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March 21, 2018

Tuesday's House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Housing and Urban Development Department's budget ended up largely being about HUD Secretary Ben Carson's office furniture budget — specifically, the $31,000 mahogany dining set Carson's office ordered. Carson "offered a rambling, at times contradictory, explanation of the purchase of the table, chairs, and hutch," The New York Times notes, pinning the blame variously on safety considerations; his wife, Candy Carson; and staff members.

In his telling, Carson was blameless and ignorant of the cost, despite emails showing that his top aides were aware of the price tag and discussed how to get around the $5,000 office redecoration cap. "It's my understanding that the facilities people felt that the dining room table was actually dangerous," Carson said. "People are being stuck by nails, a chair collapsed with somebody sitting in it, it's 50 years old." It wasn't clear when those things happened, or if Carson was even being literal.

Claiming he's "not big into redecorating," Carson said he "invited my wife to come and help" pick out the new furniture he was told he was entitled to. "I left it to my wife, you know, to choose something. I dismissed myself from the issues," Carson said, and his wife "selected the color and style ... with the caveat that we were both not happy about the price." Candy Carson, he added, is "the most frugal person in the world," and "if anybody knew my wife, they would realize how ridiculous this was."

American Oversight, the watchdog group that requested the emails linking the Carsons to the purchase, found Carson's explanation a little ridiculous. "Setting aside the issue of whether it is appropriate for Secretary Carson to delegate decisions regarding the use of taxpayer funds to his wife, this is now at least the third version of Carson's story about the furniture," said American Oversight's Clark Pettig. HUD says Carson has tried to cancel the order. Peter Weber

2:44 p.m.

Papa John's has a new papa.

The pizza chain has announced that Shaquille O'Neal is joining its board of directors, also becoming a brand ambassador for the company and investing in nine Atlanta locations, per CNN.

Papa John's is no doubt hoping to revive its brand after a series of scandals involving its founder, John Schnatter, who resigned as chairman after admitting he used the N-word during a conference call. He had previously resigned as CEO in 2017 after criticizing the National Football League's handling of players kneeling during the national anthem and suggesting this resulted in lower sales for the company.

Since then, Papa John's has found a new chairman in Jeff Smith, and it stopped using images of Schnatter in its advertising. It appears Shaq will now serve as the public face of the company, as under the deal, Papa John's gets to use his "name, nickname, autograph, voice, video or film portrayals" in its advertisements, reports Yahoo's Daniel Roberts.

O'Neal told CNBC on Friday that he was the one to approach Papa John's about this idea, calling Schnatter's use of the N-word "not acceptable" and saying that now, "We want to get this thing back on track."

Brendan Morrow

2:18 p.m.

United Airlines is piloting the use of non-binary gender descriptors for customers flying with the company.

The airline company made the announcement on Twitter Friday morning, making it the first U.S. airline to offer non-binary gender options.

Customers will be able to choose the prefix "Mx." during bookings, and they'll have the option of identifying as male, female, undisclosed or unspecified.

"United is excited to share with our customers, whether they identify along the binary of male or female or not, that we are taking the steps to exhibit our care for them while also providing additional employee training to make us even more welcoming for all customers and employees," United's Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist said in a press release.

The airline has been working with the Human Rights Campaign and The Trevor Project in training employees on the new changes, per the release.

Two trade groups approved a new best-practices standard last month that suggested allowing airplane passengers to use non-binary identifiers, reports USA Today. The standard is not a mandate and allows individual airlines to decide whether to implement the option, but most large U.S. airlines have told USA Today they plan to adopt the changes in the future. Marianne Dodson

2:10 p.m.

President Trump just confused everyone by suddenly announcing the withdrawal of new North Korea sanctions.

The Treasury Department on Thursday said sanctions would be imposed on two Chinese shipping companies that it said were helping North Korea evade international sanctions, as reported by The New York Times and CNN. National Security Adviser John Bolton said that "everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea's sanctions evasion."

But Trump on Friday suddenly and unexpectedly announced that "additional large scale sanctions" previously announced by the Treasury Department would be withdrawn.

He provided no further explanation as to why he was taking this step, nor was it even immediately clear whether he was definitely referring to the sanctions imposed on the two Chinese shipping companies; his tweet references the sanctions as being announced on Friday, even though they were announced on Thursday. The White House did not clarify this in a subsequent statement per CNN's Kaitlan Collins but instead said that "President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary." Brendan Morrow

1:37 p.m.

Sebastian Gorka, former Trump administration official, reportedly earned himself a ban from Fox News.

The former deputy assistant to the president joined the network as a contributor in 2017, appearing on its shows like Hannity. Earlier this month, Gorka confirmed he was no longer a contributor to the network, saying he "decided not to renew my contract" but would still be appearing on Fox shows "as a free agent as my new schedule permits," per The Hollywood Reporter.

But Mediaite reports that Fox News has banned Gorka from appearing on its hard news shows; The Daily Beast previously reported in August that Gorka was under what it called a "soft ban" on the news side. He's not the only one: Mediaite also writes that reporter Sara Carter isn't allowed to appear on the news shows anymore even though she's a current Fox News contributor. Fox reportedly keeps asking Hannity not to introduce her as an investigative reporter since her "reporting is not vetted" and it "passes none of the network's editorial guidelines," Mediaite writes, but he keeps doing so anyway.

Still, Carter continues to appear on Hannity, and since Fox considers this an opinion show and not a hard news program, it sounds like Gorka can too, meaning he may continue to have a platform to rant about how Democrats "want to take away your hamburgers" for years to come. Brendan Morrow

1:05 p.m.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller could wrap up his report any day now. Just ask a group of reporters who've been sitting outside his office for months.

As an investigation into possible connections between President Trump's campaign and Russian election interference waged on, journalists — namely the so-called #CNNStakeout team — have kept an eye on the secretive man at its helm. While they haven't reported any collusion conclusions, they've practically mapped out Mueller's daily schedule — and in the last few days, it's seemingly been out of whack.

Things started looking fishy last week when Andrew Weissmann, a top member of the Mueller squad, was reported to be headed to a new job. Weissmann even showed up wearing a tan suit, of all things, on Tuesday, while Mueller himself seemed to be dressing more casually, CNN's Evan Pérez said. The obsessive coverage ratcheted up even further on Thursday, when CNN brought an extra-large media crew to Mueller's door, per CNN's Shimon Prokupecz, and caught something big: Mueller didn't leave his office for lunch, as he usually does.

While reporters continued to gasp over those implications, CNN's Katelyn Polatz had a few more conclusive signs that something was afoot.

Even bigger news came on Friday: Mueller didn't seem to be in the office at all. Stay tuned to the stakeout feed to see if that means everything — or nothing at all. Kathryn Krawczyk

12:45 p.m.

Roseanne who? ABC's Roseanne spinoff, which excises the original series' main character, will return for another season.

ABC gave The Conners a second season order on Friday, per The Hollywood Reporter, with this coming two months after its most recent episode. The next season will reportedly be about as long as the first, which consisted of 11 episodes, and John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Lecy Goranson, and Ames McNamara will all return.

The Conners was ordered if the aftermath of ABC axing the hit Roseanne reboot due to a racist tweet sent by Roseanne Barr comparing former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett to an ape. The show was canceled mere hours later. Barr has since insisted her tweet was misinterpreted and that she didn't know Jarrett was black when she sent it, as she declared in a stunning July video in which she shouts expletives at the camera.

After Roseanne's cancellation, ABC worked out a deal for a spinoff that Barr would not star in or have any financial ties to; in its first episode, which premiered in October, it's revealed that Barr's character died of a drug overdose off screen. Barr recently told The Washington Post that Gilbert, who also produces the series and denounced Barr's fatal tweet, "destroyed the show and my life," and in a recent stand-up set, she raged against ABC as a "low-rated network" network that she had to "bail out," Fox News reports.

The Conners has been a ratings success for ABC, though not quite the hit that Roseanne was — the season finale scored 7.7 million viewers, compared to 10.5 million for the Roseanne finale. Still, the Reporter notes it was the No. 1 new comedy of the season. Brendan Morrow

12:15 p.m.

President Trump appeared on Fox Business on Friday, and seemed to have a lot on his mind. Here are 4 of the most dubious things he told host Maria Bartiromo.

1. He's uniting the country. Well, part of it: Bartiromo asked if Trump feels a sense of "responsibility" to "bring the nation together." Trump confusingly said "I do, I do," but said he is doing it in "a certain way." "I can tell you that a big portion of this nation is united like it's never been united before," he said, per CNN.

2. No one will believe the Mueller report: Trump suggested Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller have no credibility because both men "didn't get any votes." He suggested Mueller's eventual conclusion on the Trump campaign's potential involvement with Russian election interference will be seen as illegitimate, especially if it threatens his presidency. "People will not stand for it," he said, per The Hill.

3. He didn't start the McCain drama: Trump bristled when Bartiromo asked about his latest attacks on the late senator John McCain, claiming he didn't start the latest cycle of the feud. Since McCain is obviously not to blame for this week's drama, Trump pinned it on members of the media like Bartiromo, calling her "fake news." "You shouldn't have brought that up," he fumed, per Mediaite, though she pointed out she was only asking because of Trump's unprompted tweet condemning McCain.

4. The economy is not slowing: "The world is slowing, but we're not slowing," Trump insisted, simultaneously blaming the Federal Reserve for keeping growth below 4 percent last year. The U.S. economy grew last year, but at a slowing rate, reports The Washington Post. Trump said he "hope[s]" he didn't influence the Fed's decision to halt rate hikes this year, "but it doesn't matter, I don't care if I influenced them or not."

Watch the interview below, via Fox Business. Summer Meza

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