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After intel firing, top U.S. watchdog vows to maintain oversight of Trump administration

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. federal watchdog vowed on Saturday to continue to conduct “aggressive” independent oversight of government agencies, after President Donald Trump fired the inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community late Friday night.

Michael Horowitz, chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an independent agency in the executive branch and the inspector general at the Department of Justice, said in a statement that Michael Atkinson was known for his “integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight.”

Trump wrote in a letter to Congress Friday night that Atkinson, who was involved in triggering an impeachment probe of the president last year, will be removed from his position in 30 days.

The firing comes as U.S. inspectors general, who are charged with independent oversight of federal agencies, were recently tasked with broad surveillance of the government’s response to the coronavirus, including the historic $2.3 trillion fiscal package to mitigate its economic impact.

“The inspector general community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee,” said Horowitz.

“This includes CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee and its efforts on behalf of American taxpayers, families, businesses, patients, and health care providers to ensure that over $2 trillion dollars in emergency federal spending is being used consistently with the law’s mandate.”

Democrats have expressed concerns about how the fiscal package will be doled out through the U.S. Treasury, headed by Steven Mnuchin. “We’re not here to create a slush fund for Donald Trump and his family, or a slush fund for the Treasury Department to be able to hand out to their friends,” said U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The watchdogs’ role in the coronavirus oversight is to examine the decision-making process, and provide the public information about where the taxpayer dollars and other resources go.

Atkinson, a Trump appointee, had determined that a whistleblower’s report was credible in alleging Trump abused his office in attempting to solicit Ukraine’s interference in the 2020 U.S. election for his political benefit.

Trump said Friday Atkinson no longer had his “fullest confidence.”

Atkinson expressed concerns that Trump potentially exposed himself to “serious national security and counter-intelligence risks” when he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son during a July 25 phone call, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Atkinson, while noting Trump has the authority to fire him.

“Like any political appointee, the Inspector General serves at the behest of the Executive,” Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said in a statement. “However, in order to be effective, the IG must be allowed to conduct his or her work independent of internal or external pressure.”

But U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, demanded a better explanation for Atkinson’s firing.

“Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence,” he said. “More details are needed from the administration.”

Trump is trying to scare the watchdog community, Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee told MSNBC Saturday morning.

“He’s decapitating the leadership of the intelligence community in the middle of a national crisis,” he said. “It’s unconscionable, and of course it sends a message throughout the federal government and particular to other inspectors general.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN that Trump was undermining the intelligence agencies, adding that there were no laws to protect people against retaliatory firings.

“When you speak truth to power you should be a hero, but in this administration when you speak truth to power all too often you get fired,” said Schumer.

Republican House Representative Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump supporter, mocked Schiff’s concern about Atkinson’s firing.

“He was Schiff’s key impeachment enabler,” Jordan wrote on Twitter.

After contentious, partisan hearings, the Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump but the Republican-led Senate acquitted him of the charges in early February.

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Coronavirus: Michael Gove admits ‘nature’ of Universal Credit may need to change

Cabinet minister Michael Gove has acknowledged the government may need to review “the nature” of its flagship welfare reform, after being asked whether Universal Credit can provide sufficient financial support to claimants.

More than a million new applications have been submitted since the UK imposed strict social distancing and travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The new welfare system is designed to provide an incentive for people to take up work, by enabling claimants to keep receiving benefit payments alongside income from a job.

However in normal circumstances, claimants are expected to actively seek work in order to qualify for financial support.

This has led to concerns about whether the system has enough flexibility to deal with the current circumstances where work is unlikely to be an option for the vast majority,

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster insisted the whole welfare system was kept under review, but asked whether the standard weekly claim of £94 per week was sufficient for people to live on, he indicated further changes could follow.

“I think we have to consider the nature of the system and whether or not we do need to ensure that we better support the vulnerable, we keep that constantly under review and I think it’s important that we do recognise that its a very very difficult economic time for very many,” he said.

The message from Mr Gove contrasts with comments made by the Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, who told a parliamentary select committee last month “the underlying principles of Universal Credit have not gone away”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently admitted he would not be able to live on £94 per week, which is also the rate of statutory sick pay.

However, Mr Gove was keen to stress that while Universal Credit was one of the mechanisms by which the government was offering support to those in need during the coronavirus pandemic, it was not the only one.

“It is not the only means the government is deploying, as you’ll be aware there are up to 1.5 million people in the most vulnerable category – the shielded vulnerable – who we are distributing food and prescription medicines to.”

He also pointed to a new task force led by Environment Secretary George Eustice, which is working with local authorities and charities to identify those who are vulnerable and in need in communities across the UK.

The Department for Work and Pensions is recruiting at least 5,000 more staff to increase its capacity to handle the surge in demand for Universal Credit.

Ministers have previously made clear that in addition to the standard claim of £94 per week, new Universal Credit claimants may be able to receive more money through housing and support additions.

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Coronavirus: Govt to further enhance Jobs Support Scheme, waive foreign worker levy for April, says DPM Heng

SINGAPORE – The Jobs Support Scheme will be further enhanced and foreign worker levies will be waived for April, as part of measures to provide businesses with more support, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

In a Facebook post on Saturday (April 4), Mr Heng said the significantly stricter measures announced the day before to combat the coronavirus outbreak would mean greater disruption and costs for businesses.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Friday that all schools and most workplaces, except for those in essential services and key economic sectors, will close for one month from next Tuesday, as a “circuit breaker” to curb the spike in local Covid-19 cases.

These “painful but necessary” measures are being taken to protect lives, Mr Heng said.

But he gave the assurance that the Government is equally committed to protecting jobs and livelihoods during this time.

“Many businesses are looking at your cash flow and working out alternative arrangements over the weekend. I understand your worries,” said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

He said he is working with the team at the Finance Ministry, together with other government agencies, to increase support for businesses during the period when the latest measures are in force – till May 4.

He added that the details will be announced in his ministerial statement in Parliament next Monday.

The additional support includes boosting the Jobs Support Scheme. Under current enhancements unveiled as part of the Supplementary Budget on March 26, firms will receive wage subsidies of between 25 per cent and 75 per cent for all local workers, in a bid to save jobs and keep locals employed amid the coronavirus outbreak.

This is up from the 8 per cent wage subsidy in the scheme announced in the Budget statement in February. The help currently will last for nine months, instead of three, up to the end of this year.

The foreign worker levy for the month of April will also be waived.

On March 24, the Ministry of Manpower announced that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will get a three-month extension for paying the levy for the foreign workers they hire. This is expected to give these companies more flexibility with managing their cash flows.

Another measure announced then was a waiver of up to 90 days on levies for foreign workers on overseas leave.

Mr Heng also said legislation will be passed in Parliament next Tuesday to ensure that property tax rebates are passed on to tenants.

Under the new law, property owners who fail to fully pass on the property tax rebate unconditionally to their tenants, without good reason, will be guilty of an offence.

The Government had earlier expanded property tax rebates to allow about 60,000 commercial properties that qualified for Budget 2020’s rebate of 15 per cent or 30 per cent to now pay zero property tax for this year.

Said Mr Heng: “This is undoubtedly a difficult month for many businesses. Additional help is on the way. I hope that businesses can tide through this month, hold on to your workers, and resume activities once the circuit breaker is lifted. Together, we can pull through this crisis.”

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Kennedy granddaughter, great-grandson missing in Chesapeake Bay

(Reuters) – The granddaughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and her young son were missing on Friday after drifting out into the Chesapeake Bay on a canoe, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said.

An intensive search continued for Maeve Fahey Townsend, and her son Gideon, Hogan said.

Maeve Townsend is the daughter of former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and the granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated while a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1968.

“I reached out to and spoke with Lieutenant Governor Townsend this morning and on behalf of the people of Maryland I expressed our most heartfelt sympathies,” Hogan said in a briefing posted online.

The Anne Arundel County Fire Department, one of the agencies searching for Townsend and her son, said it had received a call on Thursday at about 4:30 p.m. local time, reporting that two people in a small canoe or kayak were drifting into Chesapeake Bay.

Rescuers were sent to the area and a search began. At around 7 p.m. local time the kayak and paddle were found, but not the missing people, the department said.

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Situation is under control, but more steps to be taken, says PM Lee who will address nation on Covid-19 at 4pm on April 3

SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will address the nation at 4pm on Friday (April 3), saying in a Facebook post that the Government will take additional steps to control the Covid-19 situation.

“Since Covid-19, we have responded to the crisis calmly and systematically, planning ahead and adjusting our measures as the situation changed. The current situation is under control, but we want to take a few more steps now,” said PM Lee in a Facebook post.

Singaporeans can watch his address on TV and radio, or on his Facebook page.

“Let me reassure Singaporeans that our food supply is secure and adequate. Buy just what you need, and share any extra you have with those who need it. Let’s stay calm and united during this challenging period,” he said.

The number of Covid-19 cases rose past 1,000 this week. Singapore has also seen five deaths from the coronavirus.

The Republic has adopted a series of increasingly stringent safe distancing measures in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Late last month, the Government put in place strict measures, including closing bars and entertainment venues, suspending religious gatherings and services, and limiting gatherings outside of work and school to 10 people or less.

For now, these measures will stay in force until April 30.

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New law proposed to protect individuals, firms whose contracts have been affected by Covid-19

SINGAPORE – A new Bill aimed at protecting individuals and companies unable to fulfil their contractual obligations because of the Covid-19 pandemic will be introduced in Parliament next week, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said on Wednesday (April 1).

The Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Bill will, for instance, seek to prevent a hotel or catering firm from forfeiting a deposit when a wedding or business function has been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The ministry said it intends to have the process of passing the new Law expedited through a Certificate of Urgency signed by the President, which would allow all three readings of the Bill to be taken in one Parliament sitting.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said the Bill was a whole-of-government effort involving agencies such as the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, as well as committee members from the private sector, such as law practice Drew & Napier, DBS and Capitaland.

“The Bill was put together very quickly, in a matter of days, as we saw the situation deteriorating,” he said.

When passed next week, the law will also prevent landlords from terminating commercial leases due to non-payment of rent if this is due to Covid-19, such as a restaurant whose footfall has fallen because of the virus outbreak.

Although rent will continue to accumulate and be payable, they will be due only six months later.

In this way, the law will provide temporary cash-flow relief for both businesses and individuals who may otherwise have to pay damages or risk having their deposits or assets forfeited from failing to meet their contractual obligations, said the ministry.

Explaining the need for the temporary law, the Ministry of Law said the pandemic, and the resulting public health measures imposed by governments around the world, have caused “unprecedented and unforeseeable social and economic impact and led to supply chain disruptions and manpower shortages”.

“In many cases, this has undermined the ability of individuals and businesses to fulfil contractual obligations,” it said.

“It would be unfair to hold them strictly liable for their failure to do so.”

The proposed law will apply retroactively, and cover contractual obligations to be performed on or after Feb 1 this year, which the ministry said was the approximate date when Covid-19 started to significantly impact Singapore.

It will cover contracts entered into or renewed on or before March 24, which is the day the multi-ministry task force set up to deal with the outbreak announced stricter measures to minimise the virus’ spread, such as the closure of entertainment venues, and deferment or cancellation of all events and mass gatherings.

The ministry said the proposed law will not absolve or remove parties’ contractual obligations, but suspend them for a prescribed period, which is six months from when it becomes law.

For instance, it provides that a hotel cannot forfeit a deposit for a wedding dinner if it is postponed to a later date – and must restore the deposit if it was forfeited earlier – but this protection does not apply if the wedding couple cancels the event or switches hotels.

To guard against unfair outcomes, MinLaw said it will employ about 100 assessors to resolve disputes arising from application of measures under the law.

An assessor, who will be a professional such as an accountant or a lawyer, will decide if the inability to perform contractual obligations was due to Covid-19, and will have the power to grant relief that is “just and equitable in the circumstances”.

“Parties will not be allowed to be represented by lawyers, and there will be no costs orders,” said the ministry.

“Assessors’ decisions will be final and not appealable.”

The Minister for Law may also extend the prescribed period of relief for up to six more months, but the law will cease to have effect after one year, said the ministry.

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Trump negative for coronavirus again, orders military to New York

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said he underwent a second coronavirus test on Thursday, using a rapid diagnostic that produced a result in less than 15 minutes, and it determined that he has not been infected.

“I think I took it really out of curiosity to see how quickly it worked,” said Trump, who also tested negative last month after coming into contact with a Brazilian official who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

At his daily White House news briefing, Trump announced plans for the U.S. military and federal personnel to operate a makeshift hospital set up in the Javits Center convention center in New York to help the city grapple with a flood of patients.

New York has become the epicenter of the U.S. epidemic with more than 47,000 confirmed cases in the city.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, a member of the coronavirus task force, said the government will send to the New York public hospital system a supply of N-95 protective masks to help medical workers get through the next month.

Trump, who had initially played down the threat from the virus, made use of the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to order companies to produce hospital ventilators essential in keeping alive patients hit hard by the COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

He said he also used the law to get General Motors Co to produce more N-95 masks.

“We have over 100,000 (ventilators) being built right now or soon to be started,” Trump said.

He said he had just spoken with General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra, who told him they will soon be ready to start production of ventilators.

Trump’s physician, Sean Conley, said in a letter released by the White House that Trump was tested with a new, rapid point-of-contact test and the result came back in 15 minutes. “He is healthy and without symptoms,” Conley said.

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Commonwealth Games 2026 option now up for discussion in Hamilton, Ont., says community group

A representative for a group of businesspeople and volunteers who have been trying to win the right to bring the 2030 Commonwealth Games to Hamilton says they are now being encouraged to act as Canada’s bid city for 2026 as well.

Hamilton 100 spokesman Lou Frapporti says the suggestion was made during a video conference on Wednesday with government officials and Commonwealth Games Federation leadership.

Frapporti says they’ve been given some time to consult with city staff, city council and other stakeholders.

He says it’s a “critical conversation to be open-minded about at this point,” noting that hosting the games in 2026 instead of 2030 could accelerate the resulting infrastructure investments by four years, along with the resulting tourism and employment benefits.

Frapporti believes it will be important to have that conversation in the weeks and months ahead, “when things get to be a bit more regular” following the “suffering and disturbance” caused by COVID-19.

Frapporti says Hamilton 100 is “quietly, behind the scenes, talking very intensely about this and trying to find a path forward.”

Commonwealth Games Canada had initially planned to announce whether Hamilton was its preferred bid city for 2030 by March 30, but that announcement has been postponed until further notice because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

City council voted 10-3 on Feb. 19 to endorse Hamilton 100’s proposal to bring the 2030 Commonwealth Games to Hamilton.

It has been estimated that more than $1.4 billion worth of infrastructure and facility upgrades would be needed if the city is selected and that the municipality would be responsible for up to 20 per cent of the cost of that investment.

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Corbyn’s leadership ‘took the p**s’ – Ex-MP’s scathing attack on ‘selfish’ outgoing leader

The Labour Party will announce its next leader on Saturday, as the four-month-long leadership election finally draws to a close. But ahead of the announcement, former Labour MP Phil Wilson has raged about the party’s mistakes, especially under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The former MP, who lost his seat in the 2019 general election, launched a scathing attack on the outgoing leader, accusing Mr Corbyn of being “tasteless, selfish and vain”.

Writing in the New Statesman, Mr Wilson urged the Labour Party to bury Corbynism once it has elected its new leader.

He describes the Corbyn faction of the party as a “cult” and blames it for Labour’s catastrophic election defeat in the 2019 snap vote.

Mr Wilson, who was Labour MP for Sedgefield from 2007-2019, said when Mr Corbyn was elected as Labour’s leader, the party became a joke to many of its core supporters.

He wrote: “We were becoming a joke. When we gave them Corbyn it went beyond a joke.

“They thought we were taking the p**s.

“It’s asking a bit much of the electorate to take the Labour Party seriously, if the Labour Party isn’t prepared to do the same.”

The former MP also claimed the party went under a fundamental shift under Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

He said: “Corbyn brought a worldview alien to the Labour Party. A worldview that belonged on the fringes.

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“With his victory, that worldview became centre stage and all those who lived on the fringes with him found their home centre stage too.

“The doors were flung open to people in their image, creating a dystopian Labour Party, not recognisable to many of its existing members, never mind our supporters.”

Mr Wilson went on to criticise the Corbyn faction and accused them of abandoning the Labour heartlands.

He said: “The cult’s only mission was to take control of the Labour Party.

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“The priority was not the communities we serve, but the cult’s hard-left ambitions.

“It was nothing to do with Labour voters, but all to do with finding a home for their vanity project.

“Tasteless and selfish, their project is on the verge of destroying the Labour Party.”

Mr Wilson has urged the next Labour leader to shift away from Corbynism, describing the outgoing leader and his supporters as “vein, self-centred and narcissistic”.

He said: “The next Labour leader has one task: to break with Corbynism in all its manifestations and fancies.

“The Corbynista world view must be expunged from the Party’s ranks.”

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Coronavirus: Lack of protection for NHS staff ‘an abomination’, says Labour MP on frontline

Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan has told Sky News a lack of protective equipment for NHS staff is an “abomination” after she increased the hours she is spending at her local hospital as an emergency doctor.

The Tooting MP, who is standing to be elected Labour’s next deputy leader, has taken on more shifts at St George’s Hospital in her constituency during the coronavirus crisis.

She told Sky News’ Kay Burley @Breakfast show that she has increased her number of A&E shifts as “saving lives is the only thing that matters” as the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Allin-Khan added to criticism of the government over the supply of protective personal equipment (PPE) to NHS staff, as well as the level of testing for coronavirus being conducted in the UK.

“I’m hearing from colleagues all around the country that, quite frankly, it is an abomination that NHS and care staff are simply not protected,” she said.

“When I did my shift on Saturday night I had paramedics coming into St George’s saying they’d only been given one set of PPE for an entire 12-hour shift.

“We have already seen that we have lost a nurse and four doctors and they’ll be many more to come.

“People in the NHS and in our care service, they go to work to save lives.

“They are out there working today to save our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, they absolutely have to be protected.”

Ms Allin-Khan also questioned the government’s preparations in securing capacity to conduct coronavirus tests.

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