November 20, 2020

The U.S. government executed Orlando Hall on Thursday night for his role in the brutal murder, rape, and kidnapping of a 16-year-old Texas girl, Lisa René, whose brothers had crossed Hall in a drug deal. He was pronounced dead at 11:47 p.m. after being given a lethal injection cocktail at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. It was the eighth federal execution carried out this year, after Attorney General William Barr lifted a two-decade pause on federal capital punishment.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan had ordered a halt on Hall's execution while the court's considered his legal challenges, including that he was sentenced to death at the recommendation of an all-white Jury. Hall, 49, is Black, and the only one of the five people convicted for René's killing who was on death row. Chutkan also has concerns of the legality of the lethal injection drugs used.

The Supreme Court lifted the stay Thursday night, with the court's three more liberal justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer — dissenting. This was the first capital punishment ruling for new Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and since she did not recuse herself or sign on among the dissenters, it's pretty clear she joined the court's other conservatives in approving Hall's execution. Barrett, like Barr and four of the other five conservatives, is Catholic, and her decision may allay concerns that her "dogma" would guide her legal actions, since opposition to the death penalty is a bedrock tenet of the Catholic Church's pro-life theology. Peter Weber

7:54 p.m.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will "absolutely" support the 2024 Republican nominee for president, even if it is someone he said was "practically and morally responsible" for provoking an attack on the Capitol.

During a Fox News interview on Thursday evening, McConnell was asked by host Bret Baier about the next presidential election. McConnell said he believes that at least four GOP senators will run, as well as a few governors "and others." Baier pressed McConnell or whether he would back former President Donald Trump if he wins the nomination, and McConnell responded that yes, he "absolutely" will.

Earlier this month, McConnell voted to acquit Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection, but just minutes later said the former president was "practically and morally responsible for provoking" the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Trump fed "wild falsehoods" to his base about a stolen election, McConnell said, because he was "angry" over losing, and his actions ahead of the riot "were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty." Catherine Garcia

6:45 p.m.

President Biden spoke with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday, their first phone call since Biden's inauguration.

The conversation took place before the expected release of a U.S. intelligence report on the killing of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. In 2018, Khashoggi was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, with his body dismembered by Saudi agents. It was reported soon after that the CIA concluded with high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto leader, ordered the murder. The Saudi government and former President Donald Trump pinned the blame on "rogue" agents.

The White House readout of Thursday's call does not mention Khashoggi, but says Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law" and told King Salman "he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible." Catherine Garcia

5:32 p.m.

The House voted on Thursday to pass the Equality Act, an LGBTQ rights bill that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The bill passed with a 224-206 vote, with three Republican lawmakers joining all Democrats in supporting its passage. The Equality Act is essentially an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, writes CNN, noting it's intended to expand protections against discrimination in housing, employment, and various public spaces. The act previously passed the House in 2019, but was not taken up for a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Even now that Democrats narrowly control the Senate, the bill is likely to hit some roadblocks, reports Bloomberg. It will likely need 60 Senate votes to overcome a legislative filibuster, not a simple majority, and many Republicans say it infringes on religious freedoms. Though President Biden has said he would sign it into law, Bloomberg's Steven Dennis predicts it "will likely need amendments to win over 10 Senate Rs."

The lead-up to the bill's passage brought some tensions between lawmakers to the surface. The Washington Post reports that after the bill was debated, Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) hung a transgender pride flag outside her office, only for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to see it and hang a sign reading "There are TWO genders: Male & Female. Trust The Science!" in direct response to Newman, who has a transgender daughter. Many Democrats and some Republicans were quick to castigate Greene, who later argued the Equality Act "is about causing discrimination against women and religious freedom." Summer Meza

5:03 p.m.

Former U.S. gymnastics coach John Geddert was found dead just hours after Michigan's attorney general announced 20 human trafficking charges against him.

The head coach of the U.S. gymnastics team at the 2012 Olympics was charged Thursday with 20 counts of human trafficking, including forced labor resulting in injury and trafficking involving a minor, as well as charges of racketeering, lying to police, and criminal sexual contact. Geddert had agreed to turn himself in to police Thursday afternoon, but never showed up, a spokesperson for the attorney general said. Police soon found he had died by suicide.

Geddert had close ties with Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for the U.S. and Michigan State gymnastics teams who was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for sexually assaulting and abusing patients, many of them minors. Geddert owned Twistars Gym in Michigan, where some of Nassar's victims said he assaulted them. One of the criminal sexual conduct charges also alleges Geddert assaulted a girl under the age of 16.

"John Geddert used force, fraud and coercion against the young athletes that came to him for gymnastics training for financial benefit to him," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told reporters Thursday. She then detailed the disordered eating, "suicide attempts and self-harm," and "extreme emotional abuse and physical abuse" the victims say they endured, adding that many "still carry these scars from his behavior to this day." Kathryn Krawczyk

4:21 p.m.

President Biden is urging Americans not to let their guards down as COVID-19 cases decline in the United States, warning they still "could go back up."

Biden spoke during an event on Thursday celebrating that 50 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the country since he took office, halfway to the administration's goal of 100 million doses in his first 100 days. But while the president hailed this milestone, he still cautioned against declaring premature victory in the pandemic.

"While COVID-19 vaccinations are up, COVID cases and hospitalizations are coming down," Biden said. "But I need to be honest with you: cases and hospitalizations could go back up with new variants as they emerge. So I want to make something really very clear: this is not a time to relax."

Biden urged Americans to continue to wash their hands, practice social distancing, and "for God's sake, wear a mask," as "the worst thing we could do now is let our guard down."

"This is not a victory lap," Biden went on to say. "Everything is not fixed. We have a long way to go."

The vaccination event came after the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday confirmed that Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine candidate is safe and effective, potentially clearing the way for it to be approved for emergency use by this weekend. Biden said Thursday that should the FDA approve this third vaccine, "we have a plan to roll it out as quickly as Johnson & Johnson can make it." Brendan Morrow

3:21 p.m.

In the race to get former President Donald Trump's tax records, New York prosecutors have won.

While it was more of a marathon than a sprint, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office confirmed Thursday that it had received Trump's tax records a year and a half after first requesting them. Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and his team will now be able to dig through what sources tell CNN are "millions of pages" of documents spanning January 2011 to August 2019.

Vance got the documents, which include financial statements and engagement agreements, from Trump's accounting firm Mazars USA. The transfer happened within an hour of the Supreme Court ordering that Mazars hand over the documents on Monday, Vance's spokesperson told reporters. Forensic accountants and analysts are now prepared to root through the records to find potential fraud or wrongdoing by the former president. But because the records were handed over as part of a grand jury investigation, they're unlikely to ever be made public.

Democrats in the House had meanwhile been trying to access Trump's tax returns from the time they gained a majority two years ago. Courts had ruled both for and against the Democrats' subpoenas, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ultimately decided in December not to rule in the case, essentially letting Trump run out the clock. It's unclear if Congress will try to pursue Trump's records again now that he's out of the White House. Kathryn Krawczyk

3:09 p.m.

Get ready to put all your very best hot takes behind a new Twitter paywall.

Twitter announced Thursday it's exploring a new "super follows" subscription system, under which users would be able to charge for exclusive content on the site in the vein of services like Patreon and Substack, NBC News reports.

"Exploring audience funding opportunities like Super Follows will allow creators and publishers to be directly supported by their audience and will incentivize them to continue creating content that their audience loves," a Twitter spokesperson told NBC.

The idea was discussed during a virtual Twitter presentation on Thursday, and the company provided an example in which a user is given the option to "super follow" an account for $4.99 a month to receive exclusive content, subscriber-only newsletters, and more, per The Verge. In this example, that Twitter account is then shown posting a tweet that's only viewable by their "super followers."

Twitter also said it's exploring a potential tipping option, according to NBC. The "super follows" feature is reportedly now being tested, and Twitter said it will share more information on it "in the coming months." Brendan Morrow

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