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‘A good day’: Trump claims victory with Mueller report out

‘A good day’: Trump claims victory with Mueller report out

Massive fire engulfs beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Massive fire engulfs beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

PARIS (AP) — A massive fire swept across the top of Paris’ soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, collapsing its spire and threatening one of the world’s greatest architectural treasures as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below.

The French president pledged to rebuild a cathedral that he called “a part of us,” and appealed for national and international help to do so. The 12th-century church is home to relics, stained glass and other incalculable works of art and is a leading global tourist attraction, immortalized by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it was treating the fire as an accident, ruling out arson and possible terror-related motives, at least for now. French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire was “potentially linked” to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead.

Despite the dramatic image of the flaming cathedral, no one was killed. One firefighter was injured, among some 400 who struggled against the flames for hours before finally extinguishing them. Firefighters continued working through the night to cool the building and secure the monument, as residual sparks sprinkled down from the gaping hole where the spire used to be.

The blaze started at 6:50 p.m. after it had closed to the public, and spread to one of the cathedral’s landmark rectangular towers.

Nearby buildings were evacuated as fears mounted that the structure could collapse.

As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange and flames shot out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral, among the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people lined up bridges around the island that houses the church, watching in shock as acrid smoke rose in plumes.

Paris fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church’s structure had been saved after firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to the northern belfry. Gallet said “two-thirds of the roofing has been ravaged.”

The fire came less than a week before Easter amid Holy Week commemorations. As the cathedral burned, Parisians gathered spontaneously to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint-Julien-Les-Pauvres across the river from Notre Dame while the flames lit the sky behind them. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers.

Nearing midnight, signs pointed to the fire nearing an end as lights could be seen through the windows moving around the front of the cathedral, apparently investigators inspecting the scene.

The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said a significant collection of art work and holy objects inside the church had been recovered. She did not provide details.

Experts say firefighters were left with devastatingly few options when faced with a structure that’s more than 850 years old, built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire-protection systems.

French President Emmanuel Macron treated the fire as a national emergency, rushing to the scene and canceling a previously scheduled televised address meant to address France’s yellow vest crisis.

“The worse has been avoided, although the battle is not yet totally won,” the president said, adding that he would launch a national funding campaign on Tuesday and call on the world’s “greatest talents” to help rebuild the monument.

“Notre Dame of Paris is our history, our literature, our imagination. The place where we survived epidemics, wars, liberation. It has been the epicenter of our lives,” Macron said from the scene.

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, its architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses. Some 13 million people visit it every year.

Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.

“It’s not one relic, not one piece of glass — it’s the totality,” said Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval Cloisters branch in New York, her voice shaking as she tried to put into words what the cathedral meant. “It’s the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilization.”

Reactions from around the world came swiftly including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the “terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”

In Washington, Trump tweeted: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris” and suggested first responders use “flying water tankers” to put it out.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying “to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames! God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze.”

Prosecutors abandon criminal case against Jussie Smollett

Prosecutors abandon criminal case against Jussie Smollett

CHICAGO (AP) — Prosecutors on Tuesday dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett, an astonishing reversal that the “Empire” actor called vindication, but that the Chicago mayor angrily dismissed as a “whitewash” of allegations that Smollett lied about being the target of a racist, anti-gay attack.

Authorities said they still believe Smollett concocted the attack, and they offered little explanation for the decision to abandon the case barely five weeks after charges were filed. In return for the dismissal, Smollett agreed to do community service and to forfeit the $10,000 he paid to get out of jail.

The mayor and police chief blasted the move and stood by the investigation that concluded Smollett staged a hoax. Mayor Rahm Emanuel lashed out at Smollett, saying he had dragged the city’s reputation “through the mud” in a quest to advance his career. At one point he asked, “Is there no decency in this man?”

Smollett’s attorneys said his record was “wiped clean” of the 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was assaulted by two men. The actor insisted that he had “been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one.”

“I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was being accused of,” he told reporters after a court hearing. He thanked the state of Illinois “for attempting to do what’s right.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Cook County prosecutors’ office said the dismissal came “after reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case.” Tandra Simonton called it “a just disposition and appropriate resolution” but also said it not an exoneration.

In some dropped cases, prosecutors will insist that the defendant accept at least a measure of responsibility. Outside court, neither Smollett nor his legal team appeared to concede anything about his original report in January.

Defense attorney Patricia Brown Holmes said Smollett was “attacked by two people he was unable to identify” and “was a victim who was vilified and made to appear as a perpetrator.”

Authorities alleged that Smollett, who is black and gay, knew the men and arranged for them to pretend to attack him.

Emanuel, who is in his final weeks in office after two terms, said the hoax could endanger other gay people who report hate crimes.

“Now this casts a shadow of whether they’re telling the truth, and he did this all in the name of self-promotion,” he said.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson stood by the department’s investigation and said Chicago is “is still owed an apology.”

“I’ve heard that they wanted their day in court with TV cameras so that America could know the truth. They chose to hide behind secrecy and broker a deal to circumvent the judicial system,” Johnson said at a graduation ceremony for new police cadets.

Chicago’s top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, recused herself from the investigation, citing conversations she had with a Smollett family member.

Many legal experts were surprised by the dismissal, especially since it did not include any condition that Smollett apologize.

“This situation is totally bizarre. It’s highly, highly unusual,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago defense attorney and former federal prosecutor with no ties to the case.

He said it would be wrong to argue leniency on the grounds that no serious harm was done.

“The damage done was worse than a broken arm or money lost in a fraud,” Turner said. “The reputation of the city has taken a tremendous blow.”

Because Chicago was the primary victim, Turner argued, it would have been appropriate for prosecutors to consult the mayor and the police chief in advance.

“That prosecutors didn’t seem to do that is an insult to the city and police,” he said.

Smollett was accused of falsely reporting that he was attacked around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago. Investigators said he made the report because he was unhappy with his pay on “Empire” and believed it would promote his career.

The actor plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TV show, which follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.

He reported that he was assaulted on his way home from a sandwich shop. Smollett said two masked men shouted racial and anti-gay slurs, poured bleach on him, beat him and looped a rope around his neck. He claimed they shouted, “This is MAGA country” — a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. He asserted that he could see one of the men was white because he could see the skin around his eyes.

Police said Smollett hired two men, both of whom are black, to attack him. Smollett allegedly paid the men $3,500.

The men are brothers Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, and one of them had worked on “Empire.” An attorney for them has said the brothers agreed to help Smollett because of their friendship with him and the sense that he was helping their careers.

Before the attack, police said, Smollett sent a letter that threatened him to the Chicago studio where “Empire” is shot. The FBI, which is investigating that letter, has declined to comment.

Democrats ask for Mueller files; GOP exclaims ‘Move on’

Democrats ask for Mueller files; GOP exclaims ‘Move on’

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats pressed the Justice Department Monday to provide the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller even as Republicans gleefully called for them to “move on” from the Russia investigation. President Donald Trump accused those responsible for launching Mueller’s probe of “treasonous things against our country” and said they “certainly will be looked into.”

Trump said the release of Mueller’s full report “wouldn’t bother me at all,” and Democrats quickly put that statement to the test, demanding that his administration hand over the entire document and not just Sunday’s four-page summary from Attorney General William Barr.

Six House Democratic committee chairmen wrote to Barr that his summary is “not sufficient” and asked to be given Mueller’s full report by April 2. They also want to begin receiving the underlying evidence the same day. The information is “urgently needed by our committees to perform their duties under the Constitution,” they wrote, implying that the information would be subpoenaed if it is not turned over by the deadline.

Barr said in his letter to Congress that Mueller did not find that Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election — knocking down arguments from Democrats who have long claimed there was evidence of such collusion.

But he also said Mueller reached no conclusion on whether Trump obstructed the federal investigation, instead setting out “evidence on both sides” of the question and stating that “while this report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Absent a recommendation from Mueller, Barr stepped in and decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to establish that the president obstructed justice. Democrats said Barr’s judgment is not the final word.

“All I’m interested in is them releasing the full report, the full Mueller report,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Despite Mueller’s refusal to exonerate Trump, his spokesmen and leading congressional Republicans all claimed total vindication for the president anyway. Questioned by reporters, Trump said he welcomed Mueller’s results but complained he had been abused by the investigation occurring at all and taking too long.

“We can never let this happen to another president again,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that have done some very evil things, very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country.”

“Those people will certainly be looked at. I’ve been looking at them for a long time. And I’m saying, why haven’t they been looked at? They lied to Congress. Many of them you know who they are.”

He didn’t name names, but Trump has spent months railing against former Justice Department officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, accusing them of an illegal witch hunt for the purpose of delegitimizing his presidency. He has also falsely claimed that the investigation was based on memos compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, and even blamed former Sen. John McCain, who died last year, for passing the memos to the FBI.

The investigation began months before the FBI saw the dossier — and the FBI already had a copy by the time McCain turned it in.

On Monday, after a series of evening strategy meetings, Democrats vowed to continue their multiple investigations into Trump, perhaps with shifted focus. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who has become a focus of Republicans’ post-Mueller ire, said he is “circumspect about how much more we will be able to find on issues that he thoroughly investigated,” but said Mueller’s conclusion would not affect his own committee’s counterintelligence probes.

“There may be other corrupt meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russians, there may be other profound financial conflicts of interest that are not mentioned in the Mueller report, and there may be unanswered questions even within what he did examine,” Schiff said.

Democrats also signaled that they will curtail some public focus, at least, from their investigations of Trump and try to keep attention on their policy goals. Schiff postponed an open hearing with Felix Sater, a Russian-born former business adviser to Trump who helped him negotiate an ultimately unsuccessful deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow, while the intelligence committee tries to get a look at Mueller’s report.

Pelosi, meanwhile, was scheduled to hold a press conference Tuesday on health care legislation, Democrats’ top campaign issue.

Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, a member of Democratic leadership, said he has been encouraging colleagues to talk about those policy issues like health care and infrastructure.

“We need to talk about the work we are doing on these really important economic issues that matter in people’s lives,” Cicilline said. “We’re doing the work, but we need to be more effective about sharing that” and not just responding to questions about corruption and Mueller’s investigation.

Democrats seem more likely to focus on those issues, and their ongoing investigations, than engaging in the talk of impeachment that has been amplified on Pelosi’s left flank. As the release of Mueller’s report loomed, she recently tried to scuttle that talk by saying she’s not for impeachment, for now.

But Mueller’s report hasn’t dissuaded some of Trump’s fiercest critics among the new Democratic lawmakers who helped flip the House from Republican control. By the end of the month, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., is still planning to introduce her resolution calling for the Judiciary Committee to investigate grounds for Trump’s impeachment.

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers called for Congress to move on. “This is done with,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “It is time for the country to move forward.”

Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, said Democrats don’t want facts, “They just want to change the outcome of the 2016 election.”

At the same time, however, Republicans followed Trump’s lead in looking into how the investigation began. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham promised to “unpack the other side of the story” of the Russia investigation.

Graham, who spent the weekend with Trump in Florida, said his committee will probe the actions of the Justice Department. Still, he said the investigation was legitimate and had to happen in order to answer questions about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The South Carolina Republican also had a warning for Trump using his pardon power to help those who were ensnared by Mueller’s investigation.

“If President Trump pardoned anybody in his orbit, it would not play well,” Graham said.

Among those whom Mueller charged during the course of his investigation were the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Five Trump aides pleaded guilty and a sixth, longtime confidant Roger Stone, is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress and engaged in witness tampering.

Lawyer: Suspect in mob boss killing affected by hate speech

Lawyer: Suspect in mob boss killing affected by hate speech

THE ONE PLACE FOR WHAT'S HAPPENING IN NEW JERSEY.

NEW YORK (AP) — A lawyer for a man suspected of killing a reputed New York mob boss says hate speech and right-wing conspiracy websites are to blame for recent changes in the man’s behavior.

However, Anthony Comello pleaded not guilty on Monday as he was arraigned under heavy security on murder and other charges in the March 13 killing of reputed Gambino boss Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali.

Authorities say the Staten Island slaying may have been related to a romantic dispute, not mob business.

At a court appearance last week, the 24-year-old had pro-Donald Trump slogans and an apparent conspiracy symbol on his hand.

Attorney Robert Gottlieb said Monday Comello’s family attributes behavior changes to “hate spewed throughout the internet.”

He’s being held without bail. His next hearing is April 3.