10 things you need to know today: December 31, 2019

Harold Maass

1.

Protesters forced their way into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday and set fires in an outburst of anger over weekend U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 members of an Iranian-backed militia. The U.S. ambassador and embassy staff were evacuated earlier, after hundreds of demonstrators and militia members gathered outside the compound. People in the crowd threw rocks, chanted "Death to America," and called for the U.S. to pull out troops from Iraq. The U.S. airstrikes on Sunday targeted five camps — three in Iraq and two in Syria — of the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah or Hezbollah Brigades, which the U.S. blamed for missile attacks that killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. and Iraqi military personnel. A militia spokesman denied the group was responsible. [The New York Times, The Guardian]

2.

Prosecutors on Monday charged Hanukkah stabbing suspect Grafton Thomas with federal hate crimes. Thomas, 37, pleaded not guilty a day earlier to five counts of attempted murder and one of burglary after he was accused of barging into a celebration at a rabbi's house in Monsey, New York, and slashing five people with a machete. On Monday, prosecutors filed five counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon, and resulting in bodily injury. Investigators reportedly found handwritten journals with anti-Semitic writings in Thomas' home, including references to "Nazi culture." His computer showed a recent search for "why did Hitler hate the Jews." The journal also reportedly contained apparent references to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center says is fueled by anti-Semitism. [NBC News, The Washington Post]

3.

A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former top national security aide to President Trump seeking a court ruling on whether he should comply with a House subpoena to testify in impeachment proceedings against Trump. The White House had told the official, Charles Kupperman, not to testify, and Kupperman wanted the court to decide whose orders he should follow. Justice Department lawyers had argued that top Trump aides like Kupperman, who was a deputy to then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, had "absolute immunity" against congressional subpoenas. House Democrats, who have since impeached Trump, withdrew the subpoena, so Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court in Washington declared that the case was moot. [The Washington Post]

4.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Monday he would consider picking a Republican running mate if he became the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Biden said, however, that he couldn't "think of one right now" who would fit. "There's some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here's the problem right now," Biden said. "They've got to step up." Biden has consistently polled at the top of the field of Democratic candidates. In recent months, he has said he would prefer a person "of color and/or a different gender" as his running mate. He has said that he would consider either Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who recently dropped out of the presidential race, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who's still a contender. [CNN]

5.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a GOP moderate, said on Monday that she is "open" to meeting Democrats' demand to call witnesses in President Trump's Senate impeachment trial, but only if the evidence indicates the need for new testimony. She said the decision should be made after House impeachment managers and Trump's legal team have made their opening arguments. "I am open to witnesses. I think it's premature to decide who should be called until we see the evidence that is presented and get the answers to the questions that we senators can submit through the Chief Justice to both sides," Collins told Maine Public Radio when questioned about whether acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney or former National Security Adviser John Bolton should be called to testify. A standoff over the process has delayed the start of the trial. [The Hill]

6.

A court in Shenzhen, China, sentenced a Chinese scientist and two assistants Monday for creating the world's first genetically edited babies last year, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported. The lead scientist, He Jiankui, was handed three years in prison and a fine of 3 million yuan ($430,000), while researcher Zhang Renli got two years in prison and a 1 million yuan fine, and Qin Jinzhou received 18 months and a 500,000 yuan fine. "The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment," Xinhua reported, citing the court's ruling. "They've crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics." The news agency said He and his team edited the genes of three children born to two women. [Reuters, The Associated Press]

7.

China's top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, plans to visit Washington next week to sign the "phase one" deal to ease the trade war between the U.S. and China, the South China Morning Post reported Monday, citing a source briefed on the matter. "Washington has sent an invitation and Beijing has accepted it," the source told the newspaper under condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the deal. The signing would represent a significant de-escalation in tensions between the world's two largest economies, which have exchanged a series of damaging tit-for-tat tariffs. The interim deal, announced on Dec. 13 after lengthy negotiations, led both sides to cancel another round of tariffs that had been scheduled to hit on Dec. 15. China also committed to increasing its purchases of U.S. farm goods. [South China Morning Post]

8.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to use his New Year address on Wednesday to unveil a "new path" for relations with the U.S. after the Trump administration declined to meet his demands for new talks on denuclearization. Kim has called for the U.S. to be more flexible in negotiations on curbing North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief. He has threatened a "Christmas gift" if the U.S. fails to respond in a way he likes. Washington has dismissed the deadline as a gimmick. White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said days ahead of the deadline that the U.S. has many "tools in its tool kit" to respond if Pyongyang tests a long-range or nuclear missile in early 2020. [Reuters]

9.

Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn has fled to Lebanon from Japan, where he faced charges for financial crimes. Ghosn said Tuesday from Lebanon that he left to escape "injustice and political persecution" before his trial next year on allegations that he underreported his income and shifted his own financial losses to the automaker. He has citizenship in France, Brazil, and Lebanon, where he spent part of his youth. He is popular in Beirut, where after his November 2018 arrest someone put up a billboard reading, "We are all Carlos Ghosn." He had been in and out of jail awaiting trial, and was out on $9 million bail when he left the country. His flight threw his case into uncertainty, because Lebanon does not extradite its citizens. [The New York Times, The Associated Press]

10.

Neil Innes, the comedian and songwriter known for his work with Monty Python, has died at 75. Innes' family confirmed his death on Monday, saying in a statement he "died of natural causes quickly without warning and, I think, without pain." Sometimes referred to as the "seventh Python," Innes worked on Monty Python albums and films and became only the second non-Python member to write for Monty Python's Flying Circus in addition to Douglas Adams. He also co-founded the Beatles parody band The Rutles and performed in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Monty Python's John Cleese paid tribute to Innes on Monday, remembering him as "a very sweet man" and a "lovely writer and performer." [CNN, Rolling Stone]

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