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New York officials defend curfew, subway safety ahead of Monday reopening


(Reuters) – Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday said New York is on track to reopen on Monday from the coronavirus lockdown that turned the most populous U.S. city into a virtual ghost town, restarting work at 32,000 shuttered construction sites.

Both the mayor and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dug in after critics urged an end to an 8 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew set to last until Monday morning following looting and other violence amid city protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.

Los Angeles is among several U.S. cities that lifted curfews after critics said they unnecessarily restricted the right to protest.

“5 a.m. Monday the curfew ends and does not come back,” de Blasio told a news conference.

Cuomo, who had been at de Blasio’s side when the curfew was announced earlier this week, said it was a “local decision” he supports, noting, “you have not seen the looting in the past couple of days.”

On Monday, the first stage in restoring economic activity will allow 32,000 construction sites to reopen, de Blasio said.

“Getting people back their livelihood – that’s what Phase 1 is about,” he said.

Trains in the world’s largest subway system have undergone weeks of disinfecting, and platforms have been marked for social distancing. The city is confident people will be safe, said city Transit Authority Interim President Sarah Feinberg.

“The system is going to be busy. There will be crowding conditions,” Feinberg said. “People have to be very vigilant about mask usage and putting as much space between themself and others as they can.”

While clearly mass transit “is the way to get around” the often-congested city, many will choose instead to drive their own cars, she said, offering two words of advice to New Yorkers with a short commute: “Consider walking.”

Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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More than 1,100 former U.S. prosecutors slam attempt to drop Flynn charges


FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn passes by members of the media as he departs after his sentencing was delayed at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 1,100 former U.S. federal prosecutors on Wednesday blasted the attempt by Republican President Donald Trump’s Justice Department to dismiss a charge against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying the move puts Trump’s personal interests ahead of the public good.

The criticism came in a legal brief the nonprofit The Protect Democracy Project plans to file in federal court in Washington. They accused Attorney General William Barr of abusing his oath of office by asking to dismiss the criminal charge against Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI.

The group included former Acting Attorney General Stuart Gerson – who served in that role under Democratic then-President Bill Clinton, and former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer, who served under Republican then-President George H.W. Bush – marks the latest development in an escalating drama over whether U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan will grant the department’s bombshell request to drop the case.

“The government’s request in this case does not appear to advance the interests of justice or the public, nor does it appear to be free of impermissible and unlawful taint,” they wrote in a prepared filing seen by Reuters, adding that the request “appears to serve President Trump’s personal political interests, rather than the interests of the public.”

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser, pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about interactions with Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump took office.

After agreeing to cooperate, Flynn switched lawyers and tactics, arguing the FBI tricked him and asked that his plea agreement be dismissed.

Sullivan has made it clear he is not willing to simply rubber-stamp the request.

He appointed retired Judge John Gleeson to present arguments on whether Flynn should face an additional criminal contempt charge for perjury.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis

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U.S. Senate returns to Washington amid concerns about coronavirus risk


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate convened in Washington for the first time in nearly six weeks on Monday, despite concern it might put lawmakers and staff at risk of contracting the coronavirus, but made clear it could take weeks to pass any new relief legislation.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) talks to reporters inside the U.S. Capitol as senators returned to Capitol Hill amid concerns that their legislative sessions could put lawmakers and staff at risk of contracting the coronavirus in Washington, U.S., May 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Party leaders raised partisan differences as soon as the Senate opened over the next step in how to combat the pandemic, nominations for senior government posts put forward by President Donald Trump and even the decision to return.

“If it’s essential that the brave healthcare workers, grocery store workers, truck drivers and many other Americans continue to carefully show up for work, then it’s essential that their U.S. senators carefully show up ourselves and support them,” Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer accused McConnell of calling senators back to pursue a Republican political agenda, not help the country.

“As we return to work under the cloud of crisis, Senate Republicans should concentrate on helping us recover from COVID-19, not confirming right-wing judges or protecting big businesses that threaten to put workers at serious risk,” Schumer said.

Democrats and Republicans are at odds over the contents of any new coronavirus legislation. Democrats want up to $1 trillion to help state and local governments. Republicans are demanding liability protections for businesses, as a condition for moving forward on any bill.

Trump said during a Fox News town hall on Sunday that he would not consider any measure that did not include a payroll tax cut.

With Washington still under a stay-at-home order, lawmakers were advised by the congressional physician to wear masks, stay six feet (2 meters) apart and limit the number of staff on Capitol Hill.

Senators wore masks during their first vote on Monday evening, walking into the chamber only one or two at a time and raising their hands, mostly in medical gloves, to indicate their approval.

The Senate confirmed Robert Feitel as inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by 87 to 0.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives chose to remain in recess this week because of potential health risks and has not announced when it will reconvene.

With some Democrats warning the Senate’s return could risk spreading the virus, the Trump administration last week offered Congress 1,000 coronavirus tests.

McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi turned down the offer over the weekend, which drew fire from Trump.

“By Congress not wanting the special 5 minute testing apparatus, they are saying that they are not ‘essential,’” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, also said he disagreed with the decision in an interview with Politico.

Senate committees scheduled nomination hearings on Tuesday, for Republican U.S. Representative John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence and Brian Miller, a White House lawyer, tapped to oversee the Treasury’s handling of coronavirus relief funding.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert; writing by David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatisnand Tom Brown

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U.S. stay-at-home frustration spreads; coronavirus-battered New York says may be past the worst


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Demonstrations to demand an end to stay-at-home measures that have pummelled the U.S. economy spread to Texas on Saturday as the governor at the epicentre of the U.S. coronavirus crisis said his state of New York may finally be past the worst.

New York, which has recorded nearly half the country’s deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the highly infectious virus, on Saturday reported 540 coronavirus-related deaths for April 17, down from 630 a day earlier and the lowest daily tally since April 1.

The number of patients in the state requiring intensive care and ventilators to help them breathe was also down.

“If you look at the past three days, you could argue that we are past the plateau and we’re starting to descend, which would be very good news,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his daily briefing.

Some 2,000 people were still being hospitalized with COVID-19 every day, Cuomo said, and he noted 36 of the latest New York deaths occurred at nursing homes, which have been ravaged by the pandemic nationwide.

In neighboring New Jersey, both the number of new hospitalizations and new coronavirus cases were also slightly down from the day before, Governor Phil Murphy said. But he added: “We are not out of the woods, we have not yet plateaued.”

Illinois reported 125 new coronavirus deaths and an additional 1,585 cases but said the growth rate was slowing.

Murphy said he had a “concerning” call with Senate minority leader and fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer, who told him there was no momentum in the U.S. Congress for direct aid to states whose economies were suffering from the stay-at-home orders aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

Without federal aid, the state will see “historic” layoffs, he said.

More than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past month as closures of businesses and schools and severe travel restrictions have hammered the economy.

But an influential research model said late on Friday the strict adherence to the orders imposed in 42 of the 50 U.S. states was a key factor behind an improved outlook for the country’s coronavirus death toll.

The University of Washington’s predictive model, regularly updated and often cited by state public health authorities and White House officials, projected the virus would take 60,308 U.S. lives by Aug. 4, down 12% from a forecast earlier in the week.

The model predicted some states may be able to begin safely easing restrictions as early as May 4.

People sit in a car with an American flag as protesters against the state’s extended stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) demonstrate at the Capitol building in Austin, Texas, U.S., April 18, 2020. REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

PUSHBACK

Many have already started pushing back against the measures.

Governor Murphy chastised an official in Atlantic County, home to Atlantic City, for expressing frustration in a Facebook post over the effect of the closures on the casino-dependent local economy. County surrogate Jim Curcio said his comments were his personal opinion.

“I’ve lived here all my life and when we go into a recession here we seem to be the last to come out of it and people suffer terribly and the most vulnerable suffer the most,” Curcio told Reuters on Saturday. “What is happening to the private sector is my breaking my heart.”

On Saturday, several dozen protesters gathered in the Texas capital of Austin chanting “USA! USA!” and “Let us work!”

In Brookfield, Wisconsin, hundreds of demonstrators cheered as they lined a main road and waved American flags to protest at the extension of that state’s “safer at home” order.

Earlier in the week, scattered protests erupted in the capitols of Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. The demonstrators mostly flouted the social-distancing rules and did not wear the face masks recommended by public health officials.

As of Friday night, New York has mandated the statewide wearing of masks for anyone out in public and unable to practice social distancing.

Republican President Donald Trump appeared to encourage protesters with a series of Twitter posts on Friday calling for them to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, all run by Democratic governors.

Trump had touted a thriving economy as the best case for his re-election in November.

Several states, including Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Florida, have said they aim to reopen parts of their economies, perhaps by May 1 or even sooner, but appeared to be staying cautious.

Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis reopened some beaches with restrictions from Friday evening, but also said on Saturday that schools will remain closed and continue distance learning the rest of this school year.

Fellow Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has also extended school closures to the end of the academic year.

Health experts say that to avoid a second wave of infections as people return to work, extensive testing must be available to track infections, as well as contact tracing and antibody testing to learn who had been previously infected and might have some immunity.

Vice President Mike Pence said on Friday the United States had the capacity to do a sufficient amount of testing for states to move into a phase one of reopening.

Slideshow (11 Images)

Governors and state health officials say there is nowhere near enough test kits and equipment available, however.

The United States has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 720,000 infections and over 37,000 deaths.

The handful of states that did not issue stay-at-home orders have all seen significant surges in new cases.

Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Maria Caspani in New York, Jennifer Hiller in Houston and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Bill Berkrot and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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Coronavirus forces San Francisco to put homeless into hotels


SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The coronavirus crisis is beginning to do something the city of San Francisco has been unable to accomplish for years – move homeless people off the streets and into shelters, including some of the city’s now-empty hotels.

People line in a sidewalk filled with tents set up by the homeless, amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, California, U.S. April 1, 2020. Picture taken April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Faced with the prospect the virus could rip through the nearly 10,000 people who live on the streets or in shelters, city officials are securing 4,500 rooms for those who need to self-quarantine. The rooms would also be for homeless residents who need to isolate themselves and cannot be sent back into the community without risking infecting others.

The hotels may additionally house high-risk individuals among the 19,000 people living in single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings with shared kitchens and bathrooms who similarly cannot self-isolate.

At least 160 people who either tested positive for the coronavirus or were awaiting results were being referred to hotels as of March 25, city officials said.

“The hospitals will not discharge them to the street,” said Trent Rhorer, executive director of the city’s Human Services Agency. “They’ll only discharge people who are able to self-quarantine.”

Progressive San Francisco lawmakers want to triple the number of rooms to 14,000, enough to shelter all of the homeless and some additional people from the SRO buildings.

On Thursday, lawmakers said the first known case of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, had been confirmed in a homeless shelter and reiterated their demand to put residents into private rooms.

Stringent stay-at-home orders have greatly reduced travel, leaving the city’s hotels nearly empty. The hotel industry has asked city leaders how housing the homeless would work, including issues on potential property damage and whether California laws could give homeless guests tenancy rights after 30-day stays.

A move to hotels may be the most aggressive intervention in years to address homelessness in the liberal-leaning Bay Area. Between 2015 and 2019, the homeless population in San Francisco grew nearly 30%, according to city figures.

OVERDOSING IN THE TENDERLOIN

In San Francisco’s central Tenderloin neighborhood, tent encampments still lined the streets after city officials issued stay-home orders on starting March 17.

On a recent evening shortly before 10:30 p.m., Tenderloin firefighters and police clad in protective masks knelt over one man, administering naloxone nasal spray to treat an overdose. The sixth of the night, officers said.

“People are supposed to stay in, but I don’t see how that’s possible when there’s a lot of us around,” Jackie Cismowski, 28, who has been homeless off-and-on since 2012, said as she walked in the Tenderloin wearing rubber gloves and an N95 mask.

To give the homeless more room to spread out, city officials are converting an upscale tennis club in the South of Market neighborhood and part of the Moscone Center, a venue for glitzy technology conferences, into shelter facilities.

About 60% of 50 hotels that met with the city about housing the homeless and first responders signed up for the city’s program within days of its announcement, said Kevin Carroll, president and chief executive of the Hotel Council of San Francisco.

City officials said San Francisco already has 1,055 rooms under contract, but declined to release the names of hotels in the program, saying that doing so could violate health privacy laws and stigmatize the properties.

Anand Singh, president of United Here Local 2, the union that represents more than 14,000 San Francisco hospitality workers, said he knew of two local budget hotels near the Tenderloin that have signed on to take quarantine guests.

Singh said the city is providing training and protective gear for union cleaners at the hotels.

Slideshow (25 Images)

“You could end up in a situation where these crucial facilities … that are intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 could instead lead to outbreak clusters,” Singh said.

Louis Charles Brown, 51, who lives in a building with shared bathrooms in the Tenderloin, paced the streets recently, trying to warn his neighbors about COVID-19.

“This will kill you and it ain’t a joke,” Brown said. “They need to open up a church, quarantine and do something, because they say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Reporting by Nathan Frandino, Shannon Stapleton, Katie Paul and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler

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No luck for the Irish as closed U.S. pubs face coronavirus losses on St. Patrick’s Day


NEW YORK/BOSTON (Reuters) – Orla Sweeney, manager of Connolly’s Irish pub in New York City, expected St. Patrick’s Day to once again be one of her bar’s most profitable days of the year.

A sign is seen on the window at McSorley’s Old Ale House, which, established in 1854, is referred to as New York City’s oldest Irish saloon and was ordered to close at 8:00pm as part of a city-wide order to close bars and restaurants in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus the day before Saint Patrick’s Day in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Instead, the pub near Times Square was shuttered on Tuesday, like hundreds of thousands of dining establishments across the United States as state governments enforced closures to control the spread of COVID-19. Sweeney broke the news to her employees on Monday after Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all restaurants to close that night, and they broke down in tears.

“They were like, ‘Well when can I come back to work?’ And I’m like, I’m not really sure,” Sweeney said. “In this industry, they live week to week, day to day, and right now they have nothing.”

There should have been corned beef, bagpipe music and parades, but the streets of major U.S. cities on Tuesday were mostly desolate as local authorities banned parades in cities from New York to San Francisco to slow the spread of the virus that has infected more than 4,400 Americans and killed at least 80.

Even in the holiday’s native country of Ireland, the government on Sunday ordered all pubs to shut down after videos of crowded pubs in Dublin ignited a social media uproar over the possibility of contagion.

Some persistent revelers took their festivities to social media, sharing videos of Irish step dancing on Twitter and posting photos of themselves holding beers in self-quarantine.

A few dozen members of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizing committee donned green and marched with an American flag and bagpipes, following city guidelines to cap gatherings at 50 people.

One Boston Irish musician, Geoff Roman, had been slated to play two fiddle and guitar gigs at pubs on Tuesday before the closures. Instead, he holed up in his Whitman, Massachusetts, apartment and livestreamed half-hour music sessions on Facebook, playing between an Irish flag and a pint of Guinness.

“I’m trying to make people feel like it’s a pub,” Roman said.

Pubs and bars across the United States normally count on St. Patrick’s Day and the March Madness college basketball tournament to bring in a large part of their annual revenue.

U.S. consumers had been forecast to spend some $6 billion on St. Patrick’s Day celebrations this year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation conducted in early February, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in earnest.

The respiratory disease’s spread has left the hospitality industry in the lurch, as workers are barred from their jobs that involve person-to-person contact but have no livelihood without them.

Connolly’s in New York also feeds its staff daily, meaning that its laid-off staff must now find other ways to eat in addition to paying their bills.

“You’re trying to do the right thing by society, but people have to live,” Sweeney said. “I just hope that when it all calms down and settles, that we’ll have places to come back to.”

‘I WOULD HAVE BEEN HURTING’

Several Irish pubs had excess food ready for St. Patrick’s Day customers and needed to find other places for it when they heard the decisions by governors to close restaurants and bars just before the holiday.

Some, like Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub in Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, were considering selling family meals for delivery, while others, like O’Shaughnessy’s in Chicago, sold off as much corned beef and cabbage as they could at a 25% discount on Monday before splitting up the leftovers and giving them to staff.

Slideshow (11 Images)

Nothing would stop Walter Szarowicz, 81, from getting a St. Patrick’s Day dinner for his wife who has Parkinson’s disease and whose birthday was Tuesday. He drove 30 minutes to Harrington’s Irish Deli on the north side of Chicago to get her corned beef.

Patrons were not permitted to eat at the deli on Tuesday under Chicago’s temporary health regulation, but a few were lined up for takeout.

“If I didn’t go today and get dinner, I would have been hurting,” Szarowicz said. “When I get home, I will be drinking. I got Irish booze.”

Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York, Ross Kerber in Boston, Brendan O’Brien and PJ Huffstutter in Chicago and Brad Heath in Alexandria, Virginia; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney

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U.S. officials talk down coronavirus market panic, tout economic strength


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Trump administration officials on Sunday tried to calm market panic that the coronavirus could cause a global recession, saying the public had over-reacted and that stocks would bounce back due to the underlying strength of the U.S. economy.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The S&P 500 index dropped 11.5% last week as the novel flu-like virus accelerated beyond China’s borders, the worst weekly drop since the 2008 global financial crisis.

U.S. regulators who will gather on Wednesday face their most challenging week in a decade, with one official telling Reuters that coming days will determine whether the federal government has to take measures to bolster market confidence.

On Friday afternoon, Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell sought to quell fears, stoked by dire economic data from China, flagging that the central bank would take action if necessary to support the economy, which he said remained strong.

Speaking to NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the government’s response to the virus, echoed that point adding the market “will come back.”

“The fundamentals of this economy are strong. We just saw some new numbers come out in housing and consumer confidence and business optimism. Unemployment is at a 50-year low. More Americans working than ever before,” he said.

The fast-spreading virus has infected around 83,000 people in more than 50 countries, with about 70 cases diagnosed in the United States. A Washington state man in his 50s with underlying health conditions was the first American to die from the virus, officials said Saturday. Authorities still do not know how he contracted the disease.

New cases were reported over the weekend in the Chicago area and Rhode Island.

Rebutting Democratic criticism that the administration had bungled its response to the outbreak, Pence said the government was doing “everything possible” to prevent the virus from spreading and that he was “confident” the United States was prepared.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News Sunday that the public was over-reacting to the current threat.

He added that during a meeting of the White House’s coronavirus task-force on Saturday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had discussed the negative stock market reaction, saying that much of it was driven by uncertainty.

Azar said the administration aimed to quell that uncertainty by being as transparent as possible about latest developments.

“That’s why we are trying to give the American people all the information we have when we have it so they don’t think there’s secret information they’re not getting,” said Azar.

Reporting by Michelle Price; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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Emboldened, Trump defends right to interfere in criminal cases


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said he has “the legal right” to interfere in criminal cases, capping a tumultuous week that raised questions about whether he is eroding the independence of the U.S. legal system.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to questions while meeting with Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Trump’s criticism of the judge, jury and prosecutors in the criminal case of his longtime adviser Roger Stone prompted an unusual rebuke from Attorney General William Barr, his top law enforcement official and has spurred new demands for investigation from the Democrats who unsuccessfully tried to remove the Republican president from office.

It is the latest in a string of aggressive actions by Trump since the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him of impeachment charges last week.

Trump has transferred or fired government officials who testified about his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a potential political rival in November’s presidential election.

He also dropped his nomination of former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu, who oversaw the Stone case, for another government post in the Treasury Department.

Sources close to the president said Trump has a greater sense of freedom in the wake of his Senate acquittal.

“You have to remember, he’s not ‘of’ government. He gets frustrated when people tell him something can’t get done. He’s like: ‘Just get it done,’” said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Barr said on Thursday that Trump’s attacks made it “impossible” for him to do his job leading the Justice Department, telling ABC News in an interview: “It’s time to stop the tweeting.”

Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr added.

The president responded on Friday morning. “This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!” he wrote on Twitter.

Administration officials said Barr did not clear his remarks with Trump. They said Trump shrugged them off when told about them by aides.

‘FARTHER THAN NIXON’

Trump’s insistence that he has the right to interfere in criminal cases runs counter to the practice of previous U.S. presidents, who have generally kept an arms-length distance from the Justice Department since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that led then-President Richard Nixon to resign from office.

“Trump goes farther than Nixon, though. He’s proud to openly corrupt the justice system and use it to target his enemies and protect his friends,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in a prepared statement.

Trump’s running commentary on the Stone case calls into question whether Barr can oversee U.S. law enforcement in an independent manner, said Bruce Green, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Fordham School of Law.

“Given the sequence of events, it’s doubtful that Barr’s effort to distance himself from the President’s tweets will be enough of a cure. He’ll have to keep working to rebuild public confidence,” Green told Reuters.

Barr has been an outspoken defender of the president and has aggressively sought to implement his agenda, frequently drawing charges from Democrats and former Justice Department officials that he is politicizing the rule of law.

The Justice Department on Tuesday asked for a lighter sentence for Stone, scaling back prosecutors’ initial request that he serve 7 to 9 years after being found guilty of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering. That prompted all four prosecutors to resign from the case in apparent protest.

Barr has also ordered an investigation into the Obama administration’s activities in 2016 as it examined possible ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign, and has gone after states and cities that have defied his hard-line immigration policies.

Barr’s Justice Department sought to quash the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, which led to the president’s impeachment.

He confirmed earlier this week that the department is taking evidence from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has been seeking information in Ukraine about Biden.

Democrats who control the House of Representatives called for Barr to testify next month over the matter and asked the department’s watchdog to investigate but have little other recourse.

Like Barr, Trump’s Republican allies in Congress have said they wish he would be less outspoken on Twitter, even as they have consistently defended his actions.

The Senate on Thursday sought to impose some restrictions on Trump, voting to limit his ability to wage war with Iran and questioning whether one of his nominees is qualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve.

Meanwhile, the president has moved to rebuild his staff with those he sees as loyalists, including former communication director Hope Hicks, who worked closely with Trump in his business before serving as his 2016 campaign press secretary.

He also rehired his former personal assistant Johnny McEntee to lead his personnel office, who sources say will be tasked with ensuring that new hires are loyal to the president.

Trump is about to launch a week of re-election activities, starting with a fundraising dinner on Saturday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

On Sunday, he will seek to appeal to blue-collar voters by attending the Daytona 500 NASCAR race, where he will be named the grand marshal, the first president to have that distinction.

On Tuesday he goes on a three-day swing through California, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Alistair Bell

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U.S. House Democrats call for $760 billion in infrastructure spending over five years


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Democrats on Wednesday will unveil a proposed $760 billion infrastructure spending bill over five years that aims to rebuild sagging roads and bridges and reduce carbon pollution.

FILE PHOTO: The new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (R) that is to replace the current Tappan Zee Bridge (L) over the Hudson River is seen in Tarrytown, New York, U.S., August 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The proposal is also intended to get U.S. President Donald Trump to return to the bargaining table. Trump campaigned in 2016 on boosting infrastructure spending by at least $1 billion over a decade but focused first on tax cuts and health care reform after taking office.

“America’s infrastructure is in crisis,” Democrats will say, according to a fact sheet. “For decades we have relied on a 1950s-era transportation system that has failed to keep pace.”

In April, Trump and Democratic leaders agreed to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure, without hashing out a way to pay for it. Weeks later, Trump abruptly canceled a follow-up meeting after criticizing congressional investigations.

The Democrats’ plan calls for new spending on roads, bridges, rail, public transit, water, internet expansion, electric grids, aviation and “brownfield” land that was possibly contaminated after previous industrial use.

Democrats want to spend $329 billon over five years on surface transportation, with a focus on fixing the 47,000 structurally deficient U.S. bridges. They would also provide $1.5 billion to support the development of an electric vehicle charging network.

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

With a presidential election looming, many doubt Congress will be able to tackle infrastructure this year but lawmakers face a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize surface transportation spending.

A Senate panel in July voted to authorize $287 billion in federal government spending over five years on surface transportation needs, a 27% jump, but Congress has not been able to agree on how to pay for it.

Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee said in a statement they believe Congress can pass infrastructure legislation this year; they argue Congress must find a new way to fund road repairs since existing gasoline tax revenue has not kept pace.

Congress abandoned the practice of largely requiring road users to pay for road repairs and has not hiked the federal gas tax since 1993. Since 2008, Congress has transferred about $141 billion in general revenues to the Highway Trust Fund.

To maintain existing spending, Congress will need to find $107 billion over five years, government auditors say.

Democrats would invest $105 billion in transit, $55 billion in rail spending and $30 billion in airport investments. They would also dedicate $86 billion to expand internet access.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Kim Coghill

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As Amazon.com flexes its muscle, Seattle moves to curb corporate political donations


SEATTLE (Reuters) – Seattle, the Pacific Northwest city where home-grown online retailer Amazon.com has increasingly flexed its political muscle, is expected to approve on Monday legislation banning political contributions by companies with at least 5% foreign ownership.

FILE PHOTO: People take in the view from the top of the Space Needle in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019. Picture taken March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

The move is likely to trigger renewed debate on the legality of corporate donations in U.S. elections while drawing an immediate court challenge.

A six-member committee of Seattle City Council has already unanimously approved the measure, making it almost certain that the full nine-member council will pass it on Monday.

The bill is widely viewed as aimed at reining in political spending from companies such as Am

azon.com (AMZN.O). Amazon, Seattle’s largest employer, donated a record $1.5 million to back a slate of pro-business candidates in the November council elections – a campaign that was largely unsuccessful.

At least 9% of Amazon’s stock is owned by foreign investors, according to financial data provider Refinitiv.

A spokesman for Amazon, which has been butting heads with the city for two years over attempts to levy more taxes on the company, declined to comment.

“What they are proposing is likely an unconstitutional backdoor ban on U.S. companies speaking about local elections,” Jim Manley, an attorney with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, told Reuters.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling struck down limits on political contributions by corporations or unions. Companies and unions may not give money directly to campaigns but may spend unlimited amounts on ads and other means.

The legislation before the Seattle City Council says that companies that have at least 5% of their shares held by foreigners, or 1% by a single foreigner, are subject to foreign influence and therefore cannot participate in elections.

Amazon’s $1.5 million political donation for Seattle’s November elections represented more than half of the nearly $2.7 million raised by a Super Pac for those elections. Four years ago, Amazon donated $25,000.

Super Pacs may accept unlimited contributions from any non-foreign source.

Amazon began to prominently flex its political muscle in May 2018 when the Seattle council approved an employee “head tax” on the city’s largest companies, in order to combat a housing crisis. Just four weeks later, the City Council repealed the tax after a coalition of businesses, with Amazon at the forefront, mounted a well-financed campaign for a referendum to repeal the tax.

Socialist council member Kshama Sawant says she will restart the “Tax Amazon” campaign she led in 2018 with a rally at City Hall on Monday.

Seattle is not the first city to take aim at campaign spending. St. Petersburg, Florida, approved a similar ordinance on foreign-influenced corporations in 2017 that has not yet been challenged in court.

Reporting by Gregory Scruggs; additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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