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Trump applauded audits taking place in various states and scoffed at the notion that all of this was subversive and problematic for society. “I’m not the one trying to undermine democracy,” Trump said as the crowd stood on their feet. “I’m the one trying to save it.”

The speech was not all about questioning the election’s legitimacy. In fact, that portion came nearly an hour into it. Prior to that, Trump bragged about his administration’s role in developing the coronavirus vaccine and attacked the Biden administration’s foreign policy, energy and immigration policies.

“If we had not come up with a vaccine, you would have had 1917 Spanish flu numbers,” Trump said of the virus’ death toll and Operation Warp Speed.

The former president attacked infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become a boogeyman for Trump and the right, as “not a great doctor, but a hell of a promoter.”

“Fauci said at the beginning, ‘no masks.’ Remember that? Then he became a radical masker. Get three, four. Get a pair of goggles, ideally. Wear them for another five or six years,” Trump said to laughter from the audience.

He was met with a standing ovation when he demanded China pay $10 trillion in “reparations” for its role in the coronavirus pandemic and again when he called for the banning of critical race theory in schools, the culture wars issue du jour for the GOP.

He recounted his favorite moments in office, re-litigated his long-standing grievances, and was unwilling to let go of the slights he believed marred his time in office — at one point recounting how the press covered his gingerly walk down a ramp after delivering a speech at West Point. At times, it gave off the vibe of an entertainer in the twilight of his career, playing the hits for a Vegas crowd. And, for good measure, the evening featured a relatively new addition to the Trump rally playlist: “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from “The Titanic” and the classic hit of Vegas-staple Celine Dion.

The crowd loved it.

Trump, who narrowly won North Carolina in the past two presidential elections, expressed optimism for the Republican Party in 2022 and beyond.

In a surprise announcement, he gave his “complete and total” endorsement to Rep. Ted Budd in the state’s Senate primary. The news — which Trump shared with Budd just 15 minutes before taking the stage — was made after Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, a native of Wilmington, N.C., publicly ruled out a run for the seat.

“Now you may have heard a rumor that I have been considering possibly running for Senate,” said Trump, who said she is instead focusing on her role as a mother. “I am saying no for now, not no forever.”

The speech served as a quasi kick off to the will-he-or-won’t-he stage of speculation around whether Trump will give a White House run another go. He has privately told confidantes that he is inclined to do so and recently put out a statement premised on the idea that he wouldn’t just run again, but win. Saturday was Trump’s first public speech since appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February. Since then, the ex-president has made remarks behind closed doors at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida and has done interviews with friendly, right-leaning shows.

“He just can’t quit it and get away from it,” said one former campaign adviser. “He probably sees this as a legacy defining thing, and I know it’s superficial to say but he doesn’t want to go out as a loser.”

Trump is planning to cross the country making a series of speeches this summer. So far, he’s expected to appear in Ohio, to support former White House aide turned congressional candidate Max Miller, in Alabama to support Republican Senate candidate Rep. Mo Brooks, in Georgia, where he remains embittered about the outcome of the 2020 election results, and his home state of Florida. He’s also scheduled to speak at CPAC Texas this July in Dallas.

“It’s really about getting back out to carry a positive message for America forward and start to contrast America First agenda versus a Biden short term results,” said a senior adviser to Trump. “Florida and Ohio are on the list to get out quickly and do rallies but it won’t stop there — he’s ready to re-engage in the political arena.”

An appearance via jumbotron at a “free speech” event next week hosted by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has openly speculated that Trump will be reinstated to the White House in August, is also likely, a spokesperson said. Trump himself has been absorbed with the Arizona audit that he has mused will result in his reinstatement. But one senior adviser said the former president does not seriously believe he will be returning to the White House through non-electoral means.

While publicly, allies of Trump have been supportive of him returning to the trail, behind the scenes there has been hand-wringing over how Trump’s obsession with re-litigating the 2020 elections could affect the midterms.

A person close to Trump noted some top Republican donors who have listened to Trump speak have been disappointed with the former president’s messaging.

“They came to hear something different and talk about the future and not the past,” the person said, of one recent event in Mar-a-Lago. “They didn’t hear anything new from Trump, more grievances and nothing new.”

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Guinea declares end to latest Ebola outbreak

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“I commend the affected communities, the government and people of Guinea, health workers, partners and everyone else whose dedicated efforts made it possible to contain this Ebola outbreak,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“Based on the lessons learned from the 2014–16 outbreak and through rapid, coordinated response efforts, community engagement, effective public health measures and the equitable use of vaccines, Guinea managed to control the outbreak and prevent its spread beyond its borders.” The U.N. said it will continue to provide post-illness care.

The CDC welcomed the news in a statement.

“I commend the government and first responders in Guinea for ending the country’s Ebola outbreak,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “Our heartfelt sympathies are with the people who lost loved ones to this disease. CDC remains committed to supporting survivor programs and helping strengthen global preparedness and response capacities that can prevent or extinguish future Ebola outbreaks.”

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Hard-line judiciary head wins Iran presidency amid low turnout

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In initial results, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei won 3.3 million votes and moderate Abdolnasser Hemmati got 2.4 million, said Jamal Orf, the head of Iran’s Interior Ministry election headquarters. The race’s fourth candidate, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, had around 1 million votes, Orf said.

Hemmati offered his congratulations on Instagram to Raisi early Saturday.

“I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran,” he wrote.

On Twitter, Rezaei praised Khamenei and the Iranian people for taking part in the vote.

“God willing, the decisive election of my esteemed brother, Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, promises the establishment of a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems,” Rezaei wrote.

The quick concessions, while not unusual in Iran’s previous elections, signaled what semiofficial news agencies inside Iran had been hinting at for hours: That the carefully controlled vote had been a blowout win for Raisi amid the boycott calls.

As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. At one polling place inside a mosque in central Tehran, a Shiite cleric played soccer with a young boy as most of its workers napped in a courtyard. At another, officials watched videos on their mobile phones as state television blared beside them, offering only tight shots of locations around the country — as opposed to the long, snaking lines of past elections.

Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night, and authorities said they expected to have initial results and turnout figures Saturday morning at the earliest.

“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders, and the lower participation in Western democracies. After a day of amplifying officials’ attempts to get out the vote, state TV broadcast scenes of jam-packed voting booths in several provinces overnight, seeking to portray a last-minute rush to the polls.

But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

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Apathy greets Iran presidential vote dominated by hard-liner

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“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders and the lower participation in Western democracies. But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord. Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also blocked from running, said on social media he’d boycott the vote.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Khamenei cast the first vote from Tehran, urging the public to “go ahead, choose and vote.”

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking in any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said.

But few appeared to heed the call. There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation of over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout will be just 44%, which would be the lowest since the revolution. Officials gave no turnout figures Friday, though results could come Saturday.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader, who already has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program.

“This is not acceptable,” said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change the theocracy from the inside during eight years in office. “How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?”

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners echoed that and bore the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. A polling station was set up by Soleimani’s grave on Friday.

Some voters appeared to echo that call.

“We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us,” said Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki.

Also hurting a moderate like Hemmati is the public anger aimed at Rouhani over the collapse of the deal, despite ongoing talks in Vienna to revive it. Iran’s already-ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

“It is useless,” said Ali Hosseini, a 36-year-old unemployed resident in southern Tehran, about voting. “Anyone who wins the election after some time says he cannot solve problem of the economy because of intervention by influential people. He then forgets his promises and we poor people again remain disappointed.”

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