October 17, 2019

Few Americans had ever heard of Gordon Sondland, a wealthy Oregon hotelier who donated $1 million to President Trump's inauguration and was then appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union, before he became a central figure in Trump's Ukraine scandal and impeachment inquiry. Sondland, 62, is scheduled to be deposed by House impeachment investigators on Thursday.

A former Trump adviser has already testified that she viewed Sondland's inexperience and missteps as a national security risk, but according to friends and former White House officials, Sondland had been extremely eager to leverage his political donations into an ambassadorship. And once he arrived in Brussels in June 2018, "he got addicted," one former official told The Washington Post. "The way you're treated as a senior U.S. official, there's nothing like it in terms of adrenaline and ego boost."

Sondland was not, however, satisfied with the U.S. ambassador's residence. After unsuccessfully pushing for a new residence, the Post reports, he began proposing upgrades to the existing manor, and now he's "overseeing a nearly $1 million renovation of his government-provided residence, paid for with taxpayer money" and apparently "driven by Sondland's lavish tastes rather than practical needs."

The renovation includes $209,000 to upgrade the "professional kitchen," $223,000 to build an additional "family kitchen," nearly $30,000 for a new sound system, and $95,000 for an outdoor "living pod" featuring a pergola and electric heating, the Post reports, citing procurement records. The State Department also allocated more than $100,000 to house Sondland in an "alternate" residence in September and October.

The State Department defended the remodel, calling it part of a "regular 17-year cycle of reviewing and refreshing furnishings and interior décor in representational residences," and a person who has spoken with Sondland told the Post that the residence was "deteriorated and nearly unusable for representational purposes." One person with extensive knowledge of the residence before Sondland's arrival called that assessment "bulls--t," adding, "The house was in excellent condition."

The U.S. ambassador to the EU does host some events and working meetings, but most U.S. diplomatic events in Brussels are held at Whitlock Hall, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Peter Weber

3:24 p.m.

Experts are now convinced a February Champions League soccer game between the Italian club Atalanta and the Spanish club Valencia was at the forefront of an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Italy's Lombardy region, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, The Wall Street Journal reports.

More than 40,000 people crammed into San Siro stadium in Milan to watch the contest, a 4-1 victory for Atalanta. Then, two weeks later Bergamo, where Atalanta is based, experienced a major spike in cases, with scientists pinpointing the match as a crucial petri dish. "Two weeks after Feb. 19, there was an incredible explosion of cases," said Dr. Francesco Le Foche, an immunologist in charge of infectious diseases at Policlinico Umberto I in Rome. "The match played a huge role in disseminating coronavirus throughout Lombardy and in Bergamo in particular."

To put it in perspective, 35 percent of Valencia's traveling squad tested positive for the virus after the team returned to Spain. Only one Atalanta player tested positive, but the club has published death notices on its website for five people linked to the virus who were close to the club within the last two weeks, all of whom were present for Atalanta's victory over Valencia.

The match shows the type of role sporting events can play in furthering the spread of the virus, further explaining why nearly every professional league has shut down operations, and casting doubt on whether some sports will come back at all this year. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

3:16 p.m.

Everyone wants to write the great coronavirus anthem but — apologies to Bono — there can only be one John Mayer.

On his Instagram Live program this weekend, Mayer premiered a parody song called "Drone Shot of My Yacht," in which he skewers billionaires sitting out the pandemic on their luxury boats. It was such a hit, Mayer then reposted a minute-long version later in the week, Variety reports:

"This weekend's 'Not Now' goes to David Geffen, who posted an Instagram photo of himself on his boat saying he was isolated in the Grenadines," Mayer had told fans of his inspiration. "And I gotta tell you, I don't know where the Grenadines are. The most offensive thing to me in this post is assuming that I know where the Grenadines are." Jeva Lange

3:10 p.m.

The effects of the coronavirus shutdown are being felt everywhere, even in the Earth's crust.

The decrease in activity and transportation have led to a noticeable drop in seismic noise — the usual "hum of vibrations in the planet's crust." This quietude could help seismologists detect smaller earthquakes and more closely monitor volcanic activity, Nature reports.

Moving vehicles and industrial machinery usually cause vibrations that can get in the way of researchers looking to detect signals at the same frequency. A drop in activity of this size is typically only seen briefly at Christmastime, Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, told Nature.

"There's a big chance indeed it could lead to better measurements," Lecocq said. This includes a better chance at finding the locations of aftershocks, said Andy Frassetto, a seismologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. During the shutdown, seismologists are hoping to "squeeze a little more information on those events," he said. Read more at Nature. Taylor Watson

3:04 p.m.

Florida is getting a statewide stay-at-home order after its governor previously held off on taking the step.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced Wednesday he's issuing a stay-at-home order for all of Florida that will go into effect at midnight on Thursday and last for at least 30 days amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, NBC News reports.

In a press conference, DeSantis said he's ordering Floridians statewide to "limit movements and personal interactions outside the home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities." It "makes sense to make this move now," he added.

Florida had previously been among the last large U.S. states without a statewide stay-at-home order, and DeSantis was under mounting pressure to issue one; he previously ordered residents of Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties to stay at home, The Hill reports. The state has confirmed almost 7,000 coronavirus cases.

On Tuesday, DeSantis said that President Trump and his coronavirus task force "has not recommended" that he issue a statewide stay-at-home order but that if they did, "obviously that would be something that would carry a lot of weight with me." His announcement Wednesday came after he spoke over the phone with Trump, who recently extended the federal government's social distancing guidelines until the end of April, The New York Times reports.

"When the president did the 30-day extension, to me, that was, 'People aren't just going to back to work,'" DeSantis said Wednesday, per the Times. "That's a national pause button."

Asked in an appearance on Today on Wednesday about whether Florida should have a stay-at-home order, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams responded by describing the current federal social distancing guidelines as amounting to a "national stay-at-home order."

Brendan Morrow

2:23 p.m.

This year, tax season is for everyone.

President Trump approved a COVID-19 congressional spending package last week that would grant $1,200 individual checks to Americans making up to $75,000 each year; the benefits start to phase out after that threshold. But to access that check, Americans will have to file some kind of tax return even if they usually don't have to, IRS guidelines say.

Some social security recipients, senior citizens, low-income taxpayers, veterans, and people with disabilities are exempt from filing their taxes every year. Those exempt people most likely took in far less money than the coronavirus stimulus threshold and are counting on getting additional checks. But to do so, they'll have to file at least a simple tax return, and the IRS is recommending they do so as soon as possible.

But if those Americans are unfamiliar with filing taxes, the IRS's requirement could create even more problems, Seth Hanlon, a fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress, noted on Twitter. Filing programs for senior citizens such as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly have been shut down during the coronavirus crisis, and instead of calling the IRS for help, the agency recommends people with questions simply keep checking its website for updates.

Overall, it's unclear why this tax filing requirement is even necessary, seeing as the CARES Act spending package specifically allows the Treasury Department to use social security benefit information to figure out who's eligible for the payment. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:22 p.m.

President Trump reportedly disengaged from his plan to re-open the United States economy by April 12 in part because he was shaken by a personal connection to the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, Vanity Fair reports.

In March, Trump learned that his friend, 78-year-old real estate mogul Stan Chera, was in a coma at a New York hospital after falling ill with COVID-19. "Boy, did that hit home," prominent New York Trump donor Bill White told Vanity Fair. "Stan is like one of his best friends."

That wasn't the only reason for the change of heart, however. Trump's re-election campaign was also concerned by their polling numbers in red states, which reportedly "sucked." A former White House official said the campaign "panicked" after realizing they couldn't win states "getting blown to pieces" by the virus. The president himself reportedly said the campaign "doesn't matter anymore" because "what I do now will determine if I get re-elected." Read more at Vanity Fair. Tim O'Donnell

1:04 p.m.

Nobody is in the mood for April Fools' Day this year, but celebs apparently didn't get the memo. For the annual prankster holiday, Public Enemy's Chuck D came forward to announce that firing Flavor Flav in early March was actually an elaborate ruse (or as he called it, an "April Flav Chuck Day" joke), Pitchfork reports.

Meanwhile, Jaejoong, a member of the K-pop group JYJ, got himself into hot water when he pretended to have coronavirus, briefly terrifying his fans. "How can you pull a prank like this when the situation right now is so serious?" one furious follower wrote on Instagram. "It's really disappointing."

Lil' Nas X, the first openly gay black musician to win at the Country Music Awards for "Old Town Road," also pulled off a prank of his own, tweeting "I was never gay." Shortly thereafter, he followed up with: "Ok I'm gay again." Jeva Lange

See More Speed Reads