10 things you need to know today: December 21, 2019

Tim O'Donnell

1.

President Trump on Friday signed the National Defense Authorization Act, a $738 billion compromise defense policy bill that establishes Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military and gives federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave. The bill took months to be finalized thanks to debates about Trump's border wall plans, which eventually took a hit in the end. Still, Trump treated the bill as a victory, touting both Space Force and parental leave. The bill will also have an international affect; it contains a provision sanctioning individuals and businesses aiding in the construction of Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would reroute Russian gas bound for Western Europe. The U.S. has opposed the project, arguing it will make Europe too reliant on Russia energy. [The Hill, RFERL]

2.

Senior Trump administration officials threatened a presidential veto if Democrats had refused to drop language in the year-end $1.4 trillion spending package that passed through the House and Senate this week and was signed by President Trump on Friday night, administration and congressional officials told The Washington Post. Congress included a provision that would have required the White House to release Pentagon funding for Ukraine within 45 days, but the administration reportedly considered that a non-starter and suggested Trump would veto the spending package if it remained. House Democrats agreed to the demand, ultimately opting to avoid the threat of a government shutdown. The White House's decision to withhold aid from Ukraine this summer is at the heart of the House's decision to impeach Trump.

3.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday formally invited President Trump to deliver his 2020 State of the Union address on Tuesday, Feb. 4. Per the White House, Trump accepted. Pelosi's letter came just two days after she led the House of Representatives in impeaching Trump, and his SOTU speech could well take place in the middle of his Senate trial depending on the Senate's scheduling decisions. When former President Bill Clinton was impeached, his 1999 State of the Union likewise coincided with his Senate trial. He did not mention impeachment in his address. [Politico, The Week]

4.

Former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean was indicted by a grand jury Friday for the death of Atatiana Jefferson, whom he fatally shot in her own home in October while she played video games with her young nephew. Dean was previously charged with murder, and indictment is the next step toward trial. The county prosecutor's office has announced plans to "prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law," though a trial date has yet to be announced. Dean, who is white, shot Jefferson, who was black, while conducting a welfare check because a neighbor called a non-emergency line after noticing an open door on Jefferson's house late at night. [NBC News, The Daily Beast]

5.

Major protests continued in Hong Kong and India on Saturday. In Hong Kong, riot police clashed with pro-democracy, anti-government protesters in the city's shopping malls, which resulted in the arrests of multiple demonstrators who had gathered five-months after protesters and bystanders were beaten by an armed mob at a train station. Demonstrators have criticized police for not responding quickly enough to the incident. The death toll during northern India's protests against a new citizenship law implemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government, meanwhile, rose to 17 after three people died Saturday during clashes between demonstrators and police. The law allows religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to become Indian citizens if they can show they were victims of persecution, but critics argue the law is a violation of India's secular constitution and attempts to marginalize the country's Muslim community. [Reuters, The Associated Press]

6.

The U.K. House of Commons on Friday voted 358 to 234 in favor of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit bill. This major step toward Britain's departure from the European Union, planned for the end of January 2020, comes just a week after Johnson's Conservative Party dramatically swept the general elections. Six Labour Party members broke ranks to vote "yes," but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn opposed the measure, and critics to Johnson's left have accused him of perpetrating an "executive power-grab." The bill will undergo further consideration in the House of Commons in early January before proceeding to the House of Lords. [Politico, The Week]

7.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development released Friday its estimate of annual homelessness in the United States, concluding that the number of homeless people in the country increased 2.7 percent over the last year. The jump is reportedly strongly tied to California's housing crisis, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco. California alone experienced an estimated 16.4 percent increase in homelessness, despite the state's efforts to counter the issue. Washington, D.C., and 29 other states, however, reported declines in the number of homeless people. Meanwhile, veteran homelessness dropped 2.1 percent, homeless families with children declined 4.8 percent, and homeless youth and children decreased 3.6 percent. [The New York Times, NBC News]

8.

New York prosecutors Friday announced the arrests of 96 members and associates of MS-13 following a two-year investigation in Long Island's Suffolk County, which has long been a stronghold for the gang. Officials said the crackdown is the largest against MS-13 in New York's history. The investigation was multi-layered, ranging from the local to federal level. Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said the indictment "decimated" the gang's leadership and drug suppliers in the area, thwarted several murder plots, and gave authorities insight into the gang's structure and recruiting patterns. But Sini also cautioned MS-13 will likely "attempt to recalibrate" and said authorities "have to stay vigilant.' [The Associated Press, Fox News]

9.

Experts Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University and Carlos Nobre of the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil said Friday that deforestation and other changes in the Amazon are threatening to turn the rainforest into a savanna and release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The trends reportedly could soon become difficult to reverse. "The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we," Lovejoy and Nobre wrote in an editorial published by Science Advances. "Today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now." [Science Advances, The Washington Post]

10.

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker, the newest chapter in the Star Wars franchise, opened Thursday night to a $40 million North American box office haul. It's the fifth-highest preview performance of all time, but below the $57 million earned by The Force Awakens and $45 million for The Last Jedi. Disney anticipates Rise of Skywalker will end up with at least $160 million in its debut weekend. It also got particularly dismal reviews from critics across the board, culminating in a 57 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Cats, the other anticipated movie in previews Thursday, meanwhile ended up with 19 percent. [Hollywood Reporter, Rotten Tomatoes]

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