In Brief: August 8, 2020

Last-ditch virus aid talks collapse; no help for jobless now

WASHINGTON — A last-ditch effort by Democrats to revive Capitol Hill talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money collapsed in disappointment Friday, making it increasingly likely that Washington gridlock will mean more hardship for millions of people who are losing enhanced jobless benefits and further damage for an economy pummeled by the still-raging coronavirus.

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President Donald Trump said Friday night he was likely to issue more limited executive orders related to COVID, perhaps in the next day or so, if he can’t reach a broad agreement with Congress.

The day’s negotiations at the Capitol added up to only “a disappointing meeting,” declared top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, saying the White House had rejected an offer by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to curb Democratic demands by about $1 trillion. He urged the White House to “negotiate with Democrats and meet us in the middle. Don’t say it’s your way or no way.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “Unfortunately we did not make any progress today.” Republicans said Pelosi was relying on budget maneuvers to curb costs and contended she has overplayed her hand.

Often an impasse in Washington is of little consequence for the public — not so this time. It means longer and perhaps permanent expiration of a $600 per-week bonus pandemic jobless benefit that’s kept millions of people from falling into poverty. It denies more than $100 billion to help schools reopen this fall. It blocks additional funding for virus testing as cases are surging this summer. And it denies billions of dollars to state and local governments considering furloughs as their revenue craters.

US intel: Russia acting against Biden; China opposes Trump

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia is using a variety of measures to denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of the November election and that individuals linked to the Kremlin are boosting President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, the country’s counterintelligence chief said in the most specific warning to date about the threat of foreign interference.

U.S. officials also believe China does not want Trump to win a second term and has accelerated its criticism of the White House, expanding its efforts to shape public policy in America and to pressure political figures seen as opposed to Beijing’s interests.

The statement Friday from William Evanina is believed to be the most pointed declaration by the U.S. intelligence community linking the Kremlin to efforts to get Trump reelected — a sensitive subject for a president who has rejected intelligence agency assessments that Russia tried to help him in 2016. It also connects Moscow’s disapproval of Biden to his role as vice president in shaping Obama administration policies supporting Ukraine, an important U.S. ally, and opposing Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Asked about the intelligence assessment Friday evening in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump appeared to dispute the idea that Russia was disparaging Biden. “I think the last person Russia wants to see in office is Donald Trump because nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have — ever,” he said.

But the president seemed to agree with the intelligence indicating China didn’t want him reelected. “If Joe Biden was president, China would own our country,” he said.

Officials warned of explosive chemicals at Beirut port

BEIRUT — At least 10 times over the past six years, authorities from Lebanon’s customs, military, security agencies and judiciary raised alarm that a massive stockpile of explosive chemicals was being kept with almost no safeguard at the port in the heart of Beirut, newly surfaced documents show.

Yet in a circle of negligence, nothing was done — and on Tuesday, the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up, obliterating the city’s main commercial hub and spreading death and wreckage for miles around.

President Michel Aoun, in office since 2016, said Friday that he was first told of the dangerous stockpile nearly three weeks ago and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed.” But he suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port and that previous governments had been told of its presence.

“Do you know how many problems have been accumulating?” Aoun replied when a reporter pressed whether he should have followed up on his order.

The documents surfacing in social media since the blast underscore the corruption, negligence and incompetence of Lebanon’s long-ruling political oligarchy, and its failure to provide its people with basic needs, including security.

From wire sources

Mauritius declares emergency as stranded ship spills fuel

JOHANNESBURG — The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius declared a “state of environmental emergency” late Friday after a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tons of fuel.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth announced the development as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near environmental areas that the government called “very sensitive.”

Mauritius has said the ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel and cracks have appeared in its hull.

Jugnauth earlier in the day said his government was appealing to France for help, saying the spill “represents a danger” for the country of some 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have appealed for help from France and President Emmanuel Macron,” he said. Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and “I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates.”

Liberty U’s Falwell takes leave after social media uproar

RICHMOND, Va. — Jerry Falwell Jr. took an indefinite leave of absence Friday as the leader of Liberty University, one of the nation’s top evangelical Christian colleges, days after apologizing for a social media post that caused an uproar even among fellow conservatives.

The private university in Lynchburg, Virginia, gave no reason for Falwell’s departure in a one-sentence announcement Friday afternoon. But it came after Falwell’s apology earlier this week for a since-deleted photo he posted online showing him with his pants unzipped, stomach exposed and his arm around a young woman in a similar pose.

The statement said the executive committee of Liberty’s board of trustees, acting on behalf of the full board, met Friday and requested Falwell take leave as president and chancellor, “to which he has agreed, effective immediately.”

A high-profile supporter of President Donald Trump, Falwell has served since 2007 as president of the university founded by his evangelist father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

He did not immediately return a call seeking comment. University spokesman Scott Lamb said he had no further comment.

US reports show racial disparities in kids with COVID-19

NEW YORK — Racial disparities in the U.S. coronavirus epidemic extend to children, according to two sobering government reports released Friday.

One of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports looked at children with COVID-19 who needed hospitalization. Hispanic children were hospitalized at a rate eight times higher than white kids, and Black children were hospitalized at a rate five times higher, it found.

The second report examined cases of a rare virus-associated syndrome in kids. It found that nearly three-quarters of the children with the syndrome were either Hispanic or Black, well above their representation in the general population.

The coronavirus has exposed racial fractures in the U.S. health care system, as Black, Hispanic and Native Americans have been hospitalized and killed by COVID-19 at far higher rates than other groups.

Meanwhile, the impact of the virus on children has become a political issue. President Donald Trump and some other administration officials have been pushing schools to re-open, a step that would allow more parents to return to work and the economy to pick up.

Endangered Brazilian monkeys get a bridge to themselves

RIO DE JANEIRO — The overpass juts from a forest over a four-lane highway in a rural area outside Rio de Janeiro. It’s meant for a very special sort of pedestrian: golden lion tamarins, small orange primates that for decades have been at risk of extinction.

The little primate, whose name derives from the shock of orange fur that frames its face like a mane, has watched its habitat shrink over decades — even centuries — of rampant deforestation. Animal traffickers have also targeted the brightly colored monkeys.

Bowing to pressure from an environmental association — and following a court order — the highway’s administrator in late July finished construction of the overpass that’s aimed at helping conserve the species.

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About 20 meters (65 feet) wide and twice as long, the bridge connects the Poco de Dantas biological reserve in Rio state’s Silva Jardim municipality with a farm that the Golden Lion Tamarin Association acquired to transform into an ecological park.

Recently planted trees on the overpass — only inches tall at present — are expected within two years to reach heights allowing the monkeys to cross from one swath of Atlantic forest to another.

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