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Trump commutes longtime friend Roger Stone’s prison sentence

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime political confidant Roger Stone on Friday, just days before he was set to report to prison. Democrats denounced the move as just another in a series of unprecedented interventions by the president in the nation’s justice system.

Stone had been sentenced in February to three years and four months in prison for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. He was set to report to prison by Tuesday.

Stone told The Associated Press that Trump had called him earlier Friday to inform him of the commutation. Stone was celebrating in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with conservative friends and said he had to change rooms because there were “too many people opening bottles of Champagne here.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Stone a “victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media.”

A commutation does not erase Stone’s felony convictions in the same way a pardon would, but it would protect him from serving prison time as a result.

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Trump undercuts health experts — again — in schools debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House seating chart spoke volumes.

When the president convened a roundtable this week on how to safely reopen schools with coronavirus cases rising, the seats surrounding him were filled with parents, teachers and top White House officials, including the first and second ladies.

But the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, usually the leader of disease-fighting efforts, was relegated to secondary seating in the back with the children of parents who had been invited to speak.

Intentional or not, it was a telling indication of the regard that President Donald Trump has for the government’s top health professionals as he pushes the country to move past the coronavirus. Whatever they say, he’s determined to revive the battered economy and resuscitate his reelection chances, even as U.S. hospitalizations and deaths keep climbing.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. hit the 3 million mark this week, with over 130,000 deaths now recorded. The surge has led to new equipment shortages as well as long lines at testing sites and delayed results.

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US bets on untested company to deliver COVID-19 vaccine

When precious vats of COVID-19 vaccine are finally ready, jabbing the lifesaving solution into the arms of Americans will require hundreds of millions of injections.

As part of its strategy to administer the vaccine as quickly as possible, the Trump administration has agreed to invest more than half a billion in tax dollars in ApiJect Systems America, a young company. Its injector is not approved by federal health authorities and the company hasn’t yet set up a factory to manufacture the devices.

The commitment to ApiJect dwarfs the other needle orders the government has placed with a major manufacturer and two other small companies.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — This story is part of an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press, the PBS series FRONTLINE and the Global Reporting Centre that examines the deadly consequences of the fragmented worldwide medical supply chain.

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AP: Catholic Church lobbied for taxpayer funds, got $1.4B

NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. Roman Catholic Church used a special and unprecedented exemption from federal rules to amass at least $1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed coronavirus aid, with many millions going to dioceses that have paid huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection because of clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.

The church’s haul may have reached — or even exceeded — $3.5 billion, making a global religious institution with more than a billion followers among the biggest winners in the U.S. government’s pandemic relief efforts, an Associated Press analysis of federal data released this week found.

Houses of worship and faith-based organizations that promote religious beliefs aren’t usually eligible for money from the U.S. Small Business Administration. But as the economy plummeted and jobless rates soared, Congress let faith groups and other nonprofits tap into the Paycheck Protection Program, a $659 billion fund created to keep Main Street open and Americans employed.

By aggressively promoting the payroll program and marshaling resources to help affiliates navigate its shifting rules, Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools and other ministries have so far received approval for at least 3,500 forgivable loans, AP found.

The Archdiocese of New York, for example, received 15 loans worth at least $28 million just for its top executive offices. Its iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was approved for at least $1 million.

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Trump threatens to pull tax exemption for schools, colleges

In his push to get schools and colleges to reopen this fall, President Donald Trump is again taking aim at their finances, this time threatening their tax-exempt status.

Trump said on Twitter on Friday he was ordering the Treasury Department to re-examine the tax-exempt status of schools that he says provide “radical indoctrination” instead of education.

“Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education,” he tweeted. “Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!”

The Republican president did not explain what prompted the remark or which schools would be reviewed. But the threat is just one more that Trump has issued against schools as he ratchets up pressure to get them to open this fall. Twice this week Trump threatened to cut federal funding for schools that don’t reopen, including in an earlier tweet on Friday.

It’s unclear, however, on what grounds Trump could have a school’s tax-exempt status terminated. It was also not clear what Trump meant by “radical indoctrination” or who would decide what type of activity that includes. The White House and Treasury Department did not immediately comment on the president’s message.

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It’s not just the presidency: Trump is changing the Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump isn’t just changing the presidency during his first term in office. He’s also changing Congress.

More than perhaps any president in modern history, Trump has been willing to ignore, defy and toy with the legislative branch, asserting power and breaking norms in ways his predecessors would hardly dare.

Republicans shrug it off as Trump being Trump, leaving Democrats almost alone to object. While the Democratic-run House took the extraordinary step of impeaching the president, the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted. Over time, there’s been a noticeable imbalance of power, a president with few restraints drifting toward what the founders warned against.

Think of it as “the incredible shrinkage” of Congress, said historian Douglas Brinkley.

“It’s created this massive void in our democracy,” Brinkley told The Associated Press.

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Storm clouds hang over Trump’s attempted campaign reboot

MIAMI (AP) — Friday was supposed to be the day President Donald Trump’s campaign reboot itself got a reboot. Instead, it hit another snag.

Amid uncertainty over whether he can still draw big and enthusiastic crowds to his signature rallies in the coronavirus era, Trump postponed a planned Saturday rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, citing a tropical storm expected to hit a swath of the Eastern United States.

“With Tropical Storm Fay heading towards the Great State of New Hampshire this weekend, we are forced to reschedule our Portsmouth, New Hampshire Rally at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease,” Trump tweeted. “Stay safe, we will be there soon!”

The latest setback came as the Trump campaign casts about for ways to reverse its recent downward slide in the polls at a time when the president is facing widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic and his harsh stance against those protesting racial injustice.

With growing whispers of a staff shakeup and behind-the-scenes finger-pointing among White House, campaign and Republican Party officials, the campaign has been looking for something to reverse the negative momentum.

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COVID hits dozens of Latin leaders, including presidents

HAVANA (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping through the leadership of Latin America, with two more presidents and powerful officials testing positive this week for the new coronavirus, adding a destabilizing new element to the region’s public health and economic crises.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, 65, announced his illness Tuesday and is using it to publicly extol hydroxychloroquine, the unproven malaria drug that he’s been promoting as a treatment for COVID-19, and now takes himself.

Bolivian interim President Jeanine Añez, 53, made her own diagnosis public Thursday, throwing her already troubled political propects into further doubt.

And in Venezuela, 57-year-old socialist party chief Diosdado Cabello said Thursday on Twitter that he, too, had tested positive, at least temporarily sidelining a larger-than-life figure considered the second-most-powerful person in the country.

Another powerful figure, Venezuela’s Oil Minister Tarek El Aissami, announced Friday he has the bug.

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Sonar, divers search for ‘Glee’ star thought to have drowned

Teams are using sonar and robotic devices in what could be a long search for “Glee” star Naya Rivera, who authorities believe drowned in a Southern California lake.

“We don’t know if she’s going to be found five minutes from now or five days from now,” Ventura County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Buschow said at a news conference Friday, two days after Rivera’s 4-year-old son was found asleep and alone on a boat the two had rented a few hours earlier.

Search teams on Lake Piru are towing sonar devices across the surface that scan the bottom for shapes that might be a body, then employing small remote controlled devices to explore the underwater spaces that show promise.

Two such shapes were found Friday, but neither led to Rivera, Buschow said.

Divers are also still searching the murky waters, but fewer are being used than in the hours immediately after the 33-year-old was reported missing.

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Amazon says email to employees banning TikTok was a mistake

Roughly five hours after an internal email went out Friday to Amazon employees telling them to delete the popular video app TikTok from their phones, the online retailing giant appeared to backtrack, calling the ban a mistake.

“This morning’s email to some of our employees was sent in error,” Amazon emailed reporters just before 5 p.m. Eastern time. “There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok.”

Company spokeswoman Jaci Anderson declined to answer questions about what caused the confounding turnaround or error.

The initial internal email, which was disseminated widely online, told employees to delete TikTok, a video app increasingly popular with young people but also the focus of intensifying national-security and geopolitical concerns because of its Chinese ownership. The email cited the app’s “security risks.”

An Amazon employee who confirmed receipt of the initial email but was not authorized to speak publicly had not seen a retraction at the time of Amazon’s backtrack.