Tuesday’s top stories

Jul 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Unions press progressives to back infrastructure

President Biden pauses while speaking at the start of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Prominent labor groups are urging progressive House lawmakers to stifle their concerns about the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal and give it their full support.

Why it matters: Even if the package wins enough Republican support in the Senate, Democrats are growing increasingly concerned progressives in the House will sink the deal.

Space business gets billionaire boost

Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew (L-R) Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos walk near the booster. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Blue Origin's successful flight is the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats story of the moment for the sector.

Why it matters: For investors, it doesn’t matter which billionaire hits space first. Recent headlines only generate more interest, some of which turns into investments — and that's good for companies that need cash.

Listen to “Axios Today”
Many Western allies are unhappy with the U.S.

How the PS5 made a great-looking game possible

Image: Insomniac/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The PlayStation 5's ultra-fast storage deserves a lot of credit for the groundbreaking graphics in the console's recent hit, "Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart," its developers told Axios in an exclusive interview.

Why it matters: Insomniac Games' recent release is the rare showcase that demonstrates just what a PS5 can do — and what a PS4 couldn't.

Jul 20, 2021 - World

Scoop: Israel forms damage control team after NSO Pegasus spyware reports

Defense Minister Gantz (L), Foreign MInister Lapid (C) and Prime Minister Bennett. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty

The Israeli government is forming a special team to manage the fallout from reports that software developed by Israeli firm NSO was used by governments around the world to spy on journalists, human rights activists and possibly world leaders, two Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: So far, this is primarily a media crisis for Israel. But senior Israeli officials are concerned it could morph into a diplomatic crisis.

Jul 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Chair of Trump's 2017 inaugural fund arrested on federal charges

Tom Barrack speaking on a panel in Beverly Hills, California, in 2019. Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Real estate investor Tom Barrack, a longtime ally of former President Trump who chaired his 2017 inaugural fund, was arrested Tuesday and charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the United Arab Emirates, the Department of Justice announced.

Why it matters: The DOJ said Barrack attempted to advance the interests of the UAE by influencing the foreign policy positions of Trump's campaign in 2016 and, subsequently, the foreign policy positions of the U.S. government in the incoming administration.

Wildfires mushroom in West amid heat, drought, prompting evacuations

Pyrocumulonimbus cloud towers over the Dixie Fire on Monday afternoon, seen via a California wildfire camera. (PG&E wildfire camera.)

Wildfires across the West dramatically increased in size from Monday through Tuesday, with 83 large blazes now burning in the U.S. and about 300 to the north in British Columbia.

Why it matters: The western wildfire season has kicked into high gear about two months early, as climate change-related drought and heat waves have dried out vegetation to levels not typically seen prior to late summer. About 20,000 firefighters are already deployed to blazes.

Delta variant now makes up 83% of U.S. COVID cases, CDC director says

Photo: Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The more transmissible Delta variant now accounts for 83% of COVID-19 cases in the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said during a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Why it matters: The "dramatic increase," up from 50% on July 3, has led to a rise in virus-related deaths, Walensky told lawmakers.

Updated Jul 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: White House official, Pelosi aide test positive for COVID

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A White House official and a staff member for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have both tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the same reception last week, officials confirmed to Axios.

Why it matters: While both individuals are vaccinated and mildly symptomatic, they illustrate how Americans inoculated against the coronavirus can still contract and, potentially, unknowingly transmit the virus — even at the highest levels of the nation's government.

New York reaches $1.1 billion settlement with opioid distributors

Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain on display on March 23, 2016 in Norwich, CT. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

New York reached a $1.1 billion settlement on Tuesday with three of the country's largest drug distributors for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic, New York Attorney General Letitia James said.

The big picture: The settlement comes as the three companies — McKesson, Cardinal Health, and Amerisource Bergen — as well as Johnson & Johnson near a $26 billion deal with states and municipalities that would settle thousands of lawsuits related to the opioid crisis, the New York Times reports.

Jul 20, 2021 - Science

Bezos says space flight reinforced commitment to fighting climate change

Jeff Bezos said in an interview hours after flying to suborbital space on Tuesday that there are "no words" to adequately describe the experience, but that it reinforced his commitment to combatting climate change and keeping Earth "as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is."

Why it matters: Bezos, the world's richest man, said he plans to make Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund — a $10 billion effort to fight climate change — his life focus moving forward.

Jul 20, 2021 - World

Iran's Security Council rejects draft nuclear deal with U.S., spokesman says

Incoming president Raisi gives a speech. Photo: Mohsen Esmaeilzadeh/ISNA News Agency via Getty

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has rejected a draft agreement negotiated indirectly with the U.S. over the past three months in Vienna, a government spokesman said Thursday. However, another spokesman later denied that there was any "agreement" to reject in the first place.

Why it matters: Either way, the statements seem to indicate that incoming president Ebrahim Raisi will seek to renegotiate the understandings reached in Vienna to seek a better deal for Iran. They also confirm that no deal on Iran's nuclear program will be reached before Raisi, a hardliner, takes office next month.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Updated Jul 20, 2021 - Science

Jeff Bezos, 3 others land safely after flight to space with Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos and three other passengers took flight with his space company Blue Origin on Tuesday morning, launching high above West Texas.

Why it matters: It's Blue Origin's first human flight and a major technical milestone for the company as it focuses on bringing suborbital spaceflight to more people in the future.

The path to S&P 5,000

Illustration: Trent Joaquin/Axios

Even with Monday’s stock market swoon, the S&P 500 could still rally to 5,000 within the next two years.

Why it matters: A big round number like 5,000 may seem like a stretch. But it's really not if you consider the historical precedents and the fundamentals, which support the case for reaching that milestone from its 4,258 close on Monday.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Jul 20, 2021 - Technology

Software bots could be the future of business automation

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Businesses are building a new kind of assembly line — and this one is digital, staffed by software bots.

Why it matters: For all the hopes and fears around industrial robots, more progress is being made in the realm of digital workers: Bots that can perform a growing number of often tedious and time-consuming tasks in an increasingly online business world.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jul 20, 2021 - Science

New wrinkle for space tourism: Deciding who counts as an astronaut

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Jeff Bezos is going to space today, but whether that makes him an astronaut is open to interpretation.

Why it matters: Bezos and his billionaire rival Richard Branson are hoping to lure wealthy customers into space tourism, in part, with the promise of becoming astronauts — but the definition of who is considered an astronaut isn't clear-cut.

Facebook's vaccine-misinformation mess

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In walking back his comments about Facebook "killing people," President Biden Monday conceded that the debate around vaccine misinformation is too complicated to be narrowed down to soundbites.

Why it matters: Inoculating people is the surest path to ending the COVID pandemic, but the U.S. vaccination drive has petered out against a tide of partisan rhetoric and suspicion fueled by misinformation.

Jul 20, 2021 - Sports

Olympians are getting their voices back

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Colin Kaepernick isn't in the Olympics, but the lasting image of an athlete kneeling on the sidelines in silent protest is likely to find its way to Tokyo all the same.

Why it matters: Such a demonstration would have previously been banned at the Games, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has relaxed its rules governing protests in the wake of 2020's global racial reckoning.

Axios-Ipsos poll: Convincing the unvaccinated

Expand chart
Data: Axios/Ipsos poll; Note: Among a sample of 295 respondents, with a margin of error of +/-5.8%; Chart: Connor Rothschild/Axios

Most Americans who still aren't vaccinated say nothing — not their own doctor administering it, a favorite celebrity's endorsement or even paid time off — is likely to make them get the shot, according to the latest installment of the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Why it matters: The findings are more sobering evidence of just how tough it may be to reach herd immunity in the U.S. But they also offer a roadmap for trying — the public health equivalent of, "So you're telling me there's a chance."

Jul 20, 2021 - Technology

Conservative media diets tied to distrust in health officials

Expand chart
Reproduced from Annenberg Public Policy Center; Chart: Axios visuals

People who rely on conservative media have much less confidence in key public health institutions and experts, and are much more likely to believe misinformation about the vaccine, according to a new study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why it matters: The survey finds a widening gap between Americans who trust key health institutions and those who don't.

Resources pushed to limit as wildfires burn across U.S. and Canada

A helicopter flies with a load of water to the Bootleg Fire, near Bly, Oregon. Photo: Payton Bruni/AFP via Getty Images

Fire officials are seeing resources stretched to the limit as scores of wildfires burn across the U.S. and Canada amid hot, dry conditions.

Threat level: In Oregon, officials have called in firefighting support from outside the Pacific Northwest — as the biggest blaze in the U.S., the Bootleg Fire, swelled to 537 square miles Monday.

Man sentenced to prison for threatening to kill Flynn case judge

Judge Emmet Sullivan works at his office on in D.C. Photo: Dominic Bracco for THE WASHINGTON POST via Getty Images.

A New York man was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Monday for threatening to kill the judge overseeing the criminal case against Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, per the Washington Post.

Driving the news: Frank Caporusso pleaded guilty last April to leaving a threatening message on the voice mailbox of U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan over Flynn's case in May 2020.

Updated Jul 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Marjorie Taylor Greene's Twitter account suspended for COVID misinformation

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene at the U.S. Capitol in June. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Twitter announced Monday that it's suspending the account of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for 12 hours.

Driving the news: "We took enforcement action on the account you referenced (@mtgreenee) for violations of the Twitter Rules, specifically the COVID-19 misleading information policy," Twitter said in an emailed statement.

Updated Jul 20, 2021 - Science

FEMA chief heads West as large wildfires rage, heat wave peaks

Fire engulfs trees at the Tamarack fire in Central California on Saturday. Photo: Ty O'Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell will make her first trip to wildfire-affected states amid another dangerous week of extreme heat and "critical" fire weather conditions, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The West is experiencing its worst drought this century, and repeated, extreme heat waves have dried out forests and grasslands, priming them to burn. Officials are gearing up for an unprecedented, prolonged peak fire season.

Jul 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Dems eye infrastructure for Medicare expansion

Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Democrats are debating lowering the Medicare eligibility age as part of the $3.5-trillion "soft" infrastructure package, at the risk of jeopardizing centrist support for a measure being pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Why it matters: Giving Americans over age 60 access to Medicare would force Democrats to either add an estimated $200 billion to their overall infrastructure price tag or cut other progressive priorities currently in the package.

House builds infrastructure alliances

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Members of the House are forming alliances and gearing for battle while waiting for the Senate to work out final details of an infrastructure deal.

Why it matters: The lower chamber has been on the sidelines during its two-week recess, yet representatives have been watching senators carefully in anticipation of their own debate on the measures that will be shipped their way.

By the numbers: Would-be Dreamers

Expand chart
Data: Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

The fate of roughly 80,000 people who applied for but hadn't been approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program rests with Congress — and the Senate parliamentarian.

Why it matters: A federal judge Friday blocked roughly 500,000 to 700,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from participating in DACA and receiving its deportation protections. Nothing changed — for now — for the more than 600,000 active DACA recipients.

Jul 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

GOP split over infrastructure messaging

Republicans are looking to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, seen Monday, for their infrastructure cue. Photo: Tom Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are all over the map about how their party should proceed on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure proposal.

What we're hearing: GOP strategists tell Axios they've struggled over not only whether they support the current Senate negotiations but how to message off the broader infrastructure debate.