Woman suspected of sending ricin-filled envelope to White House to appear in court

(Reuters) – A woman arrested by U.S. authorities on suspicion of sending a ricin-filled envelope to the White House and to five other addresses in Texas will appear before a federal court in Buffalo, New York, later on Tuesday.

U.S. authorities arrested a woman on the Canada-U.S. border on Sunday, at the so-called Peace Bridge that runs between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo.

She is due to make her initial appearance at U.S. District Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT). She has yet not been officially identified.

The envelope was intercepted at a government mail center before it arrived at the White House, Canadian police said on Saturday.

Canadian police on Monday searched an apartment in a Montreal suburb linked to the woman. She has joint Canadian and French citizenship, two sources said.

The woman is suspected of sending a total of six letters, with the other five addressed to law enforcement and detention facilities in South Texas, according to a U.S. law enforcement source.

So far no links to political or terrorist groups have been found, but the investigation is ongoing, the source said.

The police department in Mission, Texas, received a suspicious letter within the last week, Art Flores, a spokesman for the department, said on Monday. The department did not open the envelope and turned it over to the FBI, he said.

Flores also said the Mission police had arrested the woman now believed to be held in Buffalo in early 2019.

Ricin is found naturally in castor beans but it takes a deliberate act to convert it into a biological weapon. Ricin can cause death within 36 to 72 hours from exposure to an amount as small as a pinhead. No known antidote exists.

(Reporting by Christinne Muschi in Longueuil, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Mark Hosenball in Washington, additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Canada police say six ricin-filled letters sent to U.S., including to White House

By Christinne Muschi

LONGUEUIL, Quebec (Reuters) – Canadian police on Monday searched an apartment in a Montreal suburb that is linked to the woman arrested for sending a ricin-filled envelope to the White House and to five other addresses in Texas, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said.

U.S. authorities arrested a woman at the U.S.-Canada border near Buffalo, New York, on Sunday on suspicion that she sent the deadly poison by mail, addressed to the White House. The woman has joint Canadian and French citizenship, two sources said on Monday.

“We believe a total of six letters were sent, one to the White House and five to Texas,” RCMP officer Charles Poirier said outside the modern brown and grey building where the search was taking place. “We can’t confirm that she lived in (the apartment), but it is connected to her.”

Poirier could not say where in Texas the envelopes were mailed, but the police department in Mission, Texas, received a suspicious letter within the last week, Art Flores, a spokesman for the department, said. The department did not open the envelope and turned it over to the FBI, he said.

Flores also said the Mission police had arrested the woman now believed to be held in Buffalo in early 2019, but said he did not have records related to the arrest and referred further inquiries to the FBI.

The woman’s name has yet to be released.

The FBI is investigating several suspected ricin letters sent to law enforcement and detention facilities in South Texas, a U.S. law enforcement source told Reuters.

So far they have not found any link to political or terrorist groups, but the investigation is ongoing, the source said.

The RCMP’s special Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives team is leading the operation, the RCMP said.

On Saturday, the RCMP confirmed the White House letter had apparently been sent from Canada and said the FBI had requested assistance.

The envelope was intercepted at a government mail center before it arrived at the White House.

Ricin is found naturally in castor beans but it takes a deliberate act to convert it into a biological weapon. Ricin can cause death within 36 to 72 hours from exposure to an amount as small as a pinhead. No known antidote exists.

(Reporting by Christinne Muschi in Longueuil, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Mark Hosenball in Washington, additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Chris Reese, Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)

Trump administration sending rapid COVID tests to states, CDC bars evictions

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – The Trump administration will send most of its newly purchased 150 million rapid COVID-19 tests to U.S. states for schools and critical services, a White House official said on Tuesday, as New York City pushed back reopening classrooms in a deal with union leaders.

The moves came as The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday issued a sweeping order temporarily halting landlords across the nation from evicting millions of tenants in what it said was an effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

The order covers all 43 million U.S. residential renters as long as they meet income eligibility requirements, although an administration official said the government does not expect an “overwhelming” use of the program.

The daily number of infections has been in decline across most of the United States in recent weeks, with 36,263 reported on Monday, less than half of the mid-July peak, according to a Reuters tally.

Exceptions include Midwest states such as South Dakota, where hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders gathered for a rally in August, and Iowa.

A total of more than 183,000 people have died so far from complications of COVID-19, including 32,647 in New York and nearly 16,000 in New Jersey, the U.S. states with the highest death tolls.

In announcing that the “overwhelming majority” of 150 rapid antigen tests purchased from Abbot Laboratories would be sent to state governors, U.S. Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Admiral Brett Giror said top priorities included day care centers and first responders.

The portable tests can deliver results within 15 minutes and will sell for $5. They require no additional equipment, and can use a less invasive nasal swab than traditional lab tests.

President Donald Trump has pushed for schools across the country to reopen classrooms, but many districts have ordered students to stay home and learn online.

Among them are Los Angeles and San Diego Counties, the second and third-largest school districts in the nation respectively.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said an agreement had been reached with reluctant teachers union leaders to reopen school buildings to students on September 21 as part of his plan for a mix of in-class and remote learning.

“What we’ve agreed to is to make sure that the health measures are in place, to make sure there is time for the appropriate preparation for our educators,” de Blasio said at a news briefing.

Earlier this week New Jersey and California eased some restrictions imposed in the face of the pandemic, allowing restaurants to begin limited indoor dining.

New York City’s mayor has ruled out allowing restaurants to serve diners indoors anytime soon.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Vishwadha Chander, Carl O’Donnell, Peter Szekely, Maria Caspani and David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Michael Perry)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

White House slams “corrupt” WHO

The White House pushed back on concerns expressed by the World Health Organization after a U.S. health official said a coronavirus vaccine might be approved without completing full trials.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that the administration of President Donald Trump would not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine because of the involvement of the WHO.

About 172 countries are engaging with the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine plan to ensure equitable access to vaccines, the organization has said.

“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

India reopens

India’s coronavirus infections rose to almost 3.8 million on Wednesday, as states continued to relax rules on movement despite the surge in cases.

The country reported 78,357 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to federal health data, taking total infections to 3,769,523. Some 66,333 people have died.

India’s total cases lag only the United States and Brazil, which it will overtake in days based on current trends.

Authorities in the capital New Delhi are due to meet to discuss the reopening of the city’s metro, despite fresh cases there sitting at a two-month high.

In Sydney, the show must go on

Australia’s most-populous state reported the biggest daily jump in coronavirus infections in two weeks on Wednesday but said there were no plans to cancel the New Year fireworks show over Sydney Harbor, as new cases nationally also ticked up.

New South Wales state reported 17 new cases, the biggest one-day jump since Aug. 12, while nationally the count rose to 109 cases from 85 a day earlier.

Victoria state remained the hardest-hit region with 90 cases, although this was well down from its daily peak of more than 700 in early August at the height of a second wave of infections.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state was pushing ahead with plans to host large events such as the New Years Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbor. “I think for a lot of people the fireworks represent hope.”

Elderly drive South Korea case surge

More than 40% of new coronavirus cases in South Korea are being found in people over the age of 60, contributing in part to a surge in the number of COVID-19 patients who are severely or critically ill, health authorities said on Wednesday.

The surge in cases over the past three weeks has depleted medical facilities, with less than 3% of hospital beds – or just nine – available for critical cases in greater Seoul, versus 22% about 10 days ago, the health ministry said.

South Korea is battling a second wave of infection, centered in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas which are home to 25 million people.

Pandemic ignites demand for home appliances

From sanitizing closets to customizable fridges, the coronavirus pandemic has fanned demand for home appliances – so much so that Samsung Electronics is adding warehouses and bringing popular products to more markets.

In particular, consumers have been willing to splurge on products that make their homes cleaner.

In Brazil and other emerging economies, households which once relied on maids are now investing in dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners, while Samsung says its overseas sales of air purifiers jumped more than five times in January-July compared to the same period last year.

Samsung’s AirDresser, a closet that steam cleans clothes and kills bacteria, has seen a spike in sales. Big fridges have also climbed in popularity as people cooking more often at home seek more freezer space.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Alison Williams)

White House says Senate Republicans may take up COVID-19 bill next week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Republicans are likely to take up their COVID-19 relief bill next week offering $500 billion in additional federal aid, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said on Tuesday, adding that the administration was still weighing help for U.S. airlines.

In an interview on CNBC, Meadows said he expected Senate Republicans’ legislation would be “more targeted” than House Democrats’ offer and could either be used as a building block or be passed on its own while negotiations continue.

Congressional negotiations on further federal intervention amid the novel coronavirus pandemic remain at a standstill after the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed its $3.4 trillion measure back in May.

Republican President Donald Trump and his administration have said they could support a $1 trillion bill. Democrats offered to split the difference with a roughly $2 trillion compromise, but there has been little movement.

Meadows told CNBC the administration “was nowhere close” to Democrats’ $2 trillion offer but added: “We’ll get there in the end.”

It was unclear whether Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell planned to take up the bill next week. Republican Senator John Barrasso said a conference call with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the White House was scheduled for later on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Asked about efforts to aid airlines, which have furloughed or laid off thousands of workers and curtailed flights as the outbreak had upended travel, Meadows said any aid “remains an open question” and that the administration is “looking closely at a number of executive actions.”

Meadows said he and Mnuchin met with Trump late on Monday and that the president tasked them “to get as creative as we can within the confines of the law to put forth as much money as we can so we can keep this economy going.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Morgan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump willing to sign a $1.3 trillion coronavirus relief bill: Meadows

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is willing to sign a $1.3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, a top Trump aide said on Friday, marking a $300 billion increase from an initial $1 trillion offer from the White House and Senate Republicans.

Three weeks to the day after talks on Capitol Hill broke down without a deal on legislation to help Americans suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Trump was “right now willing to sign something at $1.3 trillion.”

But the new White House amount is still $900 billion less than the $2.2 trillion that House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demanded that the Trump administration accept before negotiations can resume.

The $1.3 trillion has been offered in private, Meadows said. Negotiations have involved Pelosi, Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Meadows and Pelosi spoke by phone for 25 minutes on Thursday without a breakthrough, and afterward the Democrat said the conversation showed that the White House “continues to disregard the needs of the American people.”

Pelosi told reporters that Democrats could not go lower than $2.2 trillion, saying the figure would allow both sides to “meet in the middle.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and David Morgan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

White House says Trump could act unilaterally to avoid U.S. airline layoffs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump could take executive action to avoid massive layoffs at U.S. airlines, while the coronavirus pandemic weighs on air travel and talks on a new COVID-19 stimulus bill remain stall in Congress, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on Wednesday.

“We’re looking at other executive actions,” Meadows said in an online interview with Politico. “If Congress is not going to work, this president is going to get to work and solve some problems. So hopefully, we can help out the airlines and keep some of those employees from being furloughed.”

His remarks came a day after American Airlines said its workforce will shrink by 40,000, including 19,000 involuntary cuts, in October without an extension of government aid.

Meadows said he has spoken to American Airlines, as well as United Airlines, which has warned that 36,000 jobs are on the line, and to Delta Air Lines, which announced furloughs of nearly 2,000 pilots on Monday.

“So we’ve raised this issue. It would take a CARES package, I believe, to do it,” Meadows said, referring to a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed earlier this year.

Talks between Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer ended in early August, with top Democrats and the administration far apart on new legislation. Meadows told Politico that he is not optimistic that negotiations will restart soon.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

U.S. postmaster tells House committee he will resume cost-cutting after election

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Postmaster Louis DeJoy told lawmakers on Monday that he planned to resume some cost-cutting measures that have factored in widespread service delays, defying Democratic lawmakers who have sought to block his changes.

DeJoy told lawmakers that he will push to improve on-time deliveries after the Nov. 3 election, an effort that he suspended last week after a public backlash. He also said he would keep in place a management reshuffle he implemented after assuming his job in June.

“These two changes, creating our new on-time transportation network and designing an engaged functional organizational structure, will be the catalyst for the significant improvements in cost, performance and growth,” DeJoy told the House of Representatives Oversight Committee.

DeJoy has sought to assure Americans that widespread delays caused by his cost-cutting efforts would not cause their ballots to go uncounted in November, when up to half of U.S. voters could cast their ballots through the mail.

DeJoy, who has donated $2.7 million to President Donald Trump and other Republicans since 2016, has rejected charges of political interference. Trump has claimed, without evidence, that absentee voting is unreliable, even though he has voted that way himself.

DeJoy’s push to improve on-time deliveries forced trucks to leave sorting facilities even if mail was still on the loading dock, postal workers say, leading to widespread delays nationwide.

Postal Service documents released by Democrats show an 8% slowdown in first-class mail, largely occurring after he became postmaster in June.

“Whatever the cause of these massive delays, the American people want to go back to the way things were,” Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney said.

DeJoy has refused to bring back mail-sorting machines and mailboxes pulled from service in recent weeks, saying they were routine responses to changes in mail volume that were underway before he took office.

He said he was not responsible for some other service changes, such as reduced retail hours and overtime for Postal Service workers.

The White House has declined to say whether Trump will respect the results of the election if he loses.

Dozens of Democrats have called for DeJoy to be fired.

The House on Saturday voted to prevent DeJoy from taking action that would impede service until January, and also to provide $25 billion in funding. That legislation is not expected to advance in the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House has threatened to veto it. The Postal Service also opposes that legislation.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. House votes to block Postal reforms seen as threat to mail-in ballots

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives voted on Saturday to provide the cash-strapped Postal Service with $25 billion and block policy changes that have stirred concerns about mail-in balloting ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

The 257-150 vote sent the legislation dubbed the “Delivering for America Act” on to the Republican-controlled Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that the Senate would “absolutely not pass” the stand-alone bill.

The White House also strongly opposes the legislation and has said it would recommend that President Donald Trump veto the measure.

But more than two-dozen House Republicans broke ranks to join Democrats in approving the bill, during a rare Saturday session called by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the middle of the congressional August recess.

With mail-in voting expected to surge during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has alarmed Democrats by repeatedly denouncing mail-in ballots as a possible source of fraud. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently suspended cost-cutting measures that have slowed deliveries in recent weeks.

Democrats, who accuse Trump of trying to discourage mail-in balloting to gain an electoral advantage over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, cast themselves as defenders of a public that relies on the Postal Service for vital deliveries, including prescription drugs.

“The American people do not want anyone messing with the Post Office. They certainly do not want it to be politicized. They just want their mail, they want their medicines and they want their mail-in ballots delivered in a timely way. And that is exactly what our bill does,” said Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney, who authored the legislation.

Maloney also released a Postal Service document showing an 8% slowdown in the processing of first class mail, most of it occurring after DeJoy became postmaster in June.

Republican leaders denied that the Postal Service was in any danger and criticized Democrats for moving legislation forward before DeJoy could testify at a House hearing slated for Monday.

“This is the result of a legislative process only slightly less absurd than the conspiracies, insinuations and fabrications that gave rise to the purported need for it,” said Republican Representative James Comer.

The 26 Republicans who supported the measure represented more than one in 10 House Republican members. Another 23 Republicans did not vote.

As lawmakers prepared to vote, Trump took to Twitter to accuse Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of seeking unnecessary funding for the Postal Service and trying to pull off a “Universal Mail-In Ballot Scam.”

“Vote NO to the Pelosi/Schumer money wasting HOAX which is taking place now,” the president wrote.

DeJoy told a Senate committee on Friday that the Postal Service would deliver ballots “securely and on time” in the November election but said bigger changes could come after that.

In fact, the House bill would prevent DeJoy from taking any action that would impede service until after next January or the end of the coronavirus health emergency, whichever comes later.

“Our legislation is not just about the election. It’s about – surprise, surprise, Mr. Postmaster General – the coronavirus!” Pelosi told a news conference.

Pelosi insisted that congressional action is necessary, calling DeJoy’s assurances ambiguous and unsatisfactory. “His comments are one thing. His actions will be another. And that’s why we have this legislation,” she said.

She said Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting were part of a larger effort to suppress voting that also includes his recent call for law enforcement officers to monitor voting at polling places.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Alistair Bell, Aurora Ellis and Daniel Wallis)

As White House pushes ‘skinny’ COVID-19 bill, Democrat sees September action

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Wednesday pushed for Congress to take up a narrow coronavirus economic relief bill that Democrats have long rejected, while a leading Senate Democrat said real action may come soon after the Sept. 7 U.S. Labor Day holiday.

With the breakdown of talks between the White House and top congressional Democrats now in its 12th day, Senate Republicans are floating a “skinny” version of the $1 trillion bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a possible vote in the Republican-led chamber.

That bill ran into immediate opposition from both Democrats and McConnell’s own Republicans when he unveiled it late last month.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows called on Democrats to use Saturday’s vote on U.S. Postal Service legislation in the House of Representatives as a vehicle for coronavirus relief including stimulus checks for individuals and funding for personal protective equipment and schools.

“I think the outlook for a skinny deal is better than it’s ever been and yet we are still not there,” Meadows told reporters. “If Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi moves forward a single bill on postal … let’s add in the things we can agree upon.”

But leading Democrats have flatly rejected White House and Republican calls for narrow legislation, saying Americans need broad legislation and accusing Republicans of failing to grasp the severity of the crisis.

House Democratic leaders are resisting calls by some centrist Democrats, including Representative Derek Kilmer, to hold a separate vote Saturday on extending federal unemployment benefits.

“Saturday focus is postal,” a senior Democratic aide said, adding that there’s “still more consensus building in (the) caucus to be done.”

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said that he does not expect the White House to get serious about negotiations until after next week’s Republican presidential election convention, where he expects Republicans to tout President Donald Trump’s executive orders on coronavirus relief.

“Once we get out of the Republican convention, the week before Labor Day, you’re going to see serious negotiations restart. And that means we could do something possibly right after Labor Day, when we return,” Kaine said in an online interview with Politico.

The Senate is due to return from recess on Sept. 8 and the House on Sept. 14.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell, additional reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)