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

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seeking documents from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump Administration in order to determine whether “Russian-backed shell companies” inappropriately sought to influence the 2016 election through the gun group.

Last month, McClatchy reported that the FBI is probing whether Aleksandr Torshin, a Putin ally, illegally funneled money to the NRA to boost Donald Trump. The NRA last week denied to TPM that it had been contacted by the FBI “about anything related to Russia”.

The news of Wyden’s letters was first reported by the Associated Press.

“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” Wyden wrote to Treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin.

The letter requests “any documents in the holdings of the Department of the Treasury associated with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Russia” from the Treasury, noting Wyden’s specific interest in “documents from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network” and from the Treasury’s office of terrorism and financial intelligence.

In his letter to the NRA treasurer Wilson Phillips, Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote that he was “troubled” by the possibility that Russian interests had tried to influence the elections “by abusing the rules governing 501(c)(4) tax exempt organizations.”

Wyden asked Phillips for “any remuneration, transaction, or contribution that involved any of the 501(c)(4) entities associated with your organization and any entity or individual associated with any Russian official, Russian national, or Russian business interest.”

Torshin — and his friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 are both “life members” of the NRA, Torshin has said. Life members must give at least $1,500 to the group. It’s not illegal for foreigners to contribute to the NRA’s general coffers, but it would be illegal if the group used foreign money for political activities.

As TPM has reported, Torshin has spent years cozying up to the NRA and courting American conservatives. At the same time, he has narrowly avoided arrest in Spain for his alleged role in the Taganskaya Bratva, a St. Petersburg-based criminal organization in which Torshin is allegedly a boss.

Read More →

If you’ve spent much time watching Fox News or Republican-led congressional committee hearings over the past year, you’d be forgiven for believing the FBI is a teeming nest of anti-Trump liberals.

One problem: That doesn’t square with the bureau’s modern history or demographics, nor with the events of the 2016 presidential election.

There is compelling evidence that former FBI Director James Comey’s two public pronouncements on the Hillary Clinton email investigation damaged the Democratic nominee’s standing in the polls. The two FBI officials who were found to have exchanged text messages disparaging Trump also criticized former Obama Justice Department officials. And now, it is the President’s own Republican appointees at the DOJ and FBI who are warning against the validity of a controversial GOP memo, expected to be released Friday, that purportedly shows anti-Trump bias at those agencies.

To protect Trump from the federal investigation into Russia’s election interference, the White House and Capitol Hill Republicans have had to manufacture an image of the nation’s premiere law enforcement agency that has no basis in reality.

“The idea that there’s this giant conspiracy and that the entire FBI is politicized is pure nonsense,” former FBI special agent Mark Pollitt told TPM, calling the Nunes memo fracas “bizarre.”

“At the end of the day that’s not why these people joined,” Pollitt added. “In some ways it’s a very old-fashioned organization.”

In a testament to the tradition of hierarchy and professionalism at the bureau, the FBI Agents Association released a statement on Thursday voicing support for Director Christopher Wray “standing together with the men and the women of the FBI” during the prolonged public fight over the memo release.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a history professor at the University of Edinburgh and author of “FBI: A History,” noted that the FBI “always has been a bone of political contention.” Towards the second half of J. Edgar Hoover’s long tenure as director, the bureau became “very much associated with an anti-communist drive and persecution of the left—black civil rights activists, the women’s movement, the burgeoning gay rights movement in the 1950s.”

“At that point the FBI becomes a Republican party icon and can do no wrong,” Jeffreys-Jones said.

But the left’s concern about the politically-motivated persecution of activists, communists and homosexuals was grounded in fact, as the Church Committee’s investigations into the FBI’s investigatory abuses confirmed.

There is little ready comparison to the current political moment.

Pro-Trump conservatives’ attacks initially focused on top leadership. But former FBI Director James Comey has since been fired, his deputy Andrew McCabe is gone, and Wray, Trump’s own pick, was installed six months ago.

Then there are the demographics. As Politico reported in late 2016, 67 percent of the bureau’s agents are white men. Many are middle aged and have backgrounds in law enforcement or the military. Those demographics, of course, line up well with Trump’s own base.

And even if most FBI agents were liberals, Pollitt and FBI historians emphasize that FBI agents and officials must subsume their political opinions to work on whatever cases they are assigned.

Still, the anti-FBI campaign has been surprisingly successful with its target audience. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll released Wednesday found that the share of Republicans who have at least a fair amount of trust in the FBI has plummeted from 68 percent in 2015 to 45 percent now.

Tracking this strange evolution requires going back to the final months of the 2016 election.

In July, Comey took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing that Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state was “extremely careless” but that the federal investigation into it would result in no charges. Then in late October, Comey made the equally fateful decision of announcing that the FBI was investigating a newly-discovered trove of Clinton-related emails, uncovered by agents in the New York office.

Comey’s handling of the sensitive probe—and his conclusion that Clinton should not face charges—sparked something of a mini-revolt at the bureau. That revolt was headquartered at the New York office, whose agents had a longstanding reputation for hardline tactics, and, according to a flurry of stories, deep anti-Clinton sentiment.

In the final weeks of the campaign, two close Trump allies—Rudy Giuliani and former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom—claimed that they were hearing rumors of mutiny inside the bureau from disgruntled former agents. “The FBI is Trumpland” and Clinton is “the antichrist to a large swath of FBI personnel,” a current FBI agent told The Guardian.

But then, to America’s surprise, Trump won.

After he took office and the focus turned to the investigation of his campaign’s possible coordination with Russia to influence the election, congressional Republicans turned against the bureau.

Trump and his backers on Capitol Hill were suddenly consumed with concerns about the “witch hunt” being carried out by “deep state” Clinton and Obama loyalists in the intelligence community. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican former FBI director appointed by President George W. Bush, was painted as an anti-Trump partisan leading an investigative team of Democrats. Joking text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was kicked off of Mueller’s team after their discovery, and FBI attorney Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, were seriously discussed as evidence of an anti-Trump “secret society” at the bureau.

We’re now at a moment where Fox hosts are routinely calling for top FBI officials to be dragged off in handcuffs, and the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee believes he is tasked with investigating the DOJ and FBI themselves.

Read More →

Three attorneys representing former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates in charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller are seeking to withdraw from representing him, in a motion filed Thursday.

However, it is unclear why they have sought to quit. Their motion says that their reasons to withdraw “immediately” are listed in an exhibit that they have sought to file under seal.

The three attorneys quitting Gates’ legal team are Shanlon Wu, Walter Mack and Annemarie McAvoy.

Read More →

Russians courting the NRA before the 2016 election came with a 35-inch long olive branch: the AK-47.

Alexander Torshin is the Russian banker and Putin ally reportedly at the center of an FBI probe into whether the NRA received illegal Russian money to help Donald Trump in 2016. Torshin has ties to the Kalashnikov Concern, the state-owned company that makes the AK and other popular rifles, according to a TPM review of bank statements. And in 2014, the NRA raised concerns about the Obama administration’s move to ban the Kalashnikov Concern from doing business in the U.S., which is easily the largest market for civilian firearms. 

The ban was part of the Obama administration’s broader sanctions regime introduced in response to the Russian seizure of Crimea that year.

What to make of the connections? The link between Torshin and Kalashnikov, along with the NRA’s support for lifting sanctions on the Kalashnikov Concern, suggests a confluence of interests between Torshin and the NRA which could have played in to the Russian efforts to influence the gun lobby group.

The NRA last week denied to TPM that it had been contacted by the FBI “about anything related to Russia”.

Torshin serves as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, which is Russia’s version of the U.S. Federal Reserve, but also controls a major Russian consumer bank, Sberbank, which it founded. Sberbank, which also is on the U.S. sanctions list, is a major lender to Rostec, a company owned directly by the Russian Federation that buys other companies near bankruptcy on behalf of the government and tries to recuperate them. One of Rostec’s holdings is Kalashnikov. Sberbank has often done business with Rostec, structuring its common corporate treasury and lending millions to its aerospace subsidiary in the immediate wake of the imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2014.

Those sanctions barred American companies from doing business with Rostec, Sberbank, the Central Bank of Russia, and oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft.

After the sanctions were issued, the NRA released a statement expressing concerns about the inclusion of the Kalashnikov Concern. It warned that the administration might be “using a geopolitical crisis as a convenient excuse to advance the president’s domestic anti-gun agenda.”

Already evidence has emerged that lifting or loosening the sanctions was a key part of the broader Russian effort to gain influence with the Trump campaign. In June 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with links to the Putin government, reportedly met with Trump campaign officials and spoke against the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned a number of government officials for the murder of a whistleblowing accountant. When President Obama threatened further sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference, Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak called Michael Flynn to complain.

Torshin’s overtures to the gun lobby emphasized his close relationship with his elderly friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the rifle. In early 2014, Torshin wrote about the Kalashnikov for the Washington Times opinion page, then under the editorship of former NRA president David Keene. Torshin called the gun, one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.” Both Torshin and Kalshnikov were lifetime NRA members.

Mark Galeotti, a historian of contemporary Russia, said the Kalashnikov isn’t important in terms of military strategy — many of Rostec’s companies are — but called it “an export champion and a part of the national brand.” Before the sanctions, the New York Times estimated that fully 28% of Kalashnikov’s total business came from the U.S. 

TPM has detailed the years of ties between Torshin and his assistant, Maria Butina, and the NRA.

Butina, who runs a shadowy Russian gun-rights organization, showed up at the 2016 libertarian Freedom Fest convention, where Donald Trump spoke. Video from the vent shows a redheaded woman with a Russian accent claiming to be from Russia asking Trump, then a candidate for president, whether he would consider lifting sanctions on Russia.

“Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?” the woman asked.

Read More →

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has shed light on what may be driving the Trump administration’s push to ask about citizenship in the 2020 Census.

In an op-ed written for Breitbart, Kobach endorses an approach to drawing voting districts in a way that would undermine the political power of immigrant-heavy communities. That approach, which culminated in a 2016 Supreme Court case, emerges from decades-old conservative opposition to the priniciple of “one person, one vote.”

Kobach, a Republican who led President Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission, is known for pushing restrictive voting laws.

Read More →

The Democratic National Committee, in a court filing Wednesday, indicated it planned to appeal a court’s decision letting the Republican National Committee get out from under the consent decree barring so-called “ballot integrity” activities.

The underlying case is decades old, and stems from a 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial election in which the RNC and the New Jersey GOP was accused of voter intimidation tactics targeting minority voters. A lawsuit brought by the Democrats resulted in the 1982 consent decree prohibiting the RNC and New Jersey GOP from poll watching and other related election day “ballot security” activities at voting sites. After the the decree was extended multiple times because of GOP violations of it, it was allowed to expire last month.

Read More →

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday night accused Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) of unilaterally making changes to the controversial memo before sending it to the White House for review.

Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA), who has strongly criticized the memo and warned against its release to the public, penned a letter to Nunes Wednesday night calling out the chairman for making “material changes” to the memo after the committee voted to make it public and therefore deceiving the committee.

The House Intelligence Committee voted on Monday night, along party lines, to release the memo to the public. President Donald Trump now has five days to review the memo and either agree or object to the memo’s release.

The memo, which reportedly purports to prove that top officials at the Justice Department and FBI operated with anti-Trump bias, has pitted Trump and his Republican allies in Congress against Trump’s own Justice Department. The DOJ has warned publicly that releasing the memo would be “reckless” and the FBI said it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact.”

In his Wednesday night letter, Schiff blasted Nunes for altering the document, calling the move “deeply troubling.’

“Upon our discovery that the document sent for public review had been secretly altered, the Majority belatedly afforded the Minority an opportunity this evening to compare the document transmitted on Monday night by the Majority to the White House with the document made available to all House Members since January 18. After reviewing both versions, it is clear that the Majority made material changes to the version it sent to the White House, which Committee Members were never apprised of, never had the opportunity to review, and never approved,” Schiff wrote in the letter.

“This is deeply troubling, because it means that the Committee Majority transmitted to the White House an altered version of its classified document that is materially different than the version on which the Committee voted. The White House has therefore been reviewing a document since Monday night that the Committee never approved for public release,” he added.

Schiff charged that Nunes’ decision to make the changes without informing the full committee shows that Republicans on the committee no longer stand by the original document and “felt it necessary to deceive” the full committee during Monday night’s vote to release the memo.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), a member of the committee, pointed out on Twitter that he asked Nunes during the Monday night vote whether he would release the memo exactly as it appeared that evening. The transcript from the meeting shows Nunes replied in the affirmative.

Schiff called on Nunes to withdraw the memo from the White House and argued that the committee must vote on the new version of the memo.

A spokesman for Nunes dismissed Schiff’s concerns in a Wednesday night statement, claiming that the alterations were merely attempts to fix grammar and address changes requested by the FBI and Democrats.

“In its increasingly strange attempt to thwart publication of the memo, the Committee Minority is now complaining about minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and by the Minority themselves,” Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said in a statement. “The vote to release the memo was absolutely procedurally sound, and in accordance with House and Committee rules. To suggest otherwise is a bizarre distraction from the abuses detailed in the memo, which the public will hopefully soon be able to read for themselves.”

Read Schiff’s full letter to Nunes:

 

Read the latest reporter’s notebook (Prime access) on this story »

 

Read More →

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee appeared to downplay the FBI’s concerns about the release of a controversial memo put together by Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), according to a transcript of the panel’s closed-door Monday meeting that was made public Wednesday.

Asked by Democrats whether the FBI had approved the memo’s release, Nunes didn’t answer directly, saying the committee was satisfied that the memo on the intelligence community’s alleged surveillance abuses did not “disclose any issues of national security.”

The FBI put out a statement Wednesday expressing “grave concerns” about the document’s accuracy.

The developments highlight the divide between the White House and congressional Republicans on one side who want to release the memo, and the FBI, DOJ and Democrats on the other, who says it’s a misleading effort to make the intelligence community appear biased against President Trump.

At Monday’s meeting, Rep. Pete King (R-NY) said FBI Director Christopher Wray and two other senior FBI employees had reviewed the document, prompting Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) to ask if they were “okay” with its dissemination.

Nunes responded:“[O]ur goal was to make sure that we were not going to disclose any issues of national security, and we believe that we have met that threshold.”

The FBI on Wednesday issued a rare public statement disavowing the memo’s “material omissions of fact,” prompting Swalwell to fume on Twitter that his Republican committee colleagues had misled him.

The transcript also laid bare the battle over what, exactly, the minority and minority think they’re investigating. As Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) disclosed to reporters after Monday’s meeting wrapped, Nunes made the remarkable admission that he sees the DOJ and FBI as targets in their investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) had downplayed Schiff’s characterization that the committee majority had announced a designated investigation into those agencies, telling reporters they were simply engaged in standard “oversight.”

But the transcript shows Nunes took a stronger tone behind closed doors.

Schiff introduced a motion to delay the committee’s vote on the memo’s release so that the DOJ and FBI could provide the full House of Representatives with a briefing on security issues with making it public.

“The Department of Justice and the FBI have been under investigation by this committee for many, many months for FISA abuse and other matters,” Nunes replied, referring to his concerns about the validity of warrants issued by specialized foreign surveillance courts. “That investigation continues.”

Urging his colleagues to vote against Schiff’s motion, Nunes added, “We are not going to be briefed by people that are under investigation by this committee.”

Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

Read More →

When pressed by a Democrat on his committee in a closed-door meeting, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) denied coordinating with the White House on his controversial memo that purportedly reveals anti-Trump bias at the FBI and Justice Department—but sidestepped the question of whether committee staff had White House contacts.

In a newly released transcript of the committee’s Monday meeting, where the committee voted on party lines to release the memo, Nunes was asked about his motivations in assigning his staffers to craft it.

The Trump administration has pushed for the memo’s release, even as his top appointees at DOJ and FBI have made personal pleas and presumably approved of a rare public admonishment against doing so, citing national security concerns.

“Did they have any idea you were doing this?” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) asked Nunes of the White House. “Did they talk about doing this with you? Did they suggest it? Did you suggest it to them? Did you consult in deciding how to go forward with this before, during, and after this point right now?”

“I would just answer, as far as I know, no,” Nunes replied.

Quigley pressed again for confirmation that “none of the staff members that worked for the majority had any consultation, communication at all with the White House.”

“The chair is not going to entertain—” Nunes replied, before he was interrupted by crosstalk.

He didn’t offer further comment on the issue.

Nunes has insisted that his only interest in getting the memo out is greater transparency. On Wednesday, after the FBI released a public statement asserting that the document’s accuracy is compromised by “material omissions,” he released a statement calling their concerns “spurious.”

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), countered in a statement that the transcript offered a “revealing and disquieting look into the strategy of Committee Republicans and that of Chairman Nunes in particular as they seek to protect President Trump from the Special Counsel’s investigation and congressional probes.”

Schiff said he would continue to press for the release of the committee Democrats’ 10-page rebuttal to the Nunes memo, which was blocked by their Republican colleagues.

Read the full transcript below.

Read More →

The Democratic voter fraud commissioner who sued the now-defunct panel last year claiming it had shut him out of its operations is now asking a court to allow him to serve a subpoena on its one-time leader so that records related to the lawsuit are not destroyed.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said in the filing that he is concerned that the commission’s co-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, will not preserve internal communications a judge had previously ordered he handed over.

“Defendant Kobach’s record with respect to compliance—even with court orders—is spotty, to say the least,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap cited a fine Kobach had to pay in a seperate lawsuit, after misleading the judge, as well as the Justice Department’s posture in his case, in which it has argued that it cannot compel Kobach to turn over the documents but has asked him to save them.

Furthermore, Dunlap said that he did not receive a letter the Justice Department claimed to have sent to all of the commissioners asking that they preserve their commission records as the litigation continues. Regardless, Dunlap said, a letter “cannot stand in the place of judicial process that creates legally-enforceable obligations.”

In short, DOJ has disavowed any authority to legally obligate individual commissioners to preserve or return Commission records in their sole possession, and—though Secretary Dunlap rejects these contentions—based on its own position, DOJ believes it is currently powerless to prevent the destruction or loss of documents and information,” Dunlap said.

Trump dissolved the commission in early January, as it faced a flurry of lawsuits alleging a lack of transparency, among other things.

Dunlap filed his lawsuit in November, and in late December, a judge ordered that the commission turn over the communications Dunlap had been seeking.

Since the commission’s termination, the Justice Department has been in a multi-front legal battle fending off to new challenges brought against it, many based on statements Kobach made to the press about the future of his inquiry.

A letter from DOJ attorneys to Dunlap’s legal team included in the latest filing, indicates that they saw no “legal basis” for the document preservation subpoena.

“[I]t is difficult to understand why DOJ is opposing the issuance of a subpoena that seeks only to protect the Government’s interest in the preservation of Commission records that are outside the custody of the federal government, nor is it clear why DOJ is advancing arguments that seek only to protect Defendant Kobach—an individual whom DOJ claims is no longer a client—from judicial process,” Dunlap argued in the filing.

Read the full filing below:

Read More →

LiveWire