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December 14, 2018

There was lots of legal news about President Trump on Thursday. None of it was good.

A day after Michael Cohen was handed jail time for crimes he said he committed on Trump's orders, NBC News placed Trump in the room where apparently illegal campaign finance violations were plotted, The Wall Street Journal said federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Trump's inaugural committee, and The Daily Beast reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating possible Trump campaign collusion with Israel and Saudi Arabia, not just Russia. Maria Butina admitted to being a Russian agent and affirmed she is cooperating with U.S. prosecutors in a case about Russian 2016 campaign meddling.

Publicly, Trump tried to distance himself from Cohen on Thursday, and "in private, Mr. Trump vented about investigators' scrutiny of him and his associates," people familiar with the matter tell The Wall Street Journal.

At the same time, people close to the White House described the president as less consumed this week about the investigations than the media coverage of a contentious meeting he had with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "He was annoyed with how that meeting was playing out," one person close to the White House said. Network shows have repeatedly played clips of Mrs. Pelosi correcting the president on how many votes he has in the House and on his characterization of her. [The Wall Street Journal]

Trump and Pelosi were discussing a looming government shutdown over Trump's demands for $5 billion for a border wall. "With Trump fueling the border wall brinkmanship, everyone in the Capitol has basically stopped talking," Politico reports. "The House and Senate left town Thursday with no strategy to avert a partial government shutdown next week, putting Congress on the brink of an intractable conflict that could drag out through New Year's Day — furloughing hundreds of thousands of workers and costing taxpayers millions." Peter Weber

4:36 p.m.

#RogerStoneDidNothingWrong will have to carry on without Roger Stone's help.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a full gag order on Stone's case on Thursday, telling him she would revoke his bail and have him detained if he violated the order. Stone, President Trump's former adviser, appeared in court to apologize for sharing an inflammatory post about Jackson on Instagram.

He called the post "an egregious, stupid error" and blamed the decision on stress, but Jackson barred stone from publicly commenting on his case, "period."

"What concerns me is the fact that he chose to use his public platform and chose to express himself in a manner that can incite others that feel less constrained," said Jackson, per BuzzFeed News. She didn't buy his claim that he didn't realize the picture he shared contained a crosshairs next to her face, saying there was "nothing ambiguous" about the imagery. "Thank you, but the apology rings quite hollow," she said.

Jackson previously issued a partial gag order, telling Stone he couldn't comment on his case outside the Washington, D.C. courthouse but could gripe about his witness tampering and obstruction charges on InfoWars to his heart's content. On Thursday, she determined he needed a little more rigidity, condemning his quick "abuse" of the "liberty he was afforded."

He will be allowed to maintain his innocence, and can ask for donations to his legal fund, but that's it. "I'm not giving you another chance," Jackson told Stone. He'll remain out on bail, but as former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance pointed out, "being told you can't talk to the media is probably a worse punishment than being sent to jail."
Summer Meza

4:20 p.m.

The federal prosecutors who signed a plea agreement with Florida millionaire Jeffrey Epstein broke the law, a judge said Thursday, reports The Miami Herald.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that the prosecutors involved in the sex-trafficking case, including then-Florida prosecutor and current Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act by not keeping Epstein's victims informed about the agreement, per Politico. After the deal, which resolved a case in which Epstein was accused of building a "cult-like network" of girls coerced into sexual acts, Epstein ultimately served 13 months in prison. The deal was reportedly kept secret from dozens of women who alleged abuse.

“Particularly problematic was the government's decision to conceal the existence of the [agreement] and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility," the judge said. "When the government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading. While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the [agreement] with Epstein's attorneys, scant information was shared with victims."

Marra also said he has reviewed evidence that Epstein violated sex trafficking laws and abused at least 30 girls between 1997 and 2007, per NBC News. "Epstein worked in concert with others to obtain minors not only for his own sexual gratification, but also for the sexual gratification of others," Marra said. The Labor Department did not comment on the ruling. Brendan Morrow

3:57 p.m.

President Trump's longtime confidante Roger Stone was arrested last month, quickly pleaded not guilty to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's charges, and was released on bail. But after sharing an inflammatory post about his case's judge, Amy Berman Jackson, on Monday, he landed back in court to explain just what happened — not that he explained anything at all. Here are 5 ways Stone skirted the issue on Thursday.

1. Used a hashtag. On his way to the courtroom, Stone, seemingly having learned nothing, shared an Instagram with a caption including #RogerStoneDidNothingWrong.

2. Blamed a volunteer. Stone says he has "five or six volunteers" who send him pictures and he decides what to post, per HuffPost. He couldn't name which volunteer sent it to him, or whether it was via text or email.

3. Called it a mistake. In fact, Stone said that a whole bunch of times.

4. Blamed "enormous pressure." "I'm having a hard time putting food on the table and making rent," Stone said, adding that "political commentators" are apparently saying he'll be "raped in prison," per NBC News.

5. Said he had no idea what crosshairs even are. The post featured Jackson's face next to a set of crosshairs, and Stone said Thursday he "researched" the symbol and found it was "Celtic." Jackson then asked if it was an "occult symbol," to which Stone said "I don't know, your honor, I'm not into the occult." That whole explanation, as you can see below, was easily debunked. Kathryn Krawczyk

3:24 p.m.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is reportedly wrapping up. But that could just be the beginning.

Both CNN and The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the Justice Department is preparing for Mueller to conclude the probe that began in 2017, although tons of questions remain unanswered, including how much of Mueller's report will actually be seen by the public.

But Wired's Garrett Graff points out the possibility that Mueller "closes up shop but refers numerous active cases to other prosecutors." He could do so, Graff writes, if he feels that he has "answered his main charge — Russia — even though he's uncovered much ancillary criminality." This would leave "big and worthy questions to be examined by prosecutors in D.C., New York, Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere," and could guarantee the "probe lives on for years to come."

Similarly, former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal observed on Twitter that Mueller issuing his report "doesn't mean the investigations are over." As he put it, "it means the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end." And The New York Times echoes this sentiment, writing, "new prosecutors from outside the special counsel's operation could pick up cases that remain in progress."

Experts have also noted that the Southern District of New York's investigation won't end just because Mueller's does. That probe, which led to the conviction of President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, doesn't appear to be nearing an end. In fact, the Post writes that it "has always been a more serious concern for Trump's inner circle" and that it "could go on for years." Brendan Morrow

2:35 p.m.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Thursday she supports reparations for black Americans affected by slavery, The New York Times reports.

Warren said in an interview with the Times that "we must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences, including undermining the ability of black families to build wealth in America for generations." She also said that "we need systemic, structural changes to address that."

Warren did not provide any specifics about what her plan would be, but the Times notes that this is significant given that it's a policy previous Democratic presidential candidates chose not to support. For instance, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who recently announced his 2020 bid, was not in favor of reparations in 2016, saying at the time that it would not pass Congress and would be "very divisive." For that matter, neither was former President Barack Obama or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) also recently backed reparations, saying in a radio interview, "I'm serious about taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities." Brendan Morrow

2:25 p.m.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rev. Al Sharpton sat down at Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem on Thursday. As this photo from Sharpton's publicist Rachel Noerdlinger shows, the media clearly wanted a seat at the table, too.

The 2020 presidential hopeful and the MSNBC host followed up on a tradition set by the late Rep. Shirley Chisolm and former President Barack Obama, who both stopped at the soul food spot on their historic campaigns, Noerdlinger pointed out.

While this window-peeping huddle might look like they're scoping out the menu, they were probably just responding to a press release Noerdlinger sent out before the event. Yes, when you're running for president, even lunch needs a press gaggle.

Kathryn Krawczyk

12:14 p.m.

How could this backfire?

On Jan. 29, Empire actor Jussie Smollett was hospitalized after claiming two men yelling racist and homophobic slurs assaulted him, and Chicago police quickly started investigating his report as a hate crime. Now Chicago police say Smollett staged the whole thing — and they have the literal checks to prove it.

Police arrested Smollett on Wednesday night on a felony charge of filing a false police report, and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson elaborated in a Thursday press conference that Smollett gave two men a $3,500 check to attack him — a form of payment that's literally designed to produce a physical receipt. Police have the check, Johnson said, before lambasting Smollett's "shameful" alleged stunt and asking "why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?"

Fox said Wednesday that Smollet was "not being written out of" Empire, but it's now considering suspending him, Variety reports. Read more details from the police press conference here. Kathryn Krawczyk

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