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Biden News Today: Live Updates on DeSantis, Blinken and More

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed new voting restrictions into law on Thursday that will make it more difficult for people to vote by mail and use ballot drop boxes.
Credit…Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed new voting restrictions into law on Thursday that put him in line with other Republicans around the country — with a display of nose-thumbing contempt toward journalists that evoked former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis’ brash style has made him stand out from other potential heirs to Mr. Trump’s populist legacy. But his actions are part of a national effort by Republicans. In Florida, the law limits the use of popular ballot drop boxes, adds identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots and requires them to request absentee ballots for each election, rather than sign up for them automatically.

The next big move could happen in Texas, although the situation at the State Capitol in Austin is in flux. There is movement in virtually every state with a Republican-controlled legislature — including in Arizona, where G.O.P. lawmakers are conducting an audit of the November results, an exercise that has been plagued by lapses in basic security and accounting procedures.

All of this comes in the wake of Mr. Trump’s loss, and his subsequent false claims that expansion of ballot access led to rampant voter fraud.

Official audits of election results around the country, conducted by officials from both parties, found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Mr. DeSantis enacted the legislation even after he had promoted Florida’s handling of the November elections. Mr. Trump won the state by three percentage points.

The governor gave Fox News, his preferred major cable news outlet — and Mr. Trump’s — an exclusive to broadcast the bill signing ceremony from West Palm Beach on Thursday morning, in an event that resembled a campaign rally as much as an official act of state government.

Supporters of Mr. DeSantis gathered inside a Hilton near the airport, donning DeSantis and Trump campaign gear. Before they entered, some people waved Trump-DeSantis and DeSantis 2024 banners, according to photos on social media shared by journalists locked outside the doors.

“Right now, I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country,” a seated Mr. DeSantis told Fox as a rowdy crowd cheered behind him.

Mr. DeSantis and his predecessors have been known to sign bills, especially controversial ones, in private. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a lower-key politician who has kept Mr. Trump at a relative arm’s length, signed his state’s bill in a conference room in his office, as a Democratic state legislator knocked on the door, demanding to be let in. She was instead arrested, and later released.

Giving exclusive access to a cable news network was unusual, if not unprecedented. A reporter from a local CBS station said it was supposed to carry the broadcast feed for other stations, a practice known as pooling, but was also not allowed inside.

“We were happy to give them the exclusive on that, and I think it went really, really well,” Mr. DeSantis said when he was asked about the Fox News access later on Thursday in Panama City Beach. He trumpeted the network’s “millions” of viewers and estimated that a thousand people had filled the Hilton ballroom: “It’s the first bill signing I’ve ever done live on a national broadcast.”

Florida is the latest state to pass voter restrictions as Republicans move to reverse gains made by Democrats in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere.

In Texas, Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans like Dell Technologies, Microsoft and American Airlines and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation.

It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers. The main bill passed a key committee in a late-night session on Thursday, and could head to a full floor vote in the House as early as next week.

Bills to restrict voting have also been moving through Republican-led legislatures in Arizona and Michigan.

Rep. Elise Stefanik at her election night victory party last November. Ms. Stefanik has echoed Trump’s falsehoods of rampant voter fraud, and voted to overturn the election results on Jan. 6.
Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

Representative Elise Stefanik, campaigning to oust Representative Liz Cheney as the Republican Party’s No. 3 leader in the House for calling out President Donald J. Trump’s election lies, pitched herself as an unshakable ally of the former president on Thursday, calling him the “strongest supporter of any president when it comes to standing up for the Constitution.”

In her first public interview since announcing she would run for Ms. Cheney’s post amid a drive by Republican leaders to force out the Wyoming lawmaker, Ms. Stefanik, of New York, appeared on Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” a hard-right program run by Mr. Trump’s former strategist, and promised to unite the party under the former president’s banner.

“My vision is to run with support from the president and his coalition of voters,” Ms. Stefanik said, referencing Mr. Trump, adding later that she was committed to “sending a clear message that we are one team, and that means working with the president and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress.”

Ms. Stefanik’s glowing comments about Mr. Trump captured the contrast between her and Ms. Cheney, who has relentlessly criticized the former president for falsely claiming the election was stolen and beseeched Republican lawmakers — most recently in a scathing opinion piece on Wednesday — to excise him from the party before it collapses into irrelevance.

“Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law,” Ms. Cheney wrote. “No other American president has ever done this.”

In the interview on Thursday, Ms. Stefanik, who voted to overturn the election results on Jan. 6 and has echoed Mr. Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, repeated some of those allegations, citing “unprecedented unconstitutional overreach” from state officials.

“These are questions that are going to have to be answered before we head into the 2022 midterms,” Ms. Stefanik said of the questions she raised about the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory.

Though Ms. Cheney beat back an effort in February to replace her as conference chair following her vote to impeach Mr. Trump, most Republicans — even her allies — expect her to be stripped of the position as early as next week. Top Republican leaders who backed her earlier this year have moved to support Ms. Stefanik.

And many of the party’s rank-and-file members, including some who agree with Ms. Cheney’s caustic assessments of Mr. Trump, say privately that have grown weary of her determination to continue publicly repudiating his lies and rebuking members of her own party for their role in fueling the falsehoods that inspired the Jan. 6. riot at the Capitol.

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U.S. Pledges Support to Ukraine Against Russian Threats

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president that the United States strongly supports Ukraine against threats from Russia, which has a history of military aggression in the region.

We’re proud to have supported Ukraine in the face of years of Russian aggression and pressure, from the invasion of Crimea, the hostilities in the Donbass, and of course, Ukraine was tested again, just weeks ago this spring as Russia pushed more forces to Ukraine’s border than at any time since 2014 when it invaded. And I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you, the partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago. We look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions. We’ll continue to strengthen our security partnership and keep close collaboration with you to make sure that Ukraine can defend itself against aggression. We’re aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there. Significant equipment remains there. We’re monitoring the situation very, very closely.

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president that the United States strongly supports Ukraine against threats from Russia, which has a history of military aggression in the region.CreditCredit…Ukrainian Presidential press service, via Shutterstock

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president on Thursday that the United States strongly backed his country’s sovereignty against Russia’s military aggression but also warned that the embattled country was under threat from “internal forces,” including powerful oligarchs who thrive on corruption.

Mr. Blinken also said that, despite Russia’s recently announced plans to withdraw many of the 100,000 troops it had built up along the border with Ukraine in an alarming show of force this spring, a clear military threat remained.

“Russia has pulled back some forces, but significant forces remain on Ukraine’s border,” Mr. Blinken noted. “And so Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive actions if it so chooses.” Mr. Blinken added that the United States was “watching this very, very carefully.”

Mr. Blinken spoke at a joint news conference with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who effusively thanked the first senior Biden official to visit Kyiv since the departure of President Donald J. Trump from office. The former president ensnared Mr. Zelensky in a global scandal that the Ukrainian leader clearly hopes to forget.

Asked whether efforts in 2019 by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, had “set back” efforts to drive corruption out of Ukraine’s political system, Mr. Zelensky boasted about his reform record, then indicated that he hopes the matter is finished.

“Let’s not talk about the past,” he said. “Let’s let bygones be bygones, and let’s discuss the future.”

That may be difficult, given an active F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Giuliani that culminated last week in a raid on his apartment and office. Federal agents were reportedly seeking evidence of his role in the May 2019 removal of the American ambassador to Ukraine, allegedly at the behest of Mr. Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates.

Mr. Blinken for his part maneuvered around a question featuring Mr. Giuliani, but reminded Mr. Zelensky — whose reform record has drawn mixed reviews — that “effectively combating corruption is one of the most important issues to the Ukrainian people, and is crucial to improving their lives.”

The Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles on Wednesday. Many public spaces have been coming back to life as more people are vaccinated.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Americans have entered a new, hopeful phase of the pandemic. Buoyed by a sense that the coronavirus is waning, in part because of vaccinations, more people are venturing into restaurants and returning to their prepandemic routines.

Mayors, governors and other local officials — once the bearers of grim news about the virus’s toll and strict rules for businesses — have joined in the newfound optimism, rapidly loosening restrictions.

Public health experts remain cautious, but said that while they still expect significant local and regional surges in the coming weeks, they do not think they will be as widespread or reach past peaks.

“We’re clearly turning the corner,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The nation is recording about 49,000 new cases a day, the lowest number since early October, and hospitalizations have plateaued at around 40,000, a similar level as the early fall. Nationwide, deaths are hovering around 700 a day, down from a peak of more than 3,000 in January.

In the past, lulls in the pandemic were short-lived. But now, there is one crucial difference: More than half of American adults — 148 million people — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen at a time when the weather is getting warmer, allowing people to spend more time outdoors, where the virus spreads less easily.

The situation in the United States stands in stark contrast to other parts of the world, where many countries are still scrambling to secure access to vaccines. India remains in dire crisis, and thousands of people are dying each day in Brazil.

Even in the United States, there remain strong reasons for caution. Vaccinations are slowing, and experts now believe that herd immunity may not be attainable. More transmissible variants of the virus are also spreading.

A modeling study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, citing relaxed restrictions and a new, contagious variant, suggested that cases could tick upward again in the coming weeks, before a sharp drop-off by July.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said, “We are not out of the woods yet, but we could be very close.”

Private and corporate jets parked at an airport in Hailey, Idaho. President Biden has dismissed critics of his tax plan by noting it would not deprive any executives of private jet travel.
Credit…Rick Wilking/Reuters

President Biden delivered a clear and punchy message to America’s highest earners on Wednesday: I’m going to raise your taxes, but your vacation homes are safe.

In an exchange with reporters at the White House, Mr. Biden defended with gusto his plans to increase taxes on high earners and the wealthy. He railed against high-earning chief executives and promised that his plans were “about making the average multimillionaire pay just a fair share.”

“We’re not going to deprive any of these executives of their second or third home, travel privately by jet,” Mr. Biden said after brief remarks on an economic aid program he signed into law this year. “It’s not going to affect their standard of living at all. Not a little tiny bit. But I can affect the standard of living that people I grew up with.”

The comments were the latest example of Mr. Biden and his party embracing the political and economic upsides of his proposals to tax the rich — a fight that the White House is eager to wage as the president engages in bipartisan negotiations over his $4 trillion economic agenda and a contrast to how Democratic presidents in the past have talked about their tax-increase proposals.

Republicans and business groups have blasted Mr. Biden’s plans to use the tax increase on the wealthy to fund new spending on roads, bridges, low-carbon energy deployment, child care, education and a host of other initiatives by raising taxes on corporations, high earners and the wealthy.

Mr. Biden has responded by amplifying his arguments: In recent remarks, he has focused almost as much on the tax increases as he has on the programs they would pay for.

Republicans in Congress continue to warn that Mr. Biden’s tax increases could cripple an economy that is just beginning to recover from the pandemic downturn and hurt workers, even though the president has vowed not to raise taxes on individuals or households earning less than $400,000.

“Ultimately, his political standing is judged by the health and well-being of the economy,” said Josh Holmes, a political adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “What he’s talking about from a tax perspective is administration-assisted suicide.”

But after the coronavirus pandemic exposed in stark terms the gaps in income and wealth in the United States, Mr. Biden and his aides see a chance to turn the issue against Republicans who have long preached tax cuts and hammered Democrats for supporting any tax increases.

“On taxes, Biden has flipped the script on Republicans,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago who worked in the Obama and Clinton administrations and is in line for an ambassadorship under Mr. Biden. “Especially since the Biden tax plan is popular with the G.O.P. base. Biden knows this and is taunting them head on.”

A vaccination event in Miami last week. The jobless rate has fallen in recent weeks as as businesses reopen and vaccination rates increase.
Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Unemployment filings fell again last week as the improving public health situation and the easing of pandemic-related restrictions allowed the labor market to continue its gradual return to normal.

About 505,000 people filed first-time applications for state jobless benefits, the Labor Department said Thursday, down more than 100,000 from a week earlier. In addition, 101,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular benefits. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

Applications for unemployment benefits remain high by historical standards, but they have fallen significantly in recent weeks after progress stalled in the fall and winter. Weekly filings for state benefits, which peaked at more than six million last spring, fell below 700,000 for the first time in late March and has now been below that level for four straight weeks.

“In the last few weeks we’ve seen a pretty dramatic improvement in the claims data, and I think that does signal that there’s been an acceleration in the labor market recovery in April,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the employment site Glassdoor (not ZipRecruiter, as was reported here earlier).

There were still more than nine million people receiving unemployment insurance under state programs — or emergency programs that extend state benefits — as of mid-April, the latest data available. That total, which does not include workers on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, has fallen in recent weeks, but more slowly than new applications. At the peak of the crisis last spring, more than 20 million people were receiving benefits.

Economists should get a clearer picture of the labor market’s progress on Friday, when the Labor Department will release data on hiring and unemployment in April. The report is expected to show that employers added about one million jobs last month, up from 916,000 in March. The leisure and hospitality industry, which was hit the hardest by the initial phase of the pandemic last spring, has led the way in the recovery in recent months, a trend that forecasters believe continued in April.

Even strong job growth last month will still leave the U.S. economy with millions fewer jobs than before the pandemic. Forecasters expect the report to show that the unemployment rate fell below 6 percent in April, down from nearly 15 percent last spring. But that doesn’t factor in people — particularly women — who have left the labor force, including those caring for children while schools are closed. If those people were counted as unemployed, the jobless rate would have been above 9 percent in March, and most likely close to that level in April.

Many employers have said in recent weeks that they would like to hire even faster but have struggled to find enough workers. Some have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits for discouraging people from returning to work. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana said his state would pull out of a federal program offering enhanced benefits to unemployed workers and would instead pay a $1,200 bonus to recipients when they find new jobs.

Economic research has found that unemployment benefits can reduce the intensity with which workers search for jobs. But most studies find that the impact on the overall labor market is small, especially when unemployment is high. And Mr. Zhao and other economists say there are other reasons that labor supply might be rebounding more slowly than demand. Many potential workers are juggling child care or other responsibilities at home; others remain cautious about the health risks of returning to in-person work.

“I think we will see labor supply improve pretty dramatically in the coming months as the pandemic abates,” Mr. Zhao said.

Gary Gensler, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Gary Gensler, the newly installed chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is testifying on Thursday, at noon Eastern time, before the House Financial Services Committee. He will address the meme-stock volatility in January that led to trading restrictions and prompted an outcry about Wall Street’s relationship with retail investors.

“I think these events are part of a larger story about the intersection of finance and technology,” Mr. Gensler will say in his prepared remarks, highlighting seven factors at play that also hint at his regulatory priorities in the months ahead:

  • Gamification. Fun features combined with predictive analytics on trading apps increase engagement. Watching a movie based on a streaming app recommendation, “we might lose a couple of hours,” Mr. Gensler said. “Following the wrong prompt on a trading app, however, could have a substantial effect on a saver’s financial position.” He suggested it may be time for new rules to address the practice.

  • Payment for order flow. Many retail brokers don’t charge fees for trades, earning money instead by directing customer orders to wholesalers to execute. More trades generate more payments, which raises questions about conflicts of interest, consumer protection and data aggregation, Mr. Gensler said.

  • Market structure. A few wholesalers account for a growing share of retail stock trading volume, with Citadel Securities particularly dominant. This concentration can “lead to fragility, deter healthy competition and limit innovation,” Mr. Gensler said.

  • Short-selling transparency. He wants to increase “transparency in the stock loan market.”

  • Social media. Investors exchanging views online is fine, but Mr. Gensler worries bad actors take advantage of legitimate debates. In particular, this risks sending false signals to algorithms that some investors use to gauge the “relationships between words and prices.”

  • Plumbing. When brokers restricted customer trading in meme stocks, they blamed clearinghouses and two-day settlement times. Mr. Gensler said same-day settlement is technologically possible and has asked for a draft proposal on speeding up settlement.

  • Systemic risks. The S.E.C. will issue a report over the summer, the chair said, examining what happened in detail during the meme-stock frenzy and considering “whether expanded enforcement mechanisms are necessary.”

The Oval Office can be thought of as an ultra-high-profile rotating exhibition space, with the paintings and sculptures on display representing the choices of each American president. Presidential and art historians say that already, President Biden’s approach to art appears distinct from his predecessors.

  • The Biden administration has added sculptures of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. White House curators believe those artworks are among the first of women and people of color to be displayed in the Oval Office.

  • In a break from nine consecutive administrations that chose to display a portrait of George Washington in the prominent spot above the fireplace, Mr. Biden selected a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

  • Trump’s decorative choices reflected his admiration for Jackson — a president Trump embraced as a populist leader even as some Democrats were distancing themselves from him.

  • While some of the same landscapes and portraits appear over multiple administrations, presidents don’t exclusively tap the White House’s own art collection. President Nixon, for a time, hung a photograph of Earth, captured by the astronauts from the Apollo 8 mission, to the right of his desk.

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