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For Irwin Cotler, neither a pandemic nor retirement from politics can slow his fight for human rights – The Globe and Mail

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Irwin Cotler, shown at his Montreal home in early September, is a veteran lawyer, human-rights advocate and former federal cabinet minister.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Irwin Cotler wouldn’t be intimidated.

It was 1978, and the young Canadian law professor was living in the Jewish quarter of Damascus as part of his summer travels across the Middle East. He knew he was being followed by Syrian officials, who surveilled the Jewish minority. One morning, a man knocked on his door.

“He takes me outside and takes me somewhere,” Mr. Cotler says, “and two people are hung, dead, in this courtyard.”

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Mr. Cotler was taken to a jail cell. Hours later, interrogators showed up. “He says to me, ‘Now you will tell us whatever we need to know, or what happened to those people you saw earlier will happen to you.’”

They told Mr. Cotler his presence in the Jewish quarter, where he attended synagogue, was prohibited. He didn’t deny he was a practising Jew; he questioned why it was a problem.

“I wanted the Jews there to know I wasn’t afraid,” he says during an interview at his home in Montreal.

He was released and told to leave the country.

At the same time, Mr. Cotler was defending another Jewish-rights activist a world away: Natan Sharansky, who was facing trumped-up charges of treason and espionage in the Soviet Union.

While in Syria, Mr. Cotler learned his client – the first political prisoner he’d ever defended – would face trial in what would become a defining case of his career.

In the decades to come, Mr. Cotler transcended the legal world as a lawyer, professor, member of Parliament and justice minister, using his roles to advocate for the release of dozens of political prisoners. At the age of 80, he continues to take on new cases – always for free.

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Papers cover a table in Mr. Cotler’s den, where he’s been working from home during the pandemic.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Cotler’s fight for human rights has taken over his modest split-level house. The living room coffee table is covered in news clippings, legal briefs and reports.

Downstairs, more papers pile up on two folding tables in the den – a temporary measure that appears to have become more permanent as Mr. Cotler works from home during the pandemic.

The global health crisis, coupled with the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as China, Russia and Iran, has him concerned the political prisoners he has spent his life defending will be forgotten.

“The authoritarians can act worse under the cover of the pandemic because the democracies are not united in effective, moral, concerted leadership,” Mr. Cotler says. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

He is urging democracies, including Canada, to speak up against the increasing attacks on human rights and call for the release of political prisoners such as Nasrin Sotoudeh of Iran, whom he calls the bravest human-rights lawyer in the world today. After defending opposition activists, Ms. Sotoudeh was sentenced last year to 148 lashes and 38 years in prison.

“The democracies, which should be at the forefront of standing up for this woman, are dealing, yes, with a global health pandemic, but are ignoring the global political pandemic.”

Mr. Cotler says the world should do more for people like Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, shown in 2013, who was sentenced to prison after defending opposition activists.

Behrouz MEHRIBEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

After his retirement from politics five years ago, Mr. Cotler’s advocacy work found a new home.

In 2015, he founded the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, a Montreal-based organization dedicated to promoting human rights, advocating for political prisoners and combatting injustice around the world.

The group works in the memory of Mr. Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Jews during the Second World War by issuing them diplomatic passports and sheltering them in safe houses.

Mr. Cotler is also a member of a panel that advises the Canadian and British governments on how to improve press freedom.

Human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney, a former member of the panel, says when Mr. Cotler speaks, people listen.

“He is uniquely positioned to have impact as he combines the fervour and persistence of an activist with the wisdom and standing of a seasoned diplomat,” she said in a statement. “He can inspire officials into action and is not afraid to call them out when they fall short.”

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A family photo shows Mr. Cotler, an only child, with his parents.

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The early years

Mr. Cotler, an only child, credits his parents with instilling the importance of justice and ethics at a young age.

In 1946, his father took six-year-old Irwin to a baseball game at Montreal’s Delorimier stadium. Jackie Robinson, who would go on to become the first Black person to play Major League Baseball, was on the field. “For my father, that was a teachable moment. This was to teach me about anti-racism. This was to teach me about civil liberties. This was to teach me about the dangers of segregation.”

Mr. Cotler began his academic career in 1970 as an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He eventually returned to his alma mater, McGill, as a professor and spent his summers travelling the Middle East.

During a stop in Egypt in 1977, a friend introduced him to then president Anwar Sadat. Knowing Mr. Cotler would later visit Israel, Mr. Sadat asked him to deliver a message to newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin. Mr. Cotler insisted he didn’t know Mr. Begin, but the President was adamant he take the message in case they crossed paths.

When Mr. Cotler arrived in Israel, he was invited to lunch with members of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, where he met a staffer named Ariela Zeevi. Fascinated by Mr. Cotler’s stories about visiting Jews in the Arab countries, Ms. Zeevi insisted he meet her boss – Mr. Begin.

They met the following day, where he delivered Mr. Sadat’s message: Egypt was prepared to enter into peace negotiations with Israel, which didn’t have relations with any Arab countries at the time.

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Ms. Zeevi and Mr. Cotler stayed in touch, and as their relationship developed, so did peace negotiations between Mr. Begin and Mr. Sadat. Mr. Cotler and Ms. Zeevi married on March 26, 1979 – the day the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed.

“It was intentional, because the relationship was forged in that way,” Mr. Cotler says of their wedding date.

Mr. Cotler adopted Ms. Zeevi’s daughter, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, when they moved to Montreal. The couple had three more children – Gila, Tanya and Jonathan – and have nine grandchildren. Ms. Cotler-Wunsh, now a member of Israel’s Knesset, said human rights were a constant theme in their household.

“We knew who the Hutus and Tutsi were around our dinner table,” she says. “We knew what was happening in Rwanda before the rest of the world identified what the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was.”


An old picture of Mr. Cotler with his family. He and his wife, Ariela Zeevi, had three children together and one daughter from Ms. Zeevi’s previous relationship.

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The fight for rights at home and abroad

One book towers above the piles of papers in Mr. Cotler’s living room. He has to use both hands to pick up the 900-page legal brief titled “The Sharansky Case.” The book, covered in coffee stains, symbolizes his relentless defence of political prisoners.

It analyzes how the Soviet Union violated its own constitution, identifying 20 violations of Mr. Sharansky’s rights, from arbitrary arrest to torture and detention.

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Mr. Sharansky was a refusenik – one of many Soviet Jews denied an exit visa to Israel for security reasons. He became an outspoken human-rights activist, engaging in Zionist activities. He was arrested in 1977 and accused of spying for the United States (which the Americans denied). Mr. Sharansky’s wife, Avital, asked Mr. Cotler to take on her husband’s case during his visit to Israel that year. A year later, Mr. Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years of hard labour in a Soviet gulag.

Mr. Cotler leads a rally for human rights in front of a Soviet embassy building.

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Mr. Cotler travelled to the Soviet Union in 1979 for Mr. Sharansky’s appeal, but officials kicked him out of the country before it started, confiscating the legal brief. Luckily, Mr. Cotler had copies back in Canada, which were used to drum up support for Mr. Sharansky’s case.

“It was very important for mobilizing public opinion,” Mr. Sharansky says.

After nine years of pressure, he was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1986.

Mr. Cotler learned a valuable lesson about human-rights violators during his years on the case. “The tipping point for the release of political prisoners is not necessarily the injustice of the case,” he says. “It’s when you can make the case that it’s in their self-interest to release the prisoner because it’s costing them.”

Mr. Sharansky emigrated to Israel and went on to serve as Israel’s deputy prime minister. He and Mr. Cotler remain close friends. “He is the most idealistic – and at the same time professional – defender of human rights in the world,” Mr. Sharansky says.

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Mr. Cotler has kept the 900-page legal brief on the Sharansky case for decades.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The case served as a launching pad for Mr. Cotler’s work with other political prisoners, including the late South African president Nelson Mandela.

In 1981, Mr. Cotler travelled to South Africa as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement. He was briefly detained after delivering a speech titled “If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?” At the time, the mere mention of Mr. Mandela’s name was prohibited. Mr. Cotler was released after a brief time and continued travelling the country, witnessing the effects of apartheid firsthand. He was asked to join Mr. Mandela’s international legal team at the end of the trip.

Mr. Cotler led advocacy efforts for Mr. Mandela in Canada, participating in the launch of an anti-apartheid initiative with advocacy groups including Amnesty International.

Mr. Mandela was released in 1990 and made Canada his first state visit, after then prime minister Brian Mulroney called for an end to apartheid and Mr. Mandela’s incarceration. Mr. Cotler met him during that visit, and as a member of Parliament, he spoke in favour of granting Mr. Mandela honorary citizenship in 2001.

Mr. Cotler reunites with Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie, in an undated photo.

Handout

While taking on international cases, Mr. Cotler was also fighting for the protection of human rights in Canada. As president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, he appeared before a Parliamentary committee in 1980 to advocate for the enshrinement of fundamental rights. Mr. Trudeau’s government enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms two years later.

Justice Rosalie Abella recalls following Mr. Cotler’s early support for the creation of the Charter. “We say in the legal profession that the constitution is a living tree – a concept we got from the Privy Council in England in 1929 that guides Canadian jurisprudence,” she says. “Irwin is probably one of the best waterers of that tree we’ve had in this country.”


Mr. Cotler addresses supporters at a campaign launch in 2011, one of the six straight elections he won as a Liberal.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail


An accidental political career

Mr. Cotler got his first taste of politics in 1968, when John Turner, then justice minister in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, hired him as a speechwriter. In his four years working for Mr. Turner, Mr. Cotler learned an important lesson that would inspire his eventual political career: “Parliament is a trustee of the people.”

Mr. Cotler was approached by the Liberals to run in Montreal’s Mount Royal riding in 1984 but declined. Fifteen years later, with a by-election looming, they came knocking again. Mr. Cotler still wasn’t interested, but organizers kept encouraging him to consider it. When the other two candidates dropped out and threw their support behind Mr. Cotler, he suddenly became the only prospective Liberal candidate. “The whole thing was an accident – an utter, utter accident,” Mr. Cotler recalls.

Voters ended up sending Mr. Cotler back to Ottawa in six consecutive elections. He held his seat from 1999 to 2015.

As prime minister, Paul Martin gave Mr. Cotler the justice portfolio.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien as prime minister in 2003, he appointed Mr. Cotler justice minister. Mr. Martin ordered his cabinet to prioritize Indigenous affairs, and he says Mr. Cotler took that order even further, setting up a department-wide strategy known as the seven R’s: recognition, respect, redress, representation, responsiveness, reconciliation and relationships.

“He made it very, very clear that … their rights had not been fully recognized, and this was a gap, and it had to be dealt with,” Mr. Martin says.

Mr. Cotler went on to appoint the first ever Indigenous and visible-minority justices to the Ontario Court of Appeal. He also takes pride in his involvement in the passage of Canada’s same-sex marriage legislation and reform of the Supreme Court appointment process. When he appointed Justice Louise Charron and Justice Abella (the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court), the process included publicly announced criteria, an expert advisory selection panel and a Parliamentary committee where he took questions about his choices.

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Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron were two of Mr. Cotler’s appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Reuters, The Canadian Press

Mr. Cotler developed a reputation for working effectively across the aisle. He made a particularly strong impression on former Conservative MP John Baird, who served as foreign minister from 2011 to 2015. He relied on Mr. Cotler’s guidance in 2012 when he delivered a controversial speech at the United Nations opposing recognition of Palestine as a non-member state. At the time, Canada was among a handful of countries that voted against the motion. Mr. Cotler helped Mr. Baird write the speech, which he considers one of his most important ministerial addresses.

As Mr. Baird says, “I’m not sure there are many opposition MPs who can say they helped write an important speech for a senior minister.”

Critics have painted Mr. Cotler as anti-Palestinian, but Mr. Cotler maintains he has long supported a “two states for two peoples” solution. He’s hopeful peace will come to the region in his lifetime, but he’s skeptical about the Palestinian Authority’s track record. “At a certain point, unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”


Today, Mr. Cotler holds 15 honorary doctorates and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

A lasting legacy

U.S. civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz calls Mr. Cotler the hardest-working lawyer he knows. The pair met when Mr. Cotler was studying at Yale University in the late 1960s and Mr. Dershowitz was teaching at Harvard Law School. They eventually teamed up to defend Mr. Sharansky and Mr. Mandela. In both cases, Mr. Dershowitz says Mr. Cotler did most of the primary work.

Half a century later, they remain close despite what appears to be an unlikely friendship. While Mr. Dershowitz has represented celebrity clients including Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, Mr. Cotler has taken on what Mr. Dershowitz calls “invisible” political prisoners.

“He and I have equally controversial cases, but everybody likes him and nobody likes me,” Mr. Dershowitz says. “He’s just a nicer person.”

Alongside his many international human-rights awards, Mr. Cotler is the recipient of 15 honorary doctorates and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – in 2016 by Mr. Dershowitz and in 2019 by Mr. Martin, who cited Mr. Cotler’s leadership role in establishing Canada’s version of the Magnitsky Act, which passed in 2017. Mr. Cotler introduced the original legislation, which allows the government to impose sanctions on human-rights abusers around the world. Seven countries have now adopted versions of the law, inspired by the late Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

Mr. Cotler turned 80 in May and had been dealing with some health problems, including diabetes, kidney disease and a blood clot. His health has stabilized since the pandemic because he has been forced to stop travelling.

But retirement is not on the table. The political prisoners he defends give him the energy to keep working. “If they can suffer and advocate from prison, I can certainly advocate from the luxury of a free and democratic country,” he says.

The legacy of Mr. Cotler lives in the changes he made to Canada’s justice system, in the legal community he inspired and in the political prisoners he defended. For Justice Abella, he’s not just a man of his times – he’s a man who changed the times.

“He’s our gift to the world,” Justice Abella says. “If we didn’t have Irwin Cotler, we’d have to invent him.”

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Curtis Sittenfeld on Politics and Ambiguity – The New Yorker

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Photograph by Colin McPherson / Getty

In “A for Alone,” your story in this week’s issue, Irene comes up with a kind of conceptual art project based on Mike Pence’s credo that, if you’re a married man, you don’t spend time alone with another woman. The story is set in the fall of 2017. What is significant about that time period, and what does working with recent history allow you to do, narratively?

There are two reasons I set the story in 2017. The first is that it’s not now—that depicting events in a time clearly before the pandemic means the characters can do things that once seemed unremarkable, like meet for lunch inside restaurants, without those actions needing to be explained. The second reason is that when Irene, the protagonist, refers to “an article about Mike Pence that got a lot of attention,” there’s a specific article I had in mind: it ran in the Washington Post on March 28, 2017; it was written by the journalist Ashley Parker; and the headline was “Karen Pence is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield” (yes, it was actually a profile of Karen Pence). Parker’s article refers to a 2002 article in another publication, The Hill, revealing that Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.” I believe that the Post article brought the Billy Graham rule into the wider cultural consciousness.

Irene sets about having lunch alone with various men to ask them their thoughts about the Mike Pence rule, and to have them fill out questionnaires about whether they spend time alone with women. These lunches give the story its structure. Is it a relief to light upon that kind of organizing pattern? Or does it feel somehow constraining?

Well, constraints can actually be a relief. The story’s structure is, indeed, very simple—though possibly misleading in the first half—and I made two choices that imposed additional constraints. I decided to give information about the protagonist only as needed, rather than preëmptively, and I decided to reveal central facts within dialogue, which is often considered taboo by writers. Or, even worse, it’s considered cheesy, the kind of crutch employed by, say, a soap opera: “Bernard, how can I run away with you when you’re the man who burned down my mansion and tried to run over my cousin?!” Naturally, I enjoyed flouting these supposed rules.

This is, in its oblique way, a political story. Much like two of your novels, “American Wife” and “Rodham,” it uses political facts and narrative to go off in its own direction. What repeatedly draws you to politics as a source for your writing? Are there novels or stories that you look to as examples of the form done really well?

In general, I’m interested in the discrepancies between our public selves and private selves, and those discrepancies can be particularly dramatic and intense in politics, which feature literal popularity contests. There’s just so much pressure on politicians, and those close to them, to act a particular way. I suppose I’m also drawn to fiction about politics because there’s an idea (that perhaps no one believes) that, in the political realm, personality is peripheral and policy is what’s being sold, debated, et cetera. But, of course, this pretense just makes personality more intriguing. As for overtly political novels that are done well, “The Line of Beauty,” by Alan Hollinghurst, is pretty perfect.

An irony of Irene’s project is that maybe Mike Pence is right. There’s a sense, though, that, even if Pence is right, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Tell us more about the ambiguity of that ending?

Perhaps the point of ambiguity is that it’s ambiguous? And a story should speak for itself? With that disclaimer out of the way, I definitely, unequivocally don’t think Mike Pence is right. I can’t imagine any adult disputing the fact that sometimes some individuals who are in monogamous relationships are attracted to people other than their partners. But that’s not Mike Pence’s insight any more than America was Columbus’s discovery. The part specific to Pence, Graham, et cetera. is how to behave in reaction to that fact. And their choice is wrong for a bunch of reasons, foremost among them that they’re imposing their will on other people in a way that (professionally and financially) disadvantages the others. They’re also ignoring the existence of anyone who isn’t heterosexual. Even as she tries to dismiss the Billy Graham rule, Irene is implicitly giving credence to it rather than simply ignoring it—and perhaps her inability to ignore it is due to her being a married heterosexual woman. But I actually don’t think the salient question is whether adhering to the Billy Graham rule achieves its goal. As Irene’s friend Maude reminds her at the end, that’s one way to live a life, but there are many others.

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A look at stock market history around elections and whether politics really matter – CNBC

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden answer a question during the second and final presidential debate at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, October 22, 2020.
Morry Gash | Pool | Reuters

Does it matter for stocks who wins the White House? Is there anything unusual about the candidates this year that could impact the markets, regardless of who wins? 

For answers, we turn to Ed Clissold, chief U.S. Strategist for Ned Davis Research, who has studied elections and the impact on markets going back to 1900. 

This Q&A was derived from written research and an interview with Clissold. It has been edited for brevity.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about this election and the impact on the markets. What’s your take?

Part of the problem is that this is an unusual situation. The incumbent is in the middle of a recession and a big drop in the market, even though that occurred earlier in the year. I don’t mean a “recession” as technically defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); I mean that a large portion of the U.S. believes we are in a recession.

Why is that perception important?

When those conditions are in place, the incumbent is a serious underdog.  Since 1900, the incumbent party has won five times and lost nine when there was a 20% decline in the DJIA or a recession in the election year.   But the last incumbent to win under these circumstances was Truman in 1948.  Since 1952, no party has retained the White House when there was either a 20% decline in the markets or a recession, and both have taken place in 2020. 

But isn’t this a unique recession?  This was caused by Covid-19.

Yes. Because the cause of the 2020 recession is an exogenous shock, one of the biggest questions heading into the fall is whether voters will blame President Trump for the economy. Most recessions have a more complicated genesis than this one, and Trump is certainly trying to make the case that he is the better one to handle this.

Is there anything unique about Biden?  He is proposing changes in the tax code on both a personal and corporate level.  That matters to Wall Street, doesn’t it?

Yes. The main concerns we have heard from our clients is that higher taxes and more regulations would be detrimental to stocks.

OK, you’ve made it clear the circumstances are unusual this year.  But what about the historical record?  Does the stock market do better or worse when a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House?

The markets tend to go up whether there is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained an average of 3.8% annually under Democrats since 1900, versus 1.1% under Republicans.

Why is that?

The President is not as influential on the economy as many people think. There are many factors that drive returns and who is in the White House is only one of many factors, including the fact that the U.S. is a capitalist society, where the means of production is mostly in private hands, and that there is a court system that enforces contracts.

What about when one party controls both the Congress and the White House?

When Republicans control both the Congress and the White House, returns have averaged 7.09% a year.  Under Democratic presidents, the market has risen faster when there has been a check on their power. When Democrats control the Congress and the Presidency, the market has risen an average of 2.96% a year, but 5.21% with a Democratic President and a Republican Congress.  

What about immediately after an election, going into the end of the year?

The market tends to perform better when the incumbent party wins than when the incumbent party loses.

Why is that?

It’s likely because the market often reacts to uncertainty, and a change in party leadership represents an additional unknown.

Does it matter for that short period whether it is a Republican or Democrat who has won or lost?

The strongest gains going into the end of the year occur when incumbent Republicans win, and the biggest losses when incumbent Republicans have lost, on average, likely because Republicans often positioned themselves as pro-business.

Does that outperformance when the Republicans have lost extend into the following year?

No. That relative performance has reversed in post-election years, with the strongest average gain in years following incumbent Republican losses. 

So what does this tell us?  Seems like this debate about the Republican vs. Democrat impact on stocks is a lot about perception.

Yes. Party control may be more about sentiment than fundamentals in most cases. Also, once the election is over, investors can focus on other things, like earnings, economic growth, or interest rates, so whatever sentiment-driven market action that occurs in the election year tends to fade and reverse itself.

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US VP warns Dems against playing politics over vaccine – Anadolu Agency

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ANKARA 

US Vice President Mike Pence has warned Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Senator Kamala Harris against playing politics with COVID-19 issues. 

Biden, Harris, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, need to “stop playing politics with people’s lives by undermining confidence in a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine,” Pence told Fox News on Sunday.

“The president has speeded up the process through Operation Warp Speed, but we cut no corners on safety, and we are not going to distribute a coronavirus vaccine until the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] and independent evaluation say it is safe and effective for the American people,” he added.

The FDA approved Thursday Gilead Sciences’ Remdesivir, a drug touted by President Donald Trump who received it earlier this month after contracting COVID-19.

On Friday, the FDA also gave the green light to Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca to continue their vaccine trials after both companies earlier paused their trials as some participants in trials became ill.

Some Democrats have claimed Trump was acting reckless in coronavirus treatment options, arguing the president has been expediting trials to have a vaccine ready before the election on Nov. 3.

“I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump,” Biden said last month.

The US administration implemented Operation Warp Speed, which offers to pay Pfizer and BioNTech $1.95 billion for 100 million doses if their vaccine proves “safe and effective”, and a $1.6 billion deal with Novavax to manufacture and deliver 100 million doses by next January.

The US has more than 8.63 million cases and over 225,000 deaths from COVID-19, according to latest data from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, figures show over 43 million infections and more than 1.15 million deaths.



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