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White House: Russia prepping pretext for Ukraine invasion

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. intelligence officials have determined a Russian effort is underway to create a pretext for its troops to further invade Ukraine, and Moscow has already prepositioned operatives to conduct “a false-flag operation” in eastern Ukraine, according to the White House.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday the intelligence findings show Russia is also laying the groundwork through a social media disinformation campaign that frames Ukraine as an aggressor that has been preparing an imminent attack against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

Psaki charged that Russia has already dispatched operatives trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces — blaming the acts on Ukraine — if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he wants to move forward with an invasion.

“We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives,” Psaki said.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described the intelligence as “very credible.” A U.S. official, who was not authorized to comment on the intelligence and spoke on condition of anonymity, said much of it was gleaned from intercepted communications and observations of the movements of people.


Djokovic's appeal of canceled visa moves to higher court

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic’s effort to play in the Australian Open despite being unvaccinated for COVID-19 moved to a higher court Saturday as the No. 1-ranked tennis player appealed the second cancellation of his visa.

Djokovic was not seen on the online feed available to the public for the 15-minute procedural hearing, which began just two days before he is scheduled to play his first match of 2022 at Melbourne Park.

Judge David O'Callaghan ruled that lawyers representing Djokovic and the government would need to submit written arguments later Saturday, and he scheduled another hearing for Sunday morning.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke blocked the 34-year-old Serb’s visa, which was originally revoked when he landed at a Melbourne airport last week. But it was restored Monday by a judge on procedural grounds because Djokovic was not allowed to have a lawyer with him at the airport.

Deportation from Australia can lead to a three-year ban on returning to the country, although that may be waived, depending on the circumstances.


Biden team regroups after court loss on COVID shots-or-test

WASHINGTON (AP) — Concerned but not giving up, President Joe Biden is anxiously pushing ahead to prod people to get COVID-19 shots after the Supreme Court put a halt to the administration's sweeping vaccinate-or-test plan for large employers.

At a time when hospitals are being overrun and record numbers of people are getting infected with the omicron variant, the administration hopes states and companies will order their own vaccinate-or-test requirements. And if the presidential “bully pulpit” still counts for persuasion, Biden intends to use it.

While some in the business community cheered the defeat of the mandate, Biden insisted the administration effort has not been for naught. The high court's ruling Thursday "does not stop me from using my voice as president to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy,” he said.

The court's conservative majority all-but-struck down the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s requirement that employers with 100 or more employees require their workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or tested weekly. However, it did leave in place a vaccination requirement for health care workers.

Meanwhile, the White House announced Friday that the federal website where Americans can request their own free COVID-19 tests will begin accepting orders next Wednesday. Those tests could provide motivation for some people to seek vaccination, and the administration is looking to address nationwide shortages. Supplies will be limited to just four free tests per home.


New Texas voting law snags US citizens, mail ballot requests

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A sweeping new Texas voting law that Republicans muscled through the Legislature last year over dramatic protests is drawing fire again, even before some of the most contentious restrictions and changes kick in ahead of the state's first-in-the nation primary.

Thousands of Texans — including some U.S. citizens — have received letters saying they have been flagged as potential noncitizens who could be kicked off voting rolls. And this week, local elections officials said hundreds of mail-in ballot applications are being rejected for not including required new information.

“It’s just a bad situation on a number of levels," said James Slattery, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, one of several voting rights groups that has sued the state over the new law.

The Texas law was approved last year by Republicans, who joined their party colleagues in at least 18 states, including Florida, Georgia and Arizona, in enacting new voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the election, not President Joe Biden.

Democrats have strenuously objected — including by walking out and to gridlock the Legislature, warning it could disenfranchise untold numbers of voters, especially Black, Latino and Asian people. Many of its provisions, such as expanded powers for partisan poll watchers, don't take effect until the election. But Democrats and civil rights groups say what has happened so far is alarming.


Shkreli ordered to return $64M, is barred from drug industry

NEW YORK (AP) — Martin Shkreli must return $64.6 million in profits he and his former company reaped from jacking up the price and monopolizing the market for a lifesaving drug, a federal judge ruled Friday while also barring the provocative, imprisoned ex-CEO from the pharmaceutical industry for the rest of his life.

U.S. District Judge Denise Cote's ruling came several weeks after a seven-day bench trial in December that featured recordings of conversations that Cote said showed Shkreli continuing to exert control over the company, Vyera Pharmaceuticals LLC, from behind bars and discussing ways to thwart generic versions of its lucrative drug, Daraprim.

“Shkreli was no side player in, or a ‘remote, unrelated’ beneficiary of Vyera’s scheme," Cote wrote in a 135-page opinion. "He was the mastermind of its illegal conduct and the person principally responsible for it throughout the years."

The Federal Trade Commission and seven states brought the case in 2020 against the man known in the media as “Pharma Bro," about two years after he was sentenced to prison in an unrelated securities fraud scheme.

“‘Envy, greed, lust, and hate,' don’t just ‘separate,’ but they obviously motivated Mr. Shkreli and his partner to illegally jack up the price of a life-saving drug as Americans’ lives hung in the balance,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said, peppering the written statement with references to the Wu-Tang Clan, whose one-of-a-kind album Shkreli had to fork over to satisfy court debt.


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CDC encourages more Americans to consider N95 masks

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. health officials on Friday encouraged more Americans to wear the kind of N95 or KN95 masks used by health-care workers to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Those kinds of masks are considered better at filtering the air. But they were in short supply previously, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials had said they should be prioritized for health care workers.

In updated guidance posted late Friday afternoon, CDC officials removed concerns related to supply shortages and more clearly said that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection.

However, agency officials noted some masks are harder to tolerate than others, and urged people to choose good-fitting masks that they will wear consistently.

“Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask,” Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman, said in a statement.


South prepares for weekend threat of debilitating snow, ice

ATLANTA (AP) — Weather forecasters' predictions of debilitating snow and ice as far south as Georgia sent parts of the region into a tizzy Friday with shoppers scouring store shelves for storm supplies and road crews trying to prevent a repeat of past wintertime debacles.

In Virginia, where a blizzard left thousands of motorists trapped on clogged highways earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and urged people to take the approaching storm seriously. Some store shelves were stripped bare of essentials including bread and milk in North Carolina.

Trucks prepared to spray a briny mixture on roads to prevent icing across the region, and Travis Wagler said he hadn't seen such a run on supplies at his Abbeville, South Carolina, hardware store in at least two winters.

“We’re selling everything you might expect: sleds, but also salt, shovels and firewood,” Wagler said from Abbeville Hardware. There, forecasters predict a quarter-inch (0.6 centimeters) of ice or more on trees and power lines, which could lead to days without electricity.

“People are worried,” Wagler said.


Garbage and recyclables pile up as omicron takes its toll

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The omicron variant is sickening so many sanitation workers around the U.S. that some cities have had to delay or suspend garbage or recycling pickup, angering residents shocked that governments can’t perform this most basic of functions.

The slowdowns have caused recycling bins full of Christmas gift boxes and wrapping paper to languish on Nashville curbs, trash bags to pile up on Philadelphia streets, and uncollected yard waste — grass clippings, leaves, branches — to block sidewalks in Atlanta.

“It’s just a shame,” said Madelyn Rubin, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where officials have halted recycling.

“You know that they could find the money to do it if they wanted to," she said. "If it was a business that wanted to come in here, they would dump money in to make it happen.”

Cities including Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville are so shorthanded they have temporarily stopped collecting things like recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic, yard waste or oversized junk to focus on the grosser, smellier stuff. The delays are more than an annoyance to residents, creating problems such as clogged storm drains and blocked sidewalks.


Federal testing website launches next week, 4 tests per home

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal website where Americans can request free COVID-19 tests will begin accepting orders on Wednesday as the White House looks to address nationwide shortages, but supplies will be limited to just four free tests per home.

Starting on Jan. 19, the website COVIDTests.gov will provide tests at no cost, including no shipping fee, the White House announced Friday.

As he faced criticism for low inventory and long lines for testing, President Joe Biden announced last month that the U.S. would purchase 500 million at-home tests to launch the program and on Thursday the president announced that he was doubling the order to 1 billion tests.

But Americans shouldn't expect a rapid turn-around on the orders and they will have to plan ahead and request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines for when to use a test.

The White House said “tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering" through the U.S. Postal Service, which reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class package service in the continental United States.


5 players are unanimous choices for AP's NFL All-Pro Team

NEW YORK (AP) — Five players, including dynamic pass catchers Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams, are unanimous choices for The Associated Press 2021 NFL All-Pro Team.

Joining the Rams' Kupp and the Packers' Adams in receiving votes Friday from all 50 members of a nationwide panel of media members who regularly cover the league are Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

While Donald is a perennial pick — the three-time Defensive Player of the Year makes the team for the seventh time in his eight pro seasons — Watt is on it for a third time. He tied the NFL record for sacks with 22 1/2. Adams makes it for the second time, and the other two are newcomers as All-Pros. Kupp led the NFL in receptions (145), yards receiving (1,947) and TD catches (16). Taylor was the top rusher by a landslide with 1,811 yards and scored 18 touchdowns on the ground, two as a receiver.

“Obviously, it’s an honor to be recognized, and it wouldn’t be possible without my coaches and incredible teammates, but the awards and accolades aren’t what drives me," said Watt, whose Steelers play at Kansas City on Sunday. "It’s competing with and for them, this franchise, and this city, that drives me. My coaches and teammates are the people that put me in a position to make splash, help us win, and this recognition honestly doesn’t come without them.”

Like Donald, although not nearly as often as the offense-wrecking DT, several players are making another appearance on the All-Pro Team. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on for the fourth time, as is Philadelphia center Jason Kelce — one more than his brother, Chiefs' star tight end Travis. One better than them: Dallas right guard Zack Martin and Baltimore placekicker Justin Tucker at five.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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