Trump Makes Appeals to Pennsylvania Voters Two Weeks Before Election Day

U.S. President Donald Trump is demanding Pennsylvania get back to normal business operations at a time the state is seeing a spike in coronavirus cases. “What the hell is happening in Pennsylvania?” Trump asked the crowd at his Tuesday evening campaign rally at Erie International Airport, in the western part of the crucial swing state for the November 3 general election. Expressing frustration with pandemic restrictions imposed by Governor Tom Wolf, a member of the Democratic Party, the president said “Pennsylvania has been shut down long enough. Get your governor to open up Pennsylvania.”   Wolfe issued a renewed plea on Monday to Pennsylvanians to work together to stop the spread of the virus. Every part of the state is seeing community spread of COVID-19, partly due to “relatively small gatherings of families and friends,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s top health official.   The number of people hospitalized from COVID-19 in the state has doubled in the past four weeks, but it is still more than three times lower than at its peak in late April.   Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, has been making frequent campaign appearances in the state, seen as critical for their re-election chances in two weeks.   Wolf has criticized the Trump campaign for holding “unsafe rallies that will put Pennsylvania communities at risk” of COVID-19 outbreaks. A letter signed by more than 75 physicians in Pennsylvania urged people not to attend Tuesday’s rally, saying such campaign events endanger public health and give a false impression that the coronavirus is “no longer with us.” Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden, a native of Pennsylvania, has also frequently been in the state but has followed social-distancing guidelines, minimizing the number of attendees and requiring all in attendance to wear masks.President Donald Trump points at the crowd after a campaign rally at Erie International Airport, Tom Ridge Field, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Erie, Pa.Former President Barack Obama is to campaign for his former vice president in Philadelphia on Wednesday at what is being called a “drive-in rally.” Polls taken in Pennsylvania this month show Biden leading Trump by just a few points and the race further narrowing. Trump acknowledged to the tightly packed crowd of thousands in Erie that he had not expected to have to campaign in their city this year. “I have to be honest. There was no way I was coming,” said the president. “And then we got hit with the plague and I had to go back to work.”   During his 56-minute speech in Erie, the president said the U.S. government is “crushing the virus,” the country is doing much better than Europe, and the pandemic “is ending.” Biden did not make any campaign appearances on Tuesday, remaining in Wilmington, Delaware, where he was said to be preparing for Thursday evening’s second debate with Trump, which is to take place in Nashville, Tennessee.   Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, out of the 270 needed to capture the presidency, is a crucial prize. In 2016, Trump edged Hillary Clinton by only 45,000 popular votes in the state with the help of white, working-class voters in Erie, who had long been loyal to the Democrats. First lady Melania Trump had been scheduled to join her husband on stage in Erie on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, her office announced she was canceling her appearance due to a lingering cough following her coronavirus infection. President Trump spent three days in the hospital being treated for COVID-19. He has declared himself cured and now immune to the virus that has killed more than 220,000 people in the United States. Surveys show his administration’s handling of the pandemic has hurt him among voters. According to a New York Times/Sienna poll released Tuesday, Biden is favored over Trump to lead on the coronavirus pandemic by 12 points.   Biden has repeatedly accused the president of deliberately downplaying the deadliness of the disease, calling Trump’s behavior “close to criminal.”   

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US Backs Release of ‘Low-Level’ Islamic State Prisoners in Syria

An effort to reduce growing strains on overcrowded prisons in Syria, some holding thousands of captured Islamic State fighters, is being met with cautious optimism in Washington, even though it involves letting hundreds of the terror group’s adherents walk free.The plan put into motion last week by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), calls for the release of so-called “low-level” Islamic State members under a general amnesty.Already, 631 such Syrian nationals have been freed, allowed to return to their homes, while another 253 have seen their sentences cut in half, and Kurdish officials say more releases are expected in the coming months.So far, the United States is on board.“We see these return and reintegration initiatives as positive,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA, noting the release “focused on nonviolent offenders who are not assessed to pose a radicalization risk to their communities.”The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter, also suggested aid could be available to help the process go smoothly.“We, along with our coalition partners, are prepared to support receiving communities as part of ongoing stabilization initiatives,” the spokesperson said.Concerns about what to do with captured IS fighters and IS supporters have only grown since the collapse of the terror group’s caliphate in March 2019.Within months, key Pentagon officials were warning that the more than a dozen makeshift prisons set up by the SDF to hold, at the time, more than 10,000 captured IS fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters, were simply not sustainable.US officials have long warned the A man, suspected of having collaborated with the Islamic State (IS) group, is greeted by a family member upon his release from the Kurdish-run Alaya prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, on Oct. 15, 2020.Not everyone is as optimistic, though.“ISIS likely recruited aggressively within detention centers due to the SDF’s failure to isolate radical elements of the population,” Eva Kahan, a researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group.“This initial release will supply tens to low hundreds of potential ISIS fighters or supporters to active insurgent cells in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and could add fuel to that insurgency’s flames,” Kahan said.Other experts who have studied the region, while not ready to rule out possible blowback, argue the success or failure of the prisoner releases may hinge more on what happens next.“Much is going to depend on the conditions that they encounter back in their communities and whether or not conditions are conducive to their reintegration,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace.“The extent to which people are released into conditions that are the kinds of conditions that feed the grievances that often can lead to recruitment into groups like ISIS, it’s certainly a concern,” she said. “There’s no 100% certainty on this.”

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Why 2020 Polling Numbers May Be More Accurate Than Those of 2016

Should Americans trust polling data showing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump ahead of the November 3 election? VOA’s Elizabeth Lee takes a look.

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Racial Minorities in US Dying From COVID at Higher Rates Than Whites

Hispanics, Blacks and Asian Americans in the U.S. have been dying at disproportionately higher rates from the coronavirus compared to white Americans, government health experts reported Tuesday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report that from late January — when the pandemic first hit U.S. shores from China and Europe — through early October, deaths of white people were about 12% higher than in the same months of the four previous years. But the CDC said deaths of Hispanics in that 2020 timeframe were 53.6% higher than in recent years, with deaths of Blacks up 32.9% and Asian Americans by 36.6%. “These disproportionate increases among certain racial and ethnic groups are consistent with noted disparities in COVID-19 mortality,” the CDC said. The federal health agency said the largest percentage increase in deaths was seen among individuals ages 25 to 44. In absolute numbers, people under age 25 fared best with 841 excess deaths. The total number of excess deaths compared to recent years ranged from 841 fatalities in people younger than 25 to 94,646 among those ages 75 to 84. The U.S. has now recorded more than 220,000 coronavirus deaths and 8.2 million infections, according to Johns Hopkins University. Both figures are the highest of any country across the globe. 
 

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US Reportedly Lost $19 Billion To Fraud, Abuse in Afghanistan

The United States has lost $19 billion in Afghanistan since 2002 due to “waste, fraud and abuse,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a new report released Tuesday.SIGAR monitors all U.S. spending in the 19-year war in Afghanistan, America’s longest.The American oversight authority noted that the U.S. Congress has appropriated nearly $134 billion for Afghan reconstruction programs since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001.“Of that amount, SIGAR reviewed approximately $63 billion and concluded that a total of approximately $19 billion, or 30% of the amount reviewed, was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse,” the report said.SIGAR’s audit identified approximately $1.8 billion in waste, fraud and abuse between January 2018 and December 2019.The oversight office is tasked with reviewing reconstruction funding and presenting recommendations for putting the money to better use for other programs or efforts in the tumultuous South Asian nation.SIGAR’s latest report comes as President Donald Trump’s administration presses the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents to negotiate a political settlement to permanently end the long conflict. The Afghan rivals are currently engaged in direct peace talks in Doha, Qatar.FILE – Abdullah Abdullah, center, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, attends the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.The historic dialogue is the product of a peace-building agreement the Trump administration sealed with the Taliban in February to close the war and bring home all U.S. forces by May 2021.The U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and toppled the Taliban government at the time for harboring the al-Qaida terror network and its chief, Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the attacks.The war has since cost Washington the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers and nearly $1 trillion.SIGAR has routinely criticized the Afghan government’s efforts to curb rampant corruption as inadequate, saying it is a major concern among the frustrated donor community.In a report released in early 2020, the U.S. agency said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration “is more interested in checking off boxes for the international community than in actually uprooting its corruption problem.”The anti-corruption efforts and reform programs will come under scrutiny next month when Afghan officials and international donors meet in Geneva to consider future aid commitments to Afghanistan. 

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Microsoft Disables Most of Cybercriminals’ Control Over Massive Computer Network

Microsoft Corp said Tuesday it had disabled more than 90% of the machines used by a gang of Russian-speaking cyber criminals to control a massive network of computers with a potential to disrupt the U.S. election. Aided by a series of U.S. court orders and relationships with technology providers in other countries, Microsoft said its weeklong campaign against the gang running the Trickbot network was heading off a possible source of disruption to the November 3 U.S. vote. “We’ve taken down most of their infrastructure,” corporate Vice President Tom Burt said in an interview. “Their ability to go and infect targets has been significantly reduced.” The criminals in charge of Trickbot have infected more than 1 million personal computers, including many inside local governments, according to cybersecurity professionals. They then make deals with other gangs to install ransomware and other malicious programs on the infected machines, security professionals say. Although there is no evidence that the gang has worked with foreign governments, Burt said he wanted to disrupt Trickbot before the election in case Russian agencies attempted to use it to interfere with voting or cast doubt on the results by manipulating data. Some security experts who had seen little impact from Microsoft’s initial efforts to combat Trickbot said this week that new control servers being brought online by the gang were getting cut off, making it harder for the group to install new programs on infected computers. “Disruption operations against Trickbot are currently global in nature and have had success against Trickbot infrastructure,” said Intel 471 Chief Executive Mark Arena. “Regardless, there still is a small number of working controllers based in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan that still are able to respond.” The Trickbot gang is now asking other malware groups to install its software, Arena and others said, and it is expected to rebuild its infrastructure in other ways. Burt said such efforts to adapt would at least distract the gang from bringing chaos to voting or other local government activity if it had been so inclined. 
 

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Senate to Work Through Weekend to Push Barrett Onto Court

Wasting no time, the Senate is on track to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court by next Monday, charging toward a rare weekend session as Republicans push past procedural steps to install President Donald Trump’s pick before Election Day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he will begin the process as soon as the Senate Judiciary Committee wraps up its work Thursday. With a 53-47 Republican majority, and just two GOP senators opposed, Trump’s nominee is on a glide path to confirmation that will seal a conservative hold on the court for years to come.  
McConnell said Monday that Barrett demonstrated  over several days of public hearings the “sheer intellectual horsepower that the American people deserve to have on the Supreme Court.”
Without the votes to stop Barrett’s ascent, Democrats have few options left. They are searching for two more GOP senators to break ranks and halt confirmation, but that seems unlikely. Never before has a court nominee been voted on so close to a presidential election.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer decried what he called the “farcical” process to “jam” through Trump’s choice, even as the coronavirus outbreak  sidelined GOP senators.
“The Republican majority is running the most hypocritical, most partisan and least legitimate process in the history of Supreme Court confirmations,” he said during speech as the Senate opened.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to meet Thursday to vote on recommending Barrett’s nomination to the full Senate.  
By Friday, procedural votes are expected, continuing over the weekend as Republicans push through the steps for a final vote to confirm Barrett as soon as Monday.
The 48-year-old appellate court judge  from Indiana delivered few specific answers during several days of public testimony as senators probed her previously outspoken views against abortion, the Affordable Care Act and other issues before the court. She declined to say whether she would recuse herself from cases involving the election between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
Trump has said he wants the judge seated in time to hear any potential disputes from the Nov. 3 election. He also has said he’s looking for a judge who would rule against the Obama-era health care law, which is headed to the court in a case justices are expected to hear Nov. 10.  
If confirmed, Barrett would be Trump’s third justice on the court. She would fill the vacancy from the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the liberal icon, locking in a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court.

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US Justice Department Files Antitrust Lawsuit Against Google

The U.S. Justice Department has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google for allegedly violating federal law by using its dominant market position to stifle competition.The agency alleged in its long-awaited lawsuit Tuesday that Google abused its dominant market position to maintain monopolies in online search and search advertising.Google did not immediately comment on the lawsuit, the most significant legal challenge to the U.S. technology sector in more than two decades.Consumer advocates and legislators have long accused Google of abusing its dominant market position to suppress competition, increase profits and hurt consumers. The suit, filed in federal court in Washington, could be the first of many other significant government antitrust actions against Silicon Valley. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission also are currently investigating Apple, Amazon and Facebook.A senior economic adviser to President Donald Trump said two years ago that the administration was considering whether Google searches should be regulated by the government. Trump has frequently criticized Google and promoted unsubstantiated claims by conservatives that the company suppresses conservative viewpoints, meddles in U.S. elections and favors collaborating with the Chinese military over the U.S. Defense Department.Google has captured about 90% of the world’s internet search market, the result of offering a product that is preferred by billions of users daily, the company has said.The California-based corporation has been preparing for the lawsuit and is expected to aggressively oppose any efforts to force it to spin off its services into individual businesses. A recent House Judiciary subcommittee report concluded after a yearlong investigation into Silicon Valley’s market dominance that Google has monopolized the search market. The report said Google established its dominant position through acquisition in several markets, buying about 260 companies that other businesses had developed over a 20-year span. Google was fined $1.7 billion by the European Union in 2019 for preventing websites from using the tech giant’s rivals from locating advertisers. The EU also fined Google $2.6 billion in 2017 for favoring its own online shopping venues over its rivals, and $4.9 billion in 2018 for blocking competitors from its Android operating system.

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