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Pompeo arrives in France at start of awkward Europe and Middle East tour

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in France Saturday at the start of a seven-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, a trip that is certain to be awkward since all the countries on his schedule have congratulated Joe Biden over his victory in the US presidential race while the top US diplomat has not accepted the poll results.

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In an arrival tweet posted Saturday, Pompeo highlighted the “shared values: democracy, freedom, and rule of law” between the US and France. “The strong relationship between our countries cannot be overestimated, and I’m looking forward to my discussions here in Paris,” he said.

Great to be in France, the United States’ oldest friend and Ally. Our partnership is built upon our shared values: democracy, freedom, and rule of law. The strong relationship between our countries cannot be overestimated, and I’m looking forward to my discussions here in Paris. pic.twitter.com/NMPa0aX7V0

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 14, 2020

Pompeo’s trip is aimed at shoring up the priorities of the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump, notably its anti-China and Iran policies. It will include visits to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, avoided by previous secretaries of state.

But the usual US foreign policy issues are likely to be overshadowed by an extraordinary moment in global politics: While most of the world has accepted the results of the November 3 presidential election, the top US diplomat – as well as the US president and much of his Republican Party – have not.

Pompeo raised eyebrows last week when, in response to a reporter's question on the transition process, the top US diplomat replied, "There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration." Days later Pompeo tempered his remarks, noting that the State Department would be functional and successful with the president who takes office on January 20, 2021.

Trump election lawsuits suffer setbacks, major GOP law firm steps down

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Republicans suffered setbacks to court challenges over the presidential election in three battleground states on Friday. That same day, the law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, which has been in the limelight for its work for President Donald Trump’s campaign, withdrew from a major Pennsylvania case.

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The legal blows began when a federal appeals court rejected an effort to block about 9,300 mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day in Pennsylvania. The judges noted the “vast disruption” and “unprecedented challenges” facing the nation during the Covid-19 pandemic as they upheld the three-day extension.

Chief US Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith said the panel kept in mind "a proposition indisputable in our democratic process: that the lawfully cast vote of every citizen must count.”

Republicans have also asked the US Supreme Court to review the issue. However, there are not enough late-arriving ballots to change the results in Pennsylvania, given President-elect Joe Biden's lead. The Democratic former vice president won the state by about 60,000 votes out of about 6.8 million cast – over the 0.5 percent of the vote that entails an automatic recount.

The Trump campaign or Republican surrogates have filed more than 15 legal challenges in Pennsylvania as they seek to reclaim the state’s 20 electoral votes, but have so far offered no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.

A Philadelphia judge found none as he refused late Friday to reject about 8,300 mail-in ballots there. The campaign has pursued similar litigation in other battleground states, with little to show for it.

SpaceX astronauts prepare for lift-off in first ‘operational’ flight to ISS

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Four astronauts were poised to launch on the SpaceX Crew Dragon "Resilience" to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, the first of what the US hopes will be many routine missions following a successful test flight in late spring.

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Three Americans — Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker — and Japan's Soichi Noguchi will blast off at 7:27 pm Sunday (0027 GMT Monday) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In May, SpaceX completed a demonstration mission showing it could take astronauts to the ISS and bring them back safely, thus ending almost a decade of reliance on Russia for rides on its Soyuz rockets.

"The history being made this time is we're launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters Friday.

The launch will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence.

The crew will dock at their destination at around 11:00 pm Monday night (0400 GMT Tuesday), joining two Russians and one American onboard the station, and stay for six months.

In a Twitter tizzy, Trump says Biden ‘won’ but reasserts rigged, fake news claims

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President Donald Trump appeared on Sunday to publicly acknowledge for the first time that his Democratic rival Joe Biden “won”, but insisted he was not conceding the November 3 presidential election, reiterating his false claims that the vote was rigged.

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"He won because the Election was Rigged," Trump tweeted Sunday morning.

He won because the Election was Rigged. NO VOTE WATCHERS OR OBSERVERS allowed, vote tabulated by a Radical Left privately owned company, Dominion, with a bad reputation & bum equipment that couldn’t even qualify for Texas (which I won by a lot!), the Fake & Silent Media, & more! https://t.co/Exb3C1mAPg

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2020

But in a volley of subsequent tweets in all-caps, Trump insisted the election was rigged and that Biden’s victory was only “in the eyes of the fake news media”.

Trump has yet to officially concede the 2020 US presidential election to Biden who was called as the winner November 7 after enough states results came in to hand the former Democratic vice president victory.

Peru in political crisis amid mass protests over president’s impeachment

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The head of Peru’s congress demanded the “immediate resignation” of acting President Manuel Merino on Saturday after at least three people were killed during demonstrations in the capital Lima. Protesters were calling for the reinstatement of popular ex-president Martin Vizcarra, who was impeached on November 9.

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At least three people were killed in Lima on Saturday after a group of hooded demonstrators threw rocks and fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas. Peru has seen repeated protests against right-winger Merino’s interim government since his centrist predecessor Vizcarra was ousted on Monday.

The protests are “probably the largest in Peru in 20 years”, Gino Costa, an MP and former interior minister, told the Financial Times.

Vizcarra was removed from office by parliament members accusing him of corruption and decrying what they saw as his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The ex-president described Merino’s new ministry as “illegal and illegitimate”.

Nine of the 18 members of Vizcarra’s cabinet resigned after the protesters’ deaths. MPs were to hold a special session on Sunday to discuss the possibility of Merino’s resignation. Luis Valdez – Merino’s successor as speaker of parliament after the latter acceded to the presidency – said he should “evaluate” the idea of resigning, in a statement to Peru’s CANAL N TV station.

‘Merino imposter’

Merino’s whereabouts were unknown on Sunday morning. “I’m calling him and I can't get through; I have no idea if he has resigned – I’m not a fortune teller,” right-wing Peruvian Prime Minister Antero Flores Araoz told the country’s RPP radio.

What’s on the Agenda when Biden Meets Xi

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are due to hold a virtual meeting Monday evening in what the White House says will be a discussion on ways to “responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the PRC” (People’s Republic of China). The White House is playing down expectations ahead of the meeting, planning no specific outcomes or joint statements afterward. Here’s a rundown of topics each side is interested in talking about — as well as what they would prefer to avoid.

Trade and supply chain

American business groups have already publicly lobbied the White House to reduce tariffs on some $300 billion of imported Chinese goods and loosen import duty exemptions. The White House has been pressing Beijing to purchase the additional $200 billion in American goods it agreed to in former President Donald Trump’s “Phase 1” trade deal nearly two years ago. While supply chain bottlenecks affect both countries’ economies, it’s unclear what actionable measures each side is seeking.

Taiwan

Chinese state media reported Monday that Xi Jinping is expected to warn Washington to “step back” on the Taiwan issue, saying that showing restraint will reduce the risk of a “strategic collision” between China and the U.S. Washington has been holding firm to a decades-old policy that recognizes Beijing as the only legal government of China, but the U.S., also acknowledging Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of China, continues to have unofficial relations with Taiwan. The U.S. has long maintained that efforts to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would be a regional security threat and of grave concern to the United States.

Beijing Olympics

Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics this February, and during Monday’s meeting Xi may personally invite Biden to attend. Human rights groups, some U.S. lawmakers and others have called for a boycott of the Games over Beijing’s repressive human rights policies, the political crackdowns in Hong Kong and genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which China has denied. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington is talking to countries about their plans on participating in the Games. China has long rejected foreign criticism of its human rights policies, calling it illegitimate.

Climate

During the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Washington and Beijing announced they would work together to slash emissions and meet regularly to address the climate crisis. Climate has long been seen as a viable area of cooperation, but so far, low-level talks between the two countries this year have resulted in little concrete progress.

Xinjiang and human rights

The White House says it expects Biden to tell China that it must “play by the rules of the road” as a global superpower, but it’s unclear how much he will press the Chinese over policies targeting ethnic Uyghurs and Beijing’s human rights practices. Biden will likely bring up the case of Americans detained in China, including Daniel Hsu. China routinely rejects all such criticism as illegitimate intrusions on what Beijing considers internal issues.

People-to-people exchanges

Beijing likely wants to discuss furthering people-to-people exchanges that have long been a part of diplomatic outreach between the two nations. The pandemic and ongoing political tensions have seen a drop in Chinese students attending American universities. A recent report said students from China last year declined by 14.8% from the previous year to 317,299, or 34.7% of all international students in the United States.

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US and Allies Blast China’s Trade Policies in WTO Forum

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The United States and a number of its closest allies have used a periodic review of China’s trade policy by the World Trade Organization to vent their anger at Beijing’s unwillingness to conform with rules meant to establish a level playing field for all participants in the global exchange of goods and services.

The regularly scheduled Trade Policy Review, which allows China’s trading partners to make official statements about policies to which they object, came last week as China marks 20 years of membership in the WTO, a group that works to establish rules for trade among its 164 member countries.

“When China acceded to the WTO 20 years ago, WTO members expected that the terms set forth in China’s Protocol of Accession would permanently dismantle existing Chinese policies and practices that were incompatible with an international trading system expressly based on open, market-oriented policies,” said David Bisbee, who is serving as the chargé d’affaires ad interim of the United States Mission to the WTO in Geneva.

“But those expectations have not been realized, and it appears that China has no inclination to change,” he continued in prepared remarks. “Instead, China has used the imprimatur of WTO membership to become the WTO’s largest trader, while doubling down on its state-led, non-market approach to trade, to the detriment of workers and businesses in the United States and other countries.”

U.S. not alone in complaints

The United States was far from alone in complaining about China’s failure to live up to its obligations under the WTO. Representatives from various governments around the globe catalogued a long list of ways in which they said China bends or breaks the rules.

Among other things, they said that China distorts markets by subsidizing state-owned firms, ignoring intellectual property rights, limiting foreign firms’ access to its markets, using forced labor in some manufacturing and agricultural sectors, coercing smaller governments to accept unfair trade practices, and more.

“By undermining agreed trade rules China also undermines the multilateral trading system on which all WTO members rely,” said George Mina, Australia’s ambassador to the WTO. “These rules have underpinned members’ growth and prosperity for decades. They protect the rights of members regardless of their size and power. China has assured members of its commitment to the rules-based order; but from our viewpoint there is a growing gap between China’s rhetoric and its actions.”

João Aguiar Machado, the European Union’s ambassador to the WTO, recalled that China’s acceptance into the WTO had raised hopes of systematic reform of its economy.

“But the degree to which China has reformed and opened today is not commensurate with its weight in the global economy, or comparable to the access which China has to the markets of other WTO Members,” Machado said. “Moreover, the influence exerted by the state on China’s economic environment generates competitive distortions worldwide, leading to systemic problems for global trade.”

China responds

China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao painted a very different picture of Chinese policy when he addressed the meeting. “Since the last review, China has stayed committed to deepening reform, expanding, opening up and growing its open economy at a higher level,” he said. “China has been reinforcing intellectual property protection by legislative, administrative and judicial means, and fulfilling its obligations on transparency.”

Chinese state-run media also put a vastly different spin on the meeting than the Western press.

The Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times ran a story with the headline, “China’s trade policies and practices praised at WTO.” The story contained none of the criticism leveled by China’s trading partners, saying only that they “firmly recognized China’s role as a major driver of global growth, and country’s contributions in lifting up other developing and under developed countries out of poverty, and expressed their gratitude over China’s help in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Experts expect little change

While the rhetoric and China’s Trade Policy Review was harsher than it has been in the past, and emanated from a larger number of countries than many expected, experts said that it was unlikely to prompt any significant change in Beijing’s policies. That is, in large part, because the WTO requires all major policy changes be made by consensus, making efforts to rein in China difficult or impossible to implement.

Petros C. Mavroidis, a Columbia University law professor and a legal adviser to the WTO, said that the body hearing the complaints last week has no authority to act on them. He also pointed out that China has become adept at remaining in technical compliance with many rules, even as it finds ways around them.

“China may not violate WTO rules, but it may violate WTO spirit,” he said.

Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, agreed that the review was mostly performative. “The criticisms are on the record, but it’s not a negotiation. It’s just what I would call a listening session,” he said.

He added that a serious commitment to pursuing change in China’s treatment under WTO rules would have to be driven by the U.S., but added that, in his opinion, the Biden administration “is not inclined to engage in deep WTO negotiations at this time.”

 

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NYC school bus workers union warns of driver shortage for upcoming school year

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A shortage of drivers for New York City’s school buses could gum up the works as the first day of school approaches.

Michael Cordiello, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents about half of the drivers, matrons and mechanics who operate the city’s sprawling yellow bus system, said the worker shortages that have plagued school bus systems across the country are also hitting the city.

“There was a shortage before COVID. COVID made it worse, there’s no doubt about it,” Cordiello told The Daily News. “Everybody’s looking for workers.”

Cordiello said retirements have spiked since the start of the pandemic while hiring has stood still.

The union chief said that the bus companies where his members work saw 277 retirements in 2019 while hiring roughly 800 new workers. Retirements jumped to 350 in 2020 while new hires sunk to about 400.

This year, for the first time, retirements are outpacing new hires, with 244 retirements this year to date and only 220 new hires, Cordiello said.

The Education Department denied any widespread shortages, noting that Cordiello’s union represents half of the roughly 16,000 school bus workers citywide.

“We’re not currently concerned about bus staffing, thanks in part to the city’s fair compensation and generous benefits,” said DOE spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon. “Safe transportation for our kids to and from school is crucial, and we will continue to work with our labor partners to support their staffing efforts.”

School districts around the country are struggling with school bus worker shortages as drivers lost work during the pandemic or shifted to higher-paying jobs at companies like UPS and FedEx, the Washington Post reported. Some districts are even delaying the start of school because of the shortfalls.

Cordiello blamed some of the shortage on the city’s failure to keep up “with the increase in wages” in other professions, noting it’s been decades since school bus workers had salary parity with MTA workers.

The city’s sprawling yellow bus system typically ferries about 150,000 students to and from school each day — many of them significantly disabled — and is operated by a patchwork of private providers who are slated to receive more than $1.4 billion in funding this year.

[More Education] NYC unveils new details on school COVID-19 quarantines and testing policies 

Representatives for several bus companies declined to comment on staffing levels.

The first days of school bus service are typically chaotic, with delayed buses and scrambled assignments, and this year’s shortage could pose additional problems, Cordiello said.

“Drivers are doing extra work to make sure all the kids get to school,” Cordiello said. “But at some point, you can only do so much work in the day.”

NYC lawmakers wants to end weight, height discrimination at work

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Two New York City Councilmen want to make on-the-job fat-shaming a thing of the past with a new bill that aims to prohibit weight and height-based discrimination in the workplace.

The bill, which Councilmen Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) and Danny Dromm (D-Queens) introduced Thursday, would make it illegal for employers to base hiring decisions on weight or height. Landlords and property owners leasing or selling property would be held to similar standards.

“It’s time for New York City to join the dozens of other localities that have taken action to make weight and height-based discrimination unlawful, leading to lower rates of bias and stigma and an increased ability for all New Yorkers to live safe and fulfilling lives,” Lander, the bill’s prime sponsor, said in a written statement.

Similar laws have been in effect in Michigan, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Buffalo for years.

The new Council bill has its roots in those laws and a survey conducted by Lydia Green, who lives in Lander’s Park Slope Council district. In it, overweight respondents told Green they faced discrimination in school, doctors’ offices and on public transit.

“The idea for a weight discrimination bill came from my own experiences of being mistreated and dehumanized due to my weight and the similar stories I’ve heard my whole life from friends and family,” she said. “People of size face discrimination, harassment and bullying in almost every aspect of life.”

The fat-positive bill would also presumably protect skinny people, as well as short and tall people, if they’ve faced discrimination. It would enable them to bring their claims to the city Human Rights Commission to be investigated.

Lander, who will become the city’s next comptroller in January, suggested not all claims would necessarily be valid due to any variety of mitigating circumstances. The bill doesn’t spell out what situations may be exempt, but it does include a provision that would allow for exceptions to the prohibition.

When asked about whether certain physical labor might be exempt — like construction work on tall buildings or with heavy equipment — Lander said employers would have to demonstrate that they gave potential hires a fair shot.

“You can construct criteria for the job based on the ability to perform,” he said.

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US Treasury Eases Requirements to Clear Logjam in Emergency Rent Relief

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WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Wednesday announced new steps to help renters and landlords hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, including moves by the U.S. Treasury Department to reduce documentation requirements to get emergency rental assistance.

Renters can now use self-attestation to demonstrate their need, including with respect to financial hardship, the risk of homelessness or income, Treasury said in a statement.

The department said the move should help reduce logjams in processing by state and local governments that have left hundreds of thousands of applications stuck in the pipeline.

Treasury said state and local programs had spent just $5.1 billion – or about 20% – of the $25 billion allocated under the first round of the Emergency Rental Assistance program.

Payments to households at risk of eviction increased about 15% since June and doubled from May, but too many state and local governments had failed to make sufficient progress in getting aid to struggling tenants and landlords, it said.

After September, it said, programs that are “unwilling or unable to deliver assistance quickly will be at risk of having their rental assistance funding reallocated to effective programs in other high-need areas.”

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told state and local governments in a letter that Treasury would reallocate funding to jurisdictions that had obligated at least 65% of their original allocation.

The White House said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs would also increase support for at-risk tenant and landlords to stave off evictions.

“As the President has made clear, no state or locality should delay distributing resources that have been provided by Congress to meet families’ critical needs and prevent the tragedy of eviction,” the White House said in a statement.

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