They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker

Jared Kushner’s private attorney fell victim to a prankster posing as his client on Monday, exchanging several messages about Kushner’s use of a private email account to conduct government business and fielding questions about supposed “adult content” forwarded to that account.

In the email back-and-forth, which was first shared with Business Insider, attorney Abbe Lowell tells the individual he believed to be Kushner that he needed “to see all emails” sent and received from a personal email address that the top White House adviser and son-in-law of the President set up in December.

Kushner’s use of that account was first reported by Politico on Sunday. The New York Times and CBS have since reported that at least six senior White House officials, including former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, used private email accounts to carry out official business.

The prankster, who goes by the handle @SINON_REBORN on Twitter and used the address to contact Lowell, has since made their full Monday exchange public. He opened the conversation by asking Lowell what to do with “some exchanges with a website featuring adult content.”

Lowell asked if the messages were “forwarded or received from WH officials.”

After Kushner replied that one “unsolicited” message was forwarded to him by a White House official and that he’d also received “a handful more, but not from officials,” Lowell asked for evidence.

“I need to see I think all emails between you and WH (just for me and us),” he wrote. “We need to send any officials emails to your WH account. Not stuff like you asked about. None of those are going anywhere.”

“But we can bury it?” the prankster responded. “I’m so embarrassed. It’s fairly specialist stuff, half naked women on a trampoline, standing on legoscenes, the tag for the movie was #standingOnTheLittlePeople :(”

“Don’t delete. Don’t send to anyone. Let’s chat in a bit,” Lowell responded.

The high-powered D.C. attorney is representing Kushner in ongoing federal and congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He declined Business Insider’s response for comment, but previously released a statement saying that all of the “non-personal emails” sent or received on his private account were forwarded to his official address.

Lowell also said in that statement that most of the messages regarded event planning or news articles.

The Trump administration has had a rough streak of being lured into embarrassing exchanges by pranksters. Earlier in September, White House special counsel Ty Cobb asked @SINON_REBORN, using the email address to impersonate White House social media director Dan Scavino, if there “was any drone time left” while discussing the work of a Business Insider reporter.

Energy secretary Rick Perry and several other administration officials have also been fooled by various pranksters.

Read More →

Longtime Donald Trump associate and self-described dirty trickster Roger Stone said that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election and charged that Democratic leaders unfairly accused him of collusion in a statement released hours before his Tuesday testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

The 47-page document is pure Stone: a combative, bomb-throwing screed that insists the “mantra-like repetition” that Russia carried out an influence campaign to swing the election to Trump “does not make it so.”

He writes that it is instead, like the allegations against him, a combination of “conjecture, supposition, projection, allegation, and coincidence, none of it proven by evidence of fact.”

Stone adamantly denies the main charges against him: that he had advance knowledge that Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails would be hacked and that WikiLeaks would release thousands of hacked emails from Podesta; and that he obtained damaging information from a hacker believed to be a creation of Russian intelligence in a Twitter exchange.

He asks for apologies from Clinton, House Intelligence Committee vice chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and other top Democrats for repeatedly tying him to the Russia investigation in public appearances, amending his statement with news clippings documenting their comments.

A besuited Stone arrived on Capitol Hill just after 9 a.m. Tuesday, accompanied by his two attorneys, and proceeded directly into chamber where he was slated to meet with the committee. For once he had little to say, telling reporters gathered outside only that he planned “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”

Read Stone’s full statement below:

Read More →

Buried in a Washington Post story out Sunday night is a surprising new development: Facebook’s cybersecurity team told the FBI in June 2016 that it believed the Russian hacking team APT 28, also known as “Fancy Bear” and believed to be a proxy for the Russian state security service GRU, was active on the platform.

From the Post:

Soon thereafter, Facebook’s cyber experts found evidence that members of APT28 were setting up a series of shadowy accounts — including a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 and a Facebook page called DCLeaks — to promote stolen emails and other documents during the presidential race. Facebook officials once again contacted the FBI to share what they had seen.

As cybersecurity analyst Marcy Wheeler observes, this is quite an admission—anonymously sourced—from the company, which said in April that it wasn’t in a position to attribute the unusual activity to anybody in particular.

The company has consistently downplayed the effect of false information on its users and the significance of what now appear to be a great many dummy accounts on its platform run by Russian trolls.

“Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election,” the company’s threat analysts wrote in that April report.

At first, Facebook’s own review “did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts,” the Post reported, but that public assessment changed radically on Sept. 6 when the company announced it had found $100,000 worth of advertisements purchased by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm with Kremlin ties.

Yet according to the timeline laid out in the Post’s report, Facebook was concerned enough to raise the alarm to law enforcement in June 2016, just as the Russian disinformation campaign began in earnest. The first word that the federal governmental was investigating Russia’s influence in the campaign came in July 2016, a few weeks after Guccifer 2.0’s first post—in which he tries to claim sole credit for hacking the Democratic National Committee. Less than a week later, a Motherboard reporter who interviewed someone claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 appeared to be the first to suggest that the hacker might be Russian rather than Romanian, as he claimed.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of investigators recently have focused more on Facebook itself, rather than on hyperpartisan “fake news.” That suggests Americans were unable to see how they were being manipulated on the platform, despite the tactics appearing obvious in hindsight: While a number of stories in the conservative news media were sourced to dumps of emails hacked by the Russians, the news outlets themselves weren’t exactly breaking with tradition by reporting that information in a disingenuous and credulous way. Russians didn’t make the American news ecosystem on social media so toxic—that was already true—they just used it to amplify stories that might serve their specific interests.

Fancy Bear, too, was hardly a secret. The Russian hacking collective had been a topic of much discussion among American cybersecurity researchers for more than a year before it breached the DNC. It made news among cybersecurity researchers in May 2015 for a brazen attempt to hack American banks. The group also breached the World Anti-Doping Agency and distributed strategically falsified information alongside information from that hack in August 2016.

But it’s safe to say that no one in the mainstream press immediately understood the primary role social networks like Facebook and Twitter would come to play in Fancy Bear’s operations. News organizations questioned the origins of emails stolen from the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta—as far as the public knew, those were primarily distributed through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, both WordPress sites, and later by WikiLeaks—but until recently, personal social media accounts weren’t considered any more suspicious than the news articles they shared.

At the moment, it’s also unclear how much of the U.S. government’s investigation into Russian hacking attacks explored Facebook, and what it may have found. The FBI announced only that it had investigated “malicious cyber activity” in a brief joint report with the Department of Homeland Security issued in December 2016. The Joint Analysis Report (JAR) contains nary a mention of Facebook, although it does warn readers generally about suspicious social media interactions.

One could now read between the lines in Facebook’s April repot and see the suggestion that the Russian government was directly stumping for Trump on Facebook, although the authors did not write the word “Russia” once in its pages. Months after the U.S. government formally accused the Kremlin of that malicious activity, Facebook defined “influence operations” as “Actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome.” The title of the report is Influence Operations and Facebook.

It’s also now possible to read comments from people who might have known more about the attacks a little closer: James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, suggested in January that disinformation masquerading as news had been a part of the Russian campaign on Facebook.

We know there appears to have been a concerted propaganda effort across at least $100,000 worth of Facebook advertisements, many of them promoted by accounts made with stolen user photos and some used to organize rallies on U.S. soil. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has come forward to say Facebook will try to make it “much harder” for foreign operators to interfere with the American political process. But the Post story raises another question: Who else knew about the unusual activity Facebook detected on its platform and when—and what did they do to try to stop it?

Read More →

For more than a month, an eccentric pro-Russian Republican congressman has been publicly discussing his plan to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss what he learned firsthand from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. It seems that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) message hasn’t gotten through.

“I’ve never heard that mentioned, really,” Trump told the White House press pool Sunday when asked about plans to potentially pardon Assange in exchange for his information. “I’ve never heard that mentioned.”

Though the U.S. intelligence community agrees that Russia was behind a multi-faceted “influence campaign” to disrupt the U.S. presidential race, Rohrabacher has said that Assange has evidence that would clear that country of any allegations of interference.

The California Republican said he saw this evidence firsthand during a mid-August meeting at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where the WikiLeaks founder has lived in asylum for about five years.

Rohrabacher has spoken of his efforts to get the President’s ear ever since, telling Fox News host Sean Hannity that he expected an in-person “rendezvous” and the Los Angeles Times that he has “spoken to senior people at the White House” about setting it up.

One of those people was White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, received a telephone pitch from Rohrabacher about the potential pardon deal.

A Trump administration official told the Journal that Kelly did not deliver Rohrabacher’s message to Trump, instead telling the congressman that the idea “was best directed to the intelligence community.”

Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for an update on the congressman’s plans to meet with Trump.

Read More →

The Department of Homeland Security is under fire for waiting months to notify 21 states of the mostly unsuccessful efforts of hackers associated with the Russian government to infiltrate their election systems during the 2016 campaign.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) called the delay “unacceptable,” saying state election officials must be made aware of all such attempted intrusions, successful or not, so that they can strengthen their defenses.”

California’s Democratic Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, said that DHS ignored his office’s repeated requests for additional information.

“We shouldn’t have to learn about potential threats from leaked NSA documents or media reports,” Padilla said in a statement. “It is the intelligence community’s responsibility to inform elections officials of any potential threats to our elections. They failed in this responsibility.”

Padilla said that Jeanette Manfra, DHS’ Acting Undersecretary for Cybersecurity and Communications, falsely testified to Congress in June that all 21 states whose systems were targeted had already been informed.

“This was simply not true and DHS acknowledged they failed to contact us and ‘two or three’ other states,” Padilla said.

The hackers efforts’ did not affect election results or the systems themselves. They mainly consisted of attempts to scan the systems for vulnerabilities.

Besides California, other states that have confirmed being targeted include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington, according to the Associated Press and states themselves.

Read More →

The Department of Homeland Security on Friday informed 21 states that their election systems were targeted by “Russian government cyber actors” during the 2016 presidential campaign.

As of late Friday afternoon, the states to acknowledge that the DHS told them they were targeted included Wisconsin, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon, Delaware, ColoradoConnecticut and Washington.

Wisconsin’s elections commission claimed in a press release that the Russian hacking activity did not affect election results in the state or the systems themselves.

“Internet security provided by the state successfully protected our systems,” commission administrator Michael Haas said in a statement. “Homeland Security specifically confirmed there was no breach or compromise of our data.”

What the hackers did do was target “Internet-facing election infrastructure,” according to the Wisconsin commission’s account of its debrief from the DHS, in what was apparently an unsuccessful effort to seek access to voter registration databases and other sensitive information.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill announced that the DHS saw suspicious traffic from IP addresses on state networks, but that efforts to breach their voting systems were similarly unsuccessful.

Colorado’s elections commissions likened the scan to of their system to “burglars jiggling the doors of a house and moving on when they realize the doors are locked.”

The attempts to infiltrate election systems were one arm of what the U.S. intelligence community has determined was a multi-pronged “influence campaign” to interfere with the 2016 election and swing the results in Donald Trump’s favor. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June, DHS officials testified about these cyberattacks on U.S. election systems. Bloomberg News had previously reported that Russian hackers had attempted to delete or alter voter data in Illinois, and successfully accessed a campaign finance database in another state.

While some state officials, like Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, said they were aware of the attempted intrusion and notified the FBI of the activities, others expressed frustration that the DHS had not brought the cyberattacks to their attention earlier.

Haas, who testified at the June Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that he did not believe Wisconsin was one of the targeted states because he had received no notification from the federal government, said he had asked for more details on when the activity occurred.

This post has been updated.

Read More →

Facebook initially withheld from Congress the thousands of ads it says were purchased by Kremlin-affiliated trolls because some of them contain photos stolen from other Facebook users, a congressional staffer briefed on the content of the ads told TPM on Friday.

The staffer said some of the ads include images of people who are essentially innocent bystanders to the propaganda war Russia waged across social media platforms during the 2016 campaign. The staffer suggested it may be possible for Congress to redact the ads to maintain the privacy of any users whose photos were stolen, in order to give the public access to some of the material Russian operators deployed to try to illegally influence voters.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment to TPM.

In a reversal, the company announced Thursday that it had “reached out to congressional leadership to agree on a process and schedule to provide the content of these ads, along with related information, to congressional investigators.” Facebook already had handed over details of the ad buys, including copies of the ads themselves, to special counsel Robert Mueller.

On the company’s blog, general counsel Colin Stretch essentially handed the public disclosure matter over to Congress: “We believe Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”

The staffer TPM spoke with speculated that the stolen photos may have been used to build fake Facebook profiles—under the site’s default settings, every user’s profile photos, past and present, are not merely visible but also available for download by any other user.

There’s already some evidence that Russian operators built fake Facebook accounts using stolen photos: The New York Times found that pictures belonging to Charles David Costacurta, a Brazilian man, had been used to build a profile under the name “Melvin Redick” that used to disseminate Russian propaganda.

In Congress, there is a growing sense that the public should know how, specifically, it may have been affected by foreign interference on social media platforms.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, went further: “An American can still figure out what content is being used on TV advertising,” he told CNN. “But in social media there’s no such requirement.”

Warner suggested the need for “a reform process” that would enable Americans “to know if there is foreign-sponsored content coming into their electoral process.” The senator is writing a bill that would require online media companies to publish disclosures similar to those mandated of broadcast television stations, which are individually licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Zuckerberg said publicly that he didn’t “think society should want us to “pre-screen political ads. Requiring the company to pre-screen any category of advertisement would necessitate a major increase in human staff, since, by Zuckerberg’s admission, most ad buying on Facebook is automated.

Read More →

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) issued a lengthy statement Friday afternoon announcing his opposition to the last-ditch Obamacare repeal effort in the Senate, which GOP leaders were hoping to bring for a vote next week.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal,” McCain said in the statement, referring to the bill Republicans were planning to put on the floor.

His opposition is a major setback, if not full-on death sentence, for the legislation. Senate Republicans can only lose two GOP votes and still pass the bill. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have also signaled they’re very likely to vote against the bill. The deadline for the Senate to move forward on the Obamacare repeal effort that passed out of the House is Sept. 30.

McCain was the key vote that torpedoed Senate Republicans’ last Obamacare repeal effort in July, with a late-night surprise vote against a previous proposal that would have gone to a conference committee between the House and the Senate. That dramatic vote came after McCain was rushed back to Washington from Arizona, where he has been receiving cancer treatments. McCain had voted in favor of advancing an Obamacare repeal bill in an initial procedural vote, but then gave a riveting speech on the Senate floor ripping lawmakers for abandoning the traditional legislative process.

Likewise, the statement McCain issued Friday focused on the process complaints about the latest bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and McCain’s good friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Their bill was only introduced earlier this month, and Republicans intended to vote on it next week with only a preliminary Congressional Budget Office score that would not have analyzed the legislation’s effects on health care coverage or its overall costs to the federal government.

If Senate Republicans do not pass a repeal bill out of their chamber by Sept. 30, they will have wasted the legislative vehicle they were using to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

Graham said on Twitter that he “respectfully disagree[d]” with McCain’s decision, but said that their friendship was “not based on how he votes but respect for how he’s lived his life and the person he is.”

“I’m excited about solutions we have found in Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson. We press on,” Graham continued.

Cassidy’s response to McCain’s opposition was more curt:

“I am disappointed that Senator John McCain is not voting to repeal and replace Obamacare. But, as long as there are families being penalized because they can’t afford insurance costing $30,000 to $40,000 a year, I will continue to work for those families,” he said in statement.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, said on Fox News that losing McCain’s support was “certainly not a good development for passage of the bill.” He was hopeful, however, that there was “an opportunity between now and September 30th, the end of next week, to get a vote on this, an affirmative vote.”

McCain on Friday called for the Senate to get back to the bipartisan negotiations on a more limited Obamacare fix, that had been called off by Republicans as they hoped to push through the Graham-Cassidy repeal.

“I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried,” McCain said. “Nor could I support it without knowing how much it will cost, how it will effect insurance premiums, and how many people will be helped or hurt by it. Without a full CBO score, which won’t be available by the end of the month, we won’t have reliable answers to any of those questions.”

Read More →

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the Treasury Department.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, announced Friday that he was placing a hold on a Treasury Department nominee, citing Russia-related documents that the Treasury has not yet handed over to the Finance Committee.

“I have placed a hold on the nominee because of the Treasury Department’s refusal to provide the Senate Finance Committee with Treasury documents related to Russia,” Wyden said in a statement. “The provision of these documents to the Committee is not only part of the oversight process, but is necessary if the relevant congressional expertise is to be brought to bear on the effort to follow the money.”

Isabel Patelunas, the nominee for assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, has already cleared her vote out of the Intel Committee, and awaits a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Wyden’s hold can’t permanently block her moving forward, rather it just slows the process for her nomination to come to the Senate floor.

Read More →

Donald Trump, Jr. never held an official position on his father’s 2016 presidential campaign, nor did he join his father and sister in the White House as a member of the administration.

But the Republican National Committee is helping foot Trump Jr.’s mounting legal bills stemming from the multiple investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The RNC and Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign together have shelled out around $250,000 on his behalf to date.

The RNC’s ability to spend all this money on Trump Jr. is possible thanks to a rider that a powerful Democratic lawyer slipped into a government spending bill at the eleventh hour in 2014, allowing national party committees to establish special legal accounts for campaign-related expenses. Those accounts can take in three times the normal contribution limit to the parties’ general funds—which would be roughly $101,700 per person—and are subject to hardly any federal oversight. They serve as a deep, opaque pool of money that campaign finance experts described to TPM as a “gray area” or “wild west,” and their boundaries now are being tested as the sprawling congressional and federal Russia investigations press forward.

“The extent to which that money can be used for something like this has never really been nailed down by the Federal Election Commission,” Jan Baran, an election law expert at Wiley Rein who previously served as the RNC’s general counsel, told TPM of the RNC account.

Larry Noble, a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center who specializes in election law, criticized the FEC’s lack of guidance or regulations on the matter and said that the RNC footing Trump Jr.’s bills prompts a “real question of whether this is an appropriate use of their funds.”

“It raises the possibility that large donors will make large contributions knowing that the money is going to help the Trump defense,” he added.

FEC spokesman Christian Hilland told TPM that the committee couldn’t comment on specific details of the Trump campaign’s or the RNCs’ legal spending, but acknowledged that “the Commission has not promulgated regulations” related to the national party committees’ legal funds.

The RNC’s special legal fund, like the campaign itself, is permitted to cover any legal expenses that arise directly from a campaign or a government official’s duties in office. The costs of election recounts and routine compliance matters are covered; drunk driving arrests and sex scandals are not. If the RNC counts the legal defense of the President’s son, a private citizen, in the Russia investigation as a campaign-related expense, Noble asked, “where does that stop?”

The lack of clarity on this point was underlined by the RNC chairwoman herself in a July interview with Washington, D.C. radio station WMAL.

“I don’t even know if that’s legal, if we would even be allowed to do that,” Ronna Romney McDaniel said when asked if she could cover the legal costs for Trump and other officials caught up in the probe.

RNC lawyers have since determined that the funds they’ve paid to the President’s personal attorneys, which amounted to some $230,000 in August alone, are lawful, and are looking into the legality of covering the legal bills of current White House staffers, who must comply with gift rules, according to a Washington Post report.

Asked how the four administration officials who have retained legal counsel in the Russia investigation—Communications Director Hope Hicks, Vice President Mike Pence, White House counsel Don McGahn and senior adviser Jared Kushner—are covering their bills, a White House spokeswoman referred TPM to the RNC. The committee did not return repeated requests for comment.

Only Trump and his son have taken advantage of the RNC’s or the campaign’s legal funds so far. But campaign finance experts told TPM that there’s nothing legally preventing any other campaign associate or White House official from doing the same.

Those outside the administration have taken a wide range of approaches to their defenses in the probes. Higher-profile associates like longtime adviser Roger Stone and ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, through his family, have established legal defense funds. Former campaign adviser Carter Page has taken the unusual step of not hiring any representation at all, despite having sat for over 10 hours of FBI interviews, telling TPM that he’s not concerned “since I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Still others are simply draining reserve funds to cover thousands of dollars in white-collar legal bills. Former campaign adviser Michael Caputo told TPM he has exhausted his childrens’ college funds and was planning to tap his retirement savings next.

Asked if he had contacted the RNC or Trump campaign for financial assistance, Caputo said, “They know where to find me.”

“Perhaps it’ll happen,” he continued. “But I think the priority is that we as Republicans protect the President and his family. People are like, ‘Oh aren’t you upset that they’re spending money on legal fees for people who are wealthy when you’re going through this?’ I’m not upset by that at all. I think it’s our responsibility.”

Page, too, said he was “not a bit” bothered by a President who claims to be worth $10 billion drawing funds from the RNC and his re-election campaign to pay legal expenses for himself and his son, while those loyal to him struggle to pay their own bills.

As with with Trump’s decision not to divest from his business empire and to hire his own family members for White House roles, the operative question seems to be less if he can take those steps than if he should.

Read More →