In Brief: May 23, 2020

Trump declares churches ‘essential,’ calls on them to reopen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.

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The president threatened to “override” governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.

“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend,” Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn’t answer a theoretical question.

Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to reverse an economic free fall playing out months before he faces reelection. White evangelical Christians have been among the president’s most loyal supporters, and the White House has been careful to attend to their concerns throughout the crisis.

Following Trump’s announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.

Biden says he was too ‘cavalier’ about black Trump backers

ATLANTA — Joe Biden declared he “should not have been so cavalier” on Friday after he told a prominent black radio host that African Americans who back President Donald Trump “ain’t black.”

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee quickly moved to address the fallout from his remark, which was interpreted by some as presuming black Americans would vote for him. In a call with the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce that was added to his public schedule, Biden said he would never “take the African American community for granted.”

“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Biden said. “No one should have to vote for any party based on their race or religion or background.”

That was an acknowledgement of the stinging criticism he received in response to his comments, which he made earlier in the day on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio program that is popular in the black community.

The rebukes included allies of Trump’s reelection campaign — anxious to go on the offense after weeks of defending the Republican president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and some activists who warned that Biden must still court black voters, even if African Americans overwhelmingly oppose the president.

Pakistan jet with 98 aboard crashes in crowded neighborhood

KARACHI, Pakistan — A jetliner carrying 98 people crashed Friday in a crowded neighborhood near the airport in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi after an apparent engine failure during landing. Officials said there were two survivors from the plane but they also found at least 57 bodies in the wreckage.

It was unknown how many people on the ground were hurt as the Pakistan International Airlines jet, an Airbus A320, plowed into an alley and destroyed at least five houses.

The pilot was heard transmitting a mayday to the tower shortly before the crash of Flight 8303, which was flying from Lahore to Karachi and carrying many traveling for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Video on social media appeared to show the jet flying low with flames shooting from one of its engines.

The plane went down about 2:39 p.m. northeast of Jinnah International Airport in the poor and congested residential area known as Model Colony between houses that were smashed by its wings. Police in protective masks struggled to clear away crowds amid the smoke and dust so ambulances and firetrucks could reach the crash site.

San Francisco sanctions once-shunned homeless encampments

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco is joining other U.S. cities in authorizing homeless tent encampments in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a move officials have long resisted but are now reluctantly embracing to safeguard homeless people.

About 80 tents are now neatly spaced out on a wide street near San Francisco City Hall as part of a “safe sleeping village” opened last week. The area between the city’s central library and its Asian Art Museum is fenced off to outsiders, monitored around the clock and provides meals, showers, clean water and trash pickup.

In announcing the encampment, and a second one to open in the famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, San Francisco’s mayor acknowledged that she didn’t want to approve tents, but having unregulated tents mushroom on sidewalks was neither safe nor fair.

From wire sources

“So while in normal times I would say that we should focus on bringing people inside and not sanctioning tent encampments, we frankly do not have many other options right now,” she said in a tweet last week.

Nicholas Woodward, 37, is camping at the safe sleeping site, but he said he preferred sleeping in his tent before the city stepped in; he finds the fencing belittling and the rules too controlling. His friend, Nathan Rice, 32, said he’d much rather have a hotel room than a tent on a sidewalk, even if the city is providing clean water and food.

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FBI director orders internal review of Flynn investigation

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray has ordered an internal review into possible misconduct in the investigation of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, the bureau said Friday.

The after-action review will examine whether any current employees engaged in misconduct during the course of the investigation and evaluate whether any improvements in FBI policies and procedures need to be made.

In announcing the review, the FBI, a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s wrath, is stepping into a case that has become a rallying cry for Trump supporters — and doing so right as the Justice Department pushes back against criticism that its recent decision to dismiss the prosection was a politically motivated effort to do Trump’s bidding.

The announcement adds to the internal scrutiny over one of special counsel Robert Mueller’s signature prosecutions during his investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. It underscores how a case that was seemingly resolved by Flynn’s 2017 guilty plea has instead given way to a protracted, politically charged debate about FBI and Justice Department tactics during that investigation and the Russia probe more broadly.

The unusual review will be led by the bureau’s Inspection Division, which conducts internal investigations into potential employee misconduct. Trump has recently been sharply critical of the FBI, and suggested earlier this month that Wray’s fate as director could be in limbo. An FBI official said Friday that the review had been contemplated for some time and that the FBI has cooperated with multiple Russia-related internal inquiries.

AP count: Over 4,500 virus patients sent to NY nursing homes

NEW YORK — More than 4,500 recovering coronavirus patients were sent to New York’s already vulnerable nursing homes under a controversial state directive that was ultimately scrapped amid criticisms it was accelerating the nation’s deadliest outbreaks, according to a count by The Associated Press.

AP compiled its own tally to find out how many COVID-19 patients were discharged from hospitals to nursing homes under the March 25 directive after New York’s Health Department declined to release its internal survey conducted two weeks ago. It says it is still verifying data that was incomplete.

Whatever the full number, nursing home administrators, residents’ advocates and relatives say it has added up to a big and indefensible problem for facilities that even Gov. Andrew Cuomo — the main proponent of the policy — called “the optimum feeding ground for this virus.”

“It was the single dumbest decision anyone could make if they wanted to kill people,” Daniel Arbeeny said of the directive, which prompted him to pull his 88-year-old father out of a Brooklyn nursing home where more than 50 people have died. His father later died of COVID-19 at home.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Arbeeny said. “We knew the most vulnerable — the elderly and compromised — are in nursing homes and rehab centers.”

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Judge nixes bid to stop coal sales that Trump revived

BILLINGS, Mont. — A judge threw out a lawsuit on Friday from a coalition of states, environmental groups and American Indians which sought to revive an Obama-era moratorium against U.S. government coal sales on public lands in the West.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said President Donald Trump’s administration had fixed its initial failure to consider the consequences for climate change from ending the moratorium. Acting under an earlier order in the case, the administration in February released an analysis that said the decision to resume coal sales would make little difference over time in greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, a contention critics said was flawed.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued the administration only considered emissions from a handful of leases and failed to capture the cumulative, long-term impact of the coal program.

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But Morris declined to weigh in on the accuracy of the administration’s conclusions. He said the February analysis was enough to fulfill the administration’s immediate legal obligations. Any review of whether it was flawed would require a new lawsuit, he added.

“Plaintiffs remain free to file a complaint to challenge the sufficiency of the (environmental analysis) and the issuance of any individual coal leases,” the judge wrote in a 24-page opinion.

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