Trump sues Facebook, Twitter and Google, claiming censorship

By Jason Lange and Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday filed lawsuits against Twitter Inc, Facebook Inc, and Alphabet Inc’s Google, as well as their chief executives, alleging they unlawfully silence conservative viewpoints.

The lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, allege the California-based social media platforms violated the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Trump is seeking class action status for the lawsuits, meaning he would represent the interests of other users of Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube who allege they have been unfairly silenced.

He filed three lawsuits making similar allegations — one against Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, one against Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey, and one against Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai.

“We will achieve a historic victory for American freedom and at the same time, freedom of speech,” Trump said at a news conference at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey.

A Twitter representative declined to comment. Representatives of Facebook and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Trump lost his social media megaphone this year after the companies said he violated their policies against glorifying violence. Hundreds of his supporters launched a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 after a Trump speech repeating his claims that his election defeat was the result of widespread fraud, an assertion rejected by multiple courts, state election officials and members of his own administration.

The lawsuits ask a judge to invalidate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that has been called the backbone of the internet because it provides websites with protections from liability over content posted by users. Trump and others who have attacked Section 230 say it has given big internet companies too much legal protection and allowed them to escape responsibility for their actions.

A federal judge in Florida last week blocked a recently enacted state law that was meant to authorize the state to penalize social media companies when they ban political candidates, with the judge saying the law likely violated free speech rights.

The lawsuit said the bill signed by Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in May was unconstitutional. It would have made Florida the first state to regulate how social media companies moderate online speech.

(Reporting by Jason Lange and Jan Wolfe, additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford and Sheila Dang; editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)

Gender equality makes democracy stronger, says Kamala Harris

PARIS (Reuters) – Women deprived of freedom of speech or the freedom to vote should fight for their rights and know that the United States stands beside them, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said on Wednesday.

Harris told the Generation Equality Forum at a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron that gender equality was paramount to strengthening democracy.

“Use the tools for democracy, whether that is the freedom of speech or the freedom to vote. And if you do not yet have those freedoms, fight for them and know we will fight alongside you,” Harris told the summit by video link.

Democracy was in peril in countries around the world, Harris said.

“If we want to strengthen democracy, we must fight for gender equality. Because here is the truth: Democracy is strongest when everyone participates and it is weaker when people are left out,” the vice president said.

Two months after entering office, Harris said President Joe Biden’s administration would revitalize Washington’s partnership with U.N. Women – a U.N. body dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Under former President Donald Trump, the United States led a push at the United Nations against the promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health because it saw that as code for abortion.

Harris struck a different tone.

“When women have access to reproductive healthcare to stay healthy, they can participate more fully and our democracy grows stronger,” she said.

Melinda Gates said the Gates Foundation would direct $2.1 billion in new money to strengthening gender equality. More than half would go to sexual health and reproductive rights, while $100 million would be spent on helping get women into positions of power in government and the workplace.

“Women should not only have a seat at the table, they should be in every single room where policy and decisions are being made,” Gates said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Florida joins states to ban transgender girls from sports

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) -Florida on Tuesday became the latest and by far the largest U.S. state to ban transgender women and girls from participating in school sports, part of a campaign in statehouses nationwide this year assailed as discriminatory by equal rights activists.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who is closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, enacted the law on the first day of Pride Month, which celebrates the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community.

DeSantis signed the bill at an event at a Christian school in Jacksonville where he was flanked by several teenage women athletes. He said the law was needed to ensure fairness for women participating in sports across the state.

“I can tell you this: in Florida, girls are going to play girls’ sports and boys are going to play boys’ sports,” the governor said. “We are going to go based off biology, not based off ideology when we are doing sports.”

Supporters of the sports bills say transgender female athletes have an unfair advantage, having been designated male at birth but having since transitioned. Florida’s law defines an athlete’s sex as that stated on official documents at birth.

The law, rushed through the state legislature as an attachment to a charter school bill, passed over the objection of Democrats and civil rights advocates who call the banning of transgender girls and women from sports unnecessary and discriminatory and accuse Republicans of portraying them as a provocation to energize the right wing of their party.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, issued a proclamation to mark the start of Pride Month, urging Congress to LGBTQ people from discrimination by passing the Equality Act and pointing to a lack of protection of their rights in many states.

Trump, his Republican predecessor, did not officially recognize Pride Month during his four years in office.

The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group, said it would challenge the law in court as having been based on a “false, discriminatory premise” that threatened the wellbeing of transgender children.

“Transgender kids are kids; transgender girls are girls. Like all children, they deserve the opportunity to play sports with their friends and be a part of a team,” Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said in a statement.

Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee and West Virginia have passed similar legislation and South Dakota’s governor has signed an executive order supporting a sports ban. All have Republican governors.

The Republican governor of North Dakota and the Democratic governor of Kansas have vetoed similar bills that passed their statehouses.

Idaho passed the first such ban last year but a federal court has blocked the law.

Arkansas passed one banning certain types of gender-affirming healthcare treatment to transgender youth, after overriding the Republican governor’s veto.

Around 100 bills have been introduced in more than 20 states this year that would limit transgender rights. Transgender advocates have called on businesses to boycott states that pass such laws.

While corporate America has yet to respond as it has on the issue of voting rights restrictions, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which governs college sports, responded to Florida’s bill in April by saying it would only hold events in states that are “free of discrimination.”

DeSantis said he would not be swayed by the stances taken by the NCAA or other organizations.

“We will stand up to groups like the NCAA who think they should be able to dictate the policies in different states. Not here. Not ever,” DeSantis said.

The NCAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Howard Goller)

Analysis-Biden poised to pivot U.S. arms deals toward security, human rights

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ninety minutes before President Joe Biden took office on January 20th, the United States signed a $23 billion dollar deal to sell F-35 jets, drones and advanced missiles to the United Arab Emirates.

It was part of flurry of last minute deals President Donald Trump had told Congress were coming in his last two months in office, forcing the Biden administration to make quick decisions on whether or not to stick with the geopolitically sensitive weapons sales.

To the surprise of some Democratic allies, Biden has so far kept the lion’s share of Trump’s more controversial agreements. Executives at five large defense contractors who requested anonymity to speak freely were also surprised by the speed of the Biden administration’s deliberations.

Longer-term, however, those executives and five more people in and around the administration told Reuters that Biden’s policy will shift to emphasize human rights over Trump’s more commercial approach to exporting military equipment.

Biden’s posture towards arms exports – specifically around reducing weapons used to attack others – could shift sales at Boeing Co, Raytheon Technologies Corp and Lockheed Martin Corp. That means fewer bullets, bombs and missiles, while security products like radars, surveillance equipment and defenses against attacks get the green light.

In an interview last week, Raytheon’s CFO Neil Mitchill said that offensive munitions exports, “going forward, the kinds of sales that we were talking about have been declining,” adding there has been a multi-year downward trend of offensive weapon sales to foreign customers.

Boeing and Lockheed declined to comment.

In the early days of the Biden administration, officials paused weapons sales to Middle East allies, including sales of Raytheon’s and Boeing-made precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Eventually a determination was made to only sell the Kingdom “defensive” arms, while limiting weapons that could be used to attack out of concern over casualties in Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen.

Biden’s team ultimately decided to stick with the massive UAE deal. The move spurred criticism from the human rights group Amnesty International which immediately bashed the decision and drew complaints from lawmaker Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

One former U.S. official familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking noted that many aspects of the F-35 sale still need to be negotiated, giving them leverage as the Abraham Accords between UAE and Israel are implemented. The F-35 sale was a side deal to the accords.

PIVOT TO DEFENSE

But arms deals like Trump’s UAE agreement, and others with governments that have poor records on human rights records look far less likely from the Biden White House.

“While economic security will remain a factor” when reviewing weapons sales, the Biden Administration will “reprioritize” other factors including U.S. national security, human rights and nonproliferation, a U.S. official has told Reuters.

“I’m hopeful that as we hear statements that support human rights as being front and center in arms transfer deliberations, we’ll see that play out through actual decisions, and not just words,” Rachel Stohl, vice president at the Stimson Center in Washington said.

During the transition period from election day in November to Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s team sent notification of $31 billion of foreign arms sales to Congress. Congressional notifications occur for most foreign military sales before a contract can be signed to sell a weapon.

On average, foreign military sales under Trump amounted to $57.5 billion per year, versus an average of $53.9 billion per year for the eight years under his predecessor Barack Obama, in 2020 dollars, according to Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy think tank.

Biden’s approval of several late-Trump deals will ease the political and diplomatic transition from one administration to another, according to a State Department official. In the case of the UAE deal, the official said, it helps the two nations “meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partnership.”

As Lockheed’s CEO Jim Taiclet put it to Reuters late last year, “alliances are really important… Foreign Military Sales are part and parcel of that.”

The Biden administration inherited a backlog of more than 500 weapons export deals teed up by the Trump administration, one person briefed on the State Department’s backlog said.

Going forward, the Stimson Center’s Rachel Stohl said Biden’s State Department team is “looking at countries, at individual weapons systems, as well as individual sales.” But as more appointees take their posts at the State Department she said there could be a “paradigm shift on the way in which arms sales are considered as part of holistic efforts to develop and build partnerships and capacity.”

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin)

U.S. investigators raid Giuliani apartment in New York

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Federal investigators on Wednesday executed a search warrant at the Manhattan apartment of Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and personal lawyer to former U.S. President Donald Trump, as they probe his business dealings with Ukraine.

A lawyer for Giuliani, Bob Costello, confirmed that a search warrant had been executed. Electronic devices were among the items seized, according to The New York Times. Giuliani did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have been investigating Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine.

While the search warrant does not mean Giuliani committed a crime, it signals that investigators persuaded a judge they believed criminal conduct occurred and that executing the warrant might uncover relevant evidence.

“This is a seismic moment in the investigation,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“It’s a big deal to execute a search warrant concerning an attorney because of issues of attorney-client privilege,” she said. “It’s a bigger deal to execute a search warrant of an attorney who worked for the former president.”

Giuliani, 76, began representing Trump, a fellow Republican, in April 2018 in connection with former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Giuliani’s role in Washington was complex, with the former mayor frequently proclaiming himself a business consultant and lawyer in the private sector even as he enjoyed extraordinary access to the halls of power.

Giuliani eventually became a key figure into whether Trump abused his office for personal political gain in his dealings with Ukraine.

His work included an investigation before the 2020 election into now-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine. The Bidens have denied wrongdoing.

Two former Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, have been charged with campaign finance violations and other crimes.

Parnas’ and Fruman’s work included efforts to help Giuliani dig up damaging information about the Bidens, and what prosecutors called an effort to remove then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Giuliani gained early renown in the 1980’s as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where he put leaders of five New York Mafia families in prison and successfully prosecuted Wall Street’s “junk bond king,” Michael Milken.

He later won wide acclaim as “America’s Mayor” for his efforts in helping New York City recover from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Giuliani ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York, and Jan Wolfe and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Biden’s first budget marks sharp change from Trump years

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden asked Congress to sharply increase spending to combat climate change and gun violence in a budget that marks a sharp departure from his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The $1.5 trillion budget, reflecting an 8% increase in base funding from the current year, would invest billions more in public transportation and environmental clean-ups, slash funding for a border wall and expand funding for background checks on gun sales, each goal clashing with the prior administration.

Nearly three months into a job consumed by the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the document offered a long-awaited glimpse into Biden’s agenda and kick-starts a grueling negotiation with Congress over what will ultimately be funded.

Biden would increase spending by $14 billion across agencies to deal with the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, a shift from the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate science.

The president would spend millions on dealing with rising numbers of unaccompanied children showing up at the country’s southern border from Central America, including $861 million to invest in that region.

But his budget would provide no funding for the construction of a border wall, a signature Trump priority, and would increase funding for investigation of immigration agents accused of “white supremacy.”

Among the biggest proposed increases in funding are for schools in poorer neighborhoods and on researching deadly diseases other than the COVID-19 pandemic that has dominated his term in office so far.

Biden would spend $6.5 billion to launch a group leading targeted research into diseases from cancer to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, a program that reflects Biden’s long desire to use government spending to create breakthroughs in medical research.

Biden requested some $715 billion for the Department of Defense, roughly even in inflation-adjusted terms with this year, and a compromise between liberals trying to impose cuts and hawks who want military spending to increase.

The money earmarked for the Pentagon aims to deter China, support modernizing the nuclear missile inventory and building “climate resiliency” at military facilities.

Known as a “skinny” budget, Biden’s proposal on Friday provided only cursory figures on “discretionary” programs and departments where Congress has flexibility to decide what it wants to spend for the fiscal year starting in October.

The White House had been delayed in producing the document, blaming resistance from political officials during the handover from Trump and denying that competing interests over issues like military funding played a role.

The proposal does not include Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal or changes in taxation, one administration official said. Those changes would be included in a full budget proposal to be submitted in late spring.

Discretionary spending accounted for $1.6 trillion in the 2020 fiscal year, about a quarter of total federal spending. The rest is for areas deemed mandatory including old-age, disability, unemployment and medical benefits.

Each of the proposals is just the first step in a budgeting process that will ultimately be decided in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where Democrats hold bare majorities.

Biden withdrew his initial pick, Neera Tanden, to lead the Office of Management and Budget after she faced difficulty winning Senate approval. The office is currently run by acting director Shalanda Young.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Barrett authors first U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a loss for environmentalists

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett on Thursday authored her first ruling since joining the U.S. Supreme Court in October as the court handed a defeat to an environmental group seeking access to government documents.

In the 7-2 ruling, the justices sided with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thwarting an effort by the Sierra Club to obtain documents concerning a regulation finalized in 2014 relating to power plants. Barrett and the court’s other five conservative justices were joined by liberal Justice Elena Kagan in the majority, with liberals Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in dissent.

The Senate approved Barrett for a lifetime job on the top U.S. judicial body on Oct. 26 after an accelerated confirmation process that unfolded in the weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election. She is one of three justices appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump and she replaced liberal Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18.

Her swift confirmation by the Senate, which at the time was controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans but is now led by the Democrats, moved the court further to the right and prevented Biden from replacing Ginsburg with a liberal successor. It marked the closest to a presidential election that a Supreme Court justice had won Senate confirmation.

The Sierra Club ruling limits the scope of U.S. agency documents that would be subject to a federal law called the Freedom of Information Act, which lets people request certain government materials.

The group wanted access to internal documents concerning the Fish and Wildlife Service’s conclusion that a proposed environmental regulation for cooling water intake structures that are used by power plants and other industrial facilities would not adversely affect endangered species, including fish, turtles and shellfish.

In 2013, the agency initially found that the regulation would put the species in jeopardy but its final recommendation to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 reached the opposite conclusion.

Writing for the court, Barrett said the 2013 draft documents were protected from disclosure because “they reflect a preliminary view – not a final decision – about the likely effect of the EPA’s proposed rule on endangered species.”

A federal judge in California ruled in 2017 that 11 documents had to be disclosed. Trump’s administration appealed and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled partly for the government but still found that nine documents had to be released.

The case was argued on Nov. 2, the day before Election Day. It marked first Barrett’s first arguments as a justice. She previously served on a lower federal appeals court and as a legal scholar at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

So far, Barrett’s biggest impact on the court came when she provided the decisive vote in favor of religious entities challenging COVID-19 restrictions in New York.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Israeli defense chief sees ‘special security arrangement’ with Gulf allies

By Dan Williams

KEREM SHALOM, Israel (Reuters) – Israel’s defense minister said on Tuesday it intends to develop a “special security arrangement” with Gulf Arab allies, who share common concerns over Iran.

The United Arab Emirate and Bahrain established formal relations with Israel last year. As part of their U.S.-backed rapprochement, Israel and the UAE have proposed defense and military cooperation.

On a visit to an Israel-Gaza border crossing, Defense Minister Benny Gantz played down a report by public radio Kan that Israel was considering a defense agreement with Gulf Arab countries, but said security ties would be pursued.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a defense pact but we are going to develop defense relations with every country that we have relations with,” Gantz told Reuters.

“We have this process of setting up (a) special security arrangement, and within this arrangement we can continue and develop our relations,” he said.

Gantz declined to go into details on what such an arrangement would entail.

He signaled that Israel had no opposition to the sale, approved during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s last days in office, of 50 Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth jets to the UAE. The deal is now under review by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

Asked about Israel’s view of the sale, Gantz said Israel’s “qualitative military edge” must be preserved by the United States, adding that the advanced warplane was already in the country’s arsenal.

On Monday, the UAE’s ambassador to Israel took up his post, pledging to build up new bilateral relations. Israel opened an embassy in Abu Dhabi in January.

Their so-called U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords,” joined by Bahrain, have uncorked tourism and commerce between Israel and Gulf Arab countries. Palestinians have been critical of the rapprochement, worried that their own unmet statehood goal might be sidelined.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Trump impeachment defense to attack the process, lawyer says

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – Donald Trump’s lawyers will make “procedural objections” a focus during his U.S. Senate impeachment case next week, including challenging the notion the former president can face trial after leaving office, one of his attorneys said.

Attorney Bruce Castor Jr. decried the U.S. Senate proceeding due to begin on Tuesday as “unconstitutional,” telling Reuters by phone late on Thursday: “We’re trying to win a case on a bunch of procedural objections.”

“This is ‘Law School 101’ stuff. This isn’t advanced legal treatises in bound volumes that are used in the Supreme Court as references,” Castor said.

It may well be enough to win the case in the 100-member Senate where Trump’s fellow Republicans appear likely to deny rival Democrats the total 67 votes they need to convict Trump. The Republicans assert they do not have the authority to hold a trial for Trump since he left office on Jan. 20.

On Jan. 6, Trump exhorted a crowd of supporters to go to the Capitol, told them to “fight like hell,” and repeated his claims the November election was stolen from him. The ensuing rampage interrupted the congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory and sent lawmakers into hiding.

A majority of constitutional law experts assert that it is lawful to hold an impeachment trial after a president leaves office. They assert that presidents who commit misconduct late in their terms should not be immune from the very process the U.S. Constitution created to hold them accountable.

Because the Constitution makes clear that impeachment proceedings can result in disqualification from holding future office, there is a live issue for the Senate to resolve, they say.

Castor and his co-counsel David Schoen were hired on Sunday after Trump parted ways with his prior defense team due to disagreements over strategy.

Trump is only the third U.S. president to be impeached and the first to be impeached twice and to face trial after leaving office.

Trump on Thursday rejected a request to testify at his impeachment proceeding. The House members trying the case have yet to say whether they will call witnesses or how long the trial might run.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)

U.S. court upholds Trump’s national security tariffs on steel imports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Court of International Trade on Thursday upheld former President Donald Trump’s “Section 232” national security tariffs on steel imports into the United States, issuing a decision denying a steel importer’s challenge to the duties.

A three-judge panel at the New York-based federal court which hears challenges to trade actions said the tariffs, imposed in 2018, were legal under a Cold War-era national security trade statute, denying the request by New Jersey importer Universal Steel Products Inc to remove them.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Chris Reese)