Allegra Kirkland

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

Articles by

In a rare public statement, the FBI on Wednesday expressed “grave concerns” about the accuracy of a congressional Republican memo that purports to show anti-Trump prejudice among senior FBI and Justice Department officials.

It’s extremely unlikely that the highly critical comment would be sent out without the approval of top Trump appointees at the FBI and DOJ. And it comes as the White House appears poised to defy the intelligence community’s wishes and approve the memo’s release.

As the FBI put it, the four-page document compiled by staffers for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) contains “material omissions of fact.”

“With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” a statement from the bureau read. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

This remarkable public disavowal bolsters days of reporting on top DOJ and FBI officials’ efforts to dissuade the White House from allowing the memo to be made public. The House Intelligence Committee voted on partisan lines on Monday to release it.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, reportedly informed the White House that he opposed the memo’s release because it “contains inaccurate information and paints a false narrative,” according to Bloomberg.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also a Trump appointee, has reportedly separately warned the White House that the memo does not accurately describe how it carries out investigations.

As of Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump and his advisers’ seemed intent on overriding these words of caution and moving forward with the memo’s release.

Doing so would represent a bold new foray in Trump’s war on his own Justice Department. The President has previously expressed his own concerns about a “deep state” cabal of Democratic loyalists at the DOJ and FBI bent on undermining his administration. But with the memo controversy, Trump is actively going against the advice intelligence officials he handpicked to lead those agencies.

Read the full statement from the FBI below.

The FBI takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI. We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to ensure the continuing integrity of the FISA process.

With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it. As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.

Read More →

Bloomberg reported Monday that President Trump exploded in anger at a statement from the Justice Department warning that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to publicize what’s come to be known as the Nunes memo without a security review. In response, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly conveyed Trump’s anger to Justice Department officials and “lectured them on the White House’s expectations,” according to the report.

Those contacts by Kelly may have violated at least the spirit and perhaps the letter of the Trump administration’s own guidelines regulating communications between the White House and DOJ.

Discussions between Kelly and Justice Department officials related to “a criminal and counterintelligence investigation in which the White House and President have equities and a conflict of interest” would be strictly off limits, Andy Wright, associate White House counsel to President Barack Obama, told TPM.

The guidelines aim to create a firewall between the two bodies regarding ongoing criminal investigations—particularly those that involve the current administration. The possibility that they were breached is just the latest step in the ongoing politicization of federal law enforcement under Trump. 

Since the Watergate era, incoming administrations have generally laid out updated guidelines regulating contact between the White House and Justice Department. The policy issued by White House Counsel Don McGahn in January 2017 limits communications to the DOJ to the President, Vice President, and White House counsel.

Those three principals are allowed to “designate subordinates” to communicate with similarly designated counterparts at the DOJ. But all such contacts “should be handled in conjunction with a representative of the Counsel’s office,” per McGahn’s instructions.

And the communications are supposed to be limited, with few exceptions, to matters of national security or cases in which the DOJ is defending the administration’s policies, as TPM has previously reported.

“The channel [of communications] is supposed to go through or at least be monitored by the White House counsel’s office in order to monitor the substance,” Wright said. “There is no business for the White House Chief of Staff to be calling in when the department is making a decision that relates to both a counterintelligence and criminal investigation. The DOJ determined that [releasing the memo] would be damaging to government interests.”

Matt Miller, who served as a spokesman for the Justice Department during the Obama administration, said the policy “is set up to allow some flexibility,” but that its spirit has gone unchanged across different administrations.

“The thing that’s always contemplated in these rules is that the White House and Justice Department will in no event ever talk about investigations that impact the White House,” said Miller. “That isn’t spelled out explicitly in the rules but that’s why these contact policies exist—because of all the pressure Nixon put on his DOJ” during Watergate.

Saikrishna Prakash, an expert on the separation of powers at University of Virginia Law School, cautioned in a phone interview that there were not enough publicly available details regarding Kelly’s contacts to know if he had violated the letter of the contact policy. If Kelly’s outreach was approved by McGahn or if a member of the White House counsel office had listened in, Prakash said, it could technically be acceptable.

But Wright pointed out that sharing the President’s personal opinion on an issue stemming from an open criminal investigation would undercut the entire reason such policies existed.

As McGahn’s own guidelines note: “In order to ensure that DOJ exercises its investigatory and prosecutorial functions free from the fact or appearance of improper political influence, these rules must be strictly followed.”

The White House did not respond to TPM’s inquiry about whether anyone in the White House Counsel’s office had any oversight over Kelly’s conversations. The Justice Department declined to comment on the record.

Kelly’s reported contacts are part of a pattern of White House attempts to tilt the scale in the Russia probe. That pattern also includes Trump’s own public comments, tweets, and previous reports of inappropriate contact between other White House officials and the DOJ.

Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel who led investigations into President Bill Clinton, laid out the principle in a Washington Post op-ed last summer.

“The attorney general’s client is ultimately ‘We the People,’” Starr wrote, “and his fidelity has to be not to the president but to the Constitution and other laws of the United States.”

Read More →

A Democratic-aligned group filed a complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission asking for a comprehensive probe into whether the NRA received money from Russian nationals to help Donald Trump, in violation of campaign finance laws.

“A foreign agent illegally laundering millions of foreign dollars to influence an American election in support of then candidate Donald Trump is absolutely an issue for the Federal Election Commission to take up,” American Legal Democracy Fund (ALDF) treasurer Brad Woodhouse, a former DNC spokesman, said in a statement. “We expect the FEC to get to the bottom of this issue swiftly and deliver the results of a thorough investigation to the American people.”

The group’s complaint is based on a recent McClatchy story reporting that the FBI is investigating whether a Russian banker close to both President Vladimir Putin and the NRA gave money to the gun group’s dark money arm.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told TPM late last week that the organization “has not been contacted by the FBI or any other investigative body.”

A spokeswoman for the FEC, Judith Ingram, said that the commission could not offer comment on pending complaints beyond confirming their receipt. Ingram said the ALDF’s complaint had not yet been received by mid-afternoon on Monday.

According to McClatchy, the FBI wants to know whether Alexander Torshin, a Russian central bank official and lifetime NRA member, funneled donations to the NRA. The complaint notes an extensive web of ties between Torshin, his deputy Maria Butina, and bigwigs at the NRA.

TPM has reported at length on those connections. 

The complaint casts a wide net, asking the FEC to investigate “any additional coordination between Respondents and foreign nationals in connection with the 2016 presidential election” and that the “maximum fines permitted by law” be leveled if the commission finds evidence that the NRA accepted illegal foreign contributions.

Read the full document below.

Read More →

The White House is going to war with the U.S. Justice Department over whether to release a sensitive classified memo that many Republicans say shines a light on improper conduct by the Justice Department, but which hasn’t been vetted by the intelligence community.

The Trump administration is backing the dozens of congressional Republicans who claim the memo, crafted by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), must be made public to ensure full transparency. But the Justice Department has said it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to surface a document based on classified information without the intelligence community’s sign-off. In response, the White House has said DoJ has no role in the process.

The open split would be remarkable in any context. That the Justice Department under Trump has often appeared willing to act in the president’s political interest only makes it more so.

President Trump dispatched his Chief of Staff John Kelly last week to personally inform Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the administration wanted the memo to be made public, according to the Washington Post. The two conversations that Kelly and Sessions had last Wednesday came the same day that a Trump appointee at the Justice Department released a letter chastising Nunes for rejecting FBI Director Christopher Wray’s “personal appeal” to review the document.

“We believe it would be extraordinarily reckless for the Committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum and to advise [the House Intelligence Committee] of the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that would come from public release,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote.

DOJ spokeswoman Sara Isgur Flores, another political appointee, added the next day in a rare cable news appearance that the department needed to see any alleged “evidence of wrongdoing” in order to “hold people responsible for it.”

Fox News reported that Wray was finally permitted to go to the Capitol on Sunday to review the document, and requested that his staffers be allowed “to take a look at it.”

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short characterized the intelligence community’s concerns as “rational,” acknowledging that he personally does not know what the memo contains, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” Still, he said, Trump “generally sides on the side of transparency” and wants the document released.

On Monday morning, White House spokesman Raj Shah said that the Oval Office would conduct a national security review of the document to determine if it could be released to the broader public, explicitly dismissing the DOJ’s role in vetting the document.

“The constitutional process as laid out involves the House of Representatives, the House Intelligence Committee and the White House and the President of the United States. The Department of Justice doesn’t have a role in this process,” Shah said on CNN.

The issue of the memo’s release is rapidly coming to a head. Republicans on the committee are expected to vote as early as Monday on the memo’s release, taking advantage of an obscure House rule that allows the intelligence committee to release classified information determined to be in the public interest.

The final decision to make the memo public would then rest with the President.

The memo reportedly shows that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last March approved the extension of a surveillance order for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The memo reportedly criticizes department officials for failing to inform a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that the warrant was based in part on the so-called “Trump-Russia dossier” compiled by a former British spy. Some Republicans call that proof of anti-Trump bias at the DOJ.

Democrats have dismissed the memo as a “conspiracy theory” that misrepresents the underlying evidence on which it is based. National security experts have also sounded off against the memo’s conclusions, saying the warrant’s 90-day extension would only be approved if enough new evidence had surfaced from Dec. 2016 to March 2017 to justify its renewal.

Nunes’ history of misinterpreting intelligence in order to defend the Trump White House from the Russia investigation and his refusal to allow Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NV) to view the document has fueled the assessment that it is being used for partisan purposes.

Read More →

On Thursday, the New York Times revealed that President Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June and only backed down when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit rather than carry out the President’s orders.

From the earliest days of Trump’s administration, the president and his closest allies have used a range of tactics to obfuscate damaging information and stymie Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. And Mueller, in turn, appears to have gathered a plethora of evidence that lays out this pattern of behavior.

So how might the news about Trump’s effort to fire Mueller fit into the obstruction of justice case that Mueller may be building?

In a nutshell, it’s unlikely to be at the core of any case the special counsel brings. For one thing, everyone agrees that Trump has the legal right to fire Mueller. And for another, Trump didn’t go through with the firing.

But, former prosecutors say, the news could nonetheless bolster an obstruction case, likely centered on the firing of James Comey as FBI director last May. That’s because it offers yet another piece of evidence that Trump has been eager to do whatever he could to derail any investigation into Russian election interference.

Of course, whether a sitting president can face criminal charges is an open question. But let’s leave that aside for now.

Here’s a full timeline, based on reliable reports that haven’t been seriously challenged, of the 2017 events Mueller could draw on to lay out an obstruction case against the President.

Jan. 26 and 27: Then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates meets with White House Counsel Don McGahn to warn him that the Justice Department fears Michael Flynn, at the time the White House national security adviser, is “compromised with regard to the Russians,” Yates later testified. Yates told McGahn that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence when he said he never discussed sanctions with Russian officials, and also that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI.

Late January: McGahn and his aides research the consequences of lying to the FBI and of violating the Logan Act, an 18th century law barring private citizens from negotiating with unfriendly foreign governments. McGahn concludes that Flynn likely committed a crime by discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. McGahn then warns Trump about Flynn’s possible violations. 

Jan. 27: Trump invites Comey, at the time the FBI director, to a private dinner at the White House, where he tells him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey responds that he can promise only “honesty.”

Feb. 14: A day after Flynn is forced to resign, Trump asks Comey to stay behind after an Oval Office intelligence briefing, then asks him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn’s conduct.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy,” Comey later recalled Trump saying. Trump has denied making the request.

March, exact date unknown: Trump orders McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. McGahn attempts to do so, but Sessions succumbs to mounting public pressure and the advice of career DOJ lawyers, officially relinquishing oversight of the probe on March 2. Mueller’s team has since been briefed on this series of events.

March 20: Comey confirms in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI is investigating possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.

March 22: Trump requests that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo stay behind after a White House briefing and asks them if they can persuade Comey to stop investigating Flynn.

A day or two later: Trump calls both Coats and Adm. Mike Rogers, the National Security Agency head who also attended the briefing, to ask them to publicly deny any evidence of collusion. Both men decline to do so. Rodgers’ former deputy Richard Ledgett writes an internal memo documenting the phone request.

March 30: Trump calls Comey to tell him that he hopes Comey will take steps to “lift the cloud” the Russia investigation has cast over the White House. “I took it as a direction,” Comey later testified. “It is the President of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.”

May 3: In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Comey says the idea that the agency’s disclosure of news about the probe in October 2016 affected the election’s outcome made him “mildly nauseous.”

May 6-7: Infuriated by Comey’s comments and the ongoing Russia investigation, Trump spends the weekend at his New Jersey golf resort with top aides hashing out a plan to get rid of his FBI director. Trump and White House adviser Stephen Miller collaborate on an initial memo to justify Comey’s firing that has since ended up in Mueller’s hands. It reportedly criticizes Comey for declining to publicly declare that Trump isn’t personally under investigation in the Russia probe. McGahn and others intervene to stop the memo from going out.

May 8: At a White House meeting attended by Sessions, Trump asks Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to draw up a new memo rationalizing Comey’s dismissal. That memo rests on the implausible claim that Comey must be fired because he handled the investigation of Clinton’s emails in a way that was unfair to Clinton.

May 9: Trump abruptly fires Comey, while the FBI director is out of town visiting a field office in Los Angeles.

May 10: Trump holds a meeting with Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he brags that he “just fired the head of the F.B.I,” who he described as a “real nut job.”

“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump says. “That’s taken off.”

May 11: Trump admits on national television that Comey’s firing was motivated by this “thing with Trump and Russia,” telling NBC’s Lester Holt that the probe was based on a “made-up story.”

May 17: Robert Mueller is appointed Special Counsel.

June 8, 2017: In an explosive hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey testifies about his one-on-one interactions with Trump. He reveals that he kept detailed contemporaneous memos of those private conversations out of fear that Trump would “lie” about them. The memos are now in the possession of the special counsel.

June, exact date unknown: The President enlisted senior White House aides to carry out a smear campaign against three senior FBI officials Comey briefed on his private conversations with Trump: Comey chief of staff Jim Rybicki, soon-to-be-departing deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI general counsel James Baker. The effort to discredit the three officials began only after Trump learned they would likely be witnesses against him in Mueller’s probe.

June, exact date unknown: Trump orders McGahn to fire Mueller amid reports that Mueller is considering a possible obstruction case against him. The President backs down after McGahn threatens to quit instead of carrying out the order, though whether McGahn directly conveyed his threat to Trump is unclear. (In late January 2018, Trump called this account, which has been confirmed by multiple outlets, “fake news.”)

July 8: Trump personally dictates a misleading statement to the press obscuring the true purpose of a June 2016 meeting his son Donald Trump Jr. held with a Kremlin-linked lawyer. While flying back from the G-20 summit in Germany on Air Force One, Trump helps draft a statement that says the sit-down focused on a defunct program allowing U.S. citizens to adopt Russian children. In fact, the meeting was pitched as an opportunity for Trump Jr. to obtain Russian government “dirt” on Clinton—an offer the eldest Trump son enthusiastically accepted.

 August 7: Trump calls Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) to tell him he doesn’t like a bipartisan bill being drafted by Tillis and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). The bill was designed to protect Mueller from an attempt by Trump to fire him; it has been with the Senate Judiciary Committee since September.

December, exact date unknown: Sessions reportedly begins pushing FBI Director Christopher Wray to oust his deputy, Andrew McCabe. The campaign—which leads Wray to threaten his resignation—comes after Trump’s frequent Twitter attacks on McCabe, alleging ties to Democratic politicians.

Sam Thielman contributed to this report.

This post has been updated.

Read the latest editor’s brief (Prime access) on this story »


Read More →

Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz warned on Fox News—where he has recently appeared almost nightly—that Justice Department officials could “go to jail” over the contents of a much-hyped memo pushed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). Gaetz said the Nunes memo contains “jaw-dropping” revelations about the FBI’s abuse of its surveillance powers to spy on Trump campaign officials.

A few days later, Gaetz turned up on CNN, highlighting a text message exchange between two FBI staffers that he and many other Republicans see as proof of a conspiracy at the bureau to take down President Donald Trump. A reference in the exchange to a “secret society” was, he said, further proof of a deep-state plot.

The performances were vintage Gaetz.

A year ago, few outside Gaetz’s native Florida knew his name. The freshman Republican and Freedom Caucus member has since risen above a crowded field to become one of Congress’ most vocal and visible critics of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Gaetz in November became the first Republican to introduce a resolution calling for Mueller to resign, on the grounds that Mueller ran the FBI at the time the Obama administration approved the sale to Russia’s government of a company that exports uranium. The “Uranium One” deal has recently returned as a touchstone among the far-right, who say it benefited a donor to the Clinton Foundation. No evidence of a quid pro quo ever emerged.

The same month, Gaetz said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should step down if he wasn’t willing to appoint a special counsel to investigate “Obama-Clinton” era scandals,” Uranium One included.

Gaetz’s rise to prominence comes at a time when his party has increasingly set aside its oversight duties to line up in near-lockstep behind the Oval Office’s own promoter of anti-FBI conspiracy theories. His unlikely emergence at the vanguard of the anti-Mueller brigade offers a compelling statement about the GOP’s direction in the Trump era.

Gaetz’s office didn’t respond to TPM’s inquiries for this story. But, speaking to the New York Times late last year, he touted his status as a leader of the GOP pack. “I was the lone voice in the wilderness,” Gaetz said, “and now I have a robust chorus behind me.”

People who knew Gaetz from his earliest days in politics told TPM that this development doesn’t come as a surprise.

The son of a former Florida state senate president, Gaetz served in the Florida House, where he used grandstanding floor speeches and attention-grabbing tweets to promote his hardline views on immigration and states’ rights. Florida politicos say he came to Washington, D.C. last year intent on using similar tactics to make a name for himself on the national stage.

The Russia investigations were Gaetz’s way in.

“If Matt weren’t railing about deep state conspiracies and Mueller and Hillary and Uranium One, he wouldn’t be on Fox,” veteran Florida GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich, who raised money for some of Gaetz’s Florida state races, told TPM. “If he was talking about infrastructure funding or focusing on federal marijuana policy, he’d just be your freshman hardworking lawmaker.”

“It is my theory that Matt, who I’ve known for quite a while—he’s been fishing on my boat and all that—is not on a career track to become Speaker of the House,” said Stipanovich, an ardent #NeverTrumper. “He’s auditioning for a full-time gig on Fox News.”

Gaetz’s frequent TV hits are “building up his email list, it’s building up his profile, it’s building up his name ID,” added Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP operative and Trump critic.

Gaetz’s father, Don, said that the 35-year-old lawmaker’s past as a nationally-ranked high school debater and courtroom litigator made him uniquely equipped for his on-camera turn.

“I’m not surprised that he’s become as recognizable on TV and the floor of the House as he has been,” Don Gaetz told TPM. “His whole life has sort of been a preparation for this moment.”

Political pragmatism also likely plays a role in explaining why there seems to be no anti-Trump conspiracy theory Gaetz doesn’t believe. Trump won over two thirds of the vote in Gaetz’s district—a rectangular chunk of Florida’s northwest panhandle home to a large military presence and large population of retirees—making it the reddest in the state.

“This is the kind of district where a Bannon-ite lunatic would emerge if there was a single sign that [Gaetz] was an apostate in the Trump universe,” Wilson said. “A single hint that he was off the reservation, they would nuke him from space, so it’s also a bit of self-preservation.”

During his six years in the Florida House, Gaetz showed signs that he was capable of bipartisan compromise. But, Florida political operatives said, a DUI arrest from 2008 in which charges were dropped helped create a perception that he was a spoiled rich kid whose success relied on his father’s connections.

Gaetz also developed a reputation for hard-right policy stances and provocative rhetoric that some found offensive.

Chairing hearings on Florida’s “stand your ground” law in the wake of the fatal 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Gaetz said he opposed changing “one damn comma” of the legislation, which many blamed for emboldening gun owners to recklessly fire their weapons. Gaetz also favored accelerating the execution of death row inmates, and landed in hot water for a tweet that appeared to mock the research and language skills of two black Democratic lawmakers. (He later issued a half-hearted apology.)

“Similar to the guy in the White House, he’d often use Twitter without thinking it through or getting the full details,” Dwight Bullard, one of the senators targeted in the tweet, told TPM. “Whatever school of politics that Donald Trump comes from, Representative Matt Gaetz is the valedictorian.”

But Stipanovich suggests Gaetz may be reading the current climate—at least on the Republican side—perfectly.

“If we didn’t live in the time in which we did, if Fox wasn’t Fox, and if the Trump people weren’t delusional paranoids, it would be like a parody,” Stipanovich, the GOP Florida consultant, said. “Matt is a very bright and very capable guy who has the great good fortune to be able to be a parody who a portion of the population takes seriously.”

Read More →

The NRA and one of its outside lawyers have responded to a McClatchy report that the FBI was investigating whether a Russian banker illegally funneled money to the group in an effort to boost Donald Trump in 2016.

“We have not been contacted by the FBI about anything related to Russia,” Steven Hart, an outside lawyer for the NRA, told McClatchy in a statement posted Tuesday evening as an update to McClatchy’s original story, which appeared January 18.

TPM reported earlier Tuesday on the gun group’s silence in the wake of McClatchy’s story. NRA Managing Director of Public Affairs Andrew Arulanandam, who is said to be handling media inquiries on the issue, did not respond to TPM’s repeated requests for comment early this week.

“The National Rifle Association has not been contacted by the FBI or any other investigative body,” Arulanandam said in a Friday afternoon email.

Two sources familiar with the probe told McClatchy that the NRA was probing whether Russian central bank official and Putin ally Alexander Torshin funneled money to the Trump campaign through the group’s dark money arm.

This post has been updated to include Arulanandam’s comment.

Read More →

Over five days have passed since a report revealed that the FBI is investigating whether a Russian banker funneled money to the NRA to boost Donald Trump’s campaign. And the gun group still isn’t talking.

The NRA did not respond to McClatchy’s requests for comments for its story on the FBI probe, published Thursday morning. And although McClatchy’s report reverberated widely in the media, the group still has offered no response, including to multiple inquiries from TPM.

The FBI is said to be looking into whether Alexander Torshin, a Russian central bank official, Putin ally, and longtime NRA member, directed money to the gun group. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), a 501(c)(4) group that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, spent an estimated $35 million in 2016—more than any other dark money group.

A communications staffer for the NRA-ILA told TPM Monday that NRA Managing Director of Public Affairs Andrew Arulanandam was handling questions on the issue.

Arulanandam hasn’t responded to multiple phone and email messages asking whether the NRA has been contacted by the FBI, and whether the group accepted any donations from Torshin during the 2016 campaign. Asked Tuesday if anyone else at the NRA could field questions on the topic, Jennifer Baker, the NRA-ILA’s director of public affairs, again directed TPM to Arulanandam.

The NRA’s social media feeds have also made no specific reference to the reported investigation. A post published Friday on the NRA-ILA’s Facebook page about President Trump’s judicial nominations began: “While the media focuses on fake news President Donald J. Trump is advancing his agenda.”

The NRA hasn’t been shy in the past about challenging reporting it doesn’t like. In July 2017, a video on NRATV dismissed the Washington Post as “a fake news outlet” for publishing a story laying out ties between Torshin, the NRA and other conservative groups. NRATV host Grant Stinchfield accused the newspaper of making “the blatantly false claim that the NRA had illegal ties to Russia.” (In fact, the story didn’t make any claims about illegal activity.)

TPM laid out the web of ties between the NRA and Putin allies Friday.

It’s possible that the NRA doesn’t yet know if some of the estimated $70 million it spent during the 2016 campaign had its origins in Russia. As TPM reported, a string of Supreme Court rulings including the 2010 Citizen United decision have weakened campaign finance laws and encouraged the use of dark money groups, which allow advocacy organizations to spend big on politics without having to disclose the source of their funds.

Though foreigners are still barred from contributing to U.S. elections, the opacity of these money pools makes it much harder to determine if a foreigner made a donation through an LLC or other corporate entity.

Campaign finance experts told TPM that to have engaged in criminal wrongdoing, the NRA would need to know that some of its 2016 donations originated in Russia and that they were expressly intended to be used to boost Trump’s candidacy.

“If the NRA got Russian money that it then used to influence our election, that’s a blatant violation of the prohibition on foreign nationals making contributions or expenditures on elections,” Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center said. “And the NRA would violate the law by assisting a foreign national [in doing so].”

Read More →

The FBI is reportedly probing whether a Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association (NRA) to help Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

But if the gun lobby did take Russian money, it likely couldn’t have done it without a determined campaign by Republicans, with a major assist from the Supreme Court, to weaken laws governing money in politics. To fully understand the news about the FBI’s probe, we need to first understand how the effort to gut campaign finance laws has left the U.S. deeply vulnerable to foreign money infiltrating our elections.

“Citizens United opened up the floodgates to any kind of corporate money,” Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at good government group Public Citizen, told TPM. “It’s easy to launder foreign money through corporate entities or LLCs, and it goes entirely unreported as coming from foreign sources.”

McClatchy reported that Maria Butina teamed up with Paul Erickson, a Republican operative and NRA member, to set up an LLC, named Bridges, in February 2016. Butina is a top aide to the Russian banker, Alexander Torshin, who is a long-time ally of the NRA. Erickson told McClatchy last year that the company was created in case Butina needed financial help for her graduate studies in the U.S. McClatchy described that as “an unusual way to use an LLC.”

TPM has laid out the web of ties between Torshin, Butina, and top NRA figures.

Foreigners are barred from contributing to U.S. political campaigns. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political activities, fueled a spike in the number of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profits, which are permitted to spend big on political campaigns without disclosing the source of their funds. That makes it hard for government watchdogs or federal agencies to know with certainty if foreign money is being funneled to these so-called “dark money” groups

Campaign finance advocates and prominent Democrats warned about the danger back in 2010.

During his first State of the Union address that year,  Obama cautioned that the Citizens United ruling, which had come days earlier, “will open a floodgate for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limits in our elections.”

In response, Justice Samuel Alito, seated in the audience, mouthed “not true.” His disagreement was echoed by Capitol Hill Republicans and conservative organizations, who argued that the existing legal prohibition on foreign corporations spending money on U.S. campaigns would be sufficient (though no one disputed that they could now do so through their American subsidiaries).

Even Politifact called Obama’s claim “mostly false.” 

But Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center told TPM that the law is now easy to get around. 501(c)(4)s are required to file reports including the donor’s name if money comes in that is expressly earmarked for an ad boosting a particular candidate. But as long as the non-profit doesn’t divulge the specific content of an ad to the donor, no disclosure is necessary.

Anonymity, of course, would be appealing to those like Torshin, the Russian banker whose activities are reportedly under investigation by the FBI.

Neither the NRA nor Butina, the Torshin aide, responded to TPM’s request for comment.

Noble said any case against Torshin or the NRA would be complex. The FBI will have to look through “bank records, the money coming in, where it went,” Noble said. “And try to trace it through to what it was spent on. Beyond that, you want to know who was involved with it, what they discussed with foreign nationals, who approached who, what were their understandings.”

No dark-money group spent more on the 2016 election than the NRA’s dark-money arm. In all, the NRA spent a $55 million on the campaign, including $30 million to support Trump. And because non-profits don’t need to reveal how much they spend on Internet ads or get-out-the-vote efforts, a more realistic estimate of the NRA’s total spending could creep as high as $70 million, according to McClatchy.

The $30 million spent in support of Trump is twice what the group spent to back Mitt Romney in 2012, despite its well-publicized loathing for President Barack Obama.

If Russians did use the NRA as a conduit to financially support Trump, a whole new set of questions opens up.

“This NRA spending, if it turns out to be true, is it unique?” asked Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a campaign finance expert at Stetson University. “Did they try to push it through other opaque non-profits?”

After all the months searching for incontrovertible evidence of pro-Trump Russian intervention in the 2016 election, the answers to those questions, Torres-Spelliscy said, could be “the holy grail.”

Read More →

So much for “The Art of the Deal.”

The Trump campaign on Saturday released a new campaign ad calling congressional Democrats “complicit” in all murders committed by undocumented immigrants. The spot seems unlikely to ease tensions on Capitol Hill as the Senate tries to negotiate a compromise on the fate of the 700,000 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children in order to reopen the shuttered federal government.

“Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants,” a narrator says, as images of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) appear on the screen.

The 30-second ad blames Democrats for endorsing these acts of “pure evil” by refusing to allow President Donald Trump to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress was unable to secure a deal to fund the federal government before Friday’s midnight deadline, in large part because of disagreement over extending protection to the so-called Dreamers. Republicans are refusing to discuss the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program until Democrats agree to reopen the government, while Democrats say they need to secure protection for the Dreamers first.

Watch the full ad below.

Read More →