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EU leaders expressed cautious optimism about concluding protracted talks on easing European investors’ access to Chinese markets after a virtual summit with China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Monday.

“The political will must be there to have this investment agreement. And that political will is there on both sides,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Xi agreed with the EU leaders that the pace of the talks would be “expedited” so the negotiations could be concluded by the end of December, state media Xinhua reported.

But there remains “a lot to do” on market access and sustainable development standards before the self-imposed end-of-year deadline, said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, which is handling the EU-China investment deal negotiations.

“China has to convince us that it is worth having a comprehensive agreement on investment,” von der Leyen said.

The negotiations are aimed at removing Chinese barriers for EU investors, including expanding market access in areas reserved for Chinese enterprises, addressing forced technology transfers and levelling the playing field with China’s state-owned enterprises.

In the meeting on Monday, Xi also called on the EU to adhere to peaceful coexistence, dialogue, openness and multilateralism, pitting the more conciliatory Sino-EU relations against the hostility between China and the United States.

However, Xi also faced fresh calls from the EU on human rights issues, with Brussels demanding that international observers be allowed to visit Xinjiang and EU officials be given access to Tibet – two vast areas where China is suspected of human rights violations against ethnic minorities.

EU leaders also criticised China’s approach to Hong Kong. “The national security law for Hong Kong continues to raise grave concerns,” said European Council President Charles Michel.

“The EU and our member states have responded with one clear voice. Democratic voices in Hong Kong should be heard, rights protected and autonomy preserved,” Michel said. “We called on China to keep their promises to the people of Hong Kong and the international community.”

Michel also urged Xi to release detained bookseller Gui Minhai, a Swedish passport holder, and two Canadians detained by China after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada in December 2018.

“We reiterated our concerns over China’s … treatment of human rights defenders and journalists,” Michel said. “We also called on China to refrain from unilateral actions in the South China Sea, to respect international law and to avoid escalation.”

On the investment talks, Merkel said China has raised “difficult” issues for the EU, but added that there had recently been a “political impulse” to get away from earlier “periods of stagnation” in the talks.

“We sometimes say China needs to move on certain points,” she said. “But the Chinese are clever negotiators; they know where we have constraints. So we need to take a balanced approach.”

She added that an agreement would not affect EU relations with the US, which is dealing with similar trade concerns with Beijing.

“The US has been negotiating an agreement with China for a long time. They have agreed on part of it. They are talking about very similar topics. I don’t see that this would be a problem with the US,” Merkel said.

But in Brussels, there is a more obvious sense of caution over the negotiations, with von der Leyen highlighting the still unresolved “famous joint venture equity cap restrictions” that she said China had to lift.

“[There are] fields we are advancing now – but I must say there is still a lot to do,” von der Leyen said.

“There’s a real interest to step up, to change things for the better,” she said. “So it’s not a matter of time but a matter of substance.”

The negotiations have already lasted seven years, and China elevated the level of negotiators – with Xi’s trusted aide, Vice-Premier Liu He, partly in charge – amid the strained ties between Beijing and Washington. SCMP


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William Barr Briefed Trump On Probe Over Discarded Pennsylvania Ballots: Report

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens to a question as he appears at the "Retired American Warriors" conference during a campaign stop in Herndon, Virginia, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Attorney General William Barr personally briefed President Donald Trump on a probe into what the Justice Department is calling “reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots” in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, a DOJ official told ABC News on Friday.

That information comes a day after the Justice Department took the unusual step of revealing details about an ongoing investigation, which White House critics decried as an attempt to bolster Trump’s repeated and largely baseless claims that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud.

The DOJ did so after Trump began discussing it during an interview with Fox News Radio.

“They were Trump ballots … and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what’s going to happen,” Trump said in the interview. “This is what’s going to happen, and we’re investigating that.”

Later that day, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania shared more details, saying there were nine discarded ballots for Trump. The office later corrected the statement to say only seven of the votes were for the president, raising questions among election experts about the details of the situation and the way they were announced.

“At this point, we can confirm that a small number of military ballots were discarded,” a statement from the office said. “Investigators have recovered nine ballots at this time. Some of those ballots can be attributed to specific voters and some cannot. Of the nine ballots that were discarded and then recovered, 7 were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump. Two of the discarded ballots had been resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown.”

The Justice Department also sent a letter to Luzerne County Bureau of Elections director Shelby Watchilla saying the staff appeared to be at fault.

“The preliminary findings of this inquiry are troubling and the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections must comply with all applicable state and federal election laws and guidance to ensure that all votes—regardless of party—are counted to ensure an accurate election count,” the letter read.

Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri released a statement later Friday saying a “temporary seasonal independent contractor” who started Sept. 14 was the employee who threw out the ballots. The person was fired thereafter.

After discovering what happened, the FBI and other authorities sorted through all the trash from the days that employee was in service in order to retrieve the ballots. Both county- and state-level authorities are providing “supplemental extensive training” to everyone working in the Luzerne elections department, Pedri said. Huffington

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Trump aims to boost rural turnout in critical Wisconsin

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Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump is aiming to boost enthusiasm among rural Wisconsin voters Thursday, looking to repeat his path to victory four years ago.

The event is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. EST. Watch Trump’s remarks in the player above.

Making his fifth visit to the pivotal battleground state this year, Trump views success in the state’s less-populated counties as critical to another term. He is set to hold a rally Thursday evening in Mosinee, in central Wisconsin, an area of the state that shifted dramatically toward Republicans in 2016, enabling Trump to overcome even greater deficits in urban and suburban parts of the state.

Trump, hinging his campaign on turning out his core supporters, has increasingly used his public appearances to elevate cultural issues important to his generally whiter and older base. Earlier Thursday, in a speech at the National Archives to commemorate Constitution Day, he derided The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which aims to reframe the country’s history by highlighting the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.

“For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness. But they are wrong,” Trump said. “There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children — and patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

Trump’s last visit to Wisconsin came on Sept. 1, when he met with law enforcement and toured damage from protests in Kenosha that turned violent after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man hit seven times in the back during an attempted arrest. Trump has sought to use the unrest after the August shooting of Blake and the May police killing of George Floyd to tout a “law and order” message and to paint an apocalyptic vision of violence if Democrat Joe Biden wins on Nov. 3.

Trump won Marathon County, which includes Mosinee, by more than 12,000 votes in 2016 — over three times more than the margin by which 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won the area. Trump’s team is wagering the 2020 contest on a similar performance in the county and the dozens of others like it across battleground states.

Trump’s path to 270 Electoral College votes may well hinge on Wisconsin, and his campaign is investing tens of millions of dollars on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts in the state.

Trump’s event was set to take place at an aircraft hangar at the Mosinee airport, his campaign’s preferred format for mass rallies amid the coronavirus, though Trump has been willing to host large events indoors as well, sometimes in violation of state and federal distancing guidelines. – PBS


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Federal Judge Blocks Postal Service Changes That Slowed Mail

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A U.S. judge on Thursday blocked controversial Postal Service changes that have slowed mail nationwide, calling them “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” before the November election.

Judge Stanley Bastian in Yakima, Washington, said he was issuing a nationwide preliminary injunction sought by 14 states that sued the Trump administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

The states challenged the Postal Service’s so-called “leave behind” policy, where trucks have been leaving postal facilities on time regardless of whether there is more mail to load. They also sought to force the Postal Service to treat election mail as first class mail.

The judge noted after a hearing that Trump had repeatedly attacked voting by mail by making unfounded claims that it is rife with fraud. Many more voters are expected to vote by mail this November because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the states have expressed concern that delays might result in voters not receiving ballots or registration forms in time.

“The states have demonstrated the defendants are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service,” Bastian said.

He also said the changes created “a substantial possibility many voters will be disenfranchised.”

Bastian, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, issued a written order later Thursday that closely tracked the relief sought by the states. It ordered the Postal Service to stop implementing the “leave behind” policy, to treat all election mail as first class mail rather than as slower-moving categories, to reinstall any mail processing machines needed to ensure the prompt handling of election mail, and to inform its employees about the requirements of his injunction.

Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer said the organization is reviewing its legal options, but “there should be no doubt that the Postal Service is ready and committed to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives.”

Lee Moak, a member of the USPS Board of Governors, called the notion any changes were politically motivated “completely and utterly without merit.”

Following a national uproar, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major donor to President Donald Trump and the GOP, announced he was suspending some changes — including the removal of iconic blue mailboxes in many cities and the decommissioning of mail processing machines.

But other changes remained in place, and the states — including the battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada — asked the court to block them. Led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the states said the Postal Service made the changes without first bringing them to the Postal Regulatory Commission for public comment and an advisory opinion, as required by federal law. They also said the changes interfered with their constitutional authority to administer their elections.

At the hearing, Justice Department attorney Joseph Borson sought to assure the judge that the Postal Service would handle election mail promptly, noting that a surge of ballots in the mail would pale in comparison to increases from, say, holiday cards.

He also said slow-downs caused by the “leave behind” policy had gotten better since it was first implemented, and that the Postal Service in reality had made no changes with regard to how it classifies and processes election mail. DeJoy has repeatedly insisted that processing election mail remains the organization’s top priority.

“There’s been a lot of confusion in the briefing and in the press about what the Postal Service has done,” Borson said. “The states are accusing us of making changes we have not in fact made.”

Voters who are worried about their ballots being counted “can simply promptly drop their ballots in the mail,” he said, and states can help by mailing registration form or absentee ballots early.

Borson also insisted that the states were required to bring their challenge not in court, but before the Postal Regulatory Commission itself — even though by law the commission has 90 days to respond. Bastian rejected that notion, saying there was no time for that with the election just seven weeks away.

The states conceded that mail delays have eased since the service cuts first created a national uproar in July, but they said on-time deliveries remain well below their prior levels, meaning millions of pieces of mail that would otherwise arrive on-time no longer are.

They also noted some of the effects the changes had already wrought: Michigan spent $2 million earlier this year on envelopes that met election mail standards — only to learn that the Postal Service wouldn’t treat them as first class mail. In Madison, Wisconsin, the number of ballots that weren’t counted because they arrived late for the August primary doubled from the August 2018 primary.

Further, they cited research from information technology consultant Mynor Urizar-Hunter, who helped start a website tracking the USPS changes, noting that 78% of the machines slated for removal were in counties won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The states suing are Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia — all led by Democratic attorneys general.

Pennsylvania is leading a separate multistate lawsuit over the changes, and New York and Montana have filed their own challenges.

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