UK minister resigns over Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip

LONDON — A junior minister in Boris Johnson's government resigned on Tuesday over top aide Dominic Cummings' alleged breach of the U.K.'s lockdown guidelines, saying he could not "in good faith" tell his constituents that the advisers' actions were justifiable.

Douglas Ross, under secretary of state for Scotland, wrote to Johnson saying that the public reaction to reports of Cummings' 260-mile drive from London to Durham in late March demonstrated that the adviser's "interpretation of the government guidance was not shared by the vast majority of people who have done what the government asked."

His is the first resignation in connection with the issue and will increase pressure on Johnson, who has faced calls to sack Cummings from opposition parties and from at least 20 Conservative MPs.

Ross added: "I have constituents who didn't get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who did not visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government. I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right."

Johnson has stood by Cummings since the first reports of his actions on Friday evening. On Monday, Cummings said he did not regret his actions and Johnson reiterated that he believed his adviser had acted legally and in the best interests of his family.

A No. 10 spokesman said: “The prime minister would like to thank Douglas Ross for his service to government and regrets his decision to stand down as parliamentary under secretary of state for Scotland.”

Trump and friends: Where European countries come down on Huawei

After a bruising campaign to convince allies to dump Chinese giant Huawei, President Donald Trump can start to take stock on how effective — or pointless — his efforts have been.

In short, it's a mixed bag.

Countries in Eastern Europe that rely heavily on U.S. military protection through NATO have taken the toughest line. Among big Western countries, the picture is varied, with Germany so far stopping short of hard restrictions on Huawei. Some countries are undecided while others, like Denmark, have taken surprisingly tough measures.

After a year of debating 5G risks, all EU countries are meant tell the bloc's executive branch in Brussels before the summer how they plan to implement new security measures.

The measures come after EU countries in January adopted a joint strategy for governments to limit Huawei's market dominance and ease up on using Chinese equipment. Several countries have since turned that strategy into law, and cybersecurity authorities are set to release a progress report by end-June.

In the coming months, some countries may yet decide to tighten or loosen their approach, with telecoms operators playing a key role. The CEOs of giants including Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica urged governments in mid-March to "ensure that corresponding costs are compensated through adequate measures, including fiscal measures.”

Here's a closer look at how European countries have responded to the Trump-led campaign on Huawei:

Friends to the east

Early on in the debate, Washington secured the support of Romania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic, all of which have signed joint statements or memorandums with the U.S. government on 5G security.

These are nonbinding, political pledges that, if implemented, would cut market access to suppliers that are subject to foreign interference, lack transparent corporate ownership structures and violate international ethical norms and intellectual property protections.

While the statements send a clear signal, they have little value if they are not backed up by law forcing telecoms companies to abide by their terms.

In Poland, the government in past weeks fast-tracked legislation on 5G security to make sure the next spectrum auction would include tougher rules on high-risk vendors, overriding the telecoms regulator. Warsaw's digital minister said in February the country would restrict “high-risk” 5G telecoms vendors in ways that go beyond security controls proposed by the EU.

In Estonia, parliament has passed amendments to its Electronic Communications Act that would require operators to coordinate with the country’s communications authority on 5G rollout. That means input from the country's security and intelligence services, opening the door to more restrictive measures against high-risk vendors.

The Czech Republic proved a strong advocate of the U.S. approach on the European stage, anchoring the "Prague Principles" that built a Western consensus around Chinese vendors.

Germany, Trump's (almost) Waterloo

If any capital has been hard to convince, it's Berlin.

The German government was one of the first to be courted by U.S. diplomats about the issue — and quickly rebuffed their arguments.

Skepticism about Washington's allegations against Huawei fueled Berlin's caution, but so did the government's trauma of U.S. surveillance practices and the hacking of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone years earlier. What's more, Germany's leading operators Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone have existing 4G telecoms networks that rely on Huawei for well over half of their total makeup. The German government also fears that barring the Chinese vendor would heavily damage its ties with China, its largest trading partner.

However, the debate is ongoing. After months of pressure from parliament and Merkel's smaller coalition partner, the interior ministry earlier this month proposed a draft law, seen by POLITICO, that would increase security requirements for 5G suppliers, including granting that ministry new powers to block nontrusted suppliers from the market.

But it's unclear how the government plans to assess suppliers' trustworthiness. Merkel's allies in the government are still skeptical of any hard restrictions on using Chinese equipment.

“The real meat is in how this gets done, and who decides on trustworthiness,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute. “We’re dithering and allowing companies to create insecure networks.”

France's tech sovereignty ambition

France has sought to take a leading role on 5G security in Europe as part of efforts to put itself front and center of international affairs.

The country already had national security checks on operators’ cybersecurity policies and on their use of vendors in key parts of its networks. Last year, it added provisions in its national telecoms laws that allow the prime minister's office, through the cybersecurity agency, to block operators' use of "RAN" network equipment like base stations and antennae if doing so would harm national security.

“Since the beginning of December operators must obtain an authorization from the prime minister for any deployment of base stations,” Guillaume Poupard, the country’s chief cybersecurity official, said in February. That means the government, through Poupard, can block deployment if they don't like the supplier of the kit.

“We consider telecommunication operators as critical operators," Poupard said. "They have to work with us in order to protect our networks. They cannot only try to make money."

France's model — which avoids naming Chinese vendors — is one of heavy government oversight and intervention over the 5G rollout process.

Huawei has sought to nudge Paris' decision-making by promising millions of investment in a first-of-its-kind European manufacturing base. But a diplomatic spat involving Beijing's ambassador to Paris has caused tension between the two countries, with little news on the factory plans since the pandemic hit.

Battleground states

Several European countries stand out in their strategic importance — both for Huawei and the U.S. government.

Italy, the EU's third largest economy, early last year expanded its "golden power rule," a trade defense tool that allows the government to block contracts between operators and equipment vendors. At the end of last year it passed legislation on a cybersecurity "perimeter" that would impose new requirements on telecoms and IT services used in "strategic" sectors. The government is now finalizing a list of businesses, sectors and government organizations that would fall under the tighter regime.

In Belgium — another strategic country because it houses NATO headquarters and the main EU institutions — intelligence services advised the government to limit the use of "non-trusted suppliers" and officials are drafting the legal provisions that are expected to cut Chinese vendors at least from "core" network parts.

The Dutch government, seen as traditionally close to the U.S. on cybersecurity and intelligence issues, in December adopted new provisions that allow it to ban vendors from the market if there is a suspicion that they could sabotage a network or that have close ties or legal obligations to foreign governments that harm security. The Netherlands earlier flagged that it would require operators to ban high-risk vendors from "core" networks.

The undecideds

These capitals have mostly tested Trump's patience.

Many governments are still consulting with telecoms companies, intelligence services and regulatory agencies about proposing legal changes that would box out high-risk vendors. That's the case in Madrid, Lisbon, Luxembourg, Stockholm, Vienna, Helsinki and other capitals.

In Spain, the economy minister in February said she was preparing legal acts, but the country since then faced delays and had to push back a spectrum auction. Meanwhile, Spanish telco giant Telefónica said it would reduce the amount of Huawei kit in new networks (but still procure the Chinese vendor), while Orange said it would use ZTE, Huawei and Ericsson in Spain.

In Sweden, home of Huawei's main competitor Ericsson, and in Finland, where European challenger Nokia is based, the governments are still making up their minds on how to beef up security regulations in the telecoms market.

The surprise state

In Denmark, the government is preparing legislation that would define its entire 5G network as critical infrastructure, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told newspaper Berlingske in May. It would put core, non-core and other parts of networks under tough security requirements.

Copenhagen's approach would reshape the telecom market, but the government has yet to call out specific vendors. “We have not yet defined the objective criteria in the legislation. But when we look at the choice of supplier as an area of security policy, then that means the security alliance that we are part of and have our roots in,” Frederiksen said.

The move came after a diplomatic storm between China and Denmark over Huawei's role. The Chinese ambassador to Denmark in December reportedly said a trade deal between the Faroe Islands (an autonomous part of Denmark) and China would be dropped if Huawei was not able to secure contracts for the rollout of 5G on the island.

Britain goes Europe's way on Huawei

The United Kingdom was leading the EU discussion on 5G security until it left the bloc in February.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the end of January announced the government will allow Huawei to sell equipment for 5G networks but keep its access limited to peripheral, non-sensitive parts of the network. It also imposed a cap of 35 percent on Huawei's market share — a type of measure that, so far, no European government has copied.

Above all, Britain's relationship with the U.S. is shaping its policy on 5G security. That includes calls for a hard reboot of its approach to China.

“The Huawei debate is exposing perhaps a wider, very difficult discussion about our relationship with China, which we today perhaps have been in a little denial about,” the chairman of the defense committee in the U.K. House of Commons Tobias Ellwood told POLITICO in a recent interview.

He added: “As much as the Americans are wanting us to stay away from the Chinese, the bigger question for all of us is: How did we get here?”

Can NASA and Elon Musk lift off?

A lot will be riding on the 230-foot rocket that lifts off this week from Cape Canaveral: The lives of two NASA astronauts. The United States’ ambitions to reclaim its independence as a space-faring nation. And hopes for a reimagined era of space travel in which private companies ferry humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond.

The consequences of failure would be equally historic — for both NASA and its contractor SpaceX, the 18-year-old startup founded by the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

SpaceX beat the competition to the finish line for Wednesday’s 4:33 p.m. liftoff — ahead of more-established rivals like Boeing — and for the chance to become the first private business to fly humans into orbit. The mission would also be the first to launch astronauts from U.S. soil since the shuttle Atlantis took its final flight in 2011, triggering nine years of total American reliance on Russian spacecraft.

For now, NASA’s fortunes are tied to Musk’s, who has made headlines recently for antics like vowing to sell all his houses, denouncing coronavirus lockdowns as “fascist” and reopening Tesla’s electric-car factory in defiance of California health authorities.

But NASA has big ambitions beyond Wednesday, viewing this launch as a first step to working with commercial providers on ventures like private space stations or human travels to the lunar surface. Such partnerships with industry are a crucial way the agency, which is hustling to meet President Donald Trump’s demands for a moon landing in 2024, plans to stretch its dollars in the decades ahead.

Now it just needs Wednesday’s launch to prove that the commercial model can succeed for the riskiest missions, such as transporting people.

“We’re on the cusp of proving it,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both plan to attend the historic event. On Thursday, the president invited reporters at the White House to come as well, adding: “I’d like to put you on the rocket and get rid of you for a while.”

‘The promises of science fiction’

Some aspects of Wednesday’s launch might seem routine: It would be NASA’s 61st expedition to the International Space Station. The astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, are veteran spacefarers who have spent a combined 57 days in space and served as test pilots in the Marine Corps and Air Force, respectively.

But SpaceX’s role is a major departure from the traditional way NASA has sent its astronauts into space, during the decades when it funded, owned and operated its own rockets and shuttles. This time, under its Commercial Crew program, both the agency and industry will fund the privately owned spacecraft, and NASA will buy rides aboard vehicles that also moonlight as transports-for-hire for a growing space economy.

Wednesday’s mission is also a potential milestone in making space more accessible — to scientists, tourists or even Tom Cruise, who recently said he wants to film a movie aboard the space station. And it comes as other private businesses aim to take humans to the final frontier, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“Commercial Crew is the first step,” said Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut who is now a professor at the University of Southern California and a consultant for SpaceX. “A lot of the individuals doing this like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are looking to fulfill the promises of science fiction. … What’s happening now is the beginning of a path towards that.”

But those hopes carry inherent risks.

SpaceX has already disrupted the industry, with its cost-cutting strategy of employing reusable rockets to launch satellites and cargo to the International Space Station. But the company has faced troubles getting to its first flight with humans onboard. One of the crew capsules exploded during a test in April 2019, grounding the vehicle for months during an investigation into the accident. The parachutes that will slow the capsule as it returns to Earth also failed in a May 2019 test. Neither test had humans onboard.

Another curveball is Musk, who has rankled some government officials by actions such as smoking marijuana on a 2018 video podcast — a big no-no for a government contractor with a security clearance that prompted NASA to conduct an investigation into SpaceX’s safety culture — and daring authorities to arrest him when he reopened Tesla’s plant near San Francisco.

Then again, wily and unpredictable government contractors are nothing new, as demonstrated by Howard Hughes, the billionaire director of “Hells Angels” who became a major defense contractor after founding Hughes Aircraft Co. in 1932. And so far, NASA has learned to accept Musk's behavior as “just Elon being Elon,” according to two industry officials, because he mostly delivers on his promises. So has the Pentagon, which increasingly relies on SpaceX for sensitive national security missions.

NASA officials also have a lot of faith in Gwynne Shotwell, the chief operating officer who runs much of the day-to-day business at SpaceX. One industry official said NASA views Musk as more of a “figurehead,” but that the company under Shotwell is doing all the testing and safety checks the agency requires.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. But Benjamin Reed, the company’s director of crew mission management, said at a pre-launch news conference on Friday that it views this week’s mission as a “sacred honor.”

“Those are meaningful words when we say that,” he said. “Our job is to carry Bob and Doug to the space station … and then we need to bring them home safely back to their families.”

Faster and cheaper?

The Commercial Crew program is also helping finance a competing vehicle — Boeing's Starliner — which failed to reach the space station in December during a flight test without a crew. The capsule, which is still undergoing tests, is expected to redo that test flight this summer.

Since the project got underway in 2010, NASA has paid about $3.1 billion to SpaceX and about $4.8 billion to Boeing to develop their respective capsules. Both companies have fallen years behind schedule, according to a November inspector general report. The IG report also found that the space agency paid Boeing an “unnecessary” extra $287 million, in part to address a change in flight schedules caused by the company’s delay.

Space industry leaders say purchasing transportation services from the companies will save the government money, speed up development and promote innovation. But given the two companies’ delays, the Government Accountability Office urged NASA in June to come up with an alternative plan to send astronauts to the International Space Station in case both capsules weren’t ready on time.

NASA maintains that the Commercial Crew program over its lifetime will cost between $20 billion and $30 billion less than projected costs of the Constellation program, a government-led human launch effort that the Obama administration abandoned more than a decade ago.

At its current pace, the development of Commercial Crew has been only slightly faster than that of the space shuttle, the agency’s last successful program to launch humans into space. NASA began cost studies of a space shuttle in early 1970, and the shuttle Columbia launched on its first flight in April 1981. Work on Commercial Crew has been going on for a decade.

“The commercial space industry has been promising disruption for some time now, and now we’re actually delivering on it,” said Tim Ellis, the CEO of Relativity Space, a space launch company, and a member of the National Space Council’s User Advisory Group.

Others, however, point out that private contractors have always built spacecraft for NASA. What’s different this time is who owns the space capsule, what logo appears on the side of the rocket and the fact that a SpaceX employee, not someone from NASA, will give the final go-ahead to launch, said John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He added that the biggest difference is “primarily symbolic.”

“It’s not that different from shuttle,” he said. “The power relationships are a bit different, but NASA is still in the loop with a veto. … What’s different is that there will be a SpaceX logo on the spacecraft and the rocket and that the final launch decision is the responsibility of the private sector.”

The goals of the Commercial Crew program to deliver routine access to space are not new either. The space shuttle was originally expected to fly to space once a week, but that never happened as the missions ended up being much less frequent and more expensive than originally projected.

The commercial approach is already being incorporated into NASA’s plans to reach the moon, however. As part of Project Artemis, which has a goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024, the space agency plans to invest alongside commercial companies in lunar landers to bring people to the surface, and then buy rides back and forth as a service.

Tourists and drug researchers in space

Supporters also see the launch of SpaceX's Crew Dragon as a major step in opening up space to a much broader population.

For example, nations that don’t have the money or expertise to develop their own space programs could also purchase rides for their astronauts, similar to a space shuttle program that allowed international astronauts to travel as payload specialists. But in this case, the countries would be buying a seat from SpaceX or Boeing, not from NASA. As of yet, though, no foreign countries have booked a trip to space on one of the companies’ capsules.

And that's only the beginning. For decades, rocket scientists and aeronautical engineers have imagined more ordinary people living and working in space. The Commercial Crew program could offer a portal into a private space economy.

“This is really just the first step,” said Tory Bruno, the CEO of the rocket company United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — and a member of the National Space Council’s User Advisory Group. “There is a time ... just a couple decades away where ordinary people like you might live and work in space. All of that begins in [low-Earth orbit.]”

As soon as the next few years, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner could ferry scientists in the pharmaceutical or other industries to the space station to conduct research, predicts Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “That will be made possible because of the routine access that Commercial Crew will offer,” he said.

The Commercial Crew program also has potential implications for space tourism, allowing the capsules to bring wealthy space enthusiasts to the ISS. That would offer a more immersive experience than what is expected to be available on flights from companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, which would include only a few minutes of weightlessness and a glimpse at the curvature of the Earth from the edge of space.

“In the beginning, it’ll be very wealthy people going on rides to the space station in these vehicles … but eventually, it will follow the same trajectory airlines did,” Reisman said. “At the very beginning it was millionaires flying on these rickety old tri motors … [who] would dress in black tie for the event. Today we have Southwest and Jet Blue. … Everyone gets to go.”

Russian partnership may suffer

By restoring America's ability to launch its own astronauts, the SpaceX mission could offer a much-needed shot in the arm for NASA’s ambitions, as well as a hopeful moment of unity for a nation that has spent months isolated and divided over the pandemic.

Yet it would also end a key element of the United States’ space partnership with Russia, which has been launching American astronauts from Kazakhstan since the shuttle program ended nearly a decade ago. That relationship has been lucrative for Russia: NASA has reportedly paid $86 million per seat to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station.

Once SpaceX and Boeing can routinely launch missions from Florida, that funding source will dry up, threatening the health of the already-struggling Russian space program.

The U.S. and Russia will continue to work together on the space station, but that could be privatized as early as 2024. NASA is planning to develop another orbiting habitat around the moon called the Gateway, but it’s unclear if Russia would have the money to sign on to a major project like that.

“I think it’s likely the level of cooperation will diminish,” said Bruce McClintock, a retired Air Force officer who served as special assistant to the commander of Air Force Space Command and the defense attache to the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Specifically, McClintock predicts that Russia’s launch facility in Kazakhstan will suffer the most. He said the space community near the launch site could crumble the same way the Florida space coast cratered when the space shuttle program ended.

Bridenstine has raised the prospect of a barter system for future rides to the International Space Station, where American astronauts fly on the Soyuz capsule and Russian cosmonauts fly on the Boeing and SpaceX capsules but no money is exchanged.

“It would be less of a purchase and more of a partnership,” he said at a roundtable with reporters this month. “That’s what we’re trying to get to. … We have to make sure we have our own access to space.”

And that may be the biggest impact of the upcoming SpaceX mission: relaunching America as the leader in human spaceflight.

Even without the ability to send humans to orbit over the past decade, NASA carried out other impressive space missions, including sending robotic rovers to Mars, snapping closeups of Saturn and probing Pluto and its moon. But there remains a perception that America was no longer in the lead.

“When we ended the shuttle and began being dependent upon Russian for access to ... space, that was a pretty big step backwards in terms of America’s leadership,” said Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance. “Getting back to taking human beings back to space from American soil is much larger than just switching carriers, if you will. It has to do with America’s posture in the world, our ability to influence others diplomatically and in the scientific community and our own view of what else we’ll do in space.”

Teasel Muir-Harmony, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum, agreed that the public often sees high-profile human missions as the only kind of spaceflight.

“I remember after 2011 hearing a lot of people think that not just the shuttle program had ended, but that NASA had ended,” she said. “In terms of popular perception, this launch is really important.”

As residents perish, nursing homes fight for protection from lawsuits

As an unprecedented catastrophe unfolds in which more than 28,000 people have died of Covid-19 in care facilities, the nursing home industry is responding with an unprecedented action of its own: Using its multi-million dollar lobbying machine to secure protections from liability in lawsuits.

At least 20 states have swiftly taken action within the last two and a half months to limit the legal exposure of the politically powerful nursing home industry, which risks huge losses if families of coronavirus victims successfully sue facilities hit by the pandemic. Now, the industry is turning its energies to obtaining nationwide protections from Congress in the upcoming coronavirus relief bill.

The nursing home industry is one of the lobbying world’s quiet powerhouses. The state actions to protect the industry came after it spent tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and other advocacy per year, according to a POLITICO review of state and federal records. At the federal level, the industry has spent more than $4 million on lobbying over the past year, employing more than a dozen full-time lobbyists and drawing on an army of contractors including Brian Ballard, former lobbyist for President Donald Trump, and ex-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.

In early April, nursing home giant Life Care Centers of America — the multi-state chain whose facility in Kirkland, Washington, was the nation’s first epicenter of coronavirus — hired a team of four former aides to ex-Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was close with Senate leadership, to lobby on Covid-19 issues.

Industry advocates, including the American Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, argue it would be disastrous for care facilities to be held liable for the deaths of elderly residents, who are far more vulnerable to coronavirus than the rest of the population. They also contend nursing homes have been forced to fight the virus while facing shortages of critical protective gear and testing capabilities because of flawed federal policies over which they have no control. They are also adapting to new federal regulations on the fly.

But lawyers and victims’ advocates point to reports of horrifying neglect and egregious misjudgments by nursing homes across the country that they allege contributed to the deaths of residents, and said that, in many states with weak regulations, the threat of a lawsuit represents a crucial protection for the most vulnerable people.

“The stuff that we’re seeing, it’s pretty awful,” said Brian Lee, a former ombudsman and executive director of Families for Better Care, an advocacy group focusing on long-term care. "The ask from the industry is sweeping. This is about the owners protecting their business and their profits.”

Lee contends some homes have been negligent in failing to protect elderly people from infection.

"They’re supposed to have emergency plans in place,” he said. “It’s supposed to include how to work through a pandemic. They were supposed to be ready for this, they’re not.”

Advocates for the elderly note that nursing homes already have significant legal protections under law – which were further strengthened when the Trump administration watered down Obama-era policies that had blocked homes from forcing residents to forego their right to sue in favor of arbitration. The many homes with documented poor safety records shouldn’t be protected if they, say, fail to send symptomatic residents to the hospital or neglect to set up proper hygiene protocols, advocates claim.

“Knowing the public regulatory system is pretty weak, they want to stop any other place where they would be held accountable — and that would be litigation,” said Toby Edelman, an attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

Edelman noted that residents of nursing homes are especially vulnerable to fraud and abuse during times like these when relatives are barred from making visits, where they might witness and report any neglectful practices.

“To me, that’s a frightening combination,” said Edelman, referring to the protection against lawsuits and the lack of a real-time checks on standards of care.

A broader debate over whether to shield corporations from coronavirus-related lawsuits has divided Congress along party lines, with Democrats arguing sick and vulnerable people need to maintain their right to sue, and Republicans arguing businesses will not be able to survive the onslaught of legal action that’s to come without extra protections. But there is far less of a partisan divide among states, where the push for changes in liability for nursing homes has been bipartisan, from Mississippi to Connecticut. In several states, Democratic governors have taken the lead via executive order.

Indemnifying nursing homes is “incredibly unfair, incredibly unjust and leaves an already vulnerable population exposed,” said Justin Varughese, a New York trial attorney who is planning to sue nursing homes in the state, which recently imposed new limits on their liability, signed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We really need [lawmakers] to amend the breadth of the law to protect the vulnerable here.”

Varughese pointed to cases in which, for example, a nursing home left a dozen or more residents in a room with no personal protective equipment and no consideration for social distancing — situations that he said encouraged the spread of Covid-19, and should be grounds for lawsuits. But the law recently enacted in New York requires that he must be able to show “gross negligence,” a difficult-to-prove legal standard that involves a reckless disregard for safety.

Cuomo signed both the new law expanding liability protection for nursing homes and an additional executive order that relaxes recordkeeping laws for nursing homes and hospitals, which lawyers and victims’ advocates say could further handicap their work.

“If they don’t document what they did and didn’t do, how can they be held accountable for what they did and didn’t do?” said Varughese.

Like many other governors and state lawmakers, Cuomo insists that the industry requires greater legal protection in handling a massive emergency.

“The state was using every type of facility: hospitals, nursing homes, adult care facilities, hospices, ambulatory care facilities, surgery centers, all as possible diagnostic and treatment centers for Covid as we were preparing to face the surge," said Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever, explaining the decision to relax record-keeping rules and shield owners from some types of liability. "Under the law, health care professionals and facilities [still] must act in good faith, and no one is shielded from liability for gross negligence, or intentional criminal conduct."

In New York, a powerful lobbying group called the Greater New York Hospital Association, which represents hospitals that in some cases own nursing homes, drafted the legislation that expanded protections for the industries. The association spent nearly $3 million lobbying the New York state assembly in 2019 alone, state records show.

The law specifically states that short-staffing doesn’t qualify as “gross negligence” or other grounds on which a nursing home can be sued.

But some state lawmakers say they weren’t given proper notice about the liability protections, which were passed as a part of the state’s budget bill — and now they have regrets.

“I’m very much opposed to what we enacted, and also not happy with how we did it. It was inserted in the budget as an amendment from the governor in the last hours, or day, or so of our work on the budget,” said New York state Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-New York City), chair of the state assembly’s health committee. Gottfried said he’d like the legislation repealed, but expects a “very uphill fight.”

“People can look at this as a technical legal issue, but if your loved one is being mistreated in a nursing home or is the victim of mistreatment or negligence, or if a hospital or nursing home is guilty of health and safety violations, you want something done,” Gottfried said.

Lever, the Cuomo spokesperson, responded that “elected officials cannot be blindsided by language in a bill, unless they don’t read it.”

In California, a coalition of nursing homes and provider groups wrote to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in early April asking for unusually broad protections from liability. The groups, which collectively spent $1.1 million lobbying the state government in the last year, suggested an executive order that would shield them from “any administrative sanction or criminal or civil liability or claim,” unless there is “clear and convincing evidence of willful misconduct,” according to a letter obtained by POLITICO.

Advocates for nursing home patients in California expect Newsom to sign an executive order at some point in the coming days. Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

And a separate letter to lawmakers sent by nursing home and hospice associations in Connecticut used track changes to amend language suggested by other health care lobbyists so it would mimic nursing homes’ preferred language on legal liability.

In early April, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order giving civil liability coverage to nursing homes and other health care providers. It did not use the exact language suggested by the associations but gave them a similar level of legal protection.

Other states passing new laws and issuing executive orders providing some level of protection for nursing homes ranged from deep red Alabama and Arkansas to Democratic-led Illinois and Michigan. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order granting immunity to health care practitioners — but the industry is pushing for broader protections.

“The last thing these providers and those on the front lines should have to be concerned with is the threat of an impending lawsuit,” Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, said in a statement.

But the nursing home industry has consistently received criticism for failing to meet federal standards for measures like proper handwashing and isolating sick residents. The vast majority of nursing homes were cited for deficiencies in infection prevention and control between 2013 and 2017, according to a new federal watchdog report, which noted "many of these practices can be critical to preventing the spread of infectious diseases, including Covid-19.”

“You've got facilities full of really sick patients that are cycling in and out of the hospital. It's going to be a challenge for any lawyer to prove that the specific breach on the nursing home’s part is what caused that person to contract Covid,” said Michael Brevda, a partner at Senior Justice Law Firm, which is pursuing at least eight lawsuits related to coronavirus in nursing homes in New York, Florida and Pennsylvania.

The back-and-forth on Capitol Hill over whether to enact a national liability protection for nursing homes and other industries is proving more complicated.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have already said broad immunity protections for businesses are “absolutely essential” for Republicans to sign off on another coronavirus relief bill, most Democrats are vehemently proposed.

Senate Republicans have not released any public proposals for expanding liability protections. One lobbyist who had seen multiple proposals from the nursing home industry said that, similar to some state laws, the industry had advocated for a high bar for liability, such as cases of gross negligence.

McConnell, along with a top ally, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), is working to craft the legislation, which they say won’t protect bad actors.

“We should not put our health care workers in an impossible situation where we ask them to do everything they can to help and then we punish them by subjecting them to litigation when somebody claims that they could or should have done better,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor last week.

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, said in a statement to POLITICO, “We encourage states and the federal government to take action to extend immunity provisions to the long term care providers and other health care sectors associated with care provided during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Long term care workers and centers are on the frontline of this pandemic response and it is critical that states provide the necessary liability protection staff and providers need to provide care during this difficult time without fear of reprisal,” Parkinson said.

The general election scenario that Democrats are dreading

In early April, Jason Furman, a top economist in the Obama administration and now a professor at Harvard, was speaking via Zoom to a large bipartisan group of top officials from both parties. The economy had just been shut down, unemployment was spiking, and some policymakers were predicting an era worse than the Great Depression. The economic carnage seemed likely to doom President Donald Trump’s chances at reelection.

Furman, tapped to give the opening presentation, looked into his screen of poorly lit boxes of frightened wonks and made a startling claim.

“We are about to see the best economic data we’ve seen in the history of this country,” he said.

The former cabinet secretaries and Federal Reserve chairs in the Zoom boxes were confused, though some of the Republicans may have been newly relieved and some of the Democrats suddenly concerned.

“Everyone looked puzzled and thought I had misspoken,” Furman said in an interview. Instead of forecasting a prolonged depression-level economic catastrophe, Furman laid out a detailed case for why the months preceding the November election could offer Trump the chance to brag — truthfully — about the most explosive monthly employment numbers and GDP growth ever.

Since the Zoom call, Furman has been making the same case to anyone who will listen, especially the close-knit network of Democratic wonks who have traversed the Clinton and Obama administrations together, including top members of the Biden campaign.

Furman’s counterintuitive pitch has caused some Democrats, especially Obama alumni, around Washington to panic. “This is my big worry,” said a former Obama White House official who is still close to the former president. Asked about the level of concern among top party officials, he said, “It’s high — high, high, high, high.”

And top policy officials on the Biden campaign are preparing for a fall economic debate that might look very different than the one predicted at the start of the pandemic in March. “They are very much aware of this,” said an informal adviser.

Furman’s case begins with the premise that the 2020 pandemic-triggered economic collapse is categorically different than the Great Depression or the Great Recession, which both had slow, grinding recoveries.

Instead, he believes, the way to think about the current economic drop-off, at least in the first two phases, is more like what happens to a thriving economy during and after a natural disaster: a quick and steep decline in economic activity followed by a quick and steep rebound.

The Covid-19 recession started with a sudden shuttering of many businesses, a nationwide decline in consumption, and massive increase in unemployment. But starting around April 15, when economic reopening started to spread but the overall numbers still looked grim, Furman noticed some data that pointed to the kind of recovery that economists often see after a hurricane or industry-wide catastrophe like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Consumption and hiring started to tick up “in gross terms, not in net terms,” Furman said, describing the phenomenon as a “partial rebound.” The bounce back “can be very very fast, because people go back to their original job, they get called back from furlough, you put the lights back on in your business. Given how many people were furloughed and how many businesses were closed you can get a big jump out of that. It will look like a V.”

Furman’s argument is not that different from the one made by White House economic advisers and Trump, who have predicted an explosive third quarter, and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who said in late April that "the hope is that by July the country's really rocking again." White House officials were thrilled to hear that some of their views have been endorsed by prominent Democrats.

“I totally agree,” Larry Kudlow, the head of the White House National Economic Council, replied in a text message when asked about Furman’s analysis. “Q3 may be the single best GDP quarter since regular data. 2nd half super big growth, transitioning to 4% or more in 2021.” He called Furman, who he said he knows well, “usually a straight shooter. Hats off to him.”

“I have been saying that on TV as well,” said Kevin Hassett, a top Trump economic adviser, who pointed to a Congressional Budget Office analysis predicting a 21.5 percent annualized growth rate in the third quarter. “If CBO is correct we will see the strongest quarter in history after the weakest in Q2.”

Peter Navarro, a Trump trade and manufacturing adviser who's a Harvard-educated economist, called the high unemployment America is currently facing "manufactured unemployment, which is to say that Americans are out of work not because of any underlying economic weaknesses but to save American lives. It is this observation that gives us the best chance and hope for a relatively rapid recovery as the economy reopens."

(Asked about his new fans in the White House, Furman responded, “They get the rebound part, but they don’t get the partial part.”)

A rebound won’t mean that Trump has solved many underlying problems. Since the crisis started, many employers have gone bankrupt. Others have used the pandemic to downsize. Consumption and travel will likely remain lower. Millions of people in industries like hospitality and tourism will need to find new jobs in new industries.

The scenario would be a major long-term problem for any president. But before that reality sets in, Trump could be poised to benefit from the dramatic numbers produced during the partial rebound phase that is likely to coincide with the four months before November.

That realization has many Democrats spooked.

“In absolute terms, the economy will look historically terrible come November,” said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist who worked in a senior role at the Office of Management and Budget under Obama. “But relative to the depths of April, it will be on an upswing — 12 percent unemployment, for example, is better than 20, but historically terrible. On Election Day, we Democrats need voters to ask themselves, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ Republicans need voters to ask themselves, ‘Are you better off than you were four months ago?’”

One progressive Democratic operative pointed out that recent polling, taken during the nadir of the crisis, shows Biden is struggling to best Trump on who is more trusted to handle the economy. “Trump beats Biden on the economy even right now!” he said. “This is going to be extremely difficult no matter what. It’s existential that we figure it out. In any of these economic scenarios Democrats are going to have to win the argument that our public health and economy are much worse off because of Donald Trump’s failure of leadership.”

The former Obama White House official said, “Even today when we are at over 20 million unemployed Trump gets high marks on the economy, so I can’t imagine what it looks like when things go in the other direction. I don’t think this is a challenge for the Biden campaign. This is the challenge for the Biden campaign. If they can’t figure this out they should all just go home.”

The Biden campaign seems to recognize the challenge. “The way that Biden talks about the economy is not just tied to the Covid crisis, it’s also about the things that Donald Trump has done to undermine working people since the day he took office,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “But secondly, it’s also highly likely that under any economic circumstances in the fall, Trump is likely going to be the first modern president to preside over net job loss.”

Between now and Election Day, there will be five monthly jobs reports, which are released on the first Friday of every month. The June report, covering May, is likely to show another increase in unemployment. But after that, Furman predicts, if reopening continues apace, the next four reports could be blockbusters. “You could easily have one to two million jobs created a month in those four reports before November,” he said.

He added, “And then toward the end of October, we will get GDP growth for the third quarter, at an annualized rate, and it could be double-digit positive economic growth. So these will be the best jobs and growth numbers ever.”

Furman noted that there is one major obvious caveat: “If there’s a second wave of the virus and a really serious set of lockdowns, I wouldn’t expect to see this. But I think the most likely case is the one I just laid out.”

When Obama ran for re-election in 2012, during the recovery from the Great Recession, he was able to point out that the unemployment rate was dropping about one point every year. But in a V-shaped recovery it would be much faster. “The Trump argument will be he’s producing the fastest job growth and fastest economic growth in history. If he has any ability to do nuance he would say, ‘We are not there yet, reelect me to finish the job,’” Furman said. “The Biden argument will be the unemployment rate is still 12% and even with those millions of jobs we are still down 15 million jobs and the only way for this to be fixed is new economic policies.”

Austan Goolsbee, a predecessor to Furman as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama White House, said the recovery would be more like a reverse checkmark, rather than a V, and that Biden and Democrats would need to point out that the explosive numbers predicted for the late summer and fall will not erase all of the damage.

“I view it as Trump left the door open and five rats came into the kitchen and you’re going to brag, ‘Look I got two of the rats out?’” Goolsbee said. “There’s a high risk you look completely out of touch if you still have double-digit unemployment rates.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to Biden, said he's been studying numerous economic forecasts and isn’t convinced that a V-shaped rebound is certain. “It seems pretty unlikely to me that we’re going to have a really robust recovery in the next few months,” he said. “Of course, we all hope there will be. Frankly, no matter what the recovery looks like, I expect President Trump to either take credit for things he had nothing to do with or to avoid blame for things he helped cause.”

Furman is an economist, but he had some strategic advice for the Biden campaign. “Don’t make predictions that could be falsified. There are enough terrible things to say you don’t need to make exaggerated predictions,” he said. “The argument that we are in another Great Depression will look like it was overstated. Trump can say, ‘Two million deaths didn’t happen, Great Depression didn’t happen, we are making a lot of progress.’”

Fears of Canadian condom shortage mask Covid-19’s real sexual health crisis

OTTAWA — Canada's health care providers are warning that Covid-19 shutdowns are negatively influencing another outbreak: sexually transmitted diseases.

Nine of the country’s 10 provinces had declared STI outbreaks before the coronavirus arrived. Then shelter-in-place directives impeded access to prevention, testing and treatment as clinics slashed services and labs became backed up by Covid-19 tests.

Now health experts are warning the lockdown could intensify a recent resurgence in syphilis, chlamydia and even antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea.

"They're seeing numbers growing at a rate that is alarming," Frédérique Chabot, the director of health promotion for Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights, said in an interview. "People's needs in terms of sexual and reproductive health are not diminishing during this emergency. In fact, it's becoming greater."

Possible solutions, she said, could include at-home tests and more telemedicine options.

Canadians hoarded condoms and contraceptives on the way into lockdown, raising fears of a widespread shortage. Today, health care leaders say the Covid-19 restrictions are amplifying other long-standing challenges, including contraception availability for youth, access to abortion and domestic violence.

Heather Hale, executive director of Saskatoon Sexual Health, said her organization has been forced to cancel drop-in clinics, move appointments to the phone, stop classroom visits and shut down precautionary testing for STIs.

“That prevention piece has really, really — we aren’t doing that at this time,” Hale said.

Her province of Saskatchewan has the highest rate of HIV infections in Canada — more than twice the national average. Saskatchewan also has the highest rate of chlamydia infections, second highest rate of gonorrhea and, last year, saw a 393 percent increase in syphilis rates, Hale said. The province, she believes, also still has the highest provincial rate for adolescent pregnancies.

Due to the restrictions, people have mostly stayed in their own bubbles, she said, but sexual activity with different partners is expected to rise as the provincial government eases the measures.

“Having access to STI testing will be important as people start to come out and start to widen those circles,” she said.

A report last week by Statistics Canada said sales of “family planning products” such as condoms, contraceptives and lubricants soared by 30 percent in the second week of March and by 41 percent in the third week, compared to the same periods last year— right as Canadians were asked to stay home.

The surge was temporary, however. By the fourth week of March, sales slowed back to normal levels.

The federal data-gathering agency noted the drop off coincided with news reports that pandemic-driven factory shutdowns in Malaysia could limit global condom production, which fueled speculation of a possible shortage.

Several experts in the field say that despite reports of emptier store shelves and difficulty obtaining condoms in some areas, Canada’s domestic supply has so far appeared to avoid a significant shortage. The international situation may be different over the coming months, with the United Nations Population Fund reporting that 10 partner countries may be at risk of running out of condoms.

“We saw a whole bunch of people in the first few weeks stocking up,” said Nicole Pasquino, clinical practice director at Options for Sexual Health, an organization in British Columbia that offers free condoms and birth control pills for about a quarter the usual price.

“They were all coming to get condoms, birth control, whatever they need to get and then we see a little bit of a lull because people are going to stay home. … I think that mentality of stocking up hit everybody hard — we saw it with toilet paper.”

Youth, who may have accessed services and products at their now-shuttered schools, may be particularly hard-hit, she said.

On sexual health services in general, Pasquino said, from what she's seen, providers are all in "kind of troubleshoot mode."

"I think the months and years to come are going to be about how the consequences of this will be managed,” said Pasquino, whose organization serves around 30,000 patients per year at clinics.

Groups like Oxfam Canada have been calling on policymakers to increase the use of telemedicine to allow patients to renew contraception by phone.

They have also been pressing governments on the fact that pharmacists are still prevented from prescribing contraceptives and that the products are not covered by public pharmacare, said Dana Stefov, Oxfam Canada’s policy lead on sexual and reproductive rights.

“There are still barriers to access that existed before the crisis that are being exacerbated now because of the crisis.” Stefov said.

She said it’s important to monitor potential disruptions when it comes to access to contraceptives like condoms, which have been flagged as a possibility for many countries including Canada.

“There is a real risk and threat that some of the supply chains are going to be broken and that there might be more stockouts and shortages in the months ahead.”

Tensions flare as U.S. signals broader crackdown on Chinese telecoms

The Trump administration is signaling a broader crackdown on the Chinese communications sector — well beyond the companies that have already come under harsh U.S. scrutiny.

In an interview, a senior DOJ official told POLITICO that the government’s past objections to powerful Chinese telecommunications players operating in the U.S. may provide a blueprint for the Federal Communications Commission to pursue other firms as well.

This administration blessing comes potentially weeks ahead of the agency moving to revoke licenses for some of the few remaining Chinese telecom companies authorized to operate within the U.S., including China Telecom and China Unicom, and marks an escalation in the tensions between Washington and Beijing that have only grown more acute since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the globe.

A Washington crackdown could mean the end of any China-based telecommunications providers doing business within the borders of the United States.

“We’re concerned about providers that are subject to the undue influence and control of the Chinese government,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey told POLITICO in a recent interview. “Once you make that conclusion, it’s hard for me to understand if it’s true for one company or a second company, why wouldn’t it be true for a class?”

Although these Chinese telecom companies have a modest footprint among U.S. consumers, the aggressive scrutiny during the Trump era marks a stark change from just a few years earlier, when American companies freely did business with a variety of Chinese telecommunications companies with little concern. It also suggests Washington is ready to extend its scrutiny well beyond any one Chinese company such as Huawei or ZTE.

The Justice Department has led administration efforts in reviewing multiple prominent China-based providers in recent years, including government-affiliated China Mobile and China Telecom, in order to make security-based recommendations to the FCC — and it now says the commission should be able to take those recommendations to curtail Chinese players more broadly.

DOJ’s Hickey, a senior official in the department’s National Security Division, outlined several concerns with business operations in China.

“We don’t think there’s sufficient rule of law there,” said Hickey. “We don’t think there’s reciprocity. We certainly don’t participate in their telecom sector. We don’t want the companies that are accountable primarily to the Communist Party to provide critical telecommunications infrastructure and services here.”

That skepticism dovetails with Trump’s own. The president has indicated he’s intensely frustrated over how Chinese officials handled the initial virus outbreak. In mid-May, he threatened a more aggressive approach to China, telling Fox Business, “We could cut off the whole relationship.”

Tensions surrounding the telecommunications sector have ratcheted up in recent years as the U.S. and China both vie for supremacy over the rollout of advanced 5G wireless networks and amid administration warnings over the potential dangers lurking in China’s networks.

These battles have ensnared titanic Chinese companies including Huawei and ZTE, which Trump has sought to block from American markets on the grounds that they pose a surveillance threat to U.S. communications networks and over past bad behaviors. The FCC is moving to designate both companies as national security threats in its own ongoing proceeding, which has prompted a lawsuit from Huawei accusing the agency of trying to cater to Congress. And lawmakers say they want to subsidize rural U.S. carriers in ripping out and replacing any Huawei and ZTE network gear they may own.

In another escalation, the Trump administration recently warned Google against trying to run an underseas cable network through Hong Kong, citing concerns about national security risks. And this month, Trump extended by another year — to May 2021 — his executive order preventing U.S. companies from relying on telecom gear deemed a security risk, a move seen as directed at China.

The allegations coming from Washington are principally that the Chinese government could surveil U.S. citizens and steal American technology, and that they have been deceptive about their operations. Chinese providers broadly dispute these charges. And some, including Huawei, accuse the U.S. government of playing politics during a broader trade war.

Under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the department started a broad undertaking designed to counter criminal activity connected to the Chinese government and dubbed it the China Initiative. Attorney General Bill Barr, Sessions’ replacement, has enthusiastically supported the initiative, along with U.S. efforts to limit Chinese telecom firms’ footprint in the U.S. and help Western companies compete with Chinese giants Huawei and ZTE. Barr, a former telecom executive, discussed the issues in detail earlier this year at a Justice Department conference on the China Initiative.

“From a national security standpoint, if the Industrial Internet becomes dependent on Chinese technology, China would have the ability to shut countries off from technology and equipment upon which their consumers and industry depend,” he said, according to his prepared remarks. “The power the United States has today to use economic sanctions would pale by comparison to the unprecedented economic leverage we would be surrendering into the hands of China.”

Days later, the department filed a superseding indictment charging Huawei with conspiring to break the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act––a U.S. law often used to target organized crime. The department also alleged that the company helped the Iranian government surveil protesters. The company has pleaded not guilty.

John Demers, the head of the department’s National Security Division, told Politico in April that the department hopes each U.S. Attorneys Office will bring cases as part of the initiative. And cases have sprung up around the country, including high-profile investigations of college professors who failed to disclose Chinese government funding for scientific research.

FCC commissioners and Congress, meanwhile, are quick to support the White House and say the dangers are real. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) teamed up with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) last fall to urge the FCC to get aggressive.

“This isn’t just email and phone calls that are going over these networks anymore,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican who has recently taken to calling out Chinese officials repeatedly on social media in the wake of the coronavirus’s spread, told a group of Washington lawyers during a keynote address this month. “With 5G, it’s telehealth...it’s banking information. It’s power grid information. If these networks are threatened, then everything we have come to value is threatened.”

The FCC has already signaled a desire to go beyond administration recommendations in tackling these Chinese firms.

The DOJ in April released a scathing administration recommendation that the FCC revoke and terminate the authorization for the U.S. subsidiary of China Telecom, which has more than 100 million customers globally, to operate within the U.S.

China Telecom, which provides phone and internet service as well as IT technology, has already been here for nearly two decades, headquartered domestically in Herndon, Virginia, and quick to talk up local ties. At the end of last month, the company touted its donation of computers to Virginia’s George Mason University to help students caught up in the virus. The Trump administration, however, paints a different picture. The administration cited evolving cybersecurity threats from China, concerns the company is vulnerable to manipulation from Beijing and a lack of compliance with earlier authorization conditions.

The FCC picked up the DOJ’s recommendation in a matter of weeks, issuing orders not only to China Telecom’s U.S. subsidiary but also China Unicom Americas, Pacific Networks and ComNet asking for proof within 30 days that they are not subject to the control of China’s communist government and why the agency shouldn’t revoke their licenses to operate within the United States.

“We simply cannot take a risk and hope for the best when it comes to the security of our networks,” Chairman Ajit Pai said at the time.

These orders could set up FCC revocation of all their licenses, effectively kicking the providers out of the U.S. The agency last year followed a similar Trump administration call and rejected an application from China Mobile.

In subsequent weeks, China Telecom has told the FCC it needs more time to respond due to the coronavirus pandemic and sought to clarify what the agency really wants. The FCC recently assented, narrowing the scope of its requests and giving China Telecom until June 8 to respond, among other brief extensions.

But the DOJ is pleased, according to Hickey, who framed the FCC actions as “taking the initiative” in following what he sees as administration guidance.

The White House is also trying to set guardrails and timelines firming up the process by which its cabinet agencies vet foreign telecommunications players operating in the U.S., an attempt to streamline existing procedures and provide certainty for industry.

The key example is an executive order Trump issued in April codifying an interagency review process known as “Team Telecom,” which pleased FCC commissioners who have long called for greater clarity. DOJ, the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Department are the three lead agencies conducting these reviews. At the FCC, Pai has pledged to conclude a long-pending rulemaking on overhauling how the agency reviews foreign ownership in U.S. telecom networks.

While Hickey avoided weighing in on the particulars of individual companies the FCC is now scrutinizing, he suggested the executive branch has already presented a path for the FCC chief to follow.

“We laid out some basic principles for evaluating whether a company should have a license,” Hickey told POLITICO. “What’s true for China Mobile is in many ways true for China Telecom and is going to be true for other companies as well.”

“Once we make that record and once the FCC has accepted that record in denying China Mobile’s application, it seems logical to me that they might start to address other carriers or other providers that fit the same criteria,” he added.

‘Something isn’t right’: U.S. probes soaring beef prices

Supermarket customers are paying more for beef than they have in decades during the coronavirus pandemic. But at the same time, the companies that process the meat for sale are paying farmers and ranchers staggeringly low prices for cattle.

Now, the Agriculture Department and prosecutors are investigating whether the meatpacking industry is fixing or manipulating prices.

The Department of Justice is looking at the four largest U.S. meatpackers — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef and Cargill — which collectively control about 85 percent of the U.S. market for the slaughter and packaging of beef, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. The USDA is also investigating the beef price fluctuations, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has confirmed.

Meatpackers say beef prices have spiked during the pandemic because plants are running at lower capacity as workers fall ill, so less meat is making its way to shelves. The four companies didn’t respond to requests for comment about the probes.

But the coronavirus crisis is highlighting how the American system of getting meat to the table favors a handful of giant companies despite a century of government efforts to decentralize it. And it’s sparking new calls for changes in meatpacking.

“It’s evidence that something isn’t right in the industry,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has spoken out against mergers in the agriculture industry. In April, Grassley requested federal investigations into market manipulation and unfair practices within the cattle industry. So have 19 other senators and 11 state attorneys general.

The average retail price for fresh beef in April was $6.22 per pound — 26 cents higher per pound than it was the month before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, at the end of April, the average price for a steer was below $100 per hundred pounds; the five-year average for that same week was about $135 per hundred pounds, according to USDA’s weekly summary.

Ed Greiman, general manager of Upper Iowa Beef who formerly headed the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, attributed the consumer price increase to plants running at lower capacity. At the same time, farmers and ranchers desperate to offload their cattle as they reach optimal weight for slaughter are cutting prices so they won’t have to kill the animals without selling them.

“I’m running at half speed,” Greiman said at an event hosted by the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association. “Cattle are backing up because we can’t run our plants fast enough. Nothing is functioning properly. We need to be careful not to put blame on any one thing or part of the industry because we can’t get these plants going."

The industry has long been a focus for government antitrust enforcement.

Exactly 100 years ago, after years of litigation, the five biggest U.S. meatpackers — which were responsible for 82 percent of the beef market — agreed to an antitrust settlement with the Justice Department that helped break their control over the industry.

The Justice Department’s efforts to reduce concentration in meatpacking led to decades of competition. By 1980, the top four firms controlled only 36 percent of cattle slaughters in the U.S., according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

But during the next 10 years, meatpacking experienced a huge wave of deals, enough that the USDA dubbed the time “merger mania.” By 1988, the new four biggest companies again controlled 70 percent of the beef meatpacking market.

“There’s greater concentration in meatpacking now” than in 1921, said Thomas Horton, an antitrust professor at the University of South Dakota, who previously worked at the Justice Department. The first antitrust laws were “passed to take care of the Big Five. Now we have the Big Four. We’re going backwards.”

Unlike poultry and pork, which take weeks or months to raise, cattle can take as long as two years from birth to butcher. That lifecycle makes it much more difficult to adjust supply. Once cattle reaches its optimal weight, they need to be sold within two weeks, said Peter Carstensen, an antitrust professor at the University of Wisconsin. And realistically, a farmer can only transport cattle about 150 miles to a slaughterhouse.

“You’ve got at most four bidders, but the reality is there are often fewer,” said Carstensen, noting that in some states, there are only one or two meatpackers with plants.

While the structure of the industry has remained stable since 2009, changes in how the meatpackers buy cattle have also had an impact. Before 2015, about half of all cattle was purchased via direct negotiation between a rancher and meatpacker, known as the negotiated cash market. Today, about 70 percent are purchased through contracts where farmers agree to deliver cattle once they reach a certain weight with the price to be determined later — usually a formula that takes into account how much cattle sell for in the cash market.

The increase in these contracts has some advantages for ranchers, because they know they have a buyer and don’t have to spend time on negotiations, said Ted Schroeder, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. But fewer cash trades have made it harder to figure out the right price for cattle, he said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 14,271 meatpacking workers have been sick as of May 15, according to the nonprofit Food and Environment Reporting Network. Worker illnesses and temporary plant closures have led plants to operate at about 50 percent capacity, said Schroeder.

Schroeder, who has focused on cattle prices for more than three decades, said the rising consumer prices and falling cattle prices are consistent with normal supply and demand.

“It’s economics 101. There’s less meat around, but demand is still pretty strong,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of cattle but can’t get it through the system. We are pretty close to what I would expect to happen to wholesale and farm prices given the bottleneck.”

Not everyone is persuaded. Last year, ranchers filed an antitrust suit against the four meatpackers for colluding to depress cattle prices. The suit, pending in Minneapolis federal court, alleges that Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef began coordinating in 2015 to reduce the number of cattle slaughtered while also limiting how many they bought in the cash market. Ranchers with excess animals on their hands were forced to sell for less or enter into long-term contracts beneficial to meatpackers.

“The Big Four simultaneously withdrew from the cash market with intent to reduce prices across the board,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, in an interview.

The companies were able to coordinate by communicating through trade associations, said Bullard. The lawsuit is based in part on information provided by a confidential witness who worked for one of the meatpackers for a decade. The conspiracy drove prices down at least 8 percent, said Bullard.

If the meatpackers were communicating about prices, that would clearly violate criminal antitrust laws, said Carstensen. But if a company observes what a rival does and matches that behavior — sometimes called “tacit collusion”— that may not violate the law, he said.

“Coordination is not the same thing as collusion,” said Carstensen.

The Justice Department could, however, try to make a case that the meatpackers have monopolized the beef market. They could argue that the companies have engaged in “an anticompetitive set of industry practices, which taken together, violate antitrust law and require a broader restructuring,” he said.

The anti-monopoly Open Markets Institute has outlined a similar theory and pushed for breaking up the Big Four so no company controls more than 10 percent of the market. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also advocated for breaking up meatpackers as part of her presidential campaign.

Grassley, meanwhile, said he’s not ready to call for the breakup of major meatpackers, but he has “a great deal of questions about whether they’re operating within the law.”

Bullard’s group is also pushing for broader changes to the industry, such as requiring packers to buy at least half of their cattle from the cash market or prohibiting contracts that don’t include prices.

Kansas’ Schroeder, though, warned against moving the industry backwards. Breaking up the meatpackers would likely lead to higher consumer prices, he said, and insisting on cash sales would eliminate some of the advantages, like stable supply, that contracts offer.

“Too often, we try to stop things from progressing. We want things to be the way they used to be. But the way they used to be wasn’t that great,” he said. “We should be cautious how we approach regulation, so we don’t turn the apple cart upside down.”

Top Republican yanks endorsement of House candidate who made offensive social media posts

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is rescinding his endorsement of GOP congressional candidate Ted Howze after POLITICO uncovered dozens of derogatory social media posts from his accounts.

“In light of Mr. Howze’s disappointing comments, Leader McCarthy has withdrawn his endorsement. As the Leader has previously stated, hateful rhetoric has no place within the Republican Party,” Drew Florio, a McCarthy spokesperson, said in a statement on Monday.

Howze, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Josh Harder in a central California battleground district, has been hemorrhaging official support since POLITICO published two stories detailing a trove of inflammatory social media posts, which he claims he did not author and were shared on his accounts by other, unnamed individuals. The House Republican campaign arm yanked him out of its "Young Guns" program for top campaigns, and the state GOP and several local officials revoked their endorsements.

But McCarthy did not formally withdraw his backing until Monday, after POLITICO asked him for comment on a video it obtained of Howze telling supporters last week that McCarthy pledged to support his campaign if the race looks winnable in the fall.

“We've talked with Leader McCarthy,” Howze told supporters in a video call obtained by POLITICO. “They've told us, keep doing what we're doing. Raise money. If in September we are one of the competitive races in California that they will be here to come into the race.”

In the video, Howze addresses a woman asking about news reports that Howze’s campaign would not receive money from Washington Republicans. He tells her that the National Republican Congressional Committee has “never committed to give us a dime in this race. And they won't give a dime to any race until September.”

And he lashed out at national and local media reporting on his posts. “They're trying to half-deal in this truth to try to make a bigger deal out of this,” he said in the video. “Bottom line is this: We work our tails off, we keep raising money, come September we'll be fine.”

California’s 10th Congressional District was hotly contested in 2018 when Harder ousted then-GOP Rep. Jeff Denham by 5 points. Yet the race was not in the top tier of Republicans’ 2020 targets, in part because Harder has amassed a formidable war chest. He had banked over $3.5 million by the end of March.

But Howze is personally wealthy and has some ability to self-fund. Before the posts surfaced, some party operatives had not ruled out investing in the race if it appeared competitive in the fall, particularly because the district lies in a relatively inexpensive media market.

Howze has repeatedly denied that he wrote the dozens of social media posts in question, instead claiming that unnamed individuals gained access to his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The posts appeared over the course of several years and on Facebook and Twitter. Howze signed one of them and tagged family members in others. Some posts refer to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad as a rapist and a pedophile. Others accused prominent Democrats of murder and mocked the survivor of the Parkland school shooting.

The rescinded endorsement from the leader makes it unlikely that Howze will receive outside support. And the decision underscores the uncomfortable spot McCarthy is in as he attempts to plot a wide path back to the majority while also supporting his party’s attempt to regain standing with minority voters.

California state GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson, a key McCarthy ally, wrote in a statement revoking the party’s endorsement that Howze’s posts “do not represent the values we hold or the party we are building.”

“The California Republican Party is proud of the extremely diverse board and candidates we have recruited,” she said. “We have also proudly recruited candidates and leaders across the state who represent the values and diversity of our communities and our state.”

The GOP has, in recent election cycles, spurned candidates for their past statements. In 2018, the GOP nominee in a South Jersey seat where the incumbent Republican was retiring was found to have promoted articles from white nationalist websites and made other, anti-diversity comments. The NRCC revoked its endorsement, and the Democratic candidate went on to win in November. (Republicans reclaimed that district last year, when Democrat Jeff Van Drew changed parties.)

California reopens churches 3 days after Trump threatened to 'override' states

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom gave California churches the green light Monday to reopen, three days after President Donald Trump threatened to "override" states that continued to block in-person religious services due to the pandemic.

Newsom also was facing pressure from more than 1,200 California pastors who vowed to resume services this upcoming Sunday regardless of what the governor decided. At the same time, a lawsuit filed by a Southern California church reached the U.S. Supreme Court on Sunday night.

Church services, which had been banned since Newsom's March 19 order, would look dramatically different under new state Department of Public Health guidelines. Religious services and funerals can host a maximum of 100 people, or 25 percent of building capacity, whichever is lower.

The state also advised caution around church singing. A religious choir practice in Washington state became a "superspreading" event in March that resulted in the majority of attendees contracting Covid-19 and two deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Congregants engaging in singing, particularly in the choir, and group recitation, should wear face coverings at all times and when possible, these activities should be conducted outside with greater than 6-foot distancing,” state the CDPH guidelines.

While Newsom is allowing churches to resume in-person services, counties have the ability to impose stricter rules than the state and can still prohibit them.

CDPH announced that retailers are allowed to reopen statewide for in-store shopping. The vast majority of counties — 47 of 58 — had already received state permission to open in-store retail. But some of the most populous counties, including Los Angeles and several in the San Francisco Bay Area, had not requested that flexibility, either by choice or because they had not met the state's criteria for entering "Stage 2."

It was not immediately clear Monday how many of the 11 counties still in "Stage 1" would allow in-store retail. The latest guidelines are subject to county public health departments’ approval and will be revised in 21 days, when the state Department of Public Health will “review and assess” the impact of reopening, taking into account Covid-19 incubation periods.

Use of face coverings, social distancing, extra sanitation and temperature checks for staff are recommended for all businesses and organizations now allowed to open their doors. Retail does not include personal services such as hair salons, nail salons and barbershops.

“Together, our actions have helped bend the curve and reduce infections in our state. As sectors continue to open with changes that aim to lower risk, remember that Covid-19 is still present in our communities,” State Public Health Officer Sonia Angell said in a statement. “As more of us may be leaving our homes, keeping physical distance, wearing face coverings in public, and washing your hands frequently are more important than ever to help protect yourself and those around you.”

The new guidance issued Monday also includes guidelines for protests and “political expression,” limiting attendance using those same parameters and recommending protesters wear face coverings. The state is not prohibiting protests but warned of the health implications of mass gatherings and “strongly” recommended those acts happen online instead of in person.

Those rules come after hundreds of protesters gathered outside the state Capitol on Saturday.

“Activities like chanting, shouting, singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing,” CDPH said. “Failure to maintain adequate physical distancing may result in an order to disperse or other enforcement action.”

Boris Johnson’s top aide Cummings: I ‘behaved reasonably’

LONDON — Boris Johnson's top adviser Dominic Cummings insisted he “behaved reasonably” when he drove 260 miles during lockdown — but admitted he should have been clearer about his actions and spoken out sooner.

After his actions sparked major uproar, Cummings issued an unprecedented statement in the Downing Street rose garden on Monday.

Cummings was accused of breaching the rules of the lockdown when he drove from London to Durham to spend two weeks of quarantine near family after his wife showed coronavirus symptoms.

He said he made the decision to be near family out of fear it might be impossible to care for his 4-year-old child. He said he was also motivated to be somewhere more remote after receiving threats of violence over his role in Downing Street.

Cummings argued he acted “reasonably and legally” — pointing to a clause in the lockdown guidelines that allows for exceptional childcare circumstances — and added: “I think the people like me who make the rules should be held accountable for their actions.”

He said some will think he breached the lockdown rules, adding: “I know the intense hardship and sacrifice the country has had to go through, however I respectfully disagree.”

Cummings also explained that he drove 30 miles from Durham to the town of Barnard Castle to check he could drive safely before making the long journey back to London. But he denied he made a second trip to Durham, as has been claimed in the media.

Cummings refused to apologize or resign, after Conservative MPs, government scientists and members of the public argued he had undermined the lockdown rules, and suggested the media had misreported the facts.

But he admitted he should have explained himself beforehand — after the issue engulfed the government for a number of days. “It would have been better to have made this statement earlier,” he told reporters.

He also said he did not ask the prime minister before he drove to Durham, but did let him know after the fact.

In tribute: Memorial Day 2020

Memorial Day took on a much different form and tone this year around America, with restrictions and concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic changing the way the holiday was observed. Still, many people found ways to honor deceased veterans of the nation’s wars.

World Health Organization pauses study of hydroxychloroquine in global trial

The World Health Organization is pausing the use of hydroxychloroquine in its global study of COVID-19 treatments amid a review of safety data, officials announced Monday.

The move follows findings from a large observational study, published Friday, that found increased risk of heart problems and death in COVID-19 patients who used chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

It’s a scientific decision nonetheless fraught with politics: U.S. President Donald Trump is a champion of hydroxychloroquine, revealing last week that he’s taking it to prevent COVID-19. He has threatened to cut off U.S. funding to the WHO within a month absent unspecified reforms.

The executive committee of the WHO’s Solidarity trial met on Saturday, said WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan, and decided “in the light of this uncertainty that we should be proactive, err on the side of caution and suspend enrollment temporarily into the hydroxychloroquine arm.” (Chloroquine is not part of the trial.)

The meeting came a day after the Lancet published the largest observational study of the malaria drugs to date, and as some national regulators began expressing concern about using the drug.

WHO officials estimated the pause would last a week or two as the trial’s data safety monitoring board considers information already collected from the Solidarity trial and other ongoing studies to determine whether it’s safe to continue with hydroxychloroquine.

The study, a randomized trial, has enrolled 3,500 patients in at least 17 countries since March to study four medicines, including hydroxychloroquine.

European Union commissioner: Coronavirus immunity certificates aren’t reliable

The EU can’t count on immunity certification when lifting border restrictions within the bloc, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told health ministers on Monday.

"[Citizens] deserve a break, a breath of fresh air, a chance to travel and to visit family and friends," Kyriakides said, according to a readout of the call. "We must make sure that they can do so safely."

But immunity certification isn't reliable, she said, emphasizing instead prevention measures like maintaining physical distancing; developing "robust" testing strategies; and ensuring sufficient health care capacity in EU countries — especially those that are tourist destinations.

Contact tracing, including contact tracing apps, are also important, Kyriakides said, but noted they must be interoperable so that people can be warned of an infection wherever they are, with whatever app they are using.

She also emphasized that easing travel restrictions should be first done by coordinating between regions in similar and "positively evolving" epidemiological situations, and welcomed the Baltic nations' initiative to restart travel in a three-country bubble.

"I urge you all to monitor the situation as you ease restrictions and keep other member states informed of any epidemiological developments," she said.

She encouraged countries to share their data with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which has been an issue. The ECDC was lacking national data to create an interactive map detailing the level of coronavirus transmission inside EU countries earlier this month, when the Commission published its guidelines on reopening internal borders.

Paola Tamma contributed reporting.

Trump’s ‘rigged election’ talk sparks fear of post-election chaos

First he lit into Michigan and Nevada, threatening to withhold federal funding because of his assertion that both states were preparing to commit voter fraud through mail-in ballot applications. Then President Donald Trump followed up Sunday with two more broadly-worded warnings that November would be “the greatest Rigged Election in history.”

“The Democrats are trying to Rig the 2020 Election, plain and simple!” the president claimed.

Trump’s increasingly amped-up rhetoric surrounding the integrity of the November election is beginning to bring to center stage a previously muted conversation. With the president lagging behind Joe Biden in public opinion polls six months before the general election, his opponents are becoming increasingly anxious that Trump may attempt to undermine the results of the election if he loses — or worse, might attempt to cling to power regardless of the outcome.

"He is planting the seeds for delegitimizing the election if he loses," Vanita Gupta, a former head of DOJ’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama and now president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said on Twitter on Sunday in reaction to Trump's "rigged election" claim. "It’s from the playbook. It’ll get more intense as he gets more freaked out."

Trump’s rhetoric isn’t exactly new for him. Dating back even before his entry into electoral politics, the president has had a long preoccupation with voter fraud and “rigged” elections. As a primary candidate, he attributed his Iowa defeat to fraud committed by Sen. Ted Cruz. Even after his general election victory, Trump made unsubstantiated claims of “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California” — three states that he failed to carry — and told congressional leaders that millions of illegal votes were the reason he lost the popular vote.

In one of his first acts as president, Trump created an 11-member commission to study alleged voter fraud. Two years later, amid the GOP’s 2018 wipe-out, he was lodging complaints about “electoral corruption” in Arizona and “missing or forged” ballots in Florida.

The concern that Trump might attempt to ignore the outcome of the election has persisted as an undercurrent in the Democratic Party since 2016, when Trump, during the year’s last presidential debate, refused to say if he would accept the election’s outcome that year if he lost. In the years since, Democrats saw innuendo in Trump’s jokes about extending his presidency beyond the constitutional limit of eight years and expressed admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s limitless terms.

“It’s one of those things that I think has a very low probability, but a very high risk,” said David Skaggs, a former Democratic congressman who has discussed the potential for disruption in the November election with other lawmakers and former lawmakers in recent days. “So even though I don’t think it’s likely to eventuate into some kind of intervention at the state level by the president … there’s still some chance of that, and therefore it’s wise to take it seriously.”

Skaggs said there are people remaining in government who take their oaths of office seriously and “who are not going to be bowled over by a power grab.” However, he noted the presence of a “militia movement out there in the country that would probably rise to arms if the president said they should, and that would be awful.”

“I think the more there is reporting that takes the president’s innuendo seriously about this — the integrity, or the dis-integrity of the election — the more people will be on alert,” he said. “And that is some prophylactic, better than hydroxychloroquine.”

While the unique and uncertain atmospheric conditions this year — an election season rattled by the coronavirus crisis, which has postponed primaries and raised questions about voting procedures on Election Day in November — have served to put critics of the president on edge, it’s his recent threats to withhold funding from Michigan and Nevada that have raised alarms.

Especially significant is Michigan, which Trump won in 2016 but where he is polling behind Biden.

“He’s already set the stage to say it’s rigged,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “This is part of the Trump autocrat playbook … There’s no way this guy’s going to win the popular vote, and it’s at least 50-50 he’s going to lose the electoral college. So, he’s got to come up with something else.”

The Biden campaign is signaling an awareness of the questions it raises. The former vice president told donors at a virtual fundraiser late last month that he is beginning a transition process, saying “the Bush administration worked very closely with Barack [Obama] and me, with our administration, in terms of handing over power in the transition,” according to a pool report.

“I hope it's as smooth as it was then,” he said, adding, “I doubt it, but I hope so.”

Bob Bauer, Joe Biden’s personal lawyer, said in a prepared statement that Trump “may well resort to any kind of trick, ploy or scheme he can in order to hold onto his presidency.”

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump's reelection effort, called any discussion about the president’s unwillingness to leave office if defeated “baseless, ridiculous conspiracy talk and they should go see [Democrats] Hillary Clinton or Stacey Abrams because they actually have openly questioned their own election results.”

The Trump administration recently started the process of planning for a transition of power if Biden wins, creating a transition planning group to prepare for the possibility.

But Trump has rarely been encumbered by fidelity to tradition. And Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, once predicted in congressional testimony that there “will never be a peaceful transition of power” if Trump loses.

“Would I be surprised if he gets beat in November and makes noises about not going out the door? No, and then what kind of constitutional crisis would that create, and then what would you do?” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders during his 2016 campaign.

He likened the prospect facing Democrats to that of the 2000 presidential election, in which the Supreme Court prohibited further recounts of the Florida vote, awarding the presidency to George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

“If it’s narrow, that’s when Trump can really create a constitutional crisis,” Longabaugh said. “Think about the 2000 election, and if that was the election, what would Trump do? And you know, what would Trump do if the Supreme Court went against him? Would he do what Al Gore did and put the interests of the country above his own interests whether or not the Supreme Court was correct in its behavior or not? That’s where you get into, I think, scary territory.”

At a minimum, Democratic doubts about Trump's willingness to accept the November results have increased the imperative to win by indisputable margins — a heavy lift in an election that is widely expected to be close.

"My job is to make sure he loses Wisconsin so badly that he doesn’t have an argument for sticking around that passes the smell test,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the state Democratic Party in Wisconsin, a state that is critical to Trump’s path to reelection.

Noting that Trump has "filed a lot of lawsuits" in the past, he said, “The bigger the margin, the safer democracy becomes.”

But outside of a court challenge, Trump’s options to disregard the election’s outcome are extremely limited.

“There’s a lot of people that need to do something to hold and implement the results of an election,” said David A. Super, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center who has analyzed scenarios in which Trump could attempt to hold onto power. “None of them is named Donald J. Trump … There’s absolutely no authority for cancelling or overriding an election in the Constitution or in the statutes. And it would require the president to get multiple people to fairly blatantly disregard their oaths to uphold the Constitution.”

The concerns about Trump’s intentions are reminiscent to some Democrats of the anxiety they felt in the 1970s, when the net was closing around Richard Nixon and some feared he may not go easily.

The difference, said Les Francis, a former deputy White House chief of staff in the Carter administration, is that Nixon made an “institutional decision” to resign, while “one thing we know about Trump, for sure, is he’s not an institutionalist by any stretch of the imagination.”

“I don’t think there’s any depth to which he will not go,” Francis said. “I don’t think there are any rules that he thinks apply to him. As his behavior grows worse, I think people become more alarmed at the possibilities.”

German government agrees to Lufthansa bailout

BERLIN — The German government Monday approved a €9 billion bailout package for flag carrier Lufthansa in return for an initial 20 percent stake in the airline, the economics and finance ministries said.

The deal will give the government two seats on Lufthansa's supervisory board but the agreement worked out over the last few weeks stipulates these should be taken by "independent experts," which would appear to exclude political appointees.

The financing includes a €3 billion loan through the national development bank with €600 million of that coming from commercial banks. Around €5 billion comes in return for the ownership stake; a final €1 billion could be converted into an additional 5 percent stake, the statement said.

The deal still needs to be approved by the European Commission's competition team, and the statement says "intensive talks" are continuing between Berlin and Brussels.

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Europe’s elite skewered for lockdown double standards

One rule for them. Another for the rest of us.

As U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings have discovered to their cost, with public opinion on a hair trigger for hypocrisy the charge of double standards is currently the most toxic in British politics.

Brexit mastermind Cummings has been a polarizing figure for years. But the revelations over the weekend that he apparently broke lockdown rules have gone down extremely badly with many Brits, regardless of where their political loyalties lie.

The PM defended the actions of his aide on Sunday, saying he acted "responsibly and legally," apparently calculating that the furious political backlash would be worth it to retain the services of his most trusted adviser.

But it isn't just in the U.K. that the perception of double standards for the powerful has ignited a sharp public reaction. Politicians and officials ignoring lockdown rules have irritated citizens right across Europe. Some of them have decided that asking for forgiveness is a better strategy than trying to tough it out.

Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen apologized on Sunday after he and his wife were caught by police breaking curfew rules at a restaurant.

The country's coronavirus restrictions include the mandatory closing of restaurants and bars at 11 p.m., but police said the couple still had drinks at their table after midnight Van der Bellen said on Twitter that he had gone out to eat for the first time since lockdown began with his wife and two friends.

"We lost track of the time while chatting and unfortunately overlooked the hour," he wrote. "I am sincerely sorry. It was a mistake. If the restaurant host suffers any damage from this, I will take responsibility for it."

Van der Bellen's transgression came days after Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was forced to apologize for appearing unmasked among a crowd of people in a village near the German border.

"There are certain things that you cannot plan," Kurz said later, acknowledging that some people had failed to practice social distancing.

Earlier this month in Germany, the liberal FDP party leader Christian Lindner was caught hugging a friend outside Borchardt, a restaurant that is a favorite of the Berlin elite.

After the incident was widely reported in German media, Lindner apologized on Twitter.

"The spontaneous farewell hug on Friday was a mistake, as they unfortunately occur among friends after a private evening," he said. "It was not intentional ... in the end we are all human. I'm sorry!"

Lindner was not the first German politician to violate coronavirus rules.

Earlier, Saxony's state premier Michael Kretschmer was spotted engaging in a debate with protesters in Dresden without wearing a face mask, while Thuringia's state premier Bodo Ramelow admitted to having broken the rules when he attended the funeral of a neighbor. Not every politician has broken the rules when it comes to funerals/ It was revealed on Monday that the mother of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte died on May 13 but he was unable to visit her in her final weeks.

Meanwhile in Romania, thousands of people attended the funeral of the Archbishop Pimen Zainea of Suceava and Radauti last week.

Some mourners even kissed the coffin.

According to local media, the Romanian Orthodox Church had previously obtained special approval from the Department for Emergencies and the National Institute of Public Health.

Some Romanians reacted angrily to the news because COVID-19 rules in the country mandated that funerals can go ahead only with a maximum of eight attendees.

Last month in Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and many other officials from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the country’s then president Lech Kaczyński in a plane crash in 2010.

At the wreath-laying ceremony, neither the prime minister nor the other officials were wearing face masks or following social distancing guidelines.

The same day, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and twin brother of Lech, was taken by limousine to a Warsaw cemetery at a time when graveyards were closed for regular citizens. Popular discontent with the apparent double standard found voice in a satirical song poking fun at Kaczyński called “Your pain is greater than mine.” It was subsequently dropped from the playlist of a government controlled radio station in what some in the country see as an act of censorship.

In yet another controversial incident, the prime minister last week ate at a newly reopened restaurant without maintaining the 1.5-meter social distancing rule.

He explained over the weekend that “a certain distance is suggested but not required” by the government's coronavirus rules, but was later contradicted by a government spokesman who said Morawiecki had been “misinformed” about the guidelines.

Spanish Vice President Pablo Iglesias was criticized in March for breaking self isolation recommendations and turning up to government meetings. Iglesias's partner, Equality Minister Irene Montero, had tested positive for the coronavirus and was in quarantine at the time, leading to worries that Iglesias could inadvertently infect other members of the government at the weekly meetings.

In April he was also censured for ignoring government recommendations on face masks and going to his local supermarket without one.

And last week, the funeral of Julio Anguita, former leader of the Communist Party of Spain, drew thousands of people to the Spanish city of Córdoba. Anguita, who served as mayor of Córdoba from 1979 to 1986, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 16.

Scenes of the crowds attending his funeral prompted considerable outrage among many Spaniards who complained that social distancing was not adhered to at the large ceremony. Many ordinary people who have died in recent weeks had to be buried in solitude, with family member unable to attend.

Jan Cienski contributed reporting.

Regulator bungled Facebook privacy probe, Austrian activist says

Ireland's privacy regulator took "highly disturbing" actions in the course of an investigation into possible legal breaches by Facebook and has generally fallen short enforcing Europe's privacy rules, Austrian activist Max Schrems argued in an open letter Monday.

The letter, which was sent to the European Commission and Parliament as well as several data protection bodies, accuses the Dublin-based regulator of improperly providing legal advice to Facebook on how to avoid penalties before Europe's new privacy rules came online, as well as being insufficiently transparent with other regulators.

A probe targeting Facebook was plagued by "highly inefficient and partly Kafkaesque" investigative procedures, added Schrems, whose activist group noyb.eu filed complaints two years ago to the day against Facebook as well as its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram for allegedly relying on "forced consent" to use users' personal data.

"We are deeply concerned about the approach the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has taken in three high profile cases against Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp," Schrems said in the letter. "At the current speed, these cases will easily take more than ten years until all appeals are decided and a final decision is reached."

Ireland is responsible for overseeing several Silicon Valley firms due to the General Data Protection Regulation's one-stop-shop mechanism, which gives authority to the regulator in the country where the firm's operations are based.

The Austrian lawyer — whose complaints led to several high-profile privacy cases before the Court of Justice of the EU — also said that the Irish regulator had improperly advised Facebook during a series of meetings in the run-up to the GDPR coming online. Schrems said those meetings went against the spirit of the law, according to which the watchdog should merely "promote awareness" of the law among companies.

After the meetings Facebook changed the legal basis under which it processed users' data from consent to "alleged data use contract" on the day before the GDPR came online, on May 25, 2018. The change allows the Menlo Park-based company to track, target and conduct research on its users without obtaining explicit consent, Schrems said.

While the content of meetings between Facebook and the DPC was not disclosed, Facebook did refer to them in later legal submissions, he added.

Facebook declined to comment on Schrems' letter.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Irish Data Protection Commission said: “There were no 'secret meetings' held between the DPC and Facebook. We regularly engage and meet with companies from all sectors as part of our regulatory enforcement and supervision functions, in accordance with Article 57 of the GDPR, in the same way that many of our EU colleague Data Protection Authorities do.”

A spokesperson for Europe's grouping of privacy regulators, the European Data Protection Board, said the body was aware of Schrems's open letter and will discuss it at upcoming plenary meetings.

Appealing to other European data protection authorities, Schrems said they should invoke emergency powers in the GDPR to circumvent the lead authority.

“Many DPAs are frustrated with situations like in Ireland, but only calling them out is not enough. They also have to use the tools that the GDPR foresees," he said.

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Trump threatens to pull Republican convention out of North Carolina

President Donald Trump on Monday morning threatened to move August’s Republican National Convention out of North Carolina unless there are guarantees the state will let everyone attend.

“I love the Great State of North Carolina, so much so that I insisted on having the Republican National Convention in Charlotte at the end of August. Unfortunately, Democrat Governor, @RoyCooperNC is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed ... ..full attendance in the Arena,” he began in a string of four tweets.

Trump added: “In other words, we would be spending millions of dollars building the Arena to a very high standard without even knowing if the Democrat Governor would allow the Republican Party to fully occupy the space.”

In case voters in the swing state might take offense, Trump twice indicated his “love” for the state and its people. Recent polls have shown Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a tight battle for North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes.

The RNC is scheduled to be held in Charlotte on Aug. 24-27, less than a week after Democrats are set to wrap up their rescheduled convention in Milwaukee. It’s not clear where the Republican convention might be moved or how easily that could be done on relatively short notice.

Monday morning’s tweets fits with the president’s trend of attacking states governed by Democrats via Twitter over restrictions in those states and requests for federal assistance. Prominent targets in recent weeks have included Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Trump‘s tweets come a day after residents of North Carolina defied Cooper’s restrictions to watch auto racing in Alamance County. Press reports indicated that approximately 4,000 people were in attendance. The governor has been permitting a gradual reopening of the state, but gatherings were supposed to be restricted to 10 people indoors or 25 outdoors.