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DOJ finds Alex Acosta exercised "poor judgment" in Epstein plea deal

Former U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta demonstrated "poor judgement" when he signed off on a plea deal with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but did not commit “professional misconduct,” the Justice Department concluded in a report released Thursday.

Why it matters: The federal criminal investigation, which took place from 2006 to 2008, allowed Epstein to avoid a possible life sentence. He was released after serving 13 months in prison and largely continued business operations and travels until 2019 when he was charged in a new sex trafficking case.

The big picture: With his decision, Acosta failed to consider that the plea deal "required greater oversight," the DOJ said. He resolved the federal investigation before carrying out important investigative steps.

  • The report did note, however, that the decision was within the scope of Acosta’s broad discretion and did not result from “improper factors.”
  • There is no evidence that a “lack of consultation was for the purpose of silencing victims.”
  • The plea deal waived "federal prosecution in the Southern District of Florida of [Epstein], four named co-conspirators, and 'any potential co-conspirators.'"
  • Acosta resigned as President Trump's labor secretary in 2019 after facing scrutiny over his handling of the Epstein case during his tenure as a federal prosecutor in Florida.

What they’re saying: Paul Cassell, an attorney for multiple Epstein victims, called the report a “cover up,” the Washington Post reports.

  • “[Acosta] and his office failed to give notice to victims, misled victims, misinterpreted the law and did not treat the abuse survivors with decency and respect,” Adam Horowitz, another attorney representing Epstein victims, told the Post. “The mountain of mistakes was not just poor judgment. It was reckless.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) demanded the department release its full report, saying in a statement. “Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn’t ‘poor judgment’ — it is a disgusting failure.

  • “The DOJ’s crooked deal with Epstein effectively shut down investigations into his child sex trafficking ring and protected his co-conspirators in other states. Justice has not been served," he added.

What to watch: Ghislaine Maxwell, a longtime Epstein confidante, is awaiting trial on charges of recruiting and grooming underage girls. Trump came under fire earlier this year for "wish[ing] her well."

Saudi Arabia and Qatar near deal to end standoff, sources say

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close to a deal to end the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf following U.S.-mediated reconciliation talks this week, sources familiar with the talks tell me.

Why it matters: Restoring relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar would bring a sense of stability back to the Gulf after a 3.5 year standoff. It could also notch a last-minute achievement for the Trump administration before Jan. 20.

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President of Soros foundation leaves amid speculation of potential Biden role

Patrick Gaspard, who served as ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama, is stepping down as president of George Soros' Open Society Foundations, fueling speculation that he'll join the Biden administration, potentially as Labor secretary.

What to know: Before his stint as ambassador, Gaspard was Obama's political director in the White House, drawing upon his experience in the labor movement to advance Obama's legislative agenda on health care and financial services reform.

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House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana

The House on Friday voted 228-164 in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, marking the first time a congressional chamber has voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level.

Why it matters: The Washington Post describes the bill as a "landmark retreat in the nation’s decades-long war on drugs," which has disproportionately affected people of color.

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Clean trucks are paving the road to the electric vehicle era

The electric vehicle revolution is underway, led by the un-sexiest of plug-in models: the commercial truck.

Why it matters: Growing demand for cleaner trucks means 2021 will be a pivotal year for electric vehicles — just not the kind you might have expected.

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Over 13 million people are receiving pandemic unemployment assistance expiring on Dec. 26

Data: Department of Labor; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits is falling but remains remarkably high three weeks before pandemic assistance programs are set to expire. More than 1 million people a week are still filing for initial jobless claims, including nearly 300,000 applying for pandemic assistance.

By the numbers: As of Nov. 14, 20.2 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits of some kind, including more than 13.4 million on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs that were created as part of the CARES Act and end on Dec. 26.

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The top candidates Biden is considering for key energy and climate roles

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has urged President-elect Joe Biden to nominate Mary Nichols, chair of California's air pollution regulator, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: The reported push by Schumer could boost Nichol's chances of leading an agency that will play a pivotal role in Biden's vow to enact aggressive new climate policies — especially because the plan is likely to rest heavily on executive actions.

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U.S. economy adds 245,000 jobs in November as rate of recovery slows

Axios Visuals. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The U.S. economy added 245,000 jobs in November, while the unemployment rate fell to 6.7% from 6.9%, the government said on Friday.

Why it matters: The labor market continues to recover even as coronavirus cases surge— though it's still millions of jobs short of the pre-pandemic level. The problem is that the rate of recovery is slowing significantly.

This story is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

Fauci says he accepted Biden's offer to be chief medical adviser "on the spot"

The government's top infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci said Friday that he "absolutely" will accept the offer from President-elect Joe Biden to serve as his chief medical officer, telling NBC's "Today" that he said yes "right on the spot."

Why it matters: President Trump had a contentious relationship with Fauci, who has been forced during the pandemic to correct many of the president's false claims about the coronavirus. Biden, meanwhile, has emphasized the importance of "listening to the scientists" throughout his campaign and transition.

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