A federal appeals court struck down one of the Trump administration’s most momentous climate rollbacks on Tuesday, saying the administration acted illegally in issuing a new rule that eased federal regulation of air pollution from power plants.
The Trump administration had cited a “fundamental misconstruction” of the Clean Air Act in carrying out the rollback, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled. The decision is likely to give the incoming Biden administration a freer hand to regulate emissions from power plants, one of the major sources of climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.
Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Molly Block called the agency’s handling of the rule change “well-supported.” The court decision “risks injecting more uncertainty at a time when the nation needs regulatory stability,” she said.
Environmental groups celebrated the ruling by a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals.
“Today’s decision is the perfect Inauguration Day present for America,″ said Ben Levitan, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups that had challenged the Trump rule in court.
The ruling “confirms that the Trump administration’s dubious attempt to get rid of common-sense limits on climate pollution from power plants was illegal,″ Levitan said. “Now we can turn to the critically important work of protecting Americans from climate change and creating new clean energy jobs.”
A coalition of environmental groups, some state governments and others had challenged the Trump administration’s so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE rule, for the power sector. The rule, which was made final in 2019, replaced the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature program to address climate change.
The court decision came on the last full day in office for the Trump administration. Under President Donald Trump, the EPA rolled back dozens of public health and environmental protections as the administration sought to cut regulation overall, calling much of it unnecessary and a burden to business.
Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on a pledge to bring back the U.S. coal industry, repealed the Obama administration’s plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants that power the nation’s electric grid. The Clean Power Plan was one of President Barack Obama’s legacy efforts to slow climate change.
The Trump administration substituted the Affordable Clean Energy plan, which left most of the decision-making on regulating power plant emissions to states. Opponents said the rule imposed no meaningful limits on carbon pollution and would have increased pollution at nearly 20% of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
Market forces have continued the U.S. coal industry’s yearslong decline, however, despite those and other moves by Trump on the industry’s behalf.
President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to be his assistant secretary of health, leaving her poised to become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
A pediatrician and former Pennsylvania physician general, Levine was appointed to her current post by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2017, making her one of the few transgender people serving in elected or appointed positions nationwide. She won past confirmation by the Republican-majority Pennsylvania Senate and has emerged as the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said in a statement. “She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
A graduate of Harvard and of Tulane Medical School, Levine is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. She’s written in the past on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders and LGBTQ medicine.
Biden and his transition team have already begun negotiating with members of Congress, promoting speedy passage of the president-elect’s $1.9 trillion plan to bring the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 400,000 people in the United States, under control. It seeks to enlist federal emergency personnel to run mass vaccination centers and provide 100 million immunization shots in his administration’s first 100 days, while using government spending to stimulate the pandemic-hammered economy.
Biden also says that, in one of his first acts as president, he’ll ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days to slow the virus’ spread.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called Levine “a remarkable public servant with the knowledge and experience to help us contain this pandemic, and protect and improve the health and well-being of the American people.”
Also read: Biden picks Haaland as interior secretary
Levine joins Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary nominee Xavier Becerra, a Latino politician who rose from humble beginnings to serve in Congress and as California’s attorney general.
Businessman Jeff Zients is Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, while Biden picked infectious-disease specialist Rochelle Walensky to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vivek Murthy as surgeon general and Yale epidemiologist Marcella Nunez-Smith to head a working group to ensure fair and equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments.
The government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, will also work closely with the Biden administration.
A transition spokesperson also said Tuesday that Dawn O’Connell will serve as senior counselor for coronavirus response to the health and human services secretary. O’Connell most recently served as director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and was the senior counselor and deputy chief of staff to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell during the Obama administration.
On his way out the door, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out anew at China on Tuesday by declaring that its policies on Muslims and ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang region constitute “crimes against humanity” and a “genocide.” The rarely used designation is sure to provoke an angry response from Beijing.
Pompeo made the determination just 24 hours before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. There was no immediate response from the incoming Biden team, although he and members of his national security team have expressed support for such a designation in the past.
Pompeo’s determination does not come with any immediate repercussions although the legal implications mean the U.S. must take it into account in formulating policy toward China. The U.S. has spoken out and taken action, implementing a range of sanctions against senior Chinese Communist Party leaders and state-run enterprises that fund the architecture of repression across Xinjiang.
Many of those accused of having taken part in the repression are already under U.S. sanctions. The genocide designation means new measures will be easier to impose.
“After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that since at least March 2017, the People’s Republic of China, under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party, has committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“In addition, after careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that the PRC, under the direction and control of the CCP, has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state.”
A main reason cited for the declaration of genocide was widespread forced birth control among the Uighurs, which The Associated Press documented last year. Another reason cited, Uighur forced labor, has also been linked by AP reporting to various products imported to the U.S., including clothing and electronic goods such as cameras and computer monitors.
Tuesday’s move is the latest in a series of steps the outgoing Trump administration has taken against China.
Since last year, the administration has steadily ramped up pressure on Beijing, imposing sanctions on numerous officials and companies for their activities in Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
Those penalties have gotten harsher since the beginning of last year when President Donald Trump and Pompeo began to accuse China of trying to cover up the coronavirus pandemic. Just on Saturday, Pompeo lifted restrictions on U.S. diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese officials, prompting a stern rebuke from China, which regards the island as a renegade province
Five days ago, the administration announced it would halt imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang with Customs and Border Protection officials saying they would block products from there suspected of being produced with forced labor.
Xinjiang is a major global supplier of cotton, so the order could have significant effects on international commerce. The Trump administration has already blocked imports from individual companies linked to forced labor in the region, and the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Communist Party officials with prominent roles in the campaign.
China has imprisoned more than 1 million people, including Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps, according to U.S. officials and human rights groups. People have been subjected to torture, sterilization and political indoctrination in addition to forced labor as part of an assimilation campaign in a region whose inhabitants are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese majority.
China has denied all the charges. China says its policies in Xinjiang aim only to promote economic and social development in the region and stamp out radicalism. It also rejects criticism of what it considers its internal affairs.
The genocide designation is a rare step for the U.S. government, which did not apply it to the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda until much later.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the situation in Sudan’s western Darfur region a genocide in 2004. Former Secretary of State John Kerry applied the term to the Islamic State’s repression and massacres of Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq in 2016, but he couched it by saying it was a legal determination only that did not mandate action by the U.S. government.
Human rights groups, which have been generally critical of Trump administration policies, welcomed the move, which Pompeo said was taken with an eye toward the U.S. role in prosecuting Nazi war crimes during WWII at the Nuremberg trials.
“We hope to see the U.S. follow these strong words with decisive action,” said Grant Shubin of the Global Justice Center. “Where there is a risk of genocide, there is a duty to act. Moving forward, this designation should inform the entirety of U.S. foreign policy and we hope to hear more from the incoming Biden administration on how it plans to follow through on this historic announcement.”
And, some questioned the decision to apply it to China and Xinjiang and not to the situation in Myanmar, where Rphingya Muslims have been subjected to significant attacks and atrocities.
“The Secretary’s statement underscores the importance of appropriate international investigations and prosecutions of officials for the crime of genocide in Xinjiang,” said Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International. “At the same time, I’m baffled and deeply concerned that Secretary Pompeo has declined to make a similar finding of genocide against the state of Myanmar for its vicious mass attacks against the Rohingya population beginning in August 2017.”
A lot of the characters are the same for President-elect Joe Biden but the scene is far starker as he reassembles a team of veteran negotiators to get back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
President Donald Trump worked to blow up the multinational deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program during his four years in office, gutting the diplomatic achievement of predecessor Barack Obama in favor of what Trump called a maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
Down to Trump's last days in office, accusations, threats and still more sanctions by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iran's decision to spur uranium enrichment and seize a South Korean tanker, are helping to keep alive worries that regional conflict will erupt. Iran on Friday staged drills, hurling volleys of ballistic missiles and smashing drones into targets, further raising pressure on the incoming American president over a nuclear accord.
Even before the Capitol riot this month, upheaval at home threatened to weaken the U.S. hand internationally, including in the Middle East’s nuclear standoff. Political divisions are fierce, thousands are dying in the pandemic and unemployment remains high.
Biden and his team will face allies and adversaries wondering how much attention and resolution the U.S. can bring to bear on the Iran nuclear issue or any other foreign concern, and whether any commitment by Biden will be reversed by his successor.
“His ability to move the needle is ... I think hampered by the doubt about America’s capacity and by the skepticism and worry about what comes after Biden,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Nasr was an adviser on Afghanistan during the first Obama administration.
Biden's pick for deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, acknowledged the difficulties in an interview with a Boston news show last month before her nomination.
“We’re going to work hard at this, because we have lost credibility, we are seen as weaker” after Trump, said Sherman, who was Barack Obama’s lead U.S. negotiator for the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. She was speaking of U.S. foreign objectives overall, including the Iran deal.
Biden's first priority for renewed talks is getting both Iran and the United States back in compliance with the nuclear deal, which offered Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for Iran accepting limits on its nuclear material and gear.
“If Iran returns to compliance with the deal, we will do so as well,” a person familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak on the record. “It would be a first step.”
But Biden also faces pressure both from Democrats and Republican opponents of the Iran deal. They don't want the U.S. to throw away the leverage of sanctions until Iran is made to address other items objectionable to Israel, Sunni Arab neighbors, and the United States. That includes Iran's ballistic missiles and substantial and longstanding intervention in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. Biden promises to deal with all that too.
Getting back into the original deal “is the floor and not the ceiling” for the Biden administration on Iran, the person familiar with the incoming administration’s thinking on it said. “It doesn’t stop there.”
“In an ideal world it would be great to have a comprehensive agreement” at the outset, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But that’s not how these negotiations work.”
Connolly said he thought there was broad support in Congress for getting back into the deal.
Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies institute who worked as an Iran adviser for the Trump administration in 2019 and this year, questioned that.
Lawmakers in Congress will balk at lifting sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard and other Iranian players the U.S. regards as supporters of terrorism, and balk, too, at giving up on financial pressure meant to block Iran from moving closer to nuclear weapons, Goldberg predicts.
“This is a real wedge inside the Democratic Party,” Goldberg said.
Sanctions by Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the accord in 2018, mean that Iran’s leaders are under heavier economic and political pressure at home, just as Biden is. The United States' European allies will be eager to help Biden wrack up a win on the new Iran talks if possible, Nasr said. Even among many non-U.S. allies, “they don’t want the return of Trump or Trumpism."
Biden served as Obama's main promoter of the 2015 accord with lawmakers once the deal was brokered. He talked for hours to skeptics in Congress and at a Jewish community center in Florida. Then, Biden hammered home Obama’s pledge that America ultimately would do everything in its power to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, if diplomacy failed.
Besides tapping Sherman for his administration, Biden has called back William Burns, who led secret early talks with Iran in Oman, as his CIA director. He’s selected Iran negotiators Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan as his intended secretary of state and national security adviser respectively, among other 2015 Iran players.
It’s not yet clear if Biden will employ Sherman as his principal diplomatic manager with Iran, or someone else, or whether he will designate a main Iran envoy. Sherman has also been instrumental in U.S. negotiations with North Korea.
The Obama's administration's implicit threat of military action against Iran if it kept moving toward a weapons-capable nuclear program could look less convincing than it did five years ago, given the U.S. domestic crises.
A new Middle East conflict would only make it harder for Biden to find the time and money to deal with pressing problems, including his planned $2 trillion effort to cut climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.
“If war with Iran became inevitable it would upend everything else he’s trying to do with his presidency,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran and U.S. Middle East policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Biden and his team are very mindful of this. Their priorities are domestic.”
President-elect Joe Biden plans to unveil a sweeping immigration bill on Day One of his administration, hoping to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status, a massive reversal from the Trump administration's harsh immigration policies.
The legislation puts Biden on track to deliver on a major campaign promise important to Latino voters and other immigrant communities after four years of President Donald Trump's restrictive policies and mass deportations. It provides one of the fastest pathways to citizenship for those living without legal status of any measure in recent years, but it fails to include the traditional trade-off of enhanced border security favored by many Republicans, making passage in a narrowly divided Congress in doubt.
Expected to run hundreds of pages, the bill is set to be introduced after Biden takes the oath of office Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the legislation and granted anonymity to discuss it.
As a candidate, Biden called Trump’s actions on immigration an “unrelenting assault” on American values and said he would “undo the damage” while continuing to maintain border enforcement.
Under the legislation, those living in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021, without legal status would have a five-year path to temporary legal status, or a green card, if they pass background checks, pay taxes and fulfill other basic requirements. From there, it's a three-year path to naturalization, if they decide to pursue citizenship.
For some immigrants, the process would be quicker. So-called Dreamers, the young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children, as well as agricultural workers and people under temporary protective status could qualify more immediately for green cards if they are working, are in school or meet other requirements.
The bill is not as comprehensive as the last major immigration overhaul proposed when Biden was vice president during the Obama administration.
For example, it does not include a robust border security element, but rather calls for coming up with strategies. Nor does it create any new guest worker or other visa programs.
It does address some of the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States, and provides grants for workforce development and English language learning.
Biden is expected to take swift executive actions to reverse other Trump immigration actions, including an end to the prohibition on arrivals from several predominantly Muslim countries.
During the Democratic primary, Biden consistently named immigration action as one of his “day one” priorities, pointing to the range of executive powers he could invoke to reverse Trump’s policies.
Biden allies and even some Republicans have identified immigration as a major issue where the new administration could find common ground with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and enough other GOP senators to avoid the stalemate that has vexed administrations of both parties for decades.
That kind of major win — even if it involves compromise — could be critical as Biden looks for legislative victories in a closely divided Congress, where Republicans are certain to oppose other Biden priorities that involve rolling back some of the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts and increasing federal spending.
As a candidate, Biden went so far as to say the Obama administration went too far in its aggressive deportations.