House on edge ahead of $2.2 trillion coronavirus vote

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Armed with hand sanitizer and discouraged from using elevators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives aimed to quickly pass a sweeping $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill on Friday, though it was unclear if they would be forced to delay a day.

Leadership of the Democratic-controlled chamber and top Republicans aimed to pass the largest relief measure that Congress has ever taken up in a voice vote, one of the fastest methods the chamber has, and pass it on to Republican President Donald Trump for his signature.

There could be opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he opposed the bill, and was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing it to pass on a voice vote, rather than in a formal call recording how each House member voted, which could delay the vote until Saturday.

The Capitol has laid out special procedures because of the coronavirus to minimize the threat of infection. Members are barred from sitting next to one another and would be called from their offices alphabetically for the vote. They will be required to use hand sanitizer before entering the chamber and encouraged to take the stairs, rather than use elevators, to better maintain social distancing.

While most of the House’s 430 current members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak, several are expected to travel to Washington for a vote around 11 a.m. EDT(1500 GMT).

On a call with fellow Democrats on Thursday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged House members not to do anything to delay the unprecedented economic aid package the Republican-led Senate backed by a unanimous 96-0 vote on Wednesday night.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who helped craft the package, also urged lawmakers to pass it quickly.

“This is the time that we want to see the government and that states all come together and execute on the largest financial package in the history of time,” he said on Fox Business Network.

The rescue package – which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress – will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and Trump signs it into law.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

VOICE VOTE SOUGHT

The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

Pelosi said House leaders were planning to fast-track the rescue plan by passing it via a voice vote on Friday. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, lawmakers might be able to vote remotely as not all would be able to be in Washington.

It was unclear whether Massie would block the measure.

“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.

Democratic Representative Dean Phillips asked Massie on Twitter to let his colleagues know if he intended to delay the bill’s passage “RIGHT NOW so we can book flights and expend about $200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt.”

The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 82,000, and the death toll reached almost 1,200.

The Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; writing by Patricia Zengerle and Andy Sullivan; editing by Lincoln Feast.)

Coronavirus stay-at-home directives multiply in major U.S. states

By Steve Gorman and Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – New Jersey’s governor was expected on Saturday to follow four other states – California, New York, Illinois and Connecticut – demanding that millions of Americans close up shop and stay home to slow the spread of coronavirus infections.

The sweeping state-by-state public health restrictions, unprecedented in breadth and scope, added to the distance being experienced among ordinary Americans.

“I know people want to hear it’s only going to be a matter of weeks and then everything’s going to be fine,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference on Saturday. “I don’t believe it’s going to be a matter of weeks. I believe it is going to be a matter of months.”

Meanwhile, the global pandemic seemed to close in on the highest levels of power in the nation’s capital.

An aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, leading the White House task force formed to combat the outbreak, tested positive for the virus, but neither President Donald Trump nor Pence have had close contact with the individual, Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, said in a statement late on Friday.

Pence’s office was notified of the positive test on Friday evening, and officials were seeking to determine who the staffer might have exposed, Miller said.

The aide was not publicly identified, and the vice president’s office did not immediately respond to a request for further details of the diagnosis or whether Pence would be tested.

“He’s recovering and has very, very mild symptoms,” Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short told CNN on Saturday.

The White House said last week that Pence did not require testing after dining with a Brazilian delegation, at least one member of which later tested positive for the respiratory illness. Trump has tested negative for the virus, his doctor said last week.

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives tested positive on Wednesday, becoming the first members of Congress known to have contracted the disease, which has killed 266 people in the United States.

The total number of known U.S. coronavirus cases has risen exponentially in recent days, climbing past 19,000 in a surge that health officials attributed in large part to an increase in diagnostic testing. More than 270 Americans have died.

Click  for a GRAPHIC on U.S. cases.

Cuomo said New York state was sending 1 million N95 respirator masks to New York City on Saturday. He said the state has identified 6,000 ventilators for purchase, which he described as a major step, but added that it needs 30,000.

“We are literally scouring the globe for medical supplies,” the governor said. New York state has recorded 10,356 cases, he said, 6,211 of them in New York City.

SOCIAL-DISTANCING GOES STATEWIDE

Expanding on social-distancing measures increasingly adopted at the local level, California Governor Gavin Newsom instituted the first statewide directive requiring residents to remain indoors except for trips to grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other “essential businesses.”

Newsom’s order, announced late on Thursday, made allowances for the state’s 40 million people to venture outside for exercise so long as they kept their distance from others.

On Friday, his counterparts in New York state, Illinois and Connecticut followed suit, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he planned to issue similar directives on Saturday.

The five states where governors have banned or will soon ban non-essential businesses and press residents to stay inside are home to 84 million people combined, about a quarter of the entire U.S. population and account for nearly a third of the nation’s economy.

The state directives were for the most part issued without strict enforcement mechanisms to back them up.

“What we want is for people to be in compliance and we’re going to do everything that we can to educate them,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a briefing on Saturday. Police officers would “admonish” those found to be on non-essential outings to go home, she said.

“That’s what we hope is the end of any kind of contact that anyone might have with the police department,” Lightfoot said.

Cuomo said there will be a civil fine and mandatory closure for any business that is not in compliance.

Even before the flurry of statewide stay-at-home orders, the pandemic had virtually paralyzed parts of the U.S. economy and upended lifestyles over the past week, as school districts and colleges canceled classes and many companies were shuttered, either voluntarily or by local government mandates.

Washington state, which documented the first known U.S. coronavirus case in January and now accounts for the greatest number of deaths – 83 as of Friday – has since March 16 closed bars, restaurants, recreation venues and entertainment facilities, while banning all gatherings of more than 50 people.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Caroline Spezio in New York; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Daniel Wallis)

Mnuchin urges Congress to pass massive economic relief bill by next week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday urged Congress to move quickly to pass a $1 trillion economic relief measure by early next week, saying he expects bipartisan support for the bill to get cash payments to Americans during the coronavirus crisis.

Mnuchin, in an interview on Fox Business Network, said the federal government was focused on being able to provide liquidity to companies and had no problem issuing more debt, but that it expected loans to businesses to be paid back.

Congress is taking up its third legislative package to address the coronavirus pandemic as the response to the crisis shutters U.S. businesses and puts pressure on the nation’s healthcare system.

Lawmakers already have passed a $105 billion-plus plan to limit the damage from the coronavirus pandemic through free testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending as well as an $8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the pathogen and develop vaccines. U.S. President Donald Trump has signed both into law.

The Trump administration now wants another $1.3 trillion in aid to help businesses and individual Americans harmed economically by the virus, with Mnuchin on Thursday saying the plan was not a bailout for companies.

“We’re going to get through this,” Mnuchin said. “This is not the financial crisis that will go on for years.”

Mnuchin also rejected any suggestion that U.S. tariffs were keeping Chinese-made medicines out of the United States.

“We’re doing everything to make sure the supply chains stay open,” he said, noting that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had waived tariffs on any critical items.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)

Washington considers actions to bolster U.S. economy as COVID-19 cases mount to over 1025

Reuters
By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As U.S. coronavirus cases rose steadily, the White House and Congress negotiated measures on Tuesday to bolster the U.S. economy and Americans’ paychecks against the outbreak’s impact, although there was no immediate sign of a deal.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases of COVID-19, a highly contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness, has concerned health officials and spurred calls within Congress for action to expand testing and avert an economic meltdown.

“We had a good reception on Capitol Hill. We’re going to be working with Republican and Democratic leadership to move a legislative package,” Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s coronavirus task force, told a White House briefing.

Almost three-quarters of U.S. states have confirmed cases of COVID-19. A running national tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University center tracking the outbreak puts the number of cases at 1,025, with 28 deaths. Washington state’s governor warned of tens of thousands more cases without “real action,” and New York’s governor deployed National Guard troops as a containment measure in a hard-hit New York City suburb.

U.S. stocks rebounded in their largest daily gain since late 2018 on hopes that a government stimulus package was in the making. In Asia, though, on Wednesday, Asian shares and Wall Street futures fell as growing scepticism about Washington’s stimulus knocked the steam out of the rally.

A central feature of the administration’s legislative proposal is payroll tax relief, although the extent and duration of the proposal were unclear.

White House officials have also said the administration could undertake executive action to help small businesses and workers, including those who do not receive paid sick leave.

Trump is scheduled to meet with bank executives at the White House on Wednesday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is leading negotiations on behalf of Republican President Donald Trump, met with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss a possible deal.

“We’re going to work together on a bipartisan basis to figure out how we can get things done quickly that are going to help the Americans that are most impacted by this and small and medium-sized businesses that are impacted,” he said.

Pelosi said the meeting was aimed at seeing “where our common ground was” on a set of legislative proposals.

In remarks to reporters, she warned that any package should not contain “trickle-down solutions that only help a few.”

Democrats are challenging the Trump administration to tightly target new measures at people directly affected by the coronavirus. Any measure would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House as well as the Republican-controlled Senate before reaching Trump’s desk.

“I hope we don’t play politics with this. Mixing politics with a pandemic is not good. It’s terribly counterproductive,” said Republican Senator Pat Roberts.

‘MIXED REVIEWS’

All three major U.S. benchmark stock indexes on Tuesday rose nearly 5%, one day after suffering their largest losses since the 2008 financial crisis.

Prospects for a second day of gains on Wednesday dimmed as U.S. equity index futures slid 1% after the overnight trading session got under way.

Trump met with Republican lawmakers and again downplayed the risks from the coronavirus. “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” he said.

A senior Senate Republican aide said Trump’s payroll tax proposal got “mixed reviews” among Republican senators who attended.

Some Senate Republicans said a potential deal could include $300 billion in payroll tax relief that could help people make rent and mortgage payments, or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during the outbreak.

Democrats accused Trump of being more focused on soothing Wall Street’s nerves than on protecting the public from the health and economic fallout of the fast-spreading epidemic. The White House has been accused of inadequate preparation for the outbreak and a slow rollout of coronavirus testing.

“President Trump and his administration should be putting people before corporations, and they should be focused on taking appropriate steps to keep the American people and their economic security safe,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said.

Democrats are pushing for paid sick leave, expanded and free testing for the coronavirus and other measures.

OUTBREAK EXPANDS

More than 116,000 people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide since it surfaced in China late last year, according to the World Health Organization. More than 4,000 people have died.

Italy, which has the highest death toll outside of China, has put its entire population of 60 million on virtual lockdown.

At least 35 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have reported infections of COVID-19. New Jersey on Tuesday reported its first death.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said schools would be closed and public gatherings suspended in a coronavirus “hot zone” in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb, and deployed National Guard troops there.

The United Nations said it would be closing its headquarters in New York to the public until further notice.

As the outbreak spreads, daily life in the United States has been increasingly disrupted, with concerts and conferences canceled and universities telling students to stay home and take classes online.

Democratic presidential contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both canceled rallies in Ohio on Tuesday night, citing warnings from public health officials, as six states voted in the party’s nominating contests.

The Democratic National Committee said its presidential debate in Arizona on Sunday would be conducted without a live audience because of health concerns.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey, Andrea Shalal, David Lawder and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Deborah Bloom in Olympia, Washington and Nathan Layne and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Eric Beech and Makini Brice, Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by Paul Simao and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

Venezuela opposition marches to Congress in showdown with Maduro

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition on Tuesday will march to downtown Caracas with the aim of regaining control of the national legislature, which was snatched by pro-government lawmakers in January, setting up a showdown with President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

National Assembly President Juan Guaido for weeks has urged Venezuelans to join the rally as a way of reviving street protests against Maduro that surged in 2019, but have waned as the ruling Socialist Party has clung to power.

The rally will be another test of Guaido’s capacity to mobilize supporters, who have become increasingly weary with the country’s economic crisis and the opposition’s inability to oust Maduro despite a broad U.S. sanctions program.

“On March 10, Venezuelans will exercise our rights in the streets,” Guaido told reporters at a Monday news conference about the march. “The only option available for Venezuelans is to escape this disaster.”

The protest is likely to meet stiff resistance from security forces, which were deployed around the country on Monday as part of military exercises ordered by Maduro.

Troops may not allow the marchers, who will include members of Parliament, to reach the legislative palace. Lawmakers will seek a different venue to hold session if they are not allowed to reach congress, according to one opposition source.

The government has called its own separate rallies in downtown Caracas for Tuesday. Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said the opposition’s march was an attempt to rally its flagging energy.

“Every time the right-wing is cornered, they look for events that can raise the excitement of people who stopped being excited a long time ago. They try to create leadership where there is none,” Cabello said during Monday a news conference.

In January, a group of legislators backed by the Socialist Party installed themselves as the leaders of congress after troops blocked Guaido from entering the legislature.

Opposition lawmakers later re-elected Guaido for a second term in an extra-mural session, but they have been largely unable to meet at the legislative palace since then.

More than 50 countries last year recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president following Maduro’s disputed 2018 re-election, which was widely dismissed as fraudulent.

Venezuela this year is slated to hold parliamentary elections, but the opposition has not yet determined if it will participate due to concerns that the government will not provide adequate conditions.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

Exclusive: U.S. mulls using sweeping powers to ramp up production of coronavirus protective gear

By Ted Hesson and Alexandra Alper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration is considering invoking special powers through a law called the Defense Production Act to rapidly expand domestic manufacturing of protective masks and clothing to combat the coronavirus in the United States, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

The use of the law, passed by Congress in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War, would mark an escalation of the administration’s response to the outbreak. The virus first surfaced in China and has since spread to other countries including the United States.

U.S. health officials have told Americans to begin preparing for the spread of the virus in the United States.

The law grants the president the power to expand industrial production of key materials or products for national security and other reasons. The biggest producers of face masks in the United States include 3M Corp and Honeywell International Inc.

Trump, a Republican seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has faced criticism from Democrats over his administration’s response to the outbreak.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers this week that the United States needs a stockpile of about 300 million N95 face masks – respiratory protective devices – for medical workers to combat the spread of the virus. The United States currently has only a fraction of that number available for immediate use, Azar testified.

During an interagency call on Wednesday, officials from HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) discussed the possibility of invoking the Defense Production Act for the manufacture of “personal protective equipment” that can be worn to prevent infection, according to a DHS official.

Such equipment can include masks, gloves and body suits.

Azar said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that China controls “a lot of the raw materials as well as the manufacturing capacity” related to face masks.

“Very little of this stuff is apparently made in the (United) States, so if we’re down to domestic capability to produce, it could get tough,” the DHS official told Reuters.

A White House official confirmed that the administration was exploring the use of the law to spur manufacturing of protective gear. Both the DHS official and the White House requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

“Let’s say ‘Company A’ makes a multitude of respiratory masks but they spend 80% of their assembly lines on masks that painters wear and only 20% on the N95,” the White House official said. “We will have the ability to tell corporations, ‘No, you change your production line so it is now 80% of the N95 masks and 20% of the other.'”

“It allows you to basically direct things happening that need to get done,” the official added.

HHS declined to comment. DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘VERY LOW’

Trump said on Wednesday the coronavirus risk to the United States remained “very low,” but that federal health officials were prepared to take action and that Vice President Mike Pence would take control of the U.S. response.

Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, on Thursday accused Trump of “towering and dangerous incompetence” and said the president “must get his act together” on the coronavirus threat.

Invoking the Defense Production Act is one of a number of options under consideration by the administration to combat the virus, the officials said, and no final decision has been made. Trump invoked the law in 2017 to address technological shortfalls in a vaccine production capability and other items such as microelectronics.

The law grants the president broad authority to “expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base to support military, energy, space, and homeland security programs,” according to a summary on the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

Azar testified on Wednesday that the United States has a stockpile of around 12 million of the N95 masks that are in line with certifications from the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). HHS also has another 5 million N95 masks that are no longer NIOSH certified, Azar said, perhaps because they are past the expiration date.

In addition to those masks, the U.S. government has a stockpile of 30 million “gauze type” surgical masks, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said are less effective because they are loose-fitting.

Azar said the government needs a stockpile of approximately 300 million N95 masks.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a written statement on Thursday that the agency had heard reports of increased market demand for some types of protective medical gear and “supply challenges,” but was not aware of specific shortages.

CDC Director Robert Redfield testified at a House subcommittee on Thursday that he would ask ordinary Americans not to buy N95 masks at this time.

“There’s no role for these masks in the community,” he said. “These masks need to be prioritized for healthcare professionals.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by Michael Erman, Jeff Mason, Mike Stone and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Ross Colvin, Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis)

Russia denies backing Trump re-election, critics express alarm

By Anastasia Teterevleva and Susan Heavey

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Friday denied Russia was interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election chances following reports that American intelligence officials warned Congress about the election threat last week.

U.S. intelligence officials told members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in a classified briefing last week that Russia was again interfering in American politics ahead of November’s election, a person familiar with the discussion told Reuters.

Trump has since ousted the acting intelligence chief, replacing him this week with a political loyalist in an abrupt move as Democrats and former U.S. officials raised the alarm over national security concerns.

On Twitter, the Republican president accused Democrats in Congress of launching a misinformation campaign “saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates.” Trump called it a “hoax” in his Friday tweet.

U.S. officials have long warned that Russia and other countries would seek to interfere in the Nov. 3 presidential election, following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign that ended with Trump’s surprise victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin used disinformation operations, cyber attacks and other methods in its 2016 operation in an effort to boost Trump, an allegation that Russia denies. Trump, sensitive to doubts over the legitimacy of his win, has also questioned that finding and repeatedly criticized American intelligence agencies.

On Friday, the Kremlin said the latest allegations were false.

“These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the (U.S.) election,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”

Russia’s alleged interference sparked a two-year-long U.S. investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller found no conclusive evidence of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. He also pointed at 10 instances in which Trump may have attempted to obstruct his investigation, as Democrats alleged, but left any finding of obstruction to Congress.

Trump is seeking a second term in office.

Last July, he called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate one of his potential Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, sparking his impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House.

Trump, who was later acquitted by the Republican-led U.S. Senate, has also publicly called on China to probe Biden.

Last week’s classified congressional briefing sparked a sharp response by Trump, who rebuked acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire for allowing his staff to brief the lawmakers, including Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment inquiry, the New York Times reported, quoting five people familiar with the matter.

Trump then dismissed Maguire, announcing this week that Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist, would be the acting intelligence chief, even as he continues serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany. His appointment drew sharp rebukes from Democrats and other critics who said Grenell lacked intelligence experience.

Trump tweeted on Friday that four candidates were being considered for the permanent post of intelligence head and that a decision would come in the next few weeks.

‘NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT’

“This is a crisis,” former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC in an interview on Friday, citing concerns that Trump was seeking to “squelch” critical intelligence.

Schiff, in a Thursday tweet, said if the reports are true, Trump “is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do.”

“Trump is not only trying to rewrite history of Russia’s intervention in 2016, he is now using the power of the presidency to conceal their 2020 scheme to re-elect him. Dangerous!” former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates tweeted on Friday.

Democrats seeking to challenge Trump also raised concerns.

Biden, in a CNN town hall event on Thursday, said he was “not surprised” at the reported Russian meddling and that he had no confidence in Grenell.

“This is a national security threat,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told MSNBC on Thursday and criticized Senate Republicans for not acting to secure an election that is less than nine months away.

Trump’s last full-time director of national intelligence, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, resigned last year after his differences with the president over Russia’s role in the 2016 election became public.

Trump has repeatedly called the U.S. Russia probe and the impeachment inquiry a “witch hunt.”

His fellow Republicans at last week’s briefing questioned the information, according to the person familiar with the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Republican members of the panel did not respond to a request for comment, but Republican Representative Doug Collins, in a television interview on Friday, echoed Trump’s allegations of politicization at U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Something needs to be done to clean up these agencies,” he told Fox Business Network.

(Reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Jonathan Landay in Washington; and Steve Holland in Las Vegas; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump administration taking $3.8 billion more from military for Mexico border wall

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Defense Department sent Congress a request to shift nearly $4 billion from the military budget to pay for a wall on the border with Mexico, a central promise of President Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House four years ago and bid this year for a second term.

Lawmakers said they received a request on Thursday to reprogram more than $3.8 billion from funding for the National Guard and weapons programs, setting the stage for a possible confrontation with Democrats.

Democratic aides said $1.5 billion would come from the National Guard, and the rest from funds for procurement, including the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet program, Lockheed C-130 transport aircraft, Boeing Co P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and shipbuilding.

Congressional Democrats, who opposed Trump’s past diversion of billions of dollars in military spending to the border wall project, said the decision was dangerous and misguided.

“President Trump is once again disrespecting the separation of powers and endangering our security by raiding military resources to pay for his wasteful border wall,” Democratic Representatives Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, and Pete Visclosky, chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement.

The criticism was bipartisan.

The top Republican on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry, said the move by the Pentagon was “contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority.”

A senior Pentagon official said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper had approved about $3.8 billion in funding being diverted to build 177 miles (290 km) of border wall.

Last month, the Pentagon received a request from within the Trump administration to build roughly 270 miles (435 km) of wall on the border, which would have cost about $5.5 billion.

“The transfer of funds is based on what the law allows and that the items to be funded are a higher priority than the items (from) which the funds were transferred,” Robert Salesses, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense integration, told Reuters.

The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, said it would challenge the latest border wall transfer.

The Trump administration has vowed to build at least 400 miles (640 km) of wall along the border by November 2020, when Americans will vote for president. In his 2016 campaign, Trump said Mexico would pay for the wall. The Mexican government has consistently refused to do so.

Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, particularly for immigrants who come across the southern border with Mexico, have been a signature of his political campaign and first term in the White House.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Mike Stone and Ted Hesson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. appeals court throws out Democrats’ lawsuit challenging Trump businesses

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Friday threw out a lawsuit brought by Democratic lawmakers alleging President Donald Trump’s overseas business dealings violate the U.S. Constitution’s anti-corruption “emoluments” clauses.

Reversing a lower court judge, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said a group of more than 200 Democratic lawmakers lacked legal “standing” to bring the case in the first place.

The three-judge panel said it was bound by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have limited the ability of individual members of Congress to litigate questions that affect the legislative branch as a whole.

The Democratic lawmakers “can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the President himself, all of whom are free to engage that argument as they see fit,” the three-judge panel wrote. “But we will not—indeed we cannot—participate in this debate.”

“We’re disappointed in the panel’s decision and are considering next steps,” said Elizabeth Wydra, a lawyer who argued on behalf of the lawmakers.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which argued the case for Trump, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was brought in 2017 by congressional Democrats including Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. It is one of a trio of cases against Trump over the rarely tested emoluments clauses, which prohibit presidents from taking gifts or payments from foreign and state governments.

One or more of the cases could end at the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts said.

The emoluments cases have largely centered on the Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House, which the Republican president opened shortly before he was elected in November 2016.

Unlike past presidents, Trump has retained ownership of numerous business interests, including the hotel, while serving as president.

Since Trump’s election, the hotel has become a favored lodging and event space for some foreign and state officials visiting the U.S. capital.

The lawsuits alleged that, in failing to disengage from the hotel, Trump has made himself vulnerable to inducements by foreign governments seeking to curry favor.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

Trump nears likely acquittal as U.S. Senate to cast impeachment vote

By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four months after Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives launched a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, the Senate is poised on Wednesday to acquit him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Trump, a Republican and only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate, faces a 4 p.m. (2100 GMT) vote that will determine whether he can complete his term as president or must immediately turn over his office to Vice President Mike Pence.

While the vote will be historic, there is little doubt of the outcome as none of the Senate’s 53 Republicans have said they will vote to convict him.

It would take 67 of the 100 senators to oust the 45th president from office – an action that has never been taken by the Senate.

In 1999, Democratic President Bill Clinton was acquitted on charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice stemming from a sexual relationship with a White House intern.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was found not guilty of 11 charges, which partially revolved around a post-Civil War tussle over his removal of the secretary of war.

Richard Nixon, the only president to resign, did so in 1974 when many of his fellow Republicans abandoned him during a House impeachment probe related to a break-in at Democratic Party offices in Washington.

If Trump is acquitted, Republicans and Democrats will take their respective cases to voters as Trump seeks re-election on Nov. 3. Rancor amid the proceedings echoed in Congress late Tuesday as Trump delivered his annual State of the Union remarks, with tensions between the president and House Democrats spilling into public view.

Trump’s Senate trial, spanning 21 days, focused on whether he withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine last summer as leverage to get Kiev to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic contender in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

Trump denied any wrongdoing and Republicans in the House and Senate largely rallied around him. But over the past few days, some Republican senators have criticized Trump’s behavior, while defending his right to remain in office.

“It was wrong for him to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival,” Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican up for re-election this year, said on Tuesday, adding that Trump had learned his lesson.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen rejected that argument, telling CNN on Wednesday that “we know from the president’s own words that he has not,” as Democrats argue Trump will remain undeterred if faced with no rebuke.

Even with the outcome in sight, it remains to be seen whether any Democrats from Trump-leaning states break ranks to hand Trump a bipartisan acquittal.

Senator Mitt Romney, the only other moderate Republican along with Collins to go against the party earlier by urging more witness testimony, is also expected to make remarks on Wednesday. Once the party’s standard-bearer as its 2012 presidential nominee, he has at times appeared out of step with a party now fully behind the president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has waged a full-throated defense of Trump on Tuesday, urging the Senate to “vote to keep factional fever from boiling over and scorching our republic.”

In response, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer argued that it was “the beginning of the end of democracy” if Americans believe their elections are being manipulated through foreign interference, such as that solicited by Trump.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Jan. 27 and 28 showed 39% of American adults approved of Trump’s performance in office, while 55% disapproved. That is slightly down from when the House launched its impeachment inquiry in September, when his approval stood at 43% and his disapproval at 53%.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Peter Cooney)