A look at how the coronavirus outbreak developed across the world and how it has unfolded in Omaha.
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department moved Thursday to drop its prosecution of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's first national security adviser and the only White House official charged during the Russia investigation.
It was a dramatic undoing of one of the most high-profile cases brought by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
In a motion filed by Timothy Shea, the acting U.S. attorney in Washington, the Justice Department determined that "continued prosecution of this case would not serve the interests of justice."
Flynn has been fighting to have his case dismissed even though he pleaded guilty more than two years ago to lying to investigators. His efforts to seek exoneration became a political rallying cry for Trump and his supporters.
"He was an innocent man," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office after the Justice Department moved to drop the case. "Now in my book he's an even greater warrior."
Flynn's efforts have been aided by Attorney General William Barr, a critic of the Russia investigation who took the unusual step of asking the U.S. attorney in St. Louis to review the case. The examination has produced new documents that Flynn's allies have used to argue that he was mistreated.
The decision to drop the felony charge was revealed shortly after Brandon Van Grack, who helped lead the Flynn prosecution in Mueller's office and still works at the Justice Department, abruptlywithdrew from the case.
In February, several federal prosecutors withdrew from the case against Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser to Trump who was convicted of witness tampering and lying to Congress.
In that case, the prosecutors were protesting a Justice Department decision to disregard their request for a stiff sentence against Stone. Trump had publicly complained that their sentencing recommendation was too harsh, and the controversy raised questions about whether political considerations were having an improper effect on criminal cases.
Stone was eventually sentenced to 40months in prison, but he has not yet been incarcerated and is appealing his conviction.
Flynn pleaded guilty in late 2017 to lying to FBI agents about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador shortly after the 2016 election, when Moscow was seeking relief from U.S. sanctions. A retired Army three-star general, he also admitted illegally lobbying for Turkey while he was a senior Trump campaign adviser in 2016. But he wasn't charged for that as part of his plea deal with Mueller.
Flynn hasn't served any time behind bars, and he's been fighting to have his case dismissed by saying he was poorly served by his original legal team and framed by investigators. His lawyer also accuses VanGrack of improperly threatening to prosecute Flynn's son, who worked for his father's private consulting firm while it was lobbying for Turkey.
Despite Flynn's previous admissions of guilt, he now says he didn't lie.
Earlier this year, Barr asked the U.S. attorney in St. Louis to review the case against Flynn. New documents produced during the examination— some ofwhich remain under seal — have fueled a campaign to exonerate him.
Trump has also publiclymused about pardoning Flynn, even saying recently that he would consider him for another job in his administration.
"What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again!" Trump tweeted on April 30.
Prosecutors had originally recommended probation for Flynn, but they later accused him of violating the terms of his plea agreement and urged U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to impose a six-month sentence, saying he "has behaved as though the law does not apply to him."
Flynn was a well-regarded battlefield intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan before President Barack Obama elevated him to head the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012.
He was ousted from that job in 2014 for what Obama administration officials described as mismanagement, and he soon set up an international consulting firm. Flynn formed lucrative business relationships with Turks, Russians, U.S. companies and others, collecting large fees for speeches, lobbying and strategic advice.
He became one of Trump's most vocal supporters in the 2016 campaign, winning notoriety for angry denunciations of Hillary Clinton at the Republican National Convention.
Trump appointed Flynn national security adviser shortly after the election, but he didn't last long.
During the transition period, Flynn spoke several times with Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador in Washington. At the time, Obama had imposed sanctions on Moscow as punishment for meddling in the election, including the hacking and release of thousands of Democratic Party emails.
Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations, and he was dismissed on Feb. 13, 2017, after less than a month on the job.
Prosecutors said Flynn also lied in an interview with FBI agents on Jan. 24, 2017, by saying sanctions were not discussed during his phone calls.
Flynn originally admitted to lying but recently said in a court filing that "I did not lie to them" and claimed that the phone calls with Kislyak "are still events of which I do not have a clear memory."
Trump later asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, according to Comey, who was fired three months later. Trump denied making the request.
"He was an innocent man. Now in my book he's an even greater warrior." President Donald Trump on Michael Flynn
Big and small clusters of people — from a Zumba exercise class to local meatpacking plants — have driven the spread of the coronavirus, the Douglas County health director said Thursday.
Nearly half of Douglas County’s 1,205 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday resulted from clusters of two or more people, Dr. Adi Pour said during a press conference.
Seventy percent of those cluster cases can be attributed to the metro area’s nine meatpacking plants, but clusters also have been identified at manufacturing businesses, assisted living residences, a funeral and a small bakery, Pour said.
The novel coronavirus can most easily spread in close gatherings, she said.
“From a public health standpoint, I’m concerned that we are not having our infection under control,” Pour said, adding that people gathering together is not acceptable. “If we are continuing to do that, our infection rate is going to stay with us.”
She and Mayor Jean Stothert again stressed that despite the loosened restrictions, people should wear a mask while out in public, stay 6 feet away from others and not congregate in groups of more than 10.
In Douglas County, 392 workers in meatpacking plants have tested positive for the virus, Pour said. She said medical professionals are making recommendations to the plants, including for additional testing and housing workers in hotels so they don’t infect their families.
Each day, Douglas County records about 100 new confirmed positive cases of coronavirus, she said.
The county’s minority population has been disproportionately affected by the virus, probably because they often are in front-line jobs or working in factories where they are close together, Pour said.
As of Thursday, 69% of the confirmed positive cases affected people of color, Pour said. A month ago, that number was 26%.
Among minority groups, Latinos in Douglas County represent the biggest percentage of coronavirus cases. Despite making up about 13% of the county, Latinos represent about 39% of cases, Pour said.
Stothert on Thursday stressed that she does not want youth athletic teams to become new clusters to spread the virus and emphasized that teams should not practice or play until the end of May, per Gov. Pete Ricketts’ directed health measure.
She said she has heard from coaches and parents — some who claimed they’ve gotten special permission from Ricketts. But the mayor said no teams are allowed to congregate, whether in public or private spaces.
She acknowledged that people are getting tired of the restrictions but said it’s vital to not let up. She referenced the 1918 flu pandemic, which had a second surge of cases after restrictions were lifted.
“We don’t want people to lighten up and to stop doing all of these good habits that we have been encouraging all along,” Stothert said. “We don’t want a resurgence and that could happen.”
Stothert also said Thursday that about 5,000 households, most of them in west Omaha, did not have their trash picked up on Wednesday. Waste Management, the city-contracted company that handles solid waste collection, has experienced some disruptions because of the coronavirus, the mayor said.
Some of its employees have fallen ill or are taking care of family members, she said.
Those whose homes were missed were to have their trash collected on Thursday. Employees also will be working Saturday, Stothert said. Recyclables will not be collected on Friday, so anyone whose pickup is that day is asked to keep those items until next week.
» The mayor also announced that every firefighter in Omaha is being offered a nasal swab test for the coronavirus, as well as a blood draw to test for antibodies.
The testing initiative is part of a University of Nebraska Medical Center study with the goal of understanding more about antibodies — proteins that the immune system makes to fight off infection. Tests for antibodies, called serology tests, may give researchers a better idea of how widely the virus has spread.
Taylor Wilson, a UNMC spokesman, said officials are interested in learning how many front-line workers have developed the proteins. Long term, he said, medical officials want to know whether antibodies protect someone from contracting COVID-19. UNMC partnered with a private company to conduct the testing.
The voluntary testing began Wednesday and will continue through Friday. As of midday Thursday, 339 of the city’s 650 firefighters had been tested for antibodies, and 223 had been tested for the virus, the mayor said.
Stothert called firefighters the “perfect group” to examine because they frequently are out in the community, but then they eat, sleep and hang out in the station before going home to their families.
She said officials hope to get 100% participation.
With hymnals put away, physical distancing required and masks a must, some Omaha area churches will gather again for group services this weekend.
St. Cecilia Cathedral, considered the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, will offer services. Suburban Sarpy County’s St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church is another opening for services.
But a number of other churches will hold off, including King of Kings Church, Christ Community Church and Salem Baptist Church.
The first steps back follow Gov. Pete Ricketts’ move to reopen Nebraska even as some communities see rising cases and a new coronavirus testing regimen just gets underway.
The governor’s health directive establishes that each individual or household attending church must be physically separated from others by at least 6 feet. That social distancing should limit attendance.
On top of that, church and health officials are trying to keep at-risk people at home: the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, anybody who lives in those households — even anybody with restless children.
If someone who’s not in a vulnerable population plans to attend church, Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour offered this advice Thursday: Go only with family, keep physically distant from others, wear a mask, then go home.
“Then it would be safe for you,” Pour said.
The governor’s reopening directive applies only to the church service itself — not Sunday school or a luncheon or coffee before church. Pour specifically advised against socializing: “I’m afraid of the lingering around, at the front and the beginning of church, in the hall — that I would not recommend.”
The issue presents a tough balance for churches: They’re trying to minister to their communities through a health crisis, when the health crisis presents risks for gathering that community. In the absence of in-person worship services, churches have gone virtual in a number of formats.
The Rev. Richard Snow, Nebraska district president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said there’s a “great desire for the people of God to gather together.” But he said there’s a greater desire “to do so in a way that’s careful and doesn’t endanger the larger population.”
Out of the 240 Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in Nebraska, Snow estimated that less than one-third are planning to open for services.
Some of those are in communities without known coronavirus cases. Some have kept services below 10 people. But none of the large denominational churches in the Omaha area will open for services, he said.
The Rev. Jeff Loseke, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, said the church has been diligently preparing for Sunday. On Tuesday, the church started offering daily Mass again.
Loseke said he has sensed a more somber tone from his parishioners in attendance. But he said it has gone very well, with people being respectful, careful and willing to do what’s asked.
The church has been communicating details with parishioners — emailing them, posting a letter from Loseke on the church’s website, posting a video explaining the plan to reopen, then posting a second video showing people what to expect.
“In order to do this in the most responsible way,” Loseke told his parishioners, “we need everyone’s cooperation.”
Among the restrictions, people who want to attend must sign up for Mass through an online tool, and only those people will be allowed in. Ushers will greet people upon arrival, then escort them to a seat, starting with the front of the church and filling toward the back.
Each individual or family will be seated in a single pew, and every other pew will be blocked off.
People will be offered communion, but in a more regimented, separated procedure.
Loseke also asked people to not attend church in another parish.
Nearby, for instance, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Gretna won’t open for services until later in May.
“We’re all trying to figure out how to bring back people safely,” Loseke said in a video, “and we don’t need to all be coming back at once or coming to one place at the same time.”
St. Cecilia Cathedral will have similar restrictions for its weekend services.
The Rev. Michael Grewe, pastor at St. Cecilia Cathedral, said a lot of people are ready to take the first step back. But he said it’s extremely important to him for that step to be cautious and calculated.
“My word to them has been: Let’s do a very slow start,” Grewe said.
Other churches are holding off their restart.
In a video posted this week, Christ Community Church’s lead pastor, Mark Ashton, said the church will continue online services at least through May. Just because the governor says churches can open, Ashton said, doesn’t mean it’s the wisest thing for the church to do.
In a lighthearted video with a puppet next to him, Ashton said the required limitations would make services “not quite like Christ Community Church.”
The Rev. Greg Griffith, lead pastor at King of Kings Church, said King of Kings will follow four principles in reopening: Not hurry; follow government guidelines as a minimum standard for people’s comfort; make the experience welcome and caring with a “safe, secure, spacious and sanitized” environment; and phase in its approach.
A look at how the coronavirus outbreak developed across the world and how it has unfolded in Omaha.
Griffith said the church is preparing to reopen for services June 7 at this point.
“We’re just experiencing community in such different ways right now,” he said. “But we’re all in this together, and we’re going to get through this together.”
The Rev. Selwyn Q. Bachus, senior pastor at Salem Baptist Church in North Omaha, said the church is in no rush to return to group services.
Bachus said some Salem members are itching to get back, but others thank him for his patience and caution.
Bachus said he doesn’t want to put anyone in danger, especially considering the virus’ impact on the African American community. He said he sees so many unknowns as local cases continue to increase.
“We really don’t know what next week holds.”
World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.
Union Omaha’s die-hard soccer fans planned to leave the smoke bombs to the professionals.
But they were ready with everything else.
To transform the east berm of Werner Park into a raucous replica of their favorite European supporters sections, they needed massive flags and banners. And branded shirts and scarfs. And drums — really big drums — to be mobilized and marched from the parking lot tailgate through the stadium concourse. They wrote chants for players and coaches. And they created songs with lyrics tailored to the city and the club, with melodies reminiscent of old English pub anthems.
They hoped their enthusiasm during Union Omaha’s inaugural season this spring and summer would ignite the city’s budding soccer community and maybe introduce curious casual fans to the sport’s entrancing traditions.
At the very least, they’d all get to party together for 90 minutes of game time.
Then coronavirus shut down sports.
“The game-day atmosphere, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Ryan LeGrande, the treasurer of Omaha Parliament, the team’s official fan group. “You look at Husker football games in Lincoln, it’s been cultivated for years. But we were ready to show the league what we as Omaha fans could do.”
They’re the revving engine of a sports car sitting at a red light. But they don’t know when the signal will turn green.
So now what?
The zealous members of Omaha Parliament have been asking themselves that for weeks. There are more than 200 of them. More than 1,700 more local fans shelled out money for Union Omaha season tickets.
The latest idea: partnering with Benson Brewery to donate meals to local health care workers in conjunction with National Nurses Week.
That’s one free meal for every Omaha Parliament T-shirt sold at the restaurant through Saturday. The T-shirt price drops if patrons buy food for themselves, too.
“We have a bunch of creative energy, a bunch of super-passionate people,” said Chip Nelsen, vice president of the Parliament. “Now we’re trying to figure out how to harness our energy and keep everyone engaged.”
They figured that a fundraiser might be the best way for sports fans to band together during a coronavirus lockdown — especially for Union Omaha folks, who’d like to build upon their new-found connections.
There’s Jon Ryan, a data analyst at Mutual of Omaha, who initially fell in love with the sport while watching English Premier League matches. He moved here a little more than a year ago, heard about Union Omaha and immediately jumped on the bandwagon.
Luke Opperman, who grew up playing the game, went from being the guy his Conagra work friends heckled because of his affinity for soccer to a pillar of the Union Omaha supporters landscape. He helped start a fan podcast called “Who Gives a Hoot?”
Nelsen used to regularly meet up with friends at a bar to watch his favorite team, the German-based Bayern Munich. But he wasn’t previously crossing paths with a guy like LeGrande, who learned the rules of the game during college dorm room FIFA battles on Xboxes and now closely follows Sporting KC in Major League Soccer.
They were soccer junkies living in different realms. Now they’re invested together in Union Omaha.
“That’s the cool part about having a pro team here in Omaha,” LeGrande said. “As a soccer fan, you’d kind of feel isolated a little bit, like it’s just a little group. Then you see the base of people grow more and more … and you hear someone say, ‘I didn’t have a group that I could talk about this with until you guys came around.’ ”
LeGrande thinks, too, about the 6,745 fans in attendance for the Class A boys state title match last year. And the 4,096 fans on hand for a Creighton-UNO men’s match last fall.
What if they all showed up at Werner Park to cheer for the same team?
The Union Omaha brass was aiming to lead the league in attendance in Year 1 (Forward Madison FC averaged just more than 4,000 last season). An ambitious goal? Maybe. But once the local fervor for the new team became evident, team COO Matt Homonoff began to beam with optimism.
Werner Park officials had even put parameters in place to safely activate smoke bombs during games, per the request of the Parliament faithful.
“Does it take some coordinating and logistical planning? Absolutely,” Homonoff said. “But is it worth it? Absolutely. (Our fans) are just as much a part of our game-day experience as the product we put out on the field.”
Instead, for now, it’s all just a concept. A dream.
Nelsen has his basement full of waist-high boxes containing shirts and scarves. The big drums are stored away. The flags have not been ordered yet.
But they’ll keep brainstorming to find new ways to stay ready. Opperman is convinced the excitement will last.
“At this point, the die-hard soccer fans, they’re going to be there whenever it happens,” he said. “But getting everyone who’s been so sports deprived out there, and them seeing how much fun these soccer fans are having — that’s the thing I’m looking forward to.”