaint deals with Health and Human Services Department employees sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California to assist the quarantined evacuees. The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates personnel issues, confirmed Thursday it has received the unnamed whistleblower's complaint and has opened a case. The office of Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez of California said the complaint was filed by a high-ranking official at the Administration for Children and Families, an HHS agency. The whistleblower was among a team of about a dozen employees from the agency who had been deployed to help connect the evacuees with social services that they might qualify for. The team was there from mid-January until earlier this month. Although team members had gloves at times and at other times masks, they lacked full protective gear and received no training on how to protect themselves in a viral hot zone, according to a description provided by the congressional office. They had no respirators. While helping the evacuees, team members noticed that workers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were in full gear to protect them from getting sick. Gomez's office said the high-ranking whistleblower complained to superiors and was given the choice of being reassigned or being fired. None of the workers from the agency has become infected with the virus. Without referring directly to the complaint, Gomez questioned HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the situation during a congressional hearing Thursday. “Were any of these ACF employees exposed to high-risk evacuees?” asked Gomez, adding it was his understanding that 'it was kind of chaotic on the ground' when the team was sent to California. Azar responded that he was not aware of any violation of quarantine or isolation requirements. “Urgency does not compensate for violating isolation and quarantine protocols,” he said. “I'd want to know the full facts and would take appropriate remedial measures,” Azar added. Ari Wilkenfeld, a lawyer representing the unidentified whistleblower, said in a statement: “This matter concerns HHS’ response to the coronavirus, and its failure to protect its employees and potentially the public. The retaliatory efforts to intimidate and silence our client must be opposed.” HHS did not respond to requests for comment. The whistleblower complaint was first reported by The Washington Post. ___ Associated Press writer Carole Feldman contributed to this report.
  • Cherokee citizens are calling on Elizabeth Warren to publicly disavow a family story of indigenous heritage as a way to dissuade others from making false claims they say often romanticize Native Americans. The topic has haunted the Massachusetts senator since even before she announced she would seek the Democratic nomination for president, despite Warren repeatedly apologizing for identifying as Native American in the past and for submitting a DNA test to back up what she heard growing up. More than 200 tribal citizens reignited the debate this week, signing a letter to Warren that said her apologies are vague and don't address the harm she's caused. Warren quickly responded to the letter with another apology. She said she is willing to stand with Indian Country in ways that others haven't, pointing to her track record and other tribal members who have praised her work. Joseph M. Pierce, one of four Cherokee Nation citizens who organized the letter, said Warren didn't go far enough in addressing her family's story about connections to the Delaware and Cherokee people. “We think that she has an opportunity to stand up and to show other people that it's OK to speak the truth about this history, even though that may be emotionally difficult ... because it strikes at the core of who she thought she was,” Pierce, an associate professor at Stony Brook University in New York, said Thursday. Warren's campaign didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Warren grew up in Oklahoma, which is home to 39 federally recognized tribes. As she was preparing her presidential run in late 2018, she released the results of a DNA test performed by a Stanford professor that indicated she had a distant indigenous ancestor from the Americas. The test was meant to answer critics, including President Donald Trump, who accused Warren of making false claims about her past. But the move backfired, as Trump continued to gleefully deride Warren using the racial slur “Pocahontas,” and many tribal leaders rejected the test as a false and biased way to measure Native American heritage. Warren appeared to have succeeded in putting the issue behind her as she rode a sharp rise in the polls to become one of the Democratic presidential primary front-runners. She finished third in Iowa and fared even worse in New Hampshire, raising questions about how much longer she will remain in the race. More people claim ties to Cherokee than any other tribe, according to the U.S. census, which doesn't reconcile figures with tribal enrollment offices. The reason is threefold, said Circe Sturm, the author of “Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century.” The Cherokee Nation adopted white standards of civilization, trying to secure its sovereignty by mimicking European governments and creating a constitution. Cherokees intermarried with whites for much longer than other tribes, which was partly strategic for both sides, Sturm said. Cherokee enrollment policies that rely on lineage also are more lenient than those of tribes that rely solely on blood quantum, Sturm said. “All of those things make being physically white, or white-acting, more comfortable to claim Cherokee,” she said Thursday. Pierce said the claims often romanticize Native people and allow non-Natives to feel more American without having to engage with Native communities or address historic atrocities against Native Americans, he said. The Cherokee citizens' letter urged Warren to set an example and confront her family's oral history while working with tribal nations to provide guidance to others who might similar family stories. “It's not about one election, it's about the future of our communities, and she can play a part in that,” Pierce said. Warren has said her claims of Native American ancestry were part of “family lore.' She said she never sought membership in any tribe and reiterated in her letter this week that only tribal nations, not DNA tests, determine citizenship. She said she never benefited financially or professionally from her claims of being indigenous and acknowledged not everyone will accept her apologies. She said she would “strive to be a friend to tribal nations.' Pierce acknowledged that Warren has listened and learned from Indian Country and that her platform includes issues that matter to Native people. Warren pledged to defend a federal law that seeks to keep Native American children in foster care or adoption proceedings in Native homes, and uphold tribes as sovereign political entities, rather than racial groups. She has supported giving tribes full criminal jurisdiction on tribal land. As is, federally recognized tribes that meet certain requirements, can assert criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives in limited domestic violence cases. Warren also has joined other Democrats in pushing to restore the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah that Trump reduced, and urging protection from mineral development at other sites Native Americans consider sacred in northwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. ___ Associated Pres writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report. Fonseca is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP
  • The Trump administration moved Thursday on a water-recycling push it says could get good use out of more of the wastewater that industries, cities and farms spew out, including the billions of barrels of watery waste generated by oil and gas fields each year. Some environmental groups eye the effort suspiciously, fearing the Trump administration will use the project to allow businesses to offload hazardous wastewater in ways that threaten drinking water sources and otherwise risk public health. Businesses including oil and gas developers have urged the Trump administration to allow them more ways to get rid of their increasing volumes of wastewater. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler were on hand for the launch of what they called an action plan for water reuse nationwide. President Donald Trump — who has pushed to make work easier for oil and gas developers and direct more water to farmers — triggered the effort in a 2018 memo. The effort “frames the business case that water reuse is a viable and growing means of supporting our economy and improving the availability of freshwater,” the EPA said in a statement Thursday. Short on details, the plan sketches out state, federal and tribal and local efforts looking at the policies, rules, research and possible uses in reclaiming and using more stormwater, rainfall and wastewater left over from farms, factories and coolant systems, wastewater plants, and oil and gas production. It includes finishing a study that will support consideration of “potential regulatory and nonregulatory approaches” to reusing oilfield wastewater by April, the EPA said. Uses for some of the wastewater overall could include watering crops, treating it for use as drinking water, and refilling underground water aquifers being drained by heavy pumping, the plan says. “Wastewater from the fracking process is certainly at the top of our minds,” Wheeler said, in looking to boost reuse of what industry calls produced water. Drinking water standards and other laws and rules limit the ways that farms, cities and oil and gas developers, among others, can get rid of their wastewater. The fluids are often tainted with brine, chemicals, metals or other byproducts. The industry practice of pumping oilfield wastewater back underground has raised fears of contamination of drinking-water reserves in some states. In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Geological Survey and other scientists earlier in the decade linked a surge in earthquakes with the 1.5 billion barrels of wastewater that the oil and gas industry was disposing of by pumping back underground. In California, initial projects watering orchards and some other crops with water that includes oilfield wastewater. “The Trump administration is trying to prop up the oil and gas industry by greenlighting more ways to dump vast amounts of waste fluid that’s often toxic and even radioactive,' said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
  • A Jungle Cruise boat took on water at Disney’s Magic Kingdom Thursday afternoon, Disney officials said. A Disney spokesperson said a boat took on some water and everyone was able to get out of the boat safely. The Reedy Creek Fire Department responded to the incident and helped rescue the guests. The company said it worked with guests individually so they could enjoy the rest of their day at the park. The attraction has since reopened. Guests shared photos of the incident on Facebook and Twitter.
  • A couple of great-grandparents were mistaken as bank robbers and swarmed by police after leaving the bank they are members of. Ottis Dugar, 86, a Korean War veteran, and Demitri Dugar, 67, were leaving the bank and going to go to a Denny’s restaurant when they were stopped at gunpoint by police and detained for 40 minutes, WLS reported. “(The police were) yelling, ‘Get out of the car. Put your hands up.’ And when I’m having a bad knee, I cannot get out,” Demitri, who was driving, told WLS. “They asked me, ‘Who’s in the car?’ I said, ‘My husband.’ ‘What’s his name?’ I said, ’It’s Ottis.' ‘Does he have a gun in the car?’ I said, ’No, we don’t have any guns.' ‘Well, if he’s got a gun in the car we’re going to shoot him.’” The couple were handcuffed and put into separate patrol cars while police determined they were not the suspects. A teller from the bank arrived and told police the Dugars were not the suspects. They were released shortly later. City officials apologized for the mistake. “It was a case of mistaken identity based on the initial report of an eye witness,” The Village of Oak Park said in a statement. “A show-up was conducted at the stop and the witness continued to say the individuals were the ones seen leaving the bank. However, a teller from the bank brought to the show up corrected the information. The couple was immediately released and officers involved in the incident apologized for the mistaken identity. Officers also said the couple did not express any anger or concern about the incident, which all occurred within just a few minutes.” It is unclear if investigators captured the actual suspects.
  • A surprising find inside an apartment in Virginia has wildlife officials buzzing. Virginia Wildlife Management and Control officials removed an 8-foot-long beehive from an apartment ceiling in Richmond on Monday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The unit was empty at the time of the beehive extraction, The Associated Press reported. The hive of Italian bees was approximately 2 years old, according to wildlife officials. It is believed the bees gained access to the apartment through holes in the siding. The hive produced between 80 and 100 pounds of honey, and crews were able to salvage about 15-20 pounds of it, according to a Virginia Wildlife Management and Control Facebook post. While it is the policy of Virginia Wildlife Management and Control to not kill bees, in this case, the queen bee could not be found, so the hive could not be saved, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
  • A Florida woman and her grown son were indicted Wednesday in the killings of her husband and sister that took place 25 years ago in New Jersey, according to authorities. Dolores Mejia Connors Morgan, 66, and Ted Connors, 47, both of Del Ray Beach, are each charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the 1994 slaying of Ana F. Mejia, 24, and the 1995 killing of 51-year-old Nicholas William Connors, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni said in a news release. Both killings took place in the victims’ homes in Long Branch, a beachside city about an hour east of Trenton. A third person, Jose Carrero, 48, of Jackson Township, New Jersey, was also charged with murder in both homicides, Gramiccioni said. Carrero, who, like Morgan and Ted Connors, was arrested Jan. 10, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of second-degree conspiracy to commit murder in a plea deal with prosecutors. Media reports at the time of the killings indicated that Mejia considered her sister and brother-in-law her parents. An obituary that ran in the Asbury Park Press under the name Ana Mejia-Jimenez listed them as her mother and father, and Ted Connors as her brother. Mejia was found dead Dec. 8, 1994, in the bedroom of the apartment she shared with her boyfriend and her two young children, Gramiccioni said. “Mejia was stabbed multiple times and had a white powdery substance rubbed on her face when she was found. Her children were found safe within the residence,” the prosecutor said in a news release. Investigators initially believed it was cocaine that had been smeared on Mejia’s face, including inside her nose. According to NJ.com, however, the white powder found around Mejia’s nose and mouth was determined to be baby formula. Mejia had been stabbed 23 times and news reports at the time indicated her body was mutilated. Raw HTML blockedit “Six months later, on May 14, 1995, Long Branch police officers were dispatched to the Van Dyke Place home of Nicholas Connors, 51,” the news release said. “There, authorities found Nicholas Connors on a sofa, deceased after multiple gunshot wounds to the head.” Morgan, then 42, was the person who found him dead, NJ.com said. Two of the couple’s children, ages 13 and 12, were home but slept through the shooting. “By habit, he would wait for her to come home before going to bed,” then-Monmouth County Prosecutor John Kaye told the Asbury Park Press in 1995. “She found him on the couch, and there was blood all about.” Gramiccioni said last week that Carrero admitted conspiring with Morgan and Ted Connors “to kill Mejia in retaliation for what they believed were her actions to tip off law enforcement officers about the illegal activities of her boyfriend.” An Asbury Park Press article published in 1994 indicated that Mejia was slain a week after her boyfriend was arrested on drug charges. Raw HTML blockedit NJ.com reported Carrero said in court that Morgan feared her sister, who was allegedly working as a confidential police informant, would also tip detectives off about her illegal activities. She determined Mejia had to die, he indicated. Carrero told the court that he met with Morgan, who said she would pay him to help with the killing, and Ted Connors in the kitchen of the Connors home in 1994 to plan the hit on Mejia. He said he and Ted Connors planned to go to a party together the night of the crime to establish an alibi, NJ.com reported. He said he and Ted Connors left the party and parked down the street from Mejia’s house so no one would see Connors’ vehicle, the news site reported. They went to the house and Mejia opened the door for him and her nephew before returning to her bedroom. Carrero said he covered Mejia’s face with a pillow while Ted Connors stabbed her because he “didn’t want to see her” as she died, NJ.com said. After the murder, the pair returned to the party to maintain their alibi, Carrero said. “Carrero also admitted to conspiring with Ted Connors and Connors’ mother, Delores Morgan (then known as Delores Connors) to kill Nicholas Connors. Nicholas Connors was the adopted father of Ted and then-husband of Delores,” Gramiccioni said last week. Nicholas Connors “was killed in a successful effort to collect on a life insurance policy,” Gramiccioni’s news release indicated. NJ.com reported that Carrero said in court that he, Morgan and Ted Connors again sat at the kitchen table of the family’s home to plot out the husband and father’s killing. He said Ted Connors obtained a gun and Morgan went to work that night so she would not be home when her husband was slain. Carrero said he and Ted Connors again parked down the street from the house before walking to a side door and slicing the screen to make it look like a break-in. When they went inside, Carrero said he could hear a television in the next room. He said he remained in the kitchen while Ted Connors went in and shot his father, the news site reported. When he heard a second shot, he fled and ran to the car, with Ted Connors a couple of steps behind him, NJ.com said. News reports at the time indicated investigators almost immediately suspected the killings of Mejia and Nicholas Connors were related. Carrero said he was never paid outright for the crimes but Morgan loaned him cash at one point and he didn’t pay it back. He also lived at the family’s house for a while, rent-free, until Morgan kicked him out, the news site reported. As part of his plea deal, Carrero has agreed to testify against both of his codefendants. Gramiccioni said in exchange for his testimony, prosecutors would recommend consecutive sentences of five to 10 years in state prison for each of the two charges to which he pleaded guilty. The prosecutor said investigations into the Mejia and Nicholas Connors killings were launched back in 1994 and 1995 but the cases went cold. “Additional evidence recently uncovered by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office Cold Case Unit and Long Branch Police Department resulted in charges being signed against the three defendants on Jan. 10, 2020,” Gramiccioni said. NJ.com reported last month that proof of the insurance payout Morgan received following her husband’s killing was part of the new evidence. An affidavit obtained by the site did not give the amount of the insurance payment she received. Cold case detectives also found that both the men accused in the crimes had confessed their alleged involvement to multiple friends. “The information given to (the friends) by Ted Connors and Jose Carrero is supported and proven to be true based on additional information discovered and confirmed in the current review of the file and additional investigation conducted over the last two years,” the affidavit read, according to NJ.com. The investigators also recently uncovered a transcript of a recorded conversation Ted Connors had with a friend about the crimes in 1995. Police re-interviewed one of the witnesses and obtained a new statement from him a couple of months ago, the affidavit said. Carrero’s sentencing was scheduled for June 5, but prosecutors told NJ.com it would not take place until he had testified against Morgan and Ted Connors. Both mother and son remain jailed without bond in the Monmouth County Correctional Institution.
  • Democratic White House hopefuls are seizing on President Donald Trump’s delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak, calling it the latest evidence of his incompetence and warning that the crisis may only deepen as a result. But some experts and Democrats warn that the candidates risk exacerbating a public health crisis if they go too far in politicizing the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness. Former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar all went after Trump during their CNN town halls Wednesday night. A number of the candidates have released their own pandemic policies, and Bloomberg is even airing an ad contrasting Trump’s response to the outbreak to his own handling of the aftermath of 9/11. It’s a potent political issue, as it gets at what Democrats see as two major potential weaknesses for Trump: questions about his competence as president and health care issues. “The threat from coronavirus and the chaos of the administration is front and center in everyone’s mind,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Not talking about it means you’re missing voters who are deeply worried about the public health threat and deeply concerned about the Trump administration’s incompetence.” Warren, Klobuchar and Bloomberg have all released public health plans detailing how they’d address and prevent similar outbreaks as president. During their CNN town halls, Warren warned that the economic impact of the new coronavirus could get worse. She and Klobuchar slammed Trump’s decision to put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus response, noting his controversial handling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana when he was governor. And Biden has previously slammed Trump for “hysterical xenophobia and fearmongering” rather than respecting science on the issue. But sounding the alarm on the administration’s coronavirus response also holds risks. Florida Rep. Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, had a stark warning for Democrats. “Don’t open your mouth until you know what you’re talking about. This is politics. They need to listen to the scientists as well,” she said. That is a major criticism Democrats have lobbed at Trump — that he has botched his response and fostered more confusion by publicly contradicting the scientists in his administration about the severity of the virus. On Wednesday, the president sought to minimize fears at a White House press conference where he insisted the U.S. is “very, very ready” for an outbreak and predicted: “This will end…there’s no reason to be panicked.” But standing next to him, the health officials in charge of handling the outbreak predicted more cases are coming in the U.S. Democrats are not immune to the critique themselves, however. During Tuesday night’s primary debate, both Biden and Bloomberg made the erroneous claim that Trump cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While Trump proposed cuts to the CDC in his budget blueprint, he was overruled by Congress, and the eventual budget he signed included an increase in funding. Biden corrected his comments during Wednesday night’s CNN town hall but went on to warn that Trump “did not have a plan to deal with how you equip hospitals.” Bloomberg, meanwhile, criticized Trump at a Houston rally on Thursday, accusing him of 'burying his head in the sand' and charging that “his failure to prepare is crippling our ability to respond.' But the public health system has a playbook to follow for pandemic preparation — regardless of who’s president or whether specific instructions are coming from the White House. Those plans were put into place in anticipation of another flu pandemic but are designed to work for any respiratory-borne disease. Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, warned that “any time political ideology starts to dominate the dialogue, it puts the public at risk.” “The history of good public health is that when things become politicized, we risk a good sound response and a response based on science and expertise,” she said. “This is a situation that’s changing by the moment, and that makes it all the more delicate.” Kates warned that there should be some “caution around not stoking panic and not using the partisan environment to steer away from basic public health messaging” — but acknowledged that will be tough “in a very partisan time, during campaign season.” Both parties are guilty of politicizing public health pandemics when they’re not the party in charge of the White House, she noted. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Republicans routinely slammed the Obama administration for similar critiques Trump is facing from Democrats — namely, that he was too slow to respond and didn’t appoint an adviser to coordinate the government’s response quickly enough. But Kathleen Sebelius, who served as Obama’s secretary of health and human services from 2009 to 2014, said Democrats have a lot more to criticize when it comes to Trump’s response. “We have the components of what could be a perfect storm. Are there ways to deal with it calmly and rationally? You bet. Is the United States well prepared? It seems like there are some gaps,” she said. She pointed to the fact that the initial White House funding request was just a fraction of what had been allocated for past viral outbreaks like Ebola, and Trump himself has largely left it up to Congress to sort out the details. She also noted that a number of key positions set up by Obama to deal with global pandemics have now either been eliminated or left vacant, and she called out Trump for contradicting his own scientists on the severity of the threat. Shalala agreed — but she warned Democrats to be “careful” to focus their critiques on the president and not the experts in the administration who are trying to tackle the crisis. “There are things that they can criticize, like the inadequate funding request and the president muddying the waters” at his press conference, she said, “but they shouldn’t be criticizing the agency heads and the very good scientist physicians that are trying to do their jobs.” But some Democrats say the conversation around the coronavirus is fair game because it gets at a much broader issue for Trump: questions surrounding his leadership. “Electing a president isn’t about a series of issue check boxes on a spreadsheet. It’s about the public’s confidence that you can lead the country, especially in times of crisis,” Ferguson said. “If we can’t demonstrate the fundamental failure of this administration to lead in this crisis, then we are not talking about the thing that people think about when electing a president.” ___ Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”
  • A professor at the University of Tennessee has been arrested on charges that he hid his relationship with a Chinese university while receiving research grants from the federal government, the Justice Department said Thursday. Anming Hu, an associate professor in the department of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering at the university's flagship Knoxville campus, was charged with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements. After the indictment was announced, the university said Hu had been suspended and that school officials had cooperated. “University leadership is fully committed to adherence to grant procedures and the protection of intellectual property,' the school said in a statement. The arrest is part of a broader Justice Department crackdown against university researchers who conceal their ties to Chinese institutions, with a Harvard chemistry professor recently arrested on similar charges. Federal officials have also asserted that Beijing is intent on stealing intellectual property from America's colleges and universities, and have actively been warning schools to be on alert against espionage attempts. Prosecutors say Hu defrauded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by failing to disclose the fact that he was also a professor at the Beijing University of Technology in China. Under federal law, NASA cannot fund or give grant money to Chinese-owned companies or universities. According to the indictment, as the University of Tennessee last December was preparing a proposal on Hu's behalf for a NASA-funded project, Hu provided false assurances to the school that he was not part of any business collaboration involving China. In addition, prosecutors say, a curriculum vitae that Hu submitted when he applied for a tenured faculty position with the university omitted any affiliation with the Beijing university. “This is just the latest case involving professors or researchers concealing their affiliations with China from their American employers and the U.S. government,' Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official, said in a statement. “We will not tolerate it.” A federal defender assigned to represent Hu declined to comment. ____
  • U.S. sales of new homes jumped 7.9% in January to the fastest pace in more than 12 years, a positive sign for economic growth. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that new homes sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 764,000 last month. That’s the highest sales rate since July 2007, shortly before the U.S. economy slumped into the Great Recession. Half of January’s sales gains came from people buying homes that have yet to be constructed, possible evidence that low mortgage rates may be driving their decisions to purchase. Borrowing costs for home loans have tumbled since 2018. But a shortage of properties on the market means that prices are also rising quickly. The median price of a new home surged 14% from a year ago to $348,200.
  • With less than 48 hours until the polls open on Saturday for the South Carolina Primary, several of the top candidates in the Democratic Party race on Thursday decided to leave the Palmetto State behind, and jump ahead to some of the 14 states which vote on Super Tuesday. Bernie Sanders was hitting two Super Tuesday states on Thursday, holding a late morning rally in Winston Salem, North Carolina, before going on to Richmond, Virginia, two states which vote next week. Sanders finishes Thursday with a rally at Wofford College in Spartanburg. Unlike the past few days on the stump in South Carolina, where Sanders has thrown elbows at Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden, Sanders in North Carolina instead focused his ire on President Donald Trump. 'I believe that Donald Trump is a hoax,' Sanders said, criticizing the President for his views on climate change. Along with Sanders, Elizabeth Warren was also taking a day off from the Palmetto State, as she had a rally in San Antonio. Part of Super Tuesday, Texas has not attracted a great deal of campaign attention until now, even though 228 delegates are at stake in the Lone Star State - more than the 155 delegates awarded from the first four contests combined in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. While both Warren and Sanders were going to return to South Carolina, the calculus was a bit different for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who has now wrapped up her campaign in South Carolina, and moved on to Super Tuesday states. The Minnesota Democrat started her Thursday with a voting rights roundtable in Greensboro, North Carolina. 'As much as maybe the debates may have seemed like slugfests, I want to you to remember what an exciting time this is in our politics,' Klobuchar said. “Call your friends, tell them what you heard today,” Klobuchar said at a second event in the Tar Heel State. “It is not about the biggest bank account,” Klobuchar said of the campaign.  “That's been shown time and time again.” Klobuchar will campaign Friday and Saturday in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee - all three states are on the docket for Super Tuesday.  While Klobuchar, Warren, and Sanders spent time outside South Carolina, Tom Steyer, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg were still doing campaign events in the Palmetto State on Thursday. The latest poll from Monmouth University showed a growing lead for Biden.
  • Adding another item to their election year list of grievances about President Donald Trump, the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination have stepped up their criticism of the White House response to the Coronavirus, arguing it is emblematic of what they charge is the President's haphazard method of governing. 'I am deeply concerned not just by the rise of cases of Coronavirus worldwide, but by the inadequate and incompetent response we have seen from Donald Trump and his administration,' said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). 'He has done an absolutely terrible job of responding,' Tom Steyer said of the President at a campaign stop on Wednesday in Georgetown, South Carolina.  'He is incompetent,' added Steyer, as Democrats blasted the President for proposing cuts at the Centers for Disease Control. 'The Trump administration is absolutely bungling the response,' said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), as she accused the President of 'putting our public health and our economy at risk.' In a CNN televised town hall on Wednesday night in Charleston, Mike Bloomberg joined in ridiculing the White House response. 'Number one, he fired the pandemic team two years ago,' Bloomberg said. 'Number two, he's been defunding Centers for Disease Control. So, we don't have the experts in place that we need.' The comments came as Bloomberg has already put up a campaign ad saying that he would be the perfect politician to handle such a crisis. In a separate CNN town hall, Joe Biden said the U.S. needs to challenge the Chinese more on how the government is handling the situation. 'I would not be taking China's word for it,' Biden said. “I just hope the President gets on the same page as the scientists.' Asked about the President putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the Coronavirus response, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said there might have been better choices. “I would think, usually, you might put a medical professional in charge,” Klobuchar said to laughter from the audience at a CNN town hall.
  • A day after a raucous final debate before Saturday's key primary in the Palmetto State, Joe Biden rolled out a major endorsement from the most influential black Democrat in South Carolina, while Bernie Sanders said Biden does not have the ability to defeat President Trump in November. 'Jim, you better hope I don't win because you're going to be the busiest man in the world,' Biden told Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), just before Clyburn officially weighed in on behalf of Biden. 'I know Joe Biden. I know his character, his heart, and his record,' Clyburn said, as he urged black voters to back the former Vice President this weekend. 'We know Joe. But more importantly, he knows us,' Clyburn added. During a stop in Georgetown, a small port town up the coast from Charleston, Biden urged voters to turn out and vote on Saturday. “Take back the country - now,” Biden said, his voice rising. Before a group of local officials and voters, Biden made clear his dislike for President Trump - 'he's more George Wallace than George Washington' - and gently chided Bernie Sanders with familiar jabs on health care and gun control. 'God Bless Bernie,' Biden said, reminding voters that Sanders has made big promises which cost trillions of dollars. 'I'm not picking on Bernie or those who are for Medicare For All, I just think it's a little bit of honesty about what in fact, things are going to cost - who is going to pay for it,' Biden said. While Biden looked to consolidate his support among African-American voters, Sanders rushed across the state to sign up more people for his election crusade. 'Some of you may have recently heard that the establishment is getting very, very nervous about our movement,' Sanders said at a rally in North Charleston. While Sanders mainly focused on President Trump, the independent Senator from Vermont also added in some new jabs at Biden to Wednesday's stump speech. 'Same old, same old, is not going to do it,' Sanders said, making the argument that Biden is not going to bring enough new voters into the Democratic Party to defeat President Trump in November. 'And I say to my good friend, Joe Biden - Joe, you can't do it,' Sanders added, making the case that he is the only candidate who can win the White House. 'Joe is a friend of mine and a decent guy, but that is not the voting record or the history that is going to excite people, bring them into the political process, and beat Trump,' Sanders added. Polls in South Carolina show Biden and Sanders far ahead of the field, with only Tom Steyer - who has spent large amounts of money on advertising in this state - in striking distance of the two leaders. Steyer and Biden were about four blocks from each other in Georgetown, as Steyer spoke to a small, racially mixed crowd at a black church several blocks from the water. 'I've been here more than anyone else,' Steyer said of his attention to South Carolina, as his visits combined with a lot of television ads have propelled him into the mix here - unlike any other state so far. Steyer rattled off his work on impeachment and blasted President Trump at every opportunity, calling him incompetent. 'He stinks on the economy,' Steyer said. Only a few blocks away, both men had essentially the same message for their audiences in Georgetown. 'South Carolina gets a huge voice on Saturday,' Steyer said. 'Get up and take back the country!' Biden implored.
  • Los Angeles County firefighters responded to a large refinery fire that temporarily closed all lanes of the 405 Freeway Tuesday night in the city of Carson. KTLA-TV reports that massive flames could be seen burning from the Marathon Petroleum Corporation located 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Fire Department said the fire sparked about 10:50 p.m. An explosion went off before the fire began burning in a cooling tower at the refinery, the department said. Personnel from the refinery were keeping the flames in check through “fixed ground monitors” while working to depressurize the system, fire officials said. Authorities secured a perimeter around the refinery and did not anticipate needing to evacuate residents, officials said. Marathon is the largest refinery on the West Coast with a crude oil capacity of 363,000 barrels per calendar day, according to the company’s website. It manufactures gasoline and diesel fuel, along with distillates, petroleum coke, anode-grade coke, chemical-grade propylene, fuel-grade coke, heavy fuel oil and propane, the website says. Authorities could not immediately confirm what sparked the fire. No injuries have been reported so far.

Washington Insider

  • With less than 48 hours until the polls open on Saturday for the South Carolina Primary, several of the top candidates in the Democratic Party race on Thursday decided to leave the Palmetto State behind, and jump ahead to some of the 14 states which vote on Super Tuesday. Bernie Sanders was hitting two Super Tuesday states on Thursday, holding a late morning rally in Winston Salem, North Carolina, before going on to Richmond, Virginia, two states which vote next week. Sanders finishes Thursday with a rally at Wofford College in Spartanburg. Unlike the past few days on the stump in South Carolina, where Sanders has thrown elbows at Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden, Sanders in North Carolina instead focused his ire on President Donald Trump. 'I believe that Donald Trump is a hoax,' Sanders said, criticizing the President for his views on climate change. Along with Sanders, Elizabeth Warren was also taking a day off from the Palmetto State, as she had a rally in San Antonio. Part of Super Tuesday, Texas has not attracted a great deal of campaign attention until now, even though 228 delegates are at stake in the Lone Star State - more than the 155 delegates awarded from the first four contests combined in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. While both Warren and Sanders were going to return to South Carolina, the calculus was a bit different for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who has now wrapped up her campaign in South Carolina, and moved on to Super Tuesday states. The Minnesota Democrat started her Thursday with a voting rights roundtable in Greensboro, North Carolina. 'As much as maybe the debates may have seemed like slugfests, I want to you to remember what an exciting time this is in our politics,' Klobuchar said. “Call your friends, tell them what you heard today,” Klobuchar said at a second event in the Tar Heel State. “It is not about the biggest bank account,” Klobuchar said of the campaign.  “That's been shown time and time again.” Klobuchar will campaign Friday and Saturday in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee - all three states are on the docket for Super Tuesday.  While Klobuchar, Warren, and Sanders spent time outside South Carolina, Tom Steyer, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg were still doing campaign events in the Palmetto State on Thursday. The latest poll from Monmouth University showed a growing lead for Biden.
  • Adding another item to their election year list of grievances about President Donald Trump, the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination have stepped up their criticism of the White House response to the Coronavirus, arguing it is emblematic of what they charge is the President's haphazard method of governing. 'I am deeply concerned not just by the rise of cases of Coronavirus worldwide, but by the inadequate and incompetent response we have seen from Donald Trump and his administration,' said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). 'He has done an absolutely terrible job of responding,' Tom Steyer said of the President at a campaign stop on Wednesday in Georgetown, South Carolina.  'He is incompetent,' added Steyer, as Democrats blasted the President for proposing cuts at the Centers for Disease Control. 'The Trump administration is absolutely bungling the response,' said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), as she accused the President of 'putting our public health and our economy at risk.' In a CNN televised town hall on Wednesday night in Charleston, Mike Bloomberg joined in ridiculing the White House response. 'Number one, he fired the pandemic team two years ago,' Bloomberg said. 'Number two, he's been defunding Centers for Disease Control. So, we don't have the experts in place that we need.' The comments came as Bloomberg has already put up a campaign ad saying that he would be the perfect politician to handle such a crisis. In a separate CNN town hall, Joe Biden said the U.S. needs to challenge the Chinese more on how the government is handling the situation. 'I would not be taking China's word for it,' Biden said. “I just hope the President gets on the same page as the scientists.' Asked about the President putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the Coronavirus response, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said there might have been better choices. “I would think, usually, you might put a medical professional in charge,” Klobuchar said to laughter from the audience at a CNN town hall.
  • A day after a raucous final debate before Saturday's key primary in the Palmetto State, Joe Biden rolled out a major endorsement from the most influential black Democrat in South Carolina, while Bernie Sanders said Biden does not have the ability to defeat President Trump in November. 'Jim, you better hope I don't win because you're going to be the busiest man in the world,' Biden told Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), just before Clyburn officially weighed in on behalf of Biden. 'I know Joe Biden. I know his character, his heart, and his record,' Clyburn said, as he urged black voters to back the former Vice President this weekend. 'We know Joe. But more importantly, he knows us,' Clyburn added. During a stop in Georgetown, a small port town up the coast from Charleston, Biden urged voters to turn out and vote on Saturday. “Take back the country - now,” Biden said, his voice rising. Before a group of local officials and voters, Biden made clear his dislike for President Trump - 'he's more George Wallace than George Washington' - and gently chided Bernie Sanders with familiar jabs on health care and gun control. 'God Bless Bernie,' Biden said, reminding voters that Sanders has made big promises which cost trillions of dollars. 'I'm not picking on Bernie or those who are for Medicare For All, I just think it's a little bit of honesty about what in fact, things are going to cost - who is going to pay for it,' Biden said. While Biden looked to consolidate his support among African-American voters, Sanders rushed across the state to sign up more people for his election crusade. 'Some of you may have recently heard that the establishment is getting very, very nervous about our movement,' Sanders said at a rally in North Charleston. While Sanders mainly focused on President Trump, the independent Senator from Vermont also added in some new jabs at Biden to Wednesday's stump speech. 'Same old, same old, is not going to do it,' Sanders said, making the argument that Biden is not going to bring enough new voters into the Democratic Party to defeat President Trump in November. 'And I say to my good friend, Joe Biden - Joe, you can't do it,' Sanders added, making the case that he is the only candidate who can win the White House. 'Joe is a friend of mine and a decent guy, but that is not the voting record or the history that is going to excite people, bring them into the political process, and beat Trump,' Sanders added. Polls in South Carolina show Biden and Sanders far ahead of the field, with only Tom Steyer - who has spent large amounts of money on advertising in this state - in striking distance of the two leaders. Steyer and Biden were about four blocks from each other in Georgetown, as Steyer spoke to a small, racially mixed crowd at a black church several blocks from the water. 'I've been here more than anyone else,' Steyer said of his attention to South Carolina, as his visits combined with a lot of television ads have propelled him into the mix here - unlike any other state so far. Steyer rattled off his work on impeachment and blasted President Trump at every opportunity, calling him incompetent. 'He stinks on the economy,' Steyer said. Only a few blocks away, both men had essentially the same message for their audiences in Georgetown. 'South Carolina gets a huge voice on Saturday,' Steyer said. 'Get up and take back the country!' Biden implored.
  • For the first time in the 2020 Democratic Party race for President, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took the brunt of the attacks on stage, as the front runner was bluntly accused of being so liberal on a variety of issues that a Sanders nomination would cause more moderate Democrats in Congress to lose their seats in Congress. 'They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can,' Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said to Sanders, drawing cheers from the debate audience. The verbal battle got so heated at times - as the CBS moderators struggled to keep control of the debate - that Buttigieg, Sanders, and others simply talked over each other repeatedly, making it hard to hear what was going on. Here's a quick look at how each of the seven candidates fared on stage Tuesday night. + BERNIE SANDERS. Sanders might have been bloodied, but he certainly wasn't beaten down by the other Democrats on stage, though the independent Vermont Senator seemed to be tiring of the attacks late in the debate, as he yelled more and more loudly. 'Hey, Amy,' he roared at one point, trying to push back at Amy Klobuchar. 'Really?' Sanders said as he was jeered at one point by the audience - another time Sanders was booed when he criticized Joe Biden while debating gun control. But whether it was his words about Fidel Castro and Cuba, or his plans for Medicare For All, Sanders was not apologizing for where he's been - or where he wants to go. + JOE BIDEN. Biden did not mince any words when pressed about how he needed to do on Saturday in South Carolina. 'I will win,' the former Vice President said, in a Joe Namath Super Bowl victory guarantee. It may have been Biden's best debate so far, as he jabbed at Sanders repeatedly - 'Bernie in fact hasn't passed much of anything' - and again raised questions about how Sanders has dealt with gun control legislation. When the debates began last summer, Biden would always nicely follow the rules and stop talking when his time was up. But by debate number ten on Tuesday night, he was done with that. 'Why am I stopping? No one else stops,' Biden told the CBS moderators. + ELIZABETH WARREN. Warren had the most unique game plan at the debate, as she spent very little time talking about why she would be good as President, but spent a lot of time trashing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Every chance Warren got, she turned a topic into a referendum on Bloomberg. Why hasn't he released his taxes. What about non-disclosure agreements with his employees. She accused Bloomberg of racism on housing. In fact, Warren's attacks went so far that some in the crowd jeered her at one point as she launched a new attack on Bloomberg. The closest she got to saying anything bad about Sanders was when she said, 'Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better President than Bernie.' + PETE BUTTIGIEG. Maybe the most effective in leading the charge against Sanders in the debate was Buttigieg, as the two often talked over each other in a battle of wits between the 78 year old Senator and the 38 year old Mayor. Buttigieg mocked the idea that Sanders could win in November, portraying his nomination as a toxic brew which could cost Democrats control of the House, and the defeat of dozens of more moderate Democratic lawmakers elected in 2018. 'Stop acting like the presidency is the only office that matters,' Buttigieg chastised Sanders. One thing Buttigieg did not repeat from last week in Las Vegas was his mini battles with Amy Klobuchar. + AMY KLOBUCHAR. While Amy Klobuchar repeatedly tried to explain how she had been working on issues big and small in the Congress, she did not pull any punches about Bernie Sanders, joining attacks from others that Sanders could be a big liability in November up and down the ballot. 'I like Bernie,' Klobuchar said. 'But I do not believe this is the best person to lead the ticket.'  Klobuchar will campaign in South Carolina on Wednesday, but then leave the state to look for votes in some of the states which vote on Super Tuesday, March 3. + TOM STEYER. While Steyer is not a major force around the country, he has been polling strongly in third place here in the Palmetto State - which means that his debate effort could have a bigger impact on Saturday's vote. Steyer has also made some inroads in the black community in South Carolina, maybe grabbing some votes away from Joe Biden. Both men will be campaigning within a few blocks of each other on Wednesday. + MICHAEL BLOOMBERG. In his second debate, Bloomberg did not repeat his first debate performance, which was widely panned, though he struggled to deliver some one liners which fell flat.  During this debate, Bloomberg again found himself under fire from Elizabeth Warren, but tried to use his time on the debate stage to raise questions about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump instead. Remember - Bloomberg is not even on the ballot in South Carolina, as he is focused on the Super Tuesday states of March 3.
  • While Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took the most flak at Tuesday night's Democratic Party debate in South Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) ran against the grain of others on stage, repeatedly attacking Michael Bloomberg as she did in a debate last week in Nevada. 'I don't care how much money Mayor Bloomberg has,' Warren said at one point in the debate. 'The core of the Democratic Party will never trust him.' 'Is Warren running to win the nomination or to be Bernie’s wingman?' tweeted political analyst Stu Rothenberg, as Warren spent more time attacking Bloomberg than talking about why she should be President. 'Warren can slay Bloomberg, but what does she get out of it?' said Joe Lockhart, a former White House Press Secretary under President Barack Obama. In one exchange with Bloomberg, Warren pressed the former New York mayor so much that some in the crowd began jeering the Massachusetts Senator. As the debate began, Warren made the case that she was the better progressive choice than Sanders, but did not try to tear down the Independent Senator from Vermont. 'Bernie and I agree on a lot of things, but I think I would make a better president than Bernie,' Warren said. 'Progressives have got one shot. And we need to spend it with a leader who will get something done,' Warren added, as the closest she came to criticizing Sanders directly came as she accused Sanders aides of attacking her. 'And then Bernie's team trashed me for it,' Warren said. But after that - it was almost all about Bloomberg. The polls in South Carolina have not shown much in the way of promise for Warren, as she's been mired in a battle for fourth place with Pete Buttigieg, well behind Joe Biden, Sanders, and Tom Steyer.