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Trump contradicts US intel community by claiming he’s seen evidence coronavirus originated in Chinese lab – CNN

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Trump contradicts US intel community by claiming he’s seen evidence coronavirus originated in Chinese lab – CNN_5eacaccc9b9bb.jpeg

The comments undercut a public statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued just hours earlier which stated no such assessment has been made and continues to “rigorously examine” whether the outbreak “began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

“I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that,” he said.

In acknowledgment of that effort, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an unprecedented public statement Thursday prior to Trump’s comments making clear the intelligence community is currently exploring two possibilities but cannot yet assess if the outbreak “was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan” or began “through contact with infected animals.”

It is unusual for the intelligence community to comment publicly on its work before a formal assessment is made. Thursday’s statement appears to have come in response to growing questions over the origins of the virus as Trump administration officials have spent weeks repeatedly floating the theory that the virus originated inside a Chinese lab.

Trump said Thursday there were “a lot of theories” that he would assess but seemed to hold out hope that Beijing would eventually be forthcoming with what it knows about the virus’ origin.

“China may tell us,” he said.

Pressure from Trump officials

Despite warnings from scientists and intelligence professionals that the US may never know the precise origin of the virus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has continued to push the intelligence community for precise details about the origin of the virus, CNN has learned.

As a result, intelligence officials are facing enormous pressure to determine whether the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, two sources familiar with their frustrations told CNN. While the intelligence community has been wary to share details about the demands coming from the Trump administration, officials have told allies that the situation on the inside is alarming.

New York Times: Top administration officials have pushed intelligence agencies to link coronavirus to Chinese labs
The New York Times was the first to report Thursday that a number of top officials in the Trump administration have pushed US intelligence agencies looking into the origin of the novel coronavirus to “hunt for evidence” linking the virus to a Chinese laboratory.
While the White House and State Department have urged intelligence officials to find evidence that backs up the theory that the outbreak can be traced back to a Chinese lab, the intelligence community made clear Thursday that they have not reached a definitive conclusion beyond ruling out theories that the virus was man-made or genetically modified.

“The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan,” the statement issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on behalf of the entire community said.

US explores possibility that coronavirus spread started in Chinese lab, not a market

While the statement suggests the intelligence community has not yet developed a clear assessment as to how the outbreak started, it does say that officials have ruled out the possibility that the virus was “man-made or genetically modified,” agreeing with a near consensus among scientists and refuting conspiracy theories.

Trump was asked about the statement for the first time shortly after it was released but responded by defending his handling of the situation and pushing back on reports that warnings about an emerging outbreak were included in his daily briefs dating back to January and February.

“Well I haven’t seen the report yet, but I will tell you, if you speak to the head of intelligence right now, you speak to the head, they did say that I was given a briefing when I said I was given it, not before and they also said that it wasn’t specific and it was not a panicked briefing,” Trump said, appearing to refer to acting DNI Richard Grenell despite the fact he wasn’t tapped for the job until February.

Trump’s more direct comments about the outbreak’s origins came when he was asked about the issue for a second time Thursday.

‘He doesn’t like information’

Trump’s tenuous relationship with the intelligence community dates back to the earliest days of his presidency as he has routinely questioned their assessments, particularly their conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

The pressure on the intelligence agencies to provide evidence related to the pandemic’s origins stems, in part, from Trump’s handling of intelligence more broadly, the former senior administration official said.

Trump does not spend much time pouring through the daily briefs. Instead, the President prefers intelligence officials to present him with policy ideas, rather than raw information, which is a practice that runs contrary to the tradition of the intelligence community, a former official said.

“He doesn’t like information,” the official said. “He likes decision points.”

Normally, the IC presents information so the administration can make a policy decision, they added.

Earlier this week, the White House defended its focus on the Chinese labs saying the intelligence community had been tasked with determining whether the virus originated in a Chinese lab, a spokesperson for the National Security Council referred to a statement from White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley.

Earlier this week, the White House defended its focus on the Chinese lab.

“As the president has said, the United States is thoroughly investigating this matter,” White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley said. “Understanding the origins of the virus is important to help the world respond to this pandemic but also to inform rapid-response efforts to future infectious disease outbreaks.”

US intelligence agencies started tracking coronavirus outbreak in China as early as November

But the lack of evidence to back up claims that the outbreak began in a Chinese lab has not stopped top administration officials, including Pompeo, and some Republican allies of the President from raising the possibility in public comments.

“We still haven’t gained access, the world hasn’t gained access to the WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology) there. We don’t know precisely where this virus originated from,” Pompeo said Wednesday.

And it appears that messaging campaign is a coordinated effort between the administration and like-minded lawmakers who have been in consistent contact with the White House in recent weeks, according to multiple sources.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is among those who have spoken regularly with White House officials throughout the lockdown about the origins of the virus, including personal calls with NSC and member briefings, according to a senior staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss sensitive matters.

The administration came to the conclusion long ago that it is plausible, if not likely, the virus escaped from the lab and spread through the marketplace, not the other way around, the Cruz staffer said.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also called for an investigation into the virus’ origins and China’s handling of the outbreak.

Like Cruz, McCaul believes it is plausible that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab accidentally but has requested additional information from the White House on the matter, according to aides.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty over the virus’ origins extends to the closest intelligence partners of the US. The US evidence shared with the allied intelligence-sharing group known as Five Eyes doesn’t rule one theory in or out, according to a foreign official in regular contact with the Trump administration.

Trump administration draws up plans to punish China over coronavirus outbreak

“No one’s able to stay one way or the other,” the official said, highlighting — as American officials have — the lack of an independent team on the ground. “We just don’t know enough,” the official added.

Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday that Trump has directed a full investigation into the nature and origination of coronavirus in China as well as China’s conduct once the US gets through the ongoing epidemic.

“I fully expect that the President will consider a range of options to ensure that those who were not forthcoming with the American people, be that in China or in the World Health Organization, are held to account.”

However, Trump has praised China on numerous occasions, as recently as this month.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel

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Cabinet slashes budgets to pay for 6 new ministries, including ‘alternate PM’ – The Times of Israel_5ed43a3d6fdc5.jpeg

The cabinet on Sunday approved widespread fiscal reforms that will cut the budgets of most ministries in order to fund the establishment of six new ministries, including the office of the “alternate prime minister,” in a series of controversial decisions.

A unity coalition deal between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in earlier this month. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s 33 ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.

The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million) over its three-year span. There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the new offices created Sunday was the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office, which will be held by Defense Minister Gantz for 18 months and then be transferred to Netanyahu as part of a power-sharing deal designed to allow him to keep the prime ministerial title even after vacating the post. Unlike other ministers, a prime minister can remain in his post even after he is indicted on criminal charges.

Other offices are Ze’ev Elkin’s Water Resources and Higher Education ministries; Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Ministry of Community Empowerment; David Amsalem’s Cyber Ministry; and Tzipi Hotovely and Tzachi Hanegbi’s Settlements Ministry.

Gantz — who is currently defense minister, in addition to the new post of alternate premier — is set to take over as prime minister in 18 months under the coalition deal, at which point Netanyahu will become alternate prime minister.

As the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office was approved, Netanyahu on Sunday denied reports that the alternate prime minister would also be granted an alternate prime minister’s residence. “It’s not true. It didn’t come up and it won’t,” he said.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are seen at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (ALEX KOLOMOISKY/POOL)

In order to create the new posts, ministers approved a government decision that will see a 1.5% cut to the budgets of all government offices, specifically at the upper personnel level. The move will slash 300 posts from the various offices to free up some NIS 100 million ($28.5 million).

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi opposed the budget cuts to foreign service, whereupon the cuts to his ministry were reduced from NIS 11.5 million ($3.2 million) to NIS 4.8 million ($1.3 million), the Walla news site reported.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, right, with his predecessor, incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)

On the 22-item agenda, the cabinet was also voting on filling the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, led by Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn, and other ministerial panels; appointing directors general of the defense and economy ministries; and giving the green light to new Finance Minister Israel Katz’s program to encourage employment amid the pandemic.

In a Saturday night address, Katz presented his new Finance Ministry plan aimed at encouraging employers to take back employees placed on unpaid leave during the height of the pandemic in March. For every employee called back, places of business will receive a grant of NIS 7,500 ($2,141) starting on June 1, according to the plan. An additional grant of some NIS 3,500 ($1,000) will be handed out to employers for employees called back in May. Katz said some NIS 500 million ($142 million) have been allocated for businesses that would put employees back to work.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz opposed the treasury proposal during the meeting, arguing that it rewards employers who dropped their workers while harming those who kept their employees on the payroll even at a loss, according to the Globes business daily.

Katz retorted: “There is an alternate prime minister. There is no alternate finance minister. I am the finance minister and I will lead the implementation of the government decisions, which I proposed, and which were accepted by an overwhelming majority,” the Ynet news site reported.

Incoming Economy Minister Amir Peretz at a changeover ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sunday’s cabinet meeting also saw Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri receive building and planning powers that were previously under the treasury’s purview, while the Health Ministry was granted additional powers to combat the coronavirus.

The meeting on Sunday was held in the Foreign Ministry’s auditorium as the regular cabinet meeting rooms were not large enough to accommodate all the ministers while maintaining social distancing, according to reports.

Opposition chairman Yair Lapid issued a statement blasting the government after ministers approved funding for the newly formed offices created by the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition deal.

“The government handed half a billion shekels to itself today. Not for the self-employed, not for the unemployed, not for small businesses, but for itself,” said Lapid.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid at the Knesset as the 35th government of Israel is presented on May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Adina Veldman)

“For redundant offices like the Water Resources Ministry, the nonexistent Community Empowerment Ministry and for deputy ministers that no one needs. Detached lawmakers, we’ve had enough of you.”

Separately, last Wednesday,  a bill allowing ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament passed its preliminary Knesset plenary reading. The so-called Norwegian Law — which still requires three more votes to become law — would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead.

The opposition has blasted the bill, and the coalition’s rush to pass it, as a way of pushing more people into sweetheart jobs on the taxpayers’ dime.

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Tapper: Some of Trump’s allies think he’s not up to the task – CNN

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In Days of Discord, President Trump Fans the Flames – The New York Times

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In Days of Discord, President Trump Fans the Flames – The New York Times_5ed43a2a0f874.jpeg

WASHINGTON — With a nation on edge, ravaged by disease, hammered by economic collapse, divided over lockdowns and even face masks and now convulsed once again by race, President Trump’s first instinct has been to look for someone to fight.

Over the last week, America reeled from 100,000 pandemic deaths, 40 million people out of work and cities in flames over a brutal police killing of a subdued black man. But Mr. Trump was on the attack against China, the World Health Organization, Big Tech, former President Barack Obama, a cable television host and the mayor of a riot-torn city.

While other presidents seek to cool the situation in tinderbox moments like this, Mr. Trump plays with matches. He roars into any melee he finds, encouraging street uprisings against public health measures advanced by his own government, hurling made-up murder charges against a critic, accusing his predecessor of unspecified crimes, vowing to crack down on a social media company that angered him and then seemingly threatening to meet violence with violence in Minneapolis.

As several cities erupted in street protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of them resulting in clashes with the police, Mr. Trump made no appeal for calm. Instead in a series of tweets and comments to reporters on Saturday, he blamed the unrest on Democrats, called on “Liberal Governors and Mayors” to get “MUCH tougher” on the crowds, threatened to intervene with “the unlimited power of our Military” and even suggested his own supporters mount a counterdemonstration.

The turmoil came right to Mr. Trump’s doorstep for the second night in a row on Saturday as hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death and the president’s response surged in streets near the White House. While most were peaceful, chanting “black lives matter” and “no peace, no justice,” some spray painted scatological advice for Mr. Trump, ignited small fires, set off firecrackers and threw bricks, bottles and fruit at Secret Service and United States Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.

The police cordoned off several blocks around the Executive Mansion as a phalanx of camouflage-wearing National Guard troops marched across nearby Lafayette Square. A man strode through the streets yelling, “Time for a revolution!” The image of the White House surrounded by police in helmets and riot gear behind plastic shields fueled the sense of a nation torn apart.

Mr. Trump praised the Secret Service for being “very cool” and “very professional” but assailed the Democratic mayor of Washington for not providing city police officers to help on Friday night, which she denied. While governors and mayors have urged restraint, Mr. Trump seemed more intent on taunting the protesters, bragging about the violence that would have met them had they tried to get onto White House grounds.

“Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” the president wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action.”

His suggestion that his own supporters should come to the White House on Saturday foreshadowed the possibility of a clash outside his own doors. “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Asked about the tweet later, he denied encouraging violence by his supporters. “They love African-American people,” he said. “They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.” By evening, however, Mr. Trump’s supporters were not in evidence among the crowds at the White House.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington responded sharply on Saturday morning, saying her police department will protect anyone in Washington, including the president, and by Saturday evening her officers were out in force around the White House.

But she called the president a source of division. “While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she wrote. “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone …”

After his morning barrage, Mr. Trump tried to recalibrate later in the day, devoting the opening of a speech at the Kennedy Space Center following the SpaceX rocket launch to the unrest in the streets and clearly trying to temper his bellicose tone.

“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” he said. “We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists.”

The days of discord have put the president’s leadership style on vivid display. From the start of his ascension to power, Mr. Trump has presented himself as someone who seeks conflict, not conciliation, a fighter, not a peacemaker. That appeals to a substantial portion of the public that sees in him a president willing to take on an entrenched and entitled establishment.

But the confluence of perilous health, economic and now racial crises has tested his approach and left him struggling to find his footing just months before an election in which polls currently show him behind.

“The president seems more out-of-touch and detached from the difficult reality the country is living than ever before,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Mr. Trump. “At a moment when America desperately needs healing, the president is focused on petty personal battles with his perceived adversaries.”

Such a moment would challenge any president, of course. It has been a year of national trauma that started out feeling like another 1998 with impeachment, then another 1918 with a killer pandemic combined with another 1929 given the shattering economic fallout. Now add to that another 1968, a year of deep social unrest.

It is fair to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that has frayed the fabric of American society with an accumulation of anguish that has whipsawed the country and its people. But in some ways, Mr. Trump has become a totem for the nation’s polarization rather than a mender of it.

“I am daily thinking about why and how a society unravels and what we can do to stop the process,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “The calamity these days is about more than Trump. He is just the malicious con man who lives to exploit our vulnerabilities.”

As the nation has confronted a coronavirus pandemic at the same time as the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, whatever unified resolve that existed at the beginning of the twin crises quickly evaporated into yet another cultural clash. And the president has made everything into just another partisan dispute rather than a source of consensus, from when and how to reopen to whether to wear a mask in public.

Mr. Trump led no national mourning as the death toll from the coronavirus passed 100,000 beyond lowering the flags at the White House, posting a single tweet and offering a passing comment on camera only when asked about it. Rather than seek agreement on the best and safest way to restore daily life, he threatened to “override” governors who prevented places of worship from resuming crowded services.

“Crisis leadership demands much more from the White House than irresponsible threats on social media,” said Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University.

Mr. Trump’s initial response to the rioting in Minneapolis, where a police officer has been charged with murder after kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he cried out that he could not breathe, underscored the president’s most instinctive response to national challenges. Threatening to send in troops, he wrote early Friday morning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Only after a cascade of criticism did he try to walk it back, posting a new tweet 13 hours later, suggesting that all he had meant was that “looting leads to shooting” by people in the street.

“I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” he said, a reformulation that convinced few if any of his critics.

Even some of Mr. Trump’s usual allies were distressed at the original shooting tweet. Geraldo Rivera, the television and radio host who often spends time with Mr. Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, decried “the recklessness” of that message and called on the president “to self-censor himself.”

“Come on, what is this, sixth grade?” Mr. Rivera said on Fox News. “You don’t put gasoline on the fire. That’s not calming anybody.” He added: “All he does is diminish himself.”

But many of the president’s defenders rejected the idea that he had mishandled the crises, pressing the argument that Democrats and the news media were to blame for the turmoil in the streets, which spread from Minneapolis to New York, Atlanta, Washington, Louisville, Portland and other cities.

“Keep track of cities where hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and serious injuries and death will take place,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has served as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote on Twitter on Friday night. “All Democrat dominated cities with criminal friendly policies. This is the future if you elect Democrats.”

Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Mr. Trump for tax fraud earlier this year, amplified the point on Twitter. “It should be no surprise that every one of these cities that the anarchist have taken over, are the same cities run by leftist Democrats with the highest violence, murder and poverty rates,” he wrote on Twitter. “They can’t handle their cities normally, so how are they going to deal with this?”

Mr. Trump, who this past week retweeted a video of a supporter saying that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” (though the supporter insisted he meant that in a political sense), picked up the theme on Saturday.

With crowds visible from his upstairs windows, Mr. Trump reached for his phone and again assailed the “Democrat Mayor” of Minneapolis for not responding more vigorously and called on New York to unleash its police against crowds. “Let New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest,” he wrote. “There is nobody better, but they must be allowed to do their job!”

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