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

Last Updated Sep 16, 2020 at 9:18 pm PDT

At least 1 dead, hundreds rescued after Hurricane Sally

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Sally lumbered ashore near the Florida-Alabama line Wednesday with 105 mph (165 kph) winds and rain measured in feet, not inches, killing at least one person, swamping homes and forcing the rescue of hundreds as it pushed inland for what could be a slow and disastrous drenching across the Deep South.

The death happened in Orange Beach, Alabama, according to Mayor Tony Kennon, who also told The Associated Press that one person was missing. Kennon said he couldn’t immediately release details.

Moving at just 3 mph (5 kph), or about as fast as a person can walk, the storm made landfall at 4:45 a.m. close to Gulf Shores, Alabama, about 30 miles (50 kilometres) from Pensacola, Florida. It accelerated to a light jog as it battered the Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama, metropolitan areas encompassing nearly 1 million people.

Sally cast boats onto land or sank them at the dock, flattened palm trees, peeled away roofs, blew down signs and knocked out power to more than 540,000 homes and businesses. A replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Nina that had been docked at the Pensacola waterfront was missing, police said.

Sally tore loose a barge-mounted construction crane, which then smashed into the new Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, causing a section of the year-old span to collapse, authorities said. The storm also ripped away a large section of a fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf State Park on the very day a ribbon-cutting had been scheduled following a $2.4 million renovation.

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Trump disputes health officials, sees mass vaccinations soon

WASHINGTON (AP) — Openly contradicting the government’s top health experts, President Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus could be ready as early as next month and in mass distribution soon after, undermining the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and calling him “confused” in projecting a longer time frame.

Trump also disagreed with Dr. Robert Redfield about the effectiveness of protective masks — which the president recommends but almost never wears — and said he’d telephoned Redfield to tell him so.

Earlier in the day, the CDC sent all 50 states a “playbook” for distribution of a vaccine to all Americans free of cost when one is proven safe and effective — which is not yet the case. Redfield told a congressional hearing that health care workers, first responders and others at high risk would get the vaccine first, perhaps in January or even late this year, but it was unlikely to be available more broadly, again assuming approval, before late spring or summer.

Redfield, masked at times in a Senate hearing room, also spoke emphatically of the importance of everyone wearing protective masks to stop the pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans. He floated the possibility that a vaccine might be 70% effective in inducing immunity, and said, “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”

Trump would have none of that from the CDC director.

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Health official on leave amid political interference furor

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Trump health appointee is taking a leave of absence after allegations of political interference in the federal coronavirus response, followed by a personal video that warned of election violence and all but equated science with resistance.

Michael Caputo has decided to take 60 days “to focus on his health and the well-being of his family,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.

Fiercely loyal to President Donald Trump, Caputo had been serving as the department’s top spokesman, a post that usually is not overtly political. He was installed by the White House in April during a period of tense relations with the president’s health secretary, Alex Azar.

Caputo, who has no health care background, was the subject of news reports last weekend that he tried to gain editorial control over a scientific weekly published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was followed by reports about a video he hosted on his Facebook page in which he likened government scientists to a “resistance” against Trump and warned that shooting would break out if Trump won the election and Democrat Joe Biden refused to concede.

Caputo’s declarations came as Azar and other top health care officials are trying to convince skeptical Americans that science will have the final say in the approval of coronavirus vaccines. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had called for his resignation; Republican senators remained publicly silent.

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Report: Feds considered using ‘heat ray’ on DC protesters

WASHINGTON (AP) — A military whistleblower says federal officials sought some unusual crowd control devices — including one that’s been called a “heat ray” — to deal with protesters outside the White House on the June day that law enforcement forcibly cleared Lafayette Square.

In written responses to questions from a House committee, National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco said the Defence Department’s lead military police officer for the National Capital Region sent an email asking if the D.C. National Guard possessed a long-range acoustic device — used to transmit loud noises — or an “Active Denial System,” the so-called heat ray.

DeMarco said he responded that the Guard was not in possession of either device. National Public Radio and The Washington Post first reported DeMarco’s testimony.

Use of either the acoustic device or the Active Denial System would have been a significant escalation of crowd control for the Guard members, particularly since the Defence officials ordered that the Guard troops not be armed when they went into D.C.

Law enforcement personnel were armed. And although active-duty military troops were sent to the region, they remained at bases outside the District in case they were needed but never actually entered the District.

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Barr takes aim at prosecutors inside his own Justice Dept.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr took aim at his own Justice Department on Wednesday night, criticizing prosecutors for behaving as “headhunters” in their pursuit of prominent targets and for using the weight of the criminal justice system to launch what he said were “ill-conceived” political probes.

The comments at a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan amounted to a striking, and unusual, rebuke of the thousands of prosecutors who do the daily work of assembling criminal cases across the country. Barr has faced scrutiny for overruling the decisions of Justice Department prosecutors who work for him, including in criminal cases involving associates of President Donald Trump.

Rejecting the notion that prosecutors should have final say in cases that they bring, Barr described them instead as part of the “permanent bureaucracy” and suggested they need to be supervised, and even reined in, by politically appointed leaders accountable to the president and Congress.

“The men and women who have ultimate authority in the Justice Department are thus the ones on whom our elected officials have conferred that responsibility — by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation,” Barr said, according to his prepared remarks. “That blessing by the two political branches of government gives these officials democratic legitimacy that career officials simply do not possess.”

Barr himself has been aggressive as attorney general in pursuing certain categories of prosecutions, including using federal statutes to charge defendants in the unrest that roiled cities after the death of George Floyd. But he warned that prosecutors can become overly attached to their cases in ways that lose perspective and judgment, listing a series of prosecutions — including under prior administrations — in which he said he believed the government had taken extreme positions.

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Police reforms in Breonna Taylor case praised, scrutinized

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A settlement between the family of Breonna Taylor and the city of Louisville could bring wide-ranging reforms to how police officers live and work, changes that would represent a rare outcome in a police misconduct lawsuit.

But some activists hoping for deep, lasting change fear reforms won’t be enough if not accompanied by community input and criminal charges against the officers involved in Taylor’s death. And a legal expert noted that even the most wide-ranging of reforms won’t succeed if the people entrusted with implementing them aren’t onboard.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer outlined what he described as “significant” reforms on Tuesday as part of an announcement that the city would pay $12 million to Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.

The measures include giving officers housing credits to live in the neighbourhoods they police; requiring that only high-ranking commanders approve search warrant requests; involving social workers to help resolve situations when necessary; and additional drug testing for officers.

“I’ve worked on a lot of different cases,” said Pete Kraska, a criminal justice expert and professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. “I’ve not seen a settlement that included a set of reforms like this one did. I think it’s a good first step.”

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In `law and order’ debate, data can be moulded to suit moment

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Donald Trump points to spiking crime and delivers stark statistics on murders and shootings as part of his “law and order” campaign emphasis that suggests cities are overrun with violence that only he can stop.

Several cities have seen a sobering surge in murders this summer, but those numbers are only a small snapshot of crime in the United States, and his strategy is highlighting how data can be easily moulded to suit the moment.

At a televised town hall event Tuesday for undecided voters in Pennsylvania, Trump spoke about how he believed crime was soaring in cities after nationwide protests against police brutality. He has tried to link the violence to the protests, and is trying to leverage the violence to scare white, suburban voters and encourage them to back his reelection campaign.

“Look at New York,” Trump said. “The city was safe, and then all of a sudden we have a mayor who starts cutting the police force and crime is up 100%, 150%. I saw one form of crime up 300%”

Trump may have been talking about shootings. They are up in New York by about 86% so far this year, but overall, crime is down about 2%, and there are about 34,000 uniformed officers, about the same as in recent years. Murders are up 35%, but there were 305 killings compared with 226, still low compared with years past.

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Fed sees rates near zero through 2023, perhaps longer

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the economy still struggling to recover from the pandemic recession, Federal Reserve policymakers signalled Wednesday that their benchmark short-term interest rate will likely remain at zero at least through 2023 and possibly even longer.

Fed chair Jerome Powell said at a press conference that while the economy has rebounded more quickly than expected, the job market is still hurting and the outlook is uncertain. The unemployment rate has fallen steadily since the spring but is still 8.4%.

“Although we welcome this progress we will not lose sight of the millions of Americans that remain out of work,” Powell said.

The Fed left its benchmark interest rate unchanged at nearly zero, where it has been pegged since the virus pandemic intensified in March. The rate influences borrowing costs for homebuyers, credit card users, and businesses. Fed policymakers hope an extended period of low interest rates will encourage more borrowing and spending, though their policy also carries the risk of inflating a bubble in stocks or other financial assets.

Fed officials said in a set of quarterly economic projections that they expect to keep rates at zero through 2023. And in a statement released after its two-day meeting, the Fed said it wouldn’t raise borrowing costs until inflation has reached 2% and appears likely to “moderately exceed” that level for an extended period.

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US charges 5 Chinese citizens in global hacking campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department has charged five Chinese citizens with hacks targeting more than 100 companies and institutions in the United States and abroad, including social media and video game companies as well as universities and telecommunications providers, officials said Wednesday.

The five defendants remain fugitives, but prosecutors say two Malaysian businessmen charged with conspiring with the alleged hackers to profit off the attacks on the billion-dollar video game industry were arrested in Malaysia this week and now face extradition proceedings.

The indictments are part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to call out cybercrimes by China. In July, prosecutors accused hackers of working with the Chinese government to target companies developing vaccines for the coronavirus and of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world.

Though those allegations were tailored to the pandemic, the charges announced Wednesday — and the range of victims identified — were significantly broader and involved attacks done both for monetary gain but also more conventional espionage purposes.

In unsealing three related indictments, officials laid out a wide-ranging hacking scheme targeting a variety of business sectors and academia and carried out by a China-based group known as APT41. That group has been tracked over the last year by the cybersecurity firm Mandiant Threat Intelligence, which described the hackers as prolific and successful at blending criminal and espionage operations.

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Carrie Underwood, Thomas Rhett tie for top prize at ACMs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In surprise twist that fit an unexpected year of firsts, Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett tied for entertainer of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the first time the top prize has ever been split between two artists.

Underwood and Rhett seemed equally surprised after host Keith Urban announced the tie at the awards show held at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee, on Wednesday.

“Keith, what is happening right now?” Rhett asked, astounded, before thanking his family. Underwood appeared right after him remarking, “2020, right?” before adding, “I am more than happy to share this with Thomas Rhett.”

The show on CBS had been delayed for months because of the pandemic, was moved from Las Vegas to Nashville for the first time and held without audiences in empty venues. There was a lot of anticipation for the show, which featured Taylor Swift making her first appearance at the ACMs in seven years.

Underwood’s win is her third total in that category and Rhett’s first win. Coincidentally, a woman hasn’t won that award since 2011 when Swift last won it.

The Associated Press