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Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to confirm or deny whether President Trump brought up the federal Russia investigation as a reason to fire FBI Director James Comey.

“That calls for a communication that I have had with the president, and I believe it remains confidential,” Sessions said, in response to questioning from top Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein (CA) at committee hearing Wednesday.

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Alan Yuhas contributed English-language translation

As many as 100 unwitting activists were recruited to help organize events in the United States both before and after the election by the same St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm behind scores of fake social media accounts that purchased ads to sow discord during the 2016 campaign.

The revelation comes from a report in the Russian business magazine RBC published on Tuesday morning.

The events included an October 2016 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest police violence mere weeks after a protester was fatally shot at a Black Lives Matter protest there. The organizers of the October protest were not with BLM, though, according to RBC’s report. They were with BlackMattersUS, the organization outed as a Russian front last week by Casey Michel at ThinkProgress.

The Charlotte rally was one of ten BlackMattersUS events catalogued by RBC journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov. The two reporters interviewed numerous former employees at the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, and reviewed chats on encrypted messaging app Telegram from senior personnel.

The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.

“Up to 100 American citizens helped to organize the events for the ‘Trolls factory,’ not knowing who’s really behind all these groups,” Zakharov told TPM.

A source familiar with the troll farm’s activities told RBC that it spent about $80,000 total—just $20,000 less than Facebook said was spent promoting divisive ads on its platform—on “paying for these local organizers’ work (flights, printing costs, technical equipment),” according to a translation of the report commissioned by TPM.

RBC found that the troll farm was carrying out dry runs for political protests in the U.S. as early as 2015. That spring, the organization used publicly accessible webcams in Times Square to see if people would follow instructions on Facebook to show up at a designated place and time for a free hot dog. They did, and didn’t even get a promised hot dog for their trouble.

FAN considered that show of hungry Facebook users a huge success, according to the translation of RBC’s report:

The action was meant to test the effectiveness of a hypothesis: can you remotely organize measures in American cities. “Simply a test of possibilities, an experiment. And it succeeded,” remembered one of the “factory” workers, not concealing their pleasure. From this day forward, almost a year and a half before the US presidential election, began the full work of the “trolls” in American communities.

In March 2015, on the web portal SuperJob, there appeared vacancies for “internet operators (night),” with a salary of 40-50 thousand roubles and a work schedule of 21pm to 9am, in the office on Primorsky district; job duties included writing materials “on designated themes” and “news information and analysis.” On the list of requirements for the position, “natural English,” “confident ownership” of written language, and creativity.

Russian reporter Alexey Kovalev told TPM last month that a troll he took to task for praising Putin in the comments of one of his articles made him a similar offer for work.

The RBC report also identified the head of FAN’s American division, Jayhoon (also spelled Dzheikhun) Aslanov, 27, who studied abroad in the U.S. in 2009 and graduated with a degree in economics from Russian State Hydrometeorological University in 2012. Three sources confirmed Aslanov’s role at the troll farm to RBC, including one who showed the reporters messages from Aslanov on Telegram; Aslanov himself denied it to the news outlet.

FAN’s American unit spent $2.3 million between June 2015 and August 2017 and employed 90 people at its peak, according to the report; it is still active and today employs 50 people. During the period RBC studied, the troll farm’s budget for promotion on social media was $5,000 a month, fully half of which was devoted to “posts touching on race issues.”

But Trump himself factored into that material far less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, RBC found. From the translated report:

A RBC analysis of hundreds of posts showed that Clinton figured in troll posts far more frequently than Trump.
“Share if you believe that Muslims did not do 9/11,” (United Muslims of America, 11 September 2016), “Clinton insists ‘We have not lost a single American in Libya’ Four coffins, covered in flags, were not empty, Hillary.” (Being Patriotic, in a post about Clinton’s relation to the tragedy, from 8 September 2016). In a statement, Facebook said that for the most part the blocked ads “range across the ideological spectrum,” touching on issues like LGBT rights, race, immigrants and firearms.

RBC’s investigation uncovered more than 100 community pages and associated accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms active through August 2017 that it believes were run by the troll farm. It confirmed those accounts’ authenticity using screenshots of posts and by consulting “a source close to the factory’s leadership.” The report estimates about 70 million people a week saw something posted by those accounts.

Zakharov told TPM that he believes there are accounts run by FAN with a total following around 1 million that remain active to this day.

This post has been updated.

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The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed documents and testimony from former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as part of its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, NBC News reported Tuesday.

The subpoena comes a week after Page said that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid turning documents over to the committee, citing concerns that the requested information was out of the bounds of lawmakers’ mandate and part of an effort to lead him into a “false testimony/perjury trap.”

Spokespeople for the Senate Intelligence Committee told TPM they had no comment.

Asked about a potential subpoena, Page sent TPM a text message that said he was busy “dealing with more relevant matters today (such as my defamation case in U.S. District Court of the Southern District of NY, cited herein), rather than being bothered by the latest damaging lies and leaks.”

Page was referring to a 400-plus page complaint he recently filed against several news organizations for publishing what he described as “highly-damaging, life-threatening” reports about his contacts with Russian officials.

Pressed to confirm whether he’d received a subpoena, Page replied, “LIKE I SAID, I’M DEALING WITH MORE RELEVANT THINGS. ITS LESS OF A ‘NO COMMENT’ AND MORE OF A ‘NO INTEREST IN TALKING ABOUT IRRELEVANCIES.’”

Page previously told TPM he was eager to testify publicly before the committee, but is not willing either to offer private testimony or provide documents. Page believes that U.S. intelligence agencies have obtained all the information they need to know about him through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order, which the FBI reportedly took out to monitor Page’s communications shortly after he left the Trump campaign.

Page has not retained legal counsel to help him navigate the congressional and federal Russia investigations so far.

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Gregory Katsas, a top White House lawyer who has been nominated by President Trump for a powerful appeals court seat, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that he had “given legal advice on a few discrete legal questions” arising out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, but denied any involvement in some of the key moments leading to the probe, including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

“I have no knowledge of any underlying facts regarding Russian interference,” Katsas said at the hearing for his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked for documents and testimony from the son of former national security adviser Michael Flynn that it has not received yet, NBC News reported Tuesday.

Of interest is Michael G. Flynn’s work as chief of staff and travel companion to his father at the elder Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Flynn’s attorney, Barry Coburn, declined NBC’s request for comment.

That same work, which included providing administrative support for a well-compensated lobbying contract for a businessman close to Turkey’s government, made Michael G. Flynn a “subject” of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, according to NBC’s previous reporting.

Flynn’s son, who is known for promoting conspiracy theories, has dismissed reports that he is part of the investigation as “fake news” and a “nothingburger.”

The Turkey lobbying work and the Flynns’ 2015 trip to Russia prompted both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to issue subpoenas for Flynn Intel Group earlier this year.

Both congressional and federal investigators also are interested in determining whether the Flynns played any role in a GOP operative’s efforts to get hold of Hillary Clinton’s private emails. That operative, the late Peter W. Smith, cited the support of Flynn, Flynn’s son and Flynn Intel Group in efforts to recruit cybersecurity experts and hackers to track down the emails, claiming they were working “in coordination” with him.

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Foreign Policy magazine Monday published an English translation of a memo Kremlin-linked attorney Natasha Veselnitskaya took to a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Trump campaign associates, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The memo — which was provided to Foreign Policy by the Crimea-based Russian news organization News Front — focuses on attacking the claims of Bill Browder, a major foe of Vladimir Putin, and the Russian sanctions legislation that he advocated for, known as the Magnitsky Act.

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Congressional investigators are digging into a Republican operative’s efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private emails from Russian hackers and his claims to be carrying out that hunt on behalf of members of the Trump campaign, CNN reported Monday.

The Senate and House Intelligence Committees are both reaching out to individuals recruited by the late Peter W. Smith, a veteran Chicago-based opposition research, for inside knowledge about how exactly his email hunt worked. Smith himself was found dead in an apparent suicide weeks after after the Wall Street Journal first reported on his email campaign.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is also probing Smith’s work and whether, as he claimed, he was working “in coordination” with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or other high-level Trump campaign officials.

An anonymous source told CNN that British security analyst Matt Tait told the House committee that he believed Smith had close ties to Flynn, former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and White House aide Kellyanne Conway. Tait went public with Smith’s efforts to recruit him in a June blog post for Lawfare, where he wrote that it was “apparent that Smith was both well connected within the top echelons of the campaign” and that he displayed a “reckless lack of interest in whether the emails came from a Russian cut-out.”

Indeed, Smith himself told the Journal that he “knew the people who had these were probably around the Russian government.”

The House panel has also interviewed Smith’s former assistant, law student Jonathan Safron, while Senate investigators have contacted Eric York, a separate security expert Smith reached out to for assistance in obtaining and verifying Clinton’s emails, according to CNN.

Conway and Bannon have previously denied any knowledge of this plot. Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, declined CNN’s request for comment.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also requested an interview and documents from far-right blogger Chuck Johnson, who told CNN he had done neither and would refuse any requests for a closed-door interview. Johnson recently joined pro-Russia congressman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) for a trip to meet with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where they discussed their shared assessment that Russia played no role in providing Clinton campaign emails to Assange’s publication during the campaign.

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Lawyers representing the firm that put together the so-called Trump dossier wrote a scathing letter to House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA)  — who has recused himself from the committee’s Russia probe, but nonetheless issued subpoenas to the firm — accusing Nunes and his staff of operating with a “pattern of unprofessional conduct.”

“Now that you, and by extension, your staff, have proven to be unreliable partners in good faith negotiations, we cannot reasonably be expected to trust anything that you or your staff would represent to us,” the lawyers for Fusion GPS said Monday in the letter. “We cannot in good conscience do anything but advise our clients to stand on their constitutional privileges, the attorney work product doctrine and contractual obligations.”

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A young black man photographed wielding an improvised flamethrower in front of a group of white nationalists at an August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia was arrested Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Virginia resident Corey Long, 23, was charged with disorderly conduct for his use of the makeshift flamethrower and with assault and battery for a separate skirmish that occurred during the tumultuous event, Charlottesville police spokesman Lt. Stephen Upman told the newspaper.

An Associated Press photo of a shirtless Long aiming a lighted spray can at a crowd of Confederate-flag wielding white nationalists went viral in the days after the rally, inspiring think pieces and circulating widely on social media.

Long, who the Times reported was released on bond after appearing before a magistrate, is the second black counter-protester to be charged last week in connection with the rally. A neo-Confederate group leader apparently made use of a Virginia statute to pursue a felony “unlawful wounding” charge for DeAndre Harris, a 20-year-old black man who was viciously beaten by a group of white nationalists in a parking garage.

Long is being represented by Malik Zulu Shabazz, former chairman of the New Black Panther Party, according to the Times.

Shortly after the rally, Long told the Root that he acted in self-defense in firing off the flamethrower, doing so after a white man shot at the ground in his direction.
“At first it was peaceful protest,” Long told the publication. “Until someone pointed a gun at my head. Then the same person pointed it at my foot and shot the ground.”

That person appears to be Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard and Baltimore resident Richard Wilson Preston. Preston is seen in a video taken by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Virginia chapter shouting “Hey, nigger!” just before drawing a pistol and firing into the crowd in Long’s direction. He was arrested in August for discharging a firearm within 1,000 yards of a school—a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.

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A researcher for President Trump’s voter fraud commission was arrested last week on allegations of child pornography, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

An unnamed administration senior official confirmed to the Post that Ronald Williams II, a 37-year-old from Maryland, was working for the commission, having been moved there from the Office of Special Counsel.

Williams was arrested Friday, according to court documents, and was charged with 11 counts of possession and distribution of child pornography.

He was arrested after the police searched his home, the Post reported. Authorities had been tipped off via a task force on Internet crimes against children, according to the report. Law enforcement said they found “multiple files of child pornography” on Williams’ cell phone, according to the Post.

 

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