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Resolute Biden Touts Achievements, Promises To Reconnect With Voters

Washington (AFP) - Joe Biden sought to reset his presidency in a marathon press conference Wednesday, vowing to reconnect with voters in his second year and touting what he said were his unprecedented successes.

"Can you think of any other president that's done as much in one year?" Biden asked, ticking off the epic struggle against Covid-19 and trillions of dollars in government funding to save the US economy from pandemic fallout.

"I don't think there's been much on any incoming president's plate that's been a bigger menu than the plate I had given to me," the Democrat said. "The fact of the matter is, we got a lot done."

Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of his inauguration on January 20, 2021, Biden held only the second White House press conference of his presidency -- then surprised many by taking questions for almost two full hours.

At various times combative, joking and meandering into thoughtful musings on everything from the workings of Vladimir Putin's mind to Republican opponents, Biden brushed off criticism over his handling of the pandemic and soaring inflation.

Asked about his approval ratings, which have sunk into the low 40 percent area, Biden was curt.

"I don't believe the polls," he said.

Biden did acknowledge missteps in the 12 months since he took over from Donald Trump, saying it had been "a year of challenges."

These included that he "didn't anticipate" the ferocity of Republican obstruction to his agenda in Congress. On Covid testing capabilities, which continue to struggle to meet demand, he said "we should have done it quicker."

Biden likewise said he understood "frustration" over steadily rising prices, which he blamed on Covid-related supply chain issues.

Fighting inflation will be "hard and take a lot of work."

"It's going to be painful for a lot of people," he said, noting that high prices were being felt "at the gas pump, the grocery stores and elsewhere."

Ukraine Warning

On one of the most traumatic episodes of his presidency -- the chaotic and rushed final withdrawal from the 20-year long Afghanistan war -- Biden said flatly: "I make no apologies."

"There was no way to get out of Afghanistan after 29 years easily," he declared.

The press conference, which defied the widely shared image of Biden as shrinking from contact with the media, focused especially heavily on the looming crisis in Ukraine, where the United States is leading Western efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Russia's military posturing on the border.

Biden said he was ready to meet with Putin and bluntly warned the Kremlin leader that an attack on Ukraine would be "a disaster" for Russia.

However, Biden caused confusion when he appeared to suggest that a small-scale attack by the Russians would prompt much less pushback from the West. The White House quickly issued a statement clarifying that what he meant was that any military invasion would prompt a "severe" response, while non-military aggression, like paramilitary attacks, would be met with a "reciprocal" response.

'Getting Out More Often'

With a State of the Union speech to Congress set for March 1, Biden faces a rapidly diminishing period in which he can engineer a strategy to fight off a Republican comeback at midterm congressional elections this November.

Republicans are forecast to crush his party and take control of the legislature. That risks bringing two years of complete obstruction from Congress, likely including threats of impeachment and a slew of aggressive committee probes.

Trump, who continues to perpetuate the lie that he beat Biden in 2020 and seeks to undermine Americans' faith in their election system, is eyeing a possible attempt at another run at the White House in 2024.

Biden confirmed he wants to run for reelection with Kamala Harris as his vice president again. And he said that while Democrats proved unable to use their razor-thin congressional majority to pass two big priorities -- the Build Back Better social spending bill and election law reforms -- they could instead settle for passing "big chunks" of the failed legislation.

Above all, Biden emphasized his desire to leave the confines of the White House after a year featuring a decidedly light travel schedule.

"Number one: I am getting out of this place more often. I am going to go out and talk to the public," he said.

"I find myself in a situation where I don't get a chance to look people in the eye, both because of Covid and the situation in Washington," he said, describing how he wanted to "connect with people, let them take a measure of my sincerity."

New York Attorney General Finds Evidence Of Fraud At Trump Family Business

New York (AFP) - New York Attorney General Letitia James said her investigation into the Trump family's business dealings had uncovered evidence suggesting the fraudulent valuing of multiple assets and misrepresentation of those values for economic benefit.

In a court filing late Tuesday, James said as the beneficial owner of the Trump Organization, former president Donald Trump "had ultimate authority over a wide swath of conduct by the Trump Organization involving misstatements to counterparties, including financial institutions, and the Internal Revenue Service."

James is seeking to question Trump and his two eldest children, Donald Trump, Jr, and Ivanka Trump, as part of her years-long civil probe.

In her filing Tuesday, the attorney general said the trio should be compelled to testify.

"Until January 2017, Ms. Trump was a primary contact for the Trump Organization's largest lender, Deutsche Bank. In connection with this work, Ms. Trump caused misleading financial statements to be submitted to Deutsche Bank and the federal government," the court document says.

It added that "Since 2017, Donald Trump, Jr. has had authority over numerous financial statements containing misleading asset valuations."

The court filing gave a detailed accounting of the alleged fraudulent valuations and misrepresentations of those values to financial institutions.

They included claiming Trump's penthouse in Manhattan's Trump Tower was three times bigger than it actually was, overestimating its value by $200 million.

The Trumps have claimed it is a politically motivated investigation and urged the court to quash subpoenas against the three.

"Thus far in our investigation, we have uncovered significant evidence that suggests Donald J. Trump and the Trump Organization falsely and fraudulently valued multiple assets and misrepresented those values to financial institutions for economic benefit," James said in a statement late Tuesday after her court filing to oppose that motion.

"The Trumps must comply with our lawful subpoenas for documents and testimony because no one in this country can pick and choose if and how the law applies to them. We will not be deterred in our efforts to continue this investigation and ensure that no one is above the law."

She launched her investigation in March 2019 and suspects that the Trump Organization fraudulently overstated the value of certain properties when seeking bank loans, and later reported much smaller values when declaring assets so it could pay less tax.

Trump's son Eric, who is executive vice president of the Trump Organization, was interviewed by James's office on the issue in October 2020.

The former president is facing pressure from several legal probes.

In Washington he is trying to prevent a congressional probe into the January 6 attack by his supporters on the US Capitol from accessing White House records related to that day.

The Trump Organization is also under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney for possible financial crimes and insurance fraud.

In July last year, the Trump Organization and its long-serving finance chief, Allen Weisselberg pleaded not guilty in a New York court to 15 felony fraud and tax evasion charges.

His trial is due to begin in the middle of this year.

Trump was also questioned for more than four hours in October as part of a lawsuit by a group of protestors who allege that his security guards assaulted them six years ago.

He is also battling to prevent years of his tax returns from being released to prosecutors.

Martin Luther King's Family Joins Call For US Voting Reform

Washington (AFP) - Members of Martin Luther King Jr's family joined marchers Monday in Washington urging Congress to pass voting rights reform as the United States marked the holiday commemorating the slain civil rights leader.

King's son Martin Luther King III spoke at the march, warning that many states "have passed laws that make it harder to vote" more than half a century after the activism of his father.

The march's message was aimed at boosting support for the Freedom to Vote Act currently before the Senate, and which passed in the House of Representatives last week.

But the bill faces an uphill battle as President Joe Biden negotiates with two holdout senators in his own Democratic Party to change a procedural rule that would allow Congress to pass the law without Republican support.

Biden argues the bill is vital to protecting American democracy against Republican attempts to exclude Black and other predominantly Democratic voters through a spate of recently enacted laws at state and local levels.

Marchers at Monday's Peace Walk echoed demands made by MLK more than 60 years ago as they chanted, "What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want it? Now!"

Many carried posters printed with King's image and his famous 1957 appeal to "Give us the ballot," which called on the federal government to enforce Black Americans' right to vote nationwide, including in the heavily segregated South.

"We march because our voting rights are under attack right now," pastor Reverend Wendy Hamilton told AFP at the demonstration.

"As a matter of fact, our democracy is very fragile," said Hamilton, a local politician in Washington, whose residents themselves do not have full representation in Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Terri Sewell from Alabama and chairwoman Joyce Beatty from Ohio, also spoke at the march -- as did King's 13-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King.

King's daughter Bernice King also took to the social media platform to call for the Senate to pass voting reform.

"If these state voter suppression laws persist, the America my father dreamed about will never come to be," she wrote.

At the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris urged senators to pass the Freedom to Vote Act in honor of King's legacy.

King "pushed for racial justice, for economic justice and for the freedom that unlocks all others: the freedom to vote," she said.

She denounced bills under consideration or already passed in state legislatures that she said could make it harder for 55 million Americans to cast ballots.

"To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all," Harris said.

Biden and Harris last week visited the crypt where King -- who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39 -- and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are buried in Atlanta.

Eat It, Fox News: New Data Shows Inflation Eased In December

Washington (AFP) - Wholesale prices for US goods and services surged to a record last year amid the supply snarls that have battered the global economy, but data released Thursday showed that inflation pressures eased in December.

The producer price index (PPI) jumped 9.7 percent in 2021, the largest calendar-year increase since the data was first calculated in 2010, the Labor Department reported.

But PPI in the final month of the year gained just 0.2 percent compared to November, its slowest increase in over a year, and half the increase economists were expecting, due to a 0.4 percent decrease in the cost of goods.

The data follows the government report on consumer prices released Wednesday showing the biggest annual increase in nearly four decades, fueled by jumps in prices for cars, housing and food.

However, at the producer level, energy prices dropped 3.3 percent and food prices also declined, the data showed.

"Producer prices ended the year on an encouraging note, rising less than expectations as both the headline and core PPI moderated in December," said Mahir Rasheed of Oxford Economics.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created shortages of critical goods like computer chips for cars while transportation snags have further fanned the inflation flames as new strains of the virus cause additional business disruptions.

"Persistent supply disruptions will pin producer prices near record levels in the near term, especially given a rapidly spreading Omicron variant that will fan inflation pressures," Rasheed said.

Federal Reserve officials have made clear that fighting the wave of price increases will be a priority, and many economists now expect the central bank to raise the benchmark interest rate as soon as March.

The price surge has battered President Joe Biden's reputation even as the economy recovers from the damage inflicted by the pandemic, and his White House welcomed the sign the pressures might be abating.

"Monthly inflation results are always volatile, and this report was driven in large part by a reduction in highly volatile energy and food prices, but also reflects potential improvement in prices for supply-chain related goods and services," said Cecilia Rouse, head of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.

But she said the data underscore the need to continue to work to resolve the supply chain issues.

"Even as the economy has had a historic recovery, we continue to face challenges with prices driven by supply chain disruptions around the world."

Trump Alt Universe Social Network Expects February 21 Launch

San Francisco (AFP) - Former US president Donald Trump's media group is aiming to launch its long-promised social network in February, according to a listing at Apple's App Store.

A "Truth Social" app is "expected" to be available on February 21, the listing showed, and will have features similar to online connection tools found at Facebook.

The 75-year-old was thrown off Twitter -- his preferred communication conduit while president -- as well as Facebook and YouTube after last year's January 6 insurrection, in which a mob of Trump supporters, riled up by his repeated false claims that the November 2020 election was stolen from him, assaulted the US Capitol.

Trump says the new platform will be an alternative to Silicon Valley internet companies that he says are biased against him and other conservative voices.

The social network is currently being used by invited guests as it readies for public launch, according to Trump Media and Technology Group.

President Joe Biden on Thursday savaged Trump's "lies" and attempt to overturn the 2020 election, vowing on the first anniversary of the January 6 Capitol riot that he would let no one put a "dagger at the throat of democracy."

After largely ignoring Trump for a year, Biden took off the gloves, describing the Republican as a cheat whose ego wouldn't let him accept defeat and whose supporters almost shattered US democracy when they stormed Congress to prevent certification of the election.

Trump, who has spent the last year spreading conspiracy theories about his election loss to millions of followers, quickly fired back with a series of statements doubling down on his lie about the "rigged" election and dismissing Biden's speech as "political theater."

Truth Social will join an already crowded market of social networks popular among conservatives and members of the far-right.

Gettr was launched in early July by a former Trump adviser, while Parler and Gab are already favored by the real estate mogul's supporters.

Biden Will Address Nation On January 6, Trump Cancels Press Conference

Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump on Tuesday abruptly gave up his plan to steal the limelight on the anniversary of the January 6 assault against Congress, leaving President Joe Biden to address a divided nation.

Trump's decision to ditch his controversial press conference in Florida means Americans will be spared a bitter split-screen moment on Thursday.

If it had gone ahead, Biden would have marked what he calls "one of the darkest days" in US history, while Trump, just a few hours later, was due to promote his lie about being cheated out of victory in the 2020 presidential election.

No question, though, that Trump will be looming over Biden.

In a statement announcing the demise of his press conference, Trump yet again pushed his conspiracy theory that "fraud" accounted for his defeat to Biden, calling it "the Crime of the Century."

The statement underlined how one year after a mob of Trump supporters marched on Congress to try and prevent lawmakers from certifying Biden's victory, political wounds remain far from healed.

'Unprecedented'

On Thursday, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will speak from inside the Capitol's Statuary Hall, the setting during the unrest of almost unbelievable scenes as Trump supporters fought past police to invade the heart of US democracy.

As a veteran politician who came out of retirement to take on what he saw as Trump's authoritarian presidency, Biden has often warned during his first year in the White House of an "existential" threat to political freedoms that until now most Americans took for granted.

His speech is set to take that warning to a new level.

"He'll speak to the historical significance of January 6, what it means for the country one year later," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

Congress will later hold a prayer vigil.

While Trump is retreating on the day itself, he said he would tout some "important topics" at a rally planned in Arizona on January 15.

Those "topics" are now familiar to all Americans.

Despite losing by more than seven million votes to Biden, and despite losing multiple court challenges around the country, Trump continues to say he was the real winner in 2020.

And the accusations are only the most incendiary element of a broader attack against Biden on everything from immigration to Covid-19, all adding up to what looks very much like an as-yet undeclared bid to take back power in 2024.

It's a campaign that Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, calls "unprecedented in US history."

"No former president has attempted to do so much to discredit his successor and the democratic process," Tobias said.

What Can Biden Do?

However ludicrous the election conspiracy theory may be -- one federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Trump's case "strained" and "speculative" -- it is seen as truth by millions of Americans.

Polls consistently show that around 70 percent of Republicans think Biden was elected illegitimately.

And fighting what Trump, the master brander, popularizes as "the Steal," has become a political ideology in its own right, with nearly all Republican lawmakers either squirming to avoid criticizing what happened on January 6 -- or actively defending the attack.

Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said the combination of political grifters looking to get into Trump's good books and the masses of voters deluded into believing what they're told amounts to a considerable force.

"What is so frightful about where we are right now isn't just that these are elite attacks, but they are being fueled by a grass roots movement," she said.

"It wasn't just far-right win groups who had organized" on January 6, she said. "It was average, everyday Americans who had bought into this whole notion."

It's unclear what, if anything, Biden can do to change these dynamics.

Political scientist and Democratic pollster Rachel Bitecofer urged Biden to take on Trump more aggressively, rather than stick to pretending that the man Psaki has referred to as "the former guy" no longer matters.

Biden "is not commemorating an event that ended. He is commemorating the event that is in process and threatens to get worse," she said.

"There's a real hesitancy to accept how virulent the right is in coming after democracy here."

Brown said, however, that Biden has little room for maneuver, because a direct attack on Trump risks looking like a "political witch hunt" -- exactly what the former president claims in his conspiracy theories.

US Sets Global Record Of 1 MN Reported Covid Cases

People line up at a Covid-19 testing tent in Los Angeles, California on January 3, 2022, with new cases soaring in the United States amid the rapid spread of the infectious Omicron strain

Washington (AFP) - The United States reported more than one million new Covid-19 cases Monday after the long New Year's weekend, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, as the Omicron variant spread at a blistering pace.

There were 1,080,211 new cases in the country, a global record, although the number of cases reported on a Monday is usually higher than other days because of delays in weekend tallying, especially after such a three-day holiday weekend.

Still, the figure is double the number of daily cases compared to the previous Monday.

The rolling average over seven days -- which experts see as more reliable -- was 486,000 cases per day as of Monday evening, the university said.

The new figure comes a day after top US pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci said the country was experiencing "almost a vertical increase" in Covid-19 cases, adding the peak may be only weeks away.

The heavily mutated Omicron strain -- the most transmissible to date -- accounted for around 59 percent of US cases in the week ending December 25, according to government modeling.

Fauci said the experience of South Africa -- where the strain was first detected in late November and peaked quickly, then subsided nearly as speedily -- offered some hope.

Rates of death and hospitalization in the United States have been lower in recent weeks than during previous Covid surges.

With 9,382 deaths over the past seven days, the nation's death toll has fallen by 10 percent, week on week.

In the last seven days, the country has recorded 3.4 million cases according to Johns Hopkins data.

The US record during previous waves was 258,000 cases per day, for the week of January 5 to 11, 2021.

Officials have struggled to find a balance that will protect public health without gravely damaging the economy or slamming key services like policing and air travel.

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halved the isolation period for asymptomatic Covid cases to five days, in a bid to blunt mass Omicron-induced disruption as infections hit new highs in multiple states.

And on Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer's Covid-19 booster shot for children as young as 12 ahead of the reopening of schools following the holiday break.

Covid-19 has killed at least 5,441,446 people globally since the outbreak emerged in December 2019, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources on Monday.

Taking into account excess mortality linked to Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimates the overall death toll could be two to three times higher.

Biden, Trump to Offer Two Very Different Addresses on Jan 6 anniversary

Washington (AFP) - A divided nation will experience an ominous split-screen moment Thursday when President Joe Biden uses the anniversary of the January 6 attack on Congress to warn of threats to US democracy and Donald Trump goes live with his conspiracy theories.

One year after a mob of Trump supporters marched on Congress to try and prevent lawmakers from certifying Biden's victory in the presidential election, political wounds remain far from healed.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will reportedly speak from inside the Capitol, the setting during the unrest of almost unbelievable scenes as Trump supporters fought past police to invade the heart of US democracy.

As a veteran politician who came out of retirement to take on what he saw as Trump's authoritarian presidency, Biden has often warned during his first year in the White House of an "existential" threat to political freedoms that until now most Americans took for granted.

His speech -- part of a series of events on what Biden's key ally, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, says will be a "difficult day" -- is set to take that warning to a new level.

But while Congress is holding a prayer vigil for what Biden has called "a dark moment," Trump will be giving a press conference from his luxury property in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

His message is likewise easy to predict. Despite losing by more than seven million votes to Biden, and despite losing multiple court challenges around the country, Trump continues to tout wild claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

And the accusations are only the most incendiary element of a broader attack against Biden on everything from immigration to Covid-19, all adding up to what looks very much like an as-yet undeclared bid to take back power in 2024.

It's a campaign that Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, calls "unprecedented in US history."

"No former president has attempted to do so much to discredit his successor and the democratic process," Tobias said.

What can Biden do?

However ludicrous the election conspiracy theory may be -- one federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Trump's case "strained" and "speculative" -- it is seen as truth by millions of Americans.

Polls consistently show that around 70 percent of Republicans think Biden was elected illegitimately.

A new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll puts this number at 58 percent. However, that same poll found that 40 percent of Republicans, compared to 23 percent of Democrats, believe violence against the government is justified sometimes.

Fighting what Trump, the master brander, popularizes as "the Steal," has become a political ideology in its own right, with nearly all Republican lawmakers either squirming to avoid criticizing what happened on January 6 -- or actively defending the attack.

Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said the combination of political grifters looking to get into Trump's good books and the masses of voters deluded into believing what they're told amounts to a considerable force.

"What is so frightful about where we are right now isn't just that these are elite attacks, but they are being fueled by a grass roots movement," she said.

"It wasn't just far-right win groups who had organized" on January 6, she said. "It was average, everyday Americans who had bought into this whole notion."

It's unclear what, if anything, Biden can do to change these dynamics.

Political scientist and Democratic pollster Rachel Bitecofer urged Biden to take on Trump more aggressively, rather than stick to pretending that the man Press Secretary Jen Psaki has referred to as "the former guy" no longer matters.

Biden "is not commemorating an event that ended. He is commemorating the event that is in process and threatens to get worse," she said.

"There's a real hesitancy to accept how virulent the right is in coming after democracy here."

Brown said, however, that Biden has little room for maneuver, because a direct attack on Trump risks looking like a "political witch hunt" -- exactly what the former president claims in his conspiracy theories.

US Air Travel Still Messy With Another 2,600 Flights Scrapped

Washington (AFP) - Americans returning home from holiday travel had to battle another day of airport chaos Sunday, with more than 2,600 flights cancelled due to bad weather or airline staffing woes sparked by a surge in Covid cases.

Further disruptions are predicted for Monday, as a winter storm blows eastward.

As of 10:00pm (0300 GMT Monday), more than 2,650 domestic flights or international ones starting or finishing in the United States had been canceled -- almost as many as the 2,750 scrapped over the course of Saturday, said the flight-tracking service FlightAware.

That figure represented well over half of the nearly 4,400 flights canceled around the world. Almost 8,600 US flights were delayed.

Southwest Airlines, one of the hardest-hit carriers, had to cancel some 400 flights Sunday morning, a spokesperson said in an email to AFP, adding that it expected further cancellations.

Passenger Nick Kagy was beside himself after his Southwest flight was cancelled.

"ARE YOU KIDDING ME @SouthwestAir," he wrote on Twitter. "We waited on hold for almost 3 hours to rebook because we couldn’t rebook online, and after getting things (not really fully) resolved, you cancelled our second flight to out of another airport."

On Saturday, poor weather, much of it linked to Winter Storm Frida, forced Southwest to cancel 490 flights, most of them in the center-north states south of the Great Lakes and reaching west to the Great Plains.

The result: intense frustration for many travelers.

Missed Connections

"This is insane," tweeted Haley, another Southwest passenger who was trying to fly out of Chicago. "This is the 3rd cancellation and still not home. Was supposed to be home 4 days ago!!!"

Airports in Chicago -- a major transit hub -- were the most affected Saturday, but by Sunday the airports in Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Newark were also hard hit.

A woman named Kayla described her own ordeal: "I was supposed to get home at 10:30 yesterday morning. and at this point I've had 3 flights cancelled and one delayed to the point where I missed my connection."

Around the world, air traffic has suffered snarls since Christmas because of airline staffing issues linked to the spread of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.

Many pilots and flight attendants have called in sick after testing positive for the virus or being forced to quarantine due to contact with someone who has the virus.

This has left carriers with staffing shortages and forced them to delay or cancel flights.

The latest travel chaos carried echoes of a frustrating Christmas weekend, when around 7,500 flights around the world were scrapped.

And rebooking canceled flights has been a major challenge for many.

One traveler, Eric Crawford, described his frustration at trying to call a Delta Airline agent to reschedule.

"An estimated wait time of 22+ hours to speak with a rep about a cancelled flight," he said on Twitter, "is not the best look for starting 2022."

And Kowshick Boddu offered this account, also on Twitter, about his troubles with Alaska Air: "We were supposed to fly out from Fairbanks to San Jose on Dec 30, but our flights got rescheduled to today which is eventually cancelled again??? Long customer call wait hours, no response and flights not been rebooked? Need help!!"

Travel woes are expected to continue into Monday, the first working day of 2022.

Storm Frida will continue on a disruptive path eastward, meteorologists said, bringing snow to a wide swath from Washington located on the mid-Atlantic coast up to Boston, Massachusetts in the north.

Nearly 1,400 Monday flights have already been canceled within, into or out of the United States.

Airport Chaos As More Than 2,600 US Flights Are Cancelled

Washington (AFP) - Air travel continued to be severely disrupted in the United States on Saturday, with bad weather in parts of the country adding to the impact of a massive spike in Covid-19 infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.

The United States had 2,604 cancelled flights, more than half of the 4,529 cancelled worldwide, shortly after 4:30 pm (2130 GMT), according to tracking website FlightAware.

In addition, 3,447 domestic flights were delayed on Saturday, out of a total of 7,602 worldwide for the day.

The worst affected US airline was Southwest, which had to cancel 13 percent of its flight schedule, according to the site.

In the United States, airports in Chicago were particularly hard-hit because of difficult weather, with a snowstorm expected in the area on Saturday afternoon and into the night.

The global air travel industry is still reeling from the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Many pilots, flight attendants and other staff are absent from work after contracting Covid-19, or because they are quarantining after coming in contact with someone who has the infection.

Some 7,500 flights were cancelled by airlines worldwide over the Christmas weekend.

School Board Battles Open New Front In US Culture Wars

Levittown (United States) (AFP) - As Joshua Waldorf was running for a third term on the Pennsbury school board in November, one particularly heated debate triggered a flood of vitriolic messages to his inbox -- one of them urging him to shoot himself.

In a shift mirrored in cities across America, his local council overseeing schools in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia had unwittingly become a battleground in the politicized culture wars roiling the nation.

The hateful messages aimed at Waldorf were just one example of the flow of anonymous slurs and threats directed at him and fellow members of the nine-seat board in past months -- as their once studious meetings turned to angry shouting matches.

"I've been pretty consistent in terms of my views," Waldorf, a 58-year-old businessman, told AFP as the board prepared to meet in an elementary school gym in Fallsington, in a leafy neighborhood of family homes. "But I'm being vilified for those that I wasn't 18 months ago."

In much of the United States, locally elected school boards are tasked with governing a community's public schools -- deciding who to hire as superintendent to manage day-to-day operations, which textbooks to buy, and what education policies to enact.

But over the past year, with the country in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and a historic reckoning over race relations, the boards have had to rule on far more charged issues -- prompting intense backlash from parents often bitterly divided along political lines.

For choosing to require all students and staff to wear masks, the Pennsbury School Board -- all Democrats -- were accused of "child abuse," and seeking to "dehumanize" students.

After hiring a specialist in "equity, diversity, and education" last year, the board came under fire from parents convinced they had a "far left radical agenda to indoctrinate students."

'National Polarization'

School boards from coast to coast have had similar experiences, reflecting "a national polarization now seeping into other levels of government," according to Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

"By and large, school board politics in the United States tend to be relatively uneventful and relatively free of emotion," Hopkins told AFP.

But now, he says, "the really contentious questions that occupy national politics are finding their way" into the meetings.

In Pennsbury, things took a turn for the worse after the board appointed Dr. Cherrissa Gibson -- a local assistant principal -- to a newly created role overseeing diversity and equity in the district's 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school.

Her first audit in April 2021 found "an underrepresentation of professional staff of color," as well as a disproportionate level of discipline targeting Black students.

Situated in the woodsy outer suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsbury has about 10,000 students, of whom 75 percent are white, seven percent are Black, eight percent are Asian, and four percent are Hispanic, according to the district's website.

For Thomas Smith, the district's superintendent, the audit was a way to help "ensure that every student regardless of where they come from, regardless of their gender, or regardless of the color of their skin are treated equally."

But opponents, like 54-year-old Simon Campbell, believe such initiatives only sharpen divisions.

"It is all about trying to stereotype people by race, by gender, and separate them and then customize education based upon those separations," said the former school board member and stock trader.

"Basically kids are being taught that if you're Black ... you are impoverished and need help from the government," he told AFP. "If you're white, then you are an oppressor."

Campbell, who no longer has children in the school district, posts videos of his remarks at school board meetings to YouTube, where he now has more than 30,000 subscribers.

Like other disgruntled parents, he has been invited to appear on conservative radio and television programs to discuss so-called "critical race theory."

The term, which refers to the study of persistent racism in social institutions, has been seized upon by Republicans to broadly attack Democrats' racial equity policies in what has become a lightning rod for conservatives across the country.

'Campaign Of Misinformation'

Christine Toy Dragoni, the outgoing Pennsbury school board president, blames a national "campaign of misinformation" for the intensity of the backlash.

"People are being gaslighted," she told AFP.

The 50-year-old psychotherapist said the deluge of emails began after videos of heated board meeting exchanges went viral online.

Most of the emails wished bad things "happen" to the board members, versus direct threats, but "when they do it repeatedly, you start to worry," said Dragoni.

"Are they going to take the next step and, you know, take action on their words?"

The risk of violence is real: many school districts have been forced to ramp up police presence at board meetings, to remove unruly attendees, as well as to escort members to and from their cars.

Two months ago, US Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI and federal prosecutors to meet with local law enforcement to discuss strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.

Republicans and conservative media seized on the memo, accusing the Biden administration of weaponizing law enforcement to intimidate parents.

"People are within silos," said Waldorf, who won reelection in November, "we've lost the ability to compromise."

'Titan': Former US Senate Leader Harry Reid Dies At 82

Washington (AFP) - Former US Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who rose from humble beginnings to lead the upper chamber during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has died aged 82.

"I am heartbroken to announce the passing of my husband," his wife, Landra, said in a statement released to US media, adding he died "peacefully... surrounded by our family."

Reid, who used his experience in Congress to help Obama steer his landmark Affordable Care Act through the Senate, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018.

Laconic and soft-spoken, Reid was born and raised in the mining town of Searchlight, Nevada on December 2, 1939, in a house with no hot water or indoor toilets.

A prize-fighter in his youth, he used his pugilistic instincts to work his way up to becoming one of the longest-serving majority leaders in the history of the US senate, and even called his memoir The Good Fight.

Current Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said Reid was "one of the most amazing individuals I've ever met."

"He never forgot where he came from and used those boxing instincts to fearlessly fight those who were hurting the poor & middle class," Schumer said on Twitter.

'Skill And Determination'

Despite his hardscrabble upbringing, he was elected to the Senate in 1986 and became the upper chamber's Democratic leader in the 2004 elections. He served as Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015.

Reid often referred to his working class origins -- his father was a miner, his mother a laundress, and neither parent graduated from high school.

He hitchhiked 40 miles (65 kilometers) as a teenager to attend the nearest high school, and then graduated from Utah State University and put himself through George Washington University Law School by working nights as a member of the US Capitol police.

Quixotic, he once filibustered the Republicans by himself for nine hours, by reading from the history book he wrote about his hometown of Searchlight.

Reid was more conservative than most other Democrats in the Senate. A practicing Mormon, he was staunchly against abortion rights -- a stance that sometimes found him working at cross purposes with others in his Democratic caucus.

In lieu of a statement, Obama made public a letter he had written to Reid shortly before his death, in which he said: "I wouldn't have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn't have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Reid a "titan," describing him as "a leader of immense courage and ferocious conviction who worked tirelessly to achieve historic progress for the American people."

Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, said that Reid's rise from poverty to political power was a "quintessentially American story, and it took Harry's legendary toughness, bluntness, and tenacity to make it happen."

Donations Help US Tornado Survivors Salvage Christmas

Mayfield, Kentucky (AFP) - With the help of volunteers from around the country, families in western Kentucky will be able to celebrate Christmas on Saturday, two weeks after a string of tornadoes wrought a path of deadly destruction.

"We're just trying to provide Christmas," said Jimmy Finch, a volunteer from the neighboring state of Tennessee who came to Mayfield the day after the twisters hit.

"I haven't kept a total tally of how many people we have fed," Finch said. "We just encourage everybody to keep coming back."

Under a big yellow tent set up in a parking lot, the Scientology Volunteer Minister group also serves hot food and drink on a cold, windy Christmas Eve.

"It's a very difficult time for everybody," said Chad Adams, a member of the organization. "We're trying to make sure everybody eats."

He estimates that they have served over 30,000 meals since the disaster struck, and invites everyone around to keep coming back to have food and hot chocolate.

At other sites, organizations distributed toys to families who have lost everything, hoping to provide some joy amidst the tragedy.

In the nearby town of Benton, Shane Cornwell dressed up as Santa for his volunteer shift at a donation site, where boxes of toys and food lined the walls of the local Elk Lodge.

Outside, volunteers painted Christmas tree ornaments, while local families impacted by the storm collected toys from bins separated by age range.

At least 79 people lost their lives in the tornados, which passed over several states from the night of December 10 to the early morning of December 11.

"The scope and scale of this destruction is almost beyond belief," said President Joe Biden after touring the damage in Mayfield.

Pentagon Review Finds 100 Service Members Engaged In 'Extremist Activity'

Washington (AFP) - About 100 members of the US military took part in some form of "prohibited extremist activity" over the past year, the Pentagon said Monday as it released new guidelines for service members.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin ordered a review in February 2021 of the Defense Department's policies on countering extremism within the ranks.

The review came after the revelation that dozens of former members of the US military took part in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

"The overwhelming majority of the men and women of the Department of Defense serve this country with honor and integrity," Austin said in a statement accompanying the release of the working group report on countering extremist activity.

"They respect the oath they took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," Austin said. "We believe only a very few violate this oath by participating in extremist activities."

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the review found that "about 100" active duty or reserve members of the US military had participated in prohibited extremist activities over the past year.

He declined to specify what type of activity they had been engaged in, but cited advocating the overthrow of the government or "domestic terrorism" as examples of prohibited activities.

The working group does not list specific extremist groups in its new guidelines.

Among its recommendations were increased training and education for service members on what constitutes prohibited extremist activity.

"That includes very specifically, the guidelines for social media, what's permissible and what's not, with respect to extremist prohibited activities," Kirby said.

Starbucks Workers Score Major Union Breakthrough In Vote

Buffalo (AFP) - Workers at two Starbucks cafes in Buffalo, New York voted to establish a union, the first at the coffee chain's company-owned shops in the United States.

There were hugs and cries of joy at the union office as the campaign won a decisive majority Thursday at the company's Elmwood Avenue shop in northern New York state, before results were announced on votes at two other cafes.

"It has been an unbelievably long road to get to this count," said Michelle Eisen, who has worked at the shop for more than 11 years. "We've done it in spite of all the company has thrown at us."

The outcome was also cheered by two of America's most prominent progressive politicians.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) saluted the group on Twitter, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said she was "proud" of the workers for persevering through a difficult campaign.

The mood became more subdued after officials with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that a majority at a second Buffalo-area cafe voted against the union.

But union backers were smiling again after a third store in the region also voted in favor of representation.

Final results await certification by the NLRB following challenges to some votes, but union supporters say they are certain of wins in two of the shops.

"This is a monumental victory, this is a dream come true," said Lexi Rizzo, another union supporter.

Rising Activism

A Starbucks spokeswoman said the coffee giant continues to believe conditions do not justify an intermediary between the company and workers, but added, "we respect our partners' right to organize."

Starbucks will await the final certification of the results next week before announcing next steps, she said.

The vote is the culmination of an effort launched in August by about 50 employees under the banner of "Starbucks Workers United."

A "yes" vote might have a knock-on effect -- not just for Starbucks, but for other US firms like Amazon who are fighting similar efforts by workers to organize.

Earlier Thursday, Steve Boyd, a 60-year-old attorney, expressed support for the workers as he exited the Elmwood Avenue location in the city not far from the Canadian border with his daily fix.

"I see them every morning. They are sort of part of my day and they should have a living wage," Boyd said.

"All across the US, businesses are complaining that they can't find people to work, and the best way to find people to work is to give them fair wages, fair working conditions."

The campaign shows how workers are becoming more assertive at a time when tight job markets have given employees more clout, said Cedric de Leon, a labor expert at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"The bargaining power of workers is very high at the moment," de Leon told AFP.

There have been high-profile actions at other companies, such as a five-week strike at tractor maker John Deere & Co. earlier this fall.

And some 4.2 million Americans left their jobs in October, part of a phenomenon dubbed "The Great Resignation" that has added to the tightness in labor markets.

Cycling Managers

Will Westlake, 24, joined Starbucks in May and said he was initially attracted to the company's progressive reputation and better working conditions compared with other cafes.

He said he later "found out that wasn't the case," and was surprised that colleagues with much more experience at the cafe were only making slightly more.

The coffee chain, which recently announced that it was lifting its minimum wage to $15 an hour, has stressed that it is not against organized labor, but argued that the issues raised by workers do not justify a union.

Union supporters say Starbucks has cycled about 200 managers and supervisors through the stores since August, in an apparent effort to win over undecided employees.

The company's longtime architect and former CEO Howard Schultz led a meeting with employees in November.

Labor backers describe Buffalo as just the start of an effort that has already spread to the southwestern state of Arizona, where workers recently demanded a vote.

Biden Convenes More Than 100 Nations For World Democracy Summit

Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden, who took office amid the biggest US political crisis in decades, hosts representatives of more than 100 countries for a democracy summit Thursday that is drawing fire from China and Russia.

The event, held by video link because of the coronavirus pandemic, is billed by the White House as US leadership in an existential struggle between democracies and powerful autocracies or dictatorships.

"Make no mistake, we're at a moment of democratic reckoning," said Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

"It's no secret that democracies around the world are facing increasing challenges from new and novel threats. Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding."

The summit, running Thursday and Friday, will feature opening remarks from Biden at the White House and is set to gather representatives from some 100 governments, as well as NGOs, private businesses, philanthropical organizations and legislatures.

But the fact that Biden continues to face a shocking challenge to US democratic norms from Donald Trump and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election provides a troubling backdrop for the summit.

And even before summit attendees could meet, tensions erupted simply over who should be on -- and off -- the list.

China and Russia, which Biden sees as champions of the autocracies camp, were pointedly left out, something they say is stoking an ideological "rift."

"No country has the right to judge the world's vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick," wrote ambassadors Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China in a joint essay last month.

Further prickling Chinese sensibilities, the Biden administration has invited Taiwan -- the democratically ruled island that mainland China considers part of its territory, albeit not yet under its control.

On Monday, the Biden administration also announced it would not send US government officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February in protest at human rights abuses, including "genocide" against the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang.

Australia, Britain, and Canada have joined the diplomatic boycott, although the countries' athletes will still compete. Again, Russia joined China in criticizing the decision.

Deciding when other countries should be excluded from the summit for human rights abuses or vote rigging hasn't been any less fraught.

For example, Pakistan and the Philippines are in, while EU member Hungary's nationalist government is out. Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is invited, while the leader of NATO member Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been shunned.

Democracy Problem At Home

The most awkward element to the summit, however, is the fact that Biden is struggling to restore faith in democracy at home, let alone on the other side of the world.

Trump refuses to recognize the results of the 2020 election, in which Biden defeated him.

With the help of sympathetic media outlets, including the powerful Fox News, the former Republican president continues to spread lies about fraud to his tens of millions of supporters.

And with shockwaves from the January 6 storming of Congress by Trump supporters still reverberating, there are growing fears over the 2022 legislative elections and the 2024 presidential vote in which Trump may seek a comeback.

Bruce Jentleson, who teaches political science at Duke University, said the summit was "never a good idea."

"Our problems here are much worse than in any other Western democracy. We had our Capitol building attacked, an attempted coup. We haven’t seen that happen in Paris, or at the Bundestag, or at the EU headquarters in Brussels," he said.

"If we want to compete, we've got to do our best and that is really more up to us within the country than somehow getting 100 leaders together and saying, 'We like democracy.'"