Trump opposes USPS funding, says mail voting hard without it
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he opposes additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service, acknowledging that his position would starve the agency of money Democrats say it needs to process an anticipated surge in mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump also falsely stated that Democrats were pushing for universal mail-in voting and made the unfounded claim that mail-in voting would lead to massive voter fraud in the November election. Polls indicate Trump is in for a tough reelection fight against Democrat Joe Biden.
The Republican president said on Fox Business Network that among the sticking points over a new virus relief package were Democrats’ demand for billions of dollars to assist states in protecting the election and to help postal workers process mail-in ballots.
“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said on “Mornings with Maria,” adding, “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
Biden’s campaign jumped on Trump’s comments, likening the president’s actions to sabotage.
“The President of the United States is sabotaging a basic service that hundreds of millions of people rely upon, cutting a critical lifeline for rural economies and for delivery of medicines, because he wants to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely during the most catastrophic public health crisis in over 100 years,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.
Negotiations over a new virus relief package have all but ended, with the White House and congressional leaders far apart on the size, scope and approach for shoring up households, reopening schools and launching a national strategy to contain the coronavirus.
While there is some common ground over $100 billion for schools and new funds for virus testing, Democrats also want other emergency funds that Trump rejects, including to shore up the U.S. Postal Service and election security ahead of the November election.
“They want $3.5 billion for something that will turn out to be fraudulent. That’s election money, basically,” Trump said during Thursday’s call-in interview.
“They want $25 billion — billion — for the post office,” he said, adding that, without it, the Postal Service won’t be equipped to handle the influx of mail-in ballots.
Democrats have pushed for $10 billion for the Postal Service in talks with Republicans on a huge COVID-19 response bill. The figure is down from a $25 billion plan in a House-passed coronavirus measure.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chair of the House subcommittee on government operations, said Trump is acknowledging that he wants to hold up funding for the U.S. Postal Service to hinder Americans from voting.
“The president admits his motive for holding USPS funding hostage is that he doesn’t want Americans to vote by mail,” Connolly said in a statement Thursday. “Why? It hurts his electoral chances. He’s putting self-preservation ahead of public safety, for an election he deserves to lose.”
Pompeo, in Slovenia, pushes 5G security, warns about China
BLED, Slovenia — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Slovenia on Thursday to make the case for high-speed wireless networks that bar Chinese companies like Huawei.
On the second leg of a four-nation tour of central and eastern Europe, Pompeo met with Slovenian officials in the mountain lake town of Bled and signed a joint declaration on “5G Clean Network Security” that aims to keep untrusted telecommunications vendors out of Slovenia.
“Free nations must work together to confront authoritarian threats,” he said. “It is absolutely critical that every nation makes a good sovereign decision about how the private information of its citizens is going to be handled.”
Pompeo has led a U.S. campaign across Europe and elsewhere against Huawei and other Chinese companies that the Trump administration accuses of sharing sensitive data and personal information with China’s security apparatus. The campaign has had mixed results, but NATO ally Slovenia is on board.
“Protecting communications networks from disruption or manipulation, and ensuring the privacy and individual liberties of the citizens of the United States and Slovenia are vital to ensuring that our people are able to take advantage of the tremendous economic opportunities 5G will enable,” the declaration says.
Slovenia last month rolled out a nationwide commercial 5G network with the Swedish telecoms giant Ericsson, which Pompeo and other U.S. officials frequently mention as a “trusted” alternative to Huawei.
“The tide is turning against the Chinese Communist Party and its efforts to control information,” Pompeo said.
Besides the 5G declaration, Pompeo discussed energy security with Slovenia’s president and prime minister. The United States is keen to wean Europe from its dependence on Russian oil and gas and has launched numerous initiatives throughout the continent to diversify European energy sources. It has offered to sell U.S. fuel to Europe and has been promoting nuclear energy.
Pompeo arrived in Slovenia from the Czech Republic, where he called upon the young democracies in the region to embrace hard-won freedoms and counter threats from Russia and particularly China, which he said is in many ways more dangerous than the former Soviet Union.
“The CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was,” he told Czech lawmakers, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Pompeo, however, said that “even more of a threat is the Chinese Communist Party and its campaigns of coercion and control.”
“In your country alone,” he said, “we see influence campaigns against your politicians and security forces, the theft of industrial data that you have created through your innovation and creativity, and we’ve seen the use of economic leverage to stifle freedom itself.”
Pompeo said they should continue to resist Chinese attempts to assert economic and political leverage over them. He noted several recent developments in which China has threatened Czech officials with retaliation for showing support for Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.
China has accused the United States of “oppressing Chinese companies” through its declarations about telecom equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE being national security threats.
Federal appeals court: Male-only draft is constitutional
NEW ORLEANS — A federal appeals court in New Orleans upheld the constitutionality of the all-male military draft system Thursday, citing a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said “only the Supreme Court may revise its precedent.”
The case was argued in March and was the result of a lawsuit by the National Coalition for Men and two men challenging the male-only draft. Their arguments had been that the the 1981 case was decided at a time when women were largely absent from combat.
There was no dissent in Thursday’s ruling from a three-judge panel. Plaintiffs in the case could seek a rehearing before the full court or go to the Supreme Court.
The U.S. government stopped drafting young men into the military in 1973. But every male must still register for the draft when he turns 18.
Earlier this year — after the arguments before the 5th Circuit — a federal commission recommended including women in the military draft system.
“The Commission concluded that the time is right to extend Selective Service System registration to include men and women, between the ages of 18 and 26. This is a necessary and fair step, making it possible to draw on the talent of a unified Nation in a time of national emergency,” a summary to the commission’s final report said.
U.S. seizes digital currency accounts used by militant groups
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has seized millions of dollars from cryptocurrency accounts that militant organization abroad, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, relied on to raise money for their operations, officials announced Thursday.
The Trump administration said the groups used the accounts to solicit donations for their causes, including through a bogus scam that officials say purported to sell protective gear for the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials described it as the largest-ever seizure of digital currency funds related to terrorism.
The action, including a forfeiture complaint filed in Washington’s federal court, is meant to deprive the organizations of fund needed to buy weapons and train fighters.
The department said it has seized millions of dollars, more than 300 cryptocurrency accounts and four websites. The money seized is expected to be given to a fund for victims of terrorist attacks.
The seizure also involved the military wing of Hamas.
“Without funding, you cannot have these operations conducted,” said Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “The focus here was a very proactive effort to target these organizations in a very wide-scale manner.”
Experts warn Spain is losing the 2nd round in virus fight
BARCELONA, Spain — Not two months after battling back the coronavirus, Spain’s hospitals are beginning to see patients struggling to breathe returning to their wards.
The deployment of a military emergency brigade to set up a field hospital in Zaragoza this week is a grim reminder that Spain is far from claiming victory over the coronavirus that devastated the European country in March and April.
Authorities said the field hospital is a precaution, but no one has forgotten scenes of hospitals filled to capacity and the daily death toll reaching over 900 fatalities a few months ago.
While an enhanced testing effort is revealing that a majority of the infected are asymptomatic and younger, making them less likely to need medical treatment, concern is increasing as hospitals begin to see more patients.
Experts are searching for reasons why Spain is struggling more than its neighbors after western Europe had won a degree of control over the pandemic.
But one thing is clear: The size of the second wave has depended on the response to the first one.
“The data don’t lie,” Rafael Bengoa, the former health chief of Spain’s Basque Country region and international consultant on public health, told The Associated Press.
“The numbers are saying that where we had good local epidemiological tracking, like (in the rural northwest), things have gone well,” Bengoa said. “But in other parts of the country where obviously we did not have the sufficient local capacity to deal with outbreaks, we have community transmission again, and once you community transmission, things get out of hand.”
Bengoa is one of 20 Spanish epidemiologists and public health experts who recently called for an independent investigation in a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet to identify the weaknesses that have made Spain among the worst affected countries by the pandemic in Europe despite its robust universal health care system.
Except for teenagers and young adults, Spaniards largely comply with mandatory face mask rules. The health ministry also embarked on one of the world’s largest epidemiological surveys. Randomly testing over 60,000 people, it found the virus prevalence to be 5%, showing that the population was far from a “herd immunity.”
However, Spain, with a population of 47 million, leads Europe with 44,400 new cases confirmed over the past 14 days, compared with just 4,700 new cases registered by Italy, with 60 million inhabitants, which was the first European country to be rocked by the virus.
Spain is still in good shape compared with many countries in the Americas, where the spread seems unchecked in the United States, Mexico and several South American countries.
But hospitalizations with COVID-19 have quintupled in Spain since early July, when cases were down to a trickle after a severe lockdown stopped a first wave of the virus that had pushed the health care system to breaking point.
On Tuesday, Spain’s ministry reported 805 people nationwide hospitalized over the past seven days. Half of the 64 people who died over the previous week were from Aragon, the region surrounding Zaragoza.
“There is no one single factor in such a pandemic,” said Manuel Franco, a professor of epidemiology at John Hopkins and Spain’s University of Alcala, who also signed The Lancet letter.
Franco cited Spain’s economic inequalities that have exposed poorer communities, especially fruit pickers, to greater harm, understaffed epidemiological surveillance services, and its large tourism industry. Combined with other factors, they could have formed a lethal cocktail.
Bengoa believes that social customs and traits prevalent in Mediterranean cultures, which emphasize physical contact and smaller personal space, have worked against Spain.
“Family gatherings are dangerous in Spain. We are being anti-Spanish in social gatherings if Spaniards don’t kiss, hug and touch one another,” Bengoa said, while adding that Spanish and Italian families live in larger, more multi-generational groups than in northern European countries, making contagion inside households more likely.
Some authorities seem to agree. Spain’s Canary Islands government has issued a public awareness spot that shows a family gathering to celebrate a grandfather’s birthday, with people taking off masks and embracing, only to end with the grandfather in a hospital bed.
Spain’s regions have complained that the central government has not given them the special authority to confine people to their homes that it used under a three-month state of emergency. That has led to regions having to recommend that people stay at home — instead of ordering them to do so — and lower compliance.
Yet it seems that adjusting to the “new normal” of co-existing with the virus has been uneven across Spain’s regions.
A contact tracing app has been recently developed by the health ministry, but the regional governments of Madrid and Barcelona appear to have underestimated the need to contract more contact tracers to keep tabs on cases.
Madrid, whose conservative leaders rarely shy away from a political scuffle with the nation’s left-wing government, has called for university volunteers to act as tracers and hired a private hospital to help do tracing.
Madrid’s regional health chief Enrique Ruiz told Spanish health news website ConSalud.es on Wednesday that the region including the capital has doubled its hospitalizations each week for the past month, reaching 4,600 last week.
“Our hospitals can handle the number of patients in the wards and critical care units, but that does not mean that we aren’t closely watching the situation,” Ruiz said.
Catalonia’s separatist-led administration, likewise, moved too slowly and is now having to do pool testing to control clusters. Catalonia’s public health director, Josep Argimon, said Wednesday that the situation is “stabilized.”
Still, Miquel Porta, a professor of epidemiology at Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar who also signed The Lancet letter, said “it is mind-blowing that politicians don’t take action.”
“You need people in the field doing shoe leather work to search for contacts,” Porta said. “It boils down to very simple things, and some regional governments are not doing what they said they would.”
Crews try to tame massive forest fire north of Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES — Light winds and scattered thundershowers early Thursday helped calm the flames of a huge wildfire that prompted evacuations north of Los Angeles, and firefighters hoped to rein in the blaze before temperatures spike later in the day.
An enormous plume of smoke was visible across much of Southern California after the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in dense forest land.
The blaze exploded in size within hours on brushy ridges, including some areas that had not burned since 1968, fire officials said. By Thursday morning, the flames had consumed nearly 16.5 square miles (42 square kilometers) of timber and chaparral shrubland. There was no containment of the fire.
About 100 rural homes were evacuated in the Lake Hughes area of the Angeles National Forest, some 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles.
Preliminary damage assessments found that at least three structures burned. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were houses.
The fire was being fed by tinder-dry brush in steep terrain, but its ferocity on Wednesday approached that of wind-driven blazes that usually erupt when gusty Santa Ana winds arrive later in the year, said county Deputy Fire Chief David Richardson.
Officials were preparing for the possibility of extremely dangerous fires on Thursday as heat increases and humidity levels drop, fire officials said in a statement. The area was expected to have temperatures in the mid-90s (about 35 Celsius) or higher through the weekend.
Evacuation centers were designated for residents and animals, but because of COVID-19 concerns, people were told to stay in their cars in the parking lots of the centers.
Bald eagle shows air superiority, sends drone into lake
ESCANABA, Mich. — A bald eagle launched an aerial assault on a drone operated by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy — known as EGLE — ripping off a propeller and sending the aircraft into Lake Michigan.
The attack happened July 21, when the drone was mapping shoreline erosion near Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to document and help communities cope with high water levels, the department said in a statement.
Environmental quality analyst and drone pilot Hunter King said he had completed about seven minutes of the mapping flight when satellite reception became spotty.
King pressed a button to return the $950 drone to him and was viewing his video screen when the drone began to twirl.
“It was like a really bad roller coaster ride,” said King, who looked up and saw the eagle flying away, apparently unhurt by its confrontation with technology.
Two birdwatchers who were nearby saw the bird attack something but told officials they didn’t realize it was a drone.
The drone sent 27 warning notifications in the 3.5 seconds that it took to spiral to the water, including one noting that a propeller was missing. A search of the shoreline failed to find the drone. Data later revealed that it landed in 4 feet of water about 150 feet offshore.
EGLE’s drone team is considering what it can do to reduce the possibility of a repeat attack, including possibly using “skins” or other designs on the aircraft to make them look less like seagulls, the agency said.
Tropical Storm Josephine forms; no warnings in effect
MIAMI — Tropical Storm Josephine formed in the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday morning, making it the earliest “J-named” storm in a record-setting hurricane season.
Josephine was located 975 miles (1,569 kilometers) east-southeast of the northern Leeward Islands, according to the 11 a.m. advisory from the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was moving west-northwest with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (72 kph).
No coastal watches or warnings were in effect.
Josephine was the earliest tenth Atlantic named storm on record, breaking the previous record of Jose, which formed Aug. 22, 2005, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
So far this year, Cristobal, Danielle, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna and Isaias have also set records for being the earliest named Atlantic storms of their respective place in the alphabet. Only Hanna and Isaias this year have developed into hurricanes.
Isaias killed two people in the Caribbean earlier this month. Several others across multiple U.S. states were then killed when the storm made landfall in North Carolina and moved through the East Coast, leading to floods, tornadoes, fires, and widespread power outages.
Last month, Hurricane Hanna, slammed the Texas Gulf Coast with high winds and rains that flooded streets and knocked out power across the region.
Portland protest clashes re-emerge near U.S. courthouse
PORTLAND — Protesters and police clashed in downtown Portland in a demonstration that lasted into the predawn hours of Thursday, with some in the crowd setting a fire and exploding commercial grade fireworks outside a federal courthouse that’s been a target in months of conflict for Oregon’s largest city.
Officers used tear gas to break up the crowd of several hundred people who gathered near the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, the neighboring Multnomah County Justice Center and a nearby police precinct station.
Protests have been held nightly in the city since the police killing of George Floyd in May, who died after a white officer pressed a knee to his neck
Protesters hurled rocks, bottles and paint at officers during the demonstration that started Wednesday night and went into Thursday morning, Portland police said in a statement.
One officer suffered a hand wound described as serious several other officers suffered non-specified injuries and several people were detained, with one arrested on suspicion of vandalizing a police vehicle, the statement said.
The protests in Portland reached their apex last month outside the federal courthouse, with demonstrators clashing nightly with federal agents dispatched to the city to protect the courthouse.
The demonstrations dwindled after a drawdown of the agents, who were replaced by Oregon state troopers. But protests that turned violent re-emerged over the last week, mostly near a police union headquarters building miles from the federal courthouse.
Hundreds of sea lions to be killed on Columbia River in effort to save endangered fish
Approval to kill up to 840 sea lions in a portion of the Columbia River and its tributaries over the next five years to boost the survival of salmon and steelhead at risk of extinction is expected from federal officials Friday.
The kill program has been in the works since Congress approved a change in the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2018, allowing sea lions to be killed to reduce predation on salmon and other species.
The legislation for the first time allows the killing of Steller’s sea lions, in addition to California sea lions, and makes any of the marine mammals fair game within a nearly 200 mile stretch of the mainstem Columbia and its tributaries, between Bonneville and McNary dams. Previously, only California sea lions that had been determined to be problematic predators of salmon were allowed to be killed to benefit fish recovery.
The program is sure to be controversial; nearly 22,000 comments received during public review of the program were opposed and fewer than 200 were for it. But a task force in May overwhelmingly recommended approval of a kill program. Barry Thom, regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the West Coast Region, is expected to approve an application to implement the program, which was submitted in June of last year from state and tribal fisheries managers.
Kill operations could begin at Bonneville Dam as soon as this fall.
Kassina Lee, regional director for Southwest Washington for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is a member of the task force that voted yes. While work is ongoing to improve hatcheries, habitat, hydropower operations and reduce fishing impacts to benefit 13 runs of fish at risk of extinction in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, sea lions also are having an impact, she said.
In the highly altered Columbia and Snake, managers today find themselves killing protected marine mammals eating endangered salmon that in turn are crucial food for critically endangered southern resident killer whales.
“It is a wicked conservation problem,” Lee said.
For years, fish managers have tried nonlethal methods to haze and eliminate sea lions in the Columbia: Fire crackers and seal bombs, chasing them with boats, rubber bullets, screaming rockets, pingers, blasting orca whale calls, buckshot — and even long-haul relocation of salmon-munching sea lions didn’t work. They swam right back, as far as 100 miles in three days to keep chowing down.
The new program considerably ups the ante.
California sea lions have been killed for preying on salmon under previous control programs, but nothing at this scale has been implemented before. Under the new program, it’s open season for government fish managers under the permit on any sea lion anywhere in the kill zone, any time of year, and in any number, up to a maximum of 300 Steller’s sea lions, and 540 California sea lions within the five years of the operation.
Training and new equipment will be needed to handle Steller’s, which are more aggressive and bigger — up to 2,500 pounds — than California sea lions, Lee said.
Use of firearms is prohibited. Instead, a combination of trapping and darting would be used, with the kill administered by lethal injection of tranquilizing drugs. The intended goal is humane euthanasia.
But it won’t be pretty: poles, gaffs, squeeze traps, cages and more will be needed to isolate, contain, restrain, kill and remove the animals from what is their natural habitat. The sea lions are after all only doing what comes naturally, as they follow succulent salmon to dams that create bottlenecks that make the fish easy pickings.
“It’s like fish in a barrel, you could say,” said Tim Ragen, former executive director of the federal Marine Mammal Commission, and another task force member who voted to approve the program.
But this can only be one step in a larger, wholistic and intensified effort to recover salmon in the Columbia, said Ragen, up to and including removal of dams to help salmon.
“Nobody likes to make a decision that says yes we need to remove some of these animals,” Ragen said of the sea lions. “What we are seeing is the need to reduce the predation on these runs on salmon so they can survive.”
Ragen said he cast his vote “with caveats.”
“It was yes, but don’t forget to turn attention to the more important and bigger problems,” he said. “I worry this will be the end of it.”
Sharon Young is senior strategist for marine wildlife for the Humane Society of the U.S. She voted against the program. “You can’t kill your way out of this problem,” she said of 13 dwindling fish runs on the Columbia and Snake.
Kill these sea lions, and more will just take their place, as other factors continue to push salmon into extinction, she said.
“It is not going to make any difference, and you will have killed animals for nothing,”Young said. “We tend to knee-jerk turn to some lethal solution to a conflict with any predator. But it doesn’t work without wiping out the population.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed by Congress in 1972 after seals, sea lions and others animals were hunted nearly to extinction in part because of conflicts with fisheries, she noted.
The protection act has been a spectacular success, re-wilding the Salish Sea and coast of Washington with more whales, sea lions, harbor porpoise, seals and orcas — other than southern resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound and feed on dwindling fish runs — than have been seen in a generation.
But the marine mammal boom is too much of a good thing, salmon managers say, with sea lions taking a significant bite out of the survival of threatened and endangered fish in the Columbia.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife killed 33 sea lions at Willamette Falls in 2019, Lee noted, and that single action dropped predation on winter steelhead at risk of extinction from 25% of the run in 2018, to 7% in 2019 — and just 1 to 2% in 2020, Lee said. That translates to about 1,377 steelhead saved out of a total run of 5,510, and a significantly lower risk of extinction.
“We hope and expect to see similar benefit to other salmon stocks in the application area,” Lee said of the kill program.
The Washington Legislature provided $462,000 for the program in the biennial budget approved last spring, contingent on the permit being approved. A total of $300,000 in federal funds is also budgeted for the program, divided between Oregon and Washington.
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