Russian plane with coronavirus medical gear lands in U.S. after Trump-Putin call

By Andrew Osborn, Polina Devitt and Steve Holland

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia sent the United States medical equipment on Wednesday to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, a public relations coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin after he discussed the crisis with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump, struggling to fill shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment, accepted Putin’s offer in a phone call on Monday. A Russian military transport plane left an airfield outside Moscow and arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport in late afternoon on Wednesday.

Emergency aid to Washington was a striking development. Usually, the United States donates supplies to embattled countries rather than accepting them. The origin of the gift was bound to revive criticism from Democrats that Trump has been too cozy with the Russian leader.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.

A U.S. official in Washington confirmed the shipment was a direct result of Trump’s phone conversation with Putin. The official said it carried 60 tons of ventilators, masks, respirators and other items.

The official said the equipment would be carefully examined to make sure it comports with the quality requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Russia’s Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday morning showed the plane taking off from a military air base outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.

Confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases have surged to more than 205,000, with 4,500 deaths.

In Russia, the official tally of confirmed cases is 2,337, with 17 deaths, although some doctors there have questioned the accuracy of official data.

STRAIN IN RELATIONS

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to U.S. election interference, something Russia denies. Trump spent two years battling a federal investigation into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.

“Nothing to see here. Just a Russian military aircraft landing at JFK with 60 tons of medical supplies to support America’s #COVID19 response. A propaganda bonanza as our own government shrinks from America’s leadership role in a global crisis,” said Brett McGurk, a former American diplomat for Trump and former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Trump said on Tuesday he and Putin discussed the virus at length. “Russia is being hit pretty hard,” he said.

Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Moscow hoped the United States might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time came.

“It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov was cited as saying.

Peskov complained that some U.S. officials had made it needlessly difficult to expedite the aid. He also was quoted as saying that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception … there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance.”

Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of the coronavirus, exposing the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.

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China in coronavirus propaganda push as US ties worsen

State media lauds China as global leader in fight against disease in bid to defuse criticism it allowed virus to spread.

Chengdu, China – On March 18, China marked a milestone in its “people’s war” against the new coronavirus. For the first time in three months, there were no new local infections in the central province of Hubei, where more than 60 million people remain confined to their homes as part of a nationwide effort to control the deadly outbreak.

The respiratory illness caused by the new pathogen, first detected in late December in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, has spread rapidly across the world, infecting more than 465,000 people and killing more than 21,000 as of March 26. 

Europe has become the new epicentre of the disease, also known as COVID-19, with the death toll in Italy and Spain higher than China and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the United States might be next.

More:

  • US, China spar over coronavirus origin

  • In China, life returning to normal as coronavirus outbreak slows

  • What happens if you catch the new coronavirus?

But in China, the outbreak appears to be under control, with less than 5,000 patients still undergoing treatment and new cases confirmed only among people returning from overseas.

Authorities in Beijing, who were widely criticised for initially covering up the outbreak, are now hailing their success, highlighting the unparalleled measures that helped quell the outbreak within the country and positioning China as a global leading power in the fight against the coronavirus – all while engaging in an acrimonious war of words with the US.

Prior to the slowing of local transmissions in China, the country’s highly controlled state media was almost exclusively pushing one narrative: the supremacy of the so-called “system with Chinese characteristics” in fighting the outbreak.

News anchors and online reporters praised the central leadership for utilising measures unthinkable in other countries in their bid to contain the virus, including a nationwide quarantine, the use of mass surveillance to track infections bringing the world’s second-largest economy to a near-halt.

“With utmost determination to curb the outbreak growth, China has bought enough time for the world to prepare itself for this pandemic,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on March 19, suggesting that China’s draconian measures had slowed down the transmission of the disease worldwide.

‘Global leader against coronavirus’

As the domestic pressure to contain the outbreak eased, state media shifted their focus to featuring China’s recent effort to deploy medics and resources to areas most hard-hit by the virus, particularly Italy and Iran, labelling itself as a global leader in the battle against the virus.

China has sent planeloads of medical equipment, including the much sought-after masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment to the worst-hit countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

CCTV, the official state broadcaster, continuously plays videos of Chinese medics arriving in Bergamo in northern Italy and Iran’s capital, Tehran.

CGTN, the international wing of CCTV, and Global Times, a state-owned English language tabloid, are two of the many state media outlets praising China’s “generosity” and “leadership” during the pandemic.

Positive feedback from global leaders, such as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, and officials from Venezuela and the Philippines – mostly comments applauding China’s support and leadership  – have also been prominently featured in the state media coverage.

Meanwhile, the social media accounts of government-backed media institutions are at the front line of the propaganda push, including on Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.

‘Shifting domestic anger’

By doing so, Beijing is trying to shift domestic and international attention away from the pent-up anger in the country towards the central government for an initial cover-up of the outbreak that many say paved the way for the rapid spread of the virus.

“By pushing for this narrative, China is avoiding the blame and successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

“In suppressing information about the virus and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperilled the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”

Some analysts say what triggered the propaganda machine in China is the deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington, which are also locked in a bitter trade dispute.

Last week, tensions escalated after China expelled more than a dozen American journalists working for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post newspapers, in a tactic seen as retaliation for the US designating China’s state media as diplomatic missions.

‘Blame game’

Now officials in the two countries are blaming each other for the current pandemic.

Since early March, Chinese officials and state media have been pushing the idea that the new coronavirus could have originated somewhere else – notably the US.

Lijian Zhao, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, has been particularly vocal in questioning the US’s role in the viral outbreak.

On March 12, Zhao posted a tweet saying: “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”. And despite widespread criticism over the unsubstantiated claim, Zhao continues to blame Washington.

Articles with titles along the lines of The virus didn’t come from China: the US brought the virus to China as a bioweapon are widely shared across China’s tightly-controlled internet.

Some of these pieces filled with conspiracy theories say the US army brought the virus to China during the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October last year. State media is also calling for an “inquiry” into the US’s role in the emergence of this outbreak, publishing articles that question Washington based on an unfounded assumption that the US was behind the spread of the virus.

Aggressive foreign policy

The WHO and leading medical experts say the virus jumped from an animal host to humans, stressing that the suggestion that the pathogen did not have a natural origin are “dangerous” to the effort to contain the pandemic.

But Chinese academics are also supporting the narrative of US involvement.

Chen Xuyan, a scientist based in Beijing, appeared on CCTV on March 18 and suggested that the fast speed of research on COVID-19 vaccines in the US could be attributed to the possibility that Washington had already obtained the virus long before, by extension implying the US might have sent the virus to China.

“The Xi government is following a very aggressive foreign policy now, engaging in what Mao Zedong called a ‘tongue war’ – the propaganda war,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury who specialises in Chinese politics.

The resentment in China has been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s decision to use terms like “foreign virus” and more frequently, “Chinese virus”, to refer to the new pathogen.

Images posted online show that during a recent news conference, Trump crossed out the word “corona” and wrote “CHINESE” in front of the word “virus” in the script of his speech. 

The Chinese foreign ministry has called the moves “irresponsible” and “racist”.

Instead of sweeping Trump’s comments under the rug, which is usually what the state media does for comments that go against the Communist Party line, the government is using Trump’s remarks as a tactic to incite public anger towards the US leader and as an extension, the US as a whole.

“With the US facing its own credibility issues in recent years, China’s false narrative threatens to spread as quickly as the coronavirus,” wrote Matthew Karnitschnig, the chief Europe correspondent of Politico.

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Factories shift operations in scramble to restock supermarket shelves

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – With supermarkets stripped of food and many other essentials, consumer product companies halted factory runs of niche items such as scented bleach in order to speed up production of more basic merchandise that is in high demand.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have warned that hoarding toilet paper, cleaning supplies and food staples was fueling shortages. Amazon.com (AMZN.O), the biggest online retailer, said it sold out of many household staples after orders spiked.

As the fast-spreading coronavirus continues to alarm consumers across Europe and the United States, Trump held a phone call on Sunday with 30 executives from grocery stores including Amazon.com’s Whole Foods, Target Corp (TGT.N), Costco Wholesale Corp (COST.O) and Walmart Inc (WMT.N). Trump Administration official Larry Kudlow assured television news viewers that U.S. supply lines were “working pretty well.”

“The grocery supply chain is not going to shut down,” said Doug Baker, who leads crisis management for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the trade group representing food retailers and wholesalers.

That does not mean that every product and Doritos chip flavor will be on store shelves.

As factories move to round-the-clock operations, they are focusing on the highest priority items to address the unprecedented surge in demand, said Baker.

For example, rather than cranking out bleach in several different sizes and scents, they will limit production to the most popular. Exotic flavors of certain foods may also be halted. That saves times because machines have to be changed to produce a different product.

“Manufacturers have also started allocating goods so they can ensure equal distribution across the country,” Baker said.

U.S. retail giants such as Walmart Inc, Publix and Kroger Co (KR.N) have set restrictions on purchases of toilet paper, Lysol sanitizing wipes and other in-demand products.

Walmart, which gets more than half its U.S. revenue from grocery sales, has given store managers authorization to manage their inventory, “including the discretion to limit sales quantities on items that are in unusually high demand,” a spokesperson said.

Walmart’s replenishment efforts include “diverting products to areas of the country where they are needed most and routing deliveries directly to stores,” the spokesperson said.

Retailers are reducing hours to give harried employees time to restock and deep clean stores after frantic shoppers swarm shelves.

Companies across the grocery sector are working to ensure that they have enough labor to keep supplies moving. At least 62 have people have died from coronavirus infections in the United States, where infections are expected to rise from the currently confirmed 3,000 cases.

Baker, from FMI, said contingency plans include shifting workers from restaurant supply chain jobs as cities begin imposing curfews and “social distancing measures” such as barring sit-down dining.

Kroger – the largest U.S. supermarket operator with chains including Ralphs and Harris Teeter – put out a call for workers on Sunday.

“We have immediate positions available combined across our retail stores, manufacturing plants and distribution centers,” a Kroger spokeswoman said in an email.

“This pressure – coming across the entire nation – is fundamentally different than regional emergencies that have been dealt with in the past,” said Hilding Anderson, head of retail strategy at consulting firm Publicis Sapient.

Meanwhile, the hunt for sought-after goods continues.

Donna El-Armale, 53, turned out in the predawn hours to line up at a Costco Wholesale Corp (COST.O) superstore in Los Angeles.

“We’re just trying to get our normal two-week supply,” said El-Armale, whose shopping list included paper towels and water for herself, and toilet paper for a family member.

El-Armale, a therapist, waited patiently with dozens of other shoppers who had lined up carts in the parking lot. Like many Los Angeles-area shoppers, who have weathered earthquakes and riots, she expected life to go on.

“We know the stores will be open,” she said.

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Julian Assange's father: My greatest worry is he will die in jail

As his son battles the US’s extradition attempt, John Shipton fears for the whistle-blower’s mental and physical health.

The extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange started one week ago at Woolwich Crown Court in southeast London and wrapped up on Friday.

It is set to resume on May 18.

Assange, an Australian citizen who is currently being detained in the maximum-security Belmarsh prison in London, was arrested in the English capital in April, after being evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy where he was kept for more than seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of rape.

The rape charges were subsequently dropped.

In June last year, the United States requested the United Kingdom to extradite Assange.

More:

  • How Assange case highlights crime of psychological torture

  • Assange extradition hearing gets under way in London

  • Assange’s lawyer to seek asylum in France for whistle-blower

The 48-year-old has been indicted on 17 counts of violating the 1917 US Espionage Act.

He is accused of conspiring with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain and disclose information.

In 2019 US Vice President Mike Pence described it as “one of the greatest compromises of classified information in American history”.

But free speech activists see his arrest as an assault on freedom of information and a potential threat for journalists.

Born to Christine Hawkins and John Shipton on 3 July 1971, Julian Assange took the name of his stepfather Brett Assange.

Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, spoke to Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera: What is your biggest worry regarding your son’s current extradition hearing and his overall health?

Shipton: My greatest worry is that after 10 years of steadily increasing persecution, Julian will die in jail. 

Al Jazeera: How much contact have you had with your son since he was first granted asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012? Have you managed to have any private conversations since then?

Shipton: Each Christmas I would spend 10 days with Julian as allowed by the Ecuadorian embassy.

I have not had a private conversation with him since 2012. A private conversation has not been possible because of surveillance – a matter that is now being investigated by the Spanish courts.

If something we wanted to discuss was private, we wrote notes to each other. 

Al Jazeera: Have you observed changes in your son’s personality and physical health? 

Shipton: Julian has lost about 15 kilograms of weight since leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in April. He has also become vulnerable to clinical depression.

Al Jazeera: How do you characterise the treatment of your son by global powers?

Shipton: There have been ceaseless calumnies, smears and abrogation of human rights laws and increasing intensity of surveillance with each and every moment recorded on video.

Al Jazeera: What impact did the accusations of rape have on your son? 

Shipton: There were no criminal charges. Allegations were made upon falsified witness testimony. 

Al Jazeera: How would you describe Australia’s support?

Shipton: The Australian government’s assistance has been negligible. This has been demonstrated by silence over many distortions of procedure, falsification of witness testimony, abrogation of human rights and abandoning agreed-upon international obligations while continuously repeating vacuous mantras about due process and non-interference with the legal systems of other countries.

At the same time, the Australian government announces support for the elevation of Juan Guaido to the Presidency of Venezuela. 

Al Jazeera: What are you demanding of the international community? 

Shipton: Of necessity, international laws need international support. Julian’s persecution is a global matter. In this matter, the only international law that has been observed is the extradition treaty between the US and the UK. All other international law has been abrogated. Abrogation of treaty obligations and human rights conventions reduce us to savagery. 

Al Jazeera: You have previously quoted the Australian human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce who said: “If you arrest Assange, we will fight this until the end of time.” Who is going to continue fighting for your son?

Shipton: All the wonderful people worldwide who are fighting with constant determination. The talented lawyers, journalists and doctors, parliamentarians, publishers and publications – all those who understand the meaning of intimidation and oppression of comment and discussion globally inherent in Julian’s persecution, as well as Julian’s family.

Al Jazeera: What are your hopes for Julian Assange?

Shipton: My dream for him is that he should enjoy the ordinary commonalities of life, that he enjoys the company and care of his children, family and friends. I also dream that he should feel the sun’s warmth and walk freely among people. 

The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


The Listening Post

On trial: Julian Assange and journalism

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Top U.S. college backs down on Taiwan naming on virus map after protest

TAIPEI (Reuters) – A top U.S. university, Johns Hopkins, has backed down on how it refers to Taiwan on a map detailing the spread of the new coronavirus after the island’s government protested at the institution’s inclusion of the island as part of China.

Beijing has been exerting pressure on foreign companies and organizations to identify Chinese-claimed Taiwan as part of China, and often to name it as a Chinese province.

Taiwan has strongly objected to this, saying it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name, that it has never been part of the People’s Republic of China and that Beijing has no authority over the island.

The issue has come to a head again during the virus outbreak, with the World Health Organization (WHO) listing Taiwan’s case numbers under China’s, referring to the island as “Taipei and environs”.

The designation “Taipei and environs, China” had begun being used by Johns Hopkins on an interactive map coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html it publishes tracking the virus outbreak around the world.

But the university has now changed that, and again calls the island simply “Taiwan”. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it had asked its representative office in the United States to lodge a protest with Johns Hopkins.

“During a comprehensive review of the dashboard this week, Professor Lauren Gardner and her team decided to align the names of nations with the World Health Organization’s naming conventions to achieve consistency in reporting,” the university said in an emailed statement, referring to the professor who oversees the mapping project.

“Upon further consideration, the team now uses U.S. State Department naming conventions, including the use of Taiwan.”

Taiwan has reported 48 virus cases, compared with more than 80,000 in China, and has won plaudits from experts for effective controls at keeping its tally so low, especially considering it is next to China and how many Taiwan people work and live in China.

Taiwan says its inclusion by the WHO as part of China’s “virus area” has mislead countries into believing its situation was a serious as China’s, and to take measures to restrict or ban visits by Taiwanese nationals.

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US bank lobby economist predicts global rate cut coming this Wednesday

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Investors battered by the breathtaking drop in global stock markets on coronavirus fears are ever more convinced the world’s big central banks, including the Federal Reserve, will soon step in to try to quell the storm.

Against that, the top economist for the US bank lobby – a former Fed insider – issued a remarkably specific prediction on Sunday that the rescue is nigh.

In a blog titled “Don’t keep your powder dry”, Bill Nelson, chief economist at the Bank Policy Institute who worked on the Fed’s responses to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, predicted:

• A coordinated global interest rate cut by the top central banks, such as the one executed at the height of the crisis in October 2008 by the Fed and five other central banks. They will possibly include in this action the People’s Bank of China and the Hong Kong Monetory Authority, the two banks whose economies have so far suffered most from the outbreak.

•  It will happen this Wednesday, March 4. Nelson noted that the previous big coordinated actions in December 2007, October 2008 and November 2011 all occurred on a Wednesday.

•  It will be big: half a percentage point at least. The Fed’s current benchmark lending rate is set in a range of 1.50-1.75 per cent, and rate futures markets are pricing in a cut of at least a quarter percentage point at the Fed’s next scheduled meeting March 17-18. “The only way to get a positive market reaction is to deliver more than expected,” he wrote.

• It will include “forward guidance” – a central bank term for some form of pledge regarding future policy action. Nelson said he would not be surprised to see something aimed at preventing a further erosion of inflation, something the Fed and other central banks have been battling for most of the past decade. His suggestion: The Fed pledges not to raise rates or take other policy tightening actions until its preferred measure of inflation is above its formal target of 2 per cent for six months.

Alongside his predictions for a globally coordinated move – something many investors and economists worry could well fall short of what’s needed because of depleted tool kits at the world’s big central banks – Nelson in a related post said the Fed could loosen a number of requirements and other regulations on US banks to help keep credit moving.

Regarding the rate cut, however, he does offer one big caveat: “If markets are calm Monday and Tuesday, I’m not sure what will happen.”

Have a question on the coronavirus outbreak? E-mail us at [email protected]

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Senate 'has votes' to reject Trump's border emergency declaration

Republican leadership acknowledges there are enough votes to pass the resolution, which Trump has vowed to veto.

    US Senate Republican leadership have acknowledged that opponents of President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency along the US-Mexico border have enough votes in the Republican-led Senate to prevail on a resolution aimed at blocking the move.

    McConnell, who fell in line behind Trump despite his own misgivings about the declaration, said Trump will veto the resolution and that it’s likely to be sustained in Congress. McConnell’s remarks on Monday came after fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul became the latest Republican legislators to say he cannot go along with the White House on the emergency declaration.

    “I think what is clear in the Senate is there will be enough votes to pass the resolution of disapproval, which will then be vetoed by the president and then, in all likelihood, the veto will be upheld in the House,” McConnell told reporters.

    Besides Paul, other Republican senators who have announced they will defy Trump on the issue are Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. With those four, and assuming that all 47 Democrats and their independent allies vote against Trump, that would give opponents 51 votes – just past the necessary majority.

    Paul told reporters on Monday that based on conversations with colleagues, there are “at least 10” GOP senators prepared to vote to nullify Trump’s move. The vote is expected next week. 

    The Democratic-led House recently voted to upend Trump’s declaration, which he declared to circumvent Congress and funnel billions of extra dollars to erecting his proposed border wall.

    Trump made the declaration after Congress passed a spending measure to keep the government open that include nearly $1.4bn in funding for border security measures, but not a concrete wall, ending a dispute that had led to a record 35-day partial shutdown of the government.

    Asked Monday if the Senate can try to amend the resolution, McConnell said senators have been consulting with the parliamentarian about “what options there are, if any”.

    ‘I argued he shouldn’t take this route’

    McConnell, who has worked closely with Trump on the tax-system overhaul, the selection of conservative judges and other issues, acknowledged he had counselled the president against making the declaration. The Senate leader said he is worried that Trump’s move would set a precedent for future Democratic presidents to make such a declaration for their own purposes. 

    “That’s one reason I argued, obviously without success to the president, that he not take this route,” McConnell said.

    Many politicians opposed to the emergency declaration say it tramples Congress’s constitutional power to control spending. They also are concerned Trump would siphon money away from projects in their home districts to construct the barrier.

    McConnell did not comment on Monday on Paul’s position on the declaration. At a GOP dinner this past weekend in Kentucky, Paul said, “I can’t vote to give the president the power to spend money that hasn’t been appropriated by Congress.

    “We may want more money for border security, but Congress didn’t authorize it. If we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing,” Paul added, according to the newspaper Bowling Green Daily News.

    Under the declaration, Trump would divert $3.6bn from military construction to erect more border barriers. He’s invoking other powers to transfer an additional $3.1bn to construction. Lawsuits have been filed aimed at derailing the declaration, which could at least prevent Trump from getting the extra money for months or more.

    Other Republicans including Senator Lamar Alexander have been trying to persuade Trump to abandon the emergency declaration and draw the money from other budget accounts that he has the power to tap.

    Paul said he spoke to Trump Sunday night and detected no signs of backing down. “I think he’s made his decision,” he told reporters.

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    Trump revokes Obama-era order to report civilian drone deaths

    Officials were required to disclose civilian deaths outside war zones but Trump administration calls it a ‘distraction’.

      President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that revoked an Obama-era policy requiring United States intelligence officials to report civilian deaths in drone attacks outside active war zones.

      Former President Barack Obama, put the policy in place in 2016 as part of an effort to be more transparent about drone attacks after he had dramatically increased their use against armed groups in mostly Muslim countries. 

      Trump’s rescinding of the policy was done with little fanfare on Wednesday. The White House released the text of his executive order.

      “This action eliminates superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission,” an administration official said.

      According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US has carried out 6,786 drone attacks since 2004, killing up to 12,105 people, including as many as 1,725 civilians, of which between 253 and 397 were children.

      The Obama policy had required the US director of national intelligence to release, by May 1 each year, an unclassified summary of the number of attacks undertaken by the US against targets outside areas of active hostilities.

      “The United States government is fully committed to complying with its obligations under the law of armed conflict, minimising, to the greatest extent possible, civilian casualties, and acknowledging responsibility when they unfortunately occur during military operations,” the administration official said.

      US Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat who chairs the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, in a statement, called the requirement issued by Obama “an important measure of transparency,” and said, “there is simply no justification” for cancelling it.

      “Today’s decision underscores the need for Congress to make this reporting mandatory, something I intend to pursue through the Intelligence Authorization Act this year,” he said.

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      Russia probe 'an illegal takedown that failed': Trump

      US President Donald Trump has criticised the two-year probe into his links with Russia.

        US President Donald Trump has criticised a 22-month probe into his links with Russia as “an illegal takedown that failed”, claiming he was completely cleared by the results.

        “It’s a shame our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this,” Trump told reporters on Sunday before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington from Florida in the United States.

        “This was an illegal takedown that failed. And hopefully, somebody’s going to be looking at the other side.”

        In a summary of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings sent to Congress, Attorney General Bill Barr said no Trump campaign official was involved in the Russian conspiracies to hack Democratic computers and flood social media with disinformation to harm Trump’s election rival Hillary Clinton.

        “The special counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts,” Barr wrote.

        On the other hand, Barr said Mueller declined to reach a decision on the evidence against the president of obstruction – almost guaranteeing that Democrats in Congress would push to investigate this further.

        Mueller wrote that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”, Barr said.

        Following the release of the summary, Trump wrote on Twitter: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” 

        Trump’s legal team said the president was completely vindicated.

        “This is a complete and total vindication of the president,” the team said in a statement.

        Investigations move to Congress 

        Barr’s letter marked the conclusion of the investigation into allegations that Trump’s election campaign coordinated and colluded with Russians to skew the 2016 vote so the billionaire real estate magnate would win.

        Mueller’s team indicted 34 individuals, and reached guilty pleas or verdicts against five former Trump aides, including one-time lawyer Michael Cohen, national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

        But it marked the beginning of a new phase, the determination of Democrats in Congress to further investigate Trump, using the evidence from the Mueller probe.

        Democrats demanded to receive Mueller’s entire report and his underlying evidence to further their own multiple investigations into the president.

        “Seems like the Department of Justice is putting matters squarely in Congress’ court,” Democratic Representative Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter.

        “Special Counsel Mueller clearly and explicitly is not exonerating the President, and we must hear from AG Barr about his decision making and see all the underlying evidence for the American people to know all the facts.”

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        US: Illinois factory gunman killed co-workers after being sacked

        Factory manager and human resources official are among Gary Martin’s five victims, local police chief says.

          The gunman who killed five fellow workers at a factory in the US state of Illinois on Friday had just been fired from his job, according to local authorities.

          Gary Martin, 45, had armed himself with a .40 calibre handgun, which he owned illegally, before reporting for a meeting where he was told he was sacked, Kristen Ziman, local police chief, told a news conference on Saturday.

          Ziman says Martin pulled the gun and began shooting right after he heard the news. She says three of the five Henry Pratt Co. co-workers he killed were in the room with him and the other two were just outside. A sixth male worker was shot but survived.

          The company is in a working-class district of Aurora, the second-largest city in Illinois, 65km west of Chicago.

          Those killed included Josh Pinkard, the plant manager, and Clayton Parks, the human resources manager.

          The other victims were identified as Trevor Wehner, a human resources intern, Russell Beyer, a mould operator, and Vicente Juarez, a stock room attendant and forklift operator. Police did not give the ages of the victims.

          Another employee at the plant, whose name was not released, was wounded in the shooting and treated at hospital for non-life threatening injuries, police said.

          Five police officers were also wounded by gunfire before Martin was killed in a shootout with police.

          At least two of the wounded police officers remained in hospital on Saturday in stable condition, Ziman said. A sixth officer was injured in the incident, but not by gunfire, police said.

          The factory-warehouse plant employs about 200 workers.

          Prior felony

          Martin had bought the weapon, a Smith and Wesson handgun with a laser sight, in 2014 before authorities realised he had a prior felony conviction, Ziman said.

          “The fact remains that some disgruntled person walked in and had access to a firearm that he shouldn’t have had access to,” she said.

          Investigators were seeking to determine why Martin was not forced to relinquish his gun before the shooting, Ziman said.

          He should have been barred from owning a handgun because he had a 1995 conviction for aggravated assault in Mississippi, she said, and he also had at least seven prior arrests in Illinois.

          The bloodshed marked the latest spasm of gun violence in a nation where mass shootings have become almost commonplace and came a day after the one-year anniversary of the massacre of 17 people by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

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