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February 11, 2019

A heavily redacted transcript of a closed-door hearing in a Washington federal courtroom released late Thursday contained "one of the most tantalizing" hints that Special Counsel Robert Mueller "is still pursuing the central question of whether there was some kind of deal between Russia and the Trump campaign" during the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times reported Sunday night. The hearing was about the Mueller team's assertion that Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign manager, had lied to prosecutors, voiding his cooperation deal.

The theory that Trump campaign officials were in talks to effectively cede Eastern Ukraine to Russia and maybe ease Russian sanctions while Russia was helping the Trump campaign "was offered almost as an aside by the prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann," the Times says. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson asked Weissmann why Manafort's alleged lies about discussing a "peace" plan for Ukraine with longtime Russian colleague Konstantin Kilimnik — beginning Aug 2, 2016, when Manafort was still running Trump's campaign, and continuing into 2018 — mattered. The Times continues:

"This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here," Mr. Weissmann said. "This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating." ... Jackson seemed to agree with prosecutors that whether Mr. Manafort lied about his contacts with Mr. Kilimnik was important, saying at one point, "I am, actually, particularly concerned about this particular alleged false statement." [The New York Times]

Mueller's office has mostly skirted the collusion question, racking up guilty pleas or convictions for Manafort and others in Trump's orbit for lying to investigators and financial crimes while laying out a case that Moscow interceded on Trump's behalf in 2016. But there have been hints of conspiracy, and Weissmann told Berman that whether any American even unwittingly engaged with election-meddling Russians relates to "the core" of Mueller's investigation. Read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

4:50 p.m.

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac may have just taken their last steps in a larger world.

Director J.J. Abrams on Friday announced that Star Wars: Episode IX, which is being billed as the conclusion of the franchise's Skywalker saga, has officially wrapped production. "There is no adequate way to thank this truly magical crew and cast," Abrams wrote, posting a photo of the film's main three stars hugging on set. "I'm forever indebted to you all."

Boyega wrote that this is "the end to a chapter of my life that I couldn't be more thankful for," also thanking Abrams for "making my dreams come true."

The photo is only the second glimpse of Episode IX, following a picture taken in the Millennium Falcon that Abrams tweeted when production began in August. The photo posted Friday reveals that Episode IX will feature scenes on a desert planet, perhaps Luke Skywalker's home, Tatooine, or Rey's home, Jakku. The photo also shows Rey and Finn sporting new hairdos, while Poe seems to be rocking some suspenders.

With 10 months to go until Episode IX is released, Lucasfilm still hasn't yet revealed the film's official title, but that announcement could be imminent. The title of The Force Awakens, after all, was announced shortly after production wrapped in 2014. Then again, the title of The Last Jedi wasn't announced until four months after production wrapped.

In addition to the returning cast, Episode IX will feature Billy Dee Williams reprising his role of Lando Calrissian, as well as a posthumous appearance by Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa using footage shot for The Force Awakens. The film hits theaters on Dec. 20.

4:07 p.m.

Roger Stone may need to cut down on his Infowars appearances.

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Friday issued a gag order in the trial of the former adviser to President Trump, saying Stone must "refrain from making statements to the media or in public settings that pose a substantial likelihood of material prejudice to this case," Politico reports.

Stone was arrested last month as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and he pleaded not guilty to charges of witness tampering, lying to Congress, and obstruction, The New York Times reports.

But that hadn't slowed down Stone's media appearances, and he jumped on Alex Jones' InfoWars two times within a week after his arrest. This prompted Jackson to warn him earlier this month that he must stop acting like he's on "a book tour."

Axios reports that the gag order prevents Stone from making any comments "within the vicinity of the courthouse." But Politico notes that the gag order only prevents him from talking about his case, and Jackson says he can continue talking about "foreign relations, immigration or Tom Brady" to his heart's desire. Brendan Morrow

3:28 p.m.

Police have arrested two potential suspects in connection with the alleged assault of Empire star Jussie Smollett, ABC News reported on Friday.

Chicago police told ABC that two men were arrested on Wednesday at the airport, with detectives having "probable cause that they may have been involved" in the alleged assault. The suspects have not yet been charged with a crime, however.

Authorities also told ABC that the suspects "have a relationship with" Smollett but did not offer specifics. According to CNN, they are two Nigerian brothers, and CBS 2 Chicago reports they have worked as extras on Empire.

This development comes after two local news stations reported Thursday that investigators now believe the attack on Smollett was staged, per Variety. But chief police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said that there is "no evidence to say that this is a hoax" at this time, USA Today reports. One of the Thursday reports had also said investigators believe Smollett staged the attack because he was being written off Empire, something 20th Century Fox denied in a statement, calling the notion "patently ridiculous." Brendan Morrow

3:16 p.m.

The NFL and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick announced Friday that they have reached a settlement over Kaepernick's collusion lawsuit, The Washington Post reports. Kaepernick had sued the league after he was apparently blacklisted from playing football due to his protests during the national anthem; he has been out of the sport for the past two seasons.

While the terms of the settlement were not revealed, and the resolution is subject to a confidentiality agreement, NFL columnist Mike Freeman reported that "team officials are speculating to me [that] the NFL paid Kaepernick in the $60 million to $80 million range."

Separately, a similar lawsuit against the NFL by Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid also reached a settlement. In a joint statement, the NFL and lawyers for Reid and Kaepernick said: "For the past several months, counsel for Mr. Kaepernick and Mr. Reid have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with representatives of the NFL ... The resolution of this matter is subject to a confidentiality agreement so there will be no further comment by any party."

The NFL Players Association also released a statement: "We are not privy to the details of the settlement, but support the decision by the players and their counsel," it read. "We continuously supported Colin and Eric from the start of their protests, participated with their lawyers throughout their legal proceedings, and were prepared to participate in the upcoming trial in pursuit of both truth and justice for what we believe the NFL and its clubs did to them. We are glad that Eric has earned a job and a new contract, and we continue to hope that Colin gets his opportunity as well." Jeva Lange

2:48 p.m.

In the wake of President Trump's national emergency declaration, some congressional Republicans are already fearing the precedent he has set.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) outlined these concerns in a statement Friday, criticizing Trump's "executive overreach" and saying that this will "create a new precedent that a left-wing president would undoubtedly utilize to implement their radical policy agenda."

In fact, Tillis took Republicans through a few specific hypothetical scenarios, imagining that President Bernie Sanders would declare a national emergency to "implement a radical Green New Deal," President Elizabeth Warren would do so to "shut down the banks," and President Cory Booker would "effectively end Second Amendment rights." The senator says it's "clear what kind of rabbit hole our country can go down" if national emergencies become the norm.

Tillis' argument has been a common one in Republican circles over the past few weeks, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warning members of his party last month that if the national emergency is the border today, "tomorrow, the national security emergency might be climate change," per Vox.

But Trump's decision is hardly earning universal condemnation from Republicans, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) saying that he stands "firmly behind" Trump's decision and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying Trump's actions were simply "the predictable and understandable consequence of Democrats' decision to put partisan obstruction ahead of the national interest."

2:40 p.m.

It is a remarkable thing that President Trump's tweets can still be utterly mind-boggling, but, well, here we are. On Friday, the leader of the free world tweeted out this video with no comment (trust me, you'll want to turn the sound on):

To the tune of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," the montage features Democrats (and GOP Sen. Mitt Romney) reacting to Trump's State of the Union address, ranging from bored expressions to suppressed laughter and eye rolls. While it's obviously intended to be braggadocious, it is still a bit funny for Trump to have shared a video of a bunch of politicians failing to take him seriously.

One thing is for sure — R.E.M. is not going to be too happy. Trump has previously used the band's hit "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" at his rallies, prompting R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills to quote lead singer Michael Stipe as saying "Go f--k yourself ... you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little man. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign." Jeva Lange

2:21 p.m.

Ann Coulter is taking her criticism of President Trump to the next level following his national emergency declaration, with the conservative commentator declaring Friday, "the country is over."

Coulter hammered Trump in a Friday interview with KABC after he announced he would sign Congress' funding deal and declare a national emergency. "The only national emergency is that our president is an idiot," she said, per Mediaite. She also fumed that Trump is just "fooling the rubes" with this national emergency declaration.

The root of Coulter's criticism isn't that Trump is bypassing Congress, as she argued that Trump never needed Congress to build the wall at all. Instead, she suggested the president is actually "hoping" the national emergency declaration will just be blocked by the courts "because for some reason, he really doesn't want to build the wall."

On Twitter, Coulter said that responsibility for the border wall deal, which the president has said he is unhappy with, is "100% his," and she responded to Trump saying in his press conference that he barely knows Coulter by writing, "THANK YOU, Mr. President for admitting that your total capitulation on campaign promises has nothing to do with me."

Don't expect this criticism from Coulter to slow down anytime soon, considering she told KABC that she is "going to spend the rest of my columns denouncing the president, for the rest of my life." Brendan Morrow

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