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Trump Announces Ramped Up Counternarcotics Operations During Coronavirus Briefing

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  • At the top of Wednesday’s coronavirus press briefing, President Trump announced plans to double U.S military resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to ramp up efforts against drug cartels.
  • The operation is also viewed as part of increased pushes to add strain on Venezuela’s leader Nicolás Maduro, who the U.S does not recognize as the country’s legitimate president. 
  • CNN and MSNBC cut away from the briefing during the announcement after considering it off-topic, with some reporters criticizing Trump for abusing the pandemic briefings for other political measures. 

Announcement 

President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. is enhancing its focus on drug cartels and counternarcotics operations in an unusual start to the White House’s daily coronavirus press briefings. 

“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there’s a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit this situation for their own gain, and we must not let that happen. We will never let that happen,” the President said. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the U.S. was doubling military resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to combat the flow of illicit drugs.

“Included in the force package are Navy destroyers and combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, P-8 patrol aircraft and elements of an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade,” Esper added.

President Trump explained that the U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption and seizures of drug shipments, and provide other support for eradication efforts. He also said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations. 

Pressure on Venezuela 

The timing of the announcement came as a bit of a surprise since the coronavirus briefings are usually dedicated to the pandemic response efforts, but officials drew a link between the spreading virus and the new military operation. 

Esper said criminal organizations are trying to capitalize on the fact that governments are distracted by the outbreak. He suggested that deploying the military vessels and ramping up pressure on cartels is also meant to put added strain on Venezuela’s embattled leader Nicolás Maduro. 

The United States and dozens of other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president after considering Maduro’s 2018 re-election a sham. Still, Maduro has remained in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, and Cuba.

“Corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power,” Esper said. “The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro’s criminal control over the country.”

But experts say the enhanced mission has been months in the making as the U.S. increases efforts to oust Maduro. Last week, the U.S. indicted him on charges including drug trafficking while offering a $15 million reward for his arrest and conviction. And on Tuesday, the Trump administration even offered to begin lifting sanctions on the country if the opposition and members of Maduro’s Socialist Party form an interim government without him.

After President Trump announced his new anti-drug efforts, Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s information minister, said the operation was an attempt to divert attention from the U.S. government’s “erratic handling of the coronavirus crisis.” However, he added, “if it is a serious effort to stop drug trafficking, we are willing to collaborate.” 

Networks Turn Away During Announcement 

According to Deadline, CNN and MSNBC each turned their broadcasts away as Trump made the announcement. It was reported that the networks found it off-topic, especially as Trump began to talk about the construction of the wall along the southern border.  

CNN’s John King seemed annoyed by the timing of the announcement, accusing Trump of abusing the briefings for other measures during a time when American’s are learning that 200,000 could die from the virus.

“When you are an incumbent president, to bring that into a briefing in the middle of a pandemic, the day after the incredibly sobering news the administration rightfully delivered to the American people yesterday, is shameless and it’s political.”

“The president has other opportunities to do this. There are 24 hours in a day. He has all the buildings of the government still at his disposal,” he continued. 

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd shared similar criticism, saying “If President Trump had important coronavirus news to tell us, it must not have trumped this.”

Both networks eventually returned to the briefing once the focus shifted solely to the pandemic, however, each broke away again before it ended. 

Some networks and journalists have been debating in recent weeks whether or not they should be airing the briefings live. They argue that at times, the President has used rhetoric seen in his campaign rallies and often dispells inaccurate information that is impossible to fact check in real-time. 

On the other side, some have said cutting briefings amounts to censorship. The networks have already faced backlash from White House officials and the Republican National Comittee for previous times they have cut away. 

See what others are saying: (Deadline) (Bloomberg) (Reuters)  

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Supreme Court Sides With High School Cheerleader Punished for Cursing on Snapchat

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The justices ruled that the student’s year-long suspension from her school’s cheer team over an expletive-filled Snapchat was too severe because her post was not disruptive.


SCOTUS Rules in Free Speech Case

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment when it handed a cheerleader a year-long suspension from her team after she sent friends an expletive-filled Snapchat outside school grounds.

The case in question centered around a snap sent in 2017 by now-18-year-old Brandi Levy in which she expressed frustration at not making her high school’s varsity cheer squad. The snap, sent on a Saturday from a convenience store, shows Levy and a friend flipping off the camera with the caption: “F— school, f— softball, f— cheer, f— everything.” 

That post was sent to around 250 people, including other cheerleaders at her school. When her coaches were alerted to the post, they suspended her from cheerleading for a year.

Levy and her family, represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district, arguing that it had no right to punish her for off-campus speech.

A federal appeals court agreed with that argument, ruling that schools could not regulate speech outside school grounds. That decision marked the first time that an appeals court had issued such a broad interpretation of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 student speech ruling.

In that case, SCOTUS allowed students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, declaring that they do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

The high court did specify that disruptive speech on school grounds could be punished.

Off-Campus Speech Questions Left Unresolved

In Wednesday’s decision, the justices agreed that Levy’s punishment was too severe because her speech did not meet the test of being disruptive. However, they did not uphold the appeals court decision that schools never have a role in disciplining students for off-campus speech.

“The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion for the court’s majority. “Thus, we do not now set forth a broad, highly general First Amendment rule stating just what counts as ‘off campus’ speech and whether or how ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus.”

Breyer also added that specific question would be left for “future cases.”

In the sole dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas objected to that approach, arguing that Levy’s language met the threshold for speech that is disruptive and thus can be regulated off-campus based on past precedent. His colleagues’ ruling, he wrote, “is untethered from anything stable, and courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the court’s opinion today means.”

Both opinions are significant because while the majority decision focused more narrowly on whether the speech, in this case, was disruptive, the justices appear to be opening up space for a case that centers more specifically around the power of schools to regulate student speech off-campus.

Still, Levy and the ACLU cheered the decision as a victory for student speech off-campus, despite the court’s lack of ruling on the subject.

“Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school,” Levy said in a statement.

“The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered ‘disruptive,’ regardless of where it occurs,” ACLU’s legal director David Cole added in separate remarks. “If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people’s speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The Associated Press)

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Biden To Outline Actions Aimed at Combatting the Recent Rise in Violent Crime and Gun Violence

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The president’s orders come the same day the Associated Press released data showing that a record number of gun sales were stopped last year because of background checks. 


President Biden Issues Orders on Violent Crime Rise

President Biden will outline several actions on Wednesday that his administration plans to take to curb the recent rise in violent crime and gun violence. 

That includes tougher enforcement policies for federal gun control laws, as well as new guidelines for how cities and states can use COVID-19 relief funds to combat gun violence. For instance, those guidelines will allow for the hiring of more police officers, paying officers overtime, buying equipment, and funding additional “enforcement efforts.” 

Biden’s plan also includes investing in community-based intervention programs for both potential perpetrators and potential victims of gun violence and helping felons adjust to housing and work after leaving prison.

Background Checks Stop Record Number of Sales

Hours ahead of Biden’s announcement, the Associated Press reported that background checks blocked a record 300,000 gun sales last year, according to newly obtained FBI data provided by a nonprofit that advocates for gun control.

In fact, the numbers are staggering compared to previous years. For example, background checks that successfully blocked gun sales last year amounted to nearly twice that of 2019. 

Notably, about 42% of those blocked sales were explicitly because would-be buyers had felony convictions on their records. 

Still, it’s important to note that these stats don’t necessarily mean less guns are being successfully bought. While the rate of barred buyers has increased somewhat from around 0.6% to 0.8% since 2018, the U.S. also saw a record number of gun sales last year.

Nearly 23 million guns were bought in 2020 alone, according to the consulting firm Small Arms Analytics. Alongside that record, the country saw another record when it came to the rate of gun violence. 

Because of that, Everytown for Gun Safety — the group that gave the AP the new background check data — reiterated its belief in the need for stronger gun control regulation.

“There’s no question that background checks work, but the system is working overtime to prevent a record number of people with dangerous prohibitors from being able to buy firearms,” Sarah Burd-Sharps, the group’s director of research, told the AP. “The loopholes in the law allow people to avoid the system, even if they just meet online or at a gun show for the first time.” 

Unsurprisingly, gun rights advocates have pushed against that idea, and some have even pushed against this new data on background checks. As Alan Gottlieb — founder of the group the Second Amendment Foundation — argued, the higher number of denials could be partially because of false positives.

“A day doesn’t go by that our office doesn’t get complaint calls from people who’ve been denied wrongly,” he told the AP.

See what others are saying: (USA Today) (Associated Press) (Reuters)

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California Plans Unprecedented $5.2 Billion Rent Forgiveness Program

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State lawmakers are also debating on whether to extend the eviction moratorium, which is set to end next week, to ensure that Californians are not evicted before their debts can be paid off by the state.


Rent Relief in the Works

The California State Legislature is in the final stages of negotiating an unprecedented $5.2 billion rent forgiveness program to pay off unpaid rent accumulated during the pandemic.

It is not entirely clear yet who would receive the money, which comes from an unexpected budget surplus and federal stimulus funds. After speaking to a top aide for Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the Associated Press reported that the $5.2 billion figure would cover all rent.

However, the same aide told The New York Times that the state had federal funds “to help pay the rent of low-income people.”

The outlet also explicitly reported that the program “would be available to residents who earn no more than 80 percent of the median income in their area and who can show pandemic-related financial hardship.”

Newsom offered little clarity, retweeting multiple stories and posts on the matter, including The Times article as well as others that said “all” rent would be paid.

Regardless, the program would be the most generous rent forgiveness plan in American. Still, there remains an unresolved question of extending the statewide eviction moratorium that ends June 30.

Eviction Ban Complications

Starting the new program and distributing all the money will take some time, and California has been struggling to keep up with demand for more modest rent relief programs.

According to a report from the California Department Housing and Community Development, just $32 million of $490 million in requests for rental assistance through the end of May had been paid.

State legislators are debating extending the protections and are reportedly close to a deal, but nothing is set in stone yet.

Tenants rights groups say the move is necessary to ensure struggling Californians are not evicted before their debts can be paid off by the state, and some housing advocates want to keep the moratorium in place until employment has reached pre-pandemic levels.

Landlords, however, have said it is time to end the ban, pointing to the state’s rapid economic recovery, which added 495,000 new jobs since February, as well as Newsom lifting all restrictions on businesses last week. 

But according to Opportunity Insights, an economic tracker based at Harvard, while it is true that employment for middle- and high-wage jobs has now surpassed pre-pandemic levels, the rates for low-income workers are down nearly 40% since January of last year.

As a result, many of the people who have months or even a year of unpaid rent have barely been able to chip away at what they owe.

State Recovery Spurred by Revenue Surplus

Newsom’s new program comes as the governor has proposed a $100 billion recovery package — also drawing from the budget surplus and unspent federal funds — that would pour funds into numerous sectors including education, homelessness, and much more.

California is not the only state that has newfound reserves. According to The Times, at least 22 states have surplus revenue after pinching pennies during the pandemic. Some are still deciding what to do with the funding, but others have already begun to invest it into education, construction, the arts, and more.

While many economists have said these funds will be incredibly helpful tools to get economic recovery back on track and aid those hurt most by the pandemic, Republicans in Congress have argued to those surpluses should go towards paying for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

The Biden Administration and most Congressional Democrats have remained adamant that the states keep their extra funding to implement recovery-centered programs. White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons reiterated that belief Monday, telling reporters that state surpluses will not alter America’s infrastructure needs and emphasizing that many states are still struggling economically.

“This crisis has adversely impacted state and local governments, and that is not fully captured by one economic indicator,” she said.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Associated Press) (The Hill)

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