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Trump claims he knows how Kim Jong Un is doing: ‘I do have a very good idea’

President Trump in his Monday coronavirus briefing hinted that he knew the disputed status of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health, but stopped short of filling in the White House press.

“Yes I do have a very good idea,” Trump said when asked if he had any information on Kim’s health after unconfirmed reports circulated that he may have died after cardiovascular surgery. “I can’t talk about it now,” Trump continued.

“I hope he’s fine, I do know how he’s doing, you’ll probably be hearing in the not too distant future,” the president added.

Trump went on to say he has (used in present tense) a “very good relationship” with the North Korean dictator, adding that the U.S. would be at war with North Korea if Trump hadn’t been president.

GORDON CHANG ON REPORTS KIM JONG UN WAS WOUNDED IN MISSILE TEST: ‘SOMETHING IS WRONG’ 

The rumors about Kim’s health began to swirl after he missed the April 15 celebration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. His grandfather’s birthday is known as “Day of the Sun” and is the most important holiday in North Korea.

The Daily NK, an online news periodical based in Seoul and run mostly by North Korean defectors, reported that Kim, who is believed to be 36, was recovering from surgery, which happened on April 12, at a coastal resort.

However, a top South Korean official said his country is confident there are no “unusual developments” in North Korea and the rumors surrounding Kim’s health are untrue.

WHAT’S GOING ON WITH  THE NORTH KOREAN DICTATOR’S HEALTH? 

Foreign affairs expert and Asia analyst Gordon Chang told Fox News he’s suspicious of the South Korean claim that Kim is “alive and well,” telling “America’s Newsroom that “something is wrong” in North Korea.

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“I don’t think the South Korean government is right when they say he is alive and well,” Chang said. “He very well may be alive, but the ‘well’ part of it is, I think, subject to question largely because this regime acts in patterns and when these patterns are broken, we know that something has occurred.”

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Twenty-Five Things that Caught My Eye Today: Hope & Despair in the Time of Coronavirus (April 27, 2020)

1. Top E.R. Doctor Who Treated Virus Patients Dies by Suicide

2. how Covid 19 is being deployed against the adults with learning disabilities

3. An Obituary for an Extraordinary Ordinary Man

4. ‘Is this another death I’ll have to pronounce?’

5.

6. Two Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters) in New York die of Coronavirus. Another, I understand, is in serious condition.

 

7. Ohio will cover costs for more than 200 children who age out of foster care over the next 3 months

8. As country begins to open, Italian Bishops argue against continued ban on Masses

9. USDA let millions of pounds of food rot while food-bank demand soared

10. An Arab doctor and an ultra-Orthodox Jew find common ground in a covid ward

11. Doctor balances faith, work in coronavirus hotspot

12. These Prisons Are Doing Mass Testing for COVID19—And Finding Mass Infections

13. At-risk youth keep clean, stay busy to cope with coronavirus

14. Baghdad priests donate salaries to the poor

15. Hope in the Time of Coronavirus

16. After Stillbirth, Families Search for Dignity

17. Immigrants Are on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Fight

18. Military commission report recommends including women in draft

19.

20. Fr. Paul Scalia: Easter Reluctance

21. What Christians Can Learn from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

22. 10 things you didn’t know about Phyllis Schlafly

23.

24. Overzealous British library cleaner rearranges books by size

25. Six years ago today, Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXXIII were canonized saints by Pope Francis

And: If you haven’t seen it yet, you want to join the Sisters of Life Thursday night, if you can. Like many things these days, it doesn’t involve leaving your home. Or phone.

 

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Stone Says Special Counsel Recommended ‘no jail time’ If He Turned On Trump. He Refused To Lie.

Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone gave an explosive interview to the Sara Carter Show Monday, revealing that Special Counsel Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee had tried to pressure him on the contents of 29 phone conversations he shared with his good friend President Donald Trump during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He told this reporter that he refused to lie to the FBI and Special Counsel prosecutors against his friend and in the end that’s why the prosecutors brought erroneous charges against him that had nothing to do with their now-debunked Russia probe.

Stone, who is supposed to begin his 3-year jail sentence Friday, has seen his life and that of his family turned upside down. He has lost his home, his life savings, his insurance and his ability to make an income. He said in the end, he wonders if he’ll survive his jail sentence as a 67-year-old man due to the COVID19 outbreak, while others like disgraced lawyer Michael Avenatti have been released for 90 days due to the outbreak.

“On July 24th, 2019, the Mueller prosecutors offered my lawyers a deal,” said Stone. “If Stone will fess up, if he will re-characterize thirty phone conversations between myself and candidate Trump, which they had phone records of, but no tapes of. If I would correctly remember the way they wanted me to, they would recommend no jail time for me and I refused. That’s what this whole atrocity has been about.”

He described the shock when the FBI conducted a predawn raid on his home on Jan. 24, saying they terrorized his family and used an unimaginable amount of firepower, tactical vehicles and manpower brought to his home that morning. He also discussed the fact that CNN had arrived 11 minutes before the FBI raid, with cameras ready to record the incident and blast it across the globe. More importantly, he questioned why FBI Director Christopher Wray continues to obstruct the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch from obtaining internal email communications between the FBI and CNN that he says would reveal what agents tipped off cable network about the raid. He called Wray ‘nothing more’ than a Washington D.C. “swamp creature.”

“Did Christopher Wray approve this over-the-top attack on my home,” said Stone. “This question was asked by Senator Lindsey Graham. But unfortunately Senator Graham rarely follows up on his T.V. talk. We still don’t know who approved this.”

“These are the kind of tactics you would expect from the Gestapo,” said Stone, who remembers his hearing-impaired wife being forced outside in her bare feet and robe while the agents tore his house apart. “These are the kind of tactics you would expect in Soviet Russia and it all became clear what this was about and I haven’t said this in many places.”

There are similar circumstances between Stone’s case and that of National Security Advisor Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whose case is now being investigated by St. Louis U.S. Jeff Jensen, appointed by Attorney General William Barr. Stone and Flynn were both targeted by Mueller’s prosecutors, to include Andrew Weissmann, Jeannie Rhee and others, whose political affiliations with Hillary Clinton were seen in both political donations, political affiliations and employment connections. Rhee, for example, was a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice and was also on Clinton’s legal team defending the Clinton Foundation before joining Mueller’s team.

“I was targeted for political reasons just as General Mike Flynn was the decision to prosecute me came long after Robert Mueller knew that there was no Russian collusion between any Russian entity or anyone in the Trump campaign or surrounding Donald Trump for a solid year,” said Stone. “The mainstream media CNN MSNBC The New York Times The Washington Post others The Daily Beast insisted that I would be charged by Robert Mueller for treason, for espionage, for trafficking in stolen emails for cyber crimes for campaign finance violations. And there was a constant drumbeat…I did my best to counterpunch because I was not gagged at that time and I now know that the Mueller team misrepresented the facts to several federal judges in order to get search warrants for my home my office and my apartment.”

Stone also told this reporter that Mueller’s prosecutors lied about probable cause issues telling the “judge that they had probable cause to suspect me for cybercrimes, money laundering of foreign campaign dollars, campaign finance violations, mail fraud, wire fraud and so on.” None of which was true and none of which led to his conviction for allegedly lying to Congress about his contacts with Trump administration officials, said Stone.

As for his upcoming jail sentence, Stone said he’s “not allowed to talk too much about this because obviously we’re in process but the judge’s order denied me a new trial and that included that I turn myself in within two weeks which would be I think it’s actually this Friday.”

“Obviously my lawyers are in discussions with the Bureau of Prisons, but at my age 67, even though I am vigorous and in pretty good health, I have some history of respiratory issues,” he said, describing the outbreak of COVID19 in Florida prisons.

“And the Miami prison has been one of the hot spots for COVID,” he added. “That is the facility closest to my home. I haven’t been assigned there but it is conceivable yes, it is it’s an extraordinary thing but it’s just another example of a two-tiered justice.”

Stone, who has recently come back to his Catholic faith, said that he has found peace within himself but is hoping that an intervention by President Trump will correct what he says was his political prosecution to target the president.

Stone said the prosecution had no evidence that “he covered up for the president” because there was never anything to cover up.

“There was no evidence or charge relating to that,” he said referring to Mueller’s original investigation into the now-debunked theory that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. “There’s no evidence I covered up anything, the exact opposite is true. I was prosecuted and persecuted because I refused to bear false witness against the president…I am praying that the President in his judgment and mercy will give me executive relief either through a commutation or a pardon. Otherwise, I am going to have to sit in a federal prison where my health will be at risk and wait for an appeal to work its way through the courts. I have not. I am not guilty of anything other than these fabricated charges put together by Andrew Weissmann and abetted by corrupt prosecutors.”

Clarification: The Special Counsel, not the FBI offered Roger Stone the deal.

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Attorney General William Barr says DOJ may intervene if coronavirus lockdowns go too far

Attorney General William Barr said the United States must balance public safety with preserving civil rights as he directed every U.S. attorney to look out for any coronavirus restrictions or lockdown orders that “cross the line.”

“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr said on Monday. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must, therefore, be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected. I thank you for your attention to this important initiative and for your service to our country.”

Barr’s two-page memo directed Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider to oversee and coordinate the agency’s efforts to monitor state and local policies and “if necessary, take action to correct them.” The attorney general said the pair should work with every DOJ office, other federal agencies, and state and local officials to ensure what he views as the appropriate balance.

“The current national crisis related to COVID-19 has required the imposition of extraordinary restrictions on all of our daily lives. Millions of Americans across the nation have been ordered to stay in their homes, leaving only for essential and necessary reasons, while countless businesses and other gathering places have been ordered to close their doors indefinitely,” Barr said. “These kinds of restrictions have been necessary in order to stop the spread of a deadly disease, but there is no denying that they have imposed tremendous burdens on the daily lives of all Americans.”

At Barr’s direction earlier this month, the Justice Department weighed in on the side of Temple Baptist Church in Kentucky, whose congregants had been fined $500 by Greenville police earlier this month for attending a drive-in Sunday service. The attorney general said the government “may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.” The city backed down and dropped the fines.

Barr said Monday he was directing each U.S. attorney to be on the lookout for coronavirus directives “that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.” He noted that “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.” The attorney general claimed, “the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy.” He warned that “if a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.”

The attorney general added this to a list of priorities for U.S. attorneys during the coronavirus pandemic. He previously directed prosecutors to prioritize cases against those seeking to illicitly profit off of the crisis through hoarding or price gouging or fraud. Barr has also warned of “severe” consequences if it is determined that a foreign government was behind last month’s cyberattack on the Health and Human Services Department website.

As of Monday afternoon, there were more than 3 million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, including more than 980,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 55,000 deaths tied to the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. intelligence community believes the Chinese Communist Party covered up the coronavirus outbreak and that it continues to mislead about its true infection rate and death toll. U.S. spy agencies are looking into the theory that the novel coronavirus outbreak may have originated as an accidental lab escape from or an inadvertent infection at a Wuhan bio lab, rather than beginning at a nearby wet market as has been widely claimed.

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Bloomberg reverses, offers ex-aides health coverage amid pandemic

On Monday, Bloomberg’s human resources department reached out to the staff offering to pay for COBRA plans through November, according to an email shared with POLITICO. The note about retaining coverage through the federal program did not mention additional compensation.

“We hope you and your families are safe and well,” Bloomberg officials wrote in the email. “We know this continues to be a difficult and stressful time for everyone as we all aim to keep ourselves, our families and communities safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Given these extraordinary circumstances, the campaign will cover the cost of COBRA through November 2020.”

Peter Romer-Friedman, an attorney in one of the lawsuits against Bloomberg, said they were pleased the Bloomberg campaign agreed to provide health insurance benefits to the thousands of staffers it terminated, calling it “an important step in the right direction.”

“But the Bloomberg campaign must keep all of the promises it made to induce staffers to join the campaign, especially the promise to employ the staffers through the general election,” Romer-Friedman told POLITICO. “It’s not too late for the campaign to put these staffers back to work and make them whole. They are eager to get back to work, help defeat Donald Trump, and elect Joe Biden in November.”

Bernie Sanders’ now-ended campaign for president has made all of its former employees eligible for $1,000 monthly stipends should they opt into COBRA. Other lawyers for the former Bloomberg aides said in prepared statements that they think Bloomberg’s campaign was motivated to offer the health insurance benefits because of pressure from the lawsuits.

Gregg Shavitz, a partner with Shavitz Law Group and co-lead counsel in another of the cases, said lawyers recently filed a motion for unpaid overtime in addition to the wages they say their clients were promised. More than 100 terminated staffers have joined that case.

“Bloomberg just needs to make good on his promise to pay these folks through November instead of offering half-measures to try and make himself look better,” added Jason Smith, another attorney representing former aides in separate filings in Texas.

Bloomberg’s note informed staffers who have already signed up for COBRA at their own expensive that they don’t have to take any additional actions. Those who are uninsured and wish to sign up have 60 days from losing their coverage to do so.

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New York cancels June 23 presidential primary over coronavirus concerns

New York state has canceled its June 23 Democratic presidential primary, becoming the first state to do so over concerns about the coronavirus.

The decision came after a Monday vote by commissioners on the New York State Board of Elections. The decision will not impact primaries for congressional, state-level, and local races, which will be held the same day and largely conducted through absentee ballot.

With more than 288,045 confirmed coronavirus cases and 22,000 deaths, New York is the state hardest hit by the virus in the US. Already, the state had postponed its primary from April 28 to late June. Many other states have postponed their contests, but New York is the first to cancel its primary outright.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) firmly opposed canceling the primary. Even though Sanders recently suspended his bid for the Democratic nomination and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, he stood the chance to amass delegates from the primary — which could give him more leverage over the party’s platform and rules at the Democratic National Convention. New York has a large cache of delegates; 274 delegates were up for grabs.

The cancellation could hamper Sanders’s influence at the convention and add to existing distrust of the Democratic Party and its institutions from some of his supporters. Sanders’ campaign and groups supporting him put out statements Monday afternoon blasting the decision.

“Today’s decision by the State of New York Board of Elections is an outrage, a blow to American democracy, and must be overturned by the DNC,” said Sanders’ campaign senior advisor Jeff Weaver. “Give that the primary is months away, the proper response must be to make the election safe — such as going to all vote by mail — rather than eliminating people’s right to vote completely.”

The New York Board of Elections officials ultimately decided that with Biden already the presumptive Democratic nominee, the public health risks of holding an election outweighed the benefits of it continuing, according to the New York Times.

“What the Sanders campaign wanted is essentially a beauty contest that, given the situation with the public health emergency, seems to be unnecessary and, indeed, frivolous,” the board’s Democratic co-chair, Douglas Kellner, told the Times.

The Times reported the presidential primary was the only race on the ballot for about 20 counties in the state, meaning they now will have no election at all — and poll workers and voters in those counties can stay home.

States are pushing back their elections and expanding absentee ballots

No other state besides New York has yet canceled a primary election outright, but many are having to rethink how they hold elections in the midst of a pandemic.

Wisconsin has been the only state so far to proceed with an in-person election during the height of the outbreak in the US, causing an outcry from voters and voting rights advocates alike. Several dozen cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have been linked to the state’s April 7 election, according to public health officials.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on April 24 requiring the state board of elections to mail every New York resident an application for an absentee ballot, along with paid postage.

In addition to New York, 15 other states and Puerto Rico have pushed back the dates of their elections or switched to a vote-by-mail system with an extended deadline to get ballots in: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Getting states more federal money to expand vote-by-mail ahead of November is one of the agenda items for Democrats in the next round of negotiations for a coronavirus relief package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested she’d like to see about $4 billion dedicated to vote-by-mail efforts.

Update: This post was updated with a statement from the Sanders campaign.


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Reopenings: US states are taking their first steps toward a new normal

On Friday, the first day he was allowed to reopen since the coronavirus pandemic, around 30 clients came in.

Wearing gloves, a construction face mask and a face shield, Davis said he was taking precautions to protect his staff and clients. A piece of paper on the door outlined the mandatory guidelines for clients, saying they must wear a mask and gloves in order to enter.

He’s afraid of the virus, yes. But he also fears losing his barbershop, and what that could mean for him.

“If I don’t cut, I don’t eat,” he said.

Davis’s decision to reopen comes as a number of states have begun to loosen stay-at-home restrictions — even as the novel coronavirus continues to infect and kill people. Across the country, more than 950,000 people have tested positive for the virus and more than 54,000 have died.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy allowed salons and restaurants to reopen in most parts of the state Friday. Oklahoma allowed some personal-care businesses to reopen for appointments Friday as well. Even in California, some beaches that had been closed reopened for public use, though with limitations.
Georgia’s reopening has been the most aggressive so far. Gov. Brian Kemp allowed the reopening of hair and nail salons, gyms, bowling alleys, tattoo studios and massage therapists on Friday, with theaters and restaurants to follow Monday. The reopenings come despite warnings from health experts, local mayors and even President Donald Trump. The influential Covid-19 model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, for example, says social distancing should not be relaxed in Georgia until June 22.

Businesses that do reopen still must try to maintain social distancing and take steps to keep their staff and customers safe. But that is not always possible in businesses with such close contact.

Xuan Le wears a mask as she works on the nails of Deriana Hayward at Envy Nail Bar on Friday, April 24, in Savannah.

Shannon Stafford reopened her salon in Savannah, but she conceded that maintaining six feet of distance is not possible between a hair stylist and a client.

“You can kind of distance between the next two people throughout the salon,” Stafford said Friday, “but it’s going to be difficult because we’re so hands on.”

Uneasy first steps

The reopenings do not mean that things are returning to normal. Restaurants and hair and nail salons that do reopen will have to adjust their layouts, sanitation procedures and service methods to adjust to this new reality.

For example, Waffle House reopened in Georgia Monday with more distant seating arrangements, enhanced sanitizing protocols and masks on employees, CEO Walt Ehmer told CNN affiliate WSB. He said part of the decision to reopen was to allow employees to get back to earning money.

“I think it might make the difference between having a job and not having a job, and I know the unemployment system has been enhanced to help take care of the most vulnerable people, but people want to have jobs, and they want to have something to do and take care of their families,” Ehmer said. “I think it’s going to give them some hope.”

In Douglasville, Georgia, Eric Greeson said his family’s barbershop had more business than they thought they would but not as much as they wished. By about 1:40 p.m. on Friday, he said the shop had nine clients, which was not that far off from a normal Friday.

He said he was “kind of shocked” by the governor’s decision to reopen, but he decided to do so in part so he didn’t fall behind his competition.

“You know, we figure if we don’t open, the shop down the street will, and then we lose that business. So you’re kind of stuck in a position where if they say you can open, you open,” he said.

But Samuel Glickman, founder of the Georgia Barbers Network, said he won’t reopen until he can get the necessary supplies to do so safely.

“The comfort level is not there for sure,” he told CNN. “Right now, we’re not safe. The items we need to open up our businesses and keep our clients safe, those items aren’t accessible to us.”

A mayor’s apology

For some small business owners, decisions about reopening come down to mundane logistics.

Glickman said he wants customers and barbers to wash their hands often, but to do so, he needs to buy a huge amount of paper towels. He’s tried ordering paper towels online, but because of shortages, they won’t arrive for several weeks.

“Until I feel like I have at least three months worth of supplies, it doesn’t make sense for me to open up because I want to be consistent with the protocols as well. If I run out of supplies, do I shut down again?” he said.

Rica Sunga-Kwan, owner of Churn Urban Creamery, wears a mask while interviewed at her shop in San Francisco on Thursday, April 23.
Customers’ itch to visit nail salons has extended even to places that remain locked down. Mayor Becky Ames of Beaumont, Texas, had to issue an apology after a photo posted to social media showed her soaking her nails in a bowl at a nail salon on Tuesday, according to CNN affiliate KFDM.

Nail salons in Texas remain closed by the state’s stay-at-home order. However, Ames and the nail salon owner told KFDM that the mayor was not having her nails done but was “soaking them in acetone to remove the powdered nails to avoid infection.”

“I had them put on several weeks ago and they hurt. I was trying to get them off and I texted my nail lady. She said the only way to get them off is with a solution. You have to do it a special way,” Ames told KFDM.

The mayor said she had arranged to pick up the solution at the salon door so she could take it home and remove the artificial nails. She said the owner had her come in for a few minutes to show her how to do the process, and that they were alone, both wearing masks and at least six feet apart, according to KFDM.

Ames issued an apology on Thursday for entering the nail salon, calling it a “lapse in judgement.”

Dates of reopenings ahead

In addition to Georgia, several states have started to loosen restrictions.

Alaska allowed some businesses to reopen Friday. Hair salons can only admit customers by reservation, and restaurants must keep distances between tables and can’t exceed 25% of their normal capacity.

In Montana, which has had just 448 confirmed cases, retail businesses can become operational on or after Monday if they adhere to requirements to limit capacity and maintain strict physical distancing. Restaurants, bars, breweries and distilleries can begin providing some in-establishment services on May 4.

Lonnie Sullivan covers his face with a mask while getting a haircut at The Barber Shop in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on Friday, April 24.
Tennessee allowed restaurants and retailers to reopen at 50% capacity Monday in the vast majority of its counties.

Oklahoma will allow restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues and gyms to reopen May 1 if they maintain “strict social distancing and sanitation protocols.” Bars, schools and sporting events, however, will still be closed.

In Texas, the state’s stay-at-home order ends at the end of April. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that a group of medical and economic experts will guide him through a series of incremental steps aimed at slowly reopening the state’s economy in early May.

Still, some states led by Democratic governors have also moved to loosen restrictions. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz says he will allow some businesses to reopen beginning Monday.

Hawaii lifted certain restrictions while continuing to review others, Gov. David Ige said. Beaches are open for exercising, but people cannot loiter on the beach and must maintain social distance. Elective surgeries are also allowed to take place as long as there is enough capacity, he said.

And in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis said the state’s stay-at-home order will be replaced Monday by a less restrictive “safer at home” phase. Starting Monday, retail businesses with curbside delivery can reopen and elective medical procedures can resume. Businesses such as personal training and dog grooming can reopen with social distancing.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Savannah, Georgia, salon owner Shannon Stafford.

CNN’s Martin Savidge, Maria Cartaya, Natasha Chen, Kevin Conlon, Angela Barajas, Lindsay Benson, Hira Humayun, Alta Spells and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.

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Trump looks to Hope Hicks as coronavirus crisis spills over

Hicks is not a scheduler, although she now works from the scheduler’s office in the West Wing, and she’s not a communications director, even though that was her old job. Now her responsibilities straddle both the management of the president’s daily calendar and the crafting of messaging based on news of the day, although it is quick to change. But most important, she has been a key figure in encouraging Trump to be front and center at briefings and events during the coronavirus response, viewing him as the voice that could break through and capture the most attention.

Trump’s decision to speak at almost every coronavirus task force briefing had the desired effect initially, leading to a bump in his approval ratings and a greater sense among Republicans and his base that the White House was taking major, if belated, steps to combat the pandemic. The president grew to look forward to the evenings when he could garner high TV ratings during the televised briefings, spar with reporters and defend his record.

But those appearances have run into trouble. After the president peddled scientifically dubious theories and dangerous treatments, like the injection of disinfectants, task force members held no briefings over the weekend.

Aides and close allies have begun to question the decision to give him so much airtime, according to interviews with a dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. And critics charge that the White House’s overwhelmingly positive messaging — on reopening the economy, testing, the manufacturing of supplies — is belied by reality.

“Look, the briefings were clearly created and designed to try to fix the president’s political health and had very little to do with public health,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary under President Barack Obama who now serves as senior counsel for Bully Pulpit Interactive Media. “Even before Thursday’s disinfectant fiasco, the level of misinformation and contradictory messaging at a moment when the country needs clarity has been jarring and dangerous.”

The White House press shop says the president has made himself available more than most leaders to take questions, even in tough times — a move that should be applauded.

The “president felt it was important in these challenging, difficult times to be honest and speak directly to the American people about the challenges we face,” said Hogan Gidley, the White House principal deputy press secretary.

“A lot of other people would not have done that, but it is a testament to his leadership that he was the one who wanted to deliver that news, so he could be honest with the American people but also offer a message of hope.”

Hicks reentered the West Wing just as chief of staff Mark Meadows has tried to find his place weeks into the job, and as he overhauls the press and communications teams that Hicks once oversaw.

For all her eagerness to be back in the thick of things, Hicks didn’t expect to start work in the middle of a pandemic.

She had decamped in 2018 from Washington to Los Angeles, where she worked as the chief communications officer for Fox. Friends say she did not love living in Southern California, wanted to be closer to her family on the East Coast and, most important, missed the pace and dynamism of the White House, where top aides are always in the middle of sweeping moments in history.

So Hicks accepted a job as a counselor to the president, working within the office of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, where she intended to travel and offer advice heading into the November election.

The public announcement of her return came at a heady moment in Trump world. Aides felt confident about the prospects for a second term after impeachment, with a strong economy and a bump in the president’s approval ratings. Trump also traveled to Davos, Switzerland, and India, acting as president on the world stage.

By March 9, when Hicks officially joined the White House, the severity of the pandemic had become clear. She quickly realized the whole government needed to zero in on the virus. She started to attend the daily task force meetings to offer advice on strategy and the best way to respond to the story of the day and communicate with the public.

Quickly she began to oversee the president’s schedule and focus on his events. She advocated for bringing business leaders to the White House and to the briefings, along with reaching out to groups as diverse as drug manufacturers and religious leaders, and involving the private sector as much as possible. Like the first lady, Ivanka Trump and Kushner, she felt that the entire White House megaphone should be dedicated to the response.

Hicks’ return, current and former senior administration officials say, gave the president a loyal and trusted aide. With her quick-witted sense of humor, she tends to get along with the majority of staffers inside the backbiting White House, and she can deliver advice to the president in an unfiltered way without angering him because Trump trusts her and views her like another daughter or member of his family.

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Lakers return federal relief loan funds amid coronavirus lockdown

FILE PHOTO: Nov 23, 2019; Memphis, TN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) reaches for a loose ball as Memphis Grizzlies guard Marko Guduric (23) and Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) look on at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA Today Sports

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Los Angeles Lakers returned a loan obtained through the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the team confirmed on Monday, after learning that funds in the federal program had been depleted.

The loans were intended to help smaller businesses with no more than 500 employees cover employee payroll and rent, with large sectors of the U.S. economy frozen amid coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing mandates.

“The Lakers qualified for and received a loan under the Payroll Protection Program,” the team confirmed to Reuters. “However, once we found out the funds from the program had been depleted, we repaid the loan so that financial support would be directed to those most in need.”

The 16-time NBA Finals champions, one of the most valuable teams in the league according to Forbes, had received a reported $4.6 million loan through the program.

The Lakers’ decision comes as some large, publicly traded U.S. companies face backlash for obtaining aid from the program through a loophole, with a handful including Ruth’s Hospitality Group Inc and Shake Shack returning the loans.

The NBA season has been placed on hold indefinitely since March, with other major North American leagues, including Major League Baseball, seeing their seasons upended due to coronavirus provisions mandating social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

Reporting By Amy Tennery; editing by Jonathan Oatis