10 things you need to know today: December 23, 2019

Harold Maass

1.

Democrats on Sunday issued a fresh call for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial whose testimony President Trump blocked during the House investigation. The demand came after newly released emails indicated that White House budget officials ordered a freeze on military aid to Ukraine about 90 minutes after Trump's controversial July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The documents bolstered evidence of a link between the phone call and the alleged effort by Trump and his associates to use the security aid as leverage to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Trump says he did nothing wrong. [CNN]

2.

A court in Saudi Arabia on Monday sentenced five people to death over the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Three others were sentenced in the secret trial to a combined 24 years in prison for covering up the crime and other offenses. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, went into the consulate seeking documents he needed to get married, as his fiancee waited for him outside. A team of Saudi agents murdered him inside. The agents included close aides to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who denied involvement but has faced broad international condemnation over the case. State TV reported that the government cleared the crown prince's top adviser, Saud al-Qahtani, whom the U.S. sanctioned over his alleged role. [The Associated Press, The New York Times]

3.

A group of more than 100 conservative evangelical Christians on Sunday sent a letter to Christianity Today magazine protesting an editorial the magazine published calling for removing President Trump from office. The signatories painted the criticism of Trump as a swipe at them, the president's supporters. "Your editorial offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations," the evangelicals wrote. The evangelicals focused criticism on Christianity Today Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli, who wrote the anti-Trump editorial, and suggested that they might stop reading and advertising in the magazine. Galli on Sunday acknowledged some readers had canceled subscriptions since the editorial came out, but said three times as many people had bought new ones. [The Associated Press, CNBC]

4.

President Trump has invited Boris Johnson for a White House visit following the British prime minister's recent election landslide, The Sunday Times of London reported. Johnson campaigned promising to "Get Brexit Done." He is pushing to lead the U.K. out of the European Union on Jan. 31. Johnson's office said no formal timing for the visit had been set, but a White House source said mid-January was a possibility. The invitation came as the two sides start negotiations for a post-Brexit trade agreement, and Trump faces a Senate impeachment trial. Trump congratulated Johnson after his Conservative party's win, saying the U.S. and Britain could now make a trade deal that could be "far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U." [The Sunday Times, New York Post]

5.

A chain-reaction crash involving nearly 70 vehicles left 51 people injured and shut down I-64 in Virginia on Sunday. Most of the injuries were minor, although several patients reportedly had "serious" or "moderate" injuries, a spokesman for a local hospital treating 24 of the patients said. The crash occurred on a foggy bridge in the morning. It forced the closure of both directions of the highway on a busy weekend of holiday travel. The eastbound lanes were reopened after about three hours, but the westbound lanes remained closed into the afternoon. Motorist Ivan Levy said he and his wife were heading to Williamsburg in separate cars when he entered thick fog and slowed down. "Next thing I know I see cars just start piling up on top of each other," he said. He stopped in time but his wife was involved in the wreck, escaping with minor injuries. [USA Today]

6.

North Korea's threatened "Christmas gift" for the U.S. could be a new hard-line policy toward the U.S., CNN reported Monday, citing a source familiar with the North Korean leadership's thinking. As part of the change, Pyongyang is expected to drop negotiations with the U.S. on curbing its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, signaling the country's intention to solidify its status as a nuclear-armed state. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traded insults and threats shortly after Trump took office in 2017, but they met three times after negotiations raised hopes for a deal. The talks have stalled since then, and the source told CNN that Kim is expected to take a "wait and see" attitude as Trump faces an impeachment trial and a 2020 election challenge. [CNN]

7.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said Sunday that he was open to breaking with Democrats and voting against the two articles of impeachment against President Trump. Jones said he would only support removing Trump from office if the evidence was there to prove that Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Vice President Joe Biden, a leading potential rival in the 2020 election, and tried to obstruct a House investigation into the allegations. Jones told ABC's This Week that he is still "trying to see if the dots get connected," but if the evidence backs up the charges, "it's an impeachable matter." Jones next year faces what is expected to be a tough battle to win re-election in a deeply red state. [USA Today]

8.

Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters are preparing a series of demonstrations through Christmas week following a fresh round of clashes with police over the weekend. Protesters plan to rally at five shopping malls on Christmas Eve and will hold a countdown to the holiday in the China-ruled financial hub's busy harbor front shopping district. Several more protests are scheduled for Christmas Day. On Sunday, black-clad, masked protesters at a weekend rally threw bricks and bottles at police, who responded by releasing pepper spray. One police officer drew his pistol but no shots were fired at the rally, which was held to show solidarity for minority Muslim Uighurs facing a Chinese government crackdown in the western region of Xinjiang. China said it "strongly" condemned some of the protesters for calling for Hong Kong independence. [Reuters, Bloomberg]

9.

Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission said Monday that the country's election might go into a runoff depending on the result of a review of thousands of complaints. The long-delayed preliminary result announced Sunday showed incumbent President Ashraf Ghani winning narrowly, but the Sept. 28 vote was called into question by allegations of widespread fraud and technical violations. The initial count showed Ghani winning with 50.64 percent of the vote, beating his main rival Abdullah Abdullah by just enough to avoid a second round. Election officials said, however, that if the complaint review drops Ghani below the 50 percent threshold and nobody else rises above it, there is a "strong possibility" the election would head into a second round. [Reuters]

10.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker dominated the weekend box office with $175.5 million in North American ticket sales. The J.J. Abrams movie's debut was the third biggest December launch ever. It fell short of the $200-million-plus debuts of Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015 and Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017. The Rise of Skywalker brought in a total of $373.5 million worldwide. The big debut for the ninth chapter in the Star Wars series topped off a huge year for Disney, which already has six films that have topped $1 billion at the box office this year. Still, The Rise of Skywalker received many bad reviews, and some analysts had expected it to make as much as $200 million domestically in its first weekend. [The Hollywood Reporter, CNN]

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