Trump urges Republicans to go for ‘higher numbers’ on coronavirus relief

By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Trump urged his fellow Republicans Wednesday to go for “much higher numbers” in a coronavirus aid bill, as a stalemate continued in Washington over whether to approve more economic relief from the crisis ahead of Nov. 3 elections.

The Senate’s number two Republican, John Thune, reacted cautiously to Trump’s appeal on Twitter.

The standoff dates to mid-May, when the Democratic-majority House of Representatives approved $3.4 trillion in new aid, including unemployment benefits, money for schools, the U.S. Postal Service, and testing.

The Senate’s Republican leaders countered with a $1 trillion plan, but some of their own members balked at that. Last week they put a $300 billion bill up for a vote that Democrats blocked as insufficient.

“Go for the much higher numbers, Republicans, it all comes back to the USA anyway (one way or another!)” Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

Congress and the White House approved more than $3 trillion worth of coronavirus relief measures earlier this year.

Thune, speaking after Trump’s tweet, said proposals had to stay in a “realistic” range. Noting the original $1 trillion Senate Republican plan, he said: “As you go upwards from there you start … losing Republican support pretty quickly.”

A $1.5 trillion compromise floated Tuesday by the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of dozens of centrist lawmakers, was attacked by members of both parties, including leading House Democrats. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, however, said it deserved consideration.

Thune said there was some Republican interest in the $1.5 trillion package, but that the $500 trillion it included in aid for state and local governments would be hard for Republican senators to swallow. Meadows told reporters Wednesday that the state and local issue was probably the biggest obstacle to a deal.

Another Republican senator said Wednesday he thought a deal of around $1.5 trillion or $1.7 trillion was possible.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has offered to drop her aid demand to about $2.2 trillion. She faces growing pressure from moderate Democrats to take another vote on COVID-19 relief, but told MSNBC Wednesday that the way forward depends on the willingness of the White House to accept a bill large enough to address the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we want is to put something on the floor that will become law. And so that requires a negotiation,” she said. “We think they (the White House) should come to the table.”

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate moves into late-stage trial

By Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – Moderna Inc. said on Monday it had started a late-stage trial to test the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, the first such study under the Trump administration’s program to speed development of measures against the novel coronavirus.

News of the study, which will test the response to the vaccine in 30,000 adults who do not have the respiratory illness, pushed shares in Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna up more than 8% before the bell.

The federal government is supporting Moderna’s vaccine project with its Operation Warp Speed program. Moderna has received nearly $1 billion from the U.S. government, which has chosen it as one of the first to enter large-scale human trials.

More than 150 coronavirus vaccine candidates are in various stages of development, with 23 prospects in human trials across the globe and Moderna’s candidate among the farthest along in development.

“Having a safe and effective vaccine distributed by the end of 2020 is a stretch goal, but it’s the right goal for the American people,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said in a release from the NIH announcing the start of the study.

The large late-stage trial is designed to evaluate the safety of Moderna’s mRNA-1273 and determine if the vaccine can prevent symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses.

The study also seeks to answer if the vaccine can prevent death caused by COVID-19 and if just one dose can prevent symptomatic COVID-19.

Trial volunteers will receive two injections about 28 days apart, with volunteers randomly assigned to receive either two 100 micro gram injections of mRNA-1273 or two shots of a saline placebo. The study is blinded, so the investigators and the participants will not know who is assigned to which group.

Results of a small early-stage study published earlier this month showed volunteers who got two doses of Moderna’s vaccine had high levels of virus-killing antibodies that exceeded the average levels seen in people who had recovered from COVID-19.

Moderna said it remains on track to deliver about 500 million doses a year, and possibly up to 1 billion doses a year, beginning 2021.

Brokerage BMO Capital Markets said a U.S. supply deal with Moderna for its vaccine candidate is inevitable, adding that there likely will be deals with other governments as well.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Lewis Krauskopf and Steve Orlofsky)

Federal judge blocks Trump administration’s easing of rule on methane emissions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal judge in California late on Wednesday blocked a rollback by the Trump administration of a rule on slashing emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Rogers of the Northern District of California said in her ruling that the administration’s easing of the Waste Prevention Rule was contrary to the Interior Department’s mandate to ensure safe and responsible drilling on public lands, and failed to consider scientific findings relied upon by previous presidential administrations.

The Obama-era rule was meant to curb emissions from flaring and venting of natural gas and to reduce leaks. The Obama administration said the rule would fight climate change and wasted fuel costs.

The ruling was the latest blow to the Trump administration, which has pursued a policy of energy dominance, or maximizing fossil-fuel production while slashing regulations that protect the environment. The courts have also recently blocked pipelines, Keystone XL and Dakota Access.

Methane, an invisible gas, is more efficient in trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. But it lingers for less time in the atmosphere, so reducing methane emissions could help rein in the worst impacts from climate change and warming.

The Interior Department eased the rule in September 2018, by reducing the amount of methane required to be captured at drilling locations and relaxing measures on well completions and leak detections. David Bernhardt, now secretary of the interior, said at the time the rule would “encumber energy production” and prevent creation of jobs.

Leaks from U.S. oil and gas drilling, along with a boom in agricultural production worldwide, are driving up global emissions of methane, two studies showed this week.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the ruling was crucial to addressing air pollution generated from his state’s public lands.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Harvard, MIT seek temporary halt to Trump administration rule on international students

By Mimi Dwyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration on Wednesday, seeking to block a new rule that would bar foreign students from remaining in the United States if their universities move all courses online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The two universities filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston asking for an emergency temporary restraining order on the new directive issued by the government on Monday.

“We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students – and international students at institutions across the country – can continue their studies without the threat of deportation,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in a statement addressed to the Harvard community.

The lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT, two of the most elite U.S. universities, is the first to challenge the order that could force tens of thousands of foreign students to leave the country if their schools switch fully to remote learning.

Harvard had announced it would hold all classes online in the coming fall term.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing schools across the country to re-open in the fall.

The Trump administration announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the logistical challenges of safely resuming classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated around the world, and surges in the United States, especially among young people.

There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency rule said most students on F-1 and M-1 visas could stay if their programs were in person or offered a mix of online and in-person instruction.

In the wake of the announcement, students, professors, and universities were scrambling to figure out exactly who would be affected by the rule and come up with ways to comply without having to leave the country. On Twitter, professors across the country offered to teach outdoor in-person independent study courses for affected students.

The ICE policy change marked an unexpected reversal of exceptions to the rules limiting online learning for foreign students when colleges and universities in March rushed to shutter campuses and move to virtual classes as the pandemic forced lockdowns.

ICE “proceeded without any indication of having considered the health of students, faculty, university staff, or communities,” the complaint said.

The suit alleges the government skirted the proper rule making process and is asking the court to strike it down.

Judge Allison Burroughs, appointed by former President Barack Obama, is assigned to hear the case. In 2017, she ordered a halt to Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, a policy that was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in New York; Additional reporting by Dan Burns and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Bernadette Baum)

Kanye West breaks ranks with Trump, vows to win presidential race

(Reuters) – Rapper Kanye West signaled he no longer supported U.S. President Donald Trump and said he would enter the presidential race to win it, according to an interview published on Wednesday.

West, previously a vocal supporter of Trump, announced on Saturday that he would run for president in 2020.West and his reality TV star wife Kim Kardashian West have visited Trump in the White House.

“I am taking the red hat off, with this interview,” West told Forbes magazine, referring to Trump’s trademark red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. “Like anything I’ve ever done in my life, I’m doing (this) to win.”

He said he would run under a new banner – the Birthday Party.

There was no record of West filing any official paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. The deadline to add independent candidates to the ballot has not yet passed in many states.

West denied that his aim was to split the Black vote and hurt the chances of Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. It was “a form of racism and white supremacy” to suggest all Black people should support the Democrats, he said.

Trump, who hosted Kanye West in a widely publicized visit to the Oval Office in 2018, said the rapper’s candidacy “would be a great trial run” and that he had a “real voice,” according to an interview Tuesday with Real Clear Politics news website.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley on Wednesday called Kanye’s announcement “a scathing indictment of the Democrat Party, not just their policies on abortion, the Planned Parenthood, but also the policies that disproportionately affected African Americans in a negative way.”

West told Forbes he believed “Planned Parenthoods have been placed inside cities by white supremacists to do the Devil’s work.” The group provides reproductive health care and education, with most of that being preventive care.

The rapper also said he had been ill in February with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and would be suspicious of any vaccines developed to prevent the infection. Reiterating false theories that link vaccines with child developmental disorders, he said: “So when they say the way we’re going to fix COVID is with a vaccine, I’m extremely cautious.”

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Graff)

Pence says looking at other venues for Trump Tulsa rally

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Officials are considering other venues in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for President Donald Trump’s first campaign rally since the coronavirus shutdown, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, as virus cases climb in Oklahoma and other states.

Pence acknowledged the health risks of bringing so many people together – the campaign said it had received more than 1 million ticket requests – during an interview with Fox News.

“It’s all a work in progress. We’ve had such an overwhelming response that we’re also looking at another venue. We’re also looking at outside activities, and I know the campaign team will keep the public informed as that goes forward,” Pence said. “But it’s one of the reasons that we’re going to do the temperature screening and we’re going to provide hand sanitizers and provide masks for people that are attending.”

Pence said officials were discussing options with Oklahoma’s governor.

The campaign rally will be Trump’s first since early March, when the coronavirus pandemic led to quarantines and the shuttering of the U.S. economy. Trump is seeking re-election in November against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“One of the reasons we chose Oklahoma is because Oklahoma has done such a remarkable job in reopening their state,” Pence said.

However, coronavirus infections are on the rise in the state, particularly around Tulsa. The city’s chief health officer has expressed concern about holding such a large indoor and said he wished the rally could be postponed.

An editorial in Tulsa’s largest newspaper said the rally will risk lives and bring no benefit to the city. It called Trump “a divisive figure” who is likely to attract protests and said there was no reason to think a rally would affect the November election in the state, which is heavily Republican.

“This is the wrong time and Tulsa is the wrong place for a Trump rally,” the Tulsa World said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he will sign police reform executive order on Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

Trump calls for shift in coronavirus strategy to allow for end to lockdowns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday called for a shift in strategy against the coronavirus pandemic to focus resources on protecting “high-risk populations” as he pushes for a total end to stay-at-home orders in states throughout the country.

“The best strategy to ensure the health of our people moving forward is to focus our resources on protecting high-risk populations, like the elderly and those in nursing homes, while allowing younger and healthy Americans to get back to work immediately,” Trump said in remarks at the White House Rose Garden.

More than 108,000 Americans have died and more than 1.8 million have been sickened in the United States in the pandemic.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Does drug touted by Trump work on COVID-19? After data debacle, we still don’t know

By Kate Kelland and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists are resuming COVID-19 trials of the now world-famous drug hydroxychloroquine, as confusion continues to reign about the anti-malarial hailed by U.S. President Donald Trump as a potential “game-changer” in fighting the pandemic.

The renewed research push follows widespread criticism of the quality of data in a study published by The Lancet, an influential medical journal, which found high risks associated with the treatment.

The World Health Organization, which had last week paused trials when The Lancet study showed the drug was tied to an increased risk of death in hospitalized patients, said on Wednesday it was ready to resume trials.

The WHO’s change of mind is “a wise decision”, according to Martin Landray, co-lead scientist on the Recovery trial, the world’s largest research project into existing drugs that might be repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients.

“What all this episode really reflects is that without randomized trials, there is huge uncertainty,” said Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University.

Randomized studies are the gold standard in research, randomly assigning a treatment to one group of people and a dummy to another group so that the two can be compared. The Lancet study was a “retrospective observational” study, using a data set from an analytics firm, to see what effects the drug had had on some COVID-19 patients, compared to those who did not get it.

The WHO’s about-face came after nearly 150 doctors signed a letter to the Lancet outlining concerns about the study’s conclusions. The journal itself published an expression of concern about the research this week, saying “serious scientific questions have been brought to our attention”.

Some scientists said the episode had set back efforts to determine whether hydroxychloroquine was an effective or risky treatment for COVID-19, as some other trials around the world had also halted following the WHO’s initial decision to pause.

“It’s really impacted quite negatively the sort of studies that would be able to say if there is a benefit or harm,” Will Schilling told Reuters. He is co-lead on the UK COPCOV study which was paused last week, just days after its launch.

“At the moment, we don’t really know. That’s why these studies are needed, and now they’ve been slightly waylaid by all of this.”

Scientists acknowledge, though, that studies are being conducted at break-neck speed while garnering unprecedented levels of attention that could give findings unwarranted weight.

THE PRESIDENT’S TAKING IT

The drug has hit global headlines in large part because of its promotion by Trump, who said in March it could be a game-changer and last month revealed he was taking it himself, even after his own Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had advised that its efficacy and safety were unproven.

In the absence of clear scientific evidence, some authorities and consumers are buying up stocks of the drug in case it turns out to be effective. Britain, for example, is spending millions of pounds bulk-buying tablets.

Hydroxychloroquine has been shown in laboratory experiments earlier this year to be able to block the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, but this effect has not been replicated in rigorous trials in people.

A separate study by University of Minnesota scientists of the potential preventative effect of hydroxychloroquine against the new coronavirus found it did not protect patients who had been given it prior to being exposed to COVID-19.

Here again, though, the waters have been muddied. The New England Journal of Medicine, which published the research on Wednesday, noted in an editorial, however, that there were limits to the scope of the study.

The University of Minnesota study also was limited in the scenario it tested, said Richard Chaisson, a Johns Hopkins researcher who is running a separate trial of the drug to determine whether it is effective in treating patients with moderate to severe versions of COVID-19.

There is still a need for robust studies looking at whether it might work in low doses before or after exposure, as well as against mild cases, moderate cases, hospitalized patients and seriously ill ones, he added.

WHO’S KNOCK-ON EFFECTS

The WHO decision to halt its trials last week had knock-on effects across the drug industry and medical profession.

French drugmaker Sanofi temporarily stopped enrolling recruits to its own study and pulled supplies of the drug for treatment. The UK COPCOV trial, aimed at establishing if hydroxychloroquine can prevent healthcare workers from contracting COVID-19, hit pause just a week after its launch.

Those studies are yet to resume.

Several European countries also have stopped using the drug for treating some COVID-19 patients.

Some trials have, however, continued despite the WHO’s move.

Novartis has not changed course with its study and the UK Recovery trial paused only briefly before moving ahead after safety checks. It is still enrolling patients and has signed up 4,500 recruits so far – 1,500 patients who are on the drug and around 3,000 who aren’t.

In short, the jury’s still out on hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, according to Landray at Recovery.

“People can quote data, people can quote experts, but there is continuing huge uncertainty,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Josephine Mason and Peter Henderson; Editing by Pravin Char)

Senate opens controversial probe of Trump-Russia investigation

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican allies of President Donald Trump attacked the FBI’s probe of his 2016 presidential campaign on Wednesday, but failed to get a key witness to agree that former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was unfounded.

At the opening hearing in a Republican-led Senate probe that Democrats called politically motivated, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended his 2017 decision to appoint Mueller to investigate Russian election interference and numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I still believe it was the right decision under the circumstances,” Rosenstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“All the charges that were filed were legitimate,” he said when asked about cases filed against a half-dozen campaign officials and Trump associates.

The committee is examining the surveillance of Trump campaign officials during the FBI investigation code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to Mueller’s appointment.

Trump and his Republican allies say the president’s campaign was treated unfairly by officials involved, including former FBI Director James Comey.

“This investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, was one of the most corrupt, biased, criminal investigations in the history of the FBI,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said.

But the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, warned that Senate Republicans were trying to help Trump attack both the Russia probe that overshadowed his presidency and Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee who was vice president at the time of Trump’s campaign.

“Congress should not conduct politically motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate,” she said.

The Justice Department inspector general found numerous errors in the Crossfire Hurricane probe, including mistakes in seeking surveillance approval, but no political bias.

Rosenstein said he was unaware of problems with warrants allowing surveillance, saying he would not have given his approval had he known at the time.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; editing by Grant McCool, Alistair Bell and Tom Brown)