Coronavirus, Justice Department, Democrats: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering a surge in coronavirus cases, the state of the Democratic presidential race, and Radio Sputnik, a Russian propaganda effort, in the Midwest.

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Credit…China Daily, via Reuters

After the infection rate in China seemed to be leveling off, numbers released today showed the most new cases in a day so far — nearly 15,000 in Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak.

A change in how the illness is diagnosed may partly explain the jump. Here are the latest updates and maps of where the virus has spread.

Political fallout: China’s ruling Communist Party fired the leaders of Hubei Province and Wuhan, its largest city, today amid widespread public anger over the handling of the epidemic.

Economic fallout: One of the world’s biggest technology trade shows, Mobile World Congress in Spain, was canceled because of the outbreak. International students at Chinese universities have faced difficult decisions, and the cruise industry is suffering.

“The Daily”: Today’s episode examines how China’s government is handling public anger.


Top Justice Department officials’ intervention to reduce a sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime friend of President Trump, has raised fears among career prosecutors.

Prosecutors across the U.S., who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said they had already been wary of cases that might catch Mr. Trump’s attention and that this week’s events had deepened their concern.

Background: Modern presidents have generally avoided publicly weighing in on cases involving friends or associates, though some have eventually offered clemency. Mr. Trump’s allies have said that he is acting within his rights to correct a law enforcement system he sees as biased.

Related: A week after acquitting the president, Republican senators have said little as he purges perceived enemies and publicly seeks leniency for Mr. Stone.

Quotable: Asked on Wednesday whether Mr. Trump appeared to have learned from impeachment, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said, “There haven’t been strong indicators this week that he has.”

Another angle: Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, made her first public remarks since her testimony in November in the impeachment proceedings. “Right now, the State Department is in trouble,” she told a crowd in Washington.


The early success of Bernie Sanders has worried moderate Democrats who see the Vermont senator’s democratic socialism as a risky bet in the general election.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, most voters supported candidates closer to the political center, but none was an overwhelming favorite.

Among those candidates is Amy Klobuchar, who made bets in New Hampshire that paid off in a third-place finish.

Another angle: Joe Biden is looking to South Carolina and its large black electorate to resurrect his candidacy, but there are signs that may be a bigger challenge after his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. On Wednesday, three black members of Congress endorsed Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.

Related: Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and the public face of its caucus debacle, has resigned.


A plan promoted by former Vice President Al Gore to plant a trillion trees by 2030 has found its way into recent comments by President Trump, including last week’s State of the Union address.

One of our climate reporters traced the path of the proposal, which involved a PowerPoint presentation by Marc Benioff, the billionaire co-founder of the software company Salesforce.

It’s unclear whether the government will plant any trees, or how much they would do in the near term to mitigate climate change. But Mr. Trump, who once called global warming a hoax, has recently struck a softer tone on climate science.

Quotable: “It’s obvious the president’s team understands this is a weakness for him right now given the rhetoric he’s used, the dismissal of climate science and all of the executive actions that are consistent with that rhetoric,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who championed a carbon tax.

Perspective: In an opinion piece for The Times, several scientists argue that “focusing on trees as the big solution to climate change is a dangerous diversion.”

Last month, Radio Sputnik, an arm of the Russian government focused on sowing doubt about Western governments, started broadcasting on three Kansas City-area radio stations during prime drive times.

Critics call it an exploitation of American values and openness, but those behind the deal defend it as a matter of free speech.

The return of Hope Hicks: President Trump’s former communications director will return to the White House as an aide to Jared Kushner.

Mental incompetency ruling: An Iowa woman who was charged in December hit-and-run attacks on two children — including a girl whom the police said was targeted because she looked “Mexican” — has been ruled unfit to stand trial.

News publisher bankruptcy: McClatchy, which owns papers including The Miami Herald and The Sacramento Bee, filed for bankruptcy today.

Snapshot: Above, objects from London’s past recovered by so-called mudlarks, who scour the edge of the River Thames at low tide. (The term originally referred to the Victorian-era poor who hunted items to sell.)

Chaos at Condé Nast: New memoirs by the former editor of Details and other ex-employees of the magazine company reveal a mess behind the gloss of the early 2000s.

Late-night comedy: “You know, a month ago, if somebody had told me Amy Klobuchar was going to do better in New Hampshire than Joe Biden, that person would have been Amy Klobuchar — it wouldn’t have been anybody else,” Jimmy Kimmel said.

What we’re reading: This piece in The Atlantic about invasive earthworms. “Who knew that they’re not native to the Northeast or Midwest?” says Albert Sun, an assistant editor for news platforms. “And that many actually do little good for soil.”

How did you find him?

There was a French TV station that found him first and did a three- or four-minute interview. And then a scholar I had interviewed pointed me to this town on the Italian Riviera. In his most recent book, published just a few months ago, he mentions the town, and he mentions going to this particular cafe. I went there literally 30 minutes after I arrived in town. And five minutes later he walks in.

I waited for him to finish his espresso. Outside, I introduced myself. Initially he didn’t respond, then he got angry and said I should go through his lawyer. I said, “I’ve been trying, but he hasn’t been returning messages and phone calls.”

Eventually he started talking. He might have thought, “Why isn’t my lawyer defending me?”

And he was happy someone had read his work. I could say, “Well, in this book you said …” That got him talking a lot.

How much of his work did you end up reading?

He wrote almost 50 books, and I read about a dozen. None of them have been translated into English, but I grew up in Montreal and went to French schools. And two colleagues in the bureau read books that I didn’t read. Many were out of circulation.

So one of my colleagues spent days at the library scanning books and diaries from the ’70s and ’80s, and then we printed out the scans.

What was he like in person?

His reputation has always been that he’s extremely charming, and he was. He’s 83, but he speaks perfectly, in elegant, full sentences.

Was that what protected him?

I think that partly it is. And people thought he was a good writer. I don’t think a manual laborer would get away with what he did.


That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.

— Chris


Thank you
Mark Josephson and Kathleen Massara provided the break from the news. Andrea Kannapell, the Briefings editor, wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at briefing@nytimes.com.

P.S.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Today’s episode is about the coronavirus outbreak.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Freeloader (five letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The Times Magazine and T, our style magazine, have been nominated for a total of 12 awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

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