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From Scarcity to Abundance: US Faces Calls to Share Vaccines

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TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS – Victor Guevara knows people his age have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in many countries. His own relatives in Houston have been inoculated.

But the 72-year-old Honduran lawyer, like so many others in his country, is still waiting. And increasingly, he is wondering why the United States is not doing more to help, particularly as the American vaccine supply begins to outpace demand and doses that have been approved for use elsewhere in the world, but not in the U.S., sit idle.

“We live in a state of defenselessness on every level,” Guevara said of the situation in his Central American homeland.

Honduras has obtained a paltry 59,000 vaccine doses for its 10 million people. Similar gaps in vaccine access are found across Africa, where just 36 million doses have been acquired for the continent’s 1.3 billion people, as well as in parts of Asia.

In the United States, more than one-fourth of the population — nearly 90 million people — has been fully vaccinated and supplies are so robust that some states are turning down planned shipments from the federal government.

This stark access gap is prompting increased calls across the world for the U.S. to start shipping vaccine supplies to poorer countries. That is creating an early test for President Joe Biden, who has pledged to restore American leadership on the world stage and prove to wary nations that the U.S. is a reliable partner after years of retrenchment during the Trump administration.

J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said that as the U.S. moves from vaccine scarcity to abundance, it has an opportunity to “shape the outcomes dramatically in this next phase because of the assets we have.”

Biden, who took office in January as the virus was raging in the U.S., has responded cautiously to calls for help from abroad.

He has focused the bulk of his administration’s vaccinations efforts at home. He kept in place an agreement struck by the Trump administration requiring drugmakers that got U.S. aid in developing or expanding vaccine manufacturing to sell their first doses produced in the country to the U.S. government. The U.S. has also used the Defense Production Act to secure vital supplies for the production of vaccine, a move that has blocked the export of some supplies outside the country.

White House aides have argued that Biden’s cautious approach to promises around vaccine supply and delivery was validated in the wake of manufacturing issues with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the subsequent safety “pause” to investigate a handful of reported blood clots. In addition, officials say they need to maintain reserves in the U.S. to vaccinate teenagers and younger children once safety studies for those age groups are completed and if booster shots should be required later.

The White House is aware that the rest of the world is watching. Last month, the U.S. shared 4 million vaccine doses with neighboring Canada and Mexico, and this past week, Biden said those countries would be targets for additional supplies. He also said countries in Central America could receive U.S. vaccination help, though officials have not detailed any specific plans.

The lack of U.S. vaccine assistance around the world has created an opportunity for China and Russia, which have promised millions of doses of domestically produced shots to other countries, though there have been production delays that have hampered the delivery of some supplies. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said this month that China opposes “vaccine nationalism” and that vaccines should become a global public good.

Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute and a vaccinologist, said wealthy countries have a stake in the success of vaccination efforts in other corners of the world.

“Beyond the moral obligation, the problem is that if there is not going to be control of the epidemic globally, this may ultimately backfire for these rich countries, if in areas where vaccines are not available variants emerge against which the vaccines might not work,” Hanekom said.

The U.S. has also faced criticism that it is not only hoarding its own stockpiles, but also blocking other countries from accessing vaccines, including through its use of the law that gives Washington broad authority to direct private companies to meet the needs of the national defense.

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Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest maker of vaccines and a critical supplier of the U.N.-backed COVAX facility, asked Biden on Twitter on April 16 to lift the U.S. embargo on exporting raw materials needed to make the jabs.

India is battling the world’s fastest pace of spreading infections. Its government has blocked vaccine exports for several months to better meet needs at home, exacerbating the difficulty of poor countries to access vaccine.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2020 annual report also raised eyebrows for a section titled “Combatting malign influences in the Americas,” which said the U.S. had convinced Brazil to not buy the Russian shot.

The U.S. Embassy denied exerting any pressure regarding vaccines approved by Brazil’s health regulator, which has not yet signed off on Sputnik V. Since March 13, Brazil has been trying to negotiate supply of U.S. surplus vaccines for itself, according to the foreign ministry.

There are also concerns that the U.S. might link vaccine sharing to other diplomatic efforts. Washington’s loan of 2.7 million doses of AstraZeneca’s shots to Mexico last month came on the same day Mexico announced it was restricting crossings at its southern border, an effort that could help decrease the number of migrants seeking entry into the United States.

Those sort of parallel tracks of diplomacy will be closely watched as the Biden administration decides with whom to share its surplus vaccine, particularly in Central America, home to many countries where migrant families and unaccompanied children are trying to make their way to the U.S.

“What we would hope to avoid is any perception that increased access to lifesaving vaccines in Central America is in exchange for increased tightening of border security,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.

As the wait for vaccines continues in Honduras, desperation is growing.

Last week, a private business group announced it would try to buy 1.5 million vaccine doses to help government efforts, though it was unclear how it might obtain them. In March, authorities in Mexico seized 5,700 doses of purported Russian vaccines found in false bottoms of ice chests aboard a private plane bound for Honduras. The company owner who chartered the plane said he was trying to obtain vaccines for his employees and their families. The vaccine’s Russian distributor said the vaccines were fake.

Lilian Tilbeth Hernández Banegas, 46, was infected with COVID-19 in late November and spent 13 days in a Tegucigalpa hospital. The first days she struggled to breathe and thought she would die.

The experience has made the mother of three more anxious about the virus and more diligent about avoiding it. The pandemic rocked her family’s finances. Her husband sells used cars but has not made a sale in more than four months.

“I want to vaccinate myself, my family to be vaccinated, because my husband and my children go out to work, but it’s frustrating that the vaccines don’t arrive,” Hernández said.

There is plenty of blame to go around, said Marco Tulio Medina, coordinator of the COVID-19 committee at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, noting his own government’s lackadaisical approach and the ferocity of the vaccine marketplace. But the wealthy can do more.

“There’s a lack of humanism on the part of the rich countries,” he said. “They’re acting in an egotistical way, thinking of themselves and not of the world.”

 

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George Floyd murder: Minneapolis police to face US federal probe

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A US federal investigation has been launched into policing practices in the city of Minneapolis, a day after one of its former officers was convicted of the murder of George Floyd.

The justice department will look at whether there has been a pattern “of unconstitutional or unlawful policing”, Attorney General Merrick Garland said.

It follows national outrage over the killing of Mr Floyd by Derek Chauvin.

The former officer was convicted of all charges against him on Tuesday.

Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest in May 2020. Mr Floyd, an unarmed African American, was pronounced dead an hour later.

His death sparked protests across the US and worldwide, and calls for police reform.

Tuesday’s verdict has been widely welcomed in a country where police are rarely convicted – if they are charged at all – over deaths in custody.

But Mr Garland told reporters the verdict would not “address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis”.

What will the investigation look at?

The attorney general said the investigation would “include a comprehensive review of the Minneapolis Police Department’s policies, training, supervision and use-of-force investigations.”

It will also examine “whether its treatment of those with behavioural health disabilities is unlawful”, while looking at the “effectiveness of current systems of accountability and whether other mechanisms are needed to ensure constitutional and lawful policing”.

Mr Garland said both the community and law enforcement would have to take part if the investigation were to be a success, and he had already started reaching out to both.

If unlawful patterns or practices were found, he promised to issue a public report and bring a civil lawsuit.

Analysis: What does this probe mean?

By Jessica Lussenhop, BBC News, New York

This process happened after high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as in Chicago and Baltimore.

At the end of its investigation, the Department of Justice (DoJ) issues a report that often contains details that the public would otherwise have no access to. They may look at arrest statistics for any evidence of racial bias, or for signs of racism in emails sent between officers.

The report leads to an agreement – a consent decree – between the DoJ and the department to fix specific, troublesome practices.

The city of Minneapolis could face real, legal consequences if benchmarks laid out in the agreement are not met.

However, the process can be slow, bureaucratic and largely invisible to the community, and sometimes departments operate under federal monitoring for years.

And past experiences show that these agreements do not lead to an end to controversial incidents.

Presentational grey line

What happens next in the Floyd case?

Chauvin will face sentencing in about eight weeks for his conviction.

He was found guilty of three counts carrying a combined total of 75 years in prison but Minnesota guidelines recommend sentences be served concurrently, meaning Chauvin would face a maximum of 40 years in prison for the most serious charge, of second-degree murder.

However, sentencing guidelines also recommend less time for offenders like Chauvin with no previous convictions.

He is being held in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison near St Paul, Minnesota. A spokeswoman for the facility told the BBC’s US partner CBS News that Chauvin was being kept in isolation for his own safety.

He is locked up 23 hours a day in a small cell that contains a bed, a combination toilet and sink, and a tiny shower, according to the New York Times.

Guards are expected to look in on prisoners every 30 minutes in the cells, which are also monitored by cameras.

Three other Minneapolis police officers who were involved in Floyd’s arrest – Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane – will face trial together in August on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Biden Talks to Trudeau, Lopez Obrador, Johnson in First Calls to Foreign Leaders

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WASHINGTON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made clear to President Joe Biden on Saturday that he’s eager to forge a new U.S.-Britain trade deal.

Johnson’s push for a deal came during a wide-ranging call between the two leaders that touched on the global response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as the Biden administration’s announcement this week that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, according to a statement from Downing Street.

A new trade agreement between the allies is a higher priority for Johnson than it is for Biden. Britain regained control over its national trade policy at the start of the month following the end of a post-Brexit transition period.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the administration had no timeline for forging a new trade deal because Biden’s attention was largely focused on getting the coronavirus pandemic under control and pressing Congress to pass the president’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.

The call with Johnson was at least Biden’s third call with a foreign counterpart since Friday. The president spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Friday evening.

Aid to halt immigration

On Saturday, Lopez Obrador said Biden told him the U.S. would send $4 billion to help development in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, nations whose hardships have spawned tides of migration through Mexico toward the United States.

López Obrador said that during their Friday call, the two discussed immigration and the need to address the root causes of why people migrate. Mexico has stopped recent attempts by caravans of Central American migrants to cross Mexico.

Biden’s call with López Obrador came at a tense moment, days after the Mexican president accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of fabricating drug trafficking charges against the country’s former defense secretary.

But López Obrador said in a statement Friday that the conversation with Biden was “friendly and respectful.”

Biden’s call to Trudeau came after the Canadian prime minister this week publicly expressed disappointment at Biden’s decision to issue an executive order halting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The long-disputed project was projected to carry about 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the tar sands of Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Biden told Trudeau that by issuing the order he was following through on a campaign pledge, a senior Canadian government official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

The White House said in a statement that Biden acknowledged Trudeau’s disappointment with his Keystone decision.

‘Perfect alignment’ is rare

Trudeau told reporters before the call Friday that he wouldn’t allow his differences with Biden over the project to become a source of tension in the U.S.-Canada relationship.

“It’s not always going to be perfect alignment with the United States,” Trudeau said. “That’s the case with any given president, but we’re in a situation where we are much more aligned on values and focus. I am very much looking forward to working with President Biden.”

Biden and Trudeau also discussed the prospects of Canada being supplied with the COVID-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, according to a second senior Canadian government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

Canada has been getting all of its Pfizer doses from a Pfizer facility in Puurs, Belgium, but Pfizer has informed Canada it won’t get any doses next week and will get 50% less than expected over the next three weeks. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has publicly asked Biden to share a million doses made at Pfizer’s Michigan facility.

The U.S. federal government has an agreement with Pfizer in which the first 100 million doses of the vaccine produced in the U.S. will be owned by the U.S. government and will be distributed in the U.S.

The two leaders also spoke broadly about trade, defense and climate issues. Trudeau also raised the cases of two Canadians imprisoned in China in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Huawei executive, who was apprehended in Canada on a U.S. extradition request, according to the prime minister’s office.

US Defense Chief Orders Review of Military Sex Assault Programs

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Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, listens during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first directive since taking office, has given his senior leaders two weeks to send him reports on sexual assault prevention programs in the military, and an assessment of what has worked and what hasn’t.

Austin’s memo, which went out Saturday, fulfills a commitment he made to senators last week during confirmation hearings. He had vowed to immediately address the problems of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.

“This is a leadership issue,” Austin said in his two-page memo. “We will lead.”

Senator after senator demanded to know what Austin planned to do about the problem, which defense and military leaders have grappled with for years. Reports of sexual assaults have steadily gone up since 2006, according to department reports, including a 13% jump in 2018 and a 3% increase in 2019. The 2020 data is not yet available.

The 2018 increase fueled congressional anger over the issue, and lawmakers have repeatedly called for action, including changes in the Code of Military Justice.

“You do agree that we can’t keep doing the same thing that we’ve been doing for the past decade?” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said during Austin’s confirmation hearing. “Do I have your commitment to be relentless on this issue until we can end the scourge of sexual violence in the military?”

Austin agreed, telling senators, “This starts with me and you can count on me getting after this on Day One.”

Technically, the directive came on Day Two. Austin arrived at the Pentagon on Friday shortly after noon, but he spent his first hours as defense chief in meetings with key leaders as he began the transition to his new job. He was in the Pentagon again Saturday, making calls to defense counterparts around the world, and he signed the memo.

In his hearing and in the memo, Austin acknowledged that the military has long struggled with the problem but must do better.

The directive calls for each leader to submit a summary of the sexual assault and harassment measures they have taken in the last year that show promise, and an assessment of those that didn’t. And he asked for relevant data for the past decade, including efforts to support victims.

“Include in your report the consideration of novel approaches to any of these areas,” he said, adding that “we must not be afraid to get creative.”

And Austin said he plans to host a meeting on the matter with senior leaders in the coming days.

Nate Galbreath, the acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said last April that he was cautiously optimistic that the lower increase in 2019 suggested a trend in declining assaults. But he said it’s too difficult to tell because sexual assaults are vastly under-reported.

Galbreath and military service leaders have repeatedly rolled out new programs over the years, including increased education and training and efforts to encourage service members to intervene when they see a bad situation. Last year officials announced a new move to root out serial offenders.

Many victims don’t file criminal reports, which means investigators can’t pursue those alleged attackers. Under the new system, victims who don’t want to file a public criminal report are encouraged to confidentially provide details about their alleged attacker so that investigators can see if they have been involved in other crimes.

Galbreath and others also have contended that, at least early on, the increase in reports was a good sign in that it showed that victims were more willing to come forward, suggesting they were getting more confident in the justice system.

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Trump Again Signals Objections to Pandemic Aid Bill

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U.S. President Donald Trump indicated Saturday his continued objections to a pandemic relief and government funding package that he sharply criticized earlier this week.

The larger checks have been seen as a rebuke to members of his own Republican Party, which had resisted Democratic efforts to negotiate larger payments.

The president is spending the holiday at his Florida resort as Democrats and Republicans wait to see whether he will sign the $2.3 trillion spending legislation, which includes $892 billion for coronavirus relief. The bill has been flown from Washington to his Mar-a-Lago club to be available if he decides to sign it into law.

Trump has not specifically threatened to veto the bill, but he surprised lawmakers in both parties by calling it a “disgrace” after it had been passed in the House and Senate, capping months of negotiations.

Meanwhile, 14 million Americans are about to lose unemployment benefits, according to Labor Department data. The White House had no updates as to whether Trump would sign the bill by Monday, an official told Reuters.

President-elect Joe Biden called on Trump to sign the bill.

“This abdication of responsibility has devastating consequences. … This bill is critical. It needs to be signed into law now,” Biden, who is spending the holiday in his home state of Delaware, said in a statement.

A partial federal government shutdown also would begin early Tuesday if Trump does not sign the bill. Congress is planning to return to work Monday, interrupting its usual Christmas recess, and could take up a stopgap measure to extend government funding for a few days or weeks while the impasse is resolved.

Defense bill vote

House members are also scheduled to vote Monday to override Trump’s veto of a $740 billion bill authorizing the country’s defense programs. If the House vote passes, the Senate could vote on the measure as early as Tuesday. It requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override a presidential veto.

Trump has criticized the defense bill on several fronts, arguing without explanation that the bill benefits China, and has demanded the removal of language that allows for the renaming of military bases that honor Confederate leaders. He has also demanded the addition of a provision making it easier to sue social media companies over content posted by their users.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s veto “an act of staggering recklessness that harms our troops.”

However, Pelosi has embraced Trump’s call for $2,000 direct payments to all Americans below a specified income level, and on Thursday used a maneuver to force Republicans to defy Trump by blocking the increase.

Pelosi has announced plans to force another vote on the issue Monday. It is likely to be passed in the House, where Democrats have a majority, but unlikely to progress in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The White House declined to share details of the president’s schedule during his Christmas holiday. It said only: “During the holiday season, President Trump will continue to work tirelessly for the American people. His schedule includes many meetings and calls.”

Trump was photographed playing golf at his Florida course near Mar-a-Lago both Thursday and Friday. Reports said he was joined on the course Christmas Day by his close ally, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

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Amid Pandemic, US Farmers Endure Another Year of Uncertainty

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BLOOMINGTON, ILLINOIS – After reaching a “phase one” agreement with China in January, temporarily cooling a heated trade dispute between the United States and one of the largest markets for its crops, farmers like Brian Duncan in Illinois were optimistic.

“No matter if you liked how we got there or not, we felt like we were ready to move forward with some trade,” Duncan told VOA at the Illinois Farm Bureau’s headquarters in Bloomington, where he also serves as vice president of the organization. “Then, obviously, COVID hit in March.”

But even as the U.S. economy shut down in many parts of the country to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, panic was initially hard to find on Scott Halpin’s farm in Grundy County, Illinois.

“Fortunately, we’re just a family farm, and it’s just a few of us so we don’t have a great deal of exposure,” Halpin told VOA during a break in tending to his cows, which roamed the muddy fields behind his barn. “We still have to get up and feed these animals, and they really don’t care if we’ve got COVID-19 or not.”

But the virus reached workers at several meat processing plants throughout the Midwest and quickly spread, curbing production that created a ripple effect through the U.S. food chain, leading to an oversupply of livestock and an undersupply of meat on store shelves.

“The market has fallen off the cliff over the last two weeks,” Duncan told VOA during a Skype interview in April. “Hogs on our farm, the price has dropped 50%.”

The market for soybeans – a key source of feed for livestock — also tanked along with prices for corn, which when converted to ethanol, is used in gasoline. Demand for fuel plummeted when motorists stayed home to avoid the virus.

Corn is one of Illinois farmer Fred Greider’s key sources of income.

“Every one of my corn acres produces enough fuel for about 80 cars to run on through the year,” he said. “For each car parked, or miles reduced, it directly affects the demand for ethanol, which is the primary use of our corn.”

With a pandemic they could not control or avoid as the backdrop, U.S. farmers endured another year of uncertainty as coronavirus-related supply disruptions created whipsaw market fluctuations that impacted almost every aspect of their livelihood.

As a result, billions in government aid flowed to farmers to help soften the blow of market disruptions caused by shuttering the economy as the virus spread.

While the U.S. is now grappling with the deadliest phase of the pandemic to date, the food supply chain is stable. China is also buying more U.S. crops, fueling optimism – and price increases.

China has “huge needs,” Greider said, “and they’ve exhausted supply in Brazil. Brazil is actually buying some grain from us now to carry them through to their harvest.”

With this year’s harvest complete, farmers are looking at new uncertainty in 2021 as the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden tackles the pandemic, inherits a trade war and installs new agency heads key to farm policy, such as the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who held the post under President Barack Obama, is Biden’s choice for the post.

“To some extent it’s going to be Biden wanting to go back to what he believes would be the successful policies of the Obama administration,” University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said. He added that it won’t be easy, or practical, for the incoming Biden administration to undo some of the policies enacted under President Donald Trump.

“They have to combine the old with the new and deal with today’s reality,” Hagle said.

It’s a reality that many farmers who might not have voted for Biden are coming to terms with.

“I hope this administration, like any administration, would look out for rural America,” farmer Duncan said. “I would look for more trade deals, biofuel usage, economic stability, a farm bill that provides an economic backstop. All those things I’m hopeful we’ll get, it’s just too soon to know, but I’m hopeful for the best.”

 

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Ivanka Trump questioned over inauguration funds ‘misuse’

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President Trump’s daughter Ivanka has been questioned under oath over claims that not-for-profit funds were misused at Mr Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

A lawsuit launched by District of Columbia (DC) Attorney General Karl Racine alleges that Mr Trump’s real estate business and other entities misused the funds to enrich the Trumps.

Mr Trump’s Washington hotel is alleged to have been “grossly overpaid”.

Ivanka Trump has denounced the case as “politically motivated”.

In a tweet she shared a screengrab purported to be of an email in which she suggested the hotel be paid a “fair market rate”.

“This ‘inquiry’ is another politically motivated demonstration of vindictiveness and waste of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

The White House has not yet commented.

However, the inaugural committee has said its finances were independently audited and none of the money was spent unlawfully.

What are the allegations?

The lawsuit alleges that a tax-exempt non-profit organisation called the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee worked with the Trump family to overpay for event space at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

In one case, the lawsuit alleges, the non-profit organisation paid more than $300,000 (£222,000) for a private reception at the Trump International Hotel for Mr Trump’s three eldest children, Donald Jnr, Ivanka and Eric.

The event took place on the evening of 20 January 2017, the day of Mr Trump’s inauguration.

Earlier this year, Mr Racine said: “District law requires non-profits to use their funds for their stated public purpose, not to benefit private individuals or companies.”

His lawsuit is seeking to recover more than $1m in alleged improper payments made to the Trump International Hotel during the week of the inauguration.

Mr Racine’s office has subpoenaed records from people including Ivanka Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and Thomas Barrack Jnr, a friend of Mr Trump’s and the chairman of the inaugural committee, according to the Washington Post newspaper.

How has Ivanka responded?

She tweeted that she had spent more than five hours being interviewed at the office of Mr Racine, a Democrat who became DC attorney general in 2015.

She said lawyers had asked her about the rates charged by the Trump International Hotel for events at the inauguration – and said she had shared the email in which she directs the hotel to charge a “fair market rate” with them.

Ivanka Trump has been working as a senior adviser to President Trump, as has her husband Jared Kushner.

What are the rules around inauguration funds?

Inauguration committees are appointed by the president-elect to be in charge of the inaugural ceremony and related events and activities.

The committee can accept unlimited donations, including from companies. All donations have to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Mr Trump’s inaugural committee raised $107m – the biggest ever, according to FEC filings.

Richard Gates – who was one of several Trump associates convicted in relation to former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election – was the inaugural committee’s deputy chairman.

 

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US, Estonia Partnered to Search Out Cyber Threat From Russia

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WASHINGTON – In a modern twist on old-fashioned war games, the U.S. military dispatched cyber fighters to Estonia this fall to help the small Baltic nation search out and block potential cyber threats from Russia. The goal was not only to help a NATO partner long targeted by its powerful neighbor but also to gain insight on Russian tactics that could be used against the U.S. and its elections.

The U.S. Cyber Command operation occurred in Estonia from late September to early November, officials from both countries disclosed this week, just as the U.S. was working to safeguard its election systems from foreign interference and to keep coronavirus research from the prying reach of hackers in countries including Russia and China.

Estonian officials say they found nothing malicious during the operation.

The mission, an effort analogous to two nations working jointly in a military operation on land or sea, represents an evolution in cyber tactics by U.S. forces who had long been more accustomed to reacting to threats but are now doing more — including in foreign countries — to glean advance insight into malicious activity and to stop attacks before they reach their targets.

The Defense Department has worked to highlight that more aggressive “hunt forward” strategy in recent years, particularly after Russia interfered through hacking and covert social media campaigns in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. American officials were on high alert for similar interference in 2020 but described no major problems on Nov. 3.

“When we look at the threats that we face, from Russia or other adversaries, it really is all about the partnerships and our ability to expand really the scope, scale and pace of operations in order to make it more difficult for adversaries to execute operations either in the United States, Estonia or other places,” Brig. Gen. William Hartman, commander of the Cyber National Mission Force, said in a conference call with a small group of reporters this week.

Estonia, a former Soviet republic, was in some ways a natural fit for a partnership with Cyber Command because in years past it has been a cyber target of nearby Russia, including crippling attacks on government networks in 2007.

Estonian officials say they have since strengthened their cyber defenses, created a cybersecurity strategy and developed their own cyber command, which like the U.S. version is part of the country’s military.

While nothing malicious was found on the networks during the exercise, “what we did learn is how the U.S. conducts these kinds of operations, which is definitely useful for us because there are a lot of kind of capability developments that we are doing right now,” said Mihkel Tikk, a deputy commander in Estonia’s Cyber Command.

Tikk added: “In some areas, it is wise to learn from others than having to reinvent the wheel.”
Hartman declined to discuss specifics of the operation but said the networks in Estonia were “very well defended.”

“I don’t want anyone to leave here with the impression that Estonian networks were full of adversary activity from a broad range of nation states” because that is not the case, he added.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, the commander of Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, has hinted at a more aggressive, proactive federal government approach to cyber threats.

In an August piece for Foreign Affairs magazine, for instance, Nakasone wrote that U.S cyber fighters have moved away from a “reactive, defensive posture” and are increasingly engaging in combat with foreign adversaries online.

Cyber Command has worked in past years with countries including Montenegro and North Macedonia on similar missions. Estonian officials say they believe the partnership could be a deterrent to countries such as Russia.

“These kinds of operations, I think, they will continue,” said Undersecretary of Defense Margus Matt. But, he added, “I don’t know how much we will speak of them publicly.”

U.S. officials say they think the risks of a proactive approach — a country, for instance, could regard such an operation as a provocation toward a broader international cyber conflict — are outweighed by the benefits.

“We believe that inaction in cyberspace contributes to escalation more than reasonable action in cyberspace,” said Thomas Wingfield, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy.

 

 

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Nevada now has one COVID-19 case a minute, one death per two hours

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The coronavirus is spreading so fast in Nevada that one person is diagnosed with it every minute and someone is dying from it every two hours, state health officials said Wednesday.

Nearly half of the state’s 142,239 total cases since the start of the pandemic in March have occurred since September — fully one-fourth of those in the month of November and 10 percent in just the last seven days, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services

“We have COVID-19 exploding in our community. It is spreading rapidly,” Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick told reporters in Reno. “We have exponential growth going on.”

While the majority of the state’s cases and 2,071 total deaths have been reported in Clark County — the most populous county that includes Las Vegas — the Reno-Sparks area in Washoe County has been hit the hardest in recent weeks.

“We have four times as many people in Washoe County that are actively infected with COVID-19 as we did a month ago,” Dick said.

Nearly half of all the coronavirus cases in Washoe County have been confirmed in just the past month, a total now of 22,726.

By comparison, Dick said, the latest surge has resulted in more than twice as many cases per 100,000 people in the Reno-Sparks area as the previous biggest spike in Las Vegas this summer.

“We are at 214 percent of the peak Clark County experienced in late July,” he said.

Washoe County has reported 59 additional deaths since Oct. 25 — 30 of those in just the past six days, including six on Tuesday for a cumulative total of 259.

The county’s seven-day moving average for new cases has more than tripled over the past month, from 140 on Oct. 25 to 513 on Wednesday. Active cases have grown during that period from 1,872 to 7,864.

Nevada reported another record number of hospitalizations for the fourth time in two weeks, a total of 1,414 on Wednesday (146 suspected plus 1,268 confirmed). Health officials said that’s enough people to fill nine commercial airliners.

Counting COVID and non-COVID patients, 84 percent of Washoe County’s staffed hospital beds are occupied, the highest rate in the state.

The state’s 14-day positivity rate has continued to rise to 16.5 percent on Wednesday. Clark County has confirmed 109,827 positive cases and 1,719 COVID-19 deaths as of Wednesday.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, has been reluctant to order business closures like he did in March. But he announced the state’s most expansive mask mandate to date Sunday and reduced the capacity at casinos, restaurants, bars and many other businesses from 50 percent to 25 percent.

Meanwhile, the Washoe County School District is suspending in-class instruction for middle schools and high schools beginning next week as part of an effort to curtail the spread of the virus.

The school board voted late Tuesday to continue to offer classroom teaching for elementary schools. But beginning Dec. 2, secondary students will switch to strictly distance learning instead of the current hybrid model that combines remote teaching and in-class instruction.

Both decisions came on 5-1 votes.

Middle- and high-school students currently are scheduled to return to some in-person learning on Jan. 4. But school board members intend to review the situation again at their Dec. 8 meeting.

In Las Vegas, Clark County announced earlier this week that public buildings except McCarran International Airport and University Medical Center will close and that government center activities that can’t be conducted virtually will be canceled. Las Vegas City Hall will remain open with public health guidelines enforced, city officials said.

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Trump administration kills plans for Alaskan gold mine

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The Trump administration denied a permit to build a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska that could have put the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery at risk.

In a surprise move, the Army Corps of Engineers said “the proposed project is contrary to the public interest” in killing a permit to build the Pebble Mine under both the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act, the agency said in a statement.

The decision is in contrast to President Trump’s efforts to encourage energy development in Alaska, including drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other moves nationwide to removing environmental regulations that would benefit oil and gas exploration and other industries.

After nearly two decades of political wrangling, the Army Corps of Engineers signaled in August that the project wouldn’t go forward, informing the developer that it would have to clear environmental hurdles and create a mitigation plan before it could be approved.

The project proposed for the southwestern Bristol Bay region was opposed by Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence’s former chief of staff Nick Ayers. Joe Biden in August vowed to stop the mine from being developed, if he was elected.

“It is no place for a mine,” he said at the time. “The Obama-Biden Administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.”

John Shively, the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine’s developers, said he was dismayed by the decision.

“One of the real tragedies of this decision is the loss of economic opportunities for people living in the area,” Shively said in a statement.

The environmental review “clearly describes those benefits, and now a politically driven decision has taken away the hope that many had for a better life. This is also a lost opportunity for the state’s future economy.”

Meanwhile, Alaskan residents cheered the news.

“Today Bristol Bay’s residents and fishermen celebrate the news that Pebble’s permit has been denied; tomorrow we get back to work,” said Katherine Carscallen, executive director of the group Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay.

The group wants Congress to pass laws protecting the region.

“We’ve learned the hard way over the last decade that Pebble is not truly dead until protections are finalized,” Carscallen said.

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