Trump to visit Ford plant in Michigan as political tensions flare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump travels on Thursday to the crucial U.S. election battleground state of Michigan to visit a Ford Motor Co 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 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.

Rising floodwaters have caused more trouble in Michigan, displacing thousands of residents near the city of Midland.

Trump will visit 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 the president, 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.

Whitmer told a news conference she spoke with Trump on Wednesday and he pledged federal support in the flood recovery.

“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.”

Whitmer on Thursday moved to further reopen Michigan’s economy, signing a series of executive orders that let people gather in groups smaller than 10, retail and auto showrooms to resume operations by appointment, and nonessential medical and dental services to resume.

The Midwestern state ranks seventh among U.S. states with 53,009 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, a Reuters tally showed, with at least 5,060 deaths.

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.

U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said on Twitter that she hoped Trump will “follow the protocols and wear a mask when he visits the Ford plant.”

Trump won narrowly won in Michigan in the 2016 election, the first Republican to do since 1988.

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Pompeo says State Dept. watchdog should have been fired 'some time ago'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday declined to say why he recommended firing the State Department’s inspector general, but added he should have done it earlier and rejected claims his decision was motivated by political retaliation.

Congressional aides said Steve Linick, the inspector general, was probing whether Pompeo misused a taxpayer-funded political appointee to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife, such as walking their dog.

“In this case, I recommended to the president that Steve Linick be terminated. Frankly should have done it some time ago,” he told reporters in his first public comments since President Donald Trump’s Friday night firing.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, called the firing “scandalous” and said Pompeo should testify in Congress on this and other matters. She said Trump’s firing of four inspectors general in recent months undermined U.S. democracy.

Pompeo denied acting out of vengeance.

“There are claims that this was for retaliation, for some investigation that the inspector general’s office here was engaged in. Patently false. I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general’s office,” he said.

“There is one exception. I was asked a series of questions in writing. I responded to those questions with respect to a particular investigation. That was some time earlier this year,” he said without disclosing the subject matter. He said he neither knew the scope nor the nature of that investigation.

A Republican, Pompeo lashed out at Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member on the Republican-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said Linick had been investigating Trump’s declaration of a national emergency last year to clear the way for $8 billion in military sales, mostly to Saudi Arabia, sidestepping congressional review.

“Crazy stuff,” Pompeo said in response to the notion a political appointee was running personal errands and accused Menendez of leaking to the media.

“I don’t get my ethics guidance from a man criminally prosecuted,” Pompeo said. Menendez was indicted in 2015 on federal corruption charges that the Justice Department eventually dropped after a 2017 mistrial.

Menendez struck back.

“The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful,” he said in a statement, adding that Pompeo should instead focus on answering questions on why Linick was fired.

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Trump fired watchdog who was probing Saudi arms sales, Democrats say

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump may have fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick because he was investigating U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia, Democratic lawmakers said on Monday, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he sought Linick’s removal because his work was undermining the department.

Trump announced the planned removal of Linick in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late on Friday. He was the fourth government inspector general that the Republican president has ousted in recent weeks.

Pompeo told the Washington Post he had asked Trump to fire Linick, while declining to describe specific concerns. Pompeo said no reason had to be given, contradicting Congress’ interpretation of the inspector general law.

“I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department,” Pompeo said.

Another State official told the Post concern over Linick had grown because of leaks about investigations, although there was no evidence Linick was responsible.

Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member on Senate Foreign Relations, said Linick had been investigating Trump’s declaration of a national emergency last year to clear the way for $8 billion in military sales, mostly to Saudi Arabia.

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  • Trump says Pompeo requested he fire State Department inspector general

Engel and Menendez announced on Saturday they were launching an investigation of Linick’s firing.

“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing. His office was investigating – at my request – Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” Engel said in a statement.

Engel called on the administration to comply with the probe and turn over records by Friday.

Engel’s statement was first reported by the Washington Post.

Congressional aides had said Linick was investigating whether Pompeo misused a taxpayer-funded political appointee to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife.

Trump said Linick had been appointed by former Democratic President Barack Obama, and that he knew nothing about him, but had the right to terminate him. “I just go rid of him,” he said.

REPUBLICANS ALSO HAVE QUESTIONS

Trump infuriated many members of Congress last May, including some Republicans, by declaring a national emergency related to tensions with Iran to sidestep congressional review and push ahead with $8 billion in military sales, mostly to Saudi Arabia.

The House and Senate passed resolutions to block the sales. But Trump, a staunch promoter of both arms sales and ties to Saudi Arabia, vetoed them. The Republican-led Senate upheld his veto.

Menendez said he believed Linick was close to coming to a conclusion in his investigation of the arms sales. He also introduced legislation to protect inspectors general.

Some Republicans also expressed concern.

Senator Chuck Grassley wrote to Trump and asked for a detailed explanation of Linick’s removal by June 1.

“Congress’s intent is clear that an expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the IG Reform Act,” Grassley said.

Representative Michael McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee, was looking into the matter, a spokeswoman said.

Trump replaced Linick with Stephen Akard, an official in charge of the Office of Foreign Missions considered a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence.

Explaining Linick’s firing to Pelosi, Trump said only that he no longer had “fullest confidence” in Linick.

Pelosi wrote to Trump and asked him to provide “detailed and substantial justification” for Linick’s removal within 30 days.

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Trump denies U.S. role in what Venezuela says was 'mercenary' incursion

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied any involvement by the U.S. government in what Venezuelan officials have called a failed armed incursion in the South American country that led to the capture of two American “mercenaries.”

Trump made the comment to reporters at the White House after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday said authorities there had detained two U.S. citizens working with a U.S. military veteran who has claimed responsibility for a failed armed operation.

“We’ll find out. We just heard about it,” Trump said when asked about the incident and the Americans’ arrests. “But it has nothing to do with our government.”

In a state television address, Maduro said authorities arrested 13 “terrorists” on Monday involved in what he described as a plot coordinated with Washington to enter the country via the Caribbean coast and oust him.

Eight people were killed during the foiled incursion attempt on Sunday, Venezuelan authorities said.

Maduro showed what he said were the U.S. passports and other identification cards belonging to Airan Berry and Luke Denman, whom he said were in custody and had been working with Jordan Goudreau, an American military veteran who leads a Florida-based security company called Silvercorp USA.

The State Department did not provide any immediate comment on the alleged arrests. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, had strongly denied any U.S. government role involvement in the incursions.

Washington has waged a campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Venezuela in an effort to oust Maduro, a socialist it accuses of having rigged elections in 2018. Maduro’s government says the United States wants to control Venezuela’s massive oil reserves.

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Trump signs order to protect the U.S. electricity system: Energy Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that seeks to protect the U.S. electricity system from cyber and other attacks in a move that could eventually put barriers on some imports from China and Russia.

Trump declared in the order that the threat to the U.S. power system represents a national emergency, which allows the government to put in place measures such as the creation of a task force on procurement policies for energy infrastructure.

A senior Energy Department official said that the order was not directed at any new threat, but the result of a process to bolster the power system.

The order allows the energy secretary, in consultation with other officials, to prohibit acquisition, importation, transfer or installation of power equipment from an adversary that they determine poses a risk of sabotage to the U.S. power system.

“It is imperative the bulk-power system be secured against exploitation and attacks by foreign threats,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in a news release. The order will “greatly diminish the ability of foreign adversaries to target our critical electric infrastructure,” he said.

The order defines bulk power equipment as items used in substations, control rooms, or power plants, including nuclear reactors, capacitors, transformers, large generators and backup generators and other equipment.

The order does not mention countries, but the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment issued by then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that China and Russia and other countries were using cyber techniques to spy on U.S. infrastructure.

In 2018, the Trump administration blamed the Russian government for a campaign of cyber attacks over at least two years that targeted the power grid including nuclear power and manufacturing facilities. It was the first time here Washington publicly accused Moscow of hacking into American energy infrastructure.

The power system not only delivers electricity to homes and businesses, but supports the military and emergency systems.

The Energy Department said that government rules about buying equipment for the power grid “often result in contracts being awarded to the lowest-cost bids, a vulnerability that can be exploited by those with malicious intent.”   

The order authorizes Brouillette to work with Trump’s Cabinet and the energy industry on protecting the electricity system.

The task force will be chaired by the energy secretary, or someone designated by that official as well as the secretaries of defense, commerce and the director of national intelligence, among other officials.

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China says it has no interest in meddling in U.S. election

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has no interest in interfering in the U.S. presidential election, it said on Thursday, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he believed Beijing would try to make him lose his re-election bid in November.

“The U.S. presidential election is an internal affair, we have no interest in interfering in it,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters during a daily briefing.

“We hope the people of the U.S. will not drag China into its election politics.”

In an interview for Reuters on Wednesday Trump said “China will do anything they can to have me lose this race”, adding that he believed Beijing wants his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, to win the election to ease the pressure Trump has placed on China over trade and other issues.

Trump also said during the interview he was looking at different options in terms of consequences for Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic.

He and other top officials have blamed China for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. It has infected more than 1 million Americans and has thrown the U.S. economy into a deep recession.

“There are many things I can do,” Trump told Reuters. “We’re looking for what happened.”

Geng reiterated during Thursday’s briefing that China was a victim of the epidemic and not its accomplice, adding that attempts by “certain politicans” to shift the blame away from their poor handling of the outbreak to Beijing would only “expose the problems of the U.S. itself”.

“The U.S. should know this: the enemy is the virus, not China,” he said.

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Trump: Postal Service must charge Amazon more, or no loan – The Denver Post

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he won’t approve a $10 billion loan for the U.S. Postal Service unless the agency raises charges for Amazon and other big shippers to four to five times current rates.

“The Postal Service is a joke because they’re handing out packages for Amazon and other internet companies and every time they bring a package, they lose money on it,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

The president was responding to a question about reports his administration plans to force major changes in postal operations as the price for approving a $10 billion loan that was included in the government’s $2 trillion economic rescue package.

Under the rescue package legislation, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin must approve the loan before the Postal Service can receive the money. Officials at the Postal Service had no immediate reaction to Trump’s comments.

Trump said the changes the administration will insist on will make it a “whole new ballgame” at the Postal Service. He said the Postal Service did not want to make the changes because they did not want to offend Amazon and other companies.

Looking at Mnuchin, who was with him in the Oval Office, the president said, “If they don’t raise the price of the service they give … I’m not signing anything and I’m not authorizing you to do anything.”

Mnuchin told reporters that he had Treasury officials working with the Postal Service on the terms of the loan if postal officials decide they need more money.

“We are going to post certain criteria for (a) postal reform program as part of the loan,” Mnuchin said. He said the Postal Service board is already conducting a search for a new postmaster general to run the agency and undertaking reforms of operations.

The Washington Post, which first reported the administration’s push for changes at the Postal Service, quoted unnamed officials as saying that senior Postal Service officials have been told the administration wants to use the $10 billion loan as leverage to influence how much the agency charges for delivering packages and how it manages its finances.

Trump has complained for years that the Postal Service was being exploited by Amazon and other shippers and that was the reason the agency was losing so much money.

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U.S. extends economic aid to Greenland to counter China, Russia in Arctic

COPENHAGEN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced a $12.1 million economic aid package for Greenland on Thursday aimed at strengthening mutual ties and boost a renewed U.S. push for a greater military presence in the Arctic.

The move to improve ties with Greenland drew criticism from Denmark, which less than a year ago rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to buy the vast Arctic island as “absurd.”

Greenland, which on Thursday welcomed the money, is becoming increasingly important for the U.S. military and for the U.S. ballistic missile early warning system because of a Russian and Chinese commercial and military buildup in the Arctic.

The aid package is aimed particularly at the areas of natural resources and education.

Greenland, home to only 56,000 people but rich in natural resources, is an autonomous Danish territory. With its tiny economy heavily dependant on fishing, the island, which has no roads between its 17 towns and one commercial international airport, relies on annual grants from Denmark.

“They have clearly crossed the line,” said Karsten Honge, member of the foreign affairs committee for the Socialist People’s Party, a government ally.

“It’s completely unheard of that a close ally tries to create division between Greenland and Denmark this way,” he told Reuters.

Soren Espersen, a member of the Danish parliament’s foreign affairs committee for opposition party The Danish People’s Party, called the U.S. offer “an insult” to Greenland and Denmark.

A senior U.S. State Department official, at a briefing on Thursday, denied Washington’s efforts were intended to create divisions, saying the United States has been working closely with Denmark for months on this initiative.

“I think what we’re doing here is good old-fashioned diplomatic stagecraft designed to enhance our engagement,” the official said, adding that the aid package was not “designed to pave the way to purchase Greenland.”

The United States plans this year to open a consulate in Greenland’s capital Nuuk for the first time since 1953.

Russia has stepped up its military capabilities in the Arctic, while China calls itself a “near Arctic state” and has laid plans for a Polar Silk Road focused on new Arctic shipping routes and access to natural resources.

The United States has paid little attention to the Arctic in the last two decades, but the officials said it is “in the process of adjusting our Arctic policy to today’s new strategic realities.”

The Danish foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.

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Trump says he will sign executive order to suspend immigration, offers no details

President Donald Trump said Monday that he will sign an executive order “to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States” because of the coronavirus.

“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” Trump tweeted.

He offered no details as to what immigration programs might be affected by the order. The White House did not immediately elaborate on Trump’s tweeted announcement.

Trump has taken credit for his restrictions on travel to the U.S. from China and hard-hit European countries, arguing it contributed to slowing the spread of the virus in the U.S. But he has yet to extend those restrictions to other nations now experiencing virus outbreaks.

Due to the pandemic, almost all visa processing by the State Department, including immigrant visas, has been suspended for weeks.

More than 750,000 Americans have come down with COVID-19 and more than 42,000 have died.

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