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Democrats want panel to investigate Trump’s capacity to govern

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is looking to introduce legislation that will allow President Trump’s removal if necessary.

US Democrats on Thursday proposed a commission to investigate whether Donald Trump is mentally fit for office – and look at the constitutional options for his removal if necessary.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told reporters that on Friday she and other Democrats would introduce a measure relating to the US Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which allows for the vice president to take over should it be determined that the president “is unable” to fulfil his duties.

Pelosi’s office said Friday’s bill would “help ensure effective and uninterrupted leadership in the highest office in the executive branch of government”.

The move comes at a moment of crisis in the White House, with Trump being treated for a COVID-19 infection that sent him to the hospital for three nights.

The 74-year-old leader has fired off a stream of erratic tweets this week and raised eyebrows with a stream-of-consciousness interview early Thursday on Fox Business in which he said he beat the coronavirus because “I am a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young”.

Pelosi warned Trump is suffering from a “disassociation from reality [that] would be funny if it weren’t so deadly”.

Pelosi on Thursday directly questioned Trump’s health status and his claim to be rapidly recovering from COVID-19 [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

Pelosi’s effort would renew debate about what steps might be taken in the event the president becomes disabled to such a degree he cannot fulfil his responsibilities.

Scathing criticism from Trump camp

But she received scathing criticism from Trump and other Republicans.

“Crazy Nancy is the one who should be under observation. They don’t call her Crazy for nothing!” Trump boomed on Twitter.

House Republican Mark Green used particularly blunt language.

“I wouldn’t put it past @SpeakerPelosi to stage a coup,” the first-term congressman tweeted.

“She has already weaponised impeachment, what’s to keep her from weaponizing the 25th amendment?”

Pelosi’s action is unlikely to bring about a transition of power in the White House, as Vice President Mike Pence, a Trump loyalist, would be required to sign off on such a declaration.

Pelosi on Thursday directly questioned Trump’s health status and his claim to be rapidly recovering from COVID-19.

“I think that the public needs to know the health condition of the president,” she said.

“Mr President: When was the last time you had a negative test before you tested positive?” she asked.

“Why is the White House not telling the country that important fact?”

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Colorado is fighting its largest wildfire in history

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The Cameron Peak Fire near Rocky Mountain National Park has become the largest wildfire in Colorado history, growing to 203,000 acres this weekend. The fire was 62 percent contained as of Monday morning.

The previous record-holder was the 137,000-acre Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction, Colorado. That fire also ignited this year and was declared 100 percent contained in September. It only held on to its record as Colorado’s largest wildfire for seven weeks.

Meanwhile, another new, fast-moving wildfire ignited in Boulder County on Saturday and quickly spread across almost 9,000 acres, forcing at least 3,000 people to evacuate. Known as the CalWood Fire, it’s now the largest wildfire on record for Boulder County. Then on Sunday, the Lefthand Canyon Fire started just outside of Boulder.

Beyond the threat from the flames, these various wildfires have sent dangerous, smoky air into cities like Denver and Fort Collins, triggering air quality alerts off and on for months.

Together, the recent blazes in Colorado add up to an unusually long and severe wildfire season, and it’s not likely to let up anytime soon. “The current fire season, it’s definitely a crazy one,” said Chad Hoffman, an associate professor of fire science at Colorado State University. “We still have dry, windy conditions pushing these fires.”

Some unique weather conditions this year set the stage for Colorado’s blazes, but the threat from wildfires is growing across the state due to human development and climate change.

What’s fueling Colorado’s fires this year

It’s an increasingly familiar story. Like the epic wildfires this year across California, Oregon, and Washington, the wildfires in Colorado arose amid a year of extreme heat and dryness.

Heat waves baked the state this summer and persisted into the fall. The high temperatures increased the evaporation of moisture from vegetation, leaving plants dry and ready to burn. There was also less rainfall. Over the past month, precipitation was less than 10 percent of what is typical.

“By the end of September, nearly 100% of the state was experiencing some level of drought, up from 51% since the beginning of the calendar year,” according to the Colorado Climate Center’s Monthly State of the Climate report. The state is on track to have its second-driest year on record.

That aridity has left almost every type of vegetation in the state primed to burn, as was evident in the Cameron Peak Fire. “It burned all the way from fir forest, ponderosa pine, mixed conifer. It’s burned through some grasslands and shrublands as well,” Hoffman said. “It’s burned through areas that have previously burned, like during the Bobcat Fire. It’s burned through bark-beetle-affected areas. So a really big mix of fuels that this fire has burned through over the last 60 days.”

It’s also uncommon to see fires this late in the year in Colorado. Typically winter precipitation starts to set in and cap fire seasons in the autumn.

This fits within the trend of fire seasons in Colorado getting longer. Wildfires are a natural part of the landscape in the state, as they are in places farther west. Many woodlands have evolved to deal with and benefit from periodic fires.

However, humans have been making fire risks worse. That’s in part due to climate change, which is changing weather patterns and driving some of the aridity in Colorado’s forests. It’s also a function of more people living in high-risk areas. “The growing population in Colorado means we have more people in the woods, which leads potentially to more ignitions,” Hoffman said. The vast majority of wildfires in the United States have human causes, though in Colorado about half of fires in the state are ignited by lightning strikes.

The growing fire risk is also a consequence of more than a century of suppression of natural wildfires. By putting out blazes, vegetation in the state has accumulated, so during periods of extreme dryness, there is much more fuel to burn than there would be had more fires been allowed to proceed.

There are now efforts to reintroduce fire to the landscape, but vast swaths of the state need fuel reduction treatments, and the window for safely conducting measures like prescribed burns is shrinking as the climate warms.

For now, firefighters are facing high winds as they work to contain Colorado’s record-breaking blazes. And until the winds slow and the snow and rain arrive, the fires in the state are poised to continue burning — and more may yet ignite.


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Pennsylvania is crucial to victory for both Trump and Biden

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James Dobrich, a 60-year-old electric motor mechanic, has one of the only Donald Trump signs in an Erie, Pennsylvania neighbourhood filled with placards that display Joe Biden’s name. Head outside town and Trump signs populate rural Erie County, he said. Erie is a lakeside manufacturing town in the rust belt that has seen better days. With the decline of industry, the town has shrunk by 10,000 people in the last decade.

Dobrich said business from the steel mills that contract out to his company slowed during Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2016, Dobrich did not like either presidential candidate, but Trump seemed serious about cracking down on immigration. “Immigration was just part of it. I mean, he really wanted to bring jobs back.” He voted for Trump.

Erie County, reliably Democratic since the 1980s, is one of three blue counties in Pennsylvania that took a chance on Trump in 2016 and voted Republican. Erie County is 87 percent white and solidly working class; about 27 percent of people 25 or older have a college degree. It is a vote-dense county with nearly 200,000 people registered — about 98,000 of them Democrats, and the county went back to blue in the 2018 midterms. But Republicans have added about 4,800 registered voters in the county since 2016, increasing their count to 72,000, while Democrats have only added 170 registered voters since the last presidential election.

After Trump was elected, Dobrich said the steel mills started sending his company more work. He believes Trump kept his promise about bringing jobs back. Since the pandemic hit, however, he has seen a drop in business. “I was making a tonne of overtime and I’m not really getting it right now.” If Trump is re-elected, he thinks work will pick up.

Before the pandemic, manufacturing jobs were on the rise in Pennsylvania, and Erie had the lowest unemployment rate in 18 years — 4.4 percent. But when COVID-19 hit, businesses closed and Erie County’s unemployment rate hit 16.8 percent in April, recovering to 11 percent in August.

Pennsylvania, with 20 Electoral College votes, is among the most crucial battleground states this election. Until Trump won in 2016 by only 0.7 percent, or 44,292 votes, it had not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988. Now, polls show Biden, who spent part of his childhood in Pennsylvania, has a chance to win it back along with other blue-wall states that Trump won in 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visits the Plumbers Local Union No 27 training centre, October 10, 2020, in Erie, Pennsylvania [Carolyn Kaster/AP]

To win Pennsylvania, Biden must persuade some of the white working-class voters who supported Trump in the last election. Biden visited Erie in mid-October, name-dropping his childhood home of Scranton, Pennsylvania to socially distanced supporters, “The president can only see the world from Park Avenue. I see it from Scranton and Claymont. Y’all see it from Erie.” Biden also visited other red counties, hoping to reduce the flow of votes to his rival.

State of the race

In 2016, turnout in Pennsylvania was higher than expected — about 300,000 more people came out for both candidates. Hillary Clinton did well in urban centres but Trump over-performed, especially in the state’s northeastern and northwestern industrial areas, galvanising older white voters who stayed home in past elections. Voters did not like either candidate, but many saw Trump as the lesser of two evils — a political outsider who could change things. Trump resonated with white, blue-collar voters who were fed up with the Democratic Party and believed he would suppress immigration and bring back jobs.

Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, October 13, 2020 [Gene J. Puskar/AP]

There is a belief among Trump’s base that he turned the economy around since 2016. In fact, as the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out in its endorsement of Biden, Trump inherited a growing economy from Obama. In the first three years of Obama’s second term, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped by 2.6 percent, the Inquirer wrote. In the three years after Trump was elected, the unemployment rate dropped an additional 0.6 percent.

This election, while Trump’s handling of COVID-19 is dragging down his approval rating, the economy is still the biggest concern in Pennsylvania; 33 percent say it is their top issue compared with 19 percent who picked pandemic response as their number one election topic, according to a poll by Emerson College.

“That’s why Trump is still competitive in these states,” explained Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson College Polling. “Because a lot of voters do look at the Trump economy of 2018 and 2019 as being strong, and they’re saying, ‘Well, look what he was able to do. If we get past this, he can bring it back to what we were producing a couple of years ago.’” Those voters, including Dobrich, believe the pandemic will be short-term and do not think COVID-19 is a huge threat. A new survey found 48 percent of Republicans versus 25 percent of Democrats say COVID-19 is no worse than the flu.

Other factors tip the scale in Biden’s favour. Immigration is not an election issue this year, so Trump has lost one of his main topics. And in 2016, Trump was supportive of fracking, a large industry in Pennsylvania, while Clinton was against it. This election, Biden has clearly stated he will not ban fracking, but Trump has attempted to falsely paint Biden as anti-fracking.

Biden is more popular than Clinton among Democratic voters in rural Pennsylvania, and more relatable to swing voters in the northeast of the state “in part because he comes from there and he speaks their language”, explained Patrick Murray, founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “You got those two things put together and he’s a comfortable alternative to Trump, who they definitely don’t want to see re-elected.”

Biden is also trying to reverse the drop in Black turnout that plagued Clinton in Pennsylvania and other key states. Obama, as he did in 2016 for Clinton, is hitting the trail for Biden in Philadelphia, where African Americans make up 41 percent of the population.

Late Results

If the Pennsylvania race is close, it is unlikely to be decided on election night. By mid-October, a record 2.6 million voters had requested mail ballots, but they can not be counted until Election Day. Michigan and Wisconsin have the same rule, meaning it could take days to know the outcome in these battleground states.

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in September will allow mail ballots received up to three days after election day to be counted. Mail ballots were an issue in the state’s June primary — the swing county of Luzerne took two extra days to count them.

Ballots are counted centrally with industrialised extraction desks, a faster process, but mail ballots take longer to count because they must be removed from two envelopes — a regular envelope and a secrecy envelope — before verifying and scanning.

Voting-rights activists worry that the secrecy envelopes may disenfranchise voters: the state Supreme Court ruled that mail ballots that arrive without the secrecy envelope will be rejected. This rule prompted a social media campaign with nude celebrities spreading awareness about the so-called “naked ballots”.

Philadelphia’s chair of city commissioners Lisa Deeley warned in a letter that as many as 30,000 to 40,000 ballots could be thrown out in her city, and up to 100,000 ballots could be rejected state-wide. “When you consider that the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania was decided by just over 44,000 votes, you can see why I am concerned,” she wrote, calling the secrecy envelopes “a means to disenfranchise well-intentioned Pennsylvania voters”.

An Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, 2020 mail-in ballot and secrecy envelope [Gene J Puskar/AP]

In mid-October, a court struck down a Trump campaign lawsuit that claimed the president was threatened by voter fraud. The lawsuit sought to cancel drop boxes for absentee ballots that were not surveilled at all times, and wanted election officials to more easily reject mail ballots if the signature did not match past records. The judge disagreed that Trump’s chance of re-election would be impacted by voter fraud.

Dobrich believes Trump will win Erie County because his support is more visible; Trump supporters held a boat parade while Biden’s events had low turnout. He still dislikes Trump — he does not like Trump’s tweets or how he behaves. But he thinks the president has done “a good job”.

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Mexico president wants US evidence against ex-defence chief

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The allegations have rattled Mexico, as the armed forces are generally trusted by the public when it comes to corruption

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday his government would ask United States authorities to share all information about the alleged links between Mexico’s former defence secretary and drug traffickers.

Retired General Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested on Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport. The next day, prosecutors released documents alleging that Cienfuegos protected and aided a drug cartel moving cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to the US.

“Show us those operations of complicity if they have the proof,” Lopez Obrador said. Only then will Mexico open its own investigation. “We can’t allow someone to be judged only for political or other reasons if there is no proof.”

The president added though that there would not be impunity for anyone who committed wrongdoing.

Former Mexican Defence Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda’s appearing in federal court in Los Angeles [Bill Robles via AP Photo]

On Saturday, Lopez Obrador criticised the historic role played by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in his country, saying, although Cienfuegos’s arrest is evidence of rampant corruption in past governments, it also dealt a heavy blow to a powerful institution he relies upon.

“Why is it that it’s just the people in Mexico who took part in these acts being accused or implicated, and (the DEA) aren’t criticising themselves, reflecting on the meddling by all these agencies in Mexico?” Lopez Obrador said.

“They came into the country with complete freedom, they did whatever they wanted.”

During that time, he noted, US and Mexican officials deliberately allowed arms to be trafficked into Mexico in an attempt to trace them to cartel leaders, leading to many deaths. But only Mexicans were being held accountable, he said.

Allegations rattle Mexico

Cienfuegos served as defence secretary under ex-President Enrique Pena Nieto from 2012 to 2018. US prosecutors allege that during that time, he was helping a drug trafficking organization dubbed the “H2” cartel, though in Mexico it was considered a remnant of the Beltran Leyva organisation, a once-powerful cartel that splintered after the arrests or deaths of its founders.

The allegations rattled Mexico, where the armed forces are among the last institutions widely trusted by the public when it comes to corruption.

Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto flanked by Defence Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, left, and Admiral Vidal Francisco Soberon Sanz, at the start of the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City [Eduardo Verdugo/AP Photo]

Fighting corruption has been Lopez Obrador’s favourite topic in office, but he has also vested more responsibility in the military than any other Mexican president in recent history. On Monday, he remained protective of the institution.

Lopez Obrador said that as commander-in-chief, he would be the only spokesman for the government on the matter.

Cienfuegos was scheduled to make a second court appearance in Los Angeles Tuesday before being transferred to New York, where the case is based.

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