U.S. postal chaos prompts Democrats to reassess mail-ballot plan

By Jarrett Renshaw and Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) – Turmoil at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is causing some Democrats and local election officials to rethink their vote-by-mail strategies for November’s presidential election, shifting emphasis to drop boxes and early voting that bypass the post office.

The 2020 contest promises to be the nation’s largest test of voting by mail. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s relentless, unsubstantiated attacks on mail balloting, along with cost-cutting that has delayed mail service nationwide, have sown worry and confusion among many voters.

Democratic officials who just weeks ago were touting their dominance in mail balloting during a recent rash of primaries are now cautioning supporters of presidential challenger Joe Biden to be wary. Operatives in battleground states, including Pennsylvania, are particularly concerned about ballots arriving too late to count for the Nov. 3 election.

“We are considering telling voters that if they haven’t mailed out their complete ballot by Oct. 15, don’t bother. Instead, vote in person or drop off the ballot” at an elections office, said Joe Foster, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County, the most populous of Philadelphia’s suburban counties. “We want to make sure every vote counts.”

Other local Democratic leaders, from states like Florida and North Carolina, told Reuters they also are weighing urging voters to submit mail ballots weeks ahead of the election or else vote in person.

On Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending cost-cutting measures he had put in place in recent weeks that had led to widespread service disruptions. Those changes included limits on employee overtime, orders for trucks to depart on schedule even if there was mail still to be loaded, and the removal of some mail sorting machines.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” DeJoy said in a statement. He also promised to deploy “standby resources” beginning Oct. 1 to satisfy any unforeseen demand.

But some Democrats said the damage is already done. Many don’t trust DeJoy – who was a major Trump campaign donor before becoming postal chief – to restore service at the independent government agency amid a presidential race that polls say Biden is leading.

“Return the mailboxes you removed,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Twitter. “Return the sorting machines you took out. Restore the regular hours of post offices you cut short. Return postal vehicles you took. The list goes on.”

A USPS spokesman declined to comment. DeJoy is expected to provide more detail on his plans in testimony before the Senate on Friday and the House of Representatives on Monday.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Tuesday that Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

Democrats asked for $25 billion to shore up the balance sheet of the USPS in a massive virus aid package that passed the House of Representatives in May. Republicans have balked at that figure, and Trump last week said he opposed that funding because it might be used to encourage mail voting. But administration officials in recent days have said they are open to additional funding as public outrage over the USPS drama has grown.

Local Democratic officials, operatives and campaign workers said they are not waiting for a Washington solution.

In the competitive state of Michigan, Democratic voter outreach volunteer Karen McJimpson, 64, is phoning voters to encourage them to hand-deliver their absentee ballots directly to specified drop boxes or elections offices in light of concerns about mail delivery. She said Tuesday’s news about restored service gave her no comfort.“I don’t trust it,” said McJimpson, who volunteers with a nonprofit called Michigan United. “There has been too much noise around this, and someone is clearly pulling the strings. We are going to proceed as planned: drop the ballots off.”

Upheaval at the USPS has reshuffled some Democrats’ plans for other types of election mail as well.

Brad Crone, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, plans to send up to two million mailers between now and Election Day supporting various state and congressional candidates. The campaign flyers are mailed directly from his printer, who last week sent him a notice: If Crone wants to mail anything beyond Oct. 19, he must sign a waiver acknowledging that it might not get there before Election Day.

Crone said he will now stop his mailings by Oct. 4, three weeks earlier than he had originally planned.

“It’s alarming,” Crone said. “Americans are witnessing major system breakdowns, whether it’s the postal system, COVID testing or their local schools. The average voter is seeing this and is just floored.”

DROP BOX BATTLE

Mail voting has grown steadily since the turn of the century. In the 2016 presidential election, mail ballots accounted for 23.6% of all ballots cast, up from 19.2% in 2008, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Interest has exploded this year as voters have sought to avoid crowded polling places due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mail ballots accounted for 80% of all votes cast in 16 state primaries this year, including Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania, according to an estimate by Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some states, such as New York, have struggled to handle the crush.

The surge has sparked a slew of litigation. Republicans in Texas, for example, fended off a recent Democratic effort to make it easier for its citizens to vote by mail in the pandemic. The vast majority of Texans will be required to vote in person in November.

Democrats have prevailed elsewhere. In South Carolina, officials have agreed to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, easing a barrier for those who otherwise would have to provide their own stamps. In Minnesota, the state agreed to suspend a requirement that absentee voters get a witness to sign their ballots and to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day.

The Democratic Party currently has ongoing litigation on mail voting in 14 states, according to Marc Elias, the lawyer overseeing the effort.

Trump has spent the last few weeks making unsupported allegations that mail voting is vulnerable to tampering and would result in Democrats stealing the election. He has sought to distinguish between states that provide mail ballots only to voters who request them – including Florida, where Trump himself votes absentee – and those that are moving to conduct their elections entirely by mail, which he claims could lead to widespread cheating.

Election experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.

Trump’s attacks have forced state and local Republicans to engage in some damage control. Many of their most reliable supporters, particularly elderly voters, have long used mail balloting. Some Republicans fear the president’s broadsides will depress turnout.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released on Monday found that nearly half of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail in November, while just 11% of Trump supporters plan to do so.

The latest front in the voting battle is the dedicated election drop box, a sealed, sturdily built receptacle that has been a popular option for voters who prefer mail ballots but don’t want to return them via the USPS. Election officials collect those ballots and take them to polling locations for counting.

Election officials in South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere are seeking to expand drop-off locations or ease requirements such as those mandating that voters show identification to use them.

Those changes have met resistance from Republicans over concerns about fraud. On Monday, Trump turned his fire on drop boxes.

“Some states use ‘drop boxes’ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots. So who is going to ‘collect’ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation?” he wrote on Twitter. “A Rigged Election? So bad for our Country.”

Rob Daniel, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party in South Carolina, said there is just one election drop box in the county of roughly 400,0000 people. He said some voters must drive 45 minutes to reach it because of the county’s odd shape.

Daniel said the county board of elections is seeking permission from the state to add more boxes, but that is no certainty. As a backup, the party is urging voters to request their mail ballots early and return them via the USPS as soon as possible.

“Even Trump can’t screw up the Postal Service so much that it can’t deliver mail across town in 30 days,” Daniel said.

Still, Democrats see a bigger worry: Trump has already raised the possibility that he might not accept the results of an election whose outcome could take days to decide because of the quantity of mail ballots that will need to be counted.

“That is absolutely our biggest threat,” Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said.

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Trump says coronavirus under control, ‘It is what it is’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said the coronavirus outbreak is as under control as it can get in the United States, where at least 155,000 people have died amid a patchy response to the public health crisis that has failed to stem a rise in cases.

The Republican president continued to press for U.S. schools to reopen in an overnight Twitter post, and defended his administration’s response to the virus in an interview with the Axios news website released late on Monday.

“They are dying, that’s true,” he said. “It is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague.”

Coronavirus cases continue to surge in the country and dozens of U.S. states have had to pause or roll back their reopening plans. The White House coronavirus task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said on Sunday the virus was “extraordinarily widespread” in rural areas as well as cities.

With U.S. deaths reaching more than 1,000 a day, Trump pressed the view of deaths in proportion to the number of cases instead of as a proportion of the population, in which the United States fares worse than other Western nations.

In the Axios interview, Trump again insisted that increased diagnostic testing in the United States accounted for the increase in cases, an assertion disputed by health experts who say expanded testing accounts for some, but not all, of the growth in cases.

Health experts also call it a key tool in fighting the spread of the disease, which had been detected in at least 4.6 million people across the United States as of Saturday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Trump: U.S. should get ‘substantial portion’ of TikTok operations sale price

By David Shepardson and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday the U.S. government should get a “substantial portion” of the sales price of the U.S. operations of TikTok and warned he will ban the service in the United States on September 15 without a sale.

The turnaround came after Trump Friday he said he was planning to ban the Chinese-owned video app’s U.S. operations as soon as Saturday after dismissing a possible sale to Microsoft.

Reuters reported last week that some investors are valuing TikTok at about $50 billion, citing people familiar with the matter.

“I did say that if you buy it, whatever the price is that goes to whoever owns it, because I guess it’s China essentially … I said a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen,” Trump said.

It was not clear how the U.S. government would receive part of the purchase price.

He added it “will close down on September 15 unless Microsoft or somebody else is able to buy it and work out a deal, an appropriate deal so the Treasury … of the United States gets a lot of money.

Daniel Elman, analyst at Nucleus Research, said a sale “could foreshadow a growing wave of U.S. company acquisition of Chinese internet properties, particularly if the geopolitical tensions continue to mount.”

Elman said that could impact Tencent’s WeChat.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referenced WeChat on Sunday and said Trump “will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party.”

U.S. officials have said TikTok poses a national risk because of the personal data it handles. TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer said in a blog post last week that the company was committed to following U.S. laws and was allowing experts to observe its moderation policies and examine the code that drives its algorithms.

Trump’s comments confirmed a Reuters report Sunday that he had agreed to give China’s ByteDance 45 days to negotiate a sale of popular short-video app TikTok to Microsoft.

Trump, a former New York real estate developer, compared TikTok to the landlord tenant relationship, suggesting TikTok is like a tenant. “Without a lease, the tenant has nothing – so they pay what’s called key money or they pay something.”

He said he did not mind “whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else – a big company, a secure company, very, very American company buy it.”

Microsoft said Sunday that CEO Satya Nadella had spoken to Trump and “is prepared to continue discussions to explore a purchase of TikTok in the United States.”

Microsoft said Sunday it is “committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.”

Many prominent Republicans, including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, issued statements in support of a Microsoft acquisition of TikTok’s U.S. operations. Some congressional aides are worried about a backlash by younger voters against the party if Trump banned TikTok, which has 100 million American users.

Microsoft and TikTok parent ByteDance gave the U.S. government a notice of intent to explore a preliminary proposal for Microsoft to purchase the TikTok service in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer also backed the sale, while a senior White House adviser raised concerns about a sale to Microsoft.

“A U.S. company should buy TikTok so everyone can keep using it and your data is safe,” Schumer said on Twitter, adding: “This is about privacy. With TikTok in China, it’s subject to Chinese Communist Party laws that may require handing over data to their government.”

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro suggested on Monday that Microsoft could divest its holdings in China if it were to buy TikTok.

“So the question is, is Microsoft going to be compromised?” Navarro said in an interview with CNN. “Maybe Microsoft could divest its Chinese holdings?”

Navarro said the Chinese government and military use Microsoft software “to do all the things they do.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Alexandra Alper, Echo Wang, Greg Roumeliotis, Paresh Dave and Pete Schroeder; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump threatens to sue Nevada to block universal mail-in ballots

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – President Donald Trump threatened to sue Nevada after Democratic lawmakers passed a bill on Sunday that would send mail-in ballots to every voter ahead of November’s presidential election in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump, who has claimed without evidence that voting by mail will lead to rampant fraud, wrote on Twitter on Monday that the legislation approved on Sunday was an “illegal late night coup.”

“Using Covid to steal the state,” he added. “See you in Court!”

If the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, signs the bill as expected, Nevada would become the seventh state to send ballots to all registered voter for the Nov. 3 election. Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington already conduct their elections entirely by mail, while California and Vermont have decided to do so this year due to the pandemic.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not immediately comment on Trump’s threat. But the ongoing public health crisis has prompted litigation in dozens of states between Democrats and Republicans over issues like absentee ballots, postmark deadlines and signature requirements.

Most states have sought to expand mail-in voting to avoid spreading the coronavirus at polling places on Election Day.

Nevada mailed ballots to voters ahead of its primary election in June and encouraged residents not to risk in-person voting. Most of the state’s polling places were closed, leading to waits of as much as seven hours in Las Vegas.

Sisolak’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweet.

Election experts say voter fraud of any kind, including incidents related to mail-in ballots, is vanishingly rare.

Last week, Trump suggested delaying the election due to the likelihood of fraud, though he does not have the authority to do so.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

China vows retaliation after Trump ends preferential status for Hong Kong

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the former British colony, prompting Beijing to warn of retaliatory sanctions.

Citing China’s decision to enact a new national security law for Hong Kong, Trump signed an executive order that he said would end the preferential economic treatment for the city.

“No special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies,” he told a news conference.

Acting on a Tuesday deadline, he also signed a bill approved by the U.S. Congress to penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the new security law.

“Today I signed legislation, and an executive order to hold China accountable for its aggressive actions against the people of Hong Kong, Trump said.

“Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China,” he added.

Under the executive order, U.S. property would be blocked of any person determined to be responsible for or complicit in “actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Hong Kong,” according to the text of the document released by the White House.

It also directs officials to “revoke license exceptions for exports to Hong Kong,” and includes revoking special treatment for Hong Kong passport holders.

China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday Beijing will impose retaliatory sanctions against U.S. individuals and entities in response to the law targeting banks, though the statement released through state media did not reference the executive order.

“Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs and no foreign country has the right to interfere,” the ministry said.

Critics of the security law fear it will crush the wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will bring stability to the city after a year of sometimes violent anti-government protests.

The security law punishes what Beijing broadly defines as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

U.S. relations with China have already been strained over the global coronavirus pandemic, China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, its treatment of Uighur Muslims and massive trade surpluses.

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has raised doubts about whether he can win re-election on Nov. 3 amid a surge of new infections. He has attempted to deflect blame onto China.

“Make no mistake. We hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it upon the world. They could have stopped it, they should have stopped it. It would have been very easy to do at the source, when it happened,” he said.

Asked if he planned to talk to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said: “I have no plans to speak to him.”

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD?

Analysts say that completely ending Hong Kong’s special treatment could prove self-defeating for the United States.

Hong Kong was the source of the largest bilateral U.S. goods trade surplus last year, at $26.1 billion, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

According to the State Department, 85,000 U.S. citizens lived in Hong Kong in 2018 and more than 1,300 U.S. companies operate there, including nearly every major U.S. financial firm.

The territory is a major destination for U.S. legal and accounting services.

The United States began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law in late June, halting defense exports and restricting the territory’s access to high-technology products as China prepared to enact the security legislation.

In May, Trump responded to China’s plans for the security law by saying he was initiating a process to eliminate the special economic treatment that has allowed Hong Kong to remain a global financial center.

He stopped short then of calling for an immediate end to privileges, but said the moves would affect the full range of U.S. agreements with Hong Kong, from an extradition treaty to export controls on dual-use technologies.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration was also preparing sanctions against Chinese officials and entities involved in the Hong Kong crackdown, including further U.S. travel bans and possible Treasury sanctions.

The timing remained unclear. The White House has previously threatened such sanctions but so far has only imposed restrictions on visas for an unspecified number of unnamed Chinese officials.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Alexandra Alper, Patricia Zengerle, Eric Beech, Makini Brice and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

U.S. Supreme Court allows prosecutor but not Congress to get Trump’s financial records

By Lawrence Hurley and Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday firmly rejected President Donald Trump’s argument for sweeping presidential immunity and ruled that a New York prosecutor can obtain his financial records but prevented – at least for now – Democratic-led House of Representatives committees from getting similar documents.

Both 7-2 rulings were authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. The court made it clear that a sitting president cannot evade a criminal investigation, ruling that the subpoena issued to Trump’s long-term accounting firm, Mazars LLP, for various financial records to be turned over to a grand jury as part of a criminal investigation can be enforced.

But the court sidestepped a major ruling on whether three House committees could also obtain Trump financial documents under subpoena, giving Trump at least a short-term win. Litigation will now continue in lower courts in both cases.

In both rulings, Roberts was joined by the four liberal justices as well as Trump’s two conservative appointees to the court, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both dissented.

“This is a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one – not even a president – is above the law,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, in relation to the ruling in his case.

Vance and the House committees all issued subpoenas to third parties for the records, not the Republican president himself.

Trump turned to Twitter complained about the rulings, writing on Twitter: “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” He added, “This is all a political prosecution … and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”

The New York case ruling does not mean the documents will be handed over immediately because of expected wrangling in lower courts. A final outcome could be delayed in both cases until after the Nov. 3 election in which Trump is seeking a second term in office.

“We will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts,” said Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would not stop investigating Trump and would press forward in seeking to enforce the subpoenas.

“Congress’s constitutional responsibility to uncover the truth continues, specifically related to the President’s Russia connection that he is hiding,” Pelosi said, in reference to the contention that Trump’s financial records could show such an entanglement.

NO ‘ABSOLUTE’ IMMUNITY

Roberts rejected both the broad arguments for presidential immunity made by Trump’s lawyers and the sweeping arguments made in favor of the House’s ability to investigate the president.

Trump’s argument that he was immune from any criminal process “runs up against the 200 years of precedent establishing that Presidents, and their official communications, are subject to judicial process,” Roberts wrote in the New York case.

“We affirm that principle today and hold that the president is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need,” Roberts added.

Roberts also rejected the suggestion that the decision would subject future presidents to harassment by local prosecutors, noting that the court in 1997 rejected a similar argument made by President Bill Clinton when he faced a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, a woman who accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.

“Given these safeguards and the court’s precedents, we cannot conclude that absolute immunity is necessary or appropriate,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts’ analysis of the congressional subpoenas hinged on the competing political interests between different branches of government.

“Congressional subpoenas for the President’s personal information implicate weighty concerns regarding the separation of powers,” Roberts wrote. “Neither side, however, identifies an approach that accounts for these concerns.”

Unlike other recent presidents, Trump has refused to release his tax returns and other documents that could provide details on his wealth and the activities of his family real-estate company, the Trump Organization. The content of these records has remained a persistent mystery even as he seeks re-election.

House committees issued subpoenas seeking Trump’s financial records from his longtime accounting firm Mazars LLP and two banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One.

As part of a criminal investigation by Vance’s office, subpoenas were issued to Mazars for financial records including nearly a decade of Trump’s tax returns to be turned over to a grand jury in New York City.

The investigation launched by Vance’s office in 2018 into Trump and the Trump Organization was spurred by disclosures of hush payments to two women who said they had past sexual relationships with him, pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump and his aides have denied the relationships.

In the litigation over the House subpoenas, Trump argued that Congress lacked a valid purpose for seeking his records and that disclosure of the material would compromise his and his family’s privacy and distract him from his duties.

In the New York case, Trump’s lawyers argued that under the Constitution he is immune from any criminal proceeding while serving as president. In a lower court hearing, Trump’s lawyers went so far as to argue that law enforcement officials would not have the power to investigate Trump even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

The House Oversight Committee in April 2019 issued a subpoena to Mazars seeking eight years of accounting and other financial information in response to the congressional testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer. Cohen said Trump had inflated and deflated certain assets on financial statements between 2011 and 2013 in part to reduce his real estate taxes.

The House Financial Services Committee has been examining possible money laundering in U.S. property deals involving Trump. In a separate investigation, the House Intelligence Committee is investigating whether Trump’s dealings left him vulnerable to the influence of foreign individuals or governments.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court spurns environmental challenge to Trump’s border wall

By Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge by four environmental groups to the authority of President Donald Trump’s administration to build his promised wall along the border with Mexico.

The justices turned away an appeal by the groups of a federal judge’s ruling that rejected their claims that the administration had unlawfully undertaken border wall projects in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas harmful to plant and animal life. The groups had argued that the 1996 law under which the administration is building the wall gave too much power to the executive branch in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The groups that sued are the Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Environmental Center. They said the wall construction efforts would harm plants, wildlife habitats and endangered species including the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf and bighorn sheep.

The border wall is one of Trump’s signature 2016 campaign promises, part of his hard line policies toward illegal and legal immigration. The Republican president has vowed to build a wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexico border. He promised that Mexico would pay for it. Mexico has refused.

The 1996 law, aimed at combating illegal immigration, gave the U.S. government authority to build border barriers and preempt legal requirements such as environmental rules. It also limited the kinds of legal challenges that could be brought.

The environmental groups argued that the law was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to the executive branch – in this case the Department of Homeland Security – to get around laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act without congressional input.

Progress toward building the wall has been limited because Congress has not provided the funds Trump has sought, leading him to divert money – with the blessing of the Supreme Court – from the U.S. military and other parts of the federal government.

Trump on June 23 visited a newly built section of the wall along the frontier with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona, autographing a plaque commemorating the 200th mile (320 km) of the project.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham)

No final decision at White House talks on Israeli annexation moves, U.S. officials say

American and Israeli flags flutter in the wind atop the roof of the King David Hotel, in preparation for the upcoming visit of President Trump to Israel, in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Three days of White House meetings between aides to U.S. President Donald Trump on whether to give Israel a green light to annex parts of the occupied West Bank have ended without any final decision, senior U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The high-level discussions centered on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the territory, which has drawn condemnation from the Palestinians, U.S. Arab allies and other foreign governments.

With Netanyahu’s cabinet due to begin formal annexation deliberations on Wednesday, the still-unclear U.S. position suggested the Trump administration wants to move cautiously.

“There is as yet no final decision on the next steps for implementing the Trump plan,” one of the officials told Reuters, referring to the president’s Israeli-Palestinian peace blueprint that could provide a basis for Netanyahu’s annexation moves.

Trump, who has hewed to a heavily pro-Israel policy, participated in the discussions, the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Another U.S. official said further “fact-finding” would be needed before a U.S. determination.

Under Trump’s peace proposal unveiled in January and met with widespread skepticism, the United States would recognize the settlements – built on land the Palestinians seek for a state – as part of Israel.

The proposal would create a Palestinian state but impose strict conditions. Palestinian leaders have dismissed the initiative and it has gone nowhere.

Netanyahu hopes for U.S. approval for his project of extending sovereignty over settlements and the Jordan Valley. Most countries view Israel’s settlements as illegal.

This week’s meetings included Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other aides. On Wednesday, Pompeo said that any decision on annexation was “for Israelis to make.”

Among the main options under U.S. consideration is a gradual process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30% of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu’s original plan, according to a person close to the matter.

The Trump administration has not closed the door to a larger annexation. But Kushner is concerned that allowing Israel to move too fast could further alienate the Palestinians.

There are also worries about opposition from Jordan, one of only two countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, and from Gulf states that have quietly expanded engagement with Israel. Washington also wants Israel’s unity government, divided on the issue, to reach a consensus.

(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Bell)

Trump to announce ‘guidelines’ on reopening U.S. economy Thursday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that data suggested the country had passed the peak on new coronavirus infections, and said he would announce “new guidelines” for reopening the economy at a news conference on Thursday.

“The battle continues but the data suggests that the nation has passed the peak on new cases,” Trump told his daily White House news briefing.

“While we must remain vigilant, it is clear that our aggressive strategy is working and very strongly working, I might add,” Trump said.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll – the highest in the world – surged past 30,000 on Wednesday after doubling in a week.

The coronavirus crisis has hammered the U.S. economy, overshadowing Trump’s efforts to win re-election in November.

The Republican president has been pushing to reopen U.S. businesses and end orders that Americans stay home to fight the spread of the disease. During the lockdown, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and thousands of businesses have been forced to close their doors.

Trump claimed on Monday had the authority to overrule state governors and order businesses across the country to reopen.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler and Tom Brown)

Trump warns Americans of a tough two weeks ahead in coronavirus fight

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump warned Americans on Tuesday of a “painful” two weeks ahead in fighting the coronavirus, with a mounting U.S. death toll that could stretch into the hundreds of thousands even with strict social distancing measures.

In perhaps his most somber news conference to date about the pandemic, Trump urged the population to heed guidance to limit groups to no more than 10 people, work from home and not dine in restaurants or bars.

“It’s absolutely critical for the American people to follow the guidelines for the next 30 days. It’s a matter of life and death,” Trump said.

White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx displayed charts demonstrating data and modeling that showed an enormous jump in deaths to a range of 100,000 to 240,000 people from the virus in the coming months.

That figure was predicated on Americans following mitigation efforts. One of Birx’s charts showed as many as 2.2 million people were projected to die without such measures, a statistic that prompted Trump to ditch a plan he articulated last week to get the U.S. economy moving again by Easter on April 12.

The president said the next two weeks would be “very, very painful.” The modeling showed the number of deaths across the nation would escalate and peak roughly around mid-April.

“We want Americans to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” Trump said, predicting light at the end of the tunnel after that.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said previously that the pandemic could kill between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the United States, said all efforts were being made to make those numbers lower.

“We’re doing everything we can,” he said.

The federal guidelines, which now are in place through the end of April, include admonitions to avoid discretionary travel, not visit nursing homes, and practice good hygiene.

“There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors: Each of our behaviors translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days,” Birx said.

Vice President Mike Pence said the mitigation efforts were having an impact. “We have reason to believe that it’s working,” Pence said of the guidelines. “Do not be discouraged.”

Trump said he planned to remain at the White House for the most part over the next 30 days.

He added the White House was looking at a possible travel ban for Brazil.

After the White House earlier discouraged Americans from wearing masks if they were not sick, the president encouraged the practice on Tuesday, but said people should use scarves so as not to divert supplies from healthcare professionals.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham, Alexandra Alper, Eric Beech, Diane Bartz, Carl O’Donnell and Timothy Ahmann; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)