Trump administration rolls back U.S. inspection rules for egg products

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Wednesday it will stop requiring U.S. plants that produce egg products to have full-time government inspectors, in the first update of inspection methods in 50 years.

Under a new rule that takes effect immediately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow companies like Cargill Inc and Sonstegard Foods to use different food-safety systems and procedures designed for their factories and equipment.

The change marks the Trump administration’s latest move to ease government regulations over the nation’s food system. Some inspectors and public-interest groups have warned food safety may suffer as a result.

The new rule affects 83 plants that USDA has been inspecting, according to the agency. USDA will also assume oversight from the Food and Drug Administration of additional facilities that produce egg substitutes.

Inspectors will visit plants once per shift, instead of being there whenever egg products are being processed.

The change, first proposed in 2018, makes inspections consistent with those for meat and poultry products, said Paul Kiecker, administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Inspectors will operate under a “patrol” system, in which they will cover multiple plants each day, he said.

“We feel very confident that, based on the once per shift that we have them there, we’ll still be able to verify that they’re producing safe product,” he said.

Environmental group Food & Water Watch said in 2018 the patrol system may make inspections less effective.

The new rule aims to make better use of inspectors and allow companies to develop new food-safety procedures, Kiecker said.

Companies must implement standard operating procedures for sanitation and food-safety management systems known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.

“We are giving them more of the responsibility to ensure that they are producing safe products,” Kiecker said.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted egg product sales this spring, as closures of restaurants, schools and offices reduced demand.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S. appeals court deals blow to Democrats’ bid to get testimony from ex-White House lawyer McGahn

By Jan Wolfe

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Monday, in a victory for the Trump administration, ordered the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a Democratic-led House of Representatives panel seeking to enforce a subpoena issued to former White House Counsel Donald McGahn.

In a 2-1 decision likely to be appealed, a three-judge panel of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the House Judiciary Committee’s lawsuit had to be dismissed because Congress had never passed a law authorizing such litigation.

“Because the Committee lacks a cause of action to enforce its subpoena, this lawsuit must be dismissed,” Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith wrote for the majority.

The committee had sought testimony from McGahn, who left his post in October 2018, about President Donald Trump’s efforts to impede former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that documented Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

McGahn declined to testify before the committee after the Justice Department advised him to defy the subpoena. The Trump administration has sought to block congressional investigations into the president.

“We note that this decision does not preclude Congress (or one of its chambers) from ever enforcing a subpoena in federal court; it simply precludes it from doing so without first enacting a statute authorizing such a suit,” Griffith added.

The ruling did not address an argument by the Trump administration that senior presidential advisers could not be forced to testify to Congress about official acts.

A House Judiciary Committee spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit to force McGahn to testify has bounced around in the courts for a year.

On Aug. 7, a larger panel of D.C. Circuit judges ruled that the House panel had “standing” to sue, but sent the case back to a three-judge panel to address other issues.

Under U.S. law, standing is just one requirement for filing a lawsuit. A litigant must also point to a “cause of action,” or recognized legal theory.

Monday’s decision could still be reheard by a larger panel of D.C. Circuit judges, or appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Mnuchin to testify Sept. 1 before House coronavirus panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will face lawmakers’ questions over stalled coronavirus aid negotiations between the Trump administration and Congress next week when he testifies before a House of Representatives panel, lawmakers said on Wednesday.

The Sept. 1 hearing “will examine the urgent need for additional economic relief for children, workers, and families and the Administration’s implementation of key stimulus programs,” the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said in a statement.

The hearing will be Mnuchin’s first congressional testimony since talks on a new round of $1 trillion to $3 trillion in federal coronavirus aid collapsed in early August.

No intensive talks between Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have taken place since then.

President Donald Trump subsequently signed an executive order partially extending supplemental unemployment benefits and deferring payment of some payroll taxes, but implementation details are unclear.

The focus of congressional action also shifted to the U.S. Postal Service, with House Democrats last Saturday passing a $25 billion funding bill aimed at thwarting planned service cuts and ensuring delivery of mail-in ballots for the November election. Republicans have declared the measure dead.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Lawder; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Trump administration in talks with Oregon governor on protests: Pence

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is holding talks with Oregon’s governor about containing anti-racism protests in Portland after clashes with federal officers guarding facilities there, but President Donald Trump said on Wednesday federal agents would not be pulled out until the city was secured.

Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News Channel late on Tuesday the administration was talking with Oregon’s Democratic governor, Kate Brown. He did not provide details.

The Associated Press, citing an unidentified White House official, reported on Wednesday the Trump administration held out the possibility of drawing down the federal troop presence if the state stepped up its own enforcement.

Trump said at the White House the federal presence would remain for now.

“We’re not leaving until they secure their city. We told the governor, we told the mayor: Secure your city,” Trump said, repeating his threat to send more federal officers if the situation gets worse.

“The violence in Portland has got to stop. It is clear that the local leadership and the mayor of Portland are not willing to step up. That’s why we’re talking to Governor Kate Brown and the state of Oregon about working a way forward,” Pence told Fox.

The federal government has deployed teams of agents, at times heavily armed and clad in camouflage, to the Portland protests, drawing criticism from Democrats and civil liberties groups who allege excessive force and federal overreach by President Donald Trump.

Brown and Portland’s mayor, both Democrats, have complained they never asked for the federal agents and their presence was worsening the situation with protesters.

Talks with the governor’s office are in early stages and there is no agreement, the White House official told the AP on condition of anonymity.

Pence said the Trump administration was committed to protecting the federal courthouse in the downtown area and federal officials would get the protection they need.

Solidarity protests spread over the weekend to other U.S. cities.

Trump, a Republican seeking re-election in November, has sought to crack down on protests to highlight his focus on law and order amid unrest across the country after the May 25 killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Chris Reese and Alistair Bell)

Florida sets one-day record with over 15,000 new COVID cases, more than most countries

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Florida reported a record increase of more than 15,000 new cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours on Sunday, as the Trump administration renewed its push for schools to reopen and anti-mask protests were planned in Michigan and Missouri.

If Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the United States, Brazil and India, according to a Reuters analysis.

Florida’s daily increases in cases have already surpassed the highest daily tally reported by any European country during the height of the pandemic there. It has also broken New York state’s record of 12,847 new cases on April 10 when it was the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

The latest rise was reported a day after Walt Disney World in Orlando reopened with a limited number of guests who were welcomed with a host of safety measures, including masks and temperature checks.

Anti-mask activists in several states, including Florida and Michigan, have organized protests against local mandates, arguing that the measures infringe upon individual freedom.

Coronavirus infections are rising in about 40 states, according to a Reuters analysis of cases for the past two weeks compared with the prior two weeks. Nationally, the United States has broken global records by registering about 60,000 new cases a day for the last four days in a row, according to a Reuters tally. Hospitalizations and positive test rates are also rising in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

Florida reported a record amount of testing, with nearly 143,000 results announced on Sunday compared with an average of 68,000 for the prior seven days.

TRUMP DONS MASK

Facing a battered economy as he seeks re-election in November, President Donald Trump has pressured states to reopen shuttered businesses and schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Sunday that her department did not have its own safe reopening plans to promote, and each school district and state must devise their own plans based on their local coronavirus infection rates.

Health officials have pleaded with the public to wear masks to limit the spread of the virus, but the issue has become politically divisive in the United States unlike many other countries that have seen far lower rates of infection and death.

Seven months into the pandemic, Trump wore a mask for the first time in public when he visited a Washington D.C.-area military medical center on Saturday. He had previously refused to wear a mask in public or ask Americans to wear face coverings, saying it was a personal choice.

Many Americans still refuse to wear a mask, which health experts say help stop transmission of the virus that has killed more than 134,000 Americans.

Anti-mask activists organized a protest on Saturday at a grilled cheese restaurant and bar in Windermere, Florida, which is in Orange County about 12 miles (19 km) from Walt Disney World.

The restaurant, 33 & Melt, has become a focal point of tension after owner Carrie Hudson said she was not requiring customers to wear masks. County officials have mandated the use of masks in public since June 20.

During Saturday’s protest, no customers wore face coverings inside the restaurant. Agents from the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco arrived during the rally and served Hudson with a warning, according to a video.

“This is a virus that is very well contained,” said one of the demonstrators, anti-mask activist Tara Hill. “Everyone is responsible for their own health care decisions … We want our choices respected as well.”

In addition to a record 15,000 new cases on Sunday, more than four dozen hospitals in Florida reported that their intensive care units are full due to a surge in COVID-19 patients.

Hundreds were expected to attend a demonstration at the Michigan state capitol on Sunday afternoon, according to a Facebook event, to protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s order that everyone must wear a mask in public, except when outdoors and able to maintain social distance.

Protesters were also planning to gather outside city hall in Springfield, Missouri on Monday, where the city council was due to vote on a mask mandate in response to rising cases and a more than fourfold increase in Greene County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last month.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borters in New York and Octavio Jones in Windermere, Florida; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. judge delays first federal executions in 17 years

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge issued an injunction on Monday stopping what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years, scheduled for later in the day, to allow the continuation of legal challenges against the government’s lethal-injection protocol.

Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. district court in Washington ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to delay four executions the department had scheduled for July and August until further order of the court.

Efforts to resume capital punishment at the federal level were underway within a few months of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, ending a de facto moratorium that began under his predecessor, Barack Obama, while long-running legal challenges to lethal injections played out in federal courts.

Judge Chutkan has been overseeing cases brought by inmates on death row who argue that the Justice Department’s new one-drug protocol breaks various administrative and drug-control laws and is unconstitutional.

The Justice Department had planned to execute Daniel Lewis Lee on Monday in Terre Haute, Indiana, using lethal injection of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, for his role in the murders of three members of an Arkansas family, including an 8-year-old child, in 1996.

Some relatives of Lee’s victims opposed him receiving the death sentence while his accomplice in the murders, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison.

The department had scheduled two more executions for later in the week and a fourth in August, of Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson, all convicted of murdering children.

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented some of the lawyers of inmates on death row from visiting their clients. At least one employee involved in the executions tested positive for COVID-19, the Justice Department said over the weekend.

On Sunday, an appeals court rejected an argument by some relatives of Lee’s victims, who sued for a delay saying they feared that attending his execution could expose them to the coronavirus.

FEDERAL EXECUTIONS RARE

While Texas, Missouri and other states execute multiple condemned inmates each year, federal executions are rare: only three have occurred since 1963, all from 2001 to 2003, including the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

There are currently 62 people on federal death row in Terre Haute.

Opposition to the death penalty has grown in the United States, although 54 percent of Americans said they supported it for people convicted of murder, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.

In announcing the planned resumption of executions, Attorney General William Barr said last year: “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

A European Union ban on selling drugs for use in executions or torture has led to pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell such drugs to U.S. prison systems.

The Justice Department spent much of 2018 and 2019 building a secret supply chain of private companies to make and test its drug of choice, pentobarbital, which replaces the three-drug protocol used in previous executions. Some of the companies involved said they were not aware they were testing execution drugs, a Reuters investigation found last week.

As with Texas and other states, the Justice Department has commissioned a private pharmacy to make the drug.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney and Dan Grebler)

 

Trump administration awards contract to make COVID-19 drugs in U.S

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has awarded a $354 million contract to U.S.-based Phlow Corp to manufacture drugs being tested or used to fight the new coronavirus as well as some medicines that are in shortage.

The four-year contract, with an additional $458 million included as potential options, is a move by the administration to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign nations to support its drug supply chain.

Virginia-based Phlow Corp said it had started making pharmaceutical ingredients and finished dosage forms for over a dozen essential medicines to treat hospitalized patients with COVID-19-related illnesses.

Many of these medicines are in shortage and have previously been imported from other countries, the private company said in a statement. India and China account for a vast majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients used to make drugs in the United States.

“For far too long, we’ve relied on foreign manufacturing and supply chains for our most important medicines and active pharmaceutical ingredients while placing America’s health, safety, and national security at grave risk,” Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, said in a statement.

The funding immediately enabled Phlow to deliver to the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile over 1.6 million doses of five essential generic medicines used to treat COVID-19 patients, it said.

Phlow will partner with private sector entities that include Civica Rx, Ampac Fine Chemicals and the Medicines for All Institute to manufacture the medicines.

All pharmaceutical products by Phlow will be made in the United States, according to the company’s website.

The private company said it was also building the United States’ long-term, national stockpile to secure key ingredients used to manufacture the most essential medicines on U.S. soil.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

States ask Trump administration to pay laid off oil workers to plug abandoned wells

By Nichola Groom

(Reuters) – A coalition of U.S. oil-producing states has asked the Trump administration for stimulus funds to hire laid-off energy workers to plug abandoned wells, a proposal aimed at fending off unemployment while tackling a growing environmental problem, a spokeswoman for the group said.

The request from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a consortium of 31 states, comes as the coronavirus pandemic triggers a historic downturn in crude oil prices and fuel consumption, forcing the once-booming U.S. drilling industry to slash production and cut its workforce.

IOGCC spokeswoman Amy Childers said the group had recently asked the Department of Energy for stimulus funds “to help keep oil and gas crews working during the current crisis.” Childers did not say if a specific amount of funds was requested.

DOE officials would not comment on the proposal.

There are about 3 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States, about two-thirds of which are unplugged, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That number is likely to grow as the current market meltdown pushes hundreds of drilling companies toward bankruptcy, according to industry analysts, bankruptcy attorneys and state regulators.

Unplugged wells are typically abandoned by distressed operators and can pose serious environmental and safety risks if left to leach pollutants into the air and water. Most state governments lack sufficient funding to plug all the wells themselves, according to the IOGCC.

The push from U.S. states comes after Canada said last month that it would invest $1.2 billion to clean up abandoned wells in three provinces as part of a suite of measures to help the hard-hit oil and gas industry during the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. states would like to see a similar commitment from the Trump administration, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner said in an email.

“Oklahoma is certainly supportive of the idea around a stimulus similar to what has been done in Canada around plugging abandoned wells,” he said. Oklahoma has roughly 4,000 abandoned and unplugged wells, according to state records.

North Dakota’s top energy official, Lynn Helms, said at a public meeting last month that his state is seeking federal stimulus money to tackle its list of around 800 abandoned wells: “We’ll be asking for some of this money.”

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Marguerita Choy)

Exclusive: U.S. Navy destroyer in Caribbean sees significant coronavirus outbreak – officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer is believed to have a significant coronavirus outbreak on board as it carries out a counter-narcotics mission in the Caribbean, U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday, marking the latest challenge for the military in dealing with the virus.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that over a dozen sailors had tested positive for the virus. Given the size of ship, usually only a few hundred sailors, an outbreak like this is likely to cause concern and raise questions about whether it would have to return to the United States.

The cases on the ship appear to be the first onboard a ship currently underway at sea.

The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was in the Asia Pacific when it had an outbreak onboard, having to eventually dock in Guam. Nearly 850 out of the roughly 4,800 personnel on the carrier have tested positive on the Roosevelt.

The destroyer Kidd is part of the Trump administration’s deployment of more Navy warships and aircraft to the Caribbean to fight drug cartels. Announcing the deployment earlier this month, the Trump administration said the additional warships and aircraft were also aimed and preventing “corrupt actors” like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to smuggle more narcotics.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. economy will eventually reopen but with big changes: White House’s Kudlow

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is aiming to reopen the U.S. economy when the nation’s top health experts give the go-ahead, but Americans’ lives will be drastically different, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Tuesday.

Even when people in the United States return to work and school, they will likely have to stay home when they have signs of sickness, face more widespread and ongoing testing and submit to routine temperature taking, he told Politico in an interview.

“We are aware that things are going to be different,” he said. “That’s going to be a new feature of American life. And I don’t know how quickly that gets up and going, but it’s going to be very, very important because we obviously want to prevent any recurrences.”

It remains unclear when the country, which remains largely shuttered amid the ongoing outbreak that has crushed the economy, will resume more normal operations as a number of states approach their potential peak number of cases amid federal guidelines to isolate until the end of April.

Health officials have called on Americans to brace for a tough week as the death toll rises, but on Tuesday said there were optimistic signs ahead that mitigation efforts were helping to contain the highly contagious and potentially lethal virus.

“It is the health people that are going to drive the medical decisions, here, the medical-related decisions,” Kudlow told Politico, adding that he still believes “that in the next four to eight weeks we will be able to reopen the economy and that the power of the virus will be substantially reduced and we will be able to flatten the curve.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)