Explainer: Trump wants to bypass U.S. coronavirus aid talks with executive order. Can he?

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With congressional Democrats and White House negotiators so far unable to agree on a deal to salve the heavy economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has threatened to bypass Congress with an executive order.

Some of his proposals exceed his legal authority and would face immediate legal challenges, though in at least one case House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation’s top Democrat, told him to just go ahead.

WHAT DOES TRUMP WANT TO DO?

Trump said on Twitter he is considering executive orders to continue expanded unemployment benefits, reinstate a moratorium on evictions, cut payroll taxes and continue a suspension of student loan repayments amid a health crisis that has killed nearly 160,000 Americans.

He and administration officials negotiating with Congress have not provided specifics.

CAN HE DO IT?

The Constitution puts control of federal spending in the hands of Congress, not the president, so Trump does not have the legal authority to issue executive orders determining how money should be spent on coronavirus.

Democrats said executive orders would prompt a court fight, but legal action could take months.

Trump has sidestepped Congress on spending before. In 2019, he declared a national emergency at the border with Mexico to shift billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget to help pay for a promised wall that was the cornerstone of his 2016 election campaign.

Congress passed legislation to stop him, but there were too few votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to override his veto.

“There has to be a political will to do that and there has to be a priority given by members of Congress to assert their institutional interests,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. “And that just isn’t there right now.”

WOULD DEMOCRATS OR REPUBLICANS OBJECT?

The $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefit in the massive “Cares Act” passed in March has been a major sticking point in negotiations. Democrats want to continue the federal payment, which expired on July 24, to the tens of millions who have lost their jobs in the crisis and have rejected a short-term extension. Trump’s fellow Republicans have argued that is too high a payment, contending it is a disincentive to work.

The moratorium on evictions was less contentious, and could be covered by reprogramming money that Congress has already approved for housing that has not been spent. Pelosi on Thursday said an order extending the moratorium “would be a good thing.”

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike reject cutting the payroll tax, which is collected from both employers and employees to fund Social Security and Medicare. A cut would disproportionately benefit Americans with high salaries, and threaten funding for the popular programs for retirees. It also only benefits people still getting paychecks, not those who have lost their jobs.

The parties are closer together on student loans. Democrats included a 12-month extension of the student loan payment suspension in a relief bill the House passed in May. Republican senators did not include student loan relief in the proposal they unveiled in July. However, there is a Republican plan in Congress to extend the suspension for three months.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

Minnesota governor mandates use of face coverings in businesses and indoor public settings

(Reuters) – Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order on Wednesday requiring the use of face coverings in indoor businesses and indoor public settings in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“By combating the spread of COVID-19, masking will help protect our neighbors, keep our businesses open, and get us on track to return to the activities we love,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

The executive order will take effect on Saturday and excludes individuals with certain conditions as well as children who are 5 years old and under.

The new order covers all indoor spaces and businesses, even when people are waiting outside to enter such places, and also applies to workers in outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible.

Individuals riding on public transportation and using ride-sharing vehicles should also wear a face covering.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Chris Reese and Peter Cooney)

Trump says he will sign police reform executive order on Tuesday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he will sign an executive order on police reform and hold a news conference on Tuesday, after several weeks of nationwide protests sparked by the death of African-American George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

In comments to reporters, Trump also said the shooting by police of a black man in Atlanta was a terrible situation and very disturbing.

An Atlanta police officer was fired and the police chief resigned after the killing of Rayshard Brooks on Friday night.

No details on Trump’s executive order on police reform have been released. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working on separate proposals on the issue.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Eric Beech; editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump to sign executive order on social media on Thursday: White House

By Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will sign an executive order on social media companies on Thursday, White House officials said after Trump threatened to shut down websites he accused of stifling conservative voices.

The officials gave no further details. It was unclear how Trump could follow through on the threat of shutting down privately-owned companies including Twitter Inc.

The dispute erupted after Twitter on Tuesday for the first time-tagged Trump’s tweets about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting with a warning prompting readers to fact check the posts.

Separately, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on Wednesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit by a conservative group and right-wing YouTube personality against Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple accusing them of conspiring to suppress conservative political views.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said censoring a platform would not be the “right reflex” for a government worried about censorship. Fox played a clip of the interview and said it would be aired in full on Thursday.

Facebook left Trump’s post on mail-in ballots on Tuesday untouched.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution limits any action Trump could take.

Facebook and Alphabet’s Google declined to comment. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down before we can ever allow this to happen,” Trump said in a pair of additional posts on Twitter on Wednesday.

The president, a heavy user of Twitter with more than 80 million followers, added: “Clean up your act, NOW!!!!”

Republican Trump has an eye on the November election.

“Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “If that happens, we no longer have our freedom.”

STRONGEST THREAT YET

Trump’s threat is his strongest yet within a broader conservative backlash against Big Tech. Shares of both Twitter and Facebook fell on Wednesday.

Last year the White House circulated drafts of a proposed executive order about anti-conservative bias which never gained traction.

The Internet Association, which includes Twitter and Facebook among its members, said online platforms do not have a political bias and they offer “more people a chance to be heard than at any point in history.”

Late on Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Trump’s tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot.”

Separately, Twitter said Trump’s tweets were labeled as part of efforts to enforce the company’s “civic integrity policy.”

The policy document on Twitter’s website says people may not use its services for manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.

In recent years Twitter has tightened its policies amid criticism that its hands-off approach allowed fake accounts and misinformation to thrive.

Tech companies have been accused of anti-competitive practices and violating user privacy. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.com face antitrust probes by federal and state authorities and a U.S. congressional panel.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, along with the U.S. Justice Department, have been considering changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law largely exempting online platforms from legal liability for the material their users post. Such changes could expose tech companies to more lawsuits.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a frequent critic of Big Tech companies, sent a letter to Dorsey asking why Twitter should continue to receive legal immunity after “choosing to editorialize on President Trump’s tweets.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Katie Paul in San Francisco, Supantha Mukherjee and Shubham Kalia in Bangalore; Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England, and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller, Grant McCool and Himani Sarkar)

Trump says he will suspend all immigration into U.S. over coronavirus

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he will suspend all immigration into the United States temporarily through an executive order in response to the coronavirus outbreak and to protect American jobs.

The move, which the Republican president announced on Twitter, effectively achieves a long-term Trump policy goal to curb immigration, making use of the health and economic crisis that has swept the country as a result of the pandemic to do so.

The decision drew swift condemnation from some Democrats, who accused the president of creating a distraction from what they view as a slow and faulty response to the coronavirus.

Trump said he was taking the action to protect the U.S. workforce. Millions of Americans are suffering unemployment after companies shed employees amid nationwide lockdowns to stop the contagion.

“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States,” Trump said in a tweet.

The White House declined to offer further details about the reasoning behind the decision, its timing, or its legal basis.

“As our country battles the pandemic, as workers put their lives on the line, the President attacks immigrants & blames others for his own failures”, former Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar said in a tweet.

Immigration is largely halted into the United States anyway thanks to border restrictions and flight bans put in place as the virus spread across the globe.

But the issue remains an effective rallying cry for Trump’s supporters.

Trump won the White House in 2016 in part on a promise to curb immigration by building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. He and his advisers have spent the first three years of his tenure cracking down on both legal and illegal entries into the country. Crowds regularly chant “Build the Wall!” at Trump’s political rallies, which are now idled because of the virus.

Trump has lamented the economic fallout of the outbreak; his stewardship of the U.S. economy was set to be his key argument for re-election in November.

The U.S. death toll from the virus topped 42,000 on Monday, according to a Reuters tally.

The U.S. economy has come to a near standstill because of the pandemic; more than 22 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the last month.

“You cut off immigration, you crater our nation’s already weakened economy,” former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro said in a tweet. “What a dumb move.”

The United States has the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 780,000 infections, up 27,000 on Monday.

But the president has made a point of saying the peak had passed and has been encouraging U.S. states to reopen their economies.

“It makes sense to protect opportunities for our workforce while this pandemic plays out,” said Thomas Homan, Trump’s former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “It’s really not about immigration. It’s about the pandemic and keeping our country safer while protecting opportunities for unemployed Americans.”

The United States in mid-March suspended all routine visa services, both immigrant and non-immigrant, in most countries worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak in a move that has potentially impacted hundreds of thousands of people.

U.S. missions have continued to provide emergency visa services as resources allowed and a senior State Department official in late March said U.S. was ready work with people who were already identified as being eligible for various types of visas, including one for medical professionals.

The administration recently announced an easing of rules to allow in more agricultural workers on temporary H2A visas to help farmers with their crops.

(Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Michigan residents sue Governor Whitmer over coronavirus pandemic orders

(Reuters) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer faces at least two federal lawsuits challenging her April 9 executive order to combat the coronavirus outbreak, including requirements that residents stay at home and most businesses close.

In complaints filed on Tuesday and Wednesday, several Michigan residents and one business accused the Democratic governor of violating their constitutional rights by imposing her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.

The plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit “reasonably fear that the draconian encroachments on their freedom set forth in this complaint will, unfortunately, become the ‘new norm,'” according to their complaint.

Whitmer’s office did not immediately respond on Thursday to requests for comment.

The governor’s order provides that residents cannot leave their homes except for essential services such as food or medical supplies, or engage in outdoor physical activity. It also bans travel to second homes and vacation properties.

Businesses, meanwhile, cannot require workers to leave their homes unless they are necessary for basic operations or to “sustain or protect life,” like grocery store and healthcare workers, and law enforcement. The order lasts through April.

Both lawsuits say Whitmer’s order deprives residents of their constitutional right to associate with other people under the First Amendment and their right to due process.

One lawsuit says the order amounts to an unconstitutional taking, while the other says the closing of gun shops violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Whitmer is among several state governors, including both Democrats and Republicans, who have in some public opinion polls received high marks for their responses to the pandemic.

The plaintiffs in Tuesday’s lawsuit filed in Detroit include four Michigan residents. One owns a landscaping business, and another said he is forbidden to see his girlfriend of 14 years because they live in different homes.

Two lawyers and the owner of a different landscaping business are plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit, which is being handled in Grand Rapids.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Russian space agency says Trump paving way to seize other planets

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, accused Donald Trump on Tuesday of creating a basis to take over other planets by signing an executive order outlining U.S. policy on commercial mining in space.

The executive order, which Roscosmos said damaged the scope for international cooperation in space, was signed on Monday.

It said the United States would seek to negotiate “joint statements and bilateral and multilateral arrangements with foreign states regarding safe and sustainable operations for the public and private recovery and use of space resources”.

It said U.S. citizens should have the right to engage in such activity and that “outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons”.

Roscosmos said the order put the United States at odds with the notion of space belonging to all humanity.

“Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation,” its statement said.

Relations between Russia and the United States are at post-Cold War lows, but cooperation on space has continued despite an array of differences over everything from Ukraine to accusations of election meddling.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “any kind of attempt to privatise space in one form or another – and I find it difficult to say now whether this can be seen as an attempt to privatise space – would be unacceptable”.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Trump signs order to test vulnerabilities of U.S. infrastructure to GPS outage

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order directing U.S. agencies to test the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure systems in the event of a disruption or manipulation of global positioning system services (GPS).

GPS is critical to a variety of purposes ranging from electrical power grids, weather forecasting, traffic signals, smartphone applications and vehicle navigation systems. The order said “disruption or manipulation of these services has the potential to adversely affect the national and economic security of the United States.” Trump’s order directed federal agencies to within one year develop a plan to test infrastructure systems.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Trump to unveil order aiming to boost Medicare health program, woo seniors

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will unveil an executive order on Thursday aimed at strengthening the Medicare health program for seniors, seeking to improve its fiscal position and offer more affordable plan options, administration officials said.

The order, which Trump will discuss during a visit to a retirement community in Florida known as the Villages, is the Republican president’s answer to some Democrats who are arguing for a broad and expensive expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans, proposals that Republicans reject.

It follows measures rolled out in recent months by the administration designed to curtail drug prices and correct other perceived problems with the U.S. healthcare system, though policy experts say those efforts are unlikely to slow the tide of rising drug prices in a meaningful way.

The Medicare program covers Americans who are 65 and older and includes traditional fee-for-service coverage in which the government pays healthcare providers directly and Medicare Advantage plans, in which private insurers manage patient benefits on its behalf.

Seniors are a key political constituency in America because a high percentage of them vote, and Florida is a political swing state that both parties woo in presidential elections.

The order is designed to show Trump’s commitment to keeping Medicare focused on seniors, administration officials said ahead of the announcement.

The order pushes for Medicare to use more medical telehealth services, which is care delivered by phone or digital means.

One administration official, who described the order to Reuters, said that would reduce costs by cutting down on the number of expensive emergency room visits by patients; lower costs would help strengthen the program’s finances.

The order directs the government to work to allow private insurers that operate Medicare Advantage plans to use new plan pricing methods, such as allowing beneficiaries to share in the savings when they choose lower-cost health services.

It also aims to bring payments for the traditional Medicare fee-for-service program in line with payments for Medicare Advantage.

Trump’s plans contrast with the Medicare for All program promoted by Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist who is running to become the Democratic Party’s nominee against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Sanders’ proposal, backed by left-leaning Democrats but opposed by moderates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, would create a single-payer system, effectively eliminating private insurance by providing government coverage to everyone, using the Medicare model.

“Medicare for All is Medicare for none,” said Seema Verma, the administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, on a conference call with reporters, calling the proposal a “pipe dream” that would lead to higher taxes.

Sanders has argued that Americans would pay less for healthcare under his plan.

The White House is eager to show Trump making progress on healthcare, an issue Democrats successfully used to garner support and take control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, his predecessor President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law also known as “Obamacare,” but was not successful.

In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it would propose a rule for imports of cheaper drugs from Canada into the United States. A formal rule has not yet been unveiled.

The administration also issued an executive order in June demanding that hospitals and insurers make the prices they charge patients more transparent, as well as another in July encouraging novel treatments for kidney disease.

Trump considered other proposals that did not reach fruition.

A federal judge in July shot down an executive order that would have forced drugmakers to display their list prices in advertisements, and Trump scrapped another planned order that would have banned some of the rebate payments drugmakers make to payers.

The administration is also mulling a plan to tie some Medicare reimbursement rates for drugs to the price paid for those drugs by foreign governments, Reuters reported.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer and Carl O’Donnell; Editing by David Gregorio)

Trump freezes all Venezuelan government assets in bid to pressure Maduro

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Battle in the Vargas Swamp at the National Pantheon in Caracas, Venezuela July 25, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a freeze on all Venezuelan government assets in the United States on Monday, sharply escalating an economic and diplomatic pressure campaign aimed at removing socialist President Nicolas Maduro from power.

The executive order signed by Trump goes well beyond the sanctions imposed in recent months against Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA and the country’s financial sector, as well as measures against dozens of Venezuelan officials and entities.

Trump’s action, the toughest yet against Maduro, not only bans U.S. companies from dealings with the Venezuela government but also appears to open the door to possible sanctions against foreign firms or individuals that assist it.

Russian and Chinese companies are among those still doing significant business in the South American OPEC nation.

“All property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States … are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in,” according to the executive order released by the White House.

The scope of the announcement came as a surprise even to some Trump administration allies. “This is big,” said Ana Quintana, senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Quintana said it appeared the order would be a sweeping embargo on doing business with Venezuela, although she was awaiting further details.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond immediately to a request to comment.

The United States and most Western nations have called for Maduro to step down and have recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.

Guaido, accused by Maduro of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt, appointed a board for Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most important foreign asset, earlier this year.

DRAMATIC ACTION

Trump said on Thursday he was considering a quarantine or blockade of Venezuela, although he did not elaborate at the time on when or how such a blockade would be imposed.

He is taking more dramatic action after numerous rounds of sanctions failed to turn Venezuela’s military against Maduro or make significant progress in dislodging him.

U.S. officials have long said they had other weapons in their economic arsenal, even as they privately expressed frustration that European partners and others had not taken stronger steps and that the months-long pressure campaign had not made more headway.

Trump said in a letter to Congress the freezing of assets was necessary “in light of the continued usurpation of power by the illegitimate Nicolas Maduro regime, as well as the regime’s human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, curtailment of free press, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Juan Guaido.”

His executive order also threatened sanctions against anyone assisting Maduro or his loyalists, suggesting that Washington could resort to so-called secondary sanctions against third-country companies and individuals.

Fernando Cutz, a former top Trump adviser on Latin America, said the executive order could be applied to non-U.S. firms and entities, limiting their ability to do business with Venezuela if they wanted to continue to deal with U.S. companies or banks.

China and Russia continue to trade oil with Venezuela. The move could escalate tensions with China, already inflamed by a tit-for-tat trade war, said Cutz, now a senior associate with the Cohen Group, a consulting firm.

China and Russia – together with Cuba – have continued to back Maduro, prompting U.S. national security adviser John Bolton to warn Beijing and Moscow on Monday against doubling down in their support for him.

Bolton is slated to give a speech on Tuesday morning at a gathering of more than 50 countries in Lima, Peru, that would outline a planned U.S. initiative to lead to a peaceful transfer of power in Venezuela.

Moscow and Beijing turned down invitations to attend.

A White House official declined to comment on the implications of the order for foreign companies doing business in Venezuela, where an economic crisis has driven more than 3 million people to emigrate, fleeing hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

Trump’s order allows exceptions for the delivery of food, medicine and clothing “intended to be used to relieve human suffering.”

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Eric Beech, Matt Spetalnick, Roberta Rampton and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in CARACAS; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)