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Congress in standoff on virus aid but first checks coming – Twin Cities

By LISA MASCARO

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is rushing headlong into a conflict over the next coronavirus aid package as White House wants to pump $250 billion into a small business fund but opposes Democrats’ proposal to tack on billions for protective gear, food stamps and support to state and local governments.

An attempt for a Thursday vote in the Senate will pose a first test.

President Donald Trump urged passage of the small business funds “ASAP.”

Despite the urgency to act, the sudden breakdown over what all sides agree is the need for federal help as the pandemic crisis roars through communities large and small, and Washington prepares to go beyond the $2.2 trillion package approved just two weeks ago.

Still, signs of potential progress emerged in Washington’s effort to push cash out the door to suddenly out-of-work Americans and shuttered businesses.

The first tranche of $1,200 direct payments to Americans are set to begin next week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told House Democrats during a conference call with the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Mnuchin also told the lawmakers that $98 billion in loans for small businesses has been approved under the program which the Trump administration wants Congress to bolster in Thursday’s vote, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the private call and granted anonymity.

But the White House opposes a proposal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to add another $250 billion for other needs, according to a senior administration official unauthorized to discuss the situation and granted anonymity.

The White House prefers quick passage of infusion for small business payrolls, the official said.

That leads to the standoff because without bipartisan cooperation, no proposal is likely to be approved as Congress is all but shuttered amid the virus outbreak.

Pelosi said flatly the Republican-only proposal would face objections in the House.

“We have to spend what we need,” Pelosi told NPR, when asked if there were limits on federal aid.

Vice President Mike Pence convened private conference calls Wednesday with House Republicans and Democrats, in separate sessions with Mnuchin and task force, to brief far-flung lawmakers on the response to the crisis.

Lawmakers heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and other task force officials who outlined the difficult week in the U.S. with the rising number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

In the morning call with Republicans, Pence and the GOP leaders made a push for boosting the small business Paycheck Protection Program , according to a Republican aide unauthorized to discuss the call and granted anonymity.

The GOP leaders were in agreement about quickly approving more funding for the program, the aide said.

Part of the sweeping $2.2 trillion package that became law just two weeks ago, the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program has been swamped as businesses rush to apply for up to $10 million in forgivable loans to keep paychecks flowing amid the stay-home shutdown.

In the call with Democrats, Mnuchin appeared to address head-on concerns that the small business aid was riddled with problems and not getting into the hands of those who need it most.

He told them that the loans have been approved so far by 3,600 lenders. It was not clear, however, how much of that money was now actually out the door.

But Democrats want assurances the small business funds go to minority-owned and other companies that may be under-banked without easy access to financial institutions.

“We cannot solidify the inequality to access to capital that exists in our economy at a time when we are address the coronavirus crisis,” Pelosi said.

It’s an issue that has been raised by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and others who said millions of small business owners struggled to access the aid.

Lawmakers have raised concerns that the $1,200 direct payments to Americans could be delayed for months for those who do not have direct deposit through Treasury.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to rush Trump’s request for small business aid to a vote without input from Democrats threatened a fragile alliance for bipartisan action.

The Democrats say they support the $250 billion in assistance to small businesses.

But they’re also calling for an additional $100 billion for hospitals and community health centers to provide testing supplies and protective equipment like masks and gowns. They are seeking another $150 billion for state and local governments to manage the coronavirus crisis

They also want a 15 percent increase to the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food stamp benefits.

Mnuchin also spoke by phone Wednesday to Schumer, who told the secretary about Democrats’ “very reasonable and needed” proposal, said Schumer’s spokesman, Justin Goodman.

Republicans swiftly countered that Democrats were blocking fast action on the small business aid. Many of the Democratic requests revisited behind-the-scenes battles from the round of talks that produce the CARES Act two weeks ago.

“Senate Democrats should drop their shameful threat to block this funding immediately,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of GOP leadership.

McConnell spokesman David Popp declined to comment.

With Congress adjourned except for procedural pro-forma sessions, the House and Senate could deploy procedures that would allow a simple voice vote, without a roll call, or leaders could try to approve the package with unanimous consent.

Consent, though, seems unlikely, as Democrats push for add-ons and fiscal hawks criticize the cost. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., objected to the earlier package, forcing lawmakers to return to Washington for a vote.

___

Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.

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Details of China’s crackdown on free speech during the coronavirus outbreak

According to China’s Ministry of Public Security, police investigated more than 5,100 instances of “fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information” between January 20 and February 21. The actual number as of today is unknown as are details of most of the cases. However, a group called Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has collected information on 897 such cases between January 1 and March 26. What they found was government censorship of social media which resulted in some people having their social media accounts deleted and others being put into administrative detention.

From our incomplete list of cases, we are able to tell that the punishments handed out by police fall largely into several types: administrative detention, criminal detention, enforced disappearance, fines, warnings/interrogations, forced confessions and “educational reprimand”. In over half of these cases, we could not find the specific punishments meted out against the “offenders.” Of the specified types of punishment, police favoured administrative detention (18.5% of the total) and “educational reprimand” (17.8% of the total).

The offenses or crimes or pretext that authorities used to back up the punishments include “spreading rumours,” “fabricating false information,” “causing panic,” “disrupting public/social order,” and “leaking privacy.” In the vast majority of these cases, or 93% of the total, police cited “spreading misinformation, disrupting public order” as the pretext for punishing online speech related to COVID-19 outbreak in China.

CHRD also constructed a timeline of when these cases happened and found there were two spikes, the first in late January after China finally acknowledged the seriousness of the virus and the second in February, apparently after the death of whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang.

According to this timeline, after the January 20 Xinhua announcement, when information about the rapidly spreading virus was critically important for the public, who were nervous and scared, Chinese police acted with apparently concerted nationwide operations in penalizing many more online users—396 of the 897 cases occurred between January 21-31…

In February, the number of punishments shown on our list peaked with 467 individuals sanctioned. The death of Dr Li Wenliang from coronavirus on February 6 drew massive outcry on Chinese social media, with an outpouring of grief, anger, and denouncements of government officials. Many Chinese netizens demanded their right to free speech. The spike of penalties imposed by police on online users in February likely reflected a heightened crackdown by authorities in response to the surge of expressed strong emotions on the Internet over Dr Li’s death. Government censors ordered state media to downplay his death and dispatched CCP discipline officials from Beijing to Wuhan to conduct an investigation.

China also “disappeared” a number of independent journalists who dared to report directly over social media what was happening. The CHRD provides a list of some of these [emphasis added]

  • Citizen journalist and lawyer Chen Qiushi (陈秋实) has been missing since being taken away by police on February 6. Chen, original from Heilongjiang, is a lawyer who practiced law in Beijing and became popular online after he started social media broadcasting from the Hong Kong protests in 2019. Just after the Hubei authorities announced the mandatory lockdown in Wuhan on January 23, Chen travelled to the city to report the situation on the frontline.
  • Citizen journalist and rights activist, Fang Bin (方斌), has been missing since being taken away by police on February 9. Fang Bin is a Wuhan resident who began posting videos online of life and death in the epicentre of the outbreak, including one video filmed on January 25 that highlighted the overwhelmed hospitals, in which he called for unblocked, free information to combat the epidemic.
  • Citizen journalist and former CCTV host Li Zehua (李泽华), has been missing since police took him into custody on February 26. Li travelled to Wuhan in February, after Chen Qiushi’s disappearance, and began to report on conditions on the ground and post videos online.
  • Dissident intellectual and former prisoner of conscience, Guo Quan (郭泉), was detained on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” on January 31 and then formally arrested in February for speaking out online about the coronavirus outbreak. He is being held at Nanjing No. 2 Detention Center.

More recently, Chinese property developer Ren Zhiqiang, nicknamed “the cannon” for his tendency to speak very directly, disappeared sometime last month after he wrote an abrasive opinion piece which was seen as critical of President Xi Jinping. Ren wrote, “I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.” In the same piece he also said, “The reality shown by this epidemic is that the party defends its own interests, the government officials defend their own interests, and the monarch only defends the status and interests of the core.”  Yesterday, the Guardian reported an update on Ren. He is being investigated for “serious violations.”

Late on Tuesday, party officials said Ren was accused of violations that are widely used as a euphemism for corruption and graft. The short statement posted online said Ren was undergoing disciplinary review and supervision by the Beijing discipline inspection commission, the top anti-graft commission in the country…

Responding to Ren’s arrest, Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, said the Chinese government’s propaganda machine was “in overdrive, claiming a positive performance in the Coronavirus crisis”…

“That Ren is being held and investigated by the CCDI guarantees one outcome: a total denial of fair trial rights.”

Criticize the communist government and you will be found guilty of something.

Finally, Dr. Ai Fen gave an interview last month explaining how she was ordered to shut up about the virus after she spread (accurate) information about it online. Immediately after the the interview with her was published, the Chinese government censored it. Dr. Ai Fen has also disappeared.

In light of all of this coordinated censorship it’s astounding that U.S. media outlets continue to report Chinese government data on the virus as if it were reliable and unbiased. Here’s an Indian report on Dr. Ai Fen highlighted by BizPacReview. She is one of the few real heroes of this horrible pandemic. American elected officials ought to demand that China reveal what has happened to her.

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Trump Mulling ‘Two Concepts’ For Reopening Economy (VIDEO)

 

President Trump on Tuesday night set out two concepts that his administration is considering to reopen the economy, one on a regional basis and the other nationwide.

During an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Trump said he’d like to get the economy back with “a big bang.”

“We’re starting to look at it very, very thoroughly, we have some great people looking at it because we want to get this country open,” Trump said. “We have to get our country open again. This [country] wasn’t designed to have this — you crack it, you crack it in half. It’s no good.”

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“We’ll be open again much sooner rather than later,” he pledged.

“I’d love to open with a big bang, one beautiful country and just open,” Trump said, although he added that some say that might not be the best way.

“We’re looking at two concepts,” Trump explained. “We’re looking at the concept where you open up sections, and we’re also looking at the concept where you open up everything.” He noted that some spots — like New York City, New Jersey, Detriot — have been much harder and may take a while for the upward curve of infections to drop off.

Trump suggested that some places where the curve is flattening more quickly could reopen sooner.

Which way to go, Trump said, will be announced “in the near future.”

Trump also expressed optimism in a Wednesday post on Twitter.

“Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten,” the president tweeted. “Our Economy will BOOM, perhaps like never before!!!”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Tuesday that President Trump is looking into reopening parts of the U.S. economy as the coronavirus pandemic moves toward its peak, which White House experts say will be this week.

“The president is very much looking at how we can reopen parts of the economy,” Mnuchin said on Fox Business. “There are parts of the country, like New York, where obviously this is very, very concerning. There are other parts of the country where it’s not.”

Mnuchin also offered a bit of comfort to owners of small businesses, saying, “If you can’t get the loans today or tomorrow, don’t worry. There will be money; if we run out of money we’ll go back for more,” adding, “I know the president is very much looking at how we can reopen parts of the economy.”

Fox host Maria Bartiromo said, “We’re in lockdown. Do you think that this next eight weeks they’ll open up in the time that they can actually use the money and make sure that the employee has the money but they’re also going to actually get revenue in so that they can open up again? Because this is an eight-week period that they’re giving money to employees and they’ve got no revenue. They’re in lockdown. So at some point, they may have to fire that person anyway, because they won’t make it.”

Mnuchin said:

Well, Maria, the whole point of them hiring these people now is because they have no revenues. The government is giving them money to pay their employees. And if eight weeks from now we need more money, we’ll go back to Congress. But the whole purpose of this is we understand small business has no revenues, and that’s no fault of their own; that’s because of the coronavirus. We’re going to kill this virus, and during this period the president wants to make sure that employees are paid.

So the whole purpose of this is people have zero revenues. Go take the loan, pay your employees, use the 25% overhead and pay rent and electricity and other things, and at the end of the period, as long as you use the money for what you’re supposed to use, the loan will be forgiven. And the only time we’d ever come back against somebody is if the money was used for fraudulent purposes … Now let me just encourage everybody out there: If you can’t get the loans today or tomorrow, don’t worry. There will be money; if we run out of money we’ll go back for more.

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COVID-19 hits Ohio’s March tax receipts

Ohio’s tax revenue in March came in $159.4 million below the monthly estimate, an indication of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the state’s economy, according to preliminary estimates from the Office of Budget and Management.

General Revenue Fund tax receipts were 10.5 percent below the original estimate.

Despite the shortage in March, the total fiscal-year-to-date tax receipts exceed the estimate by $89.5 million, or 0.5 percent. They are $362 million, or 2.2 percent, above total tax receipts during the same period last year.

“The impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic became apparent in Ohio’s March General Revenue Fund receipts,” OBM Director Kimberly Murnieks said in a statement.

While sales and use tax revenues for March were 8.3 percent below estimates, year-to-date sales tax receipts exceed estimates by $77.4 million, or 1 percent.

Additionally, income tax revenues for March were $22.3 million, or 5.1 percent, below estimates. OBM officials anticipate April’s income tax revenues will miss previous estimates because of the decision to move the income tax filing deadline to July 15.

Gov. Mike DeWine has taken a number of steps to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that originated in China in December, including an order for Ohio residents to stay at home except to conduct essential business.

“OBM continues to monitor economic indicators daily to manage the financial situation of state government and continue providing critical services to Ohioans,” Murnieks added. “In the past weeks, Gov. DeWine instituted spending controls, including a state agency hiring freeze and purchasing restrictions, and we work with agency leaders to implement those actions.”

Other economic recovery efforts are underway.

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, named two dozen lawmakers to the Ohio House 2020 Economic Recovery Task Force, a bipartisan group tasked with helping a post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of our lives, including the economic well-being and future of Ohio families and businesses,” Householder said in a statement.

“What are the barriers to economic recovery? How do we help Ohio’s families and employers recover and emerge stronger than before?” Householder said. “This is a critical time for Ohio’s future. I believe we can rebound from this challenge in a better position than anyone in the nation if we plan ahead and implement well.”

In response to the announcement, Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, said, “Ohioans struggling to get by cannot afford to wait for us to act in this time of crisis.”

Last week, House Democrats called on the legislature to reconvene and address “outstanding issues” that “cannot wait until after the pandemic subsides.”

“The reality is that right now, too many Ohio families are struggling to pay the bills, put food on the table and access the essential services they need – including healthcare – through no fault of their own,” Sykes said in a statement. “The work of the legislature remains unfinished and we continue to fight for our constituents who need us more than ever during this uncertain time.”

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Wuhan Is Returning to Life. So Are Its Disputed Wet Markets

(Bloomberg) — Cars lined up this week at the main entrance to the Baishazhou wet market, one of the biggest in Wuhan, which is buzzing again. The Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged has stirred back to life following a lockdown lasting for months.

A sign hovers overhead: “No slaughtering and selling live animals.”

Baishazhou and other wet markets are at the center of an intensifying global debate about whether they should be allowed to operate, given another market in Wuhan was one of the first places where the virus was detected. U.S. officials, in particular, are ramping up pressure to shut them down. Yet such markets in China and elsewhere in Asia are as essential a part of everyday life as bodegas in the New York City or boulangeries in Paris.

The challenge facing Beijing’s central government as Wuhan and the rest of the country seeks to return to normal life will be how to keep open such markets — which function like a farmers’ market in Western countries — while enforcing rules against the live slaughter of animals or sale of wildlife on site.

“Banning wet markets is not only going to be impossible, but will also be destructive for urban food security in China as they play such a pivotal role in ensuring urban residents’ access to affordable and healthy food,” said Dr. Zhenzhong Si, a research associate at the University of Waterloo who studies food security in China.

The coronavirus, which has now infected more than 1.4 million people worldwide, was first discovered in December after a cluster of cases initially linked to the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market — one of the biggest aquatic wholesale markets in central China. Subsequent research, including a study by Chinese researchers published in the Lancet in February, has found that some of the earliest cases had no exposure to the Huanan market.

Scientists and Chinese officials believe the deadly illness jumped to humans from wild animals, most likely via an intermediary species like bats. Close contact with wild animals at the market, which has been closed since January, has been widely blamed for the outbreak.

American Opposition

U.S. officials are calling for President Xi Jinping’s government to immediately close the markets, saying they are potential breeding grounds for disease. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week the coronavirus was a “direct result” of unsanitary markets and said it was “mind-boggling” that the markets remained open.

“I would like to see the rest of the world really lean with a lot of pressure on those countries that have that,” he said on “Fox and Friends.”

Republican lawmakers including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are urging Chinese officials not to reopen such markets. Graham last week sent a letter to the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. imploring him to pressure his government, saying “their operation should cease immediately.”

There also may be some semantic confusion. U.S. officials and others refer to wet markets generally while what they appear to be seeking to ban is the live animal trade in the markets.

“The closest thing to wet markets in Western countries are farmers’ markets where you can buy products from independent vendors,” said Jian Yi, founder of the Good Food Academy, an online platform advocating healthy eating. “People depend on wet markets for vegetables, fruits, meat and fish.”

In any case, shuttering such markets would be next to impossible as they are crucial to the livelihood of millions of farmers and small business vendors and are a centerpiece of communities across China. A 2018 study from Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University and Hungry Cities Partnership, which looks at urban food systems, found 90% of households in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, with a population of more than eight million, bought food from wet markets — with 75% visiting one at least five times a week.

Wet markets are popular in China because they’re convenient, and products are considered to be less expensive and fresher than in many supermarkets. While pigs, lambs and cows must be butchered in special slaughtering factories, rather than on site, meat sold at the markets isn’t packaged, and live fish and chickens are common.

Cracking Down

Although there are well-managed, hygienic wet markets in and near bigger cities, hygiene can be spotty, especially in smaller communities. Even before the virus outbreak, China’s central and local governments tried to regulate wild animal trading at markets, instituting occasional checks to improve sanitation.

China’s wild-animal farming industry was worth an estimated 520 billion yuan ($74 billion) in 2016 and employed more than 14 million people, according to the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Environmentalists, researchers and Chinese state media have called for stricter regulation of exotic animal trade in the markets.

Photos that circulated online in January showed animals including deer — which aren’t commonly eaten in China — and peacocks available for purchase at the Huanan market. This triggered an outcry over authorities’ negligence in ignoring loopholes that allow their purchase and sale as long as they’re bred on farms. Wild animals are categorized as those that aren’t commonly eaten.

China’s National Health Commission in January issued a temporary emergency order that Wuhan officials should “strictly manage” the markets and prohibit wild animals and live poultry from entering the city. Under pressure in February as the virus spread, the National People’s Congress announced a ban on trading wild terrestrial animals for the purpose of eating.

Still, the NPC’s decision didn’t cover the trade of exotic animals for use in traditional Chinese medicines, fashion or entertainment. Chinese medicine holds that some exotic animals have health benefits and has helped fuel the illegal smuggling and trade of species like the endangered pangolin, whose scales are believed to cure a variety of ailments.

“It’s misleading to focus on wet markets when we discuss the outbreak,” said Si, of the University of Waterloo. “It overshadows the true problem here, which is the supply chain of wild animals. We shouldn’t demonize wet markets because of the coronavirus outbreak.”

The Chinese government has been pushing for the resumption of economic activity now that the official infection numbers have been at a low level for weeks, trying to kick start consumption that all but disappeared during the outbreak.

The now-famous Huanan market remained closed this week, even as Wuhan gradually reopened. The smell of seafood wafted on the street, though the market was boarded up and guarded by police who stopped people from taking photos.

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President Trump, White House coronavirus task force to hold Wednesday briefing

(NEXSTAR/CNN) — President Donald Trump and the White House coronavirus task force will hold a press briefing Wednesday. You can watch it live in the player above.

Earlier CNN story “Amid coronavirus, Trump seizes chance to carry out a long-desired purge of government watchdogs below:

There was a moment during Monday’s coronavirus press briefing when President Donald Trump was asked about a recent government watchdog report about testing shortages in hundreds of hospitals across the US. As the reporter asked her question, a certain phrase triggered a reaction from Trump.

“Did I hear the word inspector general, really?” Trump said in a tone of annoyance. “It’s wrong. It’s wrong,” he added, baselessly undermining the efforts of his own government to document how hospitals are dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

Over the past few days there has been a significant escalation in the President’s already unprecedented war against the oversight of his own administration — and his sights are clearly set on inspectors general.

It started Friday, when Trump fired the intelligence community IG, Michael Atkinson, whose decision to bring a whistleblower complaint to Congress kicked off the impeachment inquiry last year. On Monday, Trump went after Christi Grimm, the author of that hospital testing report and the top official at the IG’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services. He also falsely described her as an Obama appointee.

On Tuesday, in a series of bureaucratic moves, Trump removed Glenn Fine as acting IG at the Department of Defense. Fine had recently been named by a panel of federal IGs as chairman of a congressionally-mandated commission to oversee the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Several sources tell CNN that Trump has long sought to remove Fine as the Pentagon’s acting IG, viewing him as a holdover from the Obama administration. That effort escalated after Fine was selected by his peers to chair the pandemic response oversight panel.

Meanwhile, the new special IG in charge of policing a large chunk of the relief spending will be someone who works directly for the President, White House aide Brian Miller, who Trump nominated on Friday, around the same time he fired Atkinson.

In fact, much of the oversight apparatus in the relief package was a concession by Trump, who resisted Democratic efforts to create the commission and then waved away any true authority it holds with a signing statement attached to the bill.

“My Administration will treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory,” the President wrote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday that the removal of Fine as the Pentagon’s acting IG was a “problem” and a sign the President was seeking to put “some of his loyalists” in charge of overseeing how the relief money is spent.

The sequence of events reflects Trump’s dim view of government oversight, particularly when it presents inconvenient facts. For Trump, who expects happy talk from all corners of his administration, the work of IG offices are a galling feature of what he often derides as the “deep state” — a politically motivated permanent bureaucracy designed to thwart him.

“The system can’t work this way,” said former Treasury Department IG Eric Thorson, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007 and retired last year. “Their work has to be respected. Hopefully, this won’t change the way they do their work. They might be more fearful, but they’ll still do the work. They’re gutsy people, but it is hard. The system was not designed for this.”

Suspicion of Obama loyalists

Trump has been skeptical of government watchdogs from even before he took office. Sources tell CNN that after winning election in 2016, Trump instructed officials to identify those IGs who were believed to be Obama-loyalists so that they could be removed and replaced with more Trump-friendly options.

In January 2017, White House staff phoned the Treasury and Labor department IGs to inform them they could soon receive pink slips, according to Daniel Meyer, who led the Whistleblowing and Source Protection Program at the Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General until he was fired in March 2018 by then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

While those broader firings never occurred, Trump has maintained his suspicion of IGs throughout his time in office, multiple sources said. Those suspicions were amplified last year when Atkinson sent the whistleblower complaint to Congress. Since then, Trump has become increasingly fixated on removing IGs he views as holdovers from the Obama administration, according to multiple sources.

“It is not rocket science what the President is doing here. He has said publicly that he is the oversight authority and the IGs work for him,” Meyer told CNN.

During his time in office, Trump has tweeted more than 25 times about various inspectors general and their reports, almost always using them to deride his opponents or to accuse IGs of bias, without ever providing credible proof.

He called Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz an “Obama guy” when it looked like he was slow-walking a review of surveillance abuses during the Russia investigation. But when Horowitz’s report came out, and exposed serious wrongdoing, Trump hailed the findings and still touts them to this day.

During the impeachment saga, Trump accused Atkinson of perpetuating a “hoax” and colluding with Democrats by sharing the Ukraine whistleblower complaint with Congress, which he was required to do by law. Atkinson now says he believes his firing last week was retaliation for the Ukraine affair.

‘Whistleblowing vacuum’

Even though they aren’t well known, IGs have long served a crucial role in ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse inside the government. That role becomes even more crucial as the federal government begins doling out the record amount of coronavirus relief funds.

“Few Americans know what an Inspector General is, but we all suffer when they are punished for their independence,” said Irvin McCullough, national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project.

“These watchdogs are entrusted to enforce whistleblowers’ protections. If these watchdogs are attacked, defamed, and removed for their integrity, then the federal workforce will no longer trust them with their whistleblowing complaints. We will live in a whistleblowing vacuum,” he added.

Even members of Trump’s own party are urging him to cool down. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a staunch advocate for inspectors general and congressional oversight, responded to Trump’s moves with a statement, reminding Trump that the law requires him to notify Congress ahead of any termination of a Senate-confirmed inspector general and to provide a written explanation.

“Inspectors General provide a critical check on an otherwise unaccountable bureaucracy,” Grassley wrote. “In other words, they help drain the swamp.”

Checks and Balances, the group of conservative and libertarian lawyers co-founded by George Conway, released a statement Monday charging that Michael Atkinson’s firing underscored Trump’s “contempt for the rule of law.”

“While a president has the authority to nominate and select officials in his administration, he does not have the authority to make a mockery of the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, statutory mandates and Senate confirmation,” the lawyers said.

Pandemic relief IGs most at risk

Many in the IG and whistleblower community believe those career officials on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee are most at risk, including DOJ IG Michael Horowitz, who also heads the panel of IGs with the authority to pick the chair of that committee.

“People on the committee are likely at the top of list,” according to a former attorney for the Ukraine whistleblower, Andrew Bakaj, who noted that he is particularly concerned about Horowitz’s future. “Horowitz has proven to be independent and neutral, as he should be. Anyone who displays any sort of independence and neutrality is seen as a threat by this White House.”

While Horowitz remains in his role, current and former officials caution that, as with any decision Trump makes, that could change with a single tweet. The fact that Horowitz has published sharply critical investigations into the FBI’s handling of politically sensitive probes of Hillary Clinton and the President’s campaign may help protect him, congressional sources and Justice Department officials tell CNN.

Horowitz has won high marks from key lawmakers including Grassley and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and he also has a good relationship with Attorney General William Barr, officials note.

Horowitz is currently overseeing a deeper look at what he has said were serious concerns about the FBI’s management of national security surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Trump has recently praised that work for highlighting the FBI’s mistakes, an issue about which Trump has long complained.

Still, several IG postings have been occupied by acting officials after Trump nominees have been forced to withdraw from consideration for various reasons, and former inspectors general say that Trump’s actions may have already muddied the waters in terms of the perceived independence of current watchdogs. Of course, Trump’s battle with the IGs may end up costing more than just their independence.

“The American people are better off when the inspectors general are given free rein to audit and investigate,” said Clark Ervin, a Bush appointee who issued hard-hitting reports as the first IG at the Department of Homeland Security. “The proof is in the pudding. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been recovered as a result of their efforts, which is far more than their collective budgets.”

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Chelsea Handler Made A Coronavirus Face Mask Out Of Her Bra And It’s So Clever

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the CDC hasn’t officially weighed in on turning your bra into a face mask. But the federal agency’s website DOES provide some guidance about what constitutes proper face protection right now, and Chelsea’s DIY bra mask does seem to fit that bill:

Cloth face coverings should:
* Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
* Be secured with ties or ear loops
* Include multiple layers of fabric
* Allow for breathing without restriction
* Be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape

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NYC Mayor’s pandemic protection history is… not good

More of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s history with keeping his city prepared for disaster has been coming to light recently. Since the current crisis deals with the pandemic that has now killed more people than the 9/11 attacks, some are asking why there weren’t more preparations in place to deal with something like this. As it turns out, there were people in the Big Apple who did see the possibility of a pandemic striking and they had a good idea of what to do about it in advance.

Way back in 2006, when yet another wave of a unique flu virus was sweeping through Asia, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered a study of the situation and decided to take action. He launched an initiative to prepare New York for such an epidemic and stock up medical supplies as a bulwark against shortfalls the city’s hospitals were predicted to experience. He requested millions of medical facemasks and a stockpile of “between 2,036 and 9,454 ventilators” in anticipation of a worst-case scenario.

Unfortunately, this was happening just as the economy was beginning to tank and they only managed to acquire roughly 500 of the requested ventilators. After that, budget cuts forced most of the rest of the pandemic preparations to be tabled. But hey… at least they got 500 ventilators. That’s got to at least help a bit, right? Nope. As Pro Publica reports this week, some years later when Bill de Blasio had taken over, most of the ventilators had broken down. So the city got rid of them.

In the end, the alarming predictions failed to spur action. In the months that followed, the city acquired just 500 additional ventilators as the effort to create a larger stockpile fizzled amid budget cuts.

Even those extra ventilators are long gone, the health department said on Sunday. The lifesaving devices broke down over time and were auctioned off by the city at least five years ago because the agency couldn’t afford to maintain them.

Today, 14 years after the pandemic plan was released, the death toll from the novel coronavirus is climbing by the hundreds daily, and the shortage of ventilators threatens to push it higher still. On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city, which entered the crisis with around 3,500 ventilators, would run out of the machines this week.

So there were roughly 500 ventilators in the city stockpile as recently as five years ago, but the city didn’t allocate the necessary funding to repair and maintain them. They were then auctioned off, very likely at a great loss if they were largely nonfunctional. Four years later… boom. The pandemic hits.

This is one of those rare circumstances where I have to demonstrate a bit of sympathy for Bill de Blasio. Every city and state always has limitless demands on limited revenue when trying to manage their budgets. And sadly, as happens in so many cases, spending money on a potential future problem that might happen frequently takes a back seat to dealing with the issues that are actually happening right now.

This is not a problem that’s limited to New York City. Just recently we looked at the federal government’s decision to create a national stockpile of masks and ventilators in 1999. It was a good idea and a noble effort, but the program was only maintained and the stockpiles replenished until roughly 2005. After that, supplies were depleted but George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all failed to refill those supplies until the current pandemic hit us. Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes.

Perhaps this can be used as yet another lesson we need to be learning. Sooner or later we will recover from this pandemic and life will eventually return back to normal. While there is almost nobody left today who remembers the pandemic of 1918, now the country will be full of people who survived the coronavirus. And those people likely won’t mind prioritizing the maintenance of stockpiles of critical medical equipment and the funding of new research, such as plans to significantly hasten the development, testing, and approval of new vaccines that are currently taking place.

Or perhaps I’m just being delusional (again). I’d like to believe that we still have the ability to learn from history and not repeat it, but once people are feeling safe and secure once again, some of us tend to immediately develop amnesia.

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Democrats and GOP on collision course over new emergency relief package

The White House proposed an additional $251 billion for a small business loan program that was enacted as part of the new $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package, the largest rescue measure in US history. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would move to quickly approve the bill in his chamber on Thursday, with calls from the Trump administration for the House to quickly clear the plan by Friday.

But on Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer laid out several major demands, including $150 billion for state and local governments, $100 billion for hospitals and community health centers and more money for food stamp programs. In addition, the Democrats said half of the money in the $251 billion for the small business program should be directed toward local lenders that benefit farmers, women, veterans and minority-owned companies.

With lawmakers away from Washington amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaders on both sides will have to agree to move on the plan so it can be approved quickly — because any single lawmaker can object and effectively force members to return to the Capitol to approve the package, delaying final action for days.

Talks to avoid a stalemate are expected to continue Wednesday, and Schumer spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about his plan, according to a Schumer spokesman.

McConnell has yet to officially comment on the Democrats’ latest proposal — but the GOP is signaling that it believes the small business lending program, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, should be the initial priority — and the other items should wait until the next round of talks.

“With PPP actually in operation, we know for sure that there will be a problem and that it needs cash now,” said one official involved in the talks. “For the others that they’ve identified, they haven’t even started yet, so no idea about run rates, exhaustion, etc.”

A spokesman for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, added that the GOP leader’s preference is to prioritize the small business program.

On Wednesday, McConnell started the process to move for quick passage by Thursday of the $251 billion for additional small business loans — without including the list of Democratic demands outlined by Pelosi and Schumer, according to GOP sources.

McConnell has checked with senators to determine whether any of them will object to moving just the $251 billion package.

Democrats are likely to do just that and object to passing the $251 billion package if their demands aren’t met, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars for hospitals and state and local governments, according to Democratic sources.

That means on the floor Thursday morning, each side could present dueling bills that will fail to clear the Senate — unless a deal is reached to avoid an impasse.

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76-day coronavirus lockdown ends; Emotional toll of virus surges

By MARINA VILLENUEVE AND LORI HINNANT

NEW YORK (AP) — Even as coronavirus deaths mount across Europe and New York, the U.S. and other countries are starting to contemplate an exit strategy and thinking about a staggered and carefully calibrated easing of the restrictions designed to curb the scourge.

“To end the confinement, we’re not going to go from black to white; we’re going to go from black to gray,” top French epidemiologist Jean-François Delfraissy said in a radio interview.

At the same time, politicians and health officials warn that while deaths, hospitalizations and new infections may be leveling off in places like Italy and Spain, and even New York has seen encouraging signs amid the gloom, the crisis is far from over, and a catastrophic second wave could hit if countries let their guard down too soon.

“We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “But it’s not a time to be complacent. It’s not a time to do anything different than we’ve been doing.”

In a sharp reminder of the danger, New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, for an overall death toll of almost 6,300.

“The bad news is actually terrible,” Cuomo lamented. Still, the governor said that hospitalizations are decreasing and that many of those now dying fell ill in the outbreak’s earlier stages.

In other developments:

— Stocks shot 3.4% higher on Wall Street amid the encouraging signs about the outbreak’s trajectory. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 780 points.

— British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a second night in intensive care but was improving and sitting up in bed, authorities said.

— Saudi Arabian officials announced that the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen will begin a cease-fire starting Thursday. They said the two-week truce was in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities around the world amid the epidemic.

In China, the lockdown against Wuhan, the industrial city of 11 million where the global pandemic began, was lifted after 76 days, allowing people to come and go.

Wuhan residents will have to use a smartphone app showing that they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus. Even then, schools remain closed, people are still checked for fever when they enter buildings, and masks are strongly encouraged.

In the U.S., with over 14,000 deaths and 400,000 infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was considering changing self-isolation guidelines to make it easier for those exposed to someone with the virus to return to work if they have no symptoms.

Under the proposed guidance, aimed at workers in critical fields, such people would be allowed back on the job if they take their temperature twice a day and wear a mask, said a person who was familiar with the draft but was not authorized to discuss it and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, said that the Trump administration has been working on plans to eventually reopen the country amid “glimmers of hope” that social distancing is working to stop the virus’s spread.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it right now,” he said on Fox News. “But it means we need to be prepared to ease into that. And there’s a lot of activity going on.”

The U.S. is seeing hot spots in such places as Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Chicago, Detroit, Colorado and Pennsylvania. The New York metropolitan area, which includes northern New Jersey, Long Island and lower Connecticut, accounts for about half of all virus deaths in the U.S.

In Europe, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte is expected to announce in the coming days how long the country’s lockdown will remain in place amid expectations that some restrictions could be eased. Discussions are focused first on opening more of the country’s industries.

Proposals being floated in Italy include the issuing of immunity certificates, which would require antibody blood tests, and allowing younger workers to return first, as they are less vulnerable to the virus.

Italy, the hardest-hit country, recorded its biggest one-day jump yet in people counted as recovered and had its smallest one-day increase in deaths in more than a month. Nearly 18,000 have died there.

In Spain, which has tallied more than 14,000 dead, Budget Minister María Jesús Montero said that Spaniards will progressively regain their “normal life” from April 26 onwards but warned that the “de-escalation” of the lockdown will be “very orderly to avoid a return to the contagion.”

The government has been tight-lipped about what measures could be in place once the confinement is relaxed, stressing that they will be dictated by experts

Without giving specifics, French authorities have likewise begun to speak openly of planning the end of the country’s confinement period, which is set to expire April 15 but will be extended, according to the president’s office. The virus has claimed more than 10,000 lives in France.

Earlier this week, Austria and the Czech Republic jumped out ahead of other European countries and announced plans to relax some restrictions.

Starting Thursday, Czech stores selling construction materials, hobby supplies and bicycles will be allowed to reopen. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and garden stores are up and running. The reopened businesses will have to offer customers disinfectant and disposable gloves and enforce social distancing.

Austria will begin reopening small shops, hardware stores and garden centers on Tuesday, and shopping malls and hair salons could follow two weeks later. People will have to wear face masks.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said authorities will watch carefully and will “pull the emergency brake” if the virus makes a comeback.

British government officials, beset with a rising death toll of more than 7,000, said there is little chance the nationwide lockdown there will be eased when its current period ends next week.

The desire to get back to normal is driven in part by the damage to world economies.

The Bank of France said the French economy has entered recession, with an estimated 6% drop in the first quarter compared with the previous three months, while Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, is also facing a deep recession. Expert said its economy will shrink 4.2% this year.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, could contract by a record 25% this quarter, the highest since gross domestic product began to be tracked in 1955.

Worldwide, 1.5 million people have been confirmed infected and around 90,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are almost certainly much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and concealment by some governments.

For most, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. Over 300,000 people have recovered.

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Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak