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Senate agrees to hear Trump case, rejecting GOP arguments

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial opened Tuesday with graphic video showing the former president whipping up a rally crowd to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” against his reelection defeat, followed by images of the deadly attack on Congress that came soon after.

In an early test of the former president’s defense, Trump’s team lost a crucial bid to halt the trial on constitutional grounds. Senators confirmed, 56-44, their jurisdiction over the trial, the first of a president no longer in office. While six Republican senators joined the Democrats in proceeding, the tally showed how far prosecutors have to go to win conviction, which requires a two-thirds threshold of 67 senators.

Tuesday’s vote was on whether a former president could be tried after leaving office.

House Democrats prosecuting the case told senators they were presenting “cold, hard facts” against Trump, who is charged with inciting the mob siege of the Capitol to overturn the election he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

Senators sitting as jurors, many who themselves fled for safety that day, watched the jarring video of Trump supporters battling past police to storm the halls, Trump flags waving.

“That’s a high crime and misdemeanor,” declared Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., in opening remarks. “If that’s not an impeachable offense, then there’s no such thing.”

Trump is the first president to face impeachment charges after leaving office and the first to be twice impeached. The Capitol siege stunned the world as hundreds of rioters ransacked the building to try to stop the certification of Biden’s victory, a domestic attack on the nation’s seat of government unlike any in its history. Five people died.

Acquittal is likely, but the trial will test the nation’s attitude toward Trump’s brand of presidential power, the Democrats’ resolve in pursuing him, and the loyalty of Trump’s Republican allies defending him.

Trump’s lawyers are insisting that he is not guilty of the sole charge of “incitement of insurrection,” his fiery words just a figure of speech as he encouraged a rally crowd to “fight like hell” for his presidency. But prosecutors say he “has no good defense” and they promise new evidence.

Security remained extremely tight at the Capitol on Tuesday, a changed place after the attack, fenced off with razor wire with armed National Guard troops on patrol. The nine House managers walked across the shuttered building to prosecute the case before the Senate.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would not be watching the trial of his predecessor.

“Joe Biden is the president, he’s not a pundit, he’s not going to opine on back and forth arguments,” she said.

With senators gathered as the court of impeachment, sworn to deliver “impartial justice,” the trial started with debate and a vote over whether it’s constitutionally permissible to prosecute Trump after he is no longer in the White House.

Trump’s defense team has focused on that question, which could resonate with Republicans eager to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behavior.

Lead lawyer Bruce Castor said that no member of the former president’s defense team would do anything but condemn the violence of the “repugnant” attack, and “in the strongest possible way denounce the rioters.”

Yet Trump’s attorney appealed to the senators as “patriots first,” and encouraged them to be “cool headed” as they assess the arguments.

At one pivotal point, Raskin told the personal story of bringing his family to the Capitol the day of the riot, to witness the certification of the Electoral College vote, only to have his daughter and son-in-law hiding in an office, fearing for their lives.

“Senators, this cannot be our future,” Raskin said through tears. “This cannot be the future of America.”

Trump attorney David Schoen turned the trial toward starkly partisan tones, the defense showing its own video of Democrats calling for the former president’s impeachment.

Schoen said Democrats are fueled by a “base hatred” of the former president and “seeking to eliminate Donald Trump from the American political scene.”

It appears unlikely that the House prosecutors will call witnesses, in part because the senators were witnesses themselves. At his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, Trump has declined a request to testify.

Presidential impeachment trials have been conducted only three times before, leading to acquittals for Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and then Trump last year.

Timothy Naftali, a clinical associate professor at New York University and an expert on impeachment, said in an interview, “This trial is one way of having that difficult national conversation about the difference between dissent and insurrection.”

The first test Tuesday was on the constitutionality of the trial, signaling attitudes in the Senate. Six Republicans joined with Democrats pursue the trial, just one more than on a similar vote last week. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana added to the ranks of Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

The House prosecutors argued there is no “January exception” for a president on his way out the door. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., referred to the corruption case of William Belknap, a war secretary in the Grant administration, who was impeached, tried and ultimately acquitted by the Senate after leaving office.

Trump’s case is hardly a run of the mill corruption charge, he said, but incitement of insurrection. If Congress stands by, “it would invite future presidents to use their power without any fear of accountability.”

In filings, lawyers for the former president lobbed a wide-ranging attack against the House case, suggesting Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment rights and dismissing the trial as “political theater” on the same Senate floor invaded by the mob.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, senators were allowed to spread out, including in the “marble room” just off the Senate floor, where proceedings are shown on TV, or even in the public galleries above the chamber. Most were at their desks on the opening day, however.

Presiding was not the chief justice of the United States, as in previous presidential impeachment trials, but the chamber’s senior-most member of the majority party, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Under an agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the substantive opening arguments will begin at noon Wednesday, with up to 16 hours per side for presentations. The trial is expected to continue into the weekend.

Trump’s second impeachment trial is expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated affair of a year ago. In that case, Trump was charged with having privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then a Democratic rival for the presidency.

This time, Trump’s “stop the steal” rally rhetoric and the storming of the Capitol played out for the world to see.

The Democratic-led House impeached the president swiftly, one week after the attack. Five people died, including a woman shot by police inside the building and a police officer who died the next day of his injuries.

Batches of COVID-19 vaccine appointments unfilled as demand trends downward in Utah County

The Utah County Health Department released close to 2,000 COVID-19 vaccine appointments for Monday before the weekend, but those appointment slots did not fill up as fast as they previously had.

The extra slots opening up came by way of a push to have a big day on Monday at the new Spanish Fork vaccination facility, according to Utah County Health Department Public Information Officer Aislynn Tolman-Hill

During the height of the 70-and-older population seeking to be vaccinated, slots for appointments were filling up in minutes with tens of thousands of people on the site at one time.

“We’re starting to see a slower demand of people wanting those appointments in the 70-and-over group and from our normal outreach methods of the text notifications, putting it out on social media and putting it out on the website,” Tolman-Hill said. “We monitored it over the weekend, kept posting on social about it, and it was kind of filling but not as quickly as we would like. We did end up with about 200 unused appointment slots on Monday.”

While the appointments were not filled, the 200 vaccines did not go to waste as the doses were reallocated to the other Utah County vaccination site in Provo for use throughout the week.

This drop in demand for the COVID-19 vaccine offers an opportunity for those 70 and older to be inoculated if they haven’t already.

Something else that comes with the drop in demand is the want to outreach more in the community. Tolman-Hill said the health department hopes to get the word out to those who may not be sitting by their computers or phones, to give the chance to those who have not yet received the vaccine.

“We’re also trying to get the message out to everyone, the whole population, that if you have friends, loved ones or a neighbor in that 70-and-over population, check in on them,” Tolman-Hill said. “Ask if they have had the vaccine, if they want the vaccine, are they aware of how to sign up, do they need help signing up?”

This process of scheduling an appointment may not be the easiest for some in the over-70 range, but it may be easier for others they know. People can make a phone call or sign up online for someone to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as long as they are over 70 years old.

This trend, from a crazy high demand to slowing demand, is something that is expected to happen again in the coming phases as the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine expands.

Come March 1, when the next phase of individuals over 65 or those with certain preexisting health conditions receive eligibility, Tolman-Hill expects the demand to skyrocket.

This is all a part of the learning process for the county health department as it tries to improve patient experience, overall speed and more at the vaccination sites.

Improvements have been made to allow people to schedule a date for their second dose of the vaccine on the same day they receive their first dose and the hope is to reduce frustration and lessen the amount of time people spend in vaccination sites.

Tolman-Hill knows this is only the tip of the iceberg of those who need to be vaccinated, with the number continuing to increase as time moves on.

As for those in the 70-and-older age range who have not been inoculated yet, Tolman-Hill said this may be the best time to try and get an appointment.

“This is only the second time where we have released appointments and seen this happen,” Tolman-Hill said. “It does lead me to believe that this is somewhat of a trend, at least through our typical outreach methods. We just put it on our site, we do the text notifications, those methods where people are actively looking for that information, we’ve reached those people. Now we need to actively seek out those other individuals over 70. It really is a very good time for those over 70 to sign up, a very good time for them.”

For those looking to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine or how to sign up for an appointment, visit the health department website at health.utahcounty.gov or sign up for notifications on open appointments by texting UCHEALTH to 888777.

Orem lawmaker moves forward with Bridal Veil Falls state monument resolution

Utah Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, is moving forward with a legislative effort to protect Bridal Veil Falls using state resources by designating the falls as a state monument or park.

On Monday, the Orem lawmaker introduced a concurrent resolution to encourage the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation to “evaluate options for designating the Bridal Veil Falls area as a state monument or state park” and recognizing “the beauty of the Bridal Veil Falls area and its use by thousands of visitors for sightseeing and recreation.”

Additionally, the resolution calls upon the parks and recreation division to “present an analysis of the advantages and challenges of designating the Bridal Veil Falls area as a state monument, and alternatively as a state park, to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee.”

The proposed resolution comes weeks after the Utah County Commission approved a conservation easement for Bridal Veil Falls that prevents private development on the county-owned property.

Additionally, in November 2019, the county commission approved a $900,000 concept plan for the falls that includes trail enhancements and improved safety measures.

During a Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee meeting on Monday, Stratton told his colleagues that the designation would cost the state $1.2 million, including $150,000 in ongoing funding and $50,000 for planning, as well as $1 million to match money already set aside by Utah County.

“I hope we all have appreciated and participated and been able to see Bridal Veil Falls. It’s one of the great falls in our state,” the Orem representative said. “But the challenge is we’re loving it to death. And it can be a signature for our state, and it’s an area that we need to have some attention.”

Statton said that the State Monuments Act, which allows lawmakers to designate public land “for preservation of a historic landmark, historic or prehistoric structure, geologic formation, cultural site, or archeological resource,” is “a real effective tool that we’ve found here in the state.”

He added that canyons in Utah County like Provo Canyon and American Fork Canyon “are just a few years behind the challenges we’re facing in Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood and the canyons up here (in Salt Lake County).”

“And so we need to get ahead of this and begin working on that,” he said, noting that it would be a “two-year process” to designate Bridal Veil Falls as a state monument or park.

The nonprofit Conserve Utah Valley has spent weeks urging lawmakers to support Statton’s effort. A petition sponsored by the nonprofit to make Bridal Veil Falls a state monument received more than 600 signatures as of Jan. 22, according to a press release.

Kaye Nelson, executive board member of Conserve Utah Valley and a resident of Provo, said Stratton’s legislation “is a great idea that will add extra protection for that iconic area.”

“(Bridal Veil Falls) is a Utah treasure that we need to preserve for generations to come,” Nelson said in the press release.

Stratton’s resolution was sent to the House Rules Committee on Monday but had not been discussed or voted on by the committee as of Tuesday.

Utah County considering splitting from state rental assistance program

Utah County officials are considering splitting from the state’s COVID-19 rental assistance program and launching the Utah County Emergency Rental Assistance program to provide assistance for households that are financially struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state received $147 million for the statewide Utah Rent Relief program through the latest round of federal coronavirus relief funding, according to Michelle Carroll, deputy executive director of the Mountainland Association of Governments. Additionally, Utah County received about $19.2 million for rental assistance.

During a special Utah County Commission meeting called on Monday, Carroll told the commissioners that the county is obligated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to spend 65% of the funding, about $12.5 million, by Sept. 30.

If the money isn’t spent, the treasury will “recapture those unspent funds and re-allocate them to the grantees that are spending the funds down,” according to Carroll.

Carroll told the commissioners that if the county started spending the money in March, “you’re processing and having to approve between 1,000 and 1,600 applications per month,” adding that other agencies have reported that approximately 60% of applications “have technical issues” that “require technical assistance and follow-up.”

Carroll said she had “some concerns” about the state’s rental assistance program, including that the state plans to match Utah County’s funding by 55%, which would make it “more challenging for (the) county to spend down funds.”

“So that would put the county behind in trying to spend down their $19.2 million,” she said. “Because the state needs to spend down their money to not lose it in September, and the county needs to spend down their money. So it’s not really a match.”

Additionally, the state program, which Carroll said was supposed to launch on Monday but got pushed back to an undetermined date, would operate on a “first-come, first-serve” basis and pose barriers for applicants that don’t have access to the internet, computers or smartphones.

Carroll argued that Utah County should launch its own rental assistance program that “reduces the barriers that clients will face as they attempt to apply” and provides “flexibility on the application requirements.”

“So you are serving those that are most needed for the program,” said Carroll.

Commissioner Tanner Ainge said he did not necessarily see the state matching Utah County’s financial contribution by 55% as a bad thing “in that we have the ability to leverage our dollars in a much more significant way through the state.”

“I think we’re going off the assumption that we’re not going to have enough to spend down the money. But what if we have more than enough, then why would we not want the state to put in the 55%?” added Commissioner Bill Lee.

Ainge said that he was still open to the county operating its own rental assistance program but wanted to get further input from the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office.

“It seems whether there is a match or not, it would be best that we have a game plan set in motion, or at least prepared to set in motion, so as soon as the cash becomes available we can get started on this,” said Commissioner Tom Sakievich.

The Utah County Commission did not vote on a specific rental assistance proposal during Monday’s special meeting.