Trump signs Covid-19 pandemic relief bill, averting government shutdown

Publish Date : 2020-12-28


Trump signs Covid-19 pandemic relief bill, averting government shutdown

Trump signs Covid-19 pandemic relief bill, averting government shutdown U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday signed into law a $2.3 trillion pandemic aid and spending package, officials said, restoring unemployment benefits to millions of Americans and averting a partial federal government shutdown.
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Trump, who leaves office on Jan. 20 after losing November's election, backed down from his threat to block the bill, which was approved Congress last week, after he came under intense pressure from lawmakers on both sides.

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The Republican president, who golfed on Sunday and remained out of public view even as the potential government shutdown loomed, had demanded that Congress change the bill to increase the size of stimulus checks for struggling Americans to $2,000 from $600.

It was not immediately clear why Trump changed his mind as his resistance to the massive legislative package promised a chaotic final stretch of his presidency.

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White House officials have been tight-lipped about Trump's thinking but a source familiar with the situation said some advisers had urged him to relent because they did not see the point of refusing. "Good news on Covid Relief Bill. Information to follow!" Trump said in a cryptic message on Twitter earlier on Sunday evening. But he offered no explanation.

Democrats are on board with the $2,000 payments but many Republicans have opposed it in the past. Many economists agree the financial aid in the bill should be higher to get the economy moving again but say that immediate support for Americans hit by coronavirus lockdowns is still urgently needed.

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Unemployment benefits being paid out to about 14 million people through pandemic programs lapsed on Saturday, but will be restarted now that Trump has signed the bill.

The package includes $1.4 trillion in spending to fund government agencies. If Trump had not signed the legislation, then a partial government shutdown would have begun on Tuesday that would have put millions of government workers' incomes at risk.

Twenty-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer will miss the Australian Open for the first time in his career as he continues his recovery from two rounds of knee surgery, organisers said Monday.

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The 39-year-old Swiss has been out of action since February but recently resumed training and was on the entry list for year's opening Grand Slam, which will make a delayed start on February 8.

Federer, a huge favourite with the Melbourne crowds, hasn't missed the Australian Open since his debut in 2000, winning the trophy six times.

"In the end Roger ran out of time to get himself ready for the rigours of a Grand Slam and he's very disappointed he won't be coming to Melbourne in 2021," said tournament chief Craig Tiley.

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"We wish him all the best as he prepares for his comeback later in the year and look forward to seeing him in Melbourne in 2022."

Federer hasn't played a tournament since his Melbourne semi-final loss to Novak Djokovic in January, missing the rest of the Covid-disrupted 2020 season.

He could only watch as Rafael Nadal matched his all-time men's record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles with a 13th victory at the French Open.

Federer leaves a field packed with the world's top players, led by world number ones Djokovic and Ashleigh Barty.

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The opening Grand Slam of the year, which will be played in front of at least 50 percent of normal crowds, has been pushed back three weeks to February 8.

The withdrawal comes as former world number one Andy Murray, a five-time Australian Open finalist, was given a wildcard entry.

A Chinese citizen journalist held since May for her livestream reporting from Wuhan as the Covid-19 outbreak unfurled was set for trial Monday, almost a year after details of an "unknown viral pneumonia" surfaced in the central China city.

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Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, could face up to five years in jail if convicted of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" for her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.

Her live reports and essays were widely shared on social media platforms in February, grabbing the attention of authorities, who have punished eight virus whistleblowers so far as they defang criticism of the government's response to the outbreak.

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Around a dozen supporters and diplomats gathered outside Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court on Monday morning, but police pushed journalists and observers away from the entrance as the defendant and her lawyer arrived.

The 37-year-old Zhang began a hunger strike in June, according to her lawyers, and has been force-fed via a nasal tube as concerns grow about her health.

"She said when I visited her (last week): 'If they give me a heavy sentence then I will refuse food until the very end.'... She thinks she will die in prison," said Ren Quanniu, one of Zhang's defence lawyers.

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"It's an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment."

China's communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial in opaque courts between Christmas and New Year to minimise Western scrutiny.

The trial comes just weeks before an international team of World Health Organization experts is expected to arrive in China to investigate the origins of Covid-19.

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Another lawyer said Zhang's health was in decline and she suffered from headaches, dizziness and stomach pain.

"Restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom," Zhang Keke, who visited her on Christmas Day, wrote in a note circulated on social media.

"She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment."

He said Zhang has vowed not to stop her hunger strike despite repeated pleas from family, friends and lawyers.

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Prosecutors have recommended a prison sentence of four to five years, but she has maintained her innocence throughout.

Zhang was critical of the early response in Wuhan, writing in a February essay that the government "didn't give people enough information, then simply locked down the city".

"This is a great violation of human rights," she wrote.

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Rights groups have also drawn attention to Zhang's case.

Authorities "want to use her case as an example to scare off other dissidents from raising questions about the pandemic situation in Wuhan earlier this year," said Leo Lan, research and advocacy consultant at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders NGO.

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Zhang is the first to face trial of a group of four citizen journalists detained by authorities earlier this year after reporting from Wuhan.

Previous attempts by AFP to contact the other three -- Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua -- were unsuccessful.



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