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Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.

Articles by Sam

After hours of radio silence following the news that former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn had pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, White House lawyer Ty Cobb finally issued a statement downplaying Flynn’s role in the White House and calling him “a former Obama administration official.”

“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” Cobb said in a statement. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”

The charge, he said, demonstrated that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller is “moving with all deliberate speed.” Cobb said he still expected “a prompt and reasonable conclusion” to the Mueller probe.

Read the full statement:

“Today, Michael Flynn, a former National Security Advisor at the White House for 25 days during the Trump Administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI.

“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year.  Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.  The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”

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There’s now a strongest contender for “weirdest subpoena” in the House investigation into Russian election interference: Randy Credico, a 63-year-old Manhattan comedian who has made several bids for local public office, tweeted an image of his subpoena on Tuesday night.

Credico has been summoned for a 2 p.m. deposition on Dec. 15—the same day he has a New York County jury duty summons to answer, his lawyer told TPM.

The committee contacted Credico on Nov. 9, according to Alternet’s Max Blumenthal, who uploaded a copy of a letter signed by Texas Republican Mike Conaway and California Democrat Adam Schiff informing Credico that he would be questioned about matters “including Russian cyber activities directed against the 2106 U.S. election, potential links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns, the U.S. government’s response to these Russian active measures, and related leaks of classified information.”

Roger Stone wrote on Facebook early Thursday morning that Credico had been his intermediary with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, but stressed that Credico had not given him anything secret or privileged, merely confirmed information that had come out of Credico’s publicly available interviews on WBAI.

It might be worth taking that last pronouncement with a grain of salt: New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza observed on Twitter that Stone had flatly lied to him about Credico’s role as go-between when Lizza pressed him on it in an interview in March and warned other reporters not to trust Stone.

Stone admitted in the Facebook post to withholding Credico’s name during his own questioning before the House Intelligence Committee, saying he did so because he was afraid for Credico’s career. “I initially declined to identify Randy for the Committee fearing that exposure would be used to hurt his professional career and because our conversation was off-the-record and he is journalist.”

Stone has apparently been privy to a wealth of tantalizing information, notably that emails stolen from John Podesta would be dumped by Wikileaks, and more recently that the initial sexual harassment allegations against Al Franken were forthcoming. Those allegations have since been matched by multiple other women and there is no evidence that they are not credible.

Credico “hates Donald Trump,” his lawyer Martin R. Stolar told TPM, but he also doesn’t much care for Hillary Clinton, according to his YouTube feed, having spent the 2016 primary season talking up Bernie Sanders and criticizing Clinton in a series of videos in which he variously does impressions of Bill Clinton, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and the Geico gecko mascot. It’s a gag he used during his own bids for office, including a 2013 campaign for mayor of New York in which he succeeded in getting enough signatures to land on the ballot.

“I assume it’s in regard to what the committee’s interested in, which is a fairly broad mandate to investigate these Russia connections,” Stolar said. “I can tell you that Julian Assange was on his radio program several times and that he’s spoken with Julian in situations that were not broadcast.” Those conversations were “probably subsequently, probably in preparation for future radio programs.”

Stolar said he was “not sure [Credico] will be able to shed any light on any of it.”

TPM contacted Credico by text. “My lawyers have put a gag order on my big mouth,” he responded.

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On Wednesday morning Donald Trump retweeted three videos posted by a British extremist named Jayda Fransen recently convicted of hate crimes. Two of the videos purported to show Muslims committing violent acts, but have been debunked as inaccurate or misleading.

The third video, depicting a bearded man destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary, is ironically very much akin to the sort of religious desecration associated with the oft-arrested Fransen’s hate group, Britain First—except when Fransen does it, it’s in the faces of British Muslims.

Even among British fringe figures, Britain First is considered radioactive, and for good reason: When a man named Thomas Mair murdered British MP and 41-year-old mother of two Jo Cox in June 2016, he repeatedly shouted “Britain First!” Trump’s retweets will almost certainly help revitalize the struggling group, according to experts.

Cox’s husband Brendan Cox responded to Trump on Twitter on Wednesday:

Nick Ryan, who works for UK-based antiracist group Hope Not Hate, told TPM that Britain First is committed to violence in a way that distinguishes it even from other far-right outfits. Publicly a “Christian” organization, Ryan said, Britain First uses crucifixes and Bibles in pranks intended to provoke angry responses from Muslims, which are videotaped, often misleadingly edited, and posted on social media in a bid for the sort of attention and publicity that the President of the United States provided Wednesday morning.

“[Britain First] originated from a very far-right party in the UK, the British National Party,” Ryan explained. The group is nominally involved in electoral politics, he said, but it is more interested in public stunts that can make Muslims look bad or bring them physical harm. Its membership—and it is a small organization of about 1,000 people across the entire U.K.—is composed of “thugs who are committed to violence.”

“These aren’t guys in bow ties discussing eugenics, as disgusting as that may be,” said Ryan. “They’re coming from a street-based understanding of politics.”

Fransen made British headlines for marching through a predominately Muslim area of Luton in a paramilitary uniform carrying a large crucifix and picking fights with the locals; she was arrested, prosecuted, and fined under a statute that forbids the wearing of uniforms “for a political purpose;” the law was passed in the 1930s in an effort to control British fascists like Oswald Moseley’s notoriously violent brownshirts, though it has also been used to prosecute political protestors.

When it comes to Britain First, there is little ambiguity about the group’s taste for violent confrontation. “When someone insults them back, they videotape it and then share it very rapidly on their social platforms to promote the idea that there are no-go areas and they’re just Christians minding their own business, when in fact they’re trying to incite violence,” said Ryan. “They’ll go into mosques in paramilitary uniforms and walk over the prayer mats with big heavy boots, thrust a Bible into the hands of the imams and tell them they’re worshipping a false prophet. I’ve seen them go into Brick Lane in a disused military vehicle handing out leaflets; it’s all these very high-profile stunts designed to get attention.”

Even far-right figures were horrified by Trump’s tweets on Wednesday morning; dissembling conspiracist Paul Joseph Watson tweeted that “someone might want to tell whoever is running Trump’s Twitter account this morning that retweeting Britain First is not great optics.” Britain’s own prime minister Theresa May, formerly one of the president’s staunch allies, condemned Trump, apparently for the first time: “It is wrong for the president to have done this,” she said.

Trump’s tweets can often be lined up with whatever is on cable news at the moment; in this case it’s less clear how he came across Fransen’s twitter feed. However it happened, his actions Wednesday morning will doubtless reinvigorate a movement the vast majority of the U.K. deplores and hopes will go away. “Trump’s retweets are just throwing oil on a dying fire,” Ryan said.

“I don’t see how it advances America’s interests.”

This post has been updated.

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Michael Flynn had his Middle East nuclear power plan prepped for presidential approval by staffers at the National Security Council, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. Flynn’s plan to promote his former colleagues’ business interests in the Middle East while serving in the Trump administration was previously known—what wasn’t known is how far he managed to get with it.

The proposal was simple and brazen: Flynn’s business associates would build and operate dozens of nuclear plants worth hundreds of billions of dollars in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, according the Wall Street Journal. Today, the Journal reported that Flynn had proceeded much further than previously known—he instructed his colleagues on the National Security Council to draft a plan for approval by the president based on memos from the group of retired military officers now working in the private sector.

Since Flynn’s resignation, Flynn’s old business partners have sought out other avenues to get approval for the project, valued at $250 billion—including Jared Kusher. The White House told the Journal “nothing came” of the meetings with Kushner. Beyond the amount of money at stake, the plan was also conceived as a rebuke to Iran, strengthening the nuclear presence of Saudi Arabia, which remains hostile to it.

An ally Flynn brought with him to the NSC, former Army Col. Derek Harvey, attempted to bypass the office of the NSC that handles economic and energy issues and broker the deal directly with the private sector. Another ally, former Reagan national security advisor Bud MacFarlane, sent Flynn a draft memo for the president. Flynn told NSC staff to “prepare a package for the president” to review and put into motion, according to the Journal.

The companies involved told the Journal that the administration had asked for the proposals:

In emailed responses to questions from the Journal, the plan’s backers said the meetings and documents were sent at the administration’s request. They said Mr. Flynn had been invited to join their group in the summer of 2016, but that in December he said he wouldn’t participate.

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Mick Mulvaney, in his battle with Leandra English over the acting directorship of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, asked staff to forward “additional communications from her … in any form” to the Wall Street watchdog’s general counsel. It looks like somebody did, and today he is upset.

In a Tuesday email to CFPB staff obtained by TPM, Mulvaney apologized for having to reiterate that he is the true acting director and told staff to disregard emails or instructions from English:

I understand that Ms. English sent out at least one additional email today wherein she purports to be the Acting Director.

Consistent with my email from yesterday, please disregard any emails sent by, or instructions you receive from, Ms. English when she is purporting to act as the Acting Director.

I apologize for having to send this instruction again. And I feel terrible about you folks being put in this position, as I understand it can be both confusing and disruptive. However, I hope we won’t have any more misunderstandings moving forward.

Please feel free to reach out to me here or in person if you have any questions.

Thanks very much.

Mick M.
Acting Director

English has filed suit seeking both a temporary injunction and a restraining order against Mulvaney to prevent him from assuming the acting directorship of the government agency, which the very conservative former South Carolina congressman has often criticized. U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly heard arguments on Monday in English’s case in Washington but did not immediately hand down a ruling; he is expected to do so Tuesday.

Mulvaney, who was appointed as purported acting director by President Donald Trump, is still serving as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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Just who is in charge of protecting consumers from predatory business practices?

The battle underway for the leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is being fought in the CFPB’s inboxes Monday morning.

The fight is between the very conservative Mick Mulvaney, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Leandra English, the next in command behind Obama’s recently departed pick, Richard Cordray.

Trump is trying to appoint Mulvaney as acting director of CFBP, which English says is illegal. For her part English claims the law provides that she became acting director when Cordray stepped down. English filed suite over the weekend, asking for both a temporary injunction and a restraining order against Mulvaney.

Monday morning, English sent the following email to her colleagues at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and signed it “Leeandra English, Acting Director:”

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that everyone had a great Thanksgiving. With Thanksgiving in mind, I wanted to take a moment to share my gratitude to all of you for your service.

It is an honor to work with all of you.

Best,
Leandra English
Acting Director

Moments later, Mulvaney replied, also signing his email “acting director”:

All,

I was working on an introductory email just now to thank all of you for the very smooth transition this morning as I assume the role of Acting Director; I hope to finish that email shortly.

However, it has come to my attention that Ms. English has reached out to many of you this morning via email in an attempt to exercise certain duties of the Acting Director. This is unfortunate but, in the atmosphere of the day, probably not unexpected.

Please disregard any instructions you receive from Ms. English in her presumed capacity as Acting Director. If you receive additional communications from her today in any form, related in any way to the function of her actual or presumed official duties (i.e. not personal), please inform the General Counsel immediately.

I apologize for this being the very first thing you hear from me. However, under the circumstances I suppose it is necessary.

I look forward to working with all of you. If you’re at 1700 G St today, please stop by the fourth floor to say hello and grab a donut.

Thanks,
Mick Mulvaney
Acting Director

The head of operations at the CFPB, Sartaj Alag, tried to play referee:

Ops Colleagues:

While you may be reading a variety of views in the news, our general counsel has advised that Mick Mulvaney is our interim director, and we should do our part to collaborate with him and his team on a smooth transition.

If you have questions about anything related to the CFPB leadership transition, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I encourage you to review the Bureau’s policies on media inquiries, congressional inquiries, and intergovernmental inquiries (available on the wiki). The CFPB leadership transition has been the subject of several press stories over the weekend. Please follow the applicable guidelines should you receive inquiries about this or any other matter related to the Bureau’s operations.

Thanks very much for your dedication and professionalism.

Sincerely,

Sartaj Alag
COO

A source tells TPM that there is very little institutional support for Mulvaney, who has been broadly critical of government regulation and of the CFPB in particular.

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Facebook has announced a new policy for the end of the year: When it comes to Russia, digital ads serve you.

The social media behemoth announced on its blog today that it is in the process of building a tool to allow users to see which posts from the Russian Internet Research Agency—now the Federal News Agency, or FAN—appeared in their feeds during the 20-month period between January 2015 and August 2016.

The move is part of the company’s “ongoing effort to protect our platforms and the people who use them from bad actors who try to undermine our democracy,” wrote a Facebook spokesperson in an un-bylined post.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, called the announcement “a very positive step” in the wake of multiple tense hearings on Capitol Hill where lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were grilled about their role influencing the 2016 election. But Schiff added that he and his fellow lawmakers “look forward to additional steps by the companies to improve transparency with respect to Russian abuse of their platforms, and urge them to furnish a joint report on how Russia used these platforms to sow discord and influence the election.”

The use of domestic social media companies to inflame distrust in the American government during the U.S. 2016 election, and specifically to promote Donald Trump, remains unheard-of in terms of pure scale. In January 2015, the first month the Russian ad-tracking tool will cover, more than half of the country had an account, according the USA Today.

Facebook’s new tool for viewing propaganda ads is the latest salvo in a damage-control campaign by the company that kicked into high gear last month, when they were caught redacting references to Russia from an April report on the way its platform was manipulated during the election. Since then, the company has admitted that its estimates for the number of users who were shown Russian-backed ads skewed low, and lawmakers have proposed regulation in response.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress have publicly criticized the tech companies’ laissez-faire attitude toward compliance with political ad laws. In a Senate hearing earlier in November, a Google executive memorably refused to guarantee that his company would not accept payment for political ads in rubles.

Democratic senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have co-sponsored a bill along with John McCain (R-A) called the “Honest Ads Act,” which would mandate significantly more disclosure by companies that sell digital advertising.

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Aleksander Torshin, a former Russian parliamentarian and banking official accused of laundering money for organized crime by Spanish authorities last year, met with Donald Trump, Jr. according to a new report by CBS.

The younger Donald met with Torshin for only a few minutes at an NRA event in 2016, according to the network’s anonymous source. Torshin had proposed meeting with the senior Donald Trump during an event scheduled to take place during the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky. According to the New York Times, the invitation was an emailed five-page proposal passed to Jared Kushner inviting the president to the event—he did not attend—where Trump could meet Torshin.

Torshin, who runs an all-Russian organization called The Right to Bear Arms, pitched the campaign’s shared values around both Christianity and gun rights, for which Torshin, a lifetime member of the American NRA, is an advocate in Russia.

Torshin contacted the campaign through a Christian advocate and former Iraq contractor in West Virginia named Rick Clay. Also in May 2016, Clay emailed campaign staffer and now White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn to offer a channel to Torshin; Dearborn emailed Kushner offering a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” according to the email’s subject line. Kushner left the email out of documents he provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, who requested it specifically among “several documents that are known to exist” in a follow-up.

Both Torshin and his assistant, Maria Butina, claim to be members of an all-Russian organization called The Right to Bear Arms, named after the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Butina, a former Siberian furniture store owner, according to the Daily Beast, now lives in Washington, D.C.

A delegation of the NRA met with The Right to Bear Arms on a trip to Moscow in December 2015, the Beast reported. Butina also shares a business with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican activist.

The CBS report referred only to “an NRA event in May 2016” but previous reporting on the topic suggests that Torshin sought Trump Sr. and got Trump Jr.

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Robert Mueller’s probe into collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign is now handing out document requests on Mueller’s home turf: The probe asked the Justice Department for what ABC News described as “a broad array of documents” in a report filed Sunday evening, citing anonymous sources.

The sources told ABC that Mueller was looking for information related to Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the entire Russia inquiry.

The request was issued “within the last month,” ABC’s sources say. Trump fired Comey in the midst of the ongoing investigation into potential misconduct; a part of the Mueller probe’s investigation appears to be whether that firing constituted obstruction of justice. The Mueller probe’s recent interviewees have included Trump aide and speechwriter Stephen Miller, who helped Trump draft a thus-far-unreleased memo describing the reasons he wanted Comey gone.

Questions remain, as well, about Sessions’ conversations with Russian officials during the campaign, which he denied under oath in October before correcting himself in another session last week, saying he had forgotten some important meetings. Sessions’ performance before Congress has been remarkable for other reasons, too, among them the the attorney general’s refusal to answer questions before his former Senate colleagues without invoking executive privilege or the Fifth Amendment, and much about the nature of his discussions with representatives of the Russian government is still unknown.

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A new report from watchdog group Global Witness says that a Colombian money launderer currently in U.S. custody participated in the advance sale of units in a Panama development bearing the president’s name: The Trump Ocean Club. Trump has made $13.9 million from the Ocean Club in the last three years alone, according to NBC’s own reporting on the matter.

From the Global Witness report:

Trump may not have deliberately set out to facilitate criminal activity in his business dealings. But, as this Global Witness investigation shows, licensing his brand to the luxurious Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama aligned Trump’s financial interests with those of crooks looking to launder ill-gotten gains. Trump seems to have done little to nothing to prevent this. What is clear is that proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking were laundered through the Trump Ocean Club and that Donald Trump was one of the beneficiaries.

David Murcia Guzmán is the Colombian fraudster who just completed a nine-year sentence in the US for money laundering that defrauded more than 200,000 people of $2 billion, according to the report. A Brazilian real estate salesman named Alexandre Ventura Noriega confirmed to Global Witness and NBC that Guzman participated in the pre-sale of Ocean Club units, purchasing as many as 10 of them in the period when the developers were trying to raise money to complete the project.

Global Witness cites Colombian authorities in connecting Guzman not only to drug trafficking through his enterprise DMG, but to the Colombian revolutionary group FARC, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US.

Colombian media coverage describes a police raid netting evidence that a member of rebel group Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria [de Colombia] (FARC) invested in DMG. Press reports also allege that Murcia Guzmán moved money for the paramilitary organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). At the time, both FARC and AUC were designated by the U.S. as terrorist organizations.
Read the full report:

This post has been updated.

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