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Thomas Brunell, a controversial potential pick for a top Census Bureau post, is no longer under consideration for the position, a Department of Commerce spokesperson confirmed to TPM Monday.

Mother Jones had previously reported Monday, citing two unnamed sources informed of his decision, that Brunell had withdrawn. Moments before the Mother Jones report appeared, Terri Ann Lowenthal, a knowledgable Census Bureau observer, told TPM that she had been told Brunell had withdrawn.

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An NBC News report last week claiming a U.S. official confirmed that several states’ voter rolls were penetrated by Russian hackers is getting belated pushback from the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS blasted out a statement Monday that said NBC “misrepresented facts” and “falsely report[ed]” the DHS official’s comments.

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) is denying that the White House was involved in drafting a GOP memo that alleged anti-Trump bias at the Justice Department and FBI. But Democrats say his comments don’t put the matter to rest.

Nunes’s claim surfaced in a transcript released Friday afternoon of the House Intelligence Committee’s Monday meeting. It’s slightly stronger than Nunes’ comments on the issue last week, when he said that, “as far as I know” no Republican staffers coordinated with the White House on the document.

“There was no involvement in drafting the memo with the White House,” Nunes, the committee’s chair, said in a statement that he read as Monday’s meeting wrapped up, according to the transcript.

In a statement of his own released Friday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the panel, suggested he still wants to know more.

“This carefully worded statement suggests the White House may have had a role in the planning of the memo,” if not the drafting, Schiff said.

The transcript of Monday’s meeting shows that before reading the statement, Nunes avoided offering detailed responses to Democrats’ questions about possible White House involvement.

“People want to know whether folks are just trying to protect the President or whether they are doing a legitimate investigation,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) said, urging Nunes to address those concerns personally.

“The chairman is not going to entertain political theater on behalf of this committee,” Nunes ultimately said, suggesting his Democratic colleagues were eager to play up their outrage “for the news cameras.”

The Nunes memo, which was released last week, claimed that top FBI and DOJ officials failed to properly identify a dossier partially funded by Democrats as the source for an application to obtain a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The warrant was actually based on a wealth of information about Page dating back to 2013, and renewed multiple times, suggesting investigators found additional useful intelligence to act on.

Trump has claimed the memo completely vindicates him in the investigation into Russia’s interference in the election.

The House Intelligence Committee on Monday voted unanimously to release the Democrats’ rebuttal to the document, and the White House has spent the week reviewing it. Trump said Friday that he would release a letter on the Democratic memo imminently.

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For more than a year, there’s been intense scrutiny of Russia’s sprawling campaign to influence the 2016 election, and of the extent to which Donald Trump’s campaign was complicit in it.

But the question of just what Russia hoped to get from Trump has stayed mostly on the back-burner. 

That has obscured a crucial reality. On numerous occasions, in numerous ways, Russians working for or linked to Vladimir Putin’s government have asked Trump or his team to weaken or lift U.S. sanctions on Russia. And — through his public rhetoric, through a weak approach to enforcement, and, most recently, through his resistance to fully implementing a sanctions law passed by Congress — Trump has mostly done what he can to oblige.

Among Russia’s top concerns has been the Magnitsky Act, which was passed by Congress in 2012 in retaliation for Russia’s mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who died in prison in 2009 — European investigators concluded he was murdered — after exposing an alleged money-laundering scheme that implicated top Russian officials. The law targeted specific Russian officials determined to be involved with Magnitsky’s death, barring them from entering the U.S. or using its banking system.

Then in 2014, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on a range of Russian institutions including state banks, in retaliation for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier that year. And in December 2016, Obama imposed additional sanctions on Russian nationals and tech companies, including ordering the removal of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S., in response to Russia’s campaign to influence the U.S. election.

It’s the Magnitsky Act that’s especially enraging to the Putin government, because it hits powerful figures in Russian business and government, whose ongoing support is crucial to Putin, Russia experts say.

“Putin hates targeted sanctions,” said Bill Browder, the American-born hedge-fund manager who employed Magnitsky when he uncovered the alleged money laundering, and has become an outspoken Putin critic. “If the country was sanctioned, they could always bring in planeloads of luxury goods. [Specific sanctions] target, at a precise level, the elite, and they leave the rest of the people alone.”

And as the Russia expert Amy Knight points out in a history of the Magnitsky affair in the New York Review of Books, laws like Magnitsky that punish Russia for internal human rights abuses strike at the source of Putin’s power: his ability to turn the law off and on when it suits him.

The Kremlin’s Quiet Push Against Sanctions

So the Russian government set out to ask for help from Trump. The Magnitsky Act was a topic of conversation at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign staff and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-linked lawyer, the latter told Bloomberg last November. 

They had already approached him overtly at the start of his campaign: Maria Butina, a top aide to the Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, asked Trump to lift sanctions during the Q&A portion of a speech at a libertarian conference in Las Vegas in July 2015. Trump interrupted Butina’s question to praise Putin and say he wanted better relations with the country.

More overtures followed. In July 2016, Trump advisor Carter Page visited Moscow where he discussed the ways lifting sanctions would be “advantageous” to a Russian state oil company. Later that month, Trump officially received the Republican presidential nomination.

The campaign continued through backchannels. After the election, Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., called Michael Flynn to discuss the Obama administration’s December 2016 sanctions expelling Russian diplomats, according to documents charging Flynn with lying to federal investigators. Flynn asked Kisylak not to retaliate for those sanctions, suggesting the incoming Trump administration would undermine them.

The push got even more direct once Trump took office. In July 2017, Trump and Putin held a closed-door meeting where they discussed “adoption,” Trump later told the press. That was almost certainly a reference to the sanctions on American adoptions Putin imposed on the U.S. in retaliation for Magnitsky.

Donald Trump, Pushover

Trump appears to have been glad to go along with the Russian pressure campaign. In one key early sign of its willingness to play ball, the Trump campaign in July 2016 gutted the GOP platform’s hardline position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Two months later, another foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, was inveighing against sanctions to Russian news agency Interfax. Papadopoulos would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation.

Once Trump took office, however, things became trickier. Despite Flynn’s promises to Kisylak about sanctions, by February Flynn had been fired amid the FBI probe, and legislation punishing Russia beyond the expulsion of the 35 diplomats appeared to be moving forward.

In August 2017, Congress responded to the Russian election interference by passing new sanctions nearly unanimously. The bill required Trump to name businesses and individuals to be added to a list, maintained by the Treasury, of entities with which it is illegal for Americans to do business.

It would have been politically damaging for Trump to veto the sanctions, especially given the ongoing focus on his campaign’s ties to Russia. But in signing the bill, Trump issued a statement protesting what he labelled unconstitutional provisions. Parts of the bill, Trump said, “purport to direct my subordinates in the executive branch to undertake certain diplomatic initiatives, in contravention of the President’s exclusive constitutional authority.”

In retaliation for the new sanctions, Putin expelled hundred of diplomats from Russia. In response, Trump thanked him, saying the State Department’s budget needed cutting anyway. He later said he was being sarcastic.

Still, Trump dragged his feet on implementing the new sanctions law. His administration released the list of 39 businesses nearly a month after an October 2017 deadline had passed. And on January 29 of this year, a day before the list of persons was due, the State Department announced it wouldn’t release one, saying the threat of punishment was punishment enough.

“[S]anctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.

The same day, the Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin, as required by the law. But it didn’t sanction them — Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin suggested he might do so later. Treasury turned out to have cribbed the list from Forbes.

The list was released the same week that three Russian intelligence officials — one of them himself under U.S. sanctions — were reported to have met with CIA director Mike Pompeo in the U.S.

“I think that the Trump administration was persuaded not to publish a narrow list of people to be sanctioned and instead to come out with this broad list of officials that ended up being meaningless,” said Knight, the Russia scholar and the author of Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder. “I think they were pressured by the Kremlin indirectly, possibly through this visit of the three intelligence chiefs.”

The Limits Of The Presidency

And yet, the Trump administration also has done plenty to anger Putin. The son of Yury Chaika, the power player behind Donald Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting, has been added to the Magnitsky list. And the U.S. is arming Ukraine—something Obama never did, and exactly the position his campaign tried to strip out of the GOP platform.

“There are a lot of things that are not great news for Russia under this administration,” said Browder.

Both Knight and Browder said the Kremlin likely has some buyer’s remorse about Trump, after seeing the limits on his ability to carry out their requests. The U.S. president, after all, has much less authority than Russia’s authoritarian leader.

“I think that Putin and his supporters are beginning to realize now that Trump can’t just wave a magic wand and have sanctions go away,” Knight adds. “There are a lot of things he can’t do! I don’t know that they’re so much disappointed in Trump as disappointed in finding out that in fact he has quite a few constraints.”

This post has been updated.

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Read the latest reporter’s sum-up (Prime access) on the Russia probe »

Speculation about when and under what terms President Donald Trump might be interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has dominated the headlines ever since the two parties began talks in December.

But what about Vice President Mike Pence?

Pence was absent from many of the key incidents Mueller is reportedly investigating as part of his sprawling probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But he was intimately involved with several, including the firing of former FBI director James Comey, and the subsequent efforts to settle on a rationale for that firing, which appear to be at the center of the Mueller investigation.

So it’s puzzling that Mueller appears to have made no attempt to talk to the administration’s second-highest-ranking official. Pence’s lawyer met with Mueller last year to offer Pence’s full cooperation.

“It’s a bit of a mystery to me that Pence’s name hasn’t really surfaced at all,” Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with Mueller in the Justice Department’s criminal division, told TPM. “There are things that Pence seems to be relevant to. So I’m surprised.”

Pence’s lawyer, Richard Cullen, declined to comment to TPM on the record, while the special counsel’s office declined comment. Pence press secretary Alyssa Farah did not respond to TPM’s request for comment, but in December forcefully denied to CNN that Pence’s office was preparing for a meeting with Mueller.

As of mid-January, NBC reported that the special counsel had made no overtures to Pence about an interview.

By now, over 20 White House officials have been interviewed, including top Trump allies like Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Counsel Don McGahn. Former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon is scheduled to sit down with Mueller next week.

Former White House lawyers caution that much of what Mueller’s team is up to is happening far from the public eye. After all, one noted, no one saw the indictment of George Papadopoulos coming.

But they offer a few explanations for why Mueller appears to be keeping his distance from Pence, at least for now.

Notably, public reports have offered little indication that Pence is a target of the obstruction of justice, collusion, or money laundering arms of the Russia investigation.

“The reporting so far has revealed not much detail about Pence’s involvement in key events. It may be that, as he did in the case of the the voter fraud commission, he kept his distance and tried to cut his losses. So he will be a witness, but it is hard to say how central to to the case he will be,” Bob Bauer, White House Counsel under President Barack Obama, told TPM in an email.

Pence had not yet joined the team at the time of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between high-level campaign officials and Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. He was at his son’s wedding in Indiana in late Dec. 2016 when Mike Flynn reached out to then-Russian-ambassador Sergey Kislyak to discuss Obama’s imposition of fresh economic sanctions on Russia. And Pence has maintained he was the last to learn about issues that were either widely reported, like Flynn’s unauthorized lobbying work for Turkey, or that other White House officials were aware of, like Flynn’s conversations with Russian officials during the transition.

Still, there are a few topics that the special counsel would “absolutely” want to talk to Pence about, said Adam Goldberg, White House special associate counsel under President Bill Clinton.

One is what Flynn told Pence about his Russia contacts in January 2016. Flynn was fired in mid-February. The White House has said the firing was because Flynn misled the Vice President about those contacts. But that explanation has generated skepticism, in part because McGahn and Trump reportedly knew by late January that Flynn had lied to both Pence and the FBI.

Mueller might also might want to talk about Pence’s involvement in the May 2017 deliberations over firing Comey. The New York Times reported that Trump informed the Vice President on May 8 that he planned to dismiss the FBI director, reading to him and several other senior officials from a draft memo laying out the case that Comey had mishandled the FBI’s Russia investigation. Trump was stopped from sending that memo out, the Times reported, and instead shifted the justification for Comey’s dismissal onto his handling of the Clinton email investigation. Pence conveyed the official line about Clinton to the press.

Still, as Goldberg noted, other witnesses have likely already provided extensive testimony on these topics, making obtaining Pence’s account less of a priority. Flynn, for example, is cooperating with the special counsel after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI in December.

“If they already have enough people who would testify and aren’t worried about Pence contradicting, from their perspective they’re just going to make a political judgment of, ‘Well we don’t need to go involve the Vice President; that might make us look more partisan,’” he said.

Goldberg, Baeur and Zeldin noted that Mueller’s team is digging through reams of evidence that the public simply doesn’t know about, and that could prompt further lines of questions for the Vice President.

Pence could also serve as a corroborating witness for whatever testimony Trump provides, if he ultimately opts to do so, Zeldin suggested.

But things could get awkward if an invitation is ultimately extended to the Vice President, even as Trump’s own attorneys are reportedly counseling the President not to talk.

“Unless Pence is concerned he’s done something wrong, Pence will appear before Mueller no matter what,” Goldberg said. “Because it’d be political suicide for him not to.”

We just don’t know what he might have to say.

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The attorneys seeking to withdraw from their representation for ex-Trump campaign aide Rick Gates said that “that irreconcilable differences have developed with” Gates “which make our effective representation of the client impossible,” according to a court document that was filed last week, but only made public on Wednesday.

The three attorneys seeking to withdraw — Shanlon Wu, Walter Mack and Annemarie McAvoy — attended a hearing with Gates and prosecutors from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. The hearing was under seal, meaning that neither the public nor the press could watch it.

After the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered some, but not all, of the court documents the attorneys had filed in connection to their effort to withdraw be made public.

Gates is facing charges of money laundering, tax evasion and failure to disclose foreign lobbying as part of Mueller’s Russia probe. He has pleaded not guilty.

Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who joined Gates in the charges, also pleaded not guilty.

Last Thursday, Gates’ attorneys said in a filing that they were requesting to “withdraw as counsel of record in this case effective immediately,” but for reasons that the judge kept under seal.

A document indicating their reasons was what was unsealed Wednesday. However, another document that was filed under seal connected to the attorneys’ move to withdraw has not yet been released.

“Counsel is constrained by attorney-client privilege as to the specifics involved but understand that the Court may wish to inquire more specifically of counsel for the basis of this motion,” the filing said. “Counsel will make themselves available to the Court for such inquiry in whatever forum the Court deems appropriate.”

Prior to their move, CNN reported that Gates had quietly hired a new lawyer, Tom Green, a move the outlet took as a sign that Gates may be negotiating with Mueller’s team. Green was not present at Wednesday’s hearing. Coming out of the court room, Wu indicated that he was still under the gag order the judge put on the case and would not be able to answer reporters’ questions.

Read the recently unsealed filing below:

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For weeks, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) has been mired in a scandal stemming from an extramarital affair. And now Greitens is getting blamed for a shock Republican loss in a state legislative special election.

Democrat Mike Revis beat Republican David Linton by four points Tuesday in a state assembly district that has trended steadily rightward in recent years. Donald Trump won it by 28 points in 2016.

“The fact that that we lost that race is at the feet of the governor,” Scott Dieckhaus, the former executive director of the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee, told TPM.

In mid-January, a local TV station published audio recorded in 2015 in which a woman with whom Greitens had an affair told her husband that Greitens took and threatened to release a nude photo of her if she went public about the affair. TPM has reported that the woman separately told her husband that Greitens slapped her after she told him she had slept with her husband.

Greitens has admitted to the affair but denied the photo blackmail attempt and alleged physical violence. But five GOP lawmakers have called for Greitens to step down, with some warning that the scandal could hurt the party.

Dieckhaus pointed to a series of polls of the district commissioned by state Republicans over the past two months as proof that it had. While Trump and the GOP’s net favorability both remained relatively strong and stable, Greitens’ plunged from plus 20 in late November to negative 13, with just 36 percent approving, the week after the scandal broke.

“The [Republican] candidate was poor, Democratic enthusiasm is obviously high, but those are still the types of things that we’ve been able to overcome for over a decade,” Dieckhaus continued, noting that the GOP has held the district since 2010. “So when you look at the polling the only thing that stands out is the scandal with the governor.”

A GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly said he too believes Greitens was among the factors dragging down the Republican candidate.

“Something was awry,” the strategist said. “My initial instinct is that it’s not President Trump. But something changed in the last few weeks.”

Revis, the Democratic candidate, didn’t make Greitens’ scandal a centerpiece of his campaign, instead focusing on issues like the governor’s support for Right-to-Work legislation, which is strongly opposed by labor unions. But at least one outside group backing Revis ran an online ad that opened with a series of headlines about the scandal, and about a separate pay-to-play allegation that has dogged the governor.

“Dieckhaus has it right,” Roy Temple, a leading Missouri Democratic operative, told TPM in an email. “Governor Greitens is an anchor around the neck of the Missouri GOP and there’s no reason to believe that’s likely to get better any time soon.”

The GOP strategist who requested anonymity told TPM he’d heard that state Democrats specifically made phone calls and did other outreach to female voters about the charges against Greitens.

A spokesperson for the Missouri Democratic Party did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment.

Other Republican operatives weren’t so sure that the governor had anything to do with the GOP loss—or that the result necessarily has implications for November. They noted that Republicans won the three other open statehouse seats on Tuesday, securing easy victories in two heavily red districts and a close win in the third.

“Special elections, especially really low turnout ones in statehouse districts, are not really indicative,” a different Missouri GOP strategist told TPM, predicting that Revis will lose his seat in November when more Republican voters turn out for the U.S. Senate and State Auditor’s race.

Whether Greitens does end up dragging down the state GOP in the fall will hinge largely on what happens in the interim—and especially on the results of an investigation into the allegations being conducted by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.

According to a lawyer for the ex-husband of the woman with whom the governor had the affair, Gardner this week convened a grand jury—a sign that the probe into Greitens may only be escalating.

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A federal judge on Wednesday considered a request from Rick Gates’ attorneys to withdraw from representing him. The hearing was under seal — meaning neither the public nor the press could sit in on it — and afterward, Gates’ attorneys indicated that they were still under gag order, so they could not say what had happened.

The hearing, which lasted about an hour, came amid speculation that Gates is switching up his legal team, perhaps in effort to come to a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Last month, CNN reported that Tom Green, of the Washington, D.C. firm Sidley Austin, had been quietly brought on and was seen at Mueller’s office multiple times. The CNN report suggested his addition to the team was a sign that Gates may be negotiating with Mueller.

Green was not spotted entering the hearing Wednesday. Rather, three attorneys seeking to quit Gates’ legal team attended, as well prosecutors on Mueller’s team and Gates himself.

Gates, a former Trump campaign aide, is facing charges of money laundering, tax evasion and failure to disclose foreign lobbying. Paul Manafort, a Gates business partner and Trump’s former champaign chair, was also charged in Mueller’s probe. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Last week, three attorneys that have been representing Gates filed a motion to withdraw from their representation of him. Their reasons were filed under seal because they involve “highly sensitive matters concerning the Defendant and public disclosure of the information would potentially be prejudicial to the Defendant,” according to their filing.

After Wednesday’s hearing, an entry was added to the case’s public docket that said that U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson had heard the matter and that motion to withdraw was “taken under advisement.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a docket entry filed after the hearing.

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President Donald Trump has said he’s “looking forward” to the prospect of sitting down with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But according to a New York Times report Monday, his private legal team is vehemently urging him to decline any invitation to talk to Mueller.

Negotiations are continuing. But constitutional law experts told TPM that if the White House does choose defiance and Mueller responds with a subpoena, it would likely set up a high-stakes legal showdown—one in which the special counsel might have the upper hand.

A decision by the White House to reject Mueller’s request for a voluntary interview would signal a clear shift in the Trump legal team’s game plan from cooperation to delay.

“If they’re sort of pushing Mueller into a corner where he has to file a subpoena and Trump refuses to comply with the subpoena, they’re switching tracks to a whole new strategy of delay,” said Jens Ohlin, an executive privilege expert at Cornell Law School. “They just want to prevent Mueller from completing his investigation. Which on the one hand is bad for Trump because it keeps the Russia investigation hanging over his head in perpetuity. But, on the other hand, it keeps Trump away from Mueller, and keeps him out of any kind of danger.”

The Times reported that the legal team is split. White House lawyer Ty Cobb is reportedly continuing to argue for full cooperation while Trump’s private attorneys, Jay Sekulow and John Dowd, who is leading discussions with Mueller’s office on the issue, are arguing against a sit-down interview. Trump frequently makes false statements, and Sekulow and Dowd are concerned that talking to Mueller could expose him to charges of lying to investigators, the Times reported.

Asked for comment, both sets of lawyers sent TPM the same statement: “The active discussion between the OSC and the president’s personal lawyers regarding how and under what terms information will be exchanged are understandably private.”

If Trump ultimately declines an interview with Mueller, things could escalate quickly, legal experts said.

Mueller’s team would likely issue a subpoena asking a court to compel the president to appear before the grand jury. Trump might then comply and take the stand, where he could take the politically risky step of pleading the Fifth or telling the jury he does not recall the answers to key questions. More likely, Trump’s legal team would move to quash the subpoena, arguing that a sitting president shouldn’t be required to take time and resources away from his official duties to be questioned in an ongoing criminal investigation, and that Mueller’s queries extend beyond his mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

After a round of litigation in district court, the matter would likely then go to the D.C. Court of Appeals and all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

History offers some pointers on the legal question of whether the president can be forced to testify in civil or criminal litigation. But past commanders-in-chief have either left office before doing so, as Richard Nixon did in the midst of the Watergate scandal, or ultimately agreed to voluntary interviews, as Bill Clinton did with the Paula Jones sexual harassment case and George W. Bush did during the Valerie Plame affair.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the Plame leak, said the closest precedent was the 1974 US v. Nixon Supreme Court ruling that forced the former president to comply with a special prosecutor’s subpoena to turn over his Oval Office tapes.

The Nixon ruling “makes it compelling for Mueller to obtain presidential testimony under the theory that nobody is above the law, which I think is pretty sound,” Samborn told TPM. “But I also think there continue to be arguments that can and will be made that [special counsel] questioning can’t be open-ended and has got to be narrowly tailored.”

“There has to be specific material in mind that’s unattainable in other ways,” Samborn added. “So I do see it as shifting the burden on Mueller to have to justify the necessity.”

Matters touching on obstruction of justice and Trump’s state of mind would qualify, legal experts told TPM. Those topics are critical to Mueller’s investigation and can only be answered by the president himself, superseding any claims of executive privilege.

“I’m not sure how he could invoke a privilege that would categorically shield him from at least entertaining some questions,” Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas School of Law, told TPM.

Past presidents have argued that there’s a legitimate need to maintain the confidentiality of their executive duties. But those arguments may not be in play here, Vladeck noted. The Times reported that Trump’s attorneys are instead concerned that this particular president will lie or contradict himself under oath, as he so often does in public.

“It’s like self-protection as opposed to institutional preservation,” Vladeck said. “That’s why I think if or when this gets into court the odds are still on Mueller’s side.”

But even if refusing to testify might not be a winning legal strategy, it could make sense politically for Trump. The president’s allies can continue to argue that Mueller is luring him into a perjury trap, knowing that he has a penchant for misstatements and outright falsehoods.

“It’s a way of explaining away why he’s not going to be transparent,” Ohlin said.

And by attacking the credibility of the FBI, DOJ, and Mueller investigation, Trump’s defenders can make the case that there is no reason for him to cooperate with what they argue is a fundamentally compromised probe.

“They’re creating a second pathway by saying, ‘We thought it would be over but it’s not, so clearly it’s an investigation run amok,’” Samborn said. “‘We have no choice but to litigate whether this is even necessary.’”

“It’s like rolling the dice,” Samborn added. “What do they have to lose?”

Read the latest editor’s brief (Prime access) on the Russia probe »


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A Russian pro-gun group with ties to the National Rifle Association boasted an “honorary members” list that’s a who’s-who of far-right and nationalist Russian political figures.

The group, The Right To Bear Arms, is run by Alexander Torshin, the Russian central bank official and Putin ally at the center of an FBI investigation into whether the NRA received illegal Russian money to boost Donald Trump in 2016.

The NRA has denied being contacted by the FBI about anything related to Russia, but has said almost nothing about the reported probe. The NRA spent more dark money in the 2016 election than any other political organization.

The honorary members list offers additional evidence that the Right To Bear Arms enjoys support from powerful far-right figures in Putin’s Russia. And it raises questions about the NRA’s relationship with the group: The Right To Bear Arms hosted top NRA officials for a 2015 meeting in Moscow and has forged other close contacts with the NRA. One person on the honorary members list told TPM he received his membership at a 2015 NRA meeting.

As recently as 2016, Right to Bear Arms listed 22 “honorary members” on its website, according to an archived version of the site, which described them as “individuals who make decisions on a national scale, as well as opinion leaders.” The Right To Bear Arms site said the honorary members were listed “with their consent.”

Many of those listed work alongside Torshin in the Russian parliament. They include top brass from the right-wing nationalist LDPR and Rodina parties. That’s a powerful membership for a group which was founded in 2012 by a then-24-year-old Siberian furniture store owner, Maria Butina, and which has had little success in promoting Russian gun rights.

“For nearly a year, the NRA has avoided answering basic questions about why it cozied up to Moscow and a Russian gun group with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told TPM. “Until the NRA comes clean and starts answering questions, Americans will continue to wonder what the NRA might be hiding.”

An NRA spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

One name on the list, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is a longtime ally of Putin, who he has called “the tsar.” For decades, Zhirinovsky has been a leader of Russia’s far right. He has blamed Jews for starting the Second World War and provoking the Holocaust, and he played a key role in helping the intelligence officer suspected of poisoning defector Alexandr Litvinenko get elected to Russia’s parliament. A 2002 video shows a drunken Zhirinovsky threatening Condoleezza Rice, then the U.S. National Security Adviser, with gang rape. In October 2016, Zhirinovsky threatened “Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere” if Americans voted for Hillary Clinton.

Oleg Volk, a Tennessee-based photographer who makes pro-gun posters and graphics, also is listed as an honorary member of The Right to Bear Arms. Volk told TPM that Butina and Torshin presented his honorary membership to him at “a brief lunch meeting” during the 2015 NRA conference in Nashville, as a thank you for making Russian-language images for the group to use.

Volk said he was “amused” to see Zhirinovsky’s name near his own.

“He was kind of the bogeyman in Russian politics, he was very anti-Semitic,” said Volk, who is Jewish. “People like him caused my family to get out of Russia.”

Among the other names on the Right to Bear Arms list: Ilya Drozdov, the deputy head of LDPR, who has called for Ukraine to be “wiped off the map;” as well as at least three other LDPR members.

Alexei Zhuravlev, also on the list, is a high-ranking member of the Russian parliament and the head of the Rodina party, which, like LDPR, opposes the pro-Western government in Ukraine. Zhuravelv has publicly supported the head of the Donetsk Separatists, who declared the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk a separate region called “Little Russia.” 

Rodina backs the The Antiglobalization Movement of Russia, which has courted aspiring secessionists in California, Texas and Puerto Rico and actively courts neo-Nazis. In 2015 Rodina hosted a nationalist event that featured attendees from Greek fascist group Golden Dawn and the violent far-right organization Britain First, as well as Ku Klux Klan lawyer and white supremacist Sam Dickson, and Jared Taylor, who leads the white nationalist group American Renaissance*.


*CORRECTION: This story originally referred incorrectly to American Renaissance as an American Nazi group. We apologize for the error.


Russian translation provided by Jerry Vinokurov

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