World in no rush to offer Trump help post-Harvey

As soon as Hurricane Harvey hit, Mexico — a country described by President Donald Trump as a source of rapists and drugs — stepped up to offer boats, food and other aid to the United States.

Another offer of help came from Venezuela, a country in severe political and economic crisis that has been repeatedly sanctioned by the Trump administration; it said it could give $5 million in aid.

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The European Union has proudly noted that it is sharing its satellite mapping with U.S. emergency responders dealing the Harvey’s devastation. This despite Trump’s chastisement of European countries he views as overly dependent on the U.S. military.

Then there’s tiny Taiwan, which has reportedly offered $800,000 in aid — a number likely calculated to annoy China as much as to curry favor with Trump.

But compared to past crises, the list of foreign governments lining up to help the United States this time is relatively short for the time being. And the few countries that have raised their hand may get more out of it – politically, at least – than the U.S.

The relative dearth of global goodwill, some analysts say, may stem from anger at Trump over his “America First” approach to the world, which has irked even staunch U.S. allies.

“Foreign governments are holding back, and that hasn’t been the case historically,” said Markos Kounalakis, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. “They appear to be much more cautious, whether it’s for domestic political reasons or displeasure with President Trump. Do they want to be seen as helping Trump?”

The United States is developed and wealthy enough that it rarely needs foreign assistance. But there can be a political payoff for other countries that make an offer.

Within days of Hurricane Katrina overwhelming New Orleans back in 2005, dozens of nations had offered help, in cash or in kind, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The generosity then came even amid international anger over the fallout from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it also followed America’s own assistance to countries devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of late 2004. Some of the countries hardest hit by the tsunami, including Sri Lanka and Thailand, pledged to return the favor to the United States in its hour of need.

The United States didn’t use most of the international aid offered back then for a variety of reasons, some of them logistical, but the Bush administration was gracious in acknowledging the offers and offering its thanks.

In comments to the press on Thursday, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert noted that the leaders of Canada and Mexico had both called the White House to offer condolences and assistance.

“The president was deeply touched by those phone calls,” Bossert said. He said decisions about what offers would be taken would be made over time by government divisions including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department.

Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas a week ago, Mexico has been most prominent in offering help. It has said it will send food, boats and other supplies to help in the recovery effort.

“We are neighbors, we are friends. That’s what friends do,” the country’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, said while visiting Washington on Wednesday.

But there’s little question that in showcasing its generosity – the country’s diplomats have gone out of their way to make sure the public is aware of it – Mexico is drawing a contrast with Trump, as well as potentially positioning itself amid ongoing talks about reshaping the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The president usually talks about Mexico only to slam it over trade issues or insist it has to pay for a border wall.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday thanked Mexico for its offer, but he did not say if the U.S. would accept the aid, and the State Department stayed deliberately vague about it.

A Mexican official, however, noted that Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas had accepted the offer. The official told POLITICO that Mexico “will be working with FEMA and Texas authorities in the following days to deliver the aid,” suggesting the U.S. federal government had signed off.

Venezuela’s government, which the U.S. increasingly identifies as a dictatorship, said it would provide $5 million worth of aid to deluged stricken communities through its subsidiary company Citgo Petroleum Corp.

“We express our solidarity with the Americans affected by the hurricane,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said, according to media reports.

It was an astonishing offer given the deepening poverty inside Venezuela, where people are having problems buying food, medicine and other basic necessities. The Trump administration is unlikely to accept it given the growing animosity between the two governments – in mid-August, Trump even said the U.S. would consider taking military action against Venezuela.

The European Union’s satellite assistance followed a request from FEMA. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini stressed in a statement: “The US can count on the European Union as a strong and an historic ally for all our support.”

Whether the U.S. will take up Taiwan’s offer is unclear, but the government in Taipei has in the past been hopeful that Trump, who has taken an antagonistic approach to China, will support Taiwan’s hopes for independence. In the weeks ahead of his inauguration, Trump broke with standard protocol and spoke on the phone with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, infuriating China.

“Our thoughts are with ppl of #Houston as they weather an unprecedented #crisis. #Taiwan stands with #HoustonStrong. #HoustonFlood,” the Taiwanese leader wrote on Twitter.

Beyond hurricanes, past examples of unusual aid offers to the United States include longtime U.S. nemesis Iran’s offer to assist in the disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014, at the height of the Ebola virus crisis in Africa, the government of Cuba sent medical professionals to work alongside U.S. personnel trying to stop the outbreak.

James Carafano, a top official at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued that the relatively small number of aid offers from abroad has little to do with views of Trump and more to do with a sense that the United States can manage Harvey. The U.S. seems more prepared this time than it did when Katrina struck, causing chaos and killing hundreds.

Aid offers to the United States are usually about gaining some sort of political favor because “there’s actually very few areas where the United States needs foreign assistance,” Carafano said, adding that those areas tend to be highly technical in nature.

Analysts and former U.S. officials noted that more offers of help could emerge in the days ahead as the full scope of the disaster comes into view. Foreign governments generally tend to distinguish between the American people and the American government, and many would want to help suffering U.S. residents even if they don’t like their president.

Moira Whelan, a former State Department official under the Barack Obama administration, said one reason some foreign governments may be holding back is that they don’t have many points of contact within the Trump administration.

Most leadership positions at the State Department have yet to be filled, for instance, so some countries may not know who to ask about what they can do.

“The lack of meaningful relationships with individuals in the administration certainly is” an issue, Whelan said. “I think they want to help people but no one is suggesting great ways for them to do that.”

http://www.politico.com

Houston left with a toxic mess as Trump relaxes rules

A man and police officers are pictured. | AP

A man talks with officers at a roadblock less than three miles from the Arkema Inc. chemical plant Thursday, Aug. 31 in Crosby, Texas. | Gregory Bull/AP

Explosions and fires at a Houston-area chemical plant triggered an evacuation Thursday in a region still in chaos from Hurricane Harvey — and generated new criticism of President Donald Trump’s efforts to repeal the industry’s safety rules.

Thursday morning’s blasts at the plant came just a day after a federal court refused to force the Environmental Protection Agency to implement an Obama-era chemical safety regulation that the Trump administration has delayed until 2019. The site’s owner, Arkema, has complained about the burdens of the rule, which the EPA created after a 2015 explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people, injured about 200 others and destroyed hundreds of homes.

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The rule in question probably wouldn’t have prevented Thursday’s explosions, but it’s aimed at reducing the likelihood of future accidents — and ensuring that emergency responders and the public know what types of dangerous substances they might be exposed to. Firefighters and other emergency crews lack much of that crucial information about the plants and factories now awash with floodwater.

“It’s extremely frustrating, it’s disheartening, it’s unfair to the communities that face these risks,” Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said of the regulatory rollbacks the administration is pushing. “Not just in a natural disaster-type situation, but on a daily basis.”

Collapsed chemical tank roofs, machinery malfunctions and other accidents in the Houston area have sent more than 1,000 tons of dangerous chemicals into the air following days of pummeling from Harvey, according to a POLITICO analysis of incident filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Sometimes, toxic chemicals sit in huge storage tanks that border residents’ backyards.

Refiners said they won’t know the extent of the damage until the waters recede and they can get back into the plants. But emergency crews will have to perform their duties in toxic surroundings, said James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

“I’d put it on the scale of 9/11 health risk,” said Norton, now the head of the consulting group Play-Action Strategies. “There was a similar challenge in Katrina, as the standing water around the city kind of became a chemical sludge. The risk in Houston is greater.”

The swath of the Gulf Coast that Harvey tore apart is home to more than 300 hazardous chemical sites, according to data from the Sierra Club, including more than 230 chemical plants and over 30 refineries. And just clearing the damage will pose health problems. Texas’ famously lax site regulations and inspection rates will make normally straightforward emergency response problematic, as firefighters and others may not know whether a storage site’s equipment is up to date or even what chemicals it’s storing, said Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin.

“Emergency responders don’t have the information they need about what’s being stored at the facilities,” Craft said. “And because these facilities have flooded, and underground tank contents are coming up, all of that will magnify what we had with Katrina.”

Another worry is air pollution worsened by the volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide that refineries and chemical plants are spewing, which Craft said may endanger flood victims who suffer from asthma and other respiratory or cardiac problems. The Texas environmental commission has forecast that air quality in Houston will be “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at least through the weekend.

Thursday’s fires broke out in the early morning at the plant in Crosby, about 20 miles northeast of Houston, according to county officials. Arkema has blamed the incident on power outages and backup systems failures caused by the historic flooding triggered by the storm, which made landfall on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane.

The Arkema plant produces organic peroxides, which are used to make plastics and fiberglass but must be kept refrigerated.

Harris County evacuated everyone in a 1.5-mile radius, and several sheriff’s deputies who had breathed the smoke were sent to the hospital before being cleared, county Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a news conference. Gonzalez downplayed the incident, saying the officers were “basically standing over a barbecue pit and getting smoke in our eyes. That’s basically what occurred.”

Two raw materials stored on site and covered by EPA’s risk management rules, sulfur dioxide and a chemical called 2-methylpropene, are stored safely and are not considered at risk, Arkema executive Richard Rennard said.

EPA dispatched a sniffer plane equipped with sensors to detect chemical and radiological materials. It found “no concentrations of concern for toxic materials” as of Thursday morning, Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement.

Separately, the federal Chemical Safety Board is investigating the fire, board Chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. CSB investigators will not visit the site until it is deemed safe, but they are obtaining documents about what types of chemicals were used and stored at the plant.

Trump’s proposed budget for next year would eliminate all funding for the board, which issues safety recommendations but cannot directly enforce regulations.

Meanwhile, county emergency workers acknowledged they have no idea what other chemical plants in the area might pose an immediate risk.

“We are personally not monitoring” the status of chemicals kept in other plants in Harvey’s path, said Bob Royall, the county’s assistant chief of emergency operations. “That is industry’s responsibility.”

Public health advocates say the incident adds to the need for carrying out the Obama administration rule, which would require companies to provide more public information about the chemicals they’re storing, encourage them to look for safer alternatives and mandate third-party safety audits.

“The longer EPA delays the chemical disaster rule, the longer those types of assessments and investments will be delayed,” Nelson said. “We’re in a crisis situation here, and making policies or creating policies or buckling to industry pressure has real everyday life-or-death impacts to people.”

Nelson’s group has led a lawsuit trying to overturn Pruitt’s delay of the safety rule, which was finalized in the last days of the Obama administration but never took effect.

Arkema criticized the rule last year, telling EPA that the independent audits would “add significant new costs and burdens” but “may not necessarily provide new or additional safety benefits.” It also raised security-related concerns about sharing some information with responders and the public.

The Trump administration placed the regulation on ice shortly after taking office. EPA said in June that it would delay the rule until 2019 at the earliest while it reviews the program and potentially revises it.

In a statement, EPA noted that previous risk management rules are still in effect, and said Arkema’s Crosby plant updated its emergency plan in 2014. EPA also noted that no major updates would have taken effect until next year anyway.

“The Agency’s recent action to delay the effectiveness of the 2017 Amendments had no effect on the major safety requirements that applied to the Arkema Crosby plant at the time of the fire,” EPA said.

The Obama administration rule allowed between one and four years for facilities to meet various requirements under the update — meaning that the Arkema plant probably wouldn’t have been affected even if the regulation were in place.

“Realistically, it probably wouldn’t have prevented anything right now in this instance,” said Gordon Sommers, an Earthjustice attorney working on the lawsuit against Pruitt’s stay. “But we’re seeing more and more of these massive weather events, and this certainly illustrates the need for that rule.”

Royall said the explosions reported at the plant were more like “small container ruptures that may have a sound of a pop or something of that nature. This is not a massive explosion.”

He said the burning peroxides, which are stored in refrigerated 18-wheel truck trailers, emit gases that expand and rupture the trailers’ relief valves before eventually burning.

Arkema’s Rennard said the company expects another eight trailers to similarly go up in flames in the coming days, although he warned that the high oxygen content of the peroxides could still lead to an explosion.

“We don’t want people returning back to their homes thinking it’s over. It’s not over,” Rennard said, adding: “I think we’ve been a responsible neighbor, and I think we’re responding to this the best way we can.”

While the rule remains on ice, the lawsuit over Pruitt’s delay is ongoing.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that public health groups had failed to meet the high bar for reinstating the rule, which would have relied in part on showing both a public interest and a threat of irreparable harm. But the judges placed the lawsuit on a fast track that could see a decision by late this year or in early 2018.

“We will certainly use this as an opportunity to continue to highlight the necessity and the critical nature of having this rule in place,” Nelson said.

http://www.politico.com

Mueller teams up with IRS in Russia probe: report

Special counsel Robert Mueller is working with members of the IRS’s Criminal Investigations (CI) unit as part of the investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia, according to a new report.

The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that Mueller has teamed up with agents from the IRS unit dedicated to prosecuting financial crimes such as tax evasion and money laundering. One retired agent from the team said that the FBI doesn’t have the “expertise” that the CI unit has when it comes to investigating financial crimes.

“The FBI’s expertise is spread out over so many statutes—and particularly since 9/11, where they really focused on counterintelligence and counterterror—that they simply don’t have the financial investigative expertise that the CI agents have,” Martin Sheil told The Daily Beast. “When CI brings a case to a U.S. Attorney, it is done. It’s wrapped up with a ribbon and a bow. It’s just comprehensive.”

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The news comes just a day after it was revealed that Mueller is working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) to investigate possible ties to Russia involving Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager.

Schneiderman and Mueller are reportedly investigating possible financial crimes, including money laundering, by Manafort in New York. Schneiderman has also been conducting his own state-level investigation into Manafort’s real estate dealings.

Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May to oversee the federal investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the presidential election. Earlier this week, news broke that he had subpoenaed several people close to Manafort, including his spokesman and former attorneys.

Trump has warned Mueller publicly against investigating his family’s finances, and last week pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona in a move that was widely seen as a signal to those at the center of the Russia investigation.

http://thehill.com

Tech executives urge Trump to protect Dreamers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is pictured. | AP Photo

FWD.us, an immigration reform group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is gathering signatures from tech CEOs for a letter urging President Trump to keep the DACA program. | AP Photo

Updated

An immigration reform group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is gathering signatures from tech CEOs for a letter urging President Donald Trump to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era policy that offers leniency to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

A draft of the letter from the group FWD.us, obtained by POLITICO, asserts that so-called Dreamers are critical to the future of American companies and that the nation’s economy stands to lose billions of dollars if their job security and residency status are revoked.

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“With them, we grow and create jobs. They are part of why we will continue to have a global competitive advantage,” the draft letter states.

FWD.us declined to comment. It was not immediately clear when the letter will be made public, but executives already said to have signed the letter include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith, Lyft CEO Logan Green and President John Zimmer, and Uber Chief Technology Officer Thuan Pham.

Trump pledged during the campaign to kill DACA, which allows hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to secure work permits and remain in the U.S. without the threat of deportation. But the president is said to be conflicted on the fate of the program, POLITICO reported earlier this week. A group of state attorneys general have said they will challenge DACA in court if Trump does not rescind the program by Sept. 5.

Microsoft separately expressed concern on Thursday about the prospect of DACA being eliminated. The company said that at least 27 of its employees, including engineers, finance staffers and sales reps, rely on the program for work permission.

“These employees, along with other DREAMers, should continue to have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to our country’s strength and prosperity,” Smith wrote in a blog post.

Immigration is a hot-button topic for the tech industry, which relies heavily on foreign-born workers to fill engineering and other technical roles. Many of the industry’s top executives, including Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, criticized Trump’s executive order earlier this year banning travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries.

The DACA dustup is the latest point of tension with the tech sector, which has rejected Trump’s stances on issues like climate change and transgender rights. A number of business executives, including from the tech industry, dropped out of Trump’s business councils in reaction to Trump’s statements on the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va.

At the same time, tech companies are trying to engage with the administration and Congress on issues like tax reform and net neutrality, which could have a direct impact on their future business plans. For that reason, companies must cautiously approach rifts with Republican leaders.

http://www.politico.com