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February 22, 2019

Fox is removing Jussie Smollett from Empire — at least for a little bit.

After police accused the actor of falsifying his report of a hate crime, Fox spent weeks insisting he wasn't being written off the show. Empire producers continued to stand by Smollett in a Friday statement, saying they were "placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out." Still, they had decided to "remove" Smollett's "role of 'Jamal' from the final two episodes of the season."

Last month, Smollett filed a police report saying he was the victim of a hate crime and that two men attacked him in Chicago. After inconsistencies emerged in Smollett's account, police arrested him Wednesday night on charges of filing a false police report. Chicago police then alleged on Thursday that the purported crime was a staged "publicity stunt" to "promote his career" and perhaps secure a raise.

Smollett has since been released on bail and returned to the Empire set Friday, reportedly telling cast and crew there he's innocent. Various reports suggested Fox would cut Smollett's scenes from Empire or even fire him, but the network didn't take official action until Friday. In its statement, Fox only said it was cutting Smollett's scenes "to avoid further disruption on set," and reiterated that showrunners "care about him deeply." Read the whole statement from Fox on Twitter. Kathryn Krawczyk

3:34 p.m.

Former congressman John Delaney is staying in the 2020 race — if only to make use of his sweet new RV.

On Friday, Axios reported that the 2020 Democrat's team recently told him he should end his campaign by mid-August, as they feel that he "flopped" during the first Democratic debate and has "no chance" of qualifying for the debates once the qualification threshold is raised in September. Delaney, according to the report, has appeared "open to the idea" of dropping out this summer.

But Delaney is now denying that this is the case, in a statement on Friday saying that "no one on my team asked me to drop out of the race and I have no plans to drop out of the race," The Hill reports.

Delaney also denied the report in a CNN interview on Friday afternoon, calling it an "entirely incorrect piece of reporting" and pointing to the fact that he recently filmed new television commercials and that he "just bought a new campaign RV, which we're having wrapped to roll out in Iowa" as evidence that he's not weeks away from ending his campaign. "I mean, what would I do with that if I was gonna drop out?" he asked.

Delaney went on to vow he'll stay in the race, which he believes "really hasn't started yet," at least until the Iowa caucus in 2020, although "if, for some reason" it "doesn't go well for me," he'll take that "into consideration." For now, he appears to be hoping the upcoming second Democratic debate will be a turning point in his campaign, predicting the event will be "great moment, particularly for me." Brendan Morrow

2:16 p.m.

Pete Buttigieg defies all parody.

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana has become the wunderkind of the 2020 Democratic field, often deploying the eight languages he can speak on the campaign trail or verging into a literary reference in an interview. And as E! News learned in a candidate roundup published Thursday, Buttigieg also lists the didgeridoo on his list of special skills.

E! collected a few 2020 candidates' top ice cream flavors, movies, and other general pop culture trivia in its article, charmingly revealing that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock likes what he calls the "smiley poo" emoji and that Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Co.) can juggle fruit. But Buttigieg's hidden talent is the most outrageous yet unsurprising of them all: "I learned circular breathing so that I could play the didgeridoo," Buttigieg tells E!

Buttigieg's musical strengths have been documented in the past, like when a Harvard roommate told Time all about his didgeridoo skills. That may have been annoying aspiration to live with, but at least Buttigieg's roommate isn't giving him the Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) treatment. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:16 p.m.

Michael Myers is coming home...again.

Blumhouse on Friday announced that two new Halloween films are in the works following up the 2018 reboot. The first is called Halloween Kills, and it's slated for released in October 2020, with writer-director David Gordon Green, co-writer Danny McBride, and star Jamie Lee Curtis returning. This movie seemed likely after the last film's massive box office haul, but even more interesting was the announcement that yet another sequel is set to release a year later, and it's called Halloween Ends.

It seems this latter sequel will be billed as a grand finale to the entire series, although that promise probably shouldn't be taken at face value considering it's a horror tradition for slasher franchises to continue long after their alleged last installments, as with the far from final Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. It also could be that Halloween Ends will conclude the Michael Myers plot but allow for future sequels revolving around other stories, as was the original goal with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which didn't connect to the first two films.

When Curtis announced she was coming back as Laurie Strode in 2018's Halloween, she said it would be for "one last time," and it was thought the film would depict the final confrontation between Michael and Laurie. But the announcement on Friday decides that actually, "the saga of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode isn't over," and Curtis is confirmed to be returning again, presumably in both sequels. She wrote on Twitter, "Well, my friends and fans...I'm just WARMING UP."

Audiences will be entitled to one or more good scares when Michael returns on October 16, 2020. Brendan Morrow

1:19 p.m.

Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz says he is "afraid for the country" amid a week of President Trump's attacks on minority congresswomen.

Luntz, who Politico reports has informally advised the White House through conversations with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, spoke with Mother Jones' David Corn the day after the president's now infamous North Carolina rally in which his crowd chanted "send her back" about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Trump would later disavow the chant. This rally was held days after the president tweeted that Omar and three other minority congresswomen who were born in the United States should "go back" to where they came from.

At first, Luntz didn't want to comment on any of this, telling Mother Jones that "I don't want to go there." But ultimately, he did go there, saying that "it's not what I would do" and "it's not what I would say." Luntz went on to fully sound the alarm by declaring that he's "afraid for the country."

"I do not think we know how low we can go," Luntz told Mother Jones. "I know what the outcome is. It's bad. It's France in 1793. It ends up consuming everything." Still, Luntz wasn't entirely pinning this on Trump, telling Mother Jones that "both sides" are to blame.

Luntz during the 2016 election was critical of Trump's campaign, saying privately that he was "turning what we believe into a joke" and that his rhetoric "doesn't solve anything," Politico reported at the time, although Luntz would later say after the 2018 State of the Union that he owes Trump "an apology." Over the past week, Luntz has been one of the Republicans putting Trump on blast for his "go back" comments, which Luntz called "racist" and "stupid." Brendan Morrow

12:38 p.m.

President Trump's Oval Office rendezvous with survivors of religious persecution got awkward at a couple different points — like when Trump got an unexpected geography lesson when learning about the Rohingya community and persecution of the Uighur population in China, and when his spiritual adviser used her speaking time to thank him for making it ok to say "Merry Christmas" again.

But one of the most noteworthy exchanges during the event came from Nadia Murad, a human rights activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in bringing attention to the plight of the Yazidi community in Iraq. Murad asked Trump for help in securing safety in the region for people like her who are unable to return home.

"But ISIS is gone?" Trump asked. "If I cannot go to my home and live in a safe place and get my dignity back, this is not about ISIS," Murad responded. "It's about I'm in danger. My people cannot go back." After she told Trump about her entire family being killed, Trump asked "Where are they now?" and said "I know the area very well." He then pivoted to her Nobel Prize, asking, "they gave it to you for what reason? Maybe you can explain."

Thousands of Yazidis have been killed by ISIS and thousands more were taken prisoner, like Murad, who asked Trump to press Iraqi and Kurdish officials to support survivors in returning to Iraq. Trump told Murad he is "going to look into it very strongly."

Watch the exchange below, via NBC News. Summer Meza

11:01 a.m.

The Cats trailer dropped into all of our lives on Thursday with little warning, leaving unsuspecting viewers everywhere stunned by whatever unspeakable horror it is that director Tom Hooper is set to unleash into theaters this Christmas.

The footage released on Thursday was the first time the public at large got a glimpse at the film's use of so-called "digital fur technology" to morph its star-studded cast into CGI cats, and let's just say Universal was likely hoping for a different reaction.

"My eyes are bleeding," critic Kristy Puchko wrote, adding, "There is no god." For The Ringer, Kate Halliwell decided the trailer is "the worst thing I've ever seen," asking a series of 66 questions ranging from "What fresh hell is this?" to "has God abandoned me?" The Atlantic's Sophie Gilbert faced a similar emotional crisis, writing, "Am I high? ... Is this the final glitch in The Matrix that ushers in the end times?"

The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon, meanwhile, wrote that the trailer has "shaken me to my core," while Vanity Fair's Joanna Robinson summed it up best by asking, "What. And how. And what. And why. And what." Critics were shocked by everything from how bizarre the cats' faces look to how weirdly small they are on the giant sets to, well, basically everything else about the entire enterprise. Even director Jordan Peele got in on the pile-on, responding to a video adding the creepy Us trailer music onto the Cats footage with his seal of approval.

On YouTube, the reaction hasn't been much kinder or less confused. Universal's official upload of the trailer currently has more dislikes than likes, with comments such as "I'm terrified" and "Why are you doing this to us?"

Whatever the answers might be, audiences have five months to prepare themselves for this no doubt distressing theatrical experience, as Cats hits theaters on Dec. 20. Brendan Morrow

9:33 a.m.

The New York Times' Thomas Friedman seems to have hit a nerve with President Trump.

After the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist in a Tuesday article labeled Trump a racist following his attacks on four minority congresswomen, Trump on Friday dedicated not one but three tweets to blasting Friedman as a "weak" and "pathetic sort of guy," giving him the nickname "Thomas 'the Chin' Friedman," and mocking him for playing golf.

Trump also claimed he spoke to Friedman over the phone recently and he, as Trump puts it, "kissed my a.."

This was one of several tweets Trump fired off on Friday amid widespread criticism both over his racist tweets and over a "send her back" chant shouted at his rally. He wrote that "I am not" a racist and declared the media "crazed" for its reaction to the chants, even after saying on Thursday he disavows them. "I was not happy with it," Trump said. Brendan Morrow

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