December 19, 2018

Rudy Giuliani just can't make up his mind about that Trump Tower Moscow letter.

On Sunday, the president's lawyer said "no one signed" a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. But CNN obtained a copy of the letter, signed by President Trump, just days later. That left Giuliani with no choice but to backtrack on everything he previously said, as documented by the New York Daily News on Tuesday.

The abandoned plans to build a Trump Tower in Russia — and just how long talks about those plans lasted — have sparked inquiries into Trump's closeness with Russia, especially during the 2016 election cycle. Trump has repeatedly claimed the deal was over before he started running for president. Yet for some reason, Giuliani told CNN on Sunday that "conversation[s]" about the project may have lasted until November 2016, but "it went nowhere."

Also on Sunday, Giuliani said "there was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it." Except CNN found that letter, dated October 2015, and Trump did sign it. So Giuliani took back the exact words he said on national TV. "I don't think I said nobody signed it," Giuliani told the Daily News on Tuesday, doubling down by adding that "of course" Trump signed it and asking "how could you send it but nobody signed it?" He then called the letter "bullsh-t" and affirmed that it "means nothing but an expression of interest." Kathryn Krawczyk

1:46 p.m.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Friday that the "federal government is now fully in control" of the Tigray region's capital, Mekelle, after a successful military offensive, Reuters reports. It's a crucial development in the weeks-old intra-country conflict.

Abiy said police are searching for leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, who have been fighting the government's forces throughout November, and aim to "bring them to the court of law." He added that military operations have ended and the government's focus is now "rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance." There has been no comment from the TPLF.

Earlier in the day, a spokeswoman for Abiy said the military would not target civilian areas, while Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the TPLF, told Reuters that Mekelle was under "heavy bombardment."

It has been difficult for news organizations to verify claims from either side over the course of the conflict since phone and internet links to Tigray have been down. Read more at Reuters and Al Jazeera. Tim O'Donnell

1:28 p.m.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew to Saudi Arabia last week for a secret meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the hopes of striking a deal that would normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. But he came home empty handed after Prince Mohammed backed out, The Wall Street Journal reports.

His reasoning, Saudi advisers and U.S. officials, told the Journal was President-elect Joe Biden's victory over President Trump in the U.S. general election. Although the Trump administration was a factor in the recent so-called Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Prince Mohammed reportedly wants to build ties with Biden and was reluctant about following suit while Trump is still in office, although the chances of that happening reportedly aren't impossible.

Negotiating normalization agreements Israel and Arab nations is one Trump policy Biden seems likely to keep pursuing, but the president-elect has taken a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia than Trump, especially after killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Journal notes, so reviving talks with the new administration may be Prince Mohammed's best chance "to repair its image in Washington," a U.S. official said. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

1:01 p.m.

Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., tested negative for the coronavirus for the third time during a 10-day quarantine in Rome on Saturday morning, and a few hours later, he officially became the first Black American to earn the rank of cardinal.

Gregory was among 11 men who traveled to the Vatican after Pope Francis had chosen to elevate them to the College of Cardinals last month. There were 13 new cardinals selected, but two opted out of going to Rome over coronavirus concerns.

The 72-year-old Gregory will be eligible to vote for the next pope, should it be necessary, until he turns 80.

Per The Washington Post, Gregory said he hopes to be a "voice for the African American community in the pope's ear," adding that his selection is an "important recognition that the African American, the Black Catholic community, is an important component within the larger, universal church."

The ceremony inside St. Peter's Basilica reflected the times, as the new cardinals sat in socially distanced rows while wearing masks. Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

12:06 p.m.

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel on Saturday held a pre-Georgia Senate runoff "meet and greet" at the Cobb County GOP office in Marietta, Georgia. CNN's DJ Judd, who was on the scene, reported that a fair amount of the conversation around the event revolved around President Trump, rather than Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), who are both in competitive races to retain their seats in the upper chamber.

Voters in attendance reportedly wanted to hear about general election recount efforts around the country, and one person asked McDaniel why Georgia voters should "trust" the runoff elections when they've "already been decided." McDaniel argued that they haven't been decided, and, in fact, look hopeful for Republicans at the moment, adding that "if you lose your faith and you don't vote ... that will decide it."

McDaniel remained upbeat throughout, and appeared to have strong support from the crowd by the end when she received a round of applause after telling the audience Trump would want them to get out and vote for Loeffler and Perdue. But the doubt-filled question did appear to highlight some of the challenges the party will face as the Trump campaign continues to push unfounded allegations of voter fraud. Tim O'Donnell

Tim O'Donnell

11:17 a.m.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday said Iran would not leave the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of Iran's top nuclear scientists whom Israeli and American intelligence officials suspected led Tehran's nuclear weapons program, "unanswered." Rouhani blamed Israel for the assassination — "once again, the evil hands of global arrogance and the Zionist mercenaries were stained with the blood of an Iranian son," he said — and warned of retaliation "in due time."

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei didn't mention Israel in his response, but he said Iranian officials must commit to "pursuing this crime and punishing its perpetrators and those who commanded it."

Israel hasn't publicly commented on the incident, but U.S. officials told The New York Times that Jerusalem was indeed behind Friday's attack. It's unclear how much the U.S. knew before it took place, but the two countries are close allies and often share intelligence on Iran.

Although there was no official word from the Israeli government, the country reportedly put its embassies on high alert around the world. The military, however, reportedly remains on "routine footing," perhaps indicating that Israel expects a potential Iranian retaliation to be on a smaller scale. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

10:28 a.m.

That seemingly didn't go according to plan.

President-elect Joe Biden picked up 257 votes in Wisconsin's Milwaukee County on Friday after the Trump campaign demanded a recount there. President Trump did pick up some votes, as well, but the 125 he received gives Biden a net gain of 132.

Biden won Wisconsin by around 20,000 votes, which was close enough for the Trump campaign to call for recounts, and a separate one in Dane County is expected to finish Sunday, so the president could still decrease his deficit. But Dane County is also Democratic-leaning, so it's unlikely the recount will significantly alter the results either way.

The Trump campaign's efforts, which are grounded in unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, cost $3 million.

Trump's lawyers are still expected to mount a legal challenge of the overall vote in Wisconsin, The Guardian notes, but the state is on track to certify its results Tuesday. Read more at The Guardian and Business Insider. Tim O'Donnell

7:56 a.m.

United Airlines on Friday began operating charter flights carrying the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech to expedite its distribution should it receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks, two people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal reviewed a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration detailing United's plans to fly chartered flights between Brussels International Airport — Pfizer has a final-assembly center in Puurs, Belgium — and Chicago O'Hare International Airport, and the FAA said in a statement Friday it was supporting the "first mass air shipment of a vaccine."

The agency said it will also allow United to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight, five times more than what is normally permitted, to ensure the low storage temperature required for Pfizer's vaccine is maintained throughout the flights. The dry ice will be packed inside suitcase-sized boxes containing the vaccine. Per The Hill, the FAA said air traffic services will prioritize flights carrying vaccine cargo.

The flights are just one aspect of Pfizer's distribution, the Journal notes. The company also includes refrigerated storage sites in Puurs and Kalamazoo, Michigan, as well as expanded storage capacity at distribution sites in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and Karlsruhe, Germany. There will reportedly be dozens of cargo flights and hundreds of truck trips each day. Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell

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