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August 9, 2018

California's Mendocino Complex fire, which this week became the largest wildfire in the state's history, has burned through hundreds of thousands of acres. Much of the land in California has been scorched in recent weeks as 18 separate fires continue to grow, only about 40 percent contained.

Years of drought have primed the state for some truly horrific blazes, and officials say the Northern California fire might continue to burn until September. Below, four photos that show just how breathtakingly destructive the Mendocino Complex fire has become. Summer Meza

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3:01 p.m.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller might be taking the Russia investigation south.

After more than a year of probing President Trump's connections to Moscow, the special counsel's office has moved into "Middle Eastern countries' attempts to influence American politics," sources tell The Daily Beast. Court filings detailing the first round of those findings are reportedly set for release early next year.

So far, Mueller's team has turned out charges against 33 different people — 26 of whom are Russian — and three Russia-based companies, per Vox. But as part of the team investigated the Trump campaign's involvement with Russia, another has reportedly been looking into any involvement with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These three countries "pushed cash to Washington politicos in an attempt to sway policy under President Trump's administration," The Daily Beast writes. The probe has reportedly found these countries sought to use social media to get Trump elected — something that's reminiscent of Russia's supposed actions.

After months of investigation, Mueller's Middle East team is just about ready to release its findings and even levy charges, sources tell The Daily Beast. These reported findings likely stem from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's cooperation with Mueller, seeing as he apparently spoke with Middle Eastern officials along with Russians.

Mueller only had authority from the Justice Department to investigate the Trump campaign's Russia ties. So Middle Eastern connections would either have to overlap with Russia, or Mueller would've needed additional authority from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to probe further, an attorney says. Read more about what Mueller could drop next at The Daily Beast. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:30 p.m.

President Trump on Thursday attempted to downplay the significance of his former lawyer and "fixer" Michael Cohen's three year prison sentence.

In an interview with Fox News, Trump claimed that Cohen only did "very low-level work" for him and that he did "more public relations than he did law." Trump also repeated the defense he mounted on Twitter earlier in the day: that he "never directed" Cohen "to do anything wrong" and that if Cohen violated the law, that's his fault. But Trump contends the campaign finance charges against Cohen were not criminal and that they were brought "to embarrass me."

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday in part for violating campaign finance laws by arranging for the National Enquirer's publisher to "catch and kill" a woman's story about an alleged affair with Trump; the tabloid's publisher says this was done for the express purpose of protecting the Trump campaign. But Trump told Fox News that he doesn't "think" a payment was ever actually made to the National Enquirer; he can be heard in a recording discussing the payment with Cohen.

Trump's attempt to paint Cohen, who was his personal lawyer for over a decade, as a "low-level" employee brings to mind his similar dismissal of Paul Manafort after the former campaign chairman was convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. "He worked for me for a very short period of time," Trump said of Manafort at the time, per Reuters.

Trump also said that he usually hires "very good people" but that in the case of Cohen, hiring him was a "mistake." Watch Trump's interview with Fox News below. Brendan Morrow

1:58 p.m.

'Twas a few weeks before Christmas, and all through one U.K. Christmas festival, things were most definitely stirring. Namely the festival's Santa Claus impersonator.

The English town of St. Ives was trying to host a peaceful holiday affair on Sunday, where Santa was slated to arrived by boat with his Chief Snowman. But a "family rave" — not affiliated with the festival — was thumping below Santa's "grotto," as the festival described it. And when an alarm went off thanks to the rave's smoke machine, Santa started acting "very strangely," parents tell Cambridgeshire Live.

As the festival describes it, Santa "immediately assisted in the evacuation of the building." By parents' accounts, he ripped off his hat and beard and yelled at kids "to get the f--k out," per Cambridgeshire Live. Parents later complained on Facebook that Santa was "an absolute disgrace" in front of "50 odd kids," and said they were "not too sure why he was so cross," per CNN.

The DJ at the event seems to have an explanation for Santa's conduct. "He probably sat there trying to talk to kids with thumping music playing," he told The Irish Times, adding that "the fire alarm going off was probably the final straw for him." The festival apologized for "any offense or distress caused to parents and children," and hasn't said whether the same Santa will sail into his grotto again this weekend. Kathryn Krawczyk

12:57 p.m.

Accused Russian spy Maria Butina officially pleaded guilty to conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors Thursday, NBC News reports.

Butina, who is said to have worked on Russia orders to infiltrate American politics, pleaded not guilty to her single count of conspiracy a few months ago. But she reportedly entered a plea deal with prosecutors earlier this week, and officially reversed her plea Thursday.

Back in July, Butina was arrested on a single conspiracy count of being an unregistered foreign agent in the United States. Prosecutors and reports detailed how Butina got close to conservative politicians by touting gun rights and working closely with the National Rifle Association. She notably "agreed and conspired" with Republican operative Paul Erickson "under direction of" Russian Central Bank leader Alexander Torshin, prosecutors said. Butina was studying international relations in the U.S. under a student visa, but allegedly reported back to Moscow at the same time.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Butina had reversed her fight against the charges and had started cooperating with prosecutors. Butina's Thursday appearance in a Washington, D.C. court confirms her reversal, and shows she'll "cooperate with federal, state and local authorities in any ongoing investigations," ABC News reports. She faces at most five years in prison and will probably be deported afterward, per CNN. Kathryn Krawczyk

12:25 p.m.

President Trump on Thursday suggested the lies told by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn weren't really that significant — even after having fired him for lying.

Trump wrote on Twitter that Flynn got a "great deal," responding to the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has recommended Flynn receive no prison time. Trump went on to assert, though, that the reason for this recommendation was that "they were embarrassed by the way he was treated." In particular, Trump claimed that the "FBI said he didn't lie."

But CNN's Josh Campbell points out that the FBI only said that Flynn showed no signs of lying. "But, they had him on tape, so they knew he was lying," Campbell adds. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when he said he did not discuss sanctions with Russians; he has not yet been sentenced but has asked for no jail time. Trump himself said in December 2017 that he had to fire Flynn "because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI." Brendan Morrow

12:02 p.m.

A Seattle school district's decision to implement a later start time for students allowed them to get more sleep and may have even improved their academic performance, a new study shows.

Researchers at the University of Washington tracked sophomores both before and after a school district pushed its start time from 7:50 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. They found that with the 8:40 start, students got on average an extra 34 minutes of sleep each night, reports NPR. They didn't simply move their bedtime later and get the same amount of sleep, as some suspected could happen.

That wasn't the only positive outcome: the study also found that there was a 4.5 percent increase in the students' median grades.

"These results demonstrate that delaying high school start times brings students closer to reaching the recommended sleep amount and reverses the century-long trend in gradual sleep loss," the researchers say. While it's easy to draw a link between the late start time and the additional sleep, it's "much harder to attribute causality for 4.5% higher grades on increased sleep." However, it's "certainly reasonable" to conclude that students who are more well-rested would see an improvement in their grades, and one teacher told NPR that her students seemed to find it easier to engage in class after the later start time began.

The study additionally showed that the number of absences and late arrivals also went down with the later start time, but this was only apparent in the economically disadvantaged school they looked at, which they conclude suggests "delaying high school start times could decrease the learning gap between low and high socioeconomic groups." Brendan Morrow

11:47 a.m.

The Oklahoma City bombing woke up U.S. counterterrorism officials to violent white supremacy and other forms of right-wing extremism. But 9/11 and political pressure turned their attention elsewhere — and "now, they have no idea how to stop" far-right extremists, The New York Times details in Thursday's episode of The Daily podcast.

After Timothy McVeigh's deadly 1995 attack, an FBI crackdown "somewhat succeeded in sending the far right underground," Times contributor Janet Reitman reports on The Daily. Then 9/11 arrived, and "the entire national security apparatus," including the FBI under then-director Robert Mueller, shifted to "countering Islamic extremism," Reitman says. Just one man — Daryl Johnson — was left to probe domestic right-wing extremism under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.

Things seemed quiet until former President Barack Obama gained national prominence, and Johnson — a registered Republican — correctly assumed the first black president would reinvigorate white supremacists. Under Obama, Johnson authored a report warning of this new threat, which was largely taking shape online, Johnson tells The Daily. But conservative media didn't like tying "right-wing" to "extremism," Johnson said. And their intense backlash led then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to rescind the report altogether.

National security monitoring of violent white supremacy only faded from there. Johnson was reassigned to a new job and eventually left DHS, and today, not a single person at DHS is dedicated solely to right-wing extremism, Johnson tells The Daily.

This shift may have successfully prevented another 9/11. But "white supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed more people in the United States ... than any other category of domestic extremist" in the meantime, per the Times. Listen to more on The New York Times' The Daily. Kathryn Krawczyk

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