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Biden Fires Social Security Chief From Trump Administration

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Friday fired the commissioner of Social Security after the official refused to resign, and Biden accepted the deputy commissioner’s resignation, the White House said.

Biden asked Commissioner Andrew Saul to resign, and his employment was terminated after he refused the Democratic president’s request, a White House official said.

Deputy Commissioner David Black agreed to resign, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

Both officials had been put in place under President Donald Trump, a Republican.

Biden named Kilolo Kijakazi as acting commissioner while the administration searches for a permanent commissioner and deputy commissioner.

Kijakazi currently is the deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy at the Social Security Administration.

Saul’s removal followed a Justice Department legal opinion that found he could be removed, despite a statute that says he could be fired only for neglecting his duties or malfeasance.

The opinion — researched at the request of the White House — concluded that a reevaluation because of a recent Supreme Court ruling meant that Saul could be fired by the president at will.

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Political reaction

Biden’s move got immediate support from the Democratic senator who would be in charge of confirming a successor to Saul. Republican senators accused Biden of politicizing the agency and pointed to Saul’s confirmation by a bipartisan Senate vote in 2019.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement that “every president should choose the personnel that will best carry out their vision for the country.

“To fulfill President Biden’s bold vision for improving and expanding Social Security, he needs his people in charge,” Wyden added, pledging to work to confirm a new commissioner “as swiftly as possible.”

Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, and Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, issued a joint statement calling Biden’s decision “disappointing.” The pair contended, “Social Security beneficiaries stand the most to lose from President Biden’s partisan decision to remove Commissioner Andrew Saul.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the personnel move an “unprecedented and dangerous politicization of the Social Security Administration.”

The agency, headquartered in Baltimore, pays benefits to about 64 million people, including retirees, children, widows and widowers, according to its website. The agency has a staff of about 60,000 employees and the benefits are funded by a tax on wages paid by employers and employees.

Saul was confirmed by a Senate vote of 77-16 in 2019 to a six-year term that would have expired in January 2025, tweeted Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Suspected Ransomware Group Demands $70 Million

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Hackers suspected of being behind a massive ransomware attack have made a demand of $70 million in cryptocurrency in exchange for unlocking all of the affected systems.

The demand appeared Sunday on a dark web site used by the Russia-linked REvil gang.

The cyberattack Friday hit the systems of hundreds of companies and public agencies across the world.

It involved a breach of the Miami-based software company Kaseya, which called the attack “sophisticated.”

Kaseya said in a statement it had a detection tool available for customers to see if their systems were infiltrated, and that it hoped to begin bringing its data centers back online by the end of Monday.

The FBI said REvil was responsible for a late May ransomware attack that shut down the operations of JBS, the world’s largest meat processing company.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday referred to his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, suggesting the United States would hold Russia responsible if it were linked to the attack.

“If it is, either with the knowledge of and/or a consequence of Russia, then I told Putin we will respond,” Biden told reporters.

 

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Biden Continuing COVID Vaccination Appeal

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WASHINGTON – After his administration fell short of its Independence Day vaccination goal, U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday will again appeal to uninoculated Americans to get the shots to protect themselves and others against the coronavirus, especially the latest worrying variant.

Biden is scheduled to make remarks at the White House on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program as concern increases about the delta variant of the virus spreading across the country.

The Biden administration aimed to have 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19 by July 4.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection said Friday that 67% have received one dose of a COVID vaccine; 47% have received two doses.

The president declared a partial victory during Independence Day festivities Sunday evening at the White House, where he and first lady Jill Biden personally greeted many of the 1,000 invited first responders, essential workers and military service members.

“We’re back traveling again. We’re back seeing one another again. Businesses are opening and hiring again,” Biden told the attendees during a 15-minute speech in which he declared near independence from the pandemic. “Today, all across this nation we can say with confidence: America is coming back together.”

The president cautioned, however, the battle against the virus – which has killed more than 600,000 Americans, is not yet over.

“Don’t get me wrong — COVID-19 has not been vanquished,” said Biden. “We all know powerful variants have emerged. But the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.

Getting the shot, the president said, is the “most patriotic” thing that can be done.

There is a stark regional contrast in vaccination rates. In the Northeast, more than half of adults are fully vaccinated.

In contrast, Southern states are performing poorly.  In Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, 35% or less of adults have received full doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is also a political divide.

Only 45% of Republican have received their first dose, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Those who hesitate to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, need to reassess their thinking, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“We’re dealing with a historic situation with this pandemic and we do have the tools to counter it,” said Fauci on Sunday during an appearance on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press.’ “So for goodness sake, put aside all of those differences and realize the common enemy is this virus and we do have the tool, a highly effective tool, against this virus.”

Fauci said 99% of recent coronavirus deaths in the United States involved unvaccinated people.

Amid the spread of the delta variant of the virus, believed to be more infectious, the federal government is preparing to send surge response teams to Southern and Western states seeing outbreaks.

“The federal government stands ready with a whole-of-government effort to work with local officials to increase vaccinations, to provide increased testing and also therapeutics to ensure that people don’t get sick who have contracted the disease,” said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients on the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

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US Jobless Benefit Claims Drop for 5th Straight Week

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New claims for jobless benefits in the United States dropped last week for the fifth straight week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, as the world’s biggest economy continues its marked recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

A total of 385,000 out-of-work employees filed for unemployment compensation, down 20,000 from the revised figure of the week before, the agency said. The figure was the lowest total since mid-March 2020 when the pandemic first swept into the country and marked the first time the weekly total had dropped below 400,000 in more than a year.

Nearly 52% of U.S. adults have now been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, boosting the economic recovery, although the pace of inoculations has dropped from its peak a few weeks ago. Officials in many states are now offering a variety of incentives to get people inoculated, including entry into lucrative lotteries.

The continuing drop in the number of jobless benefit claims could presage more hiring. Analysts are awaiting the May hiring report, set for release on Friday. U.S. employers added only 266,000 more jobs in April, down from the robust 916,000 figure in March. Nearly 10 million people remain officially unemployed in the U.S.

With the steady recovery, many employers are reporting a shortage of workers, particularly for low-wage jobs such as restaurant servers and retail clerks. Many businesses complain they are unable to find enough applicants for the job openings, even though the jobless rate remains at 6.1%, much higher than the 3.5% rate in March of last year before the pandemic was declared.

The federal government approved sending $300-a-week supplemental unemployment benefits to jobless workers through early September on top of less generous state-by-state payments.

But at least 25 of the 50 states, all led by Republican governors, are now ending participation in the federal payments as soon as next week, contending that the stipends let workers make more money than they would by returning to work and thus are hurting the recovery by not filling available job openings.

Some economists say, however, other factors prevent people from returning to work, such as lack of childcare or fear of contracting the coronavirus.

The U.S. government has determined that it has no authority to force the states to continue to make the payments into September. President Joe Biden recently reaffirmed rules for accepting the extra federal aid so unemployed workers could not game the system.

“We’re going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits,” Biden said. “That’s the law.”

The economic picture in the U.S. has been boosted as money from Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package filters through the economy. The measure has likely boosted consumer spending, as millions of Americans, all but the highest wage earners, are now receiving $1,400 stimulus checks from the government or have already been sent the extra cash.

Biden is proposing an additional $4 trillion in government spending on infrastructure repairs and assistance for children and families, but the assistance has been met with stiff resistance from Republicans. The fate of the proposals in the politically divided Congress remains uncertain.

Numerous Republican lawmakers have voiced opposition to the size of the Democratic president’s spending plans and his proposals to pay for them with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

Absent an agreement with Republicans, Democratic congressional leaders say they could attempt to push through Biden’s proposals solely with Democratic votes without any Republican support, as occurred with passage of the coronavirus relief package.

 

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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.

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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