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AP News in Brief at 11:04 p.m. EDT

September 17, 2020 - 8:04 PM

Lightning storm, easterly wind: How the wildfires got so bad

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — It began as a stunning light show on a mid-August weekend — lightning bolts crackling in the skies over Northern and Central California, touching down in grasslands and vineyards.

The National Weather Service warned that the dry lightning striking a parched landscape “could lead to new wildfire.”

It turned out to be a huge understatement. Thousands of bolts ignited hundreds of fires in California and at least one in Oregon, setting the stage for some of the most destructive wildfires the West Coast states have seen in modern times.

One month later, firefighters are still battling them, and at least 34 people have died in California, Oregon and Washington.

“What really was jaw dropping for people was the fact that this really changed the paradigm that people have in terms of their sense of security,” said Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Jim Gersbach. “These burned so close to populated areas, driven by this wind — basically unstoppable.”

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Rescuers reach people cut off by Gulf Coast hurricane

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Rescuers on the Gulf Coast used boats and high-water vehicles Thursday to reach people cut off by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally, even as a second round of flooding took shape along rivers and creeks swollen by the storm’s heavy rains.

Across southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, homeowners and businesses began cleaning up, and officials inspected bridges and highways for safety, a day after Sally rolled through with 105 mph (165 kph) winds, a surge of seawater and 1 to 2 1/2 feet (0.3 to 0.8 metres) of rain in many places before it began to break up.

Sally's remnants were expected to move into the Atlantic within 24 hours. A rainmaker to the end, what was left of the storm was forecast to dump as much as 8 inches (20 centimetres) in parts of the Carolinas and southern Virginia, prompting warnings of flash flooding and moderate river flooding. As much as 8 inches of rain fell in central Georgia.

In hard-hit Pensacola and surrounding Escambia County, where Sally’s floodwaters had coursed through downtown streets and lapped at car door handles on Wednesday before receding, authorities went door-to-door to check on residents and warn them they were not out of danger.

“Please, please, we’re not out of the woods even if we’ve got beautiful skies today,” said Escambia County emergency manager Eric Gilmore.

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Justice Dept.: Sedition charge may apply to protest violence

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a memo to U.S. attorneys Thursday obtained by The Associated Press, the Justice Department emphasized that federal prosecutors should aggressively go after demonstrators who cause violence — and even sedition charges could potentially apply.

The sedition statute doesn't require proof of a plot to overthrow the government, the memo read. It instead could be used when a defendant tries to oppose the government’s authority by force.

Attorney General William Barr has been pushing his U.S. attorneys to bring federal charges in protest-related violence whenever they can, keeping a grip on cases even if a defendant could be tried instead in state court. Federal convictions often result in longer prison sentences; sedition alone could lead to up to 20 years behind bars.

The memo cited as a hypothetical example “a group has conspired to take a federal courthouse or other federal property by force,” but the real thing took place in Portland, Oregon, during clashes that erupted night after night between law enforcement and demonstrators.

Justice officials also explored whether it could pursue either criminal or civil rights charges against city officials there, spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told The AP. She would not say whether charges were still being considered.

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At town hall, Biden blasts Trump's 'criminal' virus response

MOOSIC, Pa. (AP) — Joe Biden on Thursday went after President Donald Trump again and again over his handling of COVID-19, calling Trump's downplaying of the pandemic “criminal” and his administration “totally irresponsible."

“You’ve got to level with the American people — shoot from the shoulder. There’s not been a time they’ve not been able to step up. The president should step down,” the Democratic presidential nominee said to applause from a CNN drive-in town hall crowd in Moosic, outside his hometown of Scranton.

Speaking about Trump’s admission that he publicly played down the impact of the virus while aware of its severity, Biden declared: “He knew it and did nothing. It’s close to criminal."

Later, Biden decried Americans' loss of basic “freedoms" as the U.S. has struggled to contain the pandemic, like the ability to go to a ballgame or walk around their neighbourhoods. “I never, ever thought I would see just such a thoroughly, totally irresponsible administration," he said.

Biden faced a half-dozen questions about the coronavirus and a potential vaccine in the town hall from moderator Anderson Cooper and audience members. The pandemic was not just the main topic of the night — it was the cause of the unusual format of the event: a drive-in with 35 cars outside PNC Field.

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Trump downplays legacy of slavery in appeal to white voters

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump intensified efforts to appeal to his core base of white voters on Thursday by downplaying the historical legacy of slavery in the United States and blasting efforts to address systemic racism as divisive.

The president’s comments marking the 233rd anniversary of the signing of the Constitution amounted to a defence of white culture and a denunciation of Democrats, the media and others who he accused of trying to indoctrinate school children and shame their parents’ “whiteness.”

He also argued that America's founding “set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism and built the most fair, equal and prosperous nation in human history.” But he did not mention the 246 years of slavery in America, including the 89 years it was allowed to continue after the colonies declared independence from England. Nor did the president acknowledge the ongoing fight against racial injustice and police brutality, which has prompted months of protests this year.

Trump has long fanned the nation's culture wars, including defending the display of the Confederate battle flag and monuments of Civil War rebels from protesters seeking their removal. His speech Thursday suggested his rhetoric could become even more pointed in the final weeks before the election, given that his path to a second term relies largely on energizing culturally conservative white voters.

“For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness. But they are wrong,” Trump said. “There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children — and patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

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US judge blocks Postal Service changes that slowed mail

SEATTLE (AP) — A U.S. judge on Thursday blocked controversial Postal Service changes that have slowed mail nationwide, calling them “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” before the November election.

Judge Stanley Bastian in Yakima, Washington, said he was issuing a nationwide preliminary injunction sought by 14 states that sued the Trump administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

The states challenged the Postal Service's so-called “leave behind” policy, where trucks have been leaving postal facilities on time regardless of whether there is more mail to load. They also sought to force the Postal Service to treat election mail as first class mail.

The judge noted after a hearing that Trump had repeatedly attacked voting by mail by making unfounded claims that it is rife with fraud. Many more voters are expected to vote by mail this November because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the states have expressed concern that delays might result in voters not receiving ballots or registration forms in time.

“The states have demonstrated the defendants are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service," Bastian said.

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Photos fuel concerns over in-custody death of La. Black man

Graphic photos that surfaced online this week appear to show deep bruises on the face of a Black man who died following a police chase in Louisiana last year, raising new questions about whether his injuries were caused by the crash that ended the chase or an ensuing struggle with state troopers.

Separately, the family of 49-year-old Ronald Greene released images of the SUV involved in the May 2019 crash — showing that the vehicle appeared to have sustained only minor damage to its driver’s side.

The juxtaposition fueled calls for State Police to release body-camera footage of the chase and what the agency recently acknowledged was a “struggle” to take Greene into custody after he drove off the road in rural northern Louisiana near Monroe. State Police have declined to release the video or comment on the photos due to ongoing investigations of Greene’s death.

“These photos are atrocious,” said Eugene W. Collins, president of the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP, who posted images of Greene's body on his Facebook page. “We have to believe that, from Day One, the Louisiana State Police were not honest with the public.”

The two graphic photos — which appear to have been taken in a medical setting and show apparent bruises and cuts to Greene’s face and scalp — had previously been shared on social media by his family. Attorneys for Greene’s family say it was not immediately clear where the photos came from but that they were consistent with the injuries identified in an independent autopsy they commissioned. Portions of it provided to The Associated Press describe “blunt force injuries to the head/face; facial lacerations, abrasions, contusions” and multiple “scalp lacerations.”

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Comey to testify before Senate panel weeks before election

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former FBI Director James Comey will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 30, appearing just a month before the presidential election as Republicans have tried to make the case that he and his agency conspired against Donald Trump in 2016.

Comey, whom Trump fired in May 2017, will be a featured witness in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham’s investigation into the origins of the Justice Department’s Russia probe. The president has long tried to discredit that investigation, which concluded with a 2018 report by special counsel Robert Mueller, calling it a “hoax.” Graham said he also invited Mueller to testify but that Mueller had declined.

Mueller's probe found multiple contacts between the campaign and Russia but said there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the two. His report also examined several instances in which Trump tried to obstruct his investigation but said he could not come to a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.

Republicans have turned their attention to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general last year that found multiple errors and omissions in the applications the FBI submitted to conduct surveillance on a former Trump campaign aide early in that investigation. Republicans, and Trump himself, have repeatedly said they believe the department was conspiring against the president before and after the election.

Democrats have argued that the errors in the surveillance do not invalidate the Russia investigation, as the internal Justice Department report said the FBI was justified in opening the investigation and found no evidence that it acted with political bias. They have also slammed Graham’s investigation, along with a separate probe by the GOP-led Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, as an election-year attempt to bolster Trump.

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Infection rates soar in college towns as students return

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Just two weeks after students started returning to Ball State University last month, the surrounding county had become Indiana’s coronavirus epicenter.

Out of nearly 600 students tested for the virus, more than half have been positive. Dozens of infections have been blamed on off-campus parties, prompting university officials to admonish students.

University President Geoffrey Mearns wrote that the cases apparently were tied not to classrooms or dormitories but to “poor personal choices some students are making, primarily off campus.”

"The actions of these students are putting our planned on-campus instruction and activities at risk,” he said.

Similar examples abound in other college towns across the nation. Among the 50 U.S. counties with the highest concentrations of students and overall populations of at least 50,000, 20 have consistently reported higher rates of new virus cases than their states have since Sept. 1, according to an Associated Press analysis.

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Comeback Heat do it again, rally past Celtics for 2-0 lead

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Down by 14 in Game 1, the Miami Heat found a way.

Down by 17 in Game 2, they did it again Thursday night. And after making the Boston Celtics lose another big lead on the court — as well as their cool in the postgame locker room — the unheralded Heat are two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Goran Dragic scored 25 points, Bam Adebayo led a big third-quarter rally to finish with 21, and the Heat pulled off another comeback to beat the Celtics 106-101 and take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

“We got grit," Adebayo said. “That’s about all I can tell you. We got grit, man."

Duncan Robinson scored 18 points, Jimmy Butler had 14, Jae Crowder 12 and Tyler Herro 11. The Heat were down by 17 in the second quarter and trailed by 13 at halftime.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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