'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Rockets To Year's Top Domestic Opening, Disney Says

Guests arrive at the premiere of the film ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ in London on Tuesday. On Sunday, Disney announced that the film had brought in $450 million globally in its debut weekend.

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Vianney Le Caer/Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the widely popular intergalactic series, ascended to first place among American and Canadian movie-goers in its debut weekend.

From Friday through Sunday, it brought in an estimated $220 million domestically, making it the No. 1 debut of the year, according to Disney. Its weekend haul also earns it the title of the second biggest domestic debut of all time, behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, its predecessor released in 2015.

Internationally, the movie brought in an estimated $230 million, the fifth largest debut of all time. But those numbers don’t include China, where the movie opens Jan. 5. China is the world’s second biggest film market behind North America.

The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, brings back familiar faces like Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker alongside new additions like Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo.

And Carrie Fisher, whose double bun role of Princess Leia at age 19 in 1977’s first episode came to help define her career, gave her final performance in The Last Jedi before she died last December.

Disney bought Lucasfilm, the studio behind Star Wars, in 2012 for a reported $4 billion in cash and stock.

“The weekend that we’re in is a byproduct of the foresight and vision from our CEO Bob Iger to bring Lucasfilm into the fold,” Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis told The Associated Press. “So as we think about the possibility of other things being added, you can’t help but be excited about the possibilities.”

This weekend’s strong numbers gave Disney a boost just three days after it announced a $52.4 billion deal to acquire much of 21st Century Fox.

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Trump Allies Allege Mueller's Obtaining Trump Transition Emails Was 'Unlawful'

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is leading an investigation looking at contacts between Russians and Donald Trump’s campaign.

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Opponents of special counsel Robert Mueller ramped up their attacks over the weekend with a new claim that he improperly collected thousands of emails from President Trump’s transition team and is using them as an illegitimate basis for much of his investigation.

Mueller’s office said his team has obtained all the evidence it’s using in its investigation properly. And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed him, told Congress last week that he monitors Mueller’s operation closely and has seen nothing improper.

This weekend’s dispute is the latest chapter in an ongoing campaign by Trump’s Republican allies against Mueller and his team.

The anti-Mueller camp raised the stakes on Saturday by charging that Mueller had improperly obtained tens of thousands of emails from as many as a dozen accounts associated with the Trump transition, and investigators had been using information they contained in their investigation.

At issue is how the special counsel obtained the materials.

The emails were stored with General Services Administration (GSA). It’s a government agency that does a range of things like providing office space for federal employees. It also hosted the incoming administration’s email system, which ended in “@ptt.gov” – or presidential transition team.

The special counsel reportedly got the email trove from the GSA, not from Trump For America (TFA), a still-functioning arm of Trump’s transition team.

The special counsel’s office pushed back on the characterizations that the emails were obtained unlawfully. In a statement Sunday spokesperson Peter Carr said:

“When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

But a lawyer for the Trump transition on Saturday sent a letter to two Congressional committees arguing that the materials were acquired in a way that was “unlawful.”

According to Axios, which broke the story Saturday, the transition emails contain “sensitive exchanges” on topics ranging from policy planning, potential appointments and views on senators who would be involved with confirming political appointees.

Also on Saturday Kory Langhofer, a general counsel for TFA, sent a letter to chairs of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In the letter obtained by Politico, Langhofer calls the emails “private, privileged materials” not government property and informs the committees of what he described as “unlawful conduct that undermines the Presidential Transition Act of 1963.”

Langhofer went on to say:

“The Special Counsel’s Office has extensively used the materials in question, including portions that are susceptible to claims of privilege, and without notifying TFA or taking customary precautions to protect TFA’s rights and privileges.”

Langhofer also asserts in the letter sent to the chairs of the congressional committees that “TFA owned and controlled the PTT emails and data” adding that “GSA had no right to access or control the records but was simply serving as TFA’s records custodian.”

A lawyer for TFA, who spoke on background because he was not authorized to speak to media, told NPR it found out on Dec. 13 that GSA officials turned over the emails to the Special Counsel in September.

The lawyer added that TFA had a “reasonable expectation of privacy in those emails” and claims that in order for the special counsel to have received the materials it would have needed a warrant or a subpoena.

Complicating matters is that Langhofer, the lawyer who sent the letter to the Congressional committee chairs, said in the memo that there was an understanding that TFA was the custodian of the emails. He said the agreement was laid out in June before a lawyer at GSA, Richard Beckler, a Trump appointee, who has since died.

This dispute over the lawful obtaining of this batch of emails is the latest in a series of ongoing attacks, particularly from conservatives, on the Department of Justice investigation looking into what role Russia played in interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

As NPR’s Carrie Johnson points out:

“GOP voices are accusing the team assembled by special counsel Robert Mueller of bias against President Trump — and they’re appearing to set the stage for some action. Senior Justice Department officials are defending the investigation, which has already secured indictments or guilty pleas against four people with ties to the Trump campaign.”

There are rumors around Washington suggesting Trump’s firing of Mueller is imminent. But White House special counsel Ty Cobb told NPR’s Tamara Keith that’s not the case. He said:

“As the WH has persistently said for months, there is no consideration being given to firing the Special Counsel with whom we continue to cooperate with the expectation of an appropriate and timely result.”

During a House Judiciary Committee last week, Republicans slammed the special counsel’s office over what they said was the Democratic-leaning bias of some of its key lawyers and investigators.

At that hearing, Rosenstein, the Justice Department offiicial who oversees Mueller’s investigation, told lawmakers he is aware of how Mueller is carrying out the probe and he saw no reason to terminate him, adding:

“I know what he’s doing,” Rosenstein said. “If I felt he was doing something inappropriate, I would take action.”

As it stands, Mueller’s team has secured indictments against Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Manafort’s business associate Rick Gates. Mueller’s team has also gotten guilty pleas from Trump’s first national security advisor and campaign advisor Michael Flynn and George Papdopolous a foreign policy advisor to Trump during the campaign. Both men pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI agents.

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British Embassy Worker Found Dead Near Beirut

Rebecca Dykes, 30, who was working at the Department for International Development in Beirut was killed after meeting friends and colleagues on Friday night https://t.co/huh2coOLctpic.twitter.com/2eUoE38tbd

— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) December 17, 2017

Police have launched an investigation after a woman working at the British Embassy was found strangled on a roadside outside the capitol city of Beirut on Saturday, Lebanese officials said.

NPR’s Ruth Sherlock has confirmed with the embassy that the victim is Rebecca Dykes, a British national.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved Rebecca,” her family said in a statement, released by the Foreign Office. “We are doing all we can to understand what happened. We request that the media respect our privacy.”

Dykes had been out with friends and colleagues at a bar in Beirut in the hours before she was found, reports Sherlock.

Lebanese police are also reportedly investigating whether Dykes was sexually assaulted.

Friends tell Sherlock that Dykes had been due to fly out of the country early Saturday morning to celebrate Christmas at home.

She had been in the country since January, reports the BBC, working as the program and policy manager for the Department for International Development.

“The whole embassy is deeply shocked, saddened by this news,” British Ambassador to Lebanon Hugo Shorter said on Twitter. “My thoughts are with Becky’s family, friends and colleagues for their tragic loss. We’re providing consular support to her family & working very closely with Lebanese authorities who are conducting police investigation.”

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Virginia Woman Mauled To Death By Her Pit Bulls During Walk In Woods, Says Sheriff

Victim is 22 year old Bethany Stephens. Sheriff says victim was petite. Dogs were 100-120 pounds. pic.twitter.com/HtaHqydEF0

— Kristin Smith (@kristin8news) December 15, 2017

As was her habit, 22-year-old Bethany Stephens took her dogs for a walk in the woods near her childhood home in Goochland, Va., about 30 miles outside Richmond. But when she did not return home by Thursday night, her father grew concerned and called police, who made a terrible discovery. Stephens had been attacked and killed by her own pit bulls, police say.

Stephens “had defensive wounds on her hands and arms trying to keep the dogs away from her, which would be consistent with being attacked while she was still alive,” said Goochland County Sheriff Jim Agnew at a press conference on Friday.

Stephens was being “for lack of a better term — guarded by by two very large brindle-colored pit bull dogs, who were very reluctant to be caught,” Agnew said.

The sheriff himself seemed shaken recalling the scene, saying it was “absolutely grisly.”

“In my 40 years of law enforcement I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I hope I never see anything like it again,” Agnew said.

Stephens’ friend, Barbara Norris told the local ABC-affiliate WRIC that the Glen Allen-resident had raised the dogs from the time they were puppies. And while Norris said she did not know the details of Stephens’ death, “I know those dogs didn’t do it.”

Agnew said that while the medical examiner’s findings are preliminary as they await toxicology results, “it was fairly obvious to us that she had suffered defensive wounds from the animal bites.”

“This was not a homicide.”

News stories about pit bulls attacking people abound. And owning a pit bull or a mix is banned or restricted in multiple municipalities across the country.

But pit bull supporters say the dogs’ reputation of being inherently dangerous or aggressive is a myth.

“The biggest misconception is that the term pit bull refers to one distinct breed, when really it refers to at least four pedigreed breeds of dogs and then all these other dogs that get lumped into the category,” Bronwen Dickey, who has written extensively about pit bulls, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross last year.

As for the dogs reputation of being natural fighters, “there is absolutely no credible scientific evidence of that,” Dickey said. “You have specific sub-populations that have been used over time in the illegal pursuit of dogfighting, but they really can’t be held up as the standard for all pit bulls in America.”

Agnew said that while he did not know the dogs’ background, “they would be dogs that you would suspect would be bred for fighting. Just in looking at them. They were big strong powerful dogs.”

Stephens was “a very petite 5 foot 1, 125 lbs,” Agnew said, estimating that the dogs each weighed somewhere around their owners’ size.

The dogs were being held by animal control and were set to be euthanized, Agnew said on Friday.

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Astronaut Trio Heads For Space Station To Continue Scientific Research

Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, (bottom); Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai, middle; and U.S. astronaut Scott Tingle, above; wave prior to the launch of the Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sunday.

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Shamil Zhumatov/AP

As the year winds down, three new crew members are set to begin a mission aboard the International Space Station. Early Sunday, an American, a Russian and a Japanese astronaut blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft.

They are set to arrive early Tuesday and will settle in for the next four months when they will conduct more than 200 scientific investigations, according to NASA. Among them, research into improving the quality of fiber optics in a microgravity environment. The crew is also conducting drug testing on mice with the goal of maintaining healthy bodies in astronauts and preventing muscular breakdown from continued disuse.

The new crew members are Commander Anton Shkaplerov with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Scott Tingle with NASA and Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and they’ll be joining three others already at the station, who have been there since September.

Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos and Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA are scheduled to return home in February.

СОЮЗ МС-07 Экипажа готовы к полёту!

Crew of Soyuz MS-07 are ready for flight! pic.twitter.com/3rJ4ZxfkWa

— Scott D. Tingle (@Astro_Maker) December 12, 2017

Soyuz was safely in orbit about 10 minutes after launch, reports Reuters, and onboard cameras showed the crew giving thumbs up as well as a stuffed dog — the choice of “Shkaplerov’s daughter to be the spacecraft’s zero-gravity indicator.”

The ISS crew should be well-stocked. Shortly after the astronauts blasted off, the SpacX Dragon cargo spacecraft arrived at the station. It was carrying some two-and-a-half tons of “science-heavy” supplies, according to NASA, with equipment to aid the astronauts’ research.

The @SpaceX#Dragon was attached to the station today at 8:26am ET making four spaceships parked at the orbital laboratory. https://t.co/Sv2k6x9uZnpic.twitter.com/alnwNp0rG2

— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) December 17, 2017

The Dragon will remain at the station until next month, when it returns to earth with results of the research.

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Teachers Around The Country React To Investigation Into Ballou High School

The year 2017 was a big one for Ballou High School: For the first time, every graduate applied and was accepted to college.

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Kate McGee/WAMU

So far the reaction has been swift and strong to our investigation into Ballou High School in Washington D.C., where we shed light on chronic absenteeism and a pressure teachers say they felt to pass failing students and get them to graduation.

The day after our report, city and district leaders announced that two investigations would look into just what happened at the school, and at other schools around the district last year. We expect the results of those investigations late next month.

A week after our report, the school’s principal was reassigned. District leaders say her return as principal pends on the results of those investigations.

On Friday the city council’s education committee heard more than 10 hours of public testimony from district leaders, students, parents, teachers, residents, education advocates and many more.

We’ve also gotten word from teachers around the nation who read, listened to or found the story on Facebook. They told us of similar stories where they are: chronic absenteeism, a reliance on methods like credit recovery and makeup work to graduate students, as well as pressure teachers say they feel to pass unprepared kids.

Understandably, many of those educators asked to remain anonymous if we shared their stories. We granted that when appropriate.

We’ve aggregated some of their stories here:

“This happens everywhere. I hate the days grades are due. So much nonsense, accepting garbage work, ‘adjusting’ grades, pressure to ‘work with students’, etc.” Jen Stephens, Facebook.

“The same thing is happening in Chicago Public Schools! Our attendance rate is 96%, but most of it is altered. We are also not allowed to fail anyone … but IF you dare fail anyone there better be mounds of paper work and they better not be a senior. Five teachers left last year and for 4 of them it was all because they couldn’t ethically continue to work here.” A teacher in Illinois.

“Just retired after 35 years of teaching the sciences in Public Schools. This is not news. It has been going on for years. We, as teachers, have been sounding the alarm … but no one listened. Students are not taught how to think for themselves but to pass standardized tests compiled by textbook/testing companies who are in bed with state legislatures.” On Facebook, Kathleen O’Nale.

“I know you have received a lot of responses like this but I just HAD to add mine because while I was reading your most recent story. I was FLOORED because I thought for sure you must be talking about the school I work at! … Almost every single detail from the make-up work packets to the students who only show up for half a day every 15 days to avoid truancy matched with my experiences exactly.” A teacher in Richmond Public Schools, Va.

“This has been an issue for a long time- the reality of what is going on in DC schools-I have witnessed it first hand in schools being an education advocate for 15 years. Handing kids a diploma doesn’t make them ready for college or a job after high school in the real world. Many of my kids who got their diploma said all they had to do was sit in their seat to earn decent grades and a diploma but couldn’t read or fill out a job application. We are failing our kids.” Fatema Dariani Keenan, Facebook.

“Reading this article and the quotes from teachers, I felt like there were lines that have been taken out of the conversations I have with my coworkers … At the conclusion of my first year in this district, 2008-2009, I said beside two senior teachers … who asked about a few students walking across the stage, “How in the world is he graduating? He didn’t pass my class.” We want them to pass, but not at the expense of an actual education. I much rather have kids hate me now than to resent me later.” A high school teacher in Baltimore City Schools.

“I am a special education teacher and I see this phenomenon happening way too often in charter schools in South Central Los Angeles, always aiming for 100% college acceptance. High expectations are good, but not if you don’t back it up with social services, therapy for families, and rigorous work for students. Sometimes I hear kids say, ‘Oh just test low and they put you in one of those (special ed) classes with easy work.’ That’s not what special education is for, but many struggling low income families have kids identified as special needs when it’s a combination of poverty, lack of parental support, English as a second language, and other reasons.” On Facebook, Crystal Kopp.

“I am contacting you in hopes that you will continue to investigate the blatant fraud perpetrated by these schools and, if other teachers are to be believed, by virtually every school … We’re the adults, we know better, we’re doing this to our children, our future, and it’s wrong. This isn’t what I got into education for, and trying to swim against the tide is exhausting and disheartening. Eventually I will probably follow many other teachers and leave the profession that I love knowing that it’s the coward’s way out and having to live the rest of my life with the shame of having given up the good fight.” A teacher in South Carolina.

“I am writing simply to say that you described my former teaching experience almost exactly. There are some areas that were not quite so bad, but the majority of what you described matches my own experiences very closely. You have expressed every argument I have been making for the past several years, and aside from having other teachers agree with me, I see very little progress or hope for it. After seeing no brightness on the future of my profession, I resigned over the summer to work as a substitute until I can find another position that is not so morally compromising.” Teacher in Sarasota, Fla.

“I wanted to reach out to you to just let you know that many of my colleagues have been discussing the practices exposed in your article, and to us, sadly they are all too familiar … I fully believe that these types of practices are normal in the current state of education. If not normal, at least widespread. When legislators try to rank schools on graduation rates, there is an incentive to manipulate the numbers. Schools are no longer holding kids accountable, and credit recovery is a total joke … We have also endured pressure to pass kids that didn’t earn it, and have excessive absences, give 50% instead of zeros, and take make up work up until the last minute. It makes me very afraid if the future.” Shane Atkinson, a History and Anthropology teacher in Cheyenne, Wyo.

“I left DCPS last year — after receiving several Highly Effective ratings and being a finalist for a Standing Ovation award … This culture of passing is endemic, not just in DCPS but across the nation … As a former 12th grade math teacher, I am acutely aware of the dilemma we all face. Last year I had a student who came into my Probability & Statistics class well below grade level, and became pregnant in the fall; she missed tons of class in the spring and by June had demonstrated no real mastery over any of the course standards. She was due in July and mine was the only class she was failing; my colleagues who knew her well told me that she wouldn’t go to summer school or re-enroll after her child was born. Her diploma was in my hands. What should I have done? I lost nights of sleep over this young woman. I still don’t know if I made the right decision.” Former D.C. public school teacher,Robert Barnett.

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Secret Pentagon Program Spent Millions To Research UFOs

An aerial view of The Pentagon from Washington, DC on August 25, 2013.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A secret Pentagon program existed for at least three years and spent more than $20 million in research on UFOs, according to multiple media reports published Saturday.

The program reportedly examined cases including incidents of military pilots claiming to have seen flying objects that appeared to “defy the laws of physics.”

Video posted on YouTube as well as on the website of The New York Times purports to be footage taken from Navy F/A-18 fighter jets showing a disc-like object in the sky. “Look at that thing! It’s rotating!” voices say in the video.

To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science viaYouTube

Called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, it was run out of the Pentagon by former Department of Defense intelligence officer Luis Elizondo. It began in some form in 2007, according to The Washington Post and The New York Times, and officially ended in 2012, though may still be in existence in some capacity, the Times says.

Former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid obtained funding for the program beginning in 2009, with support from the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, Politico reports.

According to The Washington Post, the program spent at least $22 million “for the purpose of collecting and analyzing a wide range of ‘anomalous aerospace threats’ ranging from advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters.”

“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” Reid told the Times. “I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before.”

He remained proud of his efforts in a statement posted on Twitter Saturday:

If anyone says they have the answers, they’re fooling themselves.

We don’t know the answers but we have plenty of evidence to support asking the questions. This is about science and national security. If America doesn’t take the lead in answering these questions, others will.

— Senator Harry Reid (@SenatorReid) December 16, 2017

Reid “was persuaded in part by aerospace titan and hotel chain founder Bob Bigelow, a friend and fellow Nevadan who owns Bigelow Aerospace, a space technology company and government contractor,” Politico reported.

The site’s report continued:

“Bigelow, whose company received some of the research contracts, was also a regular contributor to Reid’s re-election campaigns, campaign finance records show, at least $10,000 between 1998 and 2008. Bigelow has spoken openly in recent years about his views that extraterrestrial visitors frequently travel to Earth. He also purchased the Skinwalker Ranch in Utah, the subject of intense interest among believers in UFOs. Reid and Bigelow did not respond to multiple requests for comment.”

It wasn’t only concern for threats posed by extraterrestrials, former officials told the media outlets; they worried about advanced aircraft programs that could have been developed by China or Russia.

Elizondo, who ran the program, resigned in October and said the military did not take it seriously enough.

“Despite overwhelming evidence at both the classified and unclassified levels, certain individuals in the [Defense] Department remain staunchly opposed to further research on what could be a tactical threat to our pilots, sailors and soldiers, and perhaps even an existential threat to our national security,” Elizondo wrote in a resignation letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Post reported.

An anonymous former congressional staffer told Politico that Sen. Reid eventually agreed the AATIP program was not worth continuing:

” ‘After a while the consensus was we really couldn’t find anything of substance,’ he recalled. ‘They produced reams of paperwork. After all of that there was really nothing there that we could find. It all pretty much dissolved from that reason alone—and the interest level was losing steam.’ “

Elizondo is now listed as the director of global security and special programs for To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science, a company co-founded by former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge. “Over the years my mind constantly swirled with thoughts of the unexplainable and the hope that unlocking these mysteries would possibly be the key to a better future for my kids,” DeLonge wrote in a statement on the company’s website.

To The Stars Academy posted the Navy video on YouTube Saturday. The Post wrote that Elizondo “sought the release of videos” from the military when he decided to resign from the Defense Department.

In an earlier effort, the Air Force earlier studied UFO sightings between 1947 and 1969 mainly as part of the Project Blue Book program.

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