The state of Texas executed Christopher Wilkins on Wednesday night, marking the first U.S. execution of 2017. Wilkins, who was 48 years old, was sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of two men during a drug deal that went wrong. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last-minute appeals on Wednesday afternoon. Among Wilkins’s complaints was that one of the lawyers who handled his appeals had a conflict of interest; that lawyer subsequently accepted a job at the prosecutor’s office. According to the Associated Press, state prison officials injected him with the sedative pentobarbital at 6:16 p.m. local time. He was declared dead 13 minutes later. Wilkins was the 1,443rd person executed in the United States since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976.
—Volkswagen pleaded guilty to three criminal felony charges and agreed to pay $4.3 billion in fines to resolve a federal investigation into its cheating on emissions tests. More here
—The state of Texas executed Christopher Wilkins on Wednesday night, marking the first U.S. execution of 2017. More here
——We’re tracking the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Standard Time (GMT -5).
Texas Carries Out First Execution of 2017
Congressman Collapses During House Votes
Representative John Rutherford, a Florida Republican, reportedly suffered a serious medical incident during a House vote on Wednesday night. The newly sworn-in congressman collapsed in the Republican cloakroom, and was immediately assisted by fellow Florida Representative Neal Dunn, who is a surgeon. Paramedics were soon on the scene, wheeling him off with an oxygen mask and taking him to the hospital. Members of Congress told reporters that Rutherford has been stabilized. Rutherford was elected to Congress for the first time in November, succeeding retired Representative Ander Crenshaw, who served eight terms. Rutherford is a retired sheriff from Jacksonville.
U.S. Imposes New Sanctions Against North Korea
The U.S. has blacklisted seven senior North Korean officials accused of severe human rights abuses. The Treasury Department announced the sanctions Wednesday, saying those officials, including leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, are responsible for “rigid censorship policies” that conceal the country’s “inhumane and oppressive behavior.” The dictator’s 27-year-old sister, Kim Yo Jong, is the vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department. With these sanctions, the U.S. freezes all property of those individuals within U.S. jurisdiction and bans any transactions with those individuals by Americans. The U.S. State Department has labeled North Korean human rights abuses and censorship activities as some of the worst in the world, which include extrajudicial killings, disappearances, forced labor, torture, and arbitrary arrests. The U.S. estimates that as many as 120,000 political prisoners are detained at prison camps, including children. One of the men in charge of those camps, Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong, is also among the officials being sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Volkswagen Pleads Guilty to Cheating U.S. Emissions Tests
Volkswagen pleaded guilty Wednesday to three criminal felony charges and agreed to pay $4.3 billion in fines to resolve a federal investigation into its cheating on emissions tests. It is uncommon that such a large company would admit fault in court. Much of the time, though there is still a hefty fine, companies typically reach a settlement with investigators that allows them to deny any wrongdoing. Regulators began investigating Volkswagen in early 2014 after a West Virginia University study found the company’s diesel cars polluted much more than emissions tests registered. The unraveling of the scandal eventually showed company executives knew of the discrepancy, and that cars were reprogrammed to cheat the emissions tests by registering lower pollution levels. Then, instead of admitting fault, Volkswagen executives lied when questioned by the state and federal environmental regulators. The scheme has cost the company more than $20 billion in the U.S. alone. Last week, a manager who played a vital role in the cover-up, Oliver Schmidt, was arrested in Miami. Volkswagen faces criminal investigations in more than 40 U.S. states, and Wednesday’s guilty plea may greatly help prosecutors, as well as make the automaker vulnerable to shareholder lawsuits.
China Defiantly Steers Its Aircraft Carrier Through the Taiwan Strait
China sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait Wednesday morning, the most recent move in an escalating drama between Beijing, Taiwan, and the incoming Trump administration in the U.S. China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had been conducting exercises in the South China Sea earlier this week. On its way back, it cut through Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone. In response, Taiwan scrambled jets and navy ships to monitor the carrier. Chinese officials passed off the incursion as routine, but Taiwan took it as a clear display of military intimidation. "I want to emphasize that our government has sufficient capability to protect our national security,” said Chang Hsiao-Yueh, Taiwan's minister for mainland affairs. “It is not necessary to overly panic.” China has been exerting pressure on many of the countries surrounding the South China Sea, which it claims ownership of, but especially since the election of Trump. The president-elect has castigated China, and Taiwan seems to have seized upon what it sees as a potential ally. After the election, Trump became the first U.S. president or president-elect to take a phone call from Taiwan’s president since the two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1979.
Samsung Executive to Be Questioned in South Korean Corruption Scandal
Lee Jae-yong, the vice president and projected heir to the Samsung Group, will be questioned for his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal that has embroiled South Korean President Park Geun-hye, prosecutors announced Wednesday. The investigation concerns a Samsung donation totaling at least $18 million to a company run by Choi Soon-sil, a woman whose Rasputin-like relationship with Park prompted allegations she wielded undue influence on the South Korean president. Prosecutors will question Lee over allegations the donation was made in return for political support for a 2015 merger between Samsung and Cheil Industries, an affiliated firm. Lee previously confirmed he had donated money and gifted a horse to Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, but denied that it was a bribe. Lee is scheduled to be questioned Thursday.
Investigators Say Russia Hacked Ukraine's Power Grid
Investigators looking into a December blackout in Ukraine’s power grid said Russian hackers are to blame, the BBC reported Wednesday. The blackout near the country’s capital, Kiev, lasted a little more than an hour on December 17, and took offline the Pivnichna substation. That Russia is targeting Ukraine with cyberattacks isn’t new. But Information Systems Security Partners, a Ukrainian firm hired by the national power company to look into the hack, determined that those responsible were also to blame for a similar hack in 2015 that affected a quarter of a million people. Last month Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said hackers tried to breach state institutions 6,500 times in two months, something he called “acts of terrorism.” A piece by WIRED published last March found the hack in 2015, which closely resembled this recent hack, was a well-choreographed attack in which hackers stole operator credentials. The hack, WIRED wrote, probably took months to plan.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte Offers Free Contraceptives to the Poor
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order this week offering free contraceptives to more than 6 million women who can’t afford it—an attempt to reduce the country’s birthrate. News of the order, which came Wednesday from Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, is expected to upset the Roman Catholic Church; most Filipinos identity as Roman Catholics. The program is aimed at reducing poverty by giving women more power over planning their family size, and it also directs government agencies to find couples who may have unmet family planning needs. Duterte’s executive order said 6 million women have been identified, 2 million of them living in poverty. The plan, known by its acronym, the RPRH Law, seeks to reach a “zero unmet need for modern family planning” for all poor families by 2018. In the past two decades, the Philippines was the only Asia-Pacific country where the rate of teen pregnancies rose. Duterte has stated his intention to create the program since he took office, despite Catholic Church’s position against it. Duterte has called the church’s position “no longer realistic.” Duterte is most often in the news for his war on drugs, but on some issues he has what some would call a progressive view, like when he served as mayor of Davao, in the country’s south, where he organized health programs so prostitutes could receive medical screenings.
Tillerson to Face Questions at His Senate Confirmation Hearings
Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO, is expected to face questions about his links to Russia, where Exxon had extensive business dealings, when he faces members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tillerson is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state. Also going before a Senate panel today is Elaine Chao, the George W. Bush-era labor secretary who is Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Transportation. Our Politics team will be live blogging the day’s events; you can follow along here. Meanwhile, here’s a list of stories we’ve done about Tillerson:
Trump to Hold His First News Conference in Six Months
President-elect Donald Trump will hold his first news conference since July 2016 at 11 a.m. Wednesday. He’s likely to face questions about his Cabinet appointments, his business practices, U.S. intelligence assessments about Russian hacking that favored him in the election (but didn’t alter the results of the vote), as well as fresh—and unsubstantiated—revelations Tuesday further linking him to Russian intelligence. You can read my colleague David Graham’s coverage of those revelations here, as well as the caveats surrounding them. We’ll be covering Trump’s remarks and will post a link here when we have one.