Hoax charges dropped
Prosecutors dropped charges this week against Jussie Smollett for faking a racist, anti-gay assault, outraging city officials. The Empire actor, 36, claimed vindication, yet prosecutors insisted they still believe Smollett staged the January attack. They offered little explanation for abandoning the case, pointing to Smollett’s community service and agreement to forfeit his $10,000 bond to the city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the bond “doesn’t even come close” to the cost of the investigation that revealed Smollett’s alleged hoax, calling the decision not to prosecute “a whitewash of justice.” Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the actor “chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system.” Such a deal typically requires the accused to admit guilt, yet Smollett said he had “been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one.”
Kushner’s private chats
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was pressed this week by House investigators regarding his use of the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell told Cummings last December that Kushner uses WhatsApp to conduct official White House business, including corresponding with foreign leaders, which would violate the Presidential Records Act. Lowell disputes Cummings’ account, saying Kushner takes screenshots of messages and forwards them to his official email. CNN reported that Kushner has used WhatsApp to communicate with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who allegedly ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Cummings’ inquiry follows the disclosure that Trump overrode his advisers to grant Kushner top-secret security clearance.
Green New Deal
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called a procedural vote on the Green New Deal this week, daring Democrats to go on record supporting their polarizing plan to stem climate change. The measure failed 57 to 0, with every Republican and four Democratic caucus members voting “no.” The other 43 senators voted “present.” McConnell described the Green New Deal’s promises—net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and a national jobs program—as a “far-left wish list,” adding, “Do you believe it’s a prescription for America? Then why would you not want to vote for it?” The proposal, introduced in the House by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is backed by all six Senate Democrats running for president. But Democrats called the vote a sham, sensing a ruse to pin them down to a vote that could be pilloried without substantive discussion or hearings.
Voting on trial
North Carolina and Maryland
The Supreme Court hinted this week that it may finally rule on partisan gerrymandering. The justices heard oral arguments for challenges to congressional districts drawn by North Carolina Republicans and Maryland Democrats. The court’s conservative majority has declined to weigh in on five recent occasions, and has been reluctant to define what qualifies as a properly representative district. But gerrymandering’s rising brazenness and sophistication have brought the issue to a head. Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern over Maryland’s efforts, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh said, “Extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy.” Districts nationwide will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and advanced data analysis makes partisan border drawing even more effective. “The technology will only get better,” Justice Elena Kagan said last year, “so the 2020 cycle will only get worse.”
New York City
Federal prosecutors charged celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti this week with attempting to extort as much as $25 million from Nike. On phone calls with Nike attorneys, Avenatti allegedly threatened to “take $10 billion off your client’s market cap” by exposing allegations that the company was bribing student athletes to attend Nike-sponsored colleges. Avenatti is said to have demanded that Nike pay him between $15 million and $25 million to conduct an “internal investigation,” or pay $22.5 million to “resolve any claims” from his client. Released on $300,000 bond, Avenatti said he’d be “fully exonerated,” adding, “People make threats all the time in connection with trying to settle a case.” In a separate federal embezzlement and tax case in Los Angeles, Avenatti was charged this week with bank and wire fraud. Asked whether he’s nervous about facing a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison if convicted, Avenatti said, “Of course.”
Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla.
Jeremy Richman, father of one of the 20 first-graders killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, committed suicide this week. His death comes a few days after two teenagers who survived the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took their own lives. Richman, 49, created a foundation named for his daughter, Avielle, to research links between mental health and violence; a week before his death he was in Florida, where he met with parents of one of the 17 students killed at Stoneman Douglas. “We wanted to prevent others from suffering the way that we were suffering, and continue to suffer to this day,” Richman said while visiting Florida. Richman’s visit came just two days after former Stoneman Douglas student Sydney Aiello, 19, killed herself. She’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and felt unsafe in college classrooms. ■