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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.

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Federal prosecutors were granted access on Friday to 12 audio recordings seized from President Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen.

That development was formalized in a Monday letter by Barbara Jones, the special master overseeing the document review in Cohen’s criminal case. She announced that “the parties” involved no longer wanted to designate the recordings as protected by attorney-client privilege.

“On July 20, 2018, the parties withdrew their designations of ‘privileged’ as to 12 audio items that were under consideration by the special master,” Jones wrote. “Based upon those de-designations, the special master released the 12 items to the government that day.”

Cohen reportedly had a habit of secretly taping conversations. One such chat was a 2016 conversation between Cohen and Trump about hush money payments made to a former Playboy model who claimed to have an affair with Trump, as the New York Times first reported Friday.

Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed the report, but said the recording was “exculpatory” and showed no wrongdoing on Trump’s part.

Per CNN, Trump’s attorneys waived attorney-client privilege on his behalf on the recording about ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, and that it is among the 12 now in the government’s possession. CNN reported that it is the only tape of the 12 that features Trump.

The President appeared to be incensed that his onetime ally recorded their conversation, tweeting that it was “totally unheard of & perhaps illegal” for Cohen to do so.

New York is a “one-party state” that legally permits a person to record someone else without first obtaining consent.

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President Trump began the week by holding a historically disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Trump said he could think of no reason why Russia interfered in the 2016 election and called the special counsel investigation a “disaster.” Standing at his side, Putin dismissed the “so-called” interference as a sham, declined to deny that Russia had compromising material on Trump, and offered Russia’s help in analyzing U.S. intelligence about his country’s own election meddling.

The fallout was swift. Fox hosts, local and congressional Republicans and former intelligence chiefs described Trump’s performance with terms like “disgusting” and mused about what Putin has on the U.S. president. GOP leadership and Trump’s own intelligence officials again affirmed that Russia was responsible for the hacking and influence campaign. A few of Trump’s most loyal toadies defended him.

This backlash inspired an unbelievable (and rare) Trump walkback: He’d meant to say that he saw no reason why Russia “wouldn’t” have been involved in the attack, rather than “would.” White House staff are demoralized and the intelligence community said they’ve been left in the dark, with Trump going rogue and abandoning all the carefully laid plans for the one-on-one Putin summit.

Meanwhile, Moscow is releasing communiqués about various plans that the duo discussed, including a Putin visit to D.C. in the fall and their intention of hauling in former Obama officials for questioning. The Senate voted 98-0 to keep that from happening.

As all of this was unfolding, alleged covert Russian agent Mariia Butina was arrested, charged, and indicted for conspiring against the U.S. Butina allegedly used her romantic relationship with GOP operative Paul Erickson to forge connections with NRA leaders, congressmen, and other Republicans.

Butina was apparently carrying out this years-long influence operation at the direction of Russian official Alexander Torshin. Her attorney says she’s just a grad student who hoped for better relations between Russia and the U.S.

Butina is being held in a D.C. jail ahead of her trial because she’s been deemed an “extreme flight risk.” Cinematic court filings allege that she offered sex for access, planned to flee Washington, and had ties to Russian intelligence.

Russia and some of the Republicans she met, like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (D-CA), insist the charges against Butina are “bogus. Russia’s foreign ministry even started a #FreeMariaButina campaign on social media.

The FBI is in possession of a number of recordings Michael Cohen made of his conversations with Trump, including one where the pair discussed a hush money payment to a former Playboy model. Cohen also reportedly made recordings of his calls with other “significant individuals.”

In a setback for Cohen, the special counsel overseeing document review in his case rejected over a third of his privilege claims.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is seeking immunity for five witnesses in the Manafort trial, which will get underway in Virginia next week. Attorneys from Mueller’s team also held a mysterious sealed hearing with lawyers for former Roger Stone aide Andrew Miller in a D.C. courtroom.

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Lordy, there are (lots of) tapes.

CNN reported Friday that President Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen secretly recorded multiple conversations between the two, including one about a payment made to a former Playboy model who says she slept with Trump.

According to CNN, the President had no idea the calls were being recorded. When he learned this week about the tapes, which are now in the possession of the FBI, he reportedly said, “I can’t believe Michael would do this to me.”

The New York Times broke the news earlier Friday that Cohen had recorded a fall 2016 call in which he and Trump discussed paying Karen McDougal to keep her quiet about her alleged 2006 affair with the president.

All of the recordings were seized in April when the FBI executed search warrants on Cohen’s premises as part of a criminal investigation into his finances. Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani confirmed the existence of the McDougal tape, but said the two-minute call showed no wrongdoing on Trump’s behalf and was actually “powerful exculpatory evidence.”

The McDougal tape appears to be the only Trump-Cohen recording “of substance,” according to a source of CNN’s Dana Bash.

But Bash noted on air that Cohen apparently recorded his calls not just with Trump but with “people around the president” and other “significant individuals.” CNN did not name any of those other individuals.

In addition to working as a longtime fixer for Trump and the Trump Organization, Cohen arranged a hush money deal for powerful GOP donor Elliott Broidy and did legal work for Fox News host Sean Hannity.

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Michael Cohen secretly recorded a 2016 conversation in which he and President Trump discussed paying hush money to a former Playboy model who claims she slept with Trump, the New York Times reported Friday. The FBI is in possession of the recording.

Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed that the taped conversation about the payments to Karen McDougal occurred. Giuliani told the Times that the brief recording contained no suggestion that Trump has “any knowledge of it in advance” and said it was actually “powerful exculpatory evidence.”

Giuliani also said that the recording is interrupted twice because “someone brings soda in for them,” suggesting the conversation happened in person rather than over the phone.

The Times reported that the conversation reportedly focused on the $150,000 that the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., gave to McDougal to “catch and kill” her story about her alleged yearlong 2006 affair with Trump, as well as an additional payment that Cohen planned to make directly to McDougal.

Maggie Haberman, one of the Times reporters who broke the story, said on CNN that Giuliani was trying to argue that Trump instructed Cohen to send the money by check “so that it was done properly, as opposed to cash,” which would not be traceable. That additional payment was never actually sent, Haberman said.

The Washington Post subsequently published a notably different account by a “person familiar with the recording.” That individual said that the pair discussed a plan for Cohen to try to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI for $150,000.

These differing accounts leave it not yet clear whether Trump and Cohen discussed sending an additional payment to McDougal, or instead reimbursing AMI the $150,000 it spent on McDougal’s story in order to take control of her rights.

The recording was among the huge trove of materials that the FBI seized from Cohen’s Manhattan office in an April raid. Cohen is under criminal investigation in New York for a host of financial dealings, including the payments he doled out during the 2016 campaign to silence women who claimed to have had sexual relationships with Trump.

Those payments could violate federal finance laws.

“Three people briefed on the matter” told the Times that Cohen’s lawyers discovered the recording when reviewing the seized materials for anything covered by attorney-client privilege, and shared it with Trump’s attorneys.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis told the Times he had “nothing to say on this matter.”

Later Friday afternoon, Davis sent a tweet saying the recording “will not hurt” Cohen.

The story of McDougal’s alleged affair with Trump came to light in March, when the former Playboy model sued AMI for an alleged breach of contract. McDougal said she sold the story of her affair to the tabloid, but that the publication, which is owned by Trump’s friend David Pecker, declined to publish it to protect Trump.

Former adult film star Stormy Daniels also received funds from Trump, via Cohen, to keep her silent about her own alleged affair with the president.

Rumors about Cohen’s habit of recording phone conversations first circulated when the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room in April. Friday’s revelation leaves open the possibility that the feds may have seized recordings of other conversations between Cohen and Trump.

This post has been updated.

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A court-appointed special master has shut down many of the latest requests by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to keep hundreds of documents out of the hands of federal investigators.

Cohen’s lawyers have consistently argued that much of the material seized from his hotel room, office and apartment by the FBI is either protected by attorney-client privilege or highly personal.

But in a report filed Thursday, special master Barbara Jones determined that 1,452 of the 4,085 documents designated as privileged by Cohen’s legal team did not actually fit that designation. Jones agreed that the other 2,633 were either fully or partially privileged.

The non-privileged items will “promptly be released” to prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office for use in their criminal investigation into Cohen’s business and financial dealings, according to the filing. This is the second report Jones has issued on the trove of materials that federal agents seized from Cohen’s premises in an April raid.

Cohen recently shook up his legal team, replacing the attorneys at McDermott Will & Emery who assisted with the document review with former Manhattan prosecutor Guy Petrillo and former White House lawyer Lanny Davis. Since then, he has displayed a new willingness to cooperate with the federal investigation, telling the press that his loyalty is to his country and family rather than Trump.

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Alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina was indicted this week on two very serious charges: conspiring against the U.S. and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

But the influence campaign Butina allegedly carried out over the past few years was so brazen that it was almost comical. The 29-year-old essentially made her very own “Where’s Waldo?” series out of the 2016 GOP presidential campaign.

Butina was captured on camera at a 2015 Las Vegas libertarian convention asking then-candidate Donald Trump about U.S. sanctions. She popped up at NRA events throughout the Midwest and at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C. On the day of President Trump’s inauguration, Butina even sent a selfie to her alleged handler, Russian Central Bank official Alexander Torshin, of her beaming near the U.S. Capitol building.

Many of those interactions, like her run-ins with short-lived GOP candidates Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, were just embarrassing photo ops for those politicians she was allegedly targeting. But some of the connections—like her intimate relationship with GOP operative Paul Erickson and her association with former NRA president David Keene—were involved and forged over years.

As the Washington Post and others have documented, Russia used religion and guns to make inroads with the American conservative community. According to court documents, Butina also used sexual favors as a lure, allegedly offering sex for a position at a special interest organization.

View full-sized version

Infographic by Christine Frapech

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President Trump on Wednesday lent his support to a Republican Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has cast himself in Trump’s image: self-proclaimed “politically incorrect conservative” Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Just days before Tuesday’s primary runoff, Trump fired off a tweet backing Kemp over his more staid opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

“Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration,” Trump said. “He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment. I give him my full and total endorsement.”

Kemp thanked Trump and vowed to “unapologetically stand with the President to secure our border, deport criminal aliens, crush street gangs, and ensure a bright and promising future for our families.”

Trump remains wildly popular with Peach State GOP primary voters, and both Cagle and Kemp have fought to position themselves as the Trumpiest candidate in the close race. Cagle has touted his endorsement from the National Rifle Association and stumped with NRA President Ollie North, while Kemp gained national recognition for a series of inflammatory ads, including one in which he promised to personally deport “illegals” in his “big truck.”

Cagle has been dogged by a series of leaked surreptitious recordings created by former GOP primary rival Clay Tippins. In one, Cagle told Tippins that he backed a flawed education bill to damage an opponent. In another, Cagle called the state’s vicious five-man primary a competition to see “who could be the craziest.”

Cagle has lost his lead and is now slightly trailing Kemp for the first time. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/WSB-TV poll of likely Republican runoff voters released last week had Kemp leading 44 percent to 41 percent.

Around 21 percent of respondents said their main reason for casting a ballot was to support the stronger ally of the President.

Following trump’s endorsement of Kemp, Cagle put on a brave face, tweeting that there were “no hard feelings” and that he “look[ed] forward to receiving” the President’s endorsement against Democrat Stacey Abrams in the fall.

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In a detail-packed request for pretrial detention filed Wednesday, federal prosecutors alleged that accused Russian agent Mariia Butina represents an “extreme flight risk” and was likely in touch with Russian intelligence operatives “throughout her stay in the United States.”

Prosecutors said they fear that if not jailed Butina will seek safe harbor in a Russian embassy or otherwise try to flee the country due to “the nature of the charges, her history of deceptive conduct, the potential sentence she faces, the strong evidence of guilt, her extensive foreign connections, and her lack of any meaningful ties to the United States,” according to the document, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Butina is due in court for a hearing at 1:30 p.m ET. She was indicted Tuesday on one count of engaging in conspiracy against the U.S. and another of failing to register as an agent of Russia. She was arrested Sunday.

Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, maintains that Butina was working openly to foster closer U.S.-Russia relations. Driscoll argued in court that she did not pose a flight risk because she had chosen to stay in the country even as details of the influence operation she engaged in on behalf of senior Russian official Alexander Torshin were published in the press over the past year and a half.

The government’s main arguments for keeping Butina in jail ahead of her trial are laid out below.

Contacts with FSB and Russian oligarchs

Prosecutors allege that Butina was in contact with “officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives,” including employees of the FSB, or Russian federal security service.

Electronic contact lists and documents seized by the FBI while executing a search warrant at her apartment allegedly include a handwritten note that reads “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?,” per the filing. The FBI claimed it observed Butina having a private meal with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence officer in March 2018, the document alleges.

In addition to these intelligence connections, prosecutors allege that Butina is “well-connected to wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy,” citing regular electronic communications about a Russian billionaire who she allegedly referred to as her “funder.”

The U.S. government fears Butina could leverage these political and intelligence connections to receive “safe harbor.”

Sex for access

Perhaps the most scandalous details of the filing relate to Butina’s alleged use of sexual favors to gain influence with her U.S. targets.

Prosecutors allege that the FBI determined that the 29-year-old was “believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship” with an individual identified only as U.S. Person 1. Corroborating details indicate that person is South Dakota-based longtime GOP operative Paul Erickson. Per the filing, the FBI determined Butina saw the relationship only as a means to an end and that she, “on at least one occasion,” offered a different individual “sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.”

Plans to depart D.C.

The FBI determined that Butina and “U.S. Person 1” had spent the past week preparing for her departure from Washington, D.C., where she’d lived while attending graduate school at American University.

Butina’s lease was due to end on July 31 and she and “U.S. Person 1” visited on July 14 a U-Haul rental facility to discuss renting a track, per the filing.

“When agents executed a warrant at their Washington, D.C., apartment on July 15, 2018, the defendant’s belongings were packed and a letter was discovered notifying the landlord that the lease was to be terminated on July 31, 2018,” the document states.

Butina also allegedly sent an international wire transfer for $3,500 to an account in Russia last week, per the document.

Was acting covertly

The pretrial request notes that Butina’s “legal status in the United States is predicated on deception” because she allegedly falsely claimed on her student visa application that she was no longer working as an assistant to Torshin, the Russian official.

This is just one example of the kind of covert activity Butina allegedly engaged with in order to keep the true nature of her presence in the U.S. under wraps. Other details included in the document include requests that “U.S. Person 1” complete her schoolwork because her grad school attendance was a “cover,” and texts she allegedly exchanged with Torshin about the need to keep their activities “underground.”

Seriousness of charges

Prosecutors allege that the FBI has compiled “substantial” evidence to support their allegations, including email and other electronic communications, paper documents, and planned testimony from “numerous witnesses.”

Given that evidence and the possible maximum sentences she faces—ten years for acting as an agent of a foreign government and five for conspiracy—she has a strong motivation to flee, according to the document.

Read the full filing below.

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Paul Erickson has worn many hats during his decades as a GOP political operative: national treasurer of the College Republicans; executive producer of Jack Abramoff’s anti-communist film “Red Scorpion”; lobbyist for Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; political director of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign.

A federal grand jury indictment brought Tuesday added another title to that long, unorthodox list: the alleged conduit between what investigators call an “illegal agent of the Russian Federation” and top Republican officials in Washington, D.C.

Erickson is not identified by name in the indictment against Mariia Butina, the Russian national arrested for allegedly conducting “a Russian influence operation” against the United States. But his background and political activities align closely with those of the individual listed in an FBI agent’s detailed affidavit as “U.S. Person 1.”

That person is described as a “United States citizen and an American political operative.” Between 2013 and 2017, according to both court documents and reporting on Erickson, he allegedly helped broker contacts between U.S. conservatives involved with the National Rifle Association, Butina and Russian politician Alexander Torshin.

As Erickson put it in one May 2016 email to a Trump campaign adviser first reported by the New York Times: “Happenstance and the [sometimes] international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.”

The email offering to broker such a meeting between the likely GOP nominee and Putin had the subject line “Kremlin Connection.”

Erickson has not been charged with any crimes or spoken publicly about Butina’s arrest. He did not immediately respond to TPM’s Tuesday Facebook message seeking comment.

But the affidavit, which has the most information on Erickson’s activities, is a reminder that he is the alleged nexus of Butina’s web of GOP connections—and of just how much the FBI apparently knows about their communications.

As Erickson’s name popped up in news reports over the past two years, acquaintances said they weren’t particularly surprised to find him caught up in the Russia quagmire. Erickson has for decades positioned himself as a shadowy “’secret master of the political universe’” who feeds off of access to D.C.’s most powerful, as conservative commentator Ralph Benko put it.

Erickson’s ventures have varied between the legitimate and the bizarre, according to a stellar February profile of the Vermillion native in South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal.

Erickson, who graduated from Yale and University of Virginia Law School, first linked up with now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff during their time in the College Republicans. He spent the 1980s and 1990s alternating between working on GOP political campaigns, including Buchanan’s unsuccessful attempt to primary George H.W. Bush, and teaming up with Abramoff on ventures like 1989’s anti-communist action movie “Red Scorpion.”

One bizarre stint was serving as a media adviser for John Wayne Bobbitt, the Virginia man whose wife, Lorena, chopped his penis off with a carving knife. Per contemporaneous news reports, Erickson booked Bobbitt on an international “Love Hurts” tour to help him raise funds. The tour involved media hits on outlets like “The Howard Stern Show” and selling autographed steak knives.

Another curious interlude involved accepting a $30,000 contract with Abramoff in 1994 to try to convince the U.S. government to allow Mobutu Sese Seko, the brutal and corrupt dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to enter the country.

This unusual resume and willingness to go to bat for controversial foreign figures may have made Erickson a great fit to connect Butina to Americans willing to hear a new tune about U.S.-Russia relations.

According to the affidavit, the duo first crossed paths in Moscow in 2013, and subsequently worked together “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

A March 2015 email from Butina to Erickson included in the charging document lays out her goal: “to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations” between the U.S. and Russia, through the “[central place and influence” that the NRA plays in the Republican Party. She requested a budget of $125,000 to attend conservative conferences to make these connections, per the charging document.

Erickson allegedly replied with an email titled “Potential American Contacts” that included a list of media, political, and corporate contacts who could help Butina achieve these ends, according to the affidavit. In a subsequent email, subject line “Your Plan Forward,” he said Butina had already laid the “groundwork” needed to get meetings with people who could actually influence American attitudes about Russia going forward.

In March and September 2016, according to the charging document, Erickson allegedly emailed with Butina about which American individuals should attend the “friendship and dialogue dinners” on behalf of Russia that Butina hosted in Washington, D.C. and New York.

The affidavit also cites an October 2016 email in which Erickson himself seems surprised by his role in brokering these back-channel negotiations, allegedly telling an acquaintance he was working on “securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].”

Whether Erickson has been interviewed by federal or congressional investigators is not yet known. An attorney for Butina has denied that she is a Russian agent and said she has offered cooperation to the FBI in addition to voluntarily sitting for an interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In February, the Rapid City Journal asked Erickson about the Trump-Russia investigation and his 2016 “Kremlin Connection” email to the Trump campaign. All he said in response was: “Not all reports from the East are accurate.”

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Two days after her arrest for allegedly acting as “an agent of a foreign government,” Russian national Mariia Butina was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington DC on similar charges.

Butina was charged with one count of engaging in conspiracy against the U.S. and another of failing to register as an agent of Russia.

Butina allegedly spent years forging connections with top conservative officials, including many associated with a “gun rights organization,” “for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation,” according to the indictment. Though the indictment does not name the gun organization or the Russian government official who Butina worked under, corroborating details identify them as the National Rifle Association and former Russian Central Bank official Alexander Torshin, respectively.

Per the indictment, Butina allegedly lied on the F-1 student visa application that allowed her to come to the U.S. for graduate school in 2016. She said she had terminated her employment for Torshin, but was instead acting under his “direction and control,” the indictment alleged.

GOP operative Paul Erickson, identified in the indictment only as “U.S. Person 1,” allegedly helped the duo connect with influential conservatives involved with the NRA, National Prayer Breakfast, and 2016 Republican presidential campaigns, according to the indictment.

Butina engaged in all of this activity between 2015 and 2017 without ever informing the U.S. Attorney General that “she would and did act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government,” according to the indictment. Meanwhile, she reported her activities back to Torshin via email, Twitter direct message and “other means,” per the filing.

Butina is being held without bond in a D.C. jail, and is due in court Wednesday for a hearing before D.C. District Judge Deborah Robinson.

Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, has said she did not work as a covert Russian agent. Instead, he said in a Monday statement, she was a high-performing grad student at American University who openly sought to improve U.S.-Russia relations.
Read the indictment below.

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