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In his first comments on the investigation, Putin didn’t dispute any details of the findings but essentially confirmed that FSB agents did indeed trail Navalny.

Putin claimed without evidence that Navalny — whom he referred to as “this patient in the Berlin clinic” — is being supported by US intelligence services, adding, “if that’s correct, then that’s interesting, then of course [our] special services need to keep an eye on him.”

“But that doesn’t mean he needs to be poisoned, who needs him anyway? If [they] wanted to, they would’ve probably finished it,” Putin added. “But in this case, his wife asked me, and I immediately gave the order to let him out of the country to be treated in Germany… This is a trick to attack the leaders [in Russia].”

In CNN’s report published Monday, experts in toxicology said Novichok could take up to 12 hours to affect the nervous system, depending on the dosage and how it’s administered. Short of injecting exactly the right dose into someone, it is almost impossible for the perpetrator to dose Novichok so as to incapacitate rather than kill.

Putin described reports about Navalny — to whom he did not at any point refer by name — as “implanted stories.”

“There is actually nothing surprising about the fact that these implanted stories are taking place. They have always been and will always be,” he said.

Putin held the marathon press conference at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence in the Moscow region. A select group of socially distanced state media journalists, who had to undergo quarantine before attending, were in the room with him. Other journalists and citizens posed questions via video link from Moscow and elsewhere.

‘Russia is responsible for this heinous act’

Following Putin’s press conference, the US State Department pinned responsibility for the poisoning of the Russian opposition figure squarely on Russia and accused Russia of engaging in a “shameless disinformation campaign” to shift culpability for the crime.

“Russia has provided only wildly imaginative alternative theories in an attempt to sow doubt. Their goal is to make people wonder if there might be another plausible explanation for Navalny’s poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN. “There is not. Russia is responsible for this heinous act.”

“Russia’s shameless disinformation campaign, including its efforts to shift the blame for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning, will not deter us and our allies from seeking accountability for this crime,” the State Department spokesperson said.

The spokesperson noted that “Russia has a record of targeting opposition figures and dissenters with chemical agents in the past — including the Skripals in the UK in 2018.

“Broadly speaking, the United States is troubled by Russian authorities’ efforts to crack down on the political opposition,” they said. “We also note with grave concern that this incident follows a trend of suspicious incidents against opposition and other figures critical of Russian authorities.”

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices,” the spokesperson said.

‘Informational warfare’

In a short Q&A session after the 4.5-hour event, Putin claimed the CNN-Bellingcat investigation, which established that a group of FSB agents trailed opposition leader Navalny using billing data obtained by Bellingcat, was a form of “information warfare” facilitated by foreign special services.

Russian minister says Navalny poisoning reports 'funny to read'

Asked whether he believes that the personal data of Russian security officers being “stolen” by other intelligence agencies is a “routine thing,” Putin replied: “This happens all the time and this happens everywhere, we know that they are not even hiding that, and some former employees of the NSA talk about this in general, not only in terms of us but even their own citizens.

“This is how the special services work there. I honestly don’t see anything [special] in it, this is just a compilation, a dump where everything is being dumped, dumped, dumped in hopes that it will make an impression on the citizens, instill mistrust towards political leadership,” Putin added. “This is one of the forms of information warfare.”

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was also asked why Navalny was being surveilled by a group of FSB agents, identified in the CNN-Bellingcat investigation.

“The president said why they are keeping an eye on him… the growing ‘ears’ of foreign special services and, as we have repeatedly said, the various statements about overthrowing the government also raise a lot of questions,” Peskov said.

Meanwhile Navalny, who continues his recovery in Germany after spending weeks in a coma in Berlin’s Charite clinic, responded Thursday for the first time to questions from the Russian authorities about the poisoning.

“I spent the entire first half of the day in the German prosecutor’s office. They interrogated me at the request of the Russian side,” Navalny wrote on his Facebook page.

“[Russian authorities] asked [the German side] to interrogate me and sent in their questions. I was asked these questions, the answers were protocoled and will be sent to Moscow,” Navalny added in his post.

Russian authorities have been requesting materials from the German investigation for months.

Putin denies US election interference

Putin also addressed the question of Russia’s troubled relations with the United States, saying he hoped some of the problems would be resolved under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

“We proceed from the fact that the elected president of the United States will understand what’s going on — he is an experienced man, both in domestic and foreign policy,” Putin said.

Putin, Bolsonaro and AMLO finally congratulate Biden on US election victory
Putin congratulated Biden on his election victory this week, six weeks after the vote and after the Electoral College officially affirmed Biden’s win.

Asked why the Russian hackers did not “help get Trump elected” in the 2020 presidential run, Putin slammed the question — from famous musician-turned-journalist Sergey Shnurov — as a provocation and once again denied any interference in US elections.

“Russian hackers did not help the still-acting US president get elected and did not intervene in the internal affairs of this great country,” Putin said. “This is just a speculation. It is a pretext to hurt US-Russia relations; it’s a pretext to not acknowledge the legitimacy of the still-acting head of state of the US due to internal political reasons.”

The US intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election to help then-candidate Trump. That conclusion was supported in a bipartisan report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year.

Trump repeatedly dismissed claims that Russia tried to help him win in 2016 as a “hoax.”

CNN has reached out to the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence for comment, but has received no response.

Shnurov, of television station RTVI, also half-jokingly asked Putin if Russia would be willing to support Trump after he leaves office and give him a job or an asylum in Russia, as granted to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Christopher Krebs: We prepared for more Russian interference. But this year the assault on democracy was from within the US

“There is no need for Trump to seek a job [in Russia]. Almost 50% of the population voted for him if we count the popular vote and not the electoral college,” Putin said. “[Trump] has a fairly large support base within the United States, and, as far as I understand, he is not going to leave the political life of his country.”

Putin then accused the US intelligence services of interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs by “planting” stories about the financial activities of his family and allies, without offering any evidence.

“That’s the State Department and the US security services, they are the real authors. Anyway, this has clearly been done on their orders. This is absolutely obvious,” Putin said. He added that “the goal is to take revenge and attempt to influence public opinion in our country.”

Putin, who has been in power for two decades, said he had not yet decided whether he would stand again for President in 2024, when his current term expires.

A constitutional amendment voted through earlier this year by Russian lawmakers and approved in a national referendum could allow him to stay in power until 2036.

Putin urges mass vaccination

Earlier in the press conference, Putin — who is 68 — confirmed that he has not been inoculated with a Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, as it is yet to be recommended for people older than 60.

With vaccine rollout comes onslaught of disinformation

“The vaccines that are being circulated among the general population today are intended for people in a certain age group, and the vaccines have not yet reached people like me,” said Putin.

“I’m a law-abiding citizen in that matter, I listen to the recommendations of our specialists and so far haven’t taken it. But I will do it as soon as it becomes a possibility.”

Russia registered Sputnik V in August ahead of key large-scale Phase 3 trials necessary to establish the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, drawing skepticism both in Russia and internationally. According to the product description, the vaccine is recommended for use in people aged 18 to 60 and is not advised for people with a number of chronic diseases and health conditions.

“I think it’s necessary to [have mass vaccination], specialists across the world say that mass vaccination is one of the very few ways to overcome this pandemic, it should create population immunity,” Putin said. “And I repeat that our vaccine is effective and safe, so I see no reason not to vaccinate.”

Phase 3 trials are currently ongoing, but the country is already moving towards mass vaccination. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which sponsored the vaccine’s development, said that more than 200,000 Russians had been inoculated as of December 14.

During the news conference, Putin also touched on production challenges faced by Russia, saying the country so far does not have enough “hardware” to manufacture the necessary amount of the vaccine and is working to increase the number of suitable production sites.

CNN’s Mary Ilyushina reported from Moscow and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Anna Chernova contributed to this report.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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