U.S. releases millions of COVID-19 doses and urges states to include more people

(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Tuesday it is releasing millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses it had been holding back for second shots and urged states to offer them to all Americans over age 65 or with chronic health conditions.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said during a news briefing that the U.S. pace of inoculations has risen to 700,000 shots per day and is expected to rise to 1 million per day within a week to 10 days.

Most states prioritized health-care workers and nursing home staff and residents for their first deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccines which began last month, following recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The process of inoculating those groups has been slow due partly to the complexity of giving them the vaccines.

CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield said on Tuesday that he “strongly recommends” that vaccines be made available to people over 65 and those younger than 65 who have other chronic health conditions.

The CDC last week made clear that states can move on to the next priority group – people older than 75 and essential workers – without finishing the first round of inoculations, but fewer than 20 states have done so. A handful of states including Texas, Florida and Georgia have started giving shots to people over 65.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru and Rebecca Spalding, Carl O’Donnell and Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alison Williams and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. hits Iran with fresh sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday blacklisted a Chinese company that makes elements for steel production, 12 Iranian steel and metals makers and three foreign-based sales agents of a major Iranian metals and mining holding company, seeking to deprive Iran of revenues.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department named the China-based company as Kaifeng Pingmei New Carbon Materials Technology Co Ltd. (KFCC), saying it specialized in the manufacture of carbon materials and provided thousands of metric tonnes of materials to Iranian steel companies between December 2019 and June 2020.

Among the 12 Iranian companies blacklisted are the Pasargad Steel Complex and the Gilan Steel Complex Co, both of which were designated under Executive Order 13871 for operating in the Iranian steel sector.

The others are: Iran-based Middle East Mines and Mineral Industries Development Holding Co (MIDHCO), Khazar Steel Co, Vian Steel Complex, South Rouhina Steel Complex, Yazd Industrial Constructional Steel Rolling Mill, West Alborz Steel Complex, Esfarayen Industrial Complex, Bonab Steel Industry Complex, Sirjan Iranian Steel and Zarand Iranian Steel Co.

The Treasury said it was also designating MIDHCO’s Germany-based subsidiary GMI Projects Hamburg GmbH, its China-based World Mining Industry Co Ltd and U.K.-based GMI Projects Ltd for being owned or controlled by MIDHCO.

“The Trump Administration remains committed to denying revenue flowing to the Iranian regime as it continues to sponsor terrorist groups, support oppressive regimes, and seek weapons of mass destruction,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu; writiing by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)

Bahrain open to imports from Israeli settlements

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Bahrain’s imports from Israel will not be subject to distinctions between products made within Israel and those from settlements in occupied territory, the Bahraini trade minister said on Thursday, drawing a rebuke from the Palestinians.

Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates formalized ties with Israel on Sept. 15, in a U.S.-sponsored deal billed by the Gulf countries as being made possible by Israel’s shelving of a plan to annex West Bank settlements. Most world powers deem them illegal.

But Bahrain’s Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid al-Zayani voiced openness to settlement imports.

“We will treat Israeli products as Israeli products. So we have no issue with labelling or origin,” he told Reuters during a visit to Israel.

Under European Union guidelines, settlement products should be clearly labelled as such when exported to EU member countries. The Trump administration last month removed U.S. customs distinctions between goods made within Israel and in settlements.

Al-Zayani’s remarks were condemned by Wasel Abu Youssef of the Palestine Liberation Organization as “contradicting international and U.N. resolutions”.

He urged Arab countries not to import products from within Israel, either, in order to prevent it “stretching into Arab markets to strengthen its economy”.

The stateless Palestinians hope to create their own independent country in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but the issue of Jewish settlements on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War has long been a stumbling block in the now-stalemated peace process.

They now fear that the warming ties between Gulf states and Israel, along with Trump’s strong support for Israel, have badly damaged their aspirations.

It was not clear what other Gulf states’ positions on imports from the settlements were. But an Israeli winery that uses grapes grown on the occupied Golan Heights said in September that its labels would be sold in the UAE.

Israel expects trade with Bahrain worth around $220 million in 2021, not including possible defense and tourism deals.

Al-Zayani said Bahraini carrier Gulf Air was tentatively scheduled to begin flights to Tel Aviv on Jan. 7, with shipping to follow.

“We are fascinated by how integrated IT and innovation sector in Israel has been embedded in every facet of life,” he said.

He played down speculation in Israel that its citizens visiting Bahrain could be at risk of reprisals for the assassination last Friday of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, which Tehran blamed on Israeli agents.

“We don’t see any threats, and therefore we don’t see any requirement for additional security or special treatment for Israelis,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

GM hits reverse on Trump effort to bar California emissions rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – General Motors said on Monday it was reversing course and will no longer back the Trump administration’s effort to bar California from setting its own emissions rules in an ongoing court fight.

GM Chief Executive Mary Barra said in a letter to environmental groups it was “immediately withdrawing from the preemption litigation and inviting other automakers to join us.”

The dramatic rejection of Trump came as GM sought to work with President-elect Joe Biden, who has made boosting electric vehicles (EVs) a top priority. The Detroit automaker has laid out an ambitious strategy to boost EV sales and last week said it will increase spending on EVs and autonomous vehicles by 35% from previous disclosed plans.

The announcement reflects corporate America’s move to engage quickly with the incoming Democratic administration.

Barra said she believes “the ambitious electrification goals of the president-elect, California, and General Motors are aligned, to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions.”

The White House did not immediately comment.

In October 2019, GM joined Toyota Motor Corp, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and other automakers in backing the Trump administration in its bid to bar California from setting its own fuel efficiency rules or zero-emission requirements for vehicles.

California and 22 other states and environmental groups challenged the Trump administration’s determination that federal law bars California from setting stiff tailpipe emission standards and zero-emission vehicle mandates.

Barra was among corporate and labor leaders that met virtually last week with Biden.

Speaking on Monday, Barra said she was “confident that the Biden Administration, California, and the U.S. auto industry, which supports 10.3 million jobs, can collaboratively find the pathway that will deliver an all-electric future.”

The Trump administration in March finalized a rollback of fuel efficiency standards to require 1.5% annual increases in efficiency through 2026, well below the 5% yearly boosts in Obama administration rules it discarded.

Other automakers, such as Ford Motor Co, Honda Motor Co and Volkswagen AG, which announced a deal with California in 2019 on emissions requirements that was finalized in August, did not intervene on the administration’s side in the California fight.

Toyota said Monday that “given the changing circumstances, we are assessing the situation, but remain committed to our goal of a consistent, unitary set of fuel economy standards applicable in all 50 states.”

Other automakers backing the Trump administration include Hyundai Motor Co , Mazda, Nissan Motor Co, Kia Motors Corp and Subaru Co.

GM had drawn the ire of many California officials and environmental groups.

Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign, said “GM tried to prevent California from protecting its people from tailpipe pollution. They were wrong. Now the other automakers must follow GM and withdraw support for (President Donald) Trump’s attack on clean cars.”

In September, California Governor Newsom said the state planned to ban the sale of new gasoline powered passenger cars and trucks starting in 2035 in a bold move to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California is the largest U.S. auto market, accounting for about 11% of all U.S. vehicle sales, and many states choose to adopt its green vehicle mandates.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)

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)