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

Erik Prince appears to have withheld critical information in his sworn testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

The private security contractor and Blackwater founder told Congress that he was barely involved with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election cycle, and that most of his interaction with the team came during the presidential transition.

Reports that have since surfaced gravely undermine that version of events.

Most recently, a blockbuster New York Times report published Saturday detailed how Prince personally arranged and attended an August 2016 meeting between foreign emissaries and Donald Trump’s eldest son. At the meeting, Prince told Donald Trump Jr. that “we are working hard for your father.”

The Times report provides new evidence that Prince may have knowingly perjured himself in his congressional testimony. Lying to Congress is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, but it is rarely enforced.

Prince’s interview focused primarily on a January 2017 trip he took to the Seychelles, ostensibly to meet with officials from the United Arab Emirates, and a conversation he had there with a Russian banker allied with Vladimir Putin. In his testimony, Prince downplayed the trip, saying it was primarily an opportunity to discuss business prospects with the UAE’s government and characterizing his conversation with the banker, Kirill Dmitriev, as a chance encounter. Prince insisted that he was not there as a representative of the incoming administration.

In Prince’s account, his contact with the Trump campaign was limited to semi-regular text exchanges with Steve Bannon, providing a few unsolicited papers on Middle East policy, and donating money.

That does not appear to be accurate.

George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who serves as a top adviser to the UAE, has told Special Counsel Robert Mueller that the Seychelles meeting was actually a planned effort to set up a secret communications backchannel between the Trump transition team and Russian government, according to reports.

In sworn statements, Nader, who is now a cooperating witness, said that he helped orchestrate the meeting specifically so that Prince and Dmitriev could discuss relations between the two countries.

As ABC News reported, Nader met with Prince in New York a week before the Seychelles trip to brief him about the meeting, and subsequently sent him biographical information about Dmitriev that included his connection to Putin.

Prince testified that he shared a beer with Dmitriev at the Four Seasons’ bar on the recommendation of “one of the brothers” of UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, who thought Dmitriev would be “an interesting guy” for Prince to know.

Then there is the August 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which Prince personally organized. The other attendees were an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation, Trump Jr., and Nader, who promised that Saudi Arabia and UAE officials were eager to help Trump win the election, according to the Times.

Prince did not respond to the Times’ request for comment.

The Republican security contractor never mentioned this summit to the House Intelligence Committee. He explicitly denied having any “formal communications or contact with the campaign” aside from texting with Bannon, providing policy papers, donating funds, and putting up a Trump sign in his yard. Asked if he’d ever met Trump Jr., Prince said they were introduced at a campaign event and that they ran into each other “a couple times when I was up there during the transition.”

“I have never purported or positioned to having any great access to the Trump administration,” Prince, whose sister Betsy DeVos is the Secretary of Education, testified.

Prince grew increasingly irritated by lawmakers’ questions as the three-hour interview went on, telling them he’d “had about enough of this” and that he was “not here to indulge your fishing expedition any longer.”

At one point, he snapped at Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) for inquiring about the extent of his business interests in the UAE prior to the Seychelles meeting. The focus of the interview, Prince said, was supposed to be on Russia’s interference with the election.

“It’s just amazing how these things all find a way to be connected,” Quigley replied.

Read More →

If there’s a dark conspiracy theory circulating about Deep State efforts to undermine Donald Trump, it’s a safe bet that it started with Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

That seems to be the case with the purported scandal du jour: that the FBI planted an informant in the Trump campaign in order to gain information about its possible ties to Russia. Such a move, Trump allies argue, would render the Mueller investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference illegitimate.

The source met with three different Trump campaign officials, the Washington Post reported Friday evening. And the source’s name began circulating late last week in right-wing media. Still the nature of the intelligence the source provided, and exactly what prompted the FBI to seek to obtain intel from this person remain unclear.

As with previous Nunes-driven controversies, this one started weeks ago with the California Republican’s efforts to disclose classified intelligence information, festered in the media fever swamps, and then percolated up to the president, who on Friday said it may be the “all time biggest political scandal!”

Trump remained focused on the issue over the weekend, and on Sunday, in an extraordinary tweet, pledged to “demand” a DOJ investigation into whether the Obama administration was behind this supposed politically-motivated spying.

It’s a good case study in how outlandish theories designed to discredit the Mueller investigation and bolster Trump’s position travel from the fringes to the White House. Here’s how we got here.

Since at least early April, Nunes has been demanding from the Justice Department un-redacted versions of the materials detailing the launch of the Russia probe. Slow-rolled by DOJ top brass, Nunes issued a subpoena in early May for all documents related to a person described by the Washington Post as a “sensitive, longtime intelligence source for the CIA and FBI.”

As a pair of Post articles, dated May 8 and 9, explained, the DOJ has refused to provide the documents, concerned that the safety of the U.S. citizen source could be endangered, and that ongoing intelligence investigations could be compromised.

DOJ and FBI officials ultimately agreed to hold an hour-long classified briefing with Nunes and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy on May 10, which appeared to quell the tensions somewhat.

The two GOP congressmen released a statement calling the meeting “productive” and expressing hope for a continued “dialogue” with the Justice Department.

But it was too late. That evening, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel published a column calling the DOJ’s reported concerns about the source’s safety a sign of “desperation” and interpreting the Post report to mean that the person was likely engaged in “outright spying” on, as well as trying to “infiltrate,” the Trump campaign.

Strassel’s claims were seized upon by Rush Limbaugh. It’s “a pretty safe bet that the FBI planted an informant in the Trump campaign,” Limbaugh said, in order to “catch and to discover and to witness Trump’s collusion with the Russians.”

Two days later, National Review’s Andrew McCarthy published a column noting that Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson testified that Christopher Steele, who Fusion had hired to look into the campaign’s ties to Russia, had told Simpson that the FBI had a “human source” in the Trump campaign. McCarthy speculated that the spy’s information was the real source of the U.S. Russia investigation.

The story broke wide open last week with the first mention of the word “informant” by a major mainstream publication. Buried in a lengthy Wednesday New York Times story on the origins of the Russia probe was this sentence: “At least one government informant met several times with Mr. [Carter] Page and Mr. Papadopoulos, current and former officials said.”

Breitbart jumped on the news with a headline about the FBI’s “spy operation” against the Trump campaign. Trump allies from Kellyanne Conway to Rudy Giuliani were soon sharing grave concerns about the presence of a spy in the campaign’s midst.

Any improper spying by such an informant would render the entire Mueller probe “completely illegitimate,” Giuliani told the Post on Thursday, before acknowledging to CNN Friday that they didn’t know “for sure” that such an individual even existed.

And Trump tweeted:

Of course, all of these interpretations rest on the notion that if the FBI surveilled the Trump campaign, it was motivated by political bias. None consider that these agencies could have been attempting the difficult task of investigating Russia’s meddling in the campaign on Trump’s behalf without improperly influencing the election by revealing the probe.

They also gloss over the fact that we’ve been down this road several times before. Nunes has been at war with the DOJ and FBI on Trump’s behalf for well over a year, trying to uncover evidence that will prove that Trump was unfairly targeted.

There was last spring’s botched effort to prove that Trump staffers’ identities were improperly revealed in transcripts of conversations swept up in foreign surveillance. National security experts and bipartisan lawmakers said that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the unmasking requests.

Then there was this February’s memo that was supposed to serve as definitive proof of anti-Trump bias among DOJ and FBI leadership and bring the Mueller probe to a screeching halt. It was a bust.

He may not have succeeded yet. But the new “spy” controversy suggests that Nunes’ efforts will continue.

Read More →

The FBI agent who searched Paul Manafort’s storage unit should be present and ready to testify at a hearing about the legality of the search next week, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Friday.

Manafort has challenged the search of his storage unit, which was conducted just 10 days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to take over the Russia investigation. Jackson — who is overseeing the case brought against Manafort in Washington, D.C. — is holding a hearing on Manafort’s request to suppress the fruits of the search on Wednesday.

In dispute in the dueling court filings from Manafort and Mueller about the storage unit search is whether the FBI agent — whose name is redacted in the version of the affidavit filed in court — understood that an employee of Manafort’s had the authority to unlock and let the agent into the unit.

The employee, Alexander Trusko, had a key to the storage unit, and a lease that the agent examined prior to entering the unit showed him listed as an “occupant.”

After initially entering the unit on May 26 — during which, according to Mueller, the agent did not open any of the containers — the agent successfully sought a search warrant that was executed the following day.

Manafort in court filings argued Trusko was a former employee at the time of the search, that he did not have authority to let the FBI agent enter the unit and that there was no indication that Trusko shared use of the unit with Manafort.

Manafort claimed that the FBI agent knew all of these things when he entered the unit the first time. Furthermore, Manafort argued, the fact that the FBI agent sought a search warrant after entering on May 26 showed that the agent knew he wasn’t authorized to be in there in the first place.

Mueller countered in court filings that such “speculation” was “unfounded.”

Mueller argued that the agent understood the employee to be “currently” working for Manafort. In the affidavit Trusko is described as being a former employee of Manafort’s consulting firm DMP and current employee of Steam LLC, an entity also operated by Manafort. The agent understood, according to Mueller, that among Trusko’s duties as Manafort’s employee was moving materials into the storage unit.

“The relevant question in deciding apparent authority is whether ‘the facts available to the officer at the moment [would] warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the consenting party had authority over the premises,'” Mueller’s court filing said.  “Here the answer to that question is ‘yes.'”

Manafort is facing charges of money laundering and failure to disclose foreign laundering. A separate case Mueller brought against him in Virginia accuses Manafort of bank fraud and tax fraud. The former Trump campaign chairman has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Read More →

The Justice Department official behind the request that the Census add a citizenship question for its 2020 survey stonewalled many of the questions asked by House Oversight Committee Democrats’ about the move at a Friday hearing.

John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division,  cited the lawsuits brought against the decision in order to dodge questions about why he sought the change. The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, at times raised his voice and expressed frustration over the excuse.

Read More →

Trump Justice Department official John Gore on Friday suggested that the Justice Department has been unable to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act without the decennial Census asking a question about citizenship.

Gore was asked by Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) at a House oversight hearing whether the Justice Department has been unable to enforce the Voting Rights Act without the data.

Without accurate citizenship data? Yes,” Gore said, adding that the Justice Department has been “making do” by using extrapolations from the American Communities Survey, an ongoing survey sent to a small portion of the population.

The Census hasn’t asked the question on the version of the survey that goes to all households since 1950. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Gore spearheaded a DOJ request that the Commerce Department add a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 Census.

Democrats, Census policy wonks and civil rights advocates fear that asking the question will spook immigrant communities from participating in the Census. An undercount would have a major impact on political representation and federal funding for those populations.

Later in the hearing, Gore cited a Voting Rights Act case brought in Texas by private plaintiffs that he said was thrown out because the court said the ACS data on citizenship was not sufficient.

“We would like avoid that fate,” Gore said. He couldn’t name any other cases where the lack of Census data made a difference, however.

He also clarified his answer to Gomez.

“So, yes, we do need that [data] at the Census block level. Yes, we are making do with the currently available data to draw estimates as to what’s going on at the Census block level,” Gore said. “Our letter lays out why the hard count Census data would be more appropriate for that function, because it’s a hard count, and it would be simpler for us to use.”

 

 

 

 

Read More →

John Gore, the Trump Justice Department official who leads the Civil Rights Division, told Congress Friday that the department has “no position” on whether number of citizens should play a role in how congressional districts are apportioned.

He was responding to a question at a House Oversight Committee hearing from Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), who asked whether knowing the number of citizenships should play a role in apportionment.  Gore was behind the Justice Department request to add a citizenship question to the next Census.

“That’s a very important question. It’s a very important issue. It’s not one that the Department of Justice takes a position on,” Gore said. He added that the request was driven by enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, “not the separate question of how congressional seats are apportioned across the Constitution.”

The Constitution says that U.S. congressional districts should be drawn using total population. But some believe it’s an open question whether states can exclude non-citizens in drawing state legislative districts. Republicans in Missouri are already pushing to put such a requirement on November’s ballot.

Excluding non-citizens from redistricting stands to shift political power away from urban areas and other places with disproportionately high immigrant populations.

The Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census — which Gore was behind — could encourage more states to try to draw districts based on citizenship rather than total population, both critics and proponents of such an approach believe.

Gore was in front of the committee Friday for a hearing on the census.

Read More →

In the Trump era, it’s not easy for Republicans to distinguish themselves as the most hardcore anti-swamp, anti-status quo, anti-immigration candidate.

That’s not stopping the contenders in Georgia’s governor’s race, who have released a series of increasingly outlandish ads in the run-up to next week’s primary. Two that have generated headlines are variations on a theme: middle-aged white men in large vehicles pledging to personally round up undocumented immigrants.

The frontrunner in the race is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a more moderate candidate who has backing from the state’s political and business establishment and a double-digit lead in polls. But Cagle is unlikely to meet the 50 percent threshold that would secure him the nomination, leaving his four opponents locked in an all-out war to score a spot in a June runoff election.

“Everybody is trying to do what they can to break from the pack,” state Sen. Josh McKoon, who is currently running for Secretary of State, told TPM.

With Cagle the clear favorite and all the candidates pushing an immigration-focused message, the ads are “an attempt to stand out and get some attention,” McKoon said.

According to a Survey USA poll released Tuesday, Cagle leads with 35 percent of the vote, Secretary of State Brian Kemp is in second with 17 percent, and former state lawmaker Hunter Hill and businessman Clay Tippins are tied for third place in the high single-digits. Around a quarter of likely GOP primary voters remain undecided.

In a Thursday interview with TPM, Kemp credited his recent ad buys with helping him close the polling gap. The initial ad showed Kemp pointing a shotgun at one of his teenage daughter’s potential suitors, pressing him to pledge his “respect” and “healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment.” In a second ad released days later, Kemp disembarks from the cab of a Ford F350 and tells the camera, “I’ve got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”

Kemp told TPM he’d spent well over $1 million on those last two ad buys, and that he had been “very conservative” with his money until the end of the race so that he could flood the airwaves with this last-minute burst.

“It’s almost humorous that the left has taken all of that so serious and doesn’t get that we had fun doing that ad,” Kemp said of the backlash he’s received. “It was a playful way to draw attention to our issues and my values.”

Kemp was already on the national media’s radar from his tenure as secretary of state, during which he settled a federal lawsuit accusing him of disenfranchising thousands of minority voters.

Another candidate, State Sen. Michael Williams, is trailing in the polls but doing his best to catch up. This week, he rolled out an ad touting his “deportation bus,” which is currently crisscrossing the state, making stops in Georgia’s bluer cities. The vehicle’s rear door is painted with the words: “Danger! Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molestors [sic], and other criminals on board. Follow me to Mexico.”

Williams has labeled himself the “most outspoken anti-illegal candidate” in the state’s history and wants to pass legislation that would deputize police officers in all Georgia counties as ICE agents.

Williams’ tour has had some difficulties getting off the ground. On Wednesday, protesters prevented his bus from departing for a scheduled stop in Decatur, and on Thursday the bus stalled on the side of a highway, apparently because water got into the engine.

YouTube initially pulled his ad promoting the tour, labeling it hate speech, before reversing course and allowing it to run on the site. (In a statement, a YouTube spokeswoman told TPM the company “made the wrong call” and that the video was “mistakenly removed.”)

Reached by phone on Thursday, Williams said that YouTube’s decision told him “that when you have someone out there who is fighting against those liberals who are trying to oppress us, you can win.”

He also suggested that “Antifa” could have been behind the bus malfunction, pointing to the “phone calls, texts, and online” threats they’ve received.

“We’ve gotten threats and we found water in our gas tank,” he said. “So you put the two together.”

The state senator is no stranger to controversy. After the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Williams raffled off a bump stock, the same device the shooter used to make his semi-automatic weapon fire more rapidly. Williams said the goal was to “take a stand against the leaders of the liberal progressive left.” He also attended Atlanta’s “March Against Sharia” last year along with members of the III % anti-government militia group.

McKoon, the secretary of state candidate, told TPM that some of these stunts play well among Republicans in the Peach State, where they help draw attention to what is still expected to be a low-turnout primary midterm election.

“For most folks outside of metropolitan Atlanta, the old idea of a guy coming to ask a girl out and the dad bringing out the guns to clean them, it’s not something that is foreign to a lot of Georgians,” he said of Kemp’s ad. “So I think there may have been some disconnect there between folks who are maybe outside of the Deep South.”

Other Georgia Republicans said the immigration ads, at least, are unhelpful and play on outdated stereotypes about the state.

“Unproductive all the way around,” Mark Rountree, head of an Atlanta-based GOP polling and consulting firm, told TPM of the immigration ads, noting that “molesters” was spelled incorrectly on Williams’ bus.

“I think sometimes national media simplifies Georgia into somewhat of a simplistic, one-dimensional Republican audience but we have very high-income, high-educated people voting in this election, and these ads are not speaking to them.”

Hill, the former state lawmaker, has consistently bested Williams in the polls without pushing such extreme rhetoric on immigration. In an email, he told TPM that voters don’t want politicians who just “talk a big game or pull gimmicks during an election cycle.”

And Georgia already has some pretty stringent immigration laws. The legislature banned sanctuary cities in 2009, and there are strict barriers preventing undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses or in-state education.

But with Trump this week referring to undocumented people as “animals,” Georgia’s Republicans are just doing their best to keep up.

Read More →

Attorneys bringing a private lawsuit alleging a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to expose the private information of DNC donors and a DNC employee faced tough questioning from the federal judge in Washington, D.C. overseeing the case Thursday.

During arguments on motions filed by the Trump campaign and Roger Stone, who is also a defendant, to throw out the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle directed most of her questioning at Protect Democracy Project attorney Benjamin Leon Berwick, whose group is representing the private plaintiffs bringing the case.

Read More →

For months, good-government groups and some Democratic lawmakers have been calling on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to recuse himself from matters related to the federal investigation into Russian election meddling. Mnuchin’s role as finance chair of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign means he can’t impartially oversee a probe that delves into Trump associates’ financial affairs, they have argued.

Those calls took on a new urgency this week when The New Yorker revealed that Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed on long-time Trump fixer Michael Cohen were removed from a database kept by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) division.

Their absence, which is highly unusual, so alarmed a longtime law enforcement official that he or she leaked some of the documents to the press out of concern that information was being intentionally withheld from law enforcement.

In multiple letters sent since late 2017, Democratic lawmakers have asked Mnuchin to recuse himself from the Russia probe, and to detail any information Treasury has received about potential illegal activities by Trump and his associates.

“Have you ever directed, or has any other Trump administration official, Trump campaign official, or Trump family member called on you to direct U.S. Treasury officials or staff members to obscure, destroy, or withhold information implicating the president, Trump campaign officials, Trump family members, or his associates?” the Democrats wrote in January.

They received no response from Mnuchin.

Appearing on MSNBC Wednesday night, one of the Democrats, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, said the reported removal of the SARs from the Treasury database underscores the need for Mnuchin to provide answers.

“Someone removed this information, and the Treasury Secretary is going to have to answer for this,” Waters said. “The question is, why did he ignore us?”

In December, progressive groups noted in their own letter to Treasury’s Inspector General that Mnuchin had replaced the director of FinCEN with his own choice, just days after former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was indicted for money laundering and a host of other financial crimes.

The groups called the timing “extremely worrisome,” and asked the IG’s office to look into whether Mnuchin should recuse, a request the IG declined.

On Thursday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Treasury Department Inspector General asking for an investigation into the “possible compromise” of information in the database.

Sources familiar with FinCEN’s database told the New Yorker they could have been removed by a request from the special counsel’s team or from federal prosecutors who are investigating Cohen for financial crimes.

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment. In a Thursday afternoon statement, a FinCEN spokesperson said that they do sometimes limit access to SARs in ongoing investigations.

This post has been updated.

Read More →

Texts and emails sent by President Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen show that his work on a Trump Tower Moscow deal continued at least through May 2016, well after January 2016 end-date Cohen previously claimed, Yahoo News reported Wednesday evening.

The messages were provided to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators by Felix Sater — a Cohen pal and former business associate of Trump’s — who previously told TPM that work on the Moscow Trump deal continued through at least late 2015.

Cohen, in congressional testimony, claimed work on the project, which never came to fruition, ended in late January 2016.

Yahoo News confirmed existence of the texts and emails with multiple sources who were able to describe them. Sater told Yahoo News he provided the texts to investigators voluntarily and without a subpoena.

The messages sent between Cohen and Sater show Cohen’s desire to involve high-ranking Russian officials in the project, according to Yahoo News. It was previously reported that in mid-January Cohen sought to reach out to the Kremlin, using a public facing email for Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Peskov says he saw Cohen’s message but never responded to it.

But the Sater-Cohen communications about the project continued well after that, according to the Yahoo News report, and Sater also encouraged Cohen to attend a St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in mid-June 2016, which Washington Post previously reported.

Cohen, citing the need to prepare for the 2016 Republican Nation Convention in July, did not attend the forum, the Washington Post reported.

Cohen’s discussions with Sater about the Trump Tower Moscow ended then, according to Yahoo News, but Sater said he continued working on a potential deal through December 2016, stopping only after Trump had been elected.

Read More →

LiveWire