Briefs: Peaceful transfer of power? Donald Trump says 'Have to see what happens.'

Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as he arrives to speak during a campaign rally at Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, in Moon Township, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Associated Press

News briefs for September 24

The Associated Press

40 days until Election Day:

ON THE TRAIL: President Donald Trump visits North Carolina and Florida and Vice President Mike Pence visits Wisconsin and Minnesota.

TRUMP BALKS: Trump is declining to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the Nov. 3 presidential election. Trump told reporters he would "have to see what happens" when asked about the matter. His Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, responded by asking, "What country are we in?" 

BIDEN'S COURT: Some leading progressives are pressing Biden to endorse expanding the number of high court justices should he win the White House and Democrats take control of the Senate. But Biden, who ran a relatively centrist primary campaign, hasn't embraced those calls, worried they may intensify the nation's partisan split.

POMPEO STUMPS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is ignoring criticism and forging ahead with events that have overtly political overtones ahead of the presidential election. Pompeo is casting aside a long tradition of the nation's top diplomat shunning partisan politics.

"NAKED BALLOTS": Democrats are launching a digital ad targeting Pennsylvanians voting by mail to explain how to correctly fill out and return the ballots, hoping to avert worried predictions that 100,000 votes or more could be invalidated because the ballots aren't put in the proper envelope.

VISION 2020: Are the nation's voting systems secure? The nation's intelligence chiefs continue to warn that Russia, China and others remain interested in interfering in November's U.S. elections. Read more in Vision 2020, a new series of stories answering questions from our audience about the election.

Palm oil labor abuses linked to world's top brands, banks

PENINSULAR, Malaysia — Jum's words tumble out over the phone, his voice growing ever more frantic.

Between sobs, he says he's trapped on a Malaysian plantation run by government-owned Felda, one of the world's largest palm oil companies. His boss confiscated and then lost his Indonesian passport, he says, leaving him vulnerable to arrest. Night after night, he has been forced to hide from authorities, sleeping on the jungle floor, exposed to the wind and the rain. His biggest fear: the roaming tigers.

All the while, Jum says his supervisor demanded he keep working, tending the heavy reddish-orange palm oil fruit that has made its way into the supply chains of the planet's most iconic food and cosmetics companies like Unilever, L'Oreal, Nestle and Procter & Gamble.

"I am not a free man anymore," he says, his voice cracking. "I desperately want to see my mom and dad. I want to go home!"

An Associated Press investigation found many like Jum in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia – an invisible workforce consisting of millions of laborers from some of the poorest corners of Asia, many of them enduring various forms of exploitation, with the most serious abuses including child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape. Together, the two countries produce about 85 percent of the world's estimated $65 billion palm oil supply.

Trump won't commit to peaceful transfer of power if he loses

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump again declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the Nov. 3 presidential election.

"We're going to have to see what happens," Trump said Wednesday at a news conference, responding to a question about whether he'd commit to a peaceful transfer of power. "You know that I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster."

It is highly unusual that a sitting president would express less than complete confidence in the American democracy's electoral process. But he also declined four years ago to commit to honoring the election results if his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, won.

His current Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, was asked about Trump's comment after landing in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday night.

"What country are we in?" Biden asked incredulously, adding: "I'm being facetious. Look, he says the most irrational things. I don't know what to say about it. But it doesn't surprise me."

US experts vow 'no cutting corners' as vaccine tests expand

WASHINGTON (AP) — A huge international study of a COVID-19 vaccine that aims to work with just one dose is getting underway as top U.S. health officials sought Wednesday to assure a skeptical Congress and public that they can trust any shots the government ultimately approves.

Hopes are high that answers about at least one of several candidates being tested in the U.S. could come by year's end, maybe sooner.

"We feel cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a safe and effective vaccine, although there is never a guarantee of that," Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate committee.

President Donald Trump is pushing for a faster timeline, which many experts say is risky and may not allow for adequate testing. On Wednesday he tweeted a link to news about the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine study and said the Food and Drug Administration "must move quickly!"

"President Trump is still trying to sabotage the work of our scientists and public health experts for his own political ends," Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, said before ticking off examples of pressure on the FDA.

'Are people to be left to die?' Vaccine pleas fill UN summit

JOHANNESBURG — If the United Nations was created from the ashes of World War II, what will be born from the global crisis of COVID-19? 

Many world leaders at this week's virtual U.N. summit hope it will be a vaccine made available and affordable to all countries, rich and poor. But with the U.S., China and Russia opting out of a collaborative effort to develop and distribute a vaccine, and some rich nations striking deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure millions of potential doses, the U.N. pleas are plentiful but likely in vain.

"Are people to be left to die?" Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, a COVID-19 survivor, said of the uncertain way forward.

More than 150 countries have joined COVAX, in which richer countries agree to buy into potential vaccines and help finance access for poorer ones. But the absence of Washington, Beijing and Moscow means the response to a health crisis unlike any other in the U.N.'s 75 years is short of truly being global. Instead, the three powers have made vague pledges of sharing any vaccine they develop, likely after helping their own citizens first.

This week's U.N. gathering could serve as a wake-up call, said Gayle Smith, president of the ONE Campaign, a nonprofit fighting preventable disease that's developing scorecards to measure how the world's most powerful nations are contributing to vaccine equity. 

Long lines of mourners pay respects to Ginsburg at court

WASHINGTON (AP) — With crowds of admirers swelling outside, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was remembered Wednesday at the court by grieving family, colleagues and friends as a prophet for justice who persevered against long odds to become an American icon.

The court's eight justices, masked along with everyone else because of the coronavirus pandemic, gathered for the first time in more than six months for the ceremony to mark Ginsburg's death from cancer last week at age 87 after 27 years on the court.

Washington already is consumed with talk of Ginsburg's replacement, but Chief Justice John Roberts focused on his longtime colleague.

The best words to describe Ginsburg are "tough, brave, a fighter, a winner," Roberts said, but also "thoughtful, careful, compassionate, honest."

The woman who late in life became known in admiration as the Notorious RBG "wanted to be an opera virtuoso, but became a rock star instead," Roberts said. Ginsburg's two children, Jane and James, and other family members sat on one side of the casket, across from the justices.

Wildfires taint West Coast vineyards with taste of smoke

TURNER, Ore. — Smoke from the West Coast wildfires has tainted grapes in some of the nation's most celebrated wine regions with an ashy flavor that could spell disaster for the 2020 vintage.

Wineries in California, Oregon and Washington have survived severe wildfires before, but the smoke from this year's blazes has been especially bad — thick enough to obscure vineyards drooping with clusters of grapes almost ready for harvest. Day after day, some West Coast cities endured some of the worst air quality in the world.

No one knows the extent of the smoke damage to the crop, and growers are trying to assess the severity. If tainted grapes are made into wine without steps to minimize the harm or weed out the damaged fruit, the result could be wine so bad that it cannot be marketed.

The wildfires are likely to be "without question the single worst disaster the wine-grape growing community has ever faced," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Winemakers around the world are already adapting to climate change, including rising temperatures and more frequent, more severe droughts. Those near fire-prone forests face the additional risk that smoke could ruin everything.

88 whales rescued from Australia's worst mass beaching

CANBERRA, Australia — Authorities have rescued 88 pilot whales and are attempting to free 20 others that survived Australia's worst mass stranding, as crews prepare to remove 380 decomposing carcasses from the shallows of Tasmania state, officials said Thursday.

Crews found the 20 whales that are still alive on the fourth day of the rescue operation, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service Manager Nic Deka said.

"Whenever we've got live animals that have a chance and we have the resources, then we'll certainly give in a go," Deka said.

Almost 500 whales were discovered on Monday and Wednesday beached on the shore and sand bars along the remote west coast of the island state near the town of Strahan.

The task of removing hundreds of tons of whale carcasses begins Friday and is likely to take days, Marine Conservation Program wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon said.

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