TPM News

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s former ambassador to the United States is dismissing detailed allegations of attempted Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as “fantasies” rooted in domestic politics.

Former Ambassador Sergei Kislyak said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday: “I’m not sure that I can trust American law enforcement to be the most precise and truthful source of information about what Russians do.”

Kislyak’s comments came as top Russian and American officials exchanged barbs over Friday’s indictment of 13 Russians accused of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

Kislyak said: “I have never done anything of this sort. None in my embassy did. So whatever allegations are being mounted against us are simply fantasies that are being used for political reasons inside the United States in the fight between different sides of the political divide.”

The senior diplomat’s name has come up in the FBI and congressional investigations of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak before Trump’s inauguration.

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The Executive Director of the Maine Republican Party has admitted he created, runs and writes articles for a pro-Republican anonymous website that has come under fire from state Democrats.

Attorneys for Jason Savage wrote to the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics to say he operates the Maine Examiner “on his own free time and does not utilize Maine Republican Party resources,” Maine News Center reported Friday.

The letter asserted that the website was a proper news site and not subject to state campaign finance disclosure laws, as state Democrats have alleged. Last month, the Democrats filed a complaint with the ethics commission saying the site slandered their unsuccessful mayoral candidate without disclosing its ties to the Republican Party.

The commission will meet Thursday and decide whether to open a formal investigation into the allegations.

The site describes itself as run by “a small group of Mainers who simply publish Maine news, trends, and interesting pieces about you, the people of Maine.” Metadata directly linked Savage to the site.

As TPM previously reported, a number of political entities, such as the reelection campaign for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), have started websites that resemble local news sites, sometimes without disclosing who they are. Government transparency experts say they can easily mislead readers who are unaware who is funding or promoting the stories being put in front of them.

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While former Secretary of State and President Trump opponent Hillary Clinton remained silent on news of an indictment against 13 Russian nationals for interfering in the 2016 election, her spokesperson lashed out on Trump on Twitter, calling him “un-American.”

“Time will tell us more, but Russia went to great lengths to undermine our democracy and the President won’t protect us,” he said. “No matter you politics, it’s un-American.”

In a bombshell indictment on Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities with criminal charges related to interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Mueller released a 37-page indictment detailing the Russian Internet Research Agency’s concerted efforts – starting in 2014 – to interfere “with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

All 13 defendants have been charged with “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” Three defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and five were charged with “aggravated identity theft.”

Clinton has been vocal in the past about the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the foreign power to win the election. Trump on Friday reiterated the response he usually takes when new information is revealed about the investigation, insisting the development proves there was “no collusion!” between his campaign and Russia.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney’s extensive resume has many Republicans looking to him to take on a role, if he’s elected Utah’s next senator, often filled by John McCain as an elder statesman and counterweight to a president many in the GOP see as divisive and undignified.

Romney, the 2012 White House nominee, is among the best-known names in U.S. politics. He’s been a successful businessman, governor of heavily Democratic Massachusetts, Olympics rescuer and, more recently, one of his party’s fiercest critics of President Donald Trump.

McCain was quick to praise Romney, his rival for the 2008 nomination. In a tweet Friday shortly after Romney announced his Senate bid, McCain said Romney “has shown the country what it means to lead with honor, integrity and civility. The people of #Utah and the nation need his strong voice, resolve and service now more than ever.”

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Romney would bring the prestige of his previous roles to the Senate, if elected to succeed Sen. Orrin Hatch in strongly Republican Utah.

“I think he will be a plus-plus in the Senate,” Shelby said, calling Romney “a thoughtful man” and a leader who at 70 is senior enough to be an elder statesman.

Shelby, 83, has had his differences with Trump. He publicly opposed a GOP nominee backed by Trump in Alabama’s closely watched Senate race last year, declaring before the election that “the state of Alabama deserves better” than Roy Moore, a former judge accused of sexual contact with teenage girls decades ago.

Romney has the stature to make similar declarations when — or if — they are needed, Shelby said. “I know the governor and I think he would support good ideas,” Shelby said.

Romney, a heavy favorite to win the Senate seat, will step in “immediately” as a leader in the Senate, said Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who got to know Romney when both served as governors and when he co-chaired Romney’s presidential campaigns in Idaho.

“He has broad experience, he has the prestige. He’ll jump right in,” Risch said.

Those expectations are based largely on Romney’s record, rather than recent accomplishments. Romney has not served in elected office in more than a decade and lost bids for president in 2008 and 2012.

Trump has seized on Romney’s failed presidential bids, saying in 2016 that Romney “choked like a dog.”

It’s not clear how Romney will relate to the president as a candidate or as a senator, should he win. While he denounced Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, Romney softened his stance after the election and put himself forward as a candidate for secretary of state before Trump looked elsewhere.

Since then, Romney has spoken up from afar. He called out Trump after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, and lashed out again last month when Trump used an obscenity to describe African countries during a White House meeting on immigration.

“The poverty of an aspiring immigrant’s nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race,” Romney tweeted, adding that comments attributed to the president were inconsistent with “America’s history and antithetical to American values.”

Despite those criticisms, Democrats say Romney and Trump are not all that different.

“While Mitt Romney desperately wants to separate himself from the extremism of the current administration, the basic policies of Trump’s GOP were his before they were Donald Trump’s,” said DNC spokesman Vedant Patel, citing the recently enacted GOP tax cuts and efforts to repeal former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Patel called Romney “another multimillionaire looking out for himself, his rich neighbors and the special interests.”

If he does go after Trump, Romney will find himself among a dwindling breed in Congress. McCain, who is suffering from brain cancer, has not appeared in the Senate since before Christmas, while fellow Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is retiring at the end of the year. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., also has had public disputes with Trump, but has not criticized Trump in months and is reportedly reconsidering plans to retire.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Romney’s 2012 running mate, said Romney’s “unparalleled experience, conservative leadership and lifetime of service” will serve him and Utah well in the Senate.

Romney “has my unwavering support, and the people of Utah will be getting an accomplished and decent man when they make him their next senator,” Ryan said.

Kirk Jowers, the former chairman and general counsel of Romney’s leadership PACs, said Romney “will always be a straight shooter” and will support the president when he takes actions that are good for America.

“If President Trump says or does something that he finds offensive or divisive, unnecessarily divisive, then I think you will continue to hear Romney as the voice of reason and conscience in the Republican Party,” Jowers said.

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POMPANO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump has made a grim trip to a Florida community reeling from a deadly school shooting, meeting privately with victims and cheering the heroics of first responders.

But he extended few public words of consolation to those in deep mourning, nor did Trump address the debate over gun violence that has raged since a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 and injured 14 others.

Two days after the shooting, Trump visited Broward Health North Hospital Friday, where he saw two victims and praised the doctors and nurses for their “incredible” job. With his wife Melania, he also paid his respects to law enforcement officials in Fort Lauderdale, telling officers he hoped they were “getting the credit” they deserved.

“I was at the hospital with a lot of parents and they are really thankful for the job you’ve done,” Trump said at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, where he was joined by Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and other Florida officials. He added that the young victims were in “really great shape” considering what they have been through.

Never a natural at consolation, the president seemed more at ease extending hearty thanks to first responders, marveling at the speed with which they rushed the wounded to the hospital and quipping that they deserved a raise. He had less to say to the grief and sorrow gripping a shocked community and nation after the deadliest school shooting since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Asked if he’d talked with victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Trump added: “I did indeed, and it’s very sad something like that could happen.”

Trump spoke privately with two victims, a boy and a girl, at the hospital. At the Sheriff’s Office, he also met Detective Richard Olson and his son, Will Olson, who was shot during the attack. Trump spoke about the girl he met with, saying she had been shot four times, and that first responders had helped save her life by getting her quickly to the hospital.

Late Friday, he tweeted about the school shooting: “Our entire Nation, w/one heavy heart, continues to pray for the victims & their families in Parkland, FL. To teachers, law enforcement, first responders & medical professionals who responded so bravely in the face of danger: We THANK YOU for your courage!” He included pictures of the injured young girl and her family that he and the first lady visited.

Speaking directly to the raw emotions was Rubio, who told Trump, “This is a community and a state that’s in deep pain and they want action to make sure this never happens again.”

Trump replied: “You can count on it.”

Still, the president made no policy statements. An avid supporter of the National Rifle Association, he did not mention the renewed debate over gun violence, ignoring a shouted question about gun laws. Trump tweeted earlier Friday that he was “working with Congress on many fronts,” though he offered no details.

Trump’s visit followed a similar script to his visit to Las Vegas in the fall after the worst mass slaying in modern history. On that trip, he also made a visit to a hospital, meeting with victims behind closed doors and then congratulating first responders.

It’s an approach that stands in contrast to his predecessor’s handling of mass shootings. After the Sandy Hook slayings, five years ago, President Barack Obama attended an emotional vigil in Newtown, where he read aloud the names of each victim and promised to use “whatever power” he had to prevent future shootings.

Trump said he originally planned to visit the Parkland area on Sunday or Monday, but decided he didn’t want to wait. But as Trump arrived in Florida, some of the parents, survivors and others affected by the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School said they were more interested in firm action to prevent future assaults than a presidential visit.

“I don’t want Trump to come, but we want more gun safety,” said 18-year-old Kevin Trejos, a senior at the school. “It’s a dream. It hasn’t hit me yet. When I see empty desks, I’ll feel it. I’m numb now.”

More than 1,000 people had attended a candlelight vigil Thursday night near the school, and at one point some began chanting, “No more guns! No more guns!”

The president made the trip to meet with first responders soon after Air Force One arrived in West Palm Beach for the president to spend the weekend at his Palm Beach estate, which is about 40 miles from Parkland.

In a departure from the Trumps’ original schedule, Mrs. Trump arrived at Air Force One separately from her husband for the flight to Florida and boarded the plane while reporters were kept away. A spokeswoman said the change was due to scheduling.

As he departed the White House, Trump ignored shouted questions from journalists about a report in The New Yorker magazine that he had an affair in 2006 with a Playboy model.

Mrs. Trump spoke at the Sheriff’s Office. She thanked law enforcement officials “for taking care of our children” and added: “They were put through a lot in what they were experiencing two days ago and we need to take care of them.”

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Thomas reported from Washington. AP writers Jon Lemire in New York, Zeke Miller in Washington and Josh Replogle in Parkland, Fla., contributed to this report.

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MOSCOW (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser has told an international audience that the evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 American election is beyond dispute.

H.R. McMaster was answering a question from a Russian delegate, shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov left the same stage at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

Referring to the indictment of 13 Russians announced Friday, McMaster says “with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now incontrovertible” of Russia cyber-meddling.

He also scoffed at any move to work with Russia on cybersecurity, saying “we would love to have a cyber dialogue when Russia is sincere about curtailing its sophisticated form of espionage.”

Lavrov, just moments earlier, had dismissed the indictments as “just blabber” through an interpreter.

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MUNICH (AP) — Top Russian and American officials exchanged barbs Saturday in Germany over the U.S. indictment of 13 Russians accused of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

H.R. McMaster, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, said at the Munich Security Conference that the federal indictments showed the U.S. was becoming “more and more adept at tracing the origins of this espionage and subversion.”

“As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain,” McMaster told a Russian delegate to the conference.

Just minutes before, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had dismissed the indictments as “just blabber,” according to remarks through an interpreter.

“I have no response,” Lavrov said when asked for comment on the allegations. “You can publish anything, and we see those indictments multiplying, the statements multiplying.”

The two men addressed the conference of top world leaders, defense officials and diplomats, giving more general back-to-back opening remarks. But both were immediately hit with blunt questions about the U.S. indictment and the broader issue of cyberattacks.

In Russia, news of the indictments was met with more scorn.

“There are no official claims, there are no proofs for this. That’s why they are just children’s statements,” Andrei Kutskikh, the presidential envoy for international information security, told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

McMaster also scoffed at the suggestion that the U.S. would work with Russia on cyber security issues.

“I’m surprised there are any Russian cyber experts available based on how active most of them have been undermining our democracies in the West,” he said to laughter. “So I would just say that we would love to have a cyber dialogue when Russia is sincere.”

The federal indictment brought Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller represents the most detailed allegations to date of illegal Russian meddling during the campaign that sent Trump to the White House.

Lavrov argued that U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have said no country influenced the U.S. election results.

“Until we see the facts, everything else is just blabber — I’m sorry for this expression,” Lavrov said.

The indictment charges 13 Russians with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

It marks the first criminal charges against Russians believed to have secretly worked to influence the U.S. election’s outcome.

According to the indictment, the Russian organization was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy St. Petersburg businessman with ties to the Russian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lavrov denounced “this irrational myth about this global Russian threat, traces of which are found everywhere — from Brexit to the Catalan referendum.”

In Russia, one of the 13 people indicted said that the U.S. justice system is unfair.

Mikhail Burchik was quoted Saturday by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda as saying that “I am very surprised that, in the opinion of the Washington court, several Russian people interfered in the elections in the United States. I do not know how the Americans came to this decision.”

Burchik was identified in the indictment as executive director of an organization that allegedly sowed propaganda on social media to try to interfere with the 2016 election.

He was quoted as saying that “they have one-sided justice, and it turns out that you can hang the blame on anyone.”

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Jim Heintz in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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When I first heard the alert that Mueller had indicted a group of Russian nationals for crimes tied to interference in the 2016 US election, it to me seemed relatively unremarkable. We know, or think we know, this happened. We know there are potential crimes connected to the interference. So my first thought was that Mueller was simply checking this box as part of the process of building out his case. Of course, the indictments contained a great deal of information than I suspected, much of which you can see discussed in our team’s coverage over the course of the afternoon.

I annotate these documents when I read them, to try to make sense of them. So I wanted to share with you passages that struck me as particularly notable or ones that suggested more was afoot than was included in the indictment itself.

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NEW YORK (AP) — Under pressure over his handling of abuse allegations against a top aide, White House chief of staff John Kelly on Friday ordered sweeping changes in how the White House clears staff members to gain access to classified information, acknowledging that the administration “must do better” in how it handles security clearances.

Kelly issued a five-page memo that acknowledged White House mistakes but also put the onus on the FBI and the Justice Department to provide more timely updates on background investigations, asking that any significant derogatory information about staff members be quickly flagged to the White House counsel’s office.

The issue has been in the spotlight for more than a week after it was revealed that former staff secretary Rob Porter had an interim security clearance that allowed him access to classified material despite allegations of domestic violence by his two ex-wives.

“Now is the time to take a hard look at the way the White House processes clearance requests,” Kelly wrote in the memo. “We should — and in the future, must — do better.”

The memo said the FBI and Justice Department had offered increased cooperation and, going forward, all background investigations of top officers “should be flagged for the FBI at the outset and then hand-delivered to the White House Counsel personally upon completion. The FBI official who delivers these files should verbally brief the White House Counsel on any information in those files they deem to be significantly derogatory.”

Dozens of White House aides have been working under interim clearances for months, according to administration officials, raising questions about the administration’s handling of the issue and whether classified information has been jeopardized.

Kelly’s plan would limit interim clearances to 180 days, with an option to extend them another 90 days if background checks had not turned up significant troubling information. The memo also recommends that all Top Secret and SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) clearances that have been pending since last June be discontinued in a week.

That change could potentially put at risk the clearance of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a powerful senior adviser. Kushner’s attorney told The Associated Press this week that Kushner has been working on an interim clearance for more than a year as his background check was being conducted. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Kushner’s situation.

The memo is addressed to White House counsel Don McGahn, who has also been criticized for his role in the Porter matter, as well as national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Copies were sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.

The White House has struggled to explain its handling of the Porter matter, offering several versions of events in recent days.

McGahn was apprised of at least some of the accusations about Porter at least four times, including as early as January 2017, according to White House officials familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. In November, one official said, one of Porter’s ex-girlfriends called McGahn to describe allegations of domestic abuse by the aide. Kelly, meanwhile, said he first learned something was wrong with Porter’s clearance in November.

Trump officials have faulted the FBI and the White House Personnel Security Office for not passing along sensitive information about Porter. The staff secretary, who had access to classified documents delivered to the president, maintained his interim clearance until he resigned last week.

A sense of unease about Kelly’s fate has persisted in recent days.

For months, Kelly — with help from Porter — had established a semblance of stability in a White House often rattled by an unpredictable president. That has eroded in a week’s time, as accounts about the handling of the Porter matter continue to shift and some aides came to believe Kelly lied to save face and save his job.

Trump has complained to confidants that Kelly let the scandal spin out of control and that the constantly shifting narratives made the White House — and, by extension, Trump himself — look amateurish and incompetent, according to one person familiar with the discussions but not authorized to talk about them publicly.

The president has floated names of possible replacements but there was no sign that a move was imminent. The president is known to frequently poll his advisers about the performance of senior staff but is often reluctant to actually fire aides.

In the memo, Kelly defended his handling of clearances, including his order in September to cease granting new interim clearances unless the chief of staff had given his blessing.

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