World

Coronavirus toll rises as impact spreads across world. James Marape’s hard line on PNG gas deal. Donald Trump acquitted at impeachment trial. App causes chaos in Iowa caucuses. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Nancy Pelosi rips into Trump’s SOTU address

House speaker Nancy Pelosi stands with Vice-President Mike Pence behind President Donald Trump and rips up her copy of the president’s State of the Union speech.
Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

China: In Wuhan, a city of 11 million people that has been in lockdown since January 23, residents have reported living an endless loop of eating, sleeping and eating, punctuated by constant media updates on the spread of the coronavirus. Photographs show crisscrossing highways that carry no cars, and central city streets without people. But the quiet was broken by the frantic construction of two emergency hospitals – one with 1000 beds, another with 1500 – which opened this week. They took about 10 days to build.

On Monday, the fast-rising death toll from the virus exceeded 349, the number of people from mainland China killed by SARS. But the mortality rate is about 2 per cent, compared with a rate of 9.6 per cent for SARS. As of Thursday, 565 people had died and 1219 had recovered.

The impact of the virus has extended far beyond China. The Philippines last weekend recorded the first death from the virus outside mainland China, followed by a 39-year-old man in Hong Kong who died from the virus on Tuesday.

Several countries, including Australia and the United States, have barred entry to foreign citizens arriving from mainland China. Australia this week evacuated about 240 people to Christmas Island and a separate group was taken to New Zealand.

The US entry ban has stirred tensions with China, which said Washington rushed to introduce it despite advice from the World Health Organization. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused American officials of spreading misinformation about the outbreak, saying the ban was “certainly not a gesture of goodwill”.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: Last year, James Marape ousted Peter O’Neill as prime minister of Papua New Guinea following concerns about a controversial $US13 billion gas deal that Marape said was skewed to assist “corporate giants”.

The deal will double the country’s liquid natural gas exports. But critics said O’Neill had failed to secure adequate benefits for the government or local landowners.

Marape has now demonstrated that he intends to fulfil his promise to take a harder line with foreign resource firms, ending negotiations with ExxonMobil on the future of the P’nyang field, which is crucial to the project. He reportedly demanded additional royalties, which Exxon rejected.

“The gas belongs to PNG’s people,” he said.

ExxonMobil said it wanted to revive the talks.

Papua New Guinea’s economy is heavily reliant on its mineral and gas resources, which account for about 85 per cent of exports. But this wealth has not been spread to the country’s eight million people. Almost 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

United States: At the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Republican senators concluded that Trump was lying and that, yes, he did attempt to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the coming presidential election. But they acquitted him anyway.

Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican, described the president’s actions as “shameful and wrong”. But she voted to acquit, accusing the Democrats of a rushed process that should have led to a censure rather than impeachment.

Lamar Alexander, a veteran Tennessee Republican, admitted the Democrats proved their case. Trump’s actions were improper, he said, but not grave enough to warrant removal from office. Asked whether an acquittal would encourage further attempts by Trump to solicit foreign election interference, he told NBC: “I hope not.”

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the senate, would not comment on whether Trump’s conduct was inappropriate, but criticised the process as rushed and unfair.

And so, on Wednesday afternoon in Washington, the third impeachment trial of a US president resulted, like the previous two, in acquittal. Opinion polls showed a slim majority of voters believe Trump abused the power of his office, though the public was evenly split on whether he should be removed.

Hours before his expected acquittal, Trump delivered his State of the Union address. He described his presidency as “the great American comeback”, citing his tax cuts and deregulation. He did not refer to the impeachment but refused to shake hands with Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker, who led the push to impeach him.

Pelosi later ripped up her copy of Trump’s speech. “I was trying to find one page with truth on it,” she told Fox News. “I couldn’t.”

SPOTLIGHT: Iowa votes

United States: At first glance, Pete Buttigieg’s presidential credentials seem almost too impeccable. He is a devout Christian who attended Harvard, then was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and then worked at McKinsey, the world’s largest management consulting firm. He served in Afghanistan, has written the obligatory memoir, and speaks as many as eight languages, including Norwegian, which he taught himself so that he could read the novels of Erlend Loe. He is, like 44 of America’s 45 presidents, white. And he is, like all of them, male.

Yet his candidacy is groundbreaking. He is 38 years old, which would make him the youngest president in history. And the highest office he has served has been as mayor of South Bend, a city in Indiana that has a population of just over 100,000. He is also, unlike any other serious presidential contender in American history, openly gay.

This week, Buttigieg emerged as the standout performer at the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the Democrats’ bid to elect a presidential candidate. Significantly, he outperformed Joe Biden, who was regarded as the leading moderate candidate. Buttigieg, celebrating his “astonishing victory”, was expected to share the top two spots with Bernie Sanders, the leading progressive.

Iowa is a small state, but it can provide a boost to underdog candidates. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton there – a result that was seen as evidence that the party and the country were ready for their first black leader.

The vote on Tuesday was overshadowed by the technical glitch in a new app that was being used to count the results. The saga delayed the count and marked a sorry start to the election, which follows years of embittered debate about the use of technology to sway the 2016 results.

The app debacle has prompted various conspiracy theories. The main accusation focused on links between Buttigieg and the company – named, unfortunately, Shadow – that produced the app. Buttigieg’s campaign has paid $US42,500 to Shadow for software, and one of his advisers has links to a non-profit organisation that launched the company. Sanders has previously suggested the Democrats “rigged” the 2016 election to favour Clinton. He initially backed the legitimacy of this week’s Iowa result, though some supporters questioned the links between Buttigieg and Shadow.

Trump’s supporters were quick to revive a familiar refrain – that the Democrats are cheating. “The fix is in… AGAIN,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Pelosi rips into Trump’s address ".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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