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December 15, 2016

On Wednesday afternoon, the Republican-dominated North Carolina legislature called a surprise fourth special session, just after finishing a third special session to approve $200 million in disaster relief. By Wednesday night, Republicans had filed a raft of bills that would significantly curb the power of incoming Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who narrowly defeated Gov. Pat McCrory (R) in November; McCrory finally conceded the race last week, and Cooper doesn't take office until Jan. 1, 2017. Democrats did not know about the new special session, approved Monday, until noon on Wednesday.

The GOP bills would end the governor's control over state and county election boards, require State Senate confirmation of Cooper's Cabinet appointees, strip him of authority to name trustees to the University of North Carolina, and cut to 300 from 1,500 the number of state employees who serve at the governor's pleasure, giving protection to hundreds of upper-level state employees appointed by McCrory, reversing an expansion McCrory approved right after he took over from his Democratic predecessor. Many of the election boards that would now have a bipartisan spilt had cut voting hours, polling locations, and Sunday voting when controlled by Republicans, measures all criticized as aiming to suppress black turnout.

Democrats had expressed concern that the GOP legislature would try to add two Republican justices to the Supreme Court, which flipped to a Democratic majority in the election, but instead Republicans filed a bill that would shift power from the Supreme Court to the GOP-majority Court of Appeals. "This is an unprecedented, shameful, and cowardly power grab from the Republicans," Jamal Little, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said of the GOP bills. Cooper was more restrained, urging lawmakers to, among other things, repeal HB 2, the transgender "bathroom" bill.

Republicans did not exactly deny the power-grabbing accusation. "I think, to be candid with you, that you will see the General Assembly look to reassert its constitutional authority in areas that may have been previously delegated to the executive branch," Rep. David Lewis (R) told reporters, adding that "some of the stuff we're doing, obviously if the election results were different, we might not be moving quite as fast on." Republican legislators, he added, will "work to establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing the state." Peter Weber

8:49 a.m.

Disney fans ain't never had a Genie like Will Smith.

The first images of Smith's version of the character in Disney's live-action Aladdin were revealed Wednesday via Entertainment Weekly. The first thing you'll notice is that he's not blue like in the animated version, although that doesn't mean he won't appear that way in the movie at all. EW reports that "the final version of Will Smith's Genie in his blue floating lamp form isn't quite finished."

Smith certainly has large shoes to fill by taking over for the late Robin Williams, but he told EW that he hopes to deliver a take on the character that is "an homage to Robin Williams" but still "musically different." Indeed, he said he'll be bringing some "hip-hop flavor" to the Disney universe, with one executive describing the character as part Fresh Prince, part Hitch. The "flavor of the character" will be "different enough" from the Williams version so that it's not trying to "compete" with it, Smith explained.

Entertainment Weekly's cover story reveals some other details about the movie: Smith's Genie will definitely be singing "Friend Like Me," and Jasmine will get a new solo number that wasn't in the original film. She'll also have a best friend character to play off of, with director Guy Ritchie saying he hopes to make her a "more rounded character.".

Disney's Aladdin hits theaters on May 24. Brendan Morrow

8:07 a.m.

Two years after Elon Musk, frustrated by traffic, dreamed up a high-speed tunneling system, we now have a glimpse at the concept in action.

Musk's Boring Company on Tuesday unveiled its first test tunnel in Hawthorne, California; it's 1.14 miles long and cost $10 million to construct, per CNN. The idea is eventually to have cars zip through the high-tech tunneling system at up to 150 miles per hour, but for this demonstration, the cars traveled closer to 35 miles per hour. Musk has described this as a "weird little Disney ride in the middle of L.A.," and indeed, a CNN reporter who tried it out observed that it "felt like an amusement park ride."

Musk believes tunnels could be an "actual solution to the soul-crushing burden of traffic," CNBC reports. The company hopes to build tunnels in Los Angeles and Chicago. Musk originally planned to have 16 people transported at a time via pods, but that idea was scrapped in favor of what's "much more like an underground highway," Musk told The New York Times.

Don't expect to use Boring Company tunnels for your commute anytime soon, though. Musk admits that they're "obviously at the early stages here" and called this example a prototype. Check out a video demonstration of the tunnel posted to The Boring Company's Twitter page below. Brendan Morrow

7:39 a.m.

President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claimed Sunday that nobody ever signed a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. It turns out, he was wrong: Trump himself signed the letter.

CNN on Tuesday obtained a copy of the Trump Tower Moscow letter of intent, which is from October 2015 and has Trump's signature on it. Although this was a non-binding agreement, its discovery is significant considering Giuliani claimed during an interview just two days earlier that "there was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it."

While Trump repeatedly denied during the 2016 presidential election having any business in Russia, he was negotiating a major real-estate deal in the country. The deal did not end up moving forward. Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty last month to lying to the Senate about when these negotiations ended; he originally said they stopped by January 2016 but later admitted they continued for longer. Giuliani in a Sunday interview suggested the conversations continued all the way up to November 2016. Brendan Morrow

6:56 a.m.

With about a quarter of the federal government set to shut down at midnight on Friday and Congress and the White House still at an impasse over President Trump's demands for money for a border wall, the Senate Appropriations Committee is drafting a continuing resolution to finance the nine unfunded Cabinet-level departments at current levels through early February, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said late Tuesday. Lawmakers appear resigned to this short-term fix, eager to avoid a third partial shutdown this year, though Republicans are not sure what Trump would be willing to sign.

Trump isn't saying much, either. Earlier Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders softened the administration's opposition to any legislation that doesn't give Trump $5 billion for his wall. Instead, Sanders said Trump would accept $1.6 billion and find the remaining $3.4 billion from other agencies. There are "other ways" to fund the wall, she said, and Trump "has asked every agency to look and see if they have money that can be used." Trump has previous suggested he would raid the Pentagon budget for the money.

A $5 billion down payment on Trump's wall would be only 0.1 percent of the federal budget, The Washington Post notes, "but even moving around that amount of money could be considered illegal without congressional approval." On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed giving Trump $1.6 billion for border fencing and repairs plus another $1 billion from previously approved funding that Trump could use on the border wall, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said no. "We cannot support the offer they made of a billion-dollar slush fund for the president to implement his very wrong immigration policies," Pelosi said. "So, that won't happen."

McConnell said he feels comfortable predicting that the government won't shut down before Christmas. Peter Weber

5:16 a.m.

Stephen Colbert had incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Tuesday's Late Show, and he wasted little time with niceties. "Is there something you know that you can't tell me, that would just blow my brains out?" he asked. "Yes," Schiff said, but he appeared to be joking. Still, in the public domain, "when you think about what we've seen in the last few weeks, it's really quite shocking," he added. He started with ex-Trump fixer Michael Cohen's revelations about Trump's business negotiating with Russia for a Moscow building well into the 2016 campaign.

The presumptive GOP nominee for president was "misleading the country and privately seeking the Kremlin's help to make a deal — and what we've seen subsequently is that not only was he hiding this from the country, the Kremlin was helping in the cover-up," Schiff said. "Wait, are you saying the Russians lied to us?" Colbert asked in mock outrage. Schiff laughed, briefly. "We expect the Russians to lie," he said. "We expect a president of the United States to be telling the truth, and therein lies the problem."

"For two years, we've had this deeply unethical man running the country, and for two years, the Republican Congress has done nothing to oversee any of the allegations of malfeasance — and that stops now," Schiff said. "One of the most basic rules of doing investigation is you follow the money. We were not allowed to follow the money," but it's now incumbent to find out what leverage Russia and Saudi Arabia have over the president. "Is foreign funding influencing U.S. policy in a way that's not in our national interest?" Schiff asked. "I think it would be negligent for us not to find out."

Colbert and Schiff discussed other areas of inquiry, and Colbert ended with a final observation: "I've interviewed you several times before. I've never seen you look this happy." Watch below. Peter Weber

4:10 a.m.

On Tuesday, Nevada boldly went where no man-minority state legislature has gone before. With Las Vegas county officials appointing two women to fill vacancies in the state Assembly — Rochelle Thuy Nguyen and Beatrice "Bea" Angela Duran, both Democrats — Nevada officially became the first state with an overall female majority in the state legislature. The Assembly will now be 55 percent female, with women holding 23 of 42 seats — enough to overcome the slight male majority in the state Senate, where women hold nine of 21 seats.

Nevada and Colorado both elected female-majority lower houses in November, following the lead of New Hampshire's 2009-10 state Senate. But "it is unprecedented at this point to see a majority female legislature overall," says Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor at Rutgers, whose Center for American Women and Politics tracks female political representation. When lawmakers are sworn in next year, women will hold 28.6 percent of state legislative seats in the U.S., up from 24.3 percent a decade ago.

Nevada will also be represented nationally in January by two female U.S. senators and a House delegation with two women and two men; voters elected three female Nevada Supreme Court justices as well, giving women a 4-3 majority on the court. According to the last census, Nevada is 49.8 percent female, the Los Angeles Times notes. Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak (D), whose final meeting as Clark County Commission chairman involved voting to appoint Duran and Nguyen, called the female-majority legislature "a great milestone!" Peter Weber

3:24 a.m.

The Satanic Temple of Chicago wanted to install a holiday-themed "Snaketivity" sculpture in the Illinois capitol building in Springfield, and state allowed them to "because of that pesky First Amendment," Jimmy Kimmel said on Tuesday's Kimmel Live. "Religious leaders are understandably upset that something from the Church of Satan is in the building, and of course when things like this happen, I go directly to the top — I don't mess around. And in this case, that is God. So, God are you there?"

Not only was God (Billy Crystal) there, but so was Satan (Dave Grohl). "Me and Satan, we're cool," Crystal said, explaining why he doesn't support removing the sculpture. "We made up. Hey listen, folks, if Taylor Swift and Katy Perry can make up, why can't we?" You can watch God and Satan banter, hear about their brunch and Fortnite reunions, and see them play rock-scissors-paper over Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) below. Peter Weber

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