November 14, 2018

The Camp Fire in Northern California's Butte County, the deadliest blaze in state history, has killed at least 56 people, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said on Wednesday evening.

The death toll is expected to grow even higher, as dozens of people remain missing and crews with cadaver dogs are looking in the rubble of destroyed homes for remains. The fire obliterated the town of Paradise, where most of the victims lived. Officials said 10,300 structures have burned and more than 138,000 acres were scorched. As of Wednesday night, the fire is 35 percent contained. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but about two dozen people who lost their homes have sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co., claiming the utility did not maintain or properly inspect power lines, and their negligence led to the fire.

In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire continues to burn in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, but the Santa Ana winds are not as strong as they were, which has helped firefighters. The cause of that fire, which has destroyed 482 structures, remains under investigation. About 98,362 acres — roughly the size of Denver — have burned, the Los Angeles County Fire Department said. Despite a flare-up early in the morning, the fire is 52 percent contained. The death toll from the Woolsey Fire now stands at three. Catherine Garcia

2:00 p.m.

Fox just last week denied reports that Jussie Smollett would ever be written off Empire. But a lot has changed since then.

The Fox show is reportedly in the process of cutting Smollett scenes from upcoming episodes, TMZ and Deadline are both reporting. The drama series is currently in production, but Deadline reports that Smollett will be "a rare presence" on set this week and that "upcoming episodes have seen serious rewrites" to minimize his role. TMZ similarly reports that scripts have "undergone multiple revisions" and that scenes where he's the focus are being removed. But Deadline says there aren't plans to cut Smollett out of episodes that had already been shot.

Smollett has alleged he was the victim of a hate crime and that two men attacked him in Chicago, specifically targeting him because of his role on Empire and screaming "This is MAGA country" at him while they beat him, covered him in bleach, and tied a rope around his neck. Since then, questions have emerged about his account, with two local Chicago news stations reporting last week that police now suspect that Smollett staged the attack himself, something he has strongly denied. One report suggested he may have done so because he was in danger of being written off Empire.

Fox pushed back on that report, saying that the idea that Smollett "has been, or would be, written of Empire is patently ridiculous," with the network adding, "we continue to stand behind him." But since then, police have said that the case's "trajectory" has changed, and CNN is reporting that cops believe he paid the two men to attack him and that the men are cooperating with law enforcement. Fox is now declining to comment, which The New York Times' Sopan Deb notes is a "stark contrast" to their position just days ago. Brendan Morrow

1:28 p.m.

New York Times v. Sullivan has set the standard for libel for the last 70 years. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas thinks it's time for that to change.

In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled public officials would have to prove a publication made a defamatory statement with "actual malice" when suing for libel. But in a concurring opinion regarding sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby on Tuesday, Thomas suggested Times v. Sullivan and subsequent press-protecting rulings were "policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law."

The Tuesday case regarded Cosby accuser Katherine McKee, who said "Cosby's lawyer leaked a letter that distorted her background and damaged her reputation," NBC News notes. The court decided against hearing McKee's case, and Thomas alone wrote a concurring opinion questioning Times v. Sullivan. "If the Constitution does not require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits, then neither should we," Thomas said, mentioning the infamous term coined in 1964.

Thomas' language reflects past statements from President Trump, who has constantly said he wants to "open up" and "change" libel laws and make it easier to sue the press. Read Thomas' whole opinion at CNN. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:25 p.m.

Patience is, indeed, a virtue.

Major League Baseball's stagnant winter — during which the sport's biggest news was about how a top prospect was electing to play another sport — finally began to thaw today when All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, fresh off a career-best year on offense in which he hit .297 with 37 home runs, agreed to sign with the San Diego Padres on Tuesday. The 26-year-old's 10-year, $300-million deal is the largest free agent contract in the history of American sports, per ESPN.

Machado's saga seemed like it would never end, as his free agency stretched into the early stages of spring training. It appeared that Machado and his agent, Dan Lozano, would fall well short of their lofty contract goals, based on a brutal winter market for other free agents and a surprising lack of interested teams. Only four teams — San Diego, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Chicago White Sox, and the New York Yankees — were known to have expressed legitimate interest in the former longtime Baltimore Oriole (Machado played briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, as well.) But Lozano's decision to play the waiting game paid off and then some.

It's a surprising turn of events for the Padres, a normally frugal franchise that did not enter the Machado sweepstakes until late January when General Manager A.J. Preller and company realized that the interest in Machado was lighter than anticipated. San Diego finished last in the National League West last season, but boasts one of the league's top minor league systems.

With Machado off the board, attention will turn mainly to outfielder Bryce Harper, who remains on the open market and could potentially make Machado's record-setting deal a short-lived one. Tim O'Donnell

1:20 p.m.

Nothing makes you say awww, shucks quite like realizing you've misplaced 15 gallons of radioactive uranium ore right beside your popular taxidermy exhibit.

Yet in 2018, the museum at Grand Canyon National Park reportedly discovered that for 18 years, they'd accidentally been storing three 5-gallon containers of uranium right by where unsuspecting tourists and school groups were admiring dioramas of stuffed mountain lions and mule deer. The dangerous buckets of ore could have remained within proximity to the public for much longer, too, if it weren't for the fact that "the teenage son of a park employee who happened to be a Geiger counter enthusiast ... brought a device to the museum collection room," the Arizona Republic reports.

The museum's safety, health, and wellness manager Elston "Swede" Stephenson confirmed that "if you were in the Museum Collections Building between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you were 'exposed' to uranium by OSHA's definition." Worryingly, one of the buckets was apparently so full of uranium that the lid wouldn't close. Children would have been exposed to unsafe levels of uranium in as little as three seconds, and adults in less than half a minute.

Technicians have since removed the uranium from the Grand Canyon museum, although "lacking protective clothing, they purchased dish-washing and gardening gloves, then used a broken mop handle to lift the buckets into a truck," the Republic notes.

Stephenson said that as of now, there is "no current risk to the public or park employees." The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular parks in the country, with more than 4 million visitors a year. Jeva Lange

1:07 p.m.

A 24-page report released by the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday says several current and former members of President Trump's administration, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, pushed for the sale of nuclear power facilities to Saudi Arabia despite objections from the National Security Council and other White House officials. The report indicates that the sales were discussed in the early days of the Trump presidency but "efforts may be ongoing" and that the deal was "discussed in the Oval Office as recently as last week."

The Washington Post says the report is based on documents the committee obtained and accounts of anonymous whistleblowers, who were wary of the complications — conflicts of interest, national security risks, and legal hurdles — that could stem from the persistent push.

One of the documents obtained by the committee was a draft memo sent by IP3 International, the company backing the plan, to Flynn. The memo described the plan as "the Middle East Marshall Plan" and also mentioned Trump's close personal friend and advisor Tom Barrack, the chairman of the president's inaugural committee, as a "special representative to implement the plan."

House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that the committee will launch a full investigation to determine whether the potential deal was meant to serve national security interests or "those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change" in foreign policy.

The export of American nuclear technology which could be used to create weapons is controlled under 1954's Atomic Energy Act and must be approved by Congress. Tim O'Donnell

12:52 p.m.

Roger Stone has just been ordered back to court, and it's all because of an Instagram post.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 21, asking Stone to explain why his "conditions of release should not be modified or revoked in light of the posts on his Instagram account." Stone, who faces charges of witness tampering, obstruction, and making false statements, on Monday had posted a picture of Jackson with what appeared to be crosshairs next to her. He also called Jackson an "Obama appointed judge."

Stone received a partial gag order last week after Jackson warned him to stop acting like he's on a "book tour."

The longtime GOP operative and former adviser to President Trump said that he had just posted a "random photo taken from the internet" that was not "meant to threaten the judge or disrespect the court." He told The Washington Post that everyone was misinterpreting the Instagram post and that those weren't crosshairs at all but rather the logo of the organization he got the picture from. His attorneys also filed an apology with the court, which said that "Mr. Stone recognizes the impropriety and had it removed." Yet on Facebook, Stone had dismissed the controversy by calling it "another fake news story." Brendan Morrow

12:30 p.m.

The LGBTQ community celebrated when Palm Springs, California filled its city council with openly LGBTQ members last year, but that celebration is pretty much over.

The council — made up of three gay men, one bisexual woman, and one transgender woman — represents a city that's majority gay and lesbian. But its white faces don't reflect the fact that the city is also 25 percent Latino, leading to a series of "internal and external" challenges that threaten the council's future, The Washington Post reports.

Palm Springs' city council "has had a gay and lesbian majority for a decade, but very few women have served in recent years," the Post writes. The city is often characterized as a retirement community, prompting "the question of age diversity" on the council, the Post continues. Yet the biggest problem has stemmed from an all-white council representing a city with an 80-percent Latino student body in its public schools. After last year's election, a Latino civil rights group threatened a lawsuit over Palm Springs' at-large voting system, saying it "dilutes the ability of Latinos to elect candidates of their choice."

The council stymied the lawsuit by voting last year to hold council elections by district instead of of city-wide. It'll also hold elections by those newly defined districts later this year. Two members, including Mayor Robert Moon, opposed the move, seeing as they live in the same district, along with a third councilmember. Only one of them — Geoff Kors, who voted for the districts — has said so far he'll run again. And in the newly-created District 1, Palm Springs native Grace Garner, who is a straight Latina woman, is likely to join the force. Read more at The Washington Post. Kathryn Krawczyk

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