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A local prosecutor on Thursday launched a formal investigation into allegations that Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) blackmailed a woman with whom he was having an affair. The FBI is also said to be looking into the case. 

Greitens has strongly denied the blackmail allegation.

“The serious allegations against Missouri Governor Eric Greitens are very troubling,” St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said in a statement. “After further consideration, I have decided to launch a formal investigation into the alleged actions of Governor Greitens.”

The Circuit Attorney is the chief prosecutor for state-level crimes committed in St. Louis. 

Al Watkins, a lawyer for the woman’s ex-husband, also said he’d been in touch with the FBI about the matter. 

“I have been receiving ongoing consistent contact from a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations,” Watkins told TPM Thursday afternoon, saying he first heard from the bureau in October 2016.

Rebecca Wu of the FBI’s St. Louis office told TPM that she could not comment on the existence or status of an ongoing federal investigation.

Greitens is accused of taking a nude photograph of the woman against her consent in order to keep her from going public about their months-long 2015 affair. Additionally, TPM reported that Greitens slapped the woman when she told him she had slept with her then-husband.

Greitens has admitted to the affair but, through his lawyer, Jim Bennett, has adamantly denied both the blackmail and the slapping. 

Bennett told TPM that he had not been contacted by law enforcement.

“We firmly believe that the Governor will be exonerated in any investigation,” Bennett said in an email to TPM. “As we confirmed today, the allegations are being stirred up for partisan reasons.”

Roy Temple, a former state Democratic Party chair, told TPM that the woman’s ex-husband had told him about the slap in 2016. 

The woman’s ex-husband provided local CBS affiliate KMOV with a recording he had made of his conversation with his then-wife about the photograph episode.

Watkins said the circuit attorney’s office was seeking seeking copies of the tape recordings and other evidence. He said they also were looking to interview the ex-husband. Watkins added that his client has not been interviewed by any law enforcement body.

Watkins said the call from the attorney’s office came just before 5 p.m. Thursday. Not long after, Gardner announced the probe. 

This post has been updated.

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The Justice Department, in court filings Thursday, pushed back on a federal judge’s order that Kris Kobach file a declaration clarifying how his now-defunct voter fraud commission is handling state voter roll data.

The filing claimed that since the commission was disbanded by President Trump last week, Kobach should not be considered a defendant in the relevant lawsuit — which was brought by the ACLU of Florida — and that the DOJ attorneys should not be considered his counsel. The Kansas secretary of state had served as the commission’s vice chair and de facto leader.

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The woman who had an affair with Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens in 2015 told her then-husband that Greitens slapped her against her will, after she told Greitens she had had sex with her husband.

A lawyer for Greitens strongly denies the claim.

A lawyer for the woman’s ex-husband, as well as Roy Temple, a Missouri Democratic operative, told TPM about the husband’s claims.

Temple told TPM that the woman’s husband had recounted the incident to Temple in September 2016, based on what his wife told him. Temple at that time was the chair of the Missouri Democratic party. Greitens, a Republican, was elected governor in November 2016.

The woman and her husband sought a divorce in March 2016. Temple said the husband told him the incident occurred in early July, 2015.

Al Watkins, a lawyer for the husband, confirmed to TPM in a Thursday phone interview that his client had discussed the slapping allegation in an interview with KMOV, CBS’ St. Louis affiliate. KMOV, which broke the news of the affair, has not broadcast that claim, as of Thursday afternoon.

“My client has asserted that that is what he has been told by his former spouse,” Watkins said. “My client has gone on the record with that statement and I have no reason to believe anything other than the absolute veracity of my client.”

Watkins declined to put TPM in contact with the man. “He is prioritizing his family and navigating a difficult time,” Watkins said.

Calls and texts to a phone number listed online for the woman were not returned. A woman who answered the phone at the salon where the woman works hung up the phone when a TPM reporter identified herself.

TPM is not naming the woman or the husband, out of concern for their family’s privacy.

“Greitens invited her to the Greitens family home and into a guest bedroom,” Temple wrote in an email to TPM, describing what he had been told by the husband. “Before engaging in sex, Greitens asked if she had had sex with anyone since their last encounter. According to the account he gave me, she replied that she had had sex with her husband, at which time Greitens slapped her.”

A lawyer for Greitens denied that he had slapped the woman.

“This allegation is completely false,” the lawyer, Jim Bennett, said in an email. “It never happened. There was never any violence. Anything reported otherwise is untrue and we will explore pursuing all legal action. This was a consensual relationship that lasted multiple months and was years ago before Eric was elected Governor.”

The claims lend a new layer of gravity to the still-unfolding scandal embroiling the governor. Late Wednesday, Greitens admitted in a statement that he had conducted the affair but denied allegations that he blackmailed the woman into silence by taking a nude photo of her while her arms were bound by tape to exercise equipment in his basement.

“All I can tell you as a simple-minded man from the heartland of America, whether it’s extortion or blackmail or neither, it’s fucking disgusting,” Watkins, the man’s attorney, said of the March 2015 photograph incident.

The woman recounted that episode and other details of her relationship with Greitens in a conversation with her then-husband days after it occurred. A recording of that conversation, made by the husband without her knowledge, was among the evidence provided to KMOV to support the husband’s version of events.  

Watkins, the man’s attorney, said in a Thursday radio interview with St. Louis station KMOX that his client had previously declined to come forward out of concern for his family’s privacy. Watkins said he decided to do so after members of the media continued to contact him about the affair and even called one of his young children, leaving the minor in a “position of abject horror about what’s gone on.”  

Missouri state senators from both parties have called for an investigation into the blackmail allegations. Several Democrats have called for Greitens to resign immediately. Greitens reportedly told allies Thursday that he plans to stay in office. 

Though the affair only came to light this week, rumors have swirled about Greitens’ relationship with the woman since before he took office. Temple, the Democratic operative, told TPM he reached out to the man through a mutual close friend to obtain more information in early fall 2016. Over the course of a phone call and two in-person meetings at the man’s home in the first two weeks of September, the man provided Temple with details of the affair, and played him part of the recording describing the blackmail incident.

Temple told TPM that the husband had made “multiple recordings” of his conversations with his then-wife about Greitens because, as the husband put it, he “wasn’t sure that he was getting the full story.”

The recording describing the basement photograph episode is the only one that news outlets had made public by Thursday afternoon.

Asked if he believed more damaging revelations about Greitens had yet to surface, Watkins said he believed that was a “correct statement.”

Referring to Greitens’s admission of an affair, Watkins said: “It is always important when you’re bellying up to the bar, that you belly all the way up to the bar.”

Additional reporting by Tierney Sneed.

This post has been updated.

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A Russian billionaire and Putin ally sued former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime deputy Rick Gates Wednesday, alleging that the two men “siphoned for themselves millions of dollars” as part of a Ukrainian investment scheme that was paid to their “alter ego companies.”

The complaint — filed by Surf Horizon Limited, a company linked to oil tycoon Oleg Deripaska, according to Reuters — includes references to the indictment Special Counsel Robert Mueller brought against Manafort and Gates.

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Missouri politics was rocked late Wednesday night when Gov. Eric Greitens (R) admitted to an extramarital affair amidst allegations that he blackmailed a woman with a naked photo he took during one of their sexual encounters. The news broke just hours after the Governor delivered his second annual State of the State address. Greitens admitted to the affair in response to a report by KMOV News 4 in St. Louis. He also released a joint statement with his wife Sheena in which the two say they have moved on from the affair. The affair reportedly occurred in 2015, more than a year before he was elected Governor in November 2016.

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A top official on the National Security Council last year proposed withdrawing some U.S. forces from the Baltics in an effort to please Vladimir Putin, the Daily Beast reported Tuesday.

Two former administration officials told the publication that Kevin Harrington, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump for strategic planning, pitched the plan to remove or reposition some U.S. forces stationed in Eastern Europe in February 2017.

Though Harrington’s proposal never came to fruition, it represented a remarkable pivot from decades of U.S. foreign policy. One former NSC colleague, speaking to the Beast, called it a “gesture to the Kremlin that would enable the nascent Trump administration to see if its desire for a friendly relationship with Russia would be reciprocated.”

U.S. forces have been stationed throughout Europe since the Cold War as a counter-weight to Russia, and were detailed to the Baltics after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

As the Beast previously reported, Harrington has proposed other measures that would please Putin, such as the easing of sanctions on the Russian oil industry.

Harrington is a former colleague of Trump ally Peter Thiel and of ousted national security adviser Mike Flynn. He managed to retain his high-ranking position on the NSC after Flynn was forced out of the White House.

Read the latest editor’s brief (Prime access) on this story »

 

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The ex-British spy hired to investigate President Trump’s Russia ties walked away from a meeting with the FBI in September 2016 with the sense that the bureau had its own independent sourcing prompting its interest in the matter, according to congressional testimony from the co-founder of the firm that hired him.

When Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson spoke privately to Senate Judiciary Committee investigators last year, he detailed the firm’s months-long oppo project looking into then-candidate Trump. The transcript was released unexpectedly Tuesday by the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), to the objection of its chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

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“Carter Page seemed to us to be a typical person who the Russians would attempt to co-opt or compromise or manipulate,” Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a transcript released Tuesday.

Simpson cited what he described as Page’s youth, his ambition, and his naïveté as three reasons the Kremlin would have targeted Page, an energy consultant who served as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.

Simpson’s testimony took place in August but was released Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee.

Simpson also testified he had “reason to believe” someone had offered Page business deals designed to influence him.

Simpson’s assessment is in line with that of former US intelligence professionals who spoke on the record to Talking Points Memo in November. They described Page as a soft target. “Most spies are Fredos,” ex-CIA officer David Chasteen said, referring to Michael Corleone’s hapless brother in The Godfather.

“There was a fair amount of open source [public information] on his consulting firm, his complaint that he’d lost money on Russian investments and he owned stock in [state-owned Russian oil giant] Gazprom and he was really mad about the sanctions [on Russia by the U.S.] and he went over there in this hastily-arranged trip to speak to this school and that was all pretty unusual,” Simpson told Senate investigators in August, “but there’s a lot of skepticism in the press about whether he could be linked between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign because he seemed like a zero, a lightweight.”

“I remember sort of not being able to kind of explain to people [in the press], that’s exactly why he would end up as someone who they would try to co-opt,” Simpson said.

Simpson listed Page’s speech in Moscow as one of several events that gave him pause alongside the Trump campaign’s surprisingly friendly stance toward Russia.

“[T]hey changed the Republican platform,” Simpson recalled. “Carter Page shows up in Moscow and gives a speech. He’s a campaign advisor and he gives a speech about dropping sanctions. Trump continues to say mysterious things about what a great guy Putin is.”

Simpson observed that Christopher Steele’s raw intelligence dossier — the primary topic of discussion during the hearing — identified Page as someone who “seemed to be in the middle of the campaign, between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and he later turned out to be an espionage suspect who was, in fact, someone that the FBI had been investigating for years.”

That confluence of credulousness and access, John Sipher, another former CIA officer, told TPM in November, is very rare in the world of clandestine work. Simpson, too, observed that people often spy without knowing it — something intelligence agents as high up as former CIA director John O. Brennan have said publicly.

“[T]he definition of compromised is someone who has been influenced sometimes without even without their knowledge,” Simpson said. “We had reason to believe that he had, in fact, been offered business deals that were — that would tend to influence him, business arrangements.”

Read Tierney Sneed’s story on the transcript and the transcript itself here.

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The former British spy behind an infamous dossier alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia apparently broke off communication with the FBI because of a October 2016 New York Times story claiming that no such ties had been found, according to newly released testimony.

Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, who assembled the dossier based on research by the former spy, Christopher Steele, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Times article made Steele feel “concern about what was going on at the FBI.”

Simpson’s testimony took place in August. An interview transcript was made public Tuesday.

“There was a concern that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and we didn’t really understand what was going on,” Simpson testified, calling the Oct. 31 article “a real Halloween special.”

The Times story reported at a critical moment in the 2016 election campign that the FBI had found no “conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government” during a months-long inquiry. The story has come under fire in light of subsequent reporting, much of it by the Times’ own reporters, detailing contacts between the two.

Simpson testified that the article contradicted Steele and Fusion’s own research into Trump’s connections with Russia.

“Chris was confused and somewhat disturbed and didn’t think he understood the landscape and I think both of us felt like things were happening that we didn’t understand and that we must not know everything about, and therefore, you know, in a situation like that the smart thing to do is stand down,” Simpson said.

Simpson testified that Steele had two previous contacts with the FBI about his findings, one that he initiated in early July 2016, and another in Rome in September 2016 that Simpson said he believed was requested by the bureau.

The Fusion GPS founder said that passing information on to the FBI was not an aim of the initial project investigating Trump’s Russia connections. But Simpson said that Steele felt compelled to do so because of his “grave concern” about his findings.

The full transcript of Simpson’s interview was released Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the committee. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had argued against making it public and referred Steele to the FBI for allegedly lying to federal investigators about his contacts with the media. Grassley said Feinstein’s decision to release the transcript “undermines the integrity of the committee’s oversight work.”

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Since Donald Trump first stirred crowds on the 2016 campaign trail with calls to “lock up” Hillary Clinton, legal observers have been warning about the dangers of politicizing the U.S. justice system. 

Those fears grew more urgent late last week with the news that the Justice Department has reopened its investigation into allegations of pay-for-play at the Clinton Foundation, and is also taking a fresh look at the private email server Clinton used as secretary of state. In addition, two influential Republican senators recommended charges against the author of a dossier alleging ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

There’s no evidence that the White House had a direct hand in any of those actions. But the news comes after frequent calls by Trump for further scrutiny of all three issues, including demanding jail time both for Clinton and for Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide ensnared in the email probe. Trump already has appeared to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to act in the president’s political interest, frequently attacking the AG for failing to protect Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential Russian collusion.

Taken together, the developments suggest a concerted effort by the Trump administration and its allies to push back against Mueller’s intensifying probe, by marshaling the full power of the federal government against the president’s political opponents. That poses a direct threat to the independence and impartiality of the justice system, former DOJ officials told TPM.

“The fact that the White House has been screaming about the need to investigate these matters undermines the credible belief that this is the result of independent new evidence that’s come somehow to the DOJ’s notice, and not political pressure,” Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with Mueller in DOJ’s criminal division, said in reference to the Clinton Foundation and email inquiries.

Some go further, linking last week’s developments with other steps by the Trump administration that seem to undermine the nation’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Ken McCallion, a former federal prosecutor and vocal critic of Trump’s ties to Russia, who as a defense lawyer has represented foreign political leaders targeted by authoritarian governments, called the situation “frightening.”

“If we are slowly sliding from a fully democratic country to a more totalitarian, pseudo-democratic one,” said McCallion, “one of the signs of that will be politicization of the decisions of the judicial process.”

The news of the revived Clinton Foundation investigation, which is said to be looking into whether Clinton traded donations to the charity for political favors while serving as secretary of state, has triggered perhaps the most alarm. That’s in part because it was first reported by The Hill’s John Solomon, who has been digging into the foundation for over a decade and whose work has frequently pleased conservatives.

More important, the foundation has already been thoroughly investigated. The federal probe was originally launched in 2015, reportedly in response to allegations leveled in a book by the conservative author Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash, a project that was backed by Steve Bannon. The inquiry went quiet in 2016 to avoid influencing the presidential race and resumed “about a year ago,” according to the Washington Post.

Exactly why the investigation was revived isn’t clear. Investigators in the Little Rock field office, where the charity has offices, are reportedly taking the lead.

No evidence has emerged at any point to indicate that the foundation’s donors received anything of value in return for their donations. Indeed, Clinton Cash’s most sensational claim, that Clinton helped a foundation donor win mining rights in Kazakhstan, have been convincingly debunked

Peter Zeidenberg, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said that without new, credible evidence of wrongdoing, the move to resuscitate the probe “smacks of pure political partisanship,” calling it “really troubling.”

The same day that news of the revived foundation probe emerged, the Daily Beast reported that DOJ also is looking into how Clinton and her aides handled classified material that passed through her private email server. That comes as the five-year statute of limitations for any potential federal felonies committed by Clinton, who left office in early 2013, draws near.

Clinton’s handling of classified information, like the foundation’s dealings with donors, has been exhaustively investigated. James Comey, then the FBI director, announced in July 2016 that a thorough probe had turned up no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Then, shortly before that year’s election, Comey said the bureau had obtained new evidence in the form of emails on Abedin’s computer. That highly unorthodox disclosure appears to have prompted a significant decline in Clinton’s support at a crucial moment. But Comey later said that those emails did not change the bureau’s assessment. 

Ziedenberg called the renewed focus on Clinton’s emails “preposterous.”

“Maybe this is being done for legitimate reasons but for appearance’s sake, it stinks,” Zeidenberg said. “The appearances are awful. The optics are horrible.”

The FBI’s hierarchical nature means that if an investigation originated from the top down, it would be difficult for agents to resist it, a former Obama Justice Department lawyer told TPM.

“You’re going to get people who will follow orders and be angry about it: ‘Okay I’ll investigate this and it’s stupid and it’s a waste of my time and I’ll do it,’” the person said.

“Because it’s a hierarchical organization there’s nobody to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Attorney General, your judgment is political and I’m shutting this down.’”

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment to TPM on the record about the Clinton Foundation and email inquiries.

It’s not only the Justice Department that’s being accused of improperly going to bat for the president. On Friday, in the first criminal referral related to Congress’s Russia investigation, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both members of the Judiciary Committee, announced that they believed Christopher Steele, a British spy who authored a dossier documenting allegedly improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, had lied to federal authorities about his contacts with reporters. The senators referred the case to the Justice Department for potential prosecution.

Both Grassley and Graham have lately seemed eager to defend the administration in connection with the Russia investigation. Graham has called for a new special counsel to probe alleged anti-Trump bias in the DOJ and FBI.

Democrats on the committee have expressed frustration at not being consulted. McCallion said he couldn’t remember such a referral being made on a partisan basis in his career.

The referrals came after Trump allies spent months attacking the dossier as unreliable and politically motivated, and arguing that its flaws undermine the entire Russia investigation. The president himself has called it “bogus” and lamented that it’s been used “as the basis for going after the Trump campaign.”

In fact, the dossier appears to have played little role in the decision to open the probe, and the FBI appears to believe its findings are credible.

Zeldin said it “doesn’t sit well” that months of witness interviews and the review of tens of thousands of pages of documents by the judiciary committee ended with what he said was essentially a “leak investigation.”

“You’d think if this was a serious concern as opposed to a political distraction, they would’ve made the referral without a public disclosure so as not to interfere with the FBI’s investigative efforts,” Zeldin added.

Sam Thielman contributed reporting.

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