Pence, Harris to clash in VP debate amid White House virus outbreak

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris will square off on Wednesday in their only debate, as President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis and the ongoing pandemic continue to roil the U.S. presidential contest.

The televised clash comes at a precarious moment for the Trump-Pence re-election campaign, less than a week after the president announced he had contracted COVID-19 amid a White House outbreak that has infected numerous high-profile Republicans.

Late on Tuesday, the two sides were still arguing over Harris’ request for plexiglass barriers on stage to lessen the chance of infection. CNN reported that a member of the commission that oversees the debate said Pence would be permitted to appear without a barrier, while Harris would have one on her side of the stage if desired.

Both Pence and Harris, a U.S. senator, tested negative for the coronavirus on Tuesday. Current government guidelines call for anyone exposed to someone with COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days regardless of test results.

Pence’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said, “If the Trump administration’s war on masks has now become a war on safety shields, that tells you everything you need to know about why their COVID response is a failure.”

With two septuagenarians at the top of the ballot, the debate could take on greater importance than in other years, when the vice presidential match-up was largely seen as an afterthought to the presidential debates. Both Pence and Harris will seek to demonstrate that they can step into the Oval Office if necessary to lead the country.

Trump, 74, returned to the White House on Monday after three days in a military hospital. It is unclear when he will again be able to campaign. Trump has said he plans to participate in the Oct. 15 presidential debate.

The pandemic is likely to dominate the proceedings. Biden, 77, and Harris, 55, have made Trump’s handling of the disease the central theme of their campaign, blaming Trump for deliberately downplaying the health risks and failing to endorse mask-wearing.

The 61-year-old Pence, who headed up the administration’s coronavirus task force, will defend Trump’s response to the virus, which has killed 210,000 Americans and decimated the U.S. economy even as other wealthy nations have managed to get the disease under control.

Viewers will have a constant reminder of the pandemic’s effect on daily life: Pence and Harris will be more than 12 feet apart on stage at the University of Utah, in addition to the plexiglass barrier

In preparation for the debate, Harris got help from former Democratic presidential primary rival Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is familiar with Pence’s past record when he was governor of the state.

The debate is unlikely to match the sheer chaos of the first presidential debate last week, when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the two traded insults. Pence, who once hosted a radio show as a congressman, and Harris, a former prosecutor known for sharp questioning during Senate hearings, are both seen as polished communicators.

A Biden campaign official said Harris has prepared for Pence to attack her as too liberal, echoing Trump’s assertion that the moderate Biden will advance a “radical left-wing” agenda if elected.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

Pence-Harris VP debate to draw outsized attention after Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis

By James Oliphant and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – This week’s vice presidential debate has taken on an outsized and perhaps unprecedented significance, with questions about President Donald Trump’s health now looming over the U.S. election less than a month away.

Vice President Mike Pence’s sole face-off against Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat Joe Biden’s running mate, on Wednesday in Salt Lake City comes as the Trump campaign reels from a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected not only the Republican president but several in his inner circle.

The pressure on Pence, who often toils in Trump’s deep shadow, is great. Trump trails Biden by 10 percentage points nationally, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, with voters faulting what they viewed as the president’s carelessness about the pandemic.

Pence needs to show the public he is ready to step in as president if the situation requires, while also defending the Trump administration’s handling of a 7-month-old health crisis that has killed nearly 210,000 Americans.

For her part, Harris, who has largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent weeks as Biden ramped up campaign travel, must demonstrate to voters that she, too, could assume the presidency if needed at some point in the 77-year-old Biden’s tenure should he win the election.

Traditionally, the vice presidential debate is considered an afterthought to the three presidential debates, watched by fewer voters and viewed as almost irrelevant in terms of shifting public opinion.

“This debate is different,” said Christopher Devine, an expert on the vice presidency at the University of Dayton. “Some people may be worrying about Mike Pence and how he may perform if called upon. And there are questions about Joe Biden’s ability to stay healthy.”

Trump, 74, returned to the White House on Monday following a three-day stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he was treated for his illness. While doctors say he is recovering, it remains uncertain when he will be able to resume campaign activities.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said on Monday the president intended to participate in the next scheduled debate with Biden on Oct. 15 in Miami.

Pence will also be charged with trying to slow the Biden-Harris momentum, something Trump was unable to do in his unruly debate with Biden last week. Trump struggled to make a case for his re-election and often resorted to insults to try to rattle Biden.

Pence, a talented and even-tempered communicator who once hosted a radio show while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, can be more effective on a debate stage than the undisciplined Trump, said Michael Steel, who worked with Pence in the House when Steel was an aide to then-Speaker John Boehner.

“The vice president can make a more cogent and thoughtful case for the Trump administration’s record than almost anyone else,” Steel said. “He’s in a position to have a much stronger debate than the president.”

But, Steel added: “I don’t know how much that matters.”

ATTACK LINES

Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown the presidential race to be relatively stable, with Biden consistently holding a lead nationally and a small set of undecided voters who have yet to make up their minds. More than 3.8 million Americans already have voted ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day, according to the University of Florida, which tracks the early vote.

A Biden campaign official told Reuters the campaign was prepared for Pence to launch attacks on Harris suggesting she is to the left of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, along with other allegations that Biden’s campaign says are untrue about his son Hunter Biden and Biden’s stance on China.

The official conceded that Pence was a strong debater, but “just because Mike Pence can deliver a line doesn’t make it true.”

Harris, a former Democratic presidential contender, cemented her reputation as a skilled questioner at the 2018 hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She will “make a very forceful case” that Biden is the right leader for the moment, the Biden official said.

Harris has panned the administration’s coronavirus response headed by Pence. On Wednesday, she will have to thread the needle between renewing those criticisms without attacking the recovering Trump personally, Devine said.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Devine said. “Harris is probably better prepared than most, having been on the national stage before.”

During a series of primary debates last year, Harris had to navigate how to take shots at Biden, a beloved party statesman, without alienating swaths of Democratic voters. Her criticism of Biden’s past record on forced school busing earned her media attention but may have backfired with the electorate. She ended her campaign in December before voting began.

Coronavirus protocols at the debate on Wednesday will be strengthened following Trump’s diagnosis.

Pence and Harris will be seated more than 12 feet (3.7 m) apart on the stage, farther than the 7 feet (2 m) that separated the lecterns at the Sept. 29 debate between Trump and Biden. The candidates will also be separated by a plexiglass barrier during the debate, as requested by the Biden campaign.

All debate attendees, including members of the media, will be required to get tested for COVID-19. The debates commission said anyone not wearing a mask would be “escorted out.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

Both Biden, Pence attend New York 9/11 memorial, Trump at Pennsylvania crash site

By Trevor Hunnicutt

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence, both masked, joined New York’s somber 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, while President Donald Trump marked it at the Pennsylvania crash site of a hijacked jet.

Biden and Pence bumped elbows in greeting, one of the many ways the anniversary ceremony has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 191,000 people in the United States including 32,700 in New York state.

About 200 people including Governor Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer joined the New York ceremony, where family members read the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed when two hijacked jets slammed into the Twin Towers, with a third hitting the Pentagon and a fourth taken down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when its passengers rose up against the al Qaeda hijackers.

A similar memorial ceremony was being held at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, where people sat socially distanced on folding chairs near the site that Flight 93 went down.

“The only thing that stood between the enemy and a deadly strike at the heart of American democracy was the courage and resolve of 40 men and women – the amazing passengers and crew of Flight 93,” Trump told the crowd.

Biden is also due to visit Shanksville separately later in the day. Prior to boarding a plane from his Delaware home, Biden pledged not to make any news during the solemn day.

“I’m not going to talk about anything other than 9/11. We took all our advertising down. It’s a solemn day, and that’s how we’re going to keep it, okay?,” Biden said.

‘IT NEVER GOES AWAY’

The sun struggled to pierce hazy clouds in New York, a contrast with the 2001 morning of the attacks, which people present that day remember for its piercing, clear skies.

At the memorial site, Biden spoke to 90-year-old Maria Fisher, who lost her son in the 9/11 attacks. He told her he lost his son as well, and lamented, “It never goes away, does it?”

He handed her the rose he was holding.

Asked what today means for him, Biden replied, “It means I remember all my friends that I lost.”

The ruins of the shattered World Trade Center have since been replaced by a glittering $25 billion complex that includes three skyscrapers, a museum and the memorial with the goal that it would be again be an international hub of commerce.

But the pandemic has rendered it somewhat of a small ghost town, adding an eerie quality to the commemoration of the attack, with office workers staying home and tourists avoiding the memorial site.

The virus also altered the memorial event, with family members pre-recording the traditional reading of the names of the victims and the crowds at the site severely restricted.

Amanda Barreto, 27, of Teaneck, New Jersey, lost her godmother and aunt in the attacks. Biden came up to her and offered his condolences.

“He knows what it means to lose someone. He wanted me to stay strong,” Barreto said afterward. “And he’s so sorry for my loss.”

The Shanksville event was also closed to the public because of coronavirus concerns, the National Park Service said.

Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark, New Jersey, never hit its intended target — the four hijackers were believed to be planning to crash it into either the U.S. Capitol or the White House — after passengers stormed the cockpit and attempted to regain control of the aircraft.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York and Jeff Mason in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, additional reporting by John Whitesides, Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Diane Craft)

Pence says U.S. in ‘better place’ on coronavirus even as new cases rise in 16 states

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Friday sounded a note of optimism about the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying that 34 states show a measure of stabilizing numbers of new cases, but encouraged people to continue social distancing and other strategies to help contain the spread of the virus.

Pence, at the first U.S. coronavirus task force briefing in months, said that 16 states are seeing an increase in infections and that the federal government is focused on rising cases in the South.

“As we see the new cases rising, and we’re tracking them very carefully, there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago, that we’re in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we’re in a much better place,” Pence said.

“The truth is we did slow the spread. We did flatten the curve,” he added.

In about four months, more than 2.4 million people have been confirmed to have the coronavirus in the United States and over 124,000 have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Pence also encouraged people to follow local, state and federal guidance on containing the virus, saying they should avoid touching their faces, disinfect frequently, wash their hands, stay home when they feel sick, and practice social distancing.

“We still have work to do, so we say to every American particularly those in counties and in states that are being impacted by rising cases, now is the time for everybody to do their part,” Pence said.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Lisa Lambert, Editing by Franklin Paul and Grant McCool)

Promising virus vaccine results reported as Trump takes anti-malaria drug

By Maria Caspani and Rajesh Kumar Singh

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The phased reopening of U.S. business and social life gained traction on Monday with more Americans emerging from coronavirus lockdowns and financial markets boosted by promising early results from the first U.S. vaccine trial in humans.

News of a possible vaccine breakthrough was somewhat overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement hours later that he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 preventive treatment, contrary to medical warnings about such use of the anti-malaria drug. The disclosure came during Trump’s White House meeting with restaurant executives.

“All I can tell you is so far I seem to be OK,” the president told reporters, saying he has taken a single dose of the drug each day for the past week and a half.

Just 10 days ago the White House confirmed that Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary had tested positive for the coronavirus, 24 hours after Trump’s military valet was diagnosed.

Trump initially promoted hydroxychloroquine in April as a potential COVID-19 treatment based on a positive report about its use against the virus. But subsequent studies have found it to be ineffective, and the Food and Drug Administration has warned of the potential for serious side effects associated with hydroxychloroquine and an older, related drug, chloroquine.

VACCINE HOPE

Earlier in the day came word that a COVID-19 vaccine under development by Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna Inc had produced protective antibodies in a small group of healthy volunteers during a safety trial launched in March.

The findings, offering a glimmer of hope that the experimental vaccine may ultimately prove effective, sent Moderna’s shares soaring 20% on Monday and helped lift the overall stock market about 3% to a 10-week high.

Until a vaccine or cure can be found, lockdowns on commerce and social gatherings remain the chief weapon for fighting the pandemic, even while ravaging the U.S. economy.

Public health experts caution that easing stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures is still risky while diagnostic testing remains scant in many places, leaving in doubt how much virus lurks undetected.

Although nearly all 50 states have begun reopening, only 13 had met federal guidelines for safely lifting restrictions as of Sunday, according to a Reuters analysis, raising concerns that infections and deaths could surge anew.

While some consumers have voiced hesitancy about returning to shopping malls and restaurants just yet, others were clearly ready to do so.

“We need to get the economy going again. People are either out of money or will be very soon,” said Martin Bermudez, 48, as he and a companion enjoyed ham-and-cheese omelets at a cafe in Miami.

They were among the first diners back in the eatery for sit-down table service after more than two months of takeout only.

The pandemic has afflicted the United States more than any other country, with more than 1.5 million known infections and nearly 90,000 deaths.

A revision to an influential coronavirus mortality model periodically updated by University of Washington researchers predicted on Monday that 143,357 Americans will die from COVID-19 by early August, about 3,600 fewer than last projected.

The slightly more optimistic forecast reflects greater-than-expected adherence to social distancing and face covering by the public, Dr. Christopher Murray, head of the university’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told CNN.

New York state, epicenter of the U.S. pandemic with 27,400 COVID-19 deaths to date, registered further evidence of improvement as its three-day rolling average of hospitalizations and tally of newly reported fatalities both declined.

FROM SPORTS TO ASSEMBLY LINES

In a sign of growing confidence in curbing the contagion, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was looking forward to professional sports teams to begin competing again, though without fans in attendance.

California Governor Gavin Newsom likewise said his state has been in talks with officials of all major sports leagues about a possible fan-free resumption of play. He added that a possible June 1 opening day would depend on development of new safety standards and the prevailing infection rates in California.

In the San Francisco Bay area, health directors in five counties said manufacturing, retail with curbside pickup and warehouse distribution could reopen, catching up with a similar loosening of restrictions elsewhere across the state 10 days earlier.

In the Midwest, the U.S. auto industry slowly returned to life from a two-month lockdown as the Detroit Three carmakers and their suppliers began restarting assembly lines in a sector that employs nearly 1 million people.

Hundreds of workers at Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s (FCA) truck plant in Warren, Michigan, began lining up before dawn for the early shift. Signs overhead read: “Let’s restart.”

The auto industry is widely watched as a test case for whether workers across a range of U.S. industries can safely return to factory floors.

“I’m a little nervous,” said Larry Smith, 53, who works on wheel alignment away from the assembly line. “They made all the precautions (and) they’ve done everything they can to prepare …. I’m trusting in God.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Zachary Fagenson in Miami and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Grant McCool and Steve Gorman; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)

No plans to separate Trump, Pence despite White House coronavirus cases: source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration has no plans to keep President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence apart, a person familiar with the matter said on Sunday, as concerns rise about the spread of the coronavirus within the White House.

The New York Times first reported the lack of plans to keep Trump and Pence separated despite concern they both could be incapacitated by the disease, citing two senior administration officials.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Two coronavirus cases in the White House last week spurred fears of contagion for the president and vice president, who are leading the U.S. response to the pandemic, and who have both resumed travel and business schedules even as the U.S. death toll from the virus nears 80,000.

Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller, the wife of Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, tested positive for the coronavirus a day after confirmation that Trump’s personal valet had been diagnosed with the disease.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany sought on Friday to defend administration efforts to protect Trump and Pence, pointing to new measures taken by the White House including contact tracing and putting in place all guidelines recommended for essential workers.

The White House has also instituted daily coronavirus tests for Trump and Pence.

Anthony Fauci, a high-profile member of the White House coronavirus response team, Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, were in self-quarantine on Saturday after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive for the disease.

If Republicans Trump and Pence were both to become incapacitated, Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi would assume presidential duties under U.S. law.

Last month, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to an intensive care unit after becoming the first leader of a major power to announce he had tested positive for the highly contagious respiratory virus. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab deputized for Johnson during his convalescence.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Some White House staff to wear masks after valet tests positive: Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said certain White House staff members have started wearing face masks, one day after the White House said his personal valet had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Trump, asked whether those who serve him food would now cover their faces, told Fox News in an interview that such White House staff would now be covering their faces.

“They’ve already started,” he said on the network’s “Fox and Friends” morning program.

The White House on Thursday said Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tested negative for the virus and were feeling well after the staffer – a U.S. military service member who works at the White House as a valet – came down with the virus. It also said the two leaders would now be tested daily, versus weekly.

Trump has said he would not wear a mask and has not publicly worn a mask to any of his events so far amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but told reporters this week that he tried some on behind the scenes during his visit to a Honeywell face mask factory in Arizona.

He is scheduled to attend a public event at the World War Two memorial later on Friday before meeting with Republican members of Congress at the White House, according to the White House.

The Republican president also told Fox News that he has not yet been tested for antibodies to the novel coronavirus but probably would be soon. Such a test could confirm previous exposure to the virus.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Lisa Lambertl editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Pence announces ceasefire deal with Erdogan to end Turkey’s Syria offensive

Pence announces ceasefire deal with Erdogan to end Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday he had reached a deal with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for a ceasefire in northern Syria to end an eight-day-old Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces.

Speaking after crisis talks with Erdogan in Ankara, Pence said that under the deal all military operations would be paused to allow a pullback of Kurdish YPG militia over a 120-hour period. The Turkish military operation would end once that withdrawal was complete, Pence told a news conference.

“Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria,” Pence told a news conference after more than four hours of talks at the presidential palace in Ankara.

“The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” Pence said. “All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal.”

Pence said U.S. forces in the region had already begun to facilitate a safe disengagement of YPG units.

The deal struck with Erdogan also provided for Turkey not to engage in military operations in the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobani.

Pence said the United States and Turkey had committed to a peaceful resolution of Ankara’s demand for a “safe zone” in northern Syria near Turkey’s border, one of the objectives of the Turkish offensive.

Pence added that he had spoken to U.S. President Donald Trump after the talks and that Trump had expressed his gratitude for the ceasefire accord.

The deal was a major contribution to relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, which have become strained in recent months.

After Pence and Erdogan met at the presidential palace, talks between Turkish and U.S. delegations continued for over four hours – well past their expected duration.

Pence’s mission was to persuade Erdogan to halt the internationally condemned offensive, but Turkish officials had said before the meeting began that the action would continue regardless.

The Turkish assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump had defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat
By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – The Trump administration dispatched its top officials to Turkey on Wednesday for emergency talks to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria, while Russian troops swept into territory abandoned by Washington in a sudden retreat.

Robert O’Brien, White House national security adviser since last month, arrived in Turkey aiming to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expecting to meet the following day with President Tayyip Erdogan.

The administration is trying to contain the fallout from Erdogan’s decision to send forces last week to attack Syrian Kurdish militia that were Washington’s close allies.

Erdogan again insisted there would be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the United States next month because of the “very big disrespect” shown by U.S. politicians.

He also denounced the United States for taking the “unlawful, ugly step” of imposing criminal charges against a Turkish state bank over allegations it broke sanctions on Iran.

Turkey’s assault, launched after a call between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, forced Washington to abandon a strategy in place for five years and pull its troops from northern Syria.

It has spawned a humanitarian crisis, with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump, accused by congressional leaders, including fellow Republicans, of betraying loyal U.S. allies, the Kurds.

Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, have meanwhile taken advantage of the power vacuum left by retreating U.S. troops to advance swiftly into the largest swath of territory previously outside their grasp.

Trump played down the crisis on Wednesday, saying the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was “fine” for Russia to help its ally Damascus. Sanctioning Turkey would be better than fighting in the region, he said.

Washington announced sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, but Trump’s critics said the steps, mainly a steel tariffs hike and a pause in trade talks, were too feeble to have an impact.

A day later U.S. prosecutors’ charges were unveiled against Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a scheme to evade Iran sanctions. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics. Halkbank denies wrongdoing and called the case part of the sanctions against Turkey.

U.S. “SHOW OF FORCE”

The Turkish advance, and Washington’s need to swiftly evacuate its own forces, have brought the two biggest militaries in NATO close to confrontation on the battlefield. Washington has complained about Turkish artillery fire near its troops.

In the latest potential flashpoint, U.S. military aircraft made a “show of force” over the border city of Kobani after Turkish-backed fighters came close to American troops there, a U.S. official said.

Pence said Erdogan had promised Trump by phone that Turkey would not attack Kobani, a strategically important border city where U.S. forces first came to the aid of Kurds against Islamic State, which massacred Kurdish civilians there in 2014.

Erdogan said he had not broken his promise to Trump: “Mr Trump’s remark on Kobani was ‘Don’t strike there’,” Erdogan told reporters late on Tuesday. “We said that we had only done an encircling operation there at the moment.”

LAND RUSH

Washington’s hasty exit has created a land rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the formerly U.S.-protected Kurdish area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the eight-year Syrian war, said on Wednesday Russian troops had crossed the Euphrates River to advance to Kobani’s outskirts.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hours after Washington announced its pullout on Sunday, the Kurds made a rapid deal with Washington’s adversaries, the Russia- and Iran-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia-backed Syrian troops have swiftly moved across the breadth of the Kurdish-held area including Manbij city, a target of Turkey which U.S. forces said on Tuesday they had quit.

Reuters journalists traveling with Syrian government forces on Tuesday entered Manbij and saw Russian and Syrian flags on buildings nearby. Russian state media said on Wednesday Syrian government forces had occupied bases abandoned by U.S. troops.

Erdogan, due in Moscow later this month, said he had told President Vladimir Putin that Russia could move forces into Manbij, provided that the Kurdish YPG militia was cleared out.

Erdogan says Trump approved his plan for a “safe zone” about 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria. Trump says he did not endorse the plan but Washington could not stay to police the Middle East.

“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters. “Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

The Turkish campaign shows no sign of abating on the ground, with most fighting so far around two border cities, Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad. A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar reported the sound of heavy gunfire just across the frontier in Ras al Ain, which Turkey’s Defence Ministry had earlier said its forces controlled.

(Additional reporting by Mert Ozkan; Writing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Alison Williams)