Rosenstein to testify in Senate on Trump-Russia probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A key figure behind the U.S. investigation into links between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign will testify next week before a Republican-led Senate committee examining the origins of the probe, the panel said on Wednesday.

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2017, will testify on June 3 as part of a Senate Judiciary Committee examination of an FBI probe of Trump campaign officials code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to the Mueller investigation.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said Rosenstein would offer “new revelations” about federal surveillance practices.

Trump and his Republican allies claim the probe was intended to undermine his candidacy and presidency. In December, a Justice Department watchdog found evidence of numerous errors but no political bias when the FBI opened the probe.

“Even the best law enforcement officers make mistakes and … some engage in willful misconduct,” Rosenstein said in a statement on Wednesday.

“We can only hope to maintain public confidence if we correct mistakes, hold wrongdoers accountable and adopt policies to prevent problems from recurring,” he added.

The Rosenstein hearing is set a day before the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote whether to subpoena Rosenstein, former FBI Director James Comey and other former top officials from the Obama administration, as part of its probe.

The panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, has sharply criticized the committee investigation as an effort to attack Trump political rival Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.

The Mueller probe found that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy and that the Trump campaign had numerous contacts with Russians. But Mueller concluded that there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

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Trump threatens to move Republican convention over COVID-19 restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Monday that he may move the Republican National Convention set for August from North Carolina if the event faces state social distancing restrictions due to the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to halt campaign rallies. Some have raised concerns that the large formal nominating conventions that are typically packed with delegates could raise safety issues.

Trump said on Twitter that if Democratic Governor Roy Cooper does not immediately answer “whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied,” then the party will find “with all of the jobs and economic development it brings, another Republican National Convention site.”

The conventions include prime-time TV speeches that serve to kick off the final sprint toward the November presidential election. The Republican event is set to start Aug. 24 in Charlotte.

Cooper’s office said in a statement Monday that “state health officials are working with the RNC and will review its plans as they make decisions about how to hold the convention in Charlotte. North Carolina is relying on data and science to protect our state’s public health and safety.”

Later, Trump tweeted he had “zero interest” in moving the convention to his Trump National Doral golf resort near Miami. “Ballroom is not nearly big enough,” he wrote.

In October, Trump abandoned plans to host the G7 summit at Doral after Democrats and others had decried the selection as evidence of the president misusing his office for personal gain.

Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News it was “absolutely essential” that Cooper give a “swift response” or the convention could be moved to a state “farther along on reopening.”

The Democratic National Convention, which was postponed by a month because of the coronavirus, is set to begin Aug. 17 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

A spokeswoman for the DNC event said earlier this month the convention would follow health officials’ “guidance to determine how many people can safely gather in Milwaukee this August.”

Trump won North Carolina by 3.7% in 2016. Biden’s campaign thinks the state is one of many that went for Trump that are up for grabs this year.

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Trump arrives in Michigan to visit Ford plant amid political tensions

YPSILANTI, Mich. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump traveled on Thursday to the crucial U.S. election battleground state of Michigan to visit a Ford Motor Co (F.N) plant amid hostility with its Democratic governor over how quickly to reopen its economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump, a Republican seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has urged states to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions so the battered U.S. economy can recover even as public health experts warn that premature relaxation of restrictions could lead to a second wave of infections.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, seen as a potential vice presidential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is facing a backlash from some critics against her stay-at-home orders in a state hit hard by the last recession. Trump has encouraged anti-lockdown protests against Whitmer held in Michigan’s capital.

Trump arrived in the city of Ypsilanti to tour a Ford plant that has been recast to produce ventilators and personal protective equipment and to discuss vulnerable populations hit by the virus in a meeting with African-American leaders.

It is not clear if Trump, who has said he is taking a drug not proven for the coronavirus after two White House staffers tested positive in recent weeks, will wear a protective face mask. He has declined to wear one on previous factory tours despite guidelines for employees to do so.

When asked by reporters before leaving the White House if he planned to don a face covering, Trump said, “I don’t know. We’re going to look at it. A lot of people have asked me that question.”

On Tuesday, Ford reiterated its policy that all visitors must wear masks but did not say if it would require Trump to comply.

Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan over its plan for expanded mail-in voting, saying without offering evidence that the practice could lead to voter fraud – though he later appeared to back off the threat.

Whitmer told a news conference she spoke with Trump on Wednesday and he pledged federal support for flood recovery, as rising floodwaters have caused more trouble in Michigan, displacing thousands of residents near the city of Midland.

“I made the case that, you know, we all have to be on the same page here. We’ve got to stop demonizing one another and really focus on the fact that the common enemy is the virus. And now it’s a natural disaster,” Whitmer told CBS News, describing her conversation with Trump.

Regarding Trump’s funding threat, Whitmer said, “Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and I think something that is unacceptable.”

Biden also criticized Trump, saying in a statement, “In the wake of disaster, Donald Trump once again showed us who he is – threatening to pull federal funding and encouraging division.”

Whitmer on Thursday moved to further reopen Michigan’s economy through a series of executive orders.

Trump and Ford have been at odds over its decision last year to back a deal with California for stricter vehicle fuel economy standards than his administration had proposed. Trump first sparred with Ford during the 2016 campaign over the automaker’s investments in Mexico and had vowed to slap hefty tariffs taxes on its vehicles made in Mexico.

Trump won in Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do since 1988. Trump’s handful of trips out of Washington since the pandemic went into full force have focused on election battleground states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania.

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Senate panel backs Trump nominee Ratcliffe to be top U.S. spy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted along party lines on Tuesday to back President Donald Trump’s nomination of Republican Representative John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence.

The committee said the vote was 8-7, along partly lines, with Trump’s fellow Republicans backing the nominee and committee Democrats opposed.

His confirmation vote in the full Senate is expected to be close. Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 53-to-47-seat majority and rarely break from the president, but Ratcliffe has not won over Democrats.

No floor vote has been scheduled. It could take place as soon as this week, depending on how soon Republican leaders determine whether they have the 51 votes needed for confirmation.

Trump first said he would nominate Ratcliffe, a member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, to be director of national intelligence last year. The nomination did not go forward amid questions about his lack of experience and partisan reputation, but the Republican president nominated him again this year.

Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said he looked forward to voting for Ratcliffe’s confirmation.

Separately, Rubio told reporters on Tuesday that he had received a waiver that allowed him to remain chairman of the Senate’s Small Business Committee while temporarily leading the intelligence panel.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on Monday that Rubio would serve as acting intelligence chairman after his fellow Republican, Senator Richard Burr, said he would step aside during a federal investigation of his stock trades.

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Trump hands Cory Gardner election year wins

The meeting occurred 11 weeks ago, in a bygone time before coronavirus killed 90,000 Americans, before the stock market plummeted, before the layoffs and the isolation and the closures.

Before all of that, President Donald Trump sat in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 3 with Sen. Cory Gardner as the two Republicans, surrounded by Cabinet officials, other senators and staff, discussed whether to fully finance the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a priority of conservationists for decades.

In Gardner’s recounting, he showed Trump an iPhone photo of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — “that’s gorgeous,” the president responded — and statistics about the economic benefits of outdoor recreation. At one point, Trump, who routinely and favorably compares himself to other presidents, stared up at a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt and said, “This would be the biggest (conservation) victory since Teddy Roosevelt and beyond,” according to Gardner.

It was then that Trump flip-flopped on LWCF. The president who had tried to drastically cut the program now wanted it fully funded. As Trump wrote on Twitter that day, it was “ALL thanks” to Gardner and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

“Somebody somehow worked a miracle because now all of a sudden a White House that hasn’t been for the Land and Water Conservation Fund — I think zeroed it out, actually — is now seeing the light,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and longtime LWCF advocate, said snidely the next day.

To his supporters, Gardner is a miracle worker in a deeply divided Washington, achieving wins for the people of Colorado by working with unlikely allies. But others see a senator who has been handed policy victories by a mercurial president using the weight of the federal government to improve Gardner’s re-election chances. They bristle each time Trump gives the credit to Gardner.

“Cory’s gotten more than advanced notice,” said a Democratic staffer within the Colorado congressional delegation, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The (Trump) administration has shut off interaction with most members of the delegation regarding these projects and efforts that we’ve been working on for years and years and years.”

“I think it’s a little desperate, but it’s understandable because they’re in a tough spot in the state — both Trump and Gardner,” the staffer added. “We’ve never seen anything remotely close to this in terms of political expediency.”

Both sides are correct. Gardner has convinced Trump to approve policies that Democrats have failed to achieve for years, even decades. And Trump has done so, at least in part, because he wants the Republican from Yuma to be re-elected.

“Senator Gardner’s ability to deliver for Colorado this week, this month, or this year is nothing new, he’s been getting things done for this state his entire career,” said Jerrod Dobkin, a spokesman for Gardner’s campaign.

Last year, Gardner was given advance notice that Bureau of Land Management headquarters would move to Grand Junction, allowing him to announce it before the agency did. In February, it was Gardner who announced funding for a Pueblo-area water pipeline had been approved. Last week, it was announced that Colorado Springs would be the temporary home of U.S. Space Command, an announcement Trump teased at a campaign rally with Gardner.

Prominent Colorado Democrats had also worked on all of those issues but it was often Gardner who was allowed to first announce the Trump administration’s decision and claim the first news headlines. Democrats publicly issued statements of support and kept their criticisms of Gardner private — with one exception.

On April 8, Trump announced, via Twitter, that the federal government would send 100 ventilators to Colorado “at the request of Senator Gardner.” Gov. Jared Polis had requested far more than 100 ventilators and claimed days before Trump’s announcement that the federal government blocked Colorado’s attempt to buy 500 ventilators. Some Democrats could not bite their tongues on that day.

State Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat who does not have a reputation for bombast, called Trump’s move a form of racketeering. “The White House is keeping 80% of the ventilators they stole from Colorado — and bestowing 20% of what they stole as a political favor,” she said then.

“I think this thing that happened with Senator Gardner and President Trump is very disturbing,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat and the dean of Colorado’s congressional delegation, in remarks to CNN. DeGette said the announcement appeared to be a political favor to Gardner, and 10 senators have since requested an investigation into Trump’s alleged ventilator favoritism.

Gardner and his allies say such Democratic opposition is election year politicking. When asked March 5 about accusations Trump was supporting LWCF funding as a political favor, Gardner said his critics will reflexively oppose anything he supports.

“My political opponents, if I declared the entire state of Colorado a wilderness area, they’d still oppose it. Ask John Hickenlooper or Andrew Romanoff if they’d vote yes on my bill,” Gardner said of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which would fully fund LWCF and end a national park maintenance backlog.

“Of course John Hickenlooper supports funding LWCF,” said Alyssa Roberts, a Hickenlooper spokesperson, when asked Monday, “and he’d go further by passing the CORE Act and acting on climate change, two Colorado priorities that Senator Gardner refuses to address as he rubber-stamps the Trump administration’s largest rollback of protected public lands in U.S. history.”

Romanoff said he would vote for Gardner’s bill as well. “But I believe the best way to make America’s outdoors great again is to stand up to the Trump administration, stop taking money from the fossil fuel industry, and enact a Green New Deal.”

Whether by pragmatism or favoritism, some conservationists acknowledge that only a Republican like Gardner could win over Trump on LWCF funding. Jessica Goad, deputy director of Conservation Colorado, which often criticizes Gardner, agrees with that. So, too, does Tom Cors, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy who has worked on LWCF funding efforts for many years.

“We couldn’t have done it and he made that case,” Cors said of Gardner.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Gardner’s Great American Outdoors Act, which was destined for passage in those halcyon days before the coronavirus pandemic upended congressional schedules. It has ample support but is no longer a high priority in a part-time Congress. Last month, Gardner and several Colorado Democrats suggested it be attached to coronavirus relief legislation, but it wasn’t.

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U.S. senators ask Trump spy chief nominee to clarify testimony on torture

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee wrote to President Donald Trump’s nominee for the top U.S. intelligence job on Wednesday seeking clarification of his views on the use of torture by U.S. spy agencies.

In a letter to Representative John Ratcliffe, Trump’s nominee to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said they were not satisfied with his answers to questions about torture at an intelligence committee nomination hearing on May 5.

“In both your written and your oral responses to Committee questions about torture, you have been evasive and non-committal,” the letter said.

When asked if he believed so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the Central Intelligence Agency on suspected al Qaeda militants were consistent with U.S. and international laws prohibiting torture, Ratcliffe responded that he had “not conducted the legal and factual research and analysis that would be required to properly answer this question.”

And when King asked Ratcliffe if he believed waterboarding violated anti-torture law, Ratcliff said only that the law said “torture is illegal,” an answer the senators criticized as not being direct.

    The letter asserted that King’s question deserved a more clear answer, since Trump has vowed to “bring back waterboarding [and] bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

The senators asked Ratcliffe for “direct, unequivocal answers” to several questions, including whether there are any circumstances under which he believes current law could be interpreted to justify interrogation practices other than those identified in a U.S. Army Field manual.

    Ratcliffe’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

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Trump laments ‘heart-breaking’ Arbery killing

President Donald Trump has called the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man in the US state of Georgia, a “very disturbing situation”.

Mr Arbery was jogging in February when Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who are white, confronted him. They now face murder and assault charges.

“My heart goes out to the parents and the family and friends,” Mr Trump told Fox News on Friday.

Demonstrations have been planned today in Georgia, Florida and online.

The case drew national attention after a video of the shooting emerged on Tuesday.

Police had not charged the McMichaels for more than two months, but the pair was detained on Thursday by the state bureau of investigation.

Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, are in the custody of the Glynn County Sheriff’s Department, officials said on Friday.

Both were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.

State investigators earlier said the father and son had followed Mr Arbery and confronted him with two firearms, and the younger McMichael shot and killed him.

Mr Arbery would have turned 26 today. Rallies are taking place outside of courthouses in Glynn County and in neighbouring Jacksonville, Florida.

Online, supporters of Mr Arbery are using the hashtag #IRunWithMaud, sharing photos and running 2.23 miles (3.6km) in remembrance of the day he died, 23 February.

What did Trump say?

Speaking on the Fox & Friends programme on Friday morning, the president said he had seen the footage, which he described as “troubling” to anyone who watched it.

Mr Trump said the state’s governor and law enforcement would be looking at the case “very strongly”.

When asked about the racial issues at play in the case, the president said “justice getting done is the thing that solves that problem”.

“But it’s a heart-breaking thing.”

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House adviser, has also weighed in, asking in a tweet “why it seemingly took months, the release of a video and corresponding public outrage to catalyse action”.

At a briefing later, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked whether the US Department of Justice would get involved in the case. Ms McEnany did not rule out the possibility.

The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the BBC.

What has the family said?

“I just want justice for my son,” Mr Arbery’s father, Marcus, told CNN on Friday. He said the arrest was a “relief” for the family, and described his son’s killing as a “lynching”.

“He was a very good young man,” Mr Arbery said of his son. “His heart was just bigger than life.”

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the family, asked for the same justice for Mr Arbery as if the situations were reversed and Mr Arbery and his father had attacked an unarmed white man.

“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt they would’ve been arrested on day one,” Mr Crump said, adding that he does not trust the local police department.

He called for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to investigate the officers who did not arrest the McMichaels.

“Either they were incompetent or it was intentional.”

What’s the status of the investigation?

GBI Director Vic Reynolds told reporters at a news conference on Friday that the McMichaels had been taken into custody without incident.

He said the investigation is ongoing. The individual who filmed the video – another local man – is also under investigation.

When asked about the previous police investigation into the case, Mr Reynolds said he could not comment, but that it had “gotten to a good point”.

Mr Reynolds also noted that his agents were able to secure warrants for murder within 36 hours.

“I think that speaks volumes for itself in that the probable cause was clear to our agents very quickly.”

He said in a “perfect world” his agency would have been involved back in February, but by the end of the case, “every stone will be turned over, I promise you”.

On Tuesday, Atlantic Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden ruled a grand jury should consider the case and accepted Governor Brian Kemp’s offer to have the GBI investigate.

Mr Durden is the third prosecutor involved, as two local district attorneys recused themselves due to professional connections to Gregory McMichael, who is a former police detective.

One of those attorneys had told police he believed the father and son had used citizen’s arrest rights in confronting Mr Arbery.

The shooting has led to a wave of outrage from national figures, including presidential candidate Joe Biden and basketball star LeBron James.

Mr Biden said Mr Arbery had been “shot down in cold blood” and “essentially lynched before our very eyes”.

Mr James tweeted: “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes!”

How did Arbery die?

Mr Arbery was out for a jog in the city of Brunswick early in the afternoon on 23 February – something his father said he did often.

Gregory McMichael told police he believed Mr Arbery resembled the suspect in a series of local break-ins.

Mr McMichael and his son armed themselves with a pistol and a shotgun and pursued Mr Arbery in a pickup truck in the Satilla Shores neighbourhood.

The elder Mr McMichael told police he asked Mr Arbery to stop and talk, and claims the 25-year-old attacked his son.

The 36-second clip appears to show the younger Mr McMichael firing a shotgun at point blank range at Mr Arbery and the victim falling to the street.

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Trump team ignored warnings on drug and coronavirus, whistleblower says

WASHINGTON — A government scientist was ousted after the Trump administration ignored his dire warnings about COVID-19 and a malaria drug President Donald Trump was pushing for the coronavirus despite scant evidence it helped, according to a whistleblower complaint Tuesday.

Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, filed the complaint Tuesday with the Office of Special Counsel, a government agency responsible for whistleblower complaints.

He alleges he was reassigned to a lesser role because he resisted political pressure to allow widespread use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug favored by Trump. He said the Trump administration wanted to “flood” hot spots in New York and New Jersey with the drug.

Bright’s complaint comes as the Trump administration faces criticism over its response to the pandemic, including testing and supplies of ventilators, masks and other equipment to try to stem the spread. To date, there have been nearly 1.2 million confirmed cases in the United States and more than 70,000 deaths.

Bright also said the Trump administration rejected his warnings on COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. He said he “acted with urgency” to address the growing spread of COVID-19 after the World Health Organization issued a warning in January.

But he said he “encountered resistance from HHS leadership, including Health and Human Services Secretary (Alex) Azar, who appeared intent on downplaying this catastrophic event.”

Bright alleges in the complaint that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services tried to promote hydroxychloroquine “as a panacea.” The officials also “demanded that New York and New Jersey be ‘flooded’ with these drugs, which were imported from factories in Pakistan and India that had not been inspected by the FDA,” the complaint says.

But Bright opposed broad use of the drug, arguing the scientific evidence wasn’t there to back up its use in coronavirus patients. He felt an urgent need to tell the public there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to support using the drugs for COVID-19 patients, the complaint states.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in hospitals and research studies. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side effects among coronavirus patients taking hydroxychloroquine or the related drug chloroquine.

The decades-old drugs, also prescribed for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause a number of side effects, including heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage.

In late January, Bright said he made an effort to ramp up federal procurement of N95 respirator masks, after having heard warnings that a global shortage could imperil first-responders.

But he said his boss, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Preparedness Robert Kadlec, gave short shrift to the warnings during a meeting Jan. 23.

At another meeting that day, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Kadlec “responded with surprise at (Bright’s) dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out,” the whistleblower complaint said.

Publicly, HHS was saying it had all the masks that would be needed.

Bright found an ally in White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who was also urgently concerned about the virus.

The complaint described a series of contacts with Navarro’s office that led to a meeting between Bright and the trade official on at the White House on a Saturday early in February. Bright said his boss, Kadlec was not pleased.

“Navarro clearly shared (Bright’s) concerns about the potential devastation the United States would face from the coronavirus and asked (Bright) to identify the supply chain and medical countermeasures most critical to address at that time in order to save lives.”

Navarro’s memos to top White House officials raised alarms even as Trump was publicly assuring Americans that the outbreak was under control.

Bright felt officials had “refused to listen or take appropriate action to accurately inform the public” and spoke to a reporter who was working on a story about the drug.

He said he had to tell the public about the lack of science backing up its use, despite the drug being pushed by the president as press briefings, to protect people from what he believed “constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.

“As the death toll mounted exponentially each day, Dr. Bright concluded that he had a moral obligation to the American public, including those vulnerable as a result of illness from COVID-19, to protect it from drugs which he believed constituted a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,” the complaint says.

On Jan. 20, according to the complaint, the WHO held an emergency call to discuss the novel coronavirus. It was attended by many HHS officials, and which WHO officials advised that “the outbreak is a big problem.”

Trump has accused the U.N. agency of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus after it emerged in China and said he would cut funding.

Bright’s agency works to guard against pandemics and emergent infectious diseases, and is working to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

Top officials also pressured him to steer contracts to a client of a lobbyist, he reported.

Bright said he repeatedly clashed with leadership about the role played by pharmacy industry lobbyist John Clerici in drug contracts. As he tried to push a contract extension of a contract for one of his clients Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, Clerici said the company’s CEO was a friend of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.

In the complaint, Bright says he wants to returned to his position as the director and a full investigation.

When Bright’s plans to file a complaint surfaced last month, HHS confirmed that Bright is no longer at the BARDA agency, but did not address his allegations of political interference in the COVID-19 response.

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Trump flying to Arizona to visit mask factory on trip with political overtones

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump makes a rare trip out of Washington on Tuesday to tour a mask production plant in Arizona, visiting a state he hopes to win in the November election even as Americans avoid travel to fight the coronavirus.

Trump, a Republican who is running for re-election, has been holed up at the White House for weeks as his administration oversees the response to the pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people in the United States alone.

The president has faced criticism for giving mixed messages about the virus, which he downplayed in the early stages of the outbreak. His trip to another state requires a flight on Air Force One with an entourage of staff, Secret Service agents, reporters and military personnel at a time when many Americans are avoiding flying because of the risk of virus spread.

Trump has sought to give an optimistic view about the country’s ability to recover from the virus and is eager for states to reopen businesses whose lockdown closings have driven down the economy and left millions unemployed.

The president is scheduled to tour a Honeywell International Inc mask production assembly line during his trip and to preside over a discussion about supporting Native Americans.

The federal government has encouraged Americans to wear masks to avoid spreading the virus even when not feeling any symptoms of COVID-19, the disease it causes. Trump has so far declined to wear a mask himself, and Vice President Mike Pence drew criticism for not wearing one during a recent trip to the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

The location of Trump’s first trip out of Washington in weeks was not coincidental.

Trump won Arizona in the 2016 election against Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but opinion polls show him currently trailing the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the Southwestern state.

Republican U.S. Senator Martha McSally is traveling with Trump on the trip to her home state. She is also trailing her Democratic opponent, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, in the November race, according to RealClearPolitics poll averages.

McSally, a former Air Force combat pilot, was appointed last year to the seat held by the late Senator John McCain. She is running in a special election to determine who will serve the last two years of the term.

McSally posted a message on Twitter in front of Air Force One before the flight. In it, she was not wearing a mask.

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Exclusive: As the U.S. shut down, Trump's legal fight to build wall ramped up

(Reuters) – Even as the Trump administration was struggling to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, it was ramping up efforts to seize land along U.S. southern border to build a wall and fulfill a major campaign promise, a Reuters review of federal court records shows.

Donald Trump made building the wall a central promise of his 2016 campaign, but those efforts have been plagued by delays and false promises. Late last year, the administration got more aggressive, pledging to use the federal courts to seize large swaths of private land, mostly in Texas.

While most of the U.S. has been slowed by the COVID-19 crisis – which has infected nearly 650,000 Americans and killed at least 32,000 more – Trump’s efforts to construct a southern border wall has only gained steam.

In the past 12 months, the administration opened 41 cases in federal court to seize land to build a wall along the southern border of Texas. Nearly half of those cases – 16, or 39 percent – were filed in the past two months.

The bulk of the new filings came in March, when the administration opened 12 cases, the most in any month under Trump, a Reuters review of federal filings found.

The administration wants immediate possession, bypassing traditional procedural steps and forcing landowners to move more swiftly, records show.

Advocates for the landowners say the administration is choosing a bad time to get more aggressive, forcing landowners to choose between leaving their home to fight the case despite statewide stay-at-home guidance or lose their property.

Also, a successful defense can be expensive, requiring paid experts, lawyers and other professionals at a time the U.S. economy is shedding a record number of jobs.

“The timing, on a human level, is very bad,” said David Donatti, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Texas who represents a family fighting government seizure of their property.

Nayda Alvarez, a 49-year-old public school teacher, was served court papers in March. She and her extended family – including her elderly father who suffers from several health issues – live on 6-acre (2.4-hectare) ranch along the Rio Grande river that the administration wants to take immediately.

“It’s very scary. My hands are tied because we are quarantined and fighting the federal government, literally,” said Alvarez, who is working with the ACLU and another group, the Texas Civil Rights Project, in her defense.

She was preparing to go to federal court on Tuesday, donning a mask and gloves, but her lawyers were able to delay the hearing until June.

Unlike in other states, most of the U.S. borderland in Texas is privately owned, which has delayed wall construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Federal lawyers have had to comb property records, track down landowners, make offers to buy the land and — if owners refuse to sell — file lawsuits to seize the land.

The White House did not respond to requests for comments for this story.

In recent weeks, Trump has made the case that the global pandemic only proves the need for stronger borders. On March 12, he retweeted a follower’s commentary linking the health scare to the need for strong borders and added “We need the Wall more than ever!”

Three Democratic lawmakers representing congressional districts along the U.S.-Mexico border recently called on the Trump administration to temporarily pause the legal efforts.

“To put vulnerable families already suffering at disproportionate rates at this time is simply unconscionable,” the lawmakers wrote in an April 8 letter to the departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security.

Immigration and border security has been a top issue for Republicans for the last few years. Yet now it appears to be overshadowed by concerns about healthcare as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the country.

When asked what they considered to be “most important problem facing the U.S. today,” 18% of Republicans said healthcare in an April 13-14 Reuters/Ipsos poll, up 3 percentage points from a similar poll that ran Feb. 19-25, while 15% said it was immigration, down 10 points from the February poll.

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