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

A Google executive told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the company had discovered two Russian-operated ad accounts that spent $4,700, and also had found 1,100 YouTube videos it suspects were part of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

On YouTube, we found 18 channels with approximately 1,100 videos that were uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this effort, and that contained political content,” Richard Salgado, himself a former Department of Justice official, told the committee.

These videos mostly had low view counts, just 3 percent of them had more than 5,000 views. And constituted only around 43 hours of YouTube content,” he continued. “While this is relatively small, people watch over 1 billion hours of YouTube content a day, 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute, we understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious.” 

Salgado observed that while YouTube doesn’t offer geotargeting, links to the suspected Russian videos were often posted to platforms that did. He also obliquely referred to “safeguards we had in place in advance of the election” that limited Google’s exposure to the Russian campaign. 

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A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the social media portion of Russia’s 2016 election interference opened Tuesday with portentous statements from Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the latter of whom rattled off some numbers that gave the fullest picture yet of the extent of the disinformation campaign.

“Facebook has identified 470 accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency,” Feinstein said, referring to a Russian troll farm. “Twitter has identified 2,752 IRA-related accounts and almost 37,000 Russian linked accounts that generated automated election content. From what we’ve seen so far, Russian backed trolls used fake accounts on Facebook for more than 3,000 paid advertisements.”

Reports out Monday said Facebook would tell lawmakers that those advertisements reached approximately 126 million people.

The Twitter revelations, however, are far more significant: The platform appears to have identified not just the accounts run directly by Russian trolls working for the IRA (now the Federal News Agency, or FAN), but 37,000 automated accounts that generated information that would promote Russian interests in the American election.

Twitter and Facebook representatives opened their statements with apologies and began to detail how they planned to review previous posts and change rules to thwart future disinformation campaigns.

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During the Trump administration’s very first week in office, the seeds were planted for the initial charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

Thanks to an indictment unsealed Monday morning, we now know former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos lied about the extent of his Russian contacts in an interview with FBI agents on Jan. 27, exactly one week after the inauguration. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to making false statements in that interview about his Russian contacts.

Mueller’s appointment didn’t come until May, after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the bureau’s probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election—and the collection of evidence for that investigation had already begun before Trump had even taken his hand off the Bible. The day before inauguration, the New York Times reported that law enforcement and intelligence sources were already looking at intercepted communications and financial records “as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.” Comey later testified before Congress that the FBI investigation into those links began in July 2016; Manafort was arrested on Monday.

Papadopoulos wasn’t even the first campaign adviser accused of misleading the FBI during the initial week of Trump’s presidency: Three days before Papadopoulos’ interview, Michael Flynn, at the time Trump’s national security advisor, denied to FBI investigators that he had discussed sanctions on Russia with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—even though the Washington Post cited U.S. officials saying Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office.

The same day that Papadopoulos met with the FBI, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with White House Counsel Don McGahn to share her concerns about Flynn’s “underlying conduct” for a second time.

The following Monday, Trump fired Yates.

Under oath before Congress, Yates later asserted that problems with Flynn went much farther than being “compromised by the Russians,” as she said the Justice Department believed under her tenure.

“Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said in May. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”

Mueller’s investigators are looking into Flynn’s failure to disclose contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and transition, as well as his work on a lobbying contract for a Turkish businessman, and whether he played any role in a former GOP operative’s efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Flynn has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

That same Friday Papadopoulos lied and McGahn met Yates, Trump also surprised Comey with a private dinner, just the two men alone.

“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told him, according to Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey interpreted the dinner as “at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” he told the committee.

Trump went on to fire Comey on May 9, giving rise to Mueller’s appointment.

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Paul Manafort financed a lavish lifestyle with money laundered through offshore accounts, with expenditures including more than $1.3 million in purchases at Beverly Hills and New York clothing stores and more than $1 million on antique rugs, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday. Manafort pled not guilty.

The 12-count indictment against Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates charges that more than $75 million “flowed through” those offshore accounts. It alleges Manafort took $18 million through the accounts, while Gates is accused of transferring $3 million from those accounts to ones he controlled.

The bulk of Manafort’s alleged years-long spending spree took the form of $12 million  in untaxed money he spent on luxury items and home improvements. The indictment spells out how Manafort would have one of his 15 offshore accounts—12 in Cyprus, two in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and one in the United Kingdom—wire in cash to each vendor for his purchases.

The list of Manafort’s lavish expenditures from his offshore accounts runs across eight of the indictment’s 31 pages. More than $5.4 million went to a “home improvement company” in the Hamptons from a mix of Cypriot entities, notably LOAV Advisors and Yiakora Ventures (An NBC News story about the Manafort’s debts to Russian oligarch and Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska said Manafort’s other companies were a primary influence over Yiakura’s business dealings).

Manafort’s expenditures at a Northern Virginia rug merchant, including a $100,000 “related” payment


Manafort, whose house in Water Mill, New York is among the assets prosecutors have proposed seizing, began spending from offshore accounts at that vendor in 2008 and continued, often several times a month, until August 2014. He also spent quite a bit on lawn care: a Hamptons-based landscaper lists expenditures totaling $164,740.

The indictment charges that he wired money to an Alexandria, Virginia rug merchant nine times, from as little as $7,400 to as much as $250,000.

Talking Points Memo called around Monday afternoon to rug merchants in Alexandria. At J&J Oriental, a salesperson promised a call back; at Domimex Antiques and Rugs, the proprietor said, “If you hear of anybody who has that kind of money to spend, please send them to me!”

TPM was not the first outlet to contact Art Underfoot, where the person who answered the phone said, “So many reporters have called me! I wish [Manafort] did! I am so poor!”

Not everyone was willing to chime in, however. A person who answered the phone at Herat Oriental told TPM “no comment” and hung up after a reporter identified himself.

Accounts associated with Manafort also made 34 transfers to an unnamed New York clothing store totaling nearly $850,000, and nine transfers to a Beverly Hills clothing store totaling $520,440. He patronized a Florida art gallery in 2011 and again in 2013, where his tab ran to $31,900.

A New York housekeeping service also earned $20,000 in three installments from accounts associated with Manafort.

Manafort’s expenditures at a single New York clothier, 1 of 2
Manafort’s expenditures at a single New York clothier, 2 of 2

The satirical commentary on Twitter was swift:

This post has been updated.

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Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates were hit with a 12-count indictment unsealed Monday that alleges a wide-ranging money laundering conspiracy and multiple violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Both will plead not guilty.

The charges focus not on collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government but on Manafort’s own alleged money laundering activities, which the indictment says personally netted him $18 million and Gates $3 million. According to the indictment, the money in question came from under-the-table lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions, the party of former president Victor Yanukovych. The two men held offshore accounts that allegedly handled more than $75 million over the nine years covered by the charges.

Manafort and Gates were each indicted on one count of conspiracy against the U.S., one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, one count of making a false and misleading FARA statement and a separate count of making a false statement. Manafort was also indicted on four counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, while Gates was indicted on three counts of the same.

The indictment charges that Manafort “represented falsely that he did not have authority over any foreign bank accounts,” and, in a complicated tax dodge, Manafort “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts,” depriving the U.S. of tax revenue, according to the indictment.

It also alleges that Manafort, who was not registered as a foreign agent, took steps to “develop a false and misleading cover story” that would conceal his work for the Party of Regions in order to distance himself from the Government of Ukraine.

In the indictment, the government proposes seizing four of Manafort’s real estate properties—three in New York and one in Arlington, Virginia—as well as his life insurance policy.

This post has been updated.

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Wading into the debate over the effect of Russian meddling on the 2016 election, on Thursday Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein played down the impact of Russian-backed ads posted on various online platforms.

“American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for,” he said in a podcast interview on the Target USA network. “I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”

No assessment of Russian interference in the election has attempted to measure whether or not that interference was effective, but all of them concurred that it happened. The extent of the Russia-backed ads, intended to sow division during the election, on major platforms like Facebook and Twitter has only become publicly known in recent weeks.

Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general for the Russia investigation, appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel and is overseeing Mueller’s probe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously recused himself from matters relating to Russian interference.

Rosenstein hedged in his remarks, referring to Russian election tampering as “alleged” and in the hypothetical in the podcast interview published Thursday. Despite affirmative public assessments of Russian meddling by the intelligence community as far back as October, Rosenstein’s strongest assessment was that “if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”

Rosenstein referred the matter to the intelligence agencies when asked what kinds of consequences the Department of Justice could mete out to the Russian government for meddling in the 2016 election.

“Combating cyber-threats is a role the Justice Department has something to do with,” the DOJ’s second-in-command admitted, “but the primary responsibility for dealing with those threats falls on the intelligence community.”

Target USA’s network, PodcastOne, distributed Rosenstein’s full quote playing down Russian attempted election tampering.

“I think, what you need to recognize is that there have been a number of public reports about alleged Russian activities related to the election, including a report of the intelligence community, and what you’ve asked about public information, you have in an unclassified version of a report that reflects the assessments of our intelligence community. There have also been public reports, recently, about allegations of Russian advertisements, for example, that were posted on various networks. And so, there are a lot of public sources of information out there, and I think what people need to keep in mind is that there’s a distinction between people trying to sway American elections, and succeeding in swaying American elections. I think one of our responsibilities is to make sure that people understand, you know, what the risks are, but also that they make their own determinations. You know, American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for. I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments. I think people are more thoughtful about that in the way that they make their decisions. But nonetheless, you know, if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”

On a separate topic, Rosenstein was more certain about his views on the role whistleblowers: Setting aside legal considerations, “any responsible person” has “a moral obligation not to disclose things if it’s going to cause harm,” he said.

People who distribute information to the press, Rosenstein asserted, do not count as whistleblowers. “There are accepted ways in which you can raise concerns if you work for the government and you have access to information that you believe represents a violation of law or policy,” he told Green. “There are lawful ways for you to raise those issues. But leaking it publicly in a way that’s going to harm national security is not one of those authorized ways.”

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Twitter is barring Russian state news services Sputnik and Russia Today from advertising on its platform, the company announced on its blog Thursday. Twitter cited an intelligence community report from January pointing the finger at the two media agencies, as well as its own findings, among them that RT alone had spent $274 million on Twitter advertising in 2016. Twitter has not disclosed Sputnik’s expenditures.

Sputnik and RT can continue to use their accounts on Twitter, the company said in the announcement.

The company will donate the $1.9 million in advertising revenue it estimates it has taken from RT since 2011 to “external research into the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections, including use of malicious automation and misinformation, with an initial focus on elections and automation,” the unattributed announcement said. That cash came almost entirely from Russia today—a source told TPM that Twitter revenue from Sputnik ads was in “the low hundreds” for 2016 and was generally much lower.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 1, less than a week away, on the role played by Twitter, Google and Facebook during Russian election interference in the 2016 election.

Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder and CEO, tweeted the announcement:

RT immediately hit back, saying Twitter had “pushed RT to spend big on the 2016 US election” and criticizing the company for making its investment numbers public.

Sputnik said Twitter had “refused to provide more details on the issue” and cited pressure from Congress as a reason for the move.

Earlier this week Twitter said it would roll out stricter rules for political advertisers and a “transparency center” to show users more details about the way their information is being used to show them advertisements. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who are co-sponsoring a bill to regulate political advertising on the internet, both issued statements calling the new ad rules a good “first step,” in Warner’s words, but said their bill would go forward as written regardless of Twitter’s internal guidelines.

The company announced other changes earlier this week, adding to its list of banned content “non-consensual nudity” and “hateful imagery and hate symbols.”

Twitter held its 3rd-quarter earnings call on Thursday morning. The company is as little as a single quarter away from profitability, according to its internal projections, executives told financial analysts on a conference call. Its earnings per share were impressive enough to send the stock up 14 percent.

This post has been updated.

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Twitter on Tuesday afternoon announced a new set of standards for political ads on its platform as well as a “transparency center” that will allow users a detailed look at the nature of ads being shown to them on the platform.

But there were no new guidelines for so-called “issue ads,” a term that covers the majority of the propaganda Russian government operatives deployed on Twitter to influence the 2016 election.

“Today, we’re announcing steps to dramatically increase transparency for all ads on Twitter, including political ads and issue-based ads,” wrote Twitter exec Bruce Falck on the company blog. “We will also be improving controls for our customers and adopting stricter advertising policies.”

Twitter’s announcement seemed geared at heading off regulators at the pass: Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently proposed the Honest Ads Act, a bill to regulate digital advertising in the wake of accusations that Twitter and Facebook had been exploited by Russian cyberactors trying to sow division in the American electorate.

Warner tweeted that the company’s new rules for political ads are “a good first step,” which is markedly softer than his harsh words for the service after it gave what he described as an “inadequate” presentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee in September.

The most substantive change Twitter is making appears to be the transparency center, which will allow users to see who is advertising what, for how long, and whether those ads have been targeted to their accounts, in addition to the information organizations use to target advertising. Additionally, Twitter will now require political ads to identify their campaigns as such and “include a visual political ad indicator.”

But “issue ads”—which might say, for example, “a wall with Mexico is a great idea” rather than “vote for Donald Trump”—remain unaddressed.

We are committed to stricter policies and transparency around issue-based ads,” Twitter’s announcement reads. “There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads but we will work with our peer companies, other industry leaders, policy makers, and ad partners to clearly define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach mentioned above.”

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The National Review’s Jay Nordlinger wrote Sunday that one of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics had been barred from entering the U.S.—and the outcry was immediate. Had the State Department revoked Bill Browder’s visa? Was Russia trying to get him arrested?

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, issued a statement decrying “the Department of State’s baffling decision to revoke Bill Browder’s visa” and calling on Rex Tillerson to personally reinstate him. A State Department spokesperson referred TPM’s questions to the Department of Homeland Security—like most Brits, Browder didn’t have a formal visa, they said—he was welcome to apply for one.

Browder himself was irate when he spoke to TPM on Monday afternoon: “I’m pretty sure that this is just an automatic thing. So the question is, will they lift it or not?”

“There’s no way that I can get any information about any of this stuff,” he added. “When I called [DHS’] help line, after waiting an hour and a half they said ‘I can’t tell you anything about why this has happened, you’ll have to write a FOIA.'”

Hours later, the Department of Homeland Security provided an answer: Customs and Border Protection had to manually approve Browder’s travel authorization after the Interpol notice went out—but says it did so on Wednesday. Browder contests this—he said he still couldn’t fly on Thursday, when he got the email notice. TPM has asked DHS for clarification and will update this story when and if it comes.

So what exactly happened here?

Russian authorities had issued a “diffusion” through international police service Interpol calling for his arrest last Tuesday, Browder told TPM (the country’s government had already tried to force Interpol to issue a “red notice,” much like putting Browder on an American “Most Wanted” list, but Interpol repeatedly refused). Exploiting that bureaucratic loophole, Russian authorities appear to have succeeded in automatically rescinding permission for Browder to visit the U.S., albeit briefly.

The problem stemmed from Browder traveling not on a visa issued by the State Department, but on the less formal Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is supposed to ease diplomatic restrictions on travel for foreigners who are unlikely to overstay the 90-day limit on their visas, Chicago-based immigration lawyer Richard Hanus noted. The automated nature of the system makes it convenient for most people, but speed and responsiveness pose a problem when Russia can use the system to game American border controls to cause trouble for its critics.

“The only times we see things like this is when there’s an irregularity,” Hanus told TPM: “previous U.S. immigration violations—when somebody stays more than the 90 day—or when there’s a criminal matter.”

The New Jersey-born, Chicago-raised Browder, who became a British citizen in 1998, said that he’d gotten a form email on Thursday telling him to check his “Global Entry” status, which is like TSA Pre-check for non-citizens.

“And so I logged into Global entry and it said ‘your status has been revoked’ and so I said, ‘Well I wonder if my Visa has been revoked, so I tried to check into a flight and I couldn’t,'” he said.

Yet a DHS spokesperson told TPM that Browder was supposed to be good to go by that point. The agency’s statement reads:

“As the agency charged with preventing the entry of terrorists and other criminal actors from entering the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection regularly screens law enforcement systems in order to determine if any travelers present a security or law enforcement risk. This vetting is done on a recurrent basis and decisions on travel are made on the latest information available. The decision to approve or deny an ESTA application is made on a case-by-case basis on the totality of the circumstances. When possible matches to derogatory information are found, applications will be vetted through normal CBP procedures which include a manual review by a CBP analyst and a supervisor prior to a determination being made. Applications being manually reviewed may temporarily be placed in a pending status until a final determination is made. William Browder’s ESTA remains valid for travel to the United States. His ESTA was manually approved by CBP on Oct. 18—clearing him for travel to the United States.

Russia had given Browder a similar headache in August, shortly after a Council of Europe report condemned that country for misusing anti-crime protocols for political ends in his case. Turkey recently had been scolded for trying to use Interpol to arrest a Spanish journalist critical of military dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, too.

Four days after publication, Interpol responded to TPM’s request for clarification on the topic of the diffusion calling for Browder’s arrest. No member nation, Interpol said, is required to honor its Red Notices or diffusions beyond its own laws. On the topic of Russia’s specific diffusion related to Browder, the agency said:

All notices and diffusions must meet Interpol’s rules and regulations, and prior to publication all Red Notice requests are checked by a dedicated task force to ensure they are compliant. Diffusions are circulated without prior approval from the General Secretariat.  However, the dedicated task force also checks diffusions for wanted persons, even though they are already circulated, to ensure that they are compliant.

When a Red Notice or diffusion is cancelled, for whatever reason, a message is sent to all member countries informing them of the decision and they are requested to remove any related information from their national databases and not to use Interpol’s channels in relation to the case.

A diffusion recently circulated in relation to Mr Browder was found to be non-compliant following a review by the General Secretariat. All information in relation to this request has been deleted from Interpol’s databases and all Interpol member countries informed accordingly.

Browder Tweeted Thursday that Interpol had changed its policies to prevent Russia from abusing the diffusion system.

As Canadian reporter Daniele Hamamdjian also pointed out on Twitter, the law enforcement agency did the same thing in 2013.

This post has been updated.

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In one of the stranger aspects of the Russian influence campaign reported to date, the Federal News Agency (FAN) troll farm funded activism and social programs in black communities as recently as May. The Russian operation set up a news site that interviewed prominent thinkers like Occupy Wall Street’s Micah White and former Black Panther Party leading member Ericka Huggins. It also sponsored self-defense programs around the country, including one in Queens that specializes in de-escalating conflict between black people and police officers. None of those American activists who had contact with the operatives knew they were in contact with Russian agents at the time.

White (pictured above) has a theory for why those operatives were supporting black activism in the U.S. He has written on the tactical use of social movements to wage war—he wrote on the topic more than a year before the 2016 election—and he says that while Russia “can be pursuing multiple objectives simultaneously,” he thinks subverting the American status quo may be a mutual objective for a hostile Russian operation and the U.S. protest movements striving for more equality and justice—the challenge is to use that signal boost for noble ends.

“I think there aren’t many examples of social change that isn’t created by outside forces,” White told TPM. “Lenin was allowed back into Russia on German railroads while Russia and Germany were at war.”

As White observes in one essay, Russian state news couldn’t get enough of Occupy Wall Street: he claims RT flew Occupy organizers to London to be interviewed by Julian Assange for his TV show on the Kremlin-backed network.

One thing White said discourages him about the Russian propaganda efforts is how successful they were in terms of pure reach. As a rule, activists operate on a shoestring. The funds from the Russian trolls helped do things activists normally may be hard-pressed to pull off, like those classes in de-escalation.

“I do think it’s a watershed moment for American activism where American activists have to say, ‘Why is Russia able to create fake Facebook pages that get more likes than we do?’ I think it’s another sign that protest is broken,” he told TPM.

Another person contacted by the troll farm said he was surprised when the person who reached out wanting to facilitate political action wasn’t especially interested in talking politics.

“Their idea was they wanted to address police brutality, maybe do know-your-rights training,” said Omowale Adewale, a trainer in New York City who was asked to lead self-defense classes in Brooklyn and Queens by a troll-run group called BlackFist. “I was doing street harassment self-defense classes for women, so they caught me really at a time when I was already kind of engaged in a lot of this work.”

Adewale told TPM that while he was skeptical of the person who contacted him, he never thought a foreign government was recruiting him. He just thought the whole thing was probably a setup for a scam that would end up stealing from him.

“There never was any politics, which was just nuts,” he said.

But then the people Adewale thought might be scammers sent money to him. The prospect of offering something good to his community, especially bankrolled from the outside, thrilled him—but he was still curious about where the money was coming from. His thoughts, though, were primarily with a black community living in fear.

“I don’t know if you can fathom in the community the way people feel really targeted by police brutality,” Adewale told TPM. “I’m a fighter myself. Sometimes I jog and I’m running and cops are around. You can’t just run past them! White folks can just keep jogging, but if I’m in jogging gear, my jogging gear might include a hoodie! That’s problematic on a huge level, that somebody might be nervous and I might get shot, or at least get stopped and harassed. That’s the kind of thing that happens to me. A lot of things have to take place before you physically get somebody’s hands off of you. [It’s about] de-escalation ad knowing your rights. You really don’t want to die.”

That fear was a good litmus test for Adewale when it came to the intentions of “Taylor,” as well. “Taylor” didn’t seem to feel it, for himself or for anyone else.

“The lack of any kind of caring,” Adewale told TPM, “gave me insight.”

This post has been updated.

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