'It's about time:' In historic first, two powerful women flank US president

‘It’s about time:’ In historic first, two powerful women flank US president

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WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden‘s address to Congress broke a historic glass ceiling on Wednesday, as two women – Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – sat behind the president for the first time in US history.
The seating arrangement carried a symbolic meaning for the advancement of US women in recent decades, since Harris and Pelosi stand first and second in the presidential line of succession, respectively.
Harris, the first woman and the first Black and Asian person to serve as vice president, sat to Biden’s right. Pelosi, who became the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives in 2007, sat to his left.
The two women are playing a vital role in the early days of the Biden presidency, with Harris as a close adviser and tie-breaker in an evenly divided Senate and Pelosi helping to marshal the president’s legislative agenda through Congress.
Biden spoke to a joint session of the House and Senate with attendance restricted to enforce social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harris arrived ahead of Biden and Pelosi affectionately took the vice president’s hand as she reached the dais before quickly switching to a pandemic-appropriate elbow bump.
“Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President,” Biden said as he addressed the crowd. “No president has ever said those words from this podium, no president has ever said those words. And it’s about time!”

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I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help

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Melina Mara/Getty

In his first joint address to Congress, President Joe Biden set out to sell one of the most liberal agendas in generations with nods to the bipartisanship that he and anyone around him insist has been his brand for more than 40 years.

But this speech was by no means a plea for unity.

While Biden’s first address was light on brand-new policies and surprise announcements, he anchored the new administration in a populist sales pitch, advocating for passage of his twin trillion-dollar spending plans: the American Jobs plan—an infrastructure bill that Biden called “the largest jobs plan since World War II”—and the just-introduced American Families Plan, which would guarantee four years of additional public education to every American.

“The American Jobs Plan will create millions of good paying jobs—jobs Americans can raise their families on,” Biden said.

A presidential address before a joint session of Congress is the best chance for the leader of the free world to get a “mic drop” moment, announcing a major policy proposal with the largest possible audience. President Barack Obama announced a “cancer moonshot.” President George W. Bush tied Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to the fight against global terrorism in his “axis of evil” speech. President Lyndon Johnson launched a “War on Poverty.”

Biden’s proposals were just as far-reaching; he just didn’t give his agenda a grand moniker. The address—delivered in a quiet voice to a largely empty room—instead was front-loaded with domestic proposals that are, at least according to polling, widely popular among American voters: infrastructure, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, paid family leave for every new parent. It was only later in Biden’s remarks that he touched on more sensitive issues like police reform and the insurrection at the Capitol.

Biden nodded to some key wish-list items for progressive Democrats in his remarks that did not make the cut in the infrastructure and families legislation, including negotiating prescription drug prices. But the remarks attempted to shield Biden from the Republican accusation that he’s beholden to the more left-wing members of his party.

“Sometimes I have arguments with my friends in the Democratic Party—I think you should be able to become a billionaire and a millionaire,” Biden said, in a line that was not in his prepared remarks. “But pay your fair share.”

The speech was not without victory laps, particularly on the pandemic, which was raging as Biden took the reins of the federal government in January.

Within the first few minutes of his address, Biden claimed credit for the “dose of hope” that COVID vaccines have offered Americans, suggesting he “inherited a nation in crisis” from former President Trump.

“The worst pandemic in a century,” Biden said. “The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again.”

He noted that when he was sworn in, less than 1 percent of seniors were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Now, 100 days later, nearly 70 percent of seniors are fully protected. And 220 million people have received at least one shot.

But he suggested there is more work to be done on the economy, the nation’s aging infrastructure system, the crisis of climate change, and racial injustice.

Those are all easier to address in a speech, however, than in reality.

On the economy, Biden touted his “American Jobs Plan” as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself.” He said it would help millions of people get back to work and rebuild the nation’s outdated infrastructure. And he claimed that nearly 90 percent of the jobs created by his plan wouldn’t require a college degree.

“The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden said.

His infrastructure plan though is still far from final passage—if it ever does pass. And in the meantime, more than 9 million people in the United States are still unemployed.

Biden: George Floyd’s Death Was ‘Murder in the Full Light of Day’

On climate change, Biden also pointed to his infrastructure plan, saying his blueprint would put engineers and construction workers in jobs to build more energy efficient buildings and homes, electricians in jobs installing 500,000 vehicle charging stations along the nation’s highways, and farmers planting cover crops that would reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“And all the investments in the American Jobs Plan will be guided by one principle,” Biden said. “Buy American.”

But again, there are a number of difficult issues for Democrats to sort out in Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan—even if they don’t need a single GOP vote to pass it using the special reconciliation process. Democrats are divided on certain tax raises that Biden has proposed to partly pay for the program, and individual members have a number of pet issues they want addressed in particular ways.

On racial justice, Biden name-checked George Floyd and called on the Senate to approve policing reforms that have already passed the House.

“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said Wednesday night. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress.”

However, other than imploring congressional Democrats to “find a consensus” with congressional Republicans— as well as imploring Americans to “rebuild trust with law enforcement” and “root out systemic racism in the criminal justice system”—Biden didn’t seem to offer any real breakthroughs on an issue that continues to fracture the nation.

The president’s bipartisan brand was cultivated over decades in the Senate working with Republicans. It was further burnished during his two terms as vice president when he took over fiscal cliff negotiations and allowed the GOP to make large tax cuts permanent. And even as congressional Republicans called Biden out for not actually working with them on a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, the American people perceived Biden’s plan as bipartisan. More than 40 percent of Republicans supported the measure.

As Biden pushes ahead with another partisan proposal—this time, his infrastructure plan—the president and his advisers are counting on Joe’s bipartisan and blue collar image to get the bill to his desk.

Unlike the usually packed House floor and gallery for a president’s first joint address, Biden’s speech Wednesday night was delivered to a drastically reduced crowd of about 200 in the chamber. It looked more like the audience for a spirited House debate than a State of the Union. (Technically, the president’s first joint address is not considered a State of the Union, which the president is constitutionally obligated to deliver “from time to time.”)

The speech comes more than two months later than incoming presidents traditionally make their first remarks to a joint session of Congress, a delay which the White House blamed on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the inherent challenges of planning a large indoor event during the early days of the administration.

Biden opened his remarks by commenting on the unusual nature of Wednesday night’s proceedings—proceedings that he had watched in-person 36 times over his decades in the U.S. Senate and eight times as vice president.

“While the setting tonight is familiar, this gathering is very different,” Biden said, “a reminder of the extraordinary times we are in.”

COVID restrictions substantially limited who could attend Biden’s address, with only 30 senators, 40 House members, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the dean of the diplomatic corps, and about 30 staffers allowed on the floor. The usually packed House gallery was instead sparsely filled with about 60 additional senators and representatives.

Restrictions also required those attending to refrain from handshakes or fist-bumps, although attendees seated on the center aisle of the House Chamber—informally known as “Ass-Kissers’ Alley” during State of the Union addresses by dint of members trying to get a moment of face time with the president—largely flouted that rule as Biden walked past.

A seat in the House chamber during a presidential address would ordinarily be one of the hottest tickets in town, but congressional Republicans were conspicuously uninterested in Biden’s speech—with many of them delivering ‘I have to wash my hair’-type excuses.

Rep. Greg Pence (R-IN), brother of former vice president Mike Pence who accused Biden of not offering “one iota of bipartisan collaboration,” begged off for a Lincoln Day dinner. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), one of many Republicans who has attacked Biden for a “lack of bipartisanship” in pushing his infrastructure and tax plans, cited plans in her district. (Those plans apparently included livetweeting the address and implying that Biden didn’t usually stay up this late). Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), who promised in his most recent reelection campaign to “be a bipartisan legislator,” said he’d already made plans.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), at least, was more straightforward about his opposition to attending the address, despite calling for “compromise and bipartisanship” in passing legislation last month. “Ha,” he told Punchbowl last week as he boarded an elevator. “No comment.”

Of the Republicans who did show up, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was perhaps the most interested in making a splash. At one point during the speech, she loudly unfolded a thermal space blanket and draped it over her lap. No one seemed to pay much attention to the stunt.

Biden himself made a point of staying on the floor of the House Chamber for close to 15 minutes after the address, meeting with as many members in attendance as would have him.

Only three Republicans joined him.

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Myanmar demonstrators wearing black hold black balloons and pictures of the people shot dead by troops during a protest in Yangon on 5 April.

‘We wanted to scare them’: the brothers who fought back against Myanmar’s army | Myanmar coup

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The young men only had a moment to study the river before rushing into the waist-deep water. The brothers – ranging in age from 15 to 21 – were unfamiliar with the border area and afraid of being seen. On the run from Myanmar’s military, they pushed on into the Thaunggin River.

After just a few minutes of wading, they stumbled into no man’s land. Moments after crossing the river, three smugglers dressed in military fatigues met them. After handing over 6,000 Thai baht (US$200) and exchanging a few words, the smugglers led them deeper into the woods and then to safety in Thailand.

Three months after the military coup on 1 February, four Burmese brothers have told the Guardian of how they were inspired to join the fight against the military – and how their involvement in protests in Yangon that turned violent eventually forced them to flee at the end of March.

Myanmar demonstrators wearing black hold black balloons and pictures of the people shot dead by troops during a protest in Yangon on 5 April. Photograph: EPA

Safely outside the country, the brothers have given an account of brutal military repression and their decision to take the fight to the military in a bid to prevent further violence. Their journey would take them from peaceful protest in Yangon to petrol bombing police stations and running for their lives.

Lin*, 21,the eldest of the four brothers, said he had watched the coup unfold from his home in western Thailand, close to the border. Seeing the death toll mount amid growing military brutality he felt compelled to join the resistance movement, and soon his three younger brothers and two cousins from different parts of Myanmar followed him to Yangon.

At 15, Za* is the youngest of the brothers. He said he took part in the resistance because he wanted to stop the violence on the streets. “Look at how many people they have killed in the past two months. If we don’t do anything and just let it happen so many more innocent people will die,” Za said.

Joining the protests

The men met up in Yangon and for the first few days joined the peaceful protests. Soon, they became part of a nightwatch team protecting residential neighbourhoods from night-time raids by security forces. Armed with sticks and swords they say they helped women, children and the elderly move around safely.

As they continued to demonstrate, some teams of frontline protesters began discussing the possibility of hitting back, Lin says. “People started saying we need to fight back. But they didn’t know how, and they were scared.” Lin says he was concerned it was just what Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, was hoping for.

They told how they joined a small minority of protesters on the frontlines squaring off against security forces, using molotov cocktails and slingshots in what they said they believed was a legitimate form of self-defence against the military’s automatic weapons. But it was not without cost. During one attack on a police station, Lin says one of the team died after being hit in the head by a rubber bullet. He was in his 50s.

“I don’t want my children to grow up in the situation that my generation and the older generations did,” says Moe*, 18, another of the brothers.

The first attack

It was about 11pm when the group carried out its first attack on a police station.

Lin describes how they moved towards the building, with more people joining the group as they got closer. Some were carrying molotov cocktails, others were armed with slingshots and swords, he says. But when the men edged near to the police station, the group hesitated.

Lin says: “At that time I was aggressive, I was mad, no one was willing to throw the cocktail bomb. “I came back [to Yangon] thinking I was going to be a peaceful protester … but if I needed to be another thing, then I will be that, too,” Lin said. “So I took the molotov and went up to the [overpass] bridge.”

A protest sign appealing to the United Nations as part of a ‘bleeding strike’.
A protest sign appealing to the United Nations as part of a ‘bleeding strike’. Photograph: Facebook/AFP/Getty Images

The bottle landed right on top of a pile of rubbish leaning against the building. Flames started to shoot upwards towards the roof, Lin says. “We wanted to scare them,” he says of the Tatmadaw. “You make us feel unsafe, then we want you to feel unsafe too.”

Lin says a truck full of Tatmadaw soldiers arrived, and the group started retreating. Footage seen by the Guardian shows teargas rounds whizzing past them as they fled. The group could hear the sound of people celebrating in their homes as they sprinted past. “It was like we were coming back from war.”

Over the next few days, the brothers, along with a handful of other teams, targeted multiple police stations. Lin says he doesn’t believe they injured anyone in the attacks. They were unsuccessful in burning down the buildings. He says the attacks were psychological warfare and the men felt they had to show some degree of force to counter the military.

‘We had to run’

The campaign continued until the day Lin says they heard one of their friends had been abducted by security forces. “They contacted us and said he died. They tortured and killed him,” he recalls.

“We all had to run at that point. They said, ‘One of our guys is gone. We are on the run now. You should too.’” They agreed it was time to leave.

Mourners attend the funeral of Saw Sal Nay Muu, who died after attempting to flee a checkpoint manned by security forces, in Dawei.
Mourners attend the funeral of Saw Sal Nay Muu, who died after attempting to flee a checkpoint manned by security forces in Dawei. Photograph: Dawei Watch/AFP/Getty Images

The brothers woke up early to begin their trip east to Hpa-An, the capital city in Karen state, close to the border with Thailand. The day after they left their apartment in Yangon, a neighbour told them police had searched it.

After laying low in Hpa-An for a few days, they finally got the call to leave. They would have to make the cross near Myawaddy, a town known for its casinos and entertainment venues. After just a few minutes of wading through the river, they stumbled into no man’s land. Moments after crossing the river, three smugglers dressed in military fatigues met them.

The smugglers demanded their payment upfront before they moved the brothers to a secret location. After paying the troops, the group hiked for another 20 minutes in the dark to a bunker where they were told to wait.

A protester, who was injured during a demonstration in Mandalay.
A protester, who was injured during a demonstration in Mandalay. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“We were afraid of them because they were strangers with guns and we were in their place,” says Htet*, 18, another of the four brothers. “If they wanted to do something they could’ve and we didn’t have anything to stop that.”

At around 3pm they were told it was finally time to go. They walked along a dirt path that would lead to a paved road, their guide told them. After more trekking on their own, they found their way out of the woods. They had made it.

The group crossed the border at a time when Myanmar’s military had killed more than 550 people and detained nearly 3,000, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

“It was a hard decision to make to come here. Even though we are safe and comfortable, we want to be back there. But it was just too dangerous,” Lin says.

“But the good thing was I had my brothers. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it alone.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Wandering cops move from department to department

Wandering cops move from department to department

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Demonstrators block Public Square in Cleveland, during a protest over the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. File: AP Photo

ST. LOUIS: Timothy Loehmann wanted to be a police officer like his father. He got a job in Independence, Ohio, but his supervisors allowed him to quit after he suffered a “dangerous lack of composure” during firearms training.
Cleveland Police didn’t check on Loehmann’s history. So it was Loehmann who responded in the fall of 2014 to the Cleveland park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with what turned out to be a toy gun. Loehmann shot him dead.
“Wandering cops” who lose their jobs in one place only to be rehired pose a persistent roadblock to police accountability.
There is a straightforward solution, experts say:
– a national database open to the public with the names of all officers who have engaged in misconduct;
– a requirement that all law enforcement agencies consult that database before hiring.
A study of wandering officers in the Yale Law Journal last year found a problem bigger than expected. About 1,100 officers in Florida walk the streets having been fired in the past, 800 for misconduct.
A national database – the nonprofit National Decertification Index (NDI) – collects police decertification records from 45 states. It now has records on 30,172 officers.
But the database is badly flawed, experts say. Most departments don’t check it before hiring. The names in the database are not public. And, some of the biggest states in the country – California and New Jersey among them – are not in the system.
In St. Louis, wandering police are so common that there is a name for it – the Muni-Shuffle. St. Ann, a small suburb near Lambert Field, is a refuge for exiled officers.
One was Eddie Boyd III who as a St. Louis officer pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl in 2006. He said it was an accident. In 2007 he struck a child in the face with his gun and handcuffs before falsifying a police report, according to state records.
St. Ann hired Boyd who shuffled his way to nearby Ferguson in 2012 and was on the force leading up to the death of Michael Brown. When a federal worker got in his car after a game of basketball, Boyd tried to cite him for not wearing his seat belt. Boyd drew his gun and pointed it at the man’s head when he used his cell phone.
Another St. Louis police officer who found refuge in St. Ann was Christopher Tanner who shot a former Black St. Louis officer Milton Green at Green’s home in 2017. A police chase sped into Green’s neighborhood while he was off-duty working on his car in his driveway. Tanner told him to drop her service revolver and immediately shot him.
Then there was Jonathan Foote, who resigned from the St. Louis Police Department after a traffic stop led to a crash where a bystander was killed – and Christopher Childers, fired from the St. Louis department after assaulting another officer by firing a stun gun at her.
St. Ann’s elected Police Chief Aaron Jimenez also hired officer Ellis Brown. Brown was forced out of the St. Louis department after he lied about a 2016 incident where he tailed a car, which accelerated, crashed and started burning. Brown left the scene instead of calling for help and then claimed he hadn’t been there.
In 2017 St. Ann hired Mark Jakob, one of two St. Louis County police officers fired for lying about a high-speed chase that ended in two deaths.
Chief Jimenez’s department favors aggressive tactics such as police chases. Despite its small size, St. Ann police conduct as many high-speed chases as the nearby St. Louis and St. Louis Police Departments that are 20 times bigger.
Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at Saint Louis University Law School, isn’t surprised by St. Ann. He has spent a career crusading to stop wandering cops.
The crusade began 41 years ago when two bullets from Joseph Sorbello’s Bridgeton Terrace service revolver tore through the body of an alleged car thief in Maplewood, Mo.
Goldman remembered Sorbello had lost his police job in Maplewood in 1977 after it was disclosed he allegedly pointed his gun at a prisoner’s head in a one-way game of Russian Roulette – a game that resulted in another Maplewood police officer shooting Thomas Brown to death in the police headquarters that year.
How was it, Goldman wondered, that Sorbello had been hired by a neighboring department. Weren’t there safeguards against dangerous police, like dangerous doctors and lawyers. He found there weren’t and spent the ensuing decades getting police licensing laws passed in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
“My work is not anti-cop. It’s pro-good cop,” he says.

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Senate confirms Samantha Power as USAID administrator

Senate confirms Samantha Power as USAID administrator

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The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Samantha Power as the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development after a 68-26 vote, with several Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues in backing President Biden’s nominee.

Power is a familiar face in Washington, having served as former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations during the majority of his second term in the White House. In addition to her duties running USAID, The Hill reports, Power is expected to have a spot the White House National Security Council, which she also served on during Obama’s first term before she took on the U.N. role.

While Power ultimately received more than enough votes for confirmation, she did face more Republican opposition this time around than in 2013, when she breezed through the Senate on the back of a 87-10 vote. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has not voted for Power either time, said Wednesday that her tenure as U.N. ambassador was “deeply problematic” because of the role she played in the Iran nuclear negotiations, and the fact that U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which stated Israel’s settlements violated international law, passed while she held the office, although the U.S. abstained from the vote. Read more at The Hill.

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Dominic Cummings

Boris Johnson furious as inquiry launched into ‘cash for curtains’ | Party funding

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The Electoral Commission has launched an inquiry that has the potential to imperil Boris Johnson’s premiership as the “cash for curtains” row increasingly engulfed the prime minister.

With sweeping powers to call witnesses and refer matters to the police, the watchdog said its probe was necessary because it already believed there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect that payments for expensive renovations to Johnson’s Downing Street flat could constitute several offences.

Though Johnson has insisted he has done nothing wrong, he was goaded into a fury at prime minister’s questions as Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, interrogated him by asking pointed questions that Johnson mostly sidestepped or ignored.

He stuck to claiming that he had paid the costs “personally” – but did not deny receiving a donation or loan of £58,000 from a Conservative peer and party donor, David Brownlow, to foot the bills, despite no record of such a transaction being published.

Starmer labelled Johnson “Major Sleaze” and accused the government of being “mired in sleaze, cronyism and scandal”. He also criticised the prime minister for taking time out from dealing with the coronavirus pandemic to reportedly “moan” about his former adviser, Dominic Cummings, to newspaper editors and spend time choosing wallpaper that costs more than £800 a roll.

Johnson branded the inquiries “absolutely bizarre”, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, later dismissed a trio of questions at the Downing Street coronavirus briefing, refusing to be drawn on whether a minister who is found to have broken electoral law should resign.

Asked whyhe was declining to answerHancock said: “It is important that there are questions, and there were endless questions in the House of Commons earlier on some of the issues that you raised … but you’ve also got to concentrate on the big things that really matter.”

The commission’s announcement came after five days of relentless scrutiny of Johnson and his behaviour in office, provoked by the claims of his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings in a devastating blog post last Friday.

‘Major Sleaze’: Keir Starmer attacks Boris Johnson over ‘cash for curtains’ row – video
‘Major Sleaze’: Keir Starmer attacks Boris Johnson over ‘cash for curtains’ row – video

Cummings said Johnson told him last year of a plan to “have donors secretly pay for the renovation” to his No 11 residence, which he shares with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, and their son, Wilfred.

He claimed that the plan as described to him was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal, and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations” – all warnings he said he had made directly to the prime minister.

Cummings is likely to be among the figures the commission will want to interview; Johnson could also be called, and officials could be ordered to hand over emails and messages. The commission can also issue fines of up to £20,000, with most offences under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 resulting in a civil sanction.

Senior Labour figures are understood to be frustrated that the Electoral Commission inquiry seems to be into the Conservative party and not Johnson.

One told the Guardian: “Money being funnelled into the prime minister’s private life with no paper trail or declaration isn’t just a matter for CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] – that should be a matter for its leader, Boris Johnson, too.”

If any rules are found to have been broken, the focus will inevitably fall on Johnson, as the renovations in Downing Street were undertaken at his behest.

Two other Whitehall inquiries have been launched to look at the scandal, adding to the pressure on the prime minister. On Wednesday, Christopher Geidt, the new adviser on ministerial standards, said he would begin his own investigation into the flat payments, alongside one already under way by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case.

But Downing Street admitted that Johnson will retain the power to quash both probes and exonerate himself and ministers.

The admission prompted grave concern from former top civil servants. The former head of the government legal service, Jonathan Jones, who quit over Johnson’s threat to break international law last year, said the public needed to have confidence the ministerial code was being respected, even if it has no legal status.

“The problem is, we can have no confidence that these standards are being enforced or that any action will be taken when they are breached,” he said. “Its enforcement depends purely on prime ministerial whim.”

The furore over the flat resurfaced following a recent blog by Dominic Cummings. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, also said Johnson’s decision not to accept a suggestion from Jonathan Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, for Lord Geidt to let him launch his own investigation “will raise concerns”.

Johnsonwas caused further embarrassment at the revelation that chancellor, Rishi Sunak, also redecorated his Downing Street flat last year. A minister from his department said: “It was paid for upfront and entirely at his own expense. No request was made to HM Treasury.”

Tory MPs have repeatedly urged Johnson to come clean over the flat payments, fearing his obfuscation was only driving interest in them and increasingly making it look as if he had something to hide.

While they are publicly bullish about whether the issue will put any meaningful dent in the Conservatives’ performance at next week’s local elections, they accept that repeated hammering from usually friendly newspapers is unlikely to help.

One insider admitted it was a “shit” situation, and another said they were waiting nervously for Cummings to “pull the trigger” on more revelations that could damage the prime minister’s credibility.

Johnson was also forced to deny in the Commons that he was a “liar”, and insisted that he did not voice his opposition to a second lockdown across England last winter by declaring: “Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

Despite multiple witnesses telling the Guardian and other media outlets that they heard the prime minister make the comment, he said people should identify their sources to substantiate the account.

Amid claims from opposition parties that Johnson frequently gives “colourful mischaracterisation of the truth” and is a “serial liar”, a panel of MPs will consider how misleading comments made in parliament should be corrected. A spokesperson for Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons speaker, said he welcomed their suggestion to ask the procedure committee to come up with a better system for setting the record straight when MPs make “perceived inaccuracies”.

South Africa resumes giving Johnson & Johnson jabs to health care workers

South Africa resumes giving Johnson & Johnson jabs to health care workers

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South Africa has resumed giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to health care workers. AP Photo

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa has resumed giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to health care workers after a more than two-week pause in the use of the only Covid-19 inoculation in the country.
South Africa on Wednesday restarted its drive to inoculate 1.2 million health care workers with the J&J vaccine.
South Africa suspended the use of the J&J vaccine on April 13 after the US Food and Drug Administration reported that it might be linked to rare blood clots. The country’s drug regulatory body determined that the vaccine is safe and Cabinet approved resuming its use.
Before the halt, South Africa had given more than 290,000 shots of the J&J vaccine to health care workers and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize urged all health care workers to get the shots.
“It is much better to have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine than to avoid taking it for fear of getting a blood clot,” said Mkhize in a statement, saying there is a “one in a million chance of getting a blood clot from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In America, about 7 million people have now received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and are protected from Covid-19.”
The J&J vaccine is the best vaccine against the Covid-19 variant dominant in South Africa, said Mkhize.
The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority recommended returning to the J&J vaccine, saying that it found no causal link between blood clots and the J&J vaccine in those who have already been vaccinated.
With the resumption, the government has increased the number of sites where the jabs will be given to health care workers and it now has adequate doses in the country, said Mkhize. South Africa will strengthen its “screening and monitoring of participants who are at high risk of a blood clotting disorder,” said his statement.
South Africa has by far the largest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths in Africa. With more than 1.5 million cases, including 54,237 deaths, South Africa accounts for more than 30% of Africa’s 4.5 million cases and more than 40% of the 120,802 deaths reported by the continent’s 54 countries, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As it resumes vaccinating health care workers, South Africa is preparing to launch a mass vaccination drive on May 17, starting with those 60 years and older, said Mkhize. More than 3,300 vaccination sites are being set up across the country.
South Africa is aiming to vaccinate some 40 million of its 60 million people by February next year, he said.
South Africa has ordered 31 million doses of the J&J vaccine, most of which will be produced in South Africa at the Aspen Pharmacare manufacturing facility in Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth. The plant will receive large batches of the components of the vaccine, blend them and put them in individual vials, and package them, a process known as “fill and finish.” The South African plant has the capacity to finish up to 300 million doses of the J&J vaccine annually.
South Africa has also secured 30 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for its vaccination campaign, of which nearly 1 million are expected to be delivered to South Africa by May 17, said Mkhize. The Pfizer vaccines will be used in the country’s major cities, which have adequate freezers and the logistics to administer the two-dose vaccine. The J&J vaccines, which can be stored in ordinary refrigerators and are single-dose vaccines, will be used in South Africa’s rural areas, said Mkhize.
South Africa has been the hardest hit by the pandemic in Africa with over 1.5 million infections and more than 53,000 deaths.

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Prince Salman said he wanted Iran and Saudi Arabia to have a "good and distinguished relationship" in a rare televised interview - COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT /VIA REUTERS 

Saudi Crown Prince offers rare olive branch to Iran after years of hostility

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Prince Salman said he wanted Iran and Saudi Arabia to have a “good and distinguished relationship” in a rare televised interview – COURTESY OF SAUDI ROYAL COURT /VIA REUTERS

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman struck an unusually conciliatory tone with regional rival Iran in a rare interview where he said the kingdom was working to resolve its differences with Tehran.

“All [that] we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in footage broadcast on Saudi TV on Tuesday evening.

The prince’s proffered olive branch contrasted starkly with his previous public remarks on Iran, a long-standing rival engaged in proxy warfare with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance across the Middle East.

In 2018 the Crown Prince told The Atlantic that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made Nazi dictator Adolf Hilter “look good”.

“They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East,” he said, adding that the “The Iranian revolution [created] a regime based on an ideology of pure evil.”

Prince Salman has previously described Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as an "evil guy" - AFP

Prince Salman has previously described Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as an “evil guy” – AFP

In a 2017 interview with Saudi television, the Crown Prince said he believed dialogue with Iran was impossible. “How do I convince these [people] of anything? What interests are there between me and them?” he asked.

His latest interview comes days after the Financial Times reported that Saudi and Iranian officials had held talks in Baghdad aimed at mending relations. While Saudi officials publicly denied the report, an Iraqi official confirmed the meeting to AFP news agency.

Regarded as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince is seeking improved relations with Tehran as world powers and the US President Joe Biden seek to salvage the Iran nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

“I believe he sees a possibility of an opening with Iran,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political analyst. “After years of sanctions and an Iranian desire to re-establish ties to the US maybe they can be convinced to change their behaviour.”

But the prince has also been put on notice by President Biden that after enjoying historically close ties with the Trump administration there will be “significant changes” in the relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

“The rules are changing,” Mr Biden said in February.

“We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses,” Mr Biden said, while making clear in a recent phone call he had spoken to the 85-year-old king Salman, not his son the Crown Prince.

The prince insists relations remained tight, however. “We are more than 90 percent in agreement with the Biden administration when it comes to Saudi and US interests,” he said.

Yet by his own metric that appears to be a downgrade from ties under former president Barack Obama, with whom he said in 2018 he had been “aligned 99 percent”.

A demonstrator dressed as Prince Salman protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, demanding justice for murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi - JIM WATSON /AFP

A demonstrator dressed as Prince Salman protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, demanding justice for murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – JIM WATSON /AFP

That could be because President Biden released a declassified version of a US intelligence report concluding that the prince had approved the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.

Prince Salman denied ordering the killing but told CBS News in 2019 that he took “full responsibility” for the “heinous crime”.

While the prince seeks to portray himself as a dynamic young reformer, he has been criticised for ignoring the rights of his subjects and engaging in reckless adventurism abroad.

In 2015, Prince Salman, who is also the Saudi defence minister, formed an Arab coalition to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen on behalf of the Yemeni government.

More than five years later the rebels still control the capital Sanaa and regularly fire missiles into Saudi territory.

A Saudi blockade on rebel-held areas has been criticised for worsening what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.

And at home, the prince himself has acknowledged that his economic plan has failed to meet targets.

“The economic growth in the non-oil sector was within an average that was not quite as we were aspiring,” he said in his latest interview.

The footage was aired on the fifth anniversary of the launch of his aspirational Vision 2030 plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from its dependence on oil.

Bloomberg Economics data also suggests Saudi Arabia has fallen short of the plan’s 2020 targets for unemployment and foreign direct investment.

Prince Salman predicted the kingdom’s unemployment rate will decline as the economy emerges from the pandemic in a “V-shaped” recovery, however.

“We have made great achievements in the last four years,” he said. “We want to even achieve more by 2025.”

Mario Gonzalez had a four-year-old son and also was the main caretaker of his 22-year-old brother Efrain, who has autism, his family said.

California man dies after police pin him to ground for five minutes | California

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Police in California on Tuesday released body-cam footage showing officers pinning a man to the ground for more than five minutes during a fatal arrest that his family said should result in murder charges.

Mario Gonzalez, a 26-year-old father and east Oakland resident, stopped breathing after an 19 April encounter with police at a park in the city of Alameda, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

An initial police statement said Gonzalez had a “medical emergency” during an altercation with police after officers tried to arrest him, but his family says he was killed by police who used excessive force.

“What I saw was different from what I was told,” Gerardo Gonzalez, Mario Gonzalez’s brother, told local station KTVU after watching the body-camera footage. “The medical emergency was because they were on his back while he was lying on the ground. It was brought by the officers on top of his head.”

Officers had approached Gonzalez in the park after receiving 911 calls that he appeared to be disoriented or drunk. One 911 caller said there was a man in his front yard who appeared to be talking to himself, but also added, “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.” A second caller spotted him in a park and said he had alcohol bottles that appeared possibly stolen.

The nearly hour-long video from two officers’ body cameras shows the officers first talking to Gonzalez, who seems dazed and struggles to answer questions.

Mario Gonzalez had a four-year-old son and also was the main caretaker of his 22-year-old brother Efrain, who has autism, his family said. Photograph: Courtesy of Gonzalez family

When Gonzalez does not produce any identification, the officers are seen trying to force his hands behind his back to handcuff him and taking him to the ground when he resists.

The officers repeatedly ask him for his full name and birthdate. “We’re going to take care of you, OK, we’re going to take care of you,” one officer can be heard saying. “I think you just had too much to drink today, OK? That’s all,” the same officer says. Later, he adds, “Mario, just please stop fighting us.”

Gonzalez, who weighed about 250lb (113kg), is seen on the video grunting and shouting as he lies face down on wood chips while the officers restrain him. One officer puts an elbow on his neck and a knee on his shoulder.

One officer appears to put a knee on Gonzalez’s back and leaves it there for about four minutes as Gonzalez gasps for air. “I didn’t do nothing, OK,” Gonzalez can be heard saying.

Gonzalez’s protests appear to weaken and after about five minutes he seems to lose consciousness.

Shortly before he stops breathing, one officer asks the other: “Think we can roll him on his side?”

The other answers, “I don’t want to lose what I got, man.”

The first officer asks, “We got no weight on his chest?” then repeats “No! No weight … no weight.”

“He’s going unresponsive,” one officer says.

The video shows officers rolling Gonzalez over and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Gonzalez had a four-year-old son and also was the main caretaker of his 22-year-old brother Efrain, who has autism, his family said.

Andrea Cortez, the mother of Mario’s four-year-old son, said she didn’t know how to explain to their child what had happened. “His son Little Mario keeps asking where his father is. He thinks he’s in the sky in a spaceship. How do I explain that he’s not coming back?” she said in a statement shared by activists.

An autopsy is pending to determine the cause of Gonzalezs death but family members on Tuesday told reporters that police escalated what should have been a minor, peaceful encounter with the unarmed man.

“The police killed my brother in the same manner they killed George Floyd,” Gerardo Gonzalez said, adding that the officers should be fired and prosecuted. “These killer cops are still getting paid … APD spent so much time spreading rumors about my brother, but where are the officers’ records?”

“Mario was a kind man and level headed. There was a way to deal with this situation without killing my son,” Mario’s mother, Edith Arenales, said in Spanish. “They never took his knee off his head.”

Alameda “is committed to full transparency and accountability in the aftermath of Mr Gonzalez’s death”, the city said in a statement on its website.

Gonzalez’s death is under investigation by the Alameda county sheriff’s department, the county district attorney’s office and a former San Francisco city attorney hired by the city to lead an independent inquiry, the statement said.

Mario Gonzalez (left) and his family.
Mario Gonzalez, left, and his family. Photograph: Courtesy of Gonzalez family

In their initial statement last week, the department had said that Gonzalez suffered a medical emergency during his arrest, but did not mention the officers putting their weight on Gonzalez’s back.

“On Monday, April 19, patrol officers responded to two separate reports of a male who appeared to be under the influence and a suspect in a possible theft,” the statement started.

“Officers attempted to detain the man, and a physical altercation ensued. At that time, the man had a medical emergency. Officers immediately began lifesaving measures and requested the Alameda fire department to the scene. The Alameda fire department transported the male to a local area hospital, where he later died.”

An Alameda spokesperson on Wednesday declined to answer questions on what evidence police had suggesting Gonzalez was a theft suspect or why they decided to make an arrest.

The three officers involved in the arrest have been placed on paid leave during the investigation.

In addition to drawing comparisons to George Floyd’s murder, the case has parallels with another fatal Alameda police encounter. In 2018, Shelby Gattenby, a 40-year-old navy veteran, went into cardiac arrest after police deployed their stun guns on him and restrained him with the weight of their bodies while he lay on his stomach. The city paid the family a settlement last year, but prosecutors cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

Anne Gattenby, Shelby’s sister, told the Guardian on Tuesday she was saddened to learn of Gonzalez’s case and that another family was suffering from a “senseless” and “completely avoidable” death.

“The settlement wasn’t about the money for my mom – she wanted to make sure that police had more training,” she said. “Did they actually get more training on how to restrain people? Because it doesn’t appear that way … I’m very angry that again they have learned nothing. They’re playing the same cards they played before and saying they didn’t do anything wrong.”

Feds execute warrant at Rudy Giuliani's NYC home

Feds execute warrant at Rudy Giuliani’s NYC home

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Federal investigators have executed a search warrant at the Manhattan home of former President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani. AP Photo

NEW YORK: Federal investigators have executed a search warrant at the Manhattan home of former President Donald Trump‘s attorney Rudy Giuliani, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The former New York City mayor has been under investigation for several years over his business dealings in Ukraine. Details of the search were not immediately available, but it comes as the Justice Department continues its investigation into the former New York City mayor and staunch Trump ally.
The official could not discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The federal probe into Giuliani’s overseas and business dealings stalled last year because of a dispute over investigative tactics as Trump unsuccessfully sought reelection, and amid Giuliani’s prominent role in subsequently disputing the results of the contest on Trump’s behalf.
The full scope of the investigation is unclear, but it at least partly involves the Ukraine dealings, law enforcement officials have told the AP.
Giuliani was central to the then-president’s efforts to dig up dirt against Democratic rival Joe Biden and to press Ukraine for an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter – who himself now faces a criminal tax probe by the Justice Department. Giuliani also sought to undermine former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was pushed out on Trump’s orders, and met several times with a Ukrainian lawmaker who released edited recordings of Biden in an effort to smear him before the election.
A message left for Giuliani’s lawyer wasn’t immediately returned. Giuliani had previously called the investigation is “pure political persecution.”
The US Attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment.

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