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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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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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The Russian woman who was charged Monday for acting as an agent of the Russian government is actually just a high-performing graduate student, according to her  American attorney.

“Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation,” Robert N. Driscoll said in a lengthy statement issued late Monday. “She is a Russian national in the United States on a student visa who recently graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. with a Masters Degree in International Relations and 4.0 grade point average.”

Butina, 29, was arrested by the FBI on Sunday and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government.” The criminal complaint and accompanying affidavit allege that she spent years cultivating ties to high-level Republicans, using connections she forged through associates of the National Rifle Association.

Allegedly acting on the orders of Alexander Torshin, a high-level Russian politician and lifelong NRA member, Butina also sought a “back channel” meeting between Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin during the 2016 election, the New York Times reported last year.

Butina is being held without bond ahead of her Wednesday hearing in a Washington, D.C. federal court.

According to Driscoll, the FBI’s allegations are “overblown.” All Butina wanted, per his statement, was to “promote a better relationship between the two nations”—a goal she sought to achieve through “open and public networking,” rather than “covert propaganda.”

Driscoll said Butina has been “cooperating with various government entities for months,” voluntarily sitting for an eight-hour closed-door testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said she was rebuffed when she offered interviews to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.

Butina’s case is being handled by the Justice Department’s National Security Division rather than the special counsel. According to the Washington Post, “the investigative work began before [Mueller] was appointed” and continues to be handled by FBI agents and prosecutors outside of his office.

Butina will have some high-powered assistance mounting her defense. Driscoll served as former deputy assistant attorney general under the George W. Bush administration, and as chief of staff of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. A member of the Federalist Society and regular contributor to the National Review, the conservative attorney now leads the Washington D.C. office of the law firm McGlinchey Stafford.

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A Russian woman with close ties to the National Rifle Association was arrested Sunday and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government,” according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.

Mariia Butina is accused of acting as an unregistered agent on Russia’s behalf between 2015 and 2017, in collaboration with “others known and unknown, including an official of the Russian Federation,” according to the complaint.

The case is being handled by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, not by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team probing Russia meddling in the 2016 election.

Butina is a former assistant of Alexander Torshin, a top official at the Russian Central Bank who has reportedly been under investigation by the FBI for allegedly channeling money to the NRA to benefit Trump’s 2016 campaign. The pair have been under scrutiny by journalists and investigators for months, thanks to a bombshell January report in McClatchy that first revealed the FBI’s financial probe.

Butina and Torshin have close ties to the NRA, which is not referred to by name in the criminal complaint or the supporting affidavit but as a “Gun Rights Organization.”

The NRA did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.

Per the affidavit, Butina’s work allegedly involved “advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation” by forging ties to “U.S. persons having influence in American politics,” including the NRA.

Butina and Torshin both ran The Right To Bear Arms, a group that fashioned itself as a Russian version of the NRA and supported handgun legalization in their home country. As TPM has documented and the new criminal filings lay out, they used that group to establish close ties with Republican officials in the U.S., inviting them to summits in Moscow. As previously reported, one December 2015 trip to Russia funded by the the Right to Bear Arms was attended by former NRA president David Keene, former Wisconsin sheriff and Fox News regular David Clarke, and NRA member and GOP operative Paul Erickson.

Erickson’s background aligns with the description of “U.S. Person 1” in the indictment—”a United States citizen and an American political operative” who helped connect Butina to other influential Republicans.

Emails obtained by the FBI allegedly show that Butina, Erickson, and Torshin—who is not named in the filing but matches the description of “the Russian official”—corresponded regularly about how to “plan and develop the contours of the influence operation.” The trio allegedly recognized the importance of the NRA in shaping conservative political opinion in the U.S. and how the organization could be used to soften the GOP’s view towards Russia, according to the affidavit.

In a March 2015 email to Erickson, Butina allegedly wrote that the Republicans would likely win the 2016 election, so it was an opportune moment “to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations” and that [c]entral place and influence in the [POLITICAL Party 1] plays the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION]. The [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION [is] the largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events,” according to the affidavit.

Erickson allegedly responded by sending Butina a long list of “potential media, business, and political contacts,” according to the affidavit.

In another remarkable exchange alleged in the affidavit, this one from October 2016, Erickson told 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].”

In the months in between, as the filing alleged, she and Torshin made a number of trips to the U.S., including pilgrimages to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast and 2016 NRA convention. At the latter, Torshin met with Donald Trump Jr., according to The New York Times.

Butina officially entered the U.S. on a student visa in August 2016 to enroll in graduate studies at American University, the affidavit alleged. Earlier that year, she and Erickson incorporated a company in South Dakota, called Bridges LLC, that Erickson claimed was used to pay for her tuition, according to previous reporting.

That is an “unusual way to use an LLC,” McClatchy noted in its initial story on what it said was a FBI investigation into Torshin allegedly illegally funneling money to the NRA’s lobbying arm. But the complaint and affidavit against Butina make no mention of any possible campaign finance violations or any criminal wrongdoing by Torshin, who was hit with sanctions and barred from traveling to the country by the U.S. Treasury Department this April.

Butina allegedly continued her political work on behalf of Russia through the fall of 2016, according to the FBI affidavit. In Twitter direct messages cited in court filings, she allegedly chatted with Torshin about whether she should serve as a U.S. election observer from Russia and, after Trump officially won the election in November, allegedly asked Torshin for “further orders.”

The Justice Department announced that Butina made her initial appearance at the U.S. District for the District of Columbia on Monday, and is being held pending her next hearing on Wednesday.

The influence operation that she allegedly helped carry out is one of the “low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable” ways Russia tries to influence U.S. politics, according to the affidavit.

Her arrest comes just days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic targets during the 2016 election.

At a Monday press conference, President Trump and President Vladimir Putin heaped praise on each other and again denied that Russia improperly interfered in the U.S. campaign.

Read the full affidavit below.

This post has been updated.

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The special counsel on Friday indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking and disseminating information from Democratic targets during the 2016 election. Here and there amid the 29-page document are names and companies that are referred to in shorthand. We do our best to decode them for you here, in the order in which they appear.

“Organization 1”: WikiLeaks

This one is pretty straightforward. The indictment describes “Organization 1” as a group that maintains a website that has “previously posted documents stolen from U.S. persons, entities, and the U.S. government.”

“DCCC Employee 1”: Not yet known

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee whose email account was first successfully hacked by Russia on April 12, 2016.

“Company 1”: Crowdstrike

The indictment notes the Democratic National Committee and DCCC hired “Company 1” to investigate the hacking of their servers by suspected Russian operatives. The DNC and DCCC spoke openly during the 2016 campaign about hiring Crowdstrike, a U.S. cybersecurity company, to carry out this work.

“Candidate for the U.S. Congress” who asked for and received stolen documents about his/her opponent: Not yet known

“Then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news”: Florida GOP operative Aaron Nevins

Nevins, a former lobbyist who maintained the blog HelloFLA.com, told the Wall Street Journal about his successful attempts to solicit information from “Guccifer 2.0” in August 2016. Nevins said he shared the documents about Democrats’ get-out-the-vote strategy on the site pseudonymously.

“A reporter” who received and wrote about stolen documents on the Black Lives Matter movement: Lee Stranahan

Stranahan, then at Breitbart and now at Sputnik, has openly discussed his communications with “Guccifer 2.0.” National security blogger Marcy Wheeler has shared what she said are Twitter DMs between Stranahan and Guccifer discussing the documents and mocking the notion that Russia could be behind the hacks.

“A person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump”: Roger Stone

Stone, too, has admitted to interacting with “Guccifer” about the hacked documents. He posted screenshots of their DM exchange on his personal blog last year.

“U.S. reporter” who received stolen emails from “Hillary Clinton’s staff” on June 27, 2016: The Smoking Gun

The news site tweeted on Friday that they were the “reporter” in the indictment who received “the password access to a nonpublic, password-protected website” that contained emails stolen from one of Clinton’s staffers, referred to as “Victim 1.”

“Victim 1”: Sarah Hamilton, a Clinton press volunteer based in Chicago

The Smoking Gun, which first reported on Hamilton’s email breach back in June 2016, affirmed today that she was the individual whose emails they first received.

“SBOE 1”: Not yet known

The indictment claims an unnamed state board of elections was compromised by the Russian intelligence officers in July 2016. Information for 500,000 voters was stolen.

“Vendor 1”: VR Systems

Mueller’s indictment says the hackers broke into the computer system of a U.S. vendor that supplied software used to verify voter registration information. Though the Florida-based e-voting vendor denied any breach, The Intercept reported that the facts laid out in the indictment indicate that it did in fact fall victim to the Russians’ 2016 spear-fishing campaign.

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Trump pal Roger Stone on Friday brushed off the interactions he had with Russian intelligence officers posing as a hacker during the 2016 election, which were detailed in a newly filed indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller’s indictment, which lays out charges against 12 Russian operatives who hacked Democratic targets, does not mention Stone by name. But it quotes conversations he has previously admitted to having with “Guccifer 2.0.” – a fake identity created by Russian intelligence.

“As I testified before the House intelligence committee under oath, my 24-word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 is benign based on its content, context, and timing,” Stone said in a statement to the Daily Beast. “This exchange is entirely public and provides no evidence of collaboration or collusion with Guccifer 2.0 or anyone else in the alleged hacking of the DNC emails, as well as taking place many weeks after the events described in today’s indictment.”

The indictment notes that “Guccifer 2.0” interacted with an individual “who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump” in August 2016, offering assistance.

Stone posted his private Twitter exchange with Guccifer on his personal website last March, after their communications were revealed by the website The Smoking Gun.

According to the new indictment, Stone was one of several U.S. persons to solicit or receive information from this front for Russian intelligence during the election.

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A congressional candidate requested and received documents allegedly stolen from Democratic Party entities by Russian intelligence operatives during the 2016 election, a federal indictment filed Friday alleged.

The indictment brought by special counsel Robert Mueller alleges that the unidentified candidate made the electronic request on Aug. 15, 2016, and in return received “stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.”

This gob-smacking detail was one of many in the 29-page indictment, which alleged that the Russian military intelligence agency or GRU engaged in “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” The 12 Russians indicted allegedly hacked the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and email accounts of Hillary Clinton campaign officials, and publicly disseminated the stolen information. They concealed their tracks by inventing fake personas including “Guccifer 2.0,” a rogue Romanian hacker who claimed to be behind the hacks, prosecutors alleged.

[ Who’s who: Decoding the unnamed entities in Mueller’s Russian hacking indictment (Prime access) » ]

Mueller charged the defendants with conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S., aggravated identity theft and other charges.

As the indictment makes clear, the stolen information was eagerly received by some U.S. citizens.

The congressional candidate reached out to “Guccifer 2.0” asking for leaks about the candidate’s opponent.

The indictment also mentions “Guccifer 2.0” sending documents to a “then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news” and to a reporter in August of 2016.

The lobbyist received 2.5 gigabytes of data stolen from the DCCC, according to the indictment, including “donor records and personal identifying information for more than 2,0000 Democratic donors.”

The details about this interaction align with the account of Aaron Nevins, a Florida-based Republican political operative who admitted to asking “Guccifer 2.0” for any stolen documents relevant to his state. Nevins told the Wall Street Journal that he received details about the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote strategy in Florida and other swing state, and posted it on his blog, HelloFLA.com, under a pseudonym.

“Guccifer 2.0” subsequently flagged the blog post to Trump ally Roger Stone, who said he did not share the stolen data with anyone.

The indictment notes that on August 15, “Guccifer 2.0” wrote to someone “who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump” thanking him “for writing back” and asking if the documents were interesting.

Two days later, the Russians asked if they could help the individual, saying “it would be a great pleasure to me.”

“Guccifer 2.0” followed up on September 9, referring to a stolen document about the Democrats’ turnout model and asking for the person’s opinion. The individual replied, “[p]retty standard.”

The reporter, who is also unidentified in the indictment, apparently received documents about the Black Lives Matter movement.

The individual “responded by discussing when to release the documents and offering to write an article about their release,” according to Mueller’s team.

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for engaging in “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” The charges include conspiracy against the United States, identity theft and money laundering.

The indictment lays out in painstaking detail how Russia hacked servers and email accounts associated with the Clinton campaign, DNC and DCCC, and then disseminated the stolen information. It also reveals that several U.S. persons, including a congressional candidate, solicited or received documents from“Guccifer 2.0.” — a fake identity created by Russian intelligence.

The White House did not condemn Russia in response, emphasizing instead that no Americans were charged. Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said that the indictments prove Trump is “innocent.”

Republicans finally got an opportunity to publicly grill former FBI official Peter Strzok about the anti-Trump text messages he sent during the 2016 election. In a 10-hour hearing marked by lots of finger-wagging and theatrics, lawmakers on the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees lectured Strzok on the bias that they say tainted the federal Russia investigation from the start.

But the attempted crucifixion was something of a bust. Strzok maintained throughout that his distaste for Trump didn’t influence his actions, pointing out that he could’ve actually influenced the election by divulging in the summer of 2016 that the FBI was looking into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer and Strzok’s ex-girlfriend, is appearing before the committees for closed-door hearings on Friday and Monday.

In the lead-up to the first of his two criminal trials, Manafort is bombarding the courts with requests. He successfully persuaded a Virginia federal judge to allow him to move to a jail closer to his attorneys to allow him to prepare his defense, before reversing course and saying he didn’t want to move after all.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team pointed out that Manafort had discussed the “VIP” treatment he was receiving in prison in monitored phone calls.

The judge swatted down Manafort’s second request to stay in place, calling his series of asks “confusing” and ordering that he move to a detention center in Alexandria.

Michael Flynn also experienced a week of head-snapping reversals. He announced that he and a former Trump campaign official were co-founding a firm that would carry out exactly the kind of foreign lobbying work that brought him under FBI investigation. Then, hours later, he said he wasn’t joining it quite yet. (Flynn’s would-be business partner, Nick Muzin, is also being sued by Elliot Broidy, for whom Michael Cohen negotiated hush money payments.)

That walkback may have something to do with the fact that he has not yet been sentenced in the Mueller probe. Flynn appeared in court this week for the first time in weeks, where his attorneys and Mueller’s team agreed to rush ahead with a pre-sentencing report.

Giuliani and Michael Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis traded barbs after Giuliani urged Cohen to cooperate with prosecutors and tell the “truth” about Trump. Davis said that Giuliani didn’t know the meaning of “truth,” and that Trump may have committed an “impeachable offense” by lying about asking Jim Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.

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Former FBI official Peter Strzok has now sat for 21 hours of congressional testimony, 11 in private and 10 in public.

Thursday’s public joint hearing before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees yielded in-depth textual analyses of the anti-Trump text messages that Strzok exchanged with his former lover and colleague at the FBI, Lisa Page. There were theatrics aplenty, including a Republican threat to hold Strzok in contempt of Congress. The word “douche” was entered into the congressional record.

One lowlight was Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) asking Strzok “how many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eye and lie to her.” A Democratic lawmaker interrupted to shout that Gohmert needed his “medication.”

Former FBI officials told TPM that they were dismayed by the marathon pile-on. All of the finger-pointing, props, and raised voices, they said, exemplified the reckless norm-busting and erosion of the rule of law in the Trump era.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” former FBI special agent Mark Pollitt told TPM in a phone interview.

“To me it was just a very sad demonstration of political theater that’s entirely designed to create sound-bites for the press,” Pollitt continued.

“It’s a show,” concurred Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent. “I call it investigation theater.”

Things got wild almost immediately after Strzok entered the hearing room Thursday morning and took his seat to answer questions before lawmakers and TV cameras.

In the first minutes, Strzok refused to answer a question from House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) about the number of people he interviewed for the Russia probe in the first week of the investigation. Strzok said that he was following Justice Department policy, which prohibits FBI personnel from publicly discussing ongoing investigations.

But House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) promptly threatened to hold him in contempt of Congress, sparking cries of protest from Democrats on the committees and former FBI personnel.

“How dare they claim to be all for law and protecting secrets whilst at the same violating the law by demanding that an FBI agent break the law?” former FBI agent Mark Rossini asked in an email to TPM. “This is just another attempt to diminish the FBI.”

The hearing then devolved into the familiar rehashing of the text messages. Republicans pointed to Strzok’s words to ask how he could claim not to be biased, while Democrats asked rhetorical questions about whether anything he said to Page altered the material facts of the Russia investigation, which have yielded some two dozen indictments.

Strzok appeared unruffled by the drama, shifting in his seat and smirking occasionally at lawmakers’ lines of questioning. Former FBI officials commended him for keeping calm under pressure.

“I think Strzok did an amazing job of articulating his personal beliefs and how they’re separate from his professional conduct,” Pollitt told TPM. “Not that it’s going to make any difference to anybody but at the end of the day I think he explained it pretty well, and the fact that he was able to do it in a forceful way without getting upset made him look pretty professional.”

“By remaining calm, exhibiting passion only when required, & explaining himself in the face of tough questioning, Strzok looks like the normal one when compared to congressional posturing,” former FBI agent Josh Campbell chimed in on Twitter.

Each sides’ arguments have been exhaustively churned over since the existence of the Strzok-Page texts were first reported late last year. Since both Page and Strzok worked on both the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the probe into Russia’s election interference, the anti-Trump messages were proof, they said, that the entire Russia investigation was a biased effort to take down the Republican nominee.

Democrats acknowledged that the messages—which include Strzok calling Trump an “idiot” and saying “we’ll stop” him—were unprofessional and unfortunate. But they’ve countered that there is no evidence that the two FBI officials’ private thoughts impacted their work on the investigation. A months-long DOJ inspector general report concluded as much, Democrats are quick to note, and both Page and Strzok were removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as soon as their exchanges were discovered.

Above all, as Democrats have argued in hearing after hearing, fixating on the text messages of two former FBI officials is a distraction from Russia’s concerted attempts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. election, which the CIA, FBI, NSA and Senate Intelligence Committee have all concluded occurred.

“I think the most important point was Strzok’s final point in his opening statement, which is that this is a home run for Russia because we’re continuing to fight each other,” Watts said. “In doing so we’re weakening democratic institutions and elected officials, and that’s the real goal of this influence campaign after all. It’s still working, three years later.”

Those former officials noted that the hours of testimony yielded almost no new information.

As Pollitt put it, Thursday’s hearing “didn’t add anything to what we already knew.”

Watts suggested that the charade may “backfire on Republicans,” who long pressed for Strzok to appear in public session.

“They’re dragging him there to bully him but he is now getting an opportunity, like you saw with Rod Rosenstein two weeks ago, to fire back,” he continued, saying GOP lawmakers ended up looking “silly” at both hearings.

But as Watts pointed out, few voters would probably watch the hearings. Of those that did, Republicans and Democrats would likely only see clips favorable to their parties’ narrative.

“Both sides will get what they want,” he said, “but collectively, for the country, it’s a giant waste of time.”

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The Border Patrol agent who grilled a national security reporter about classified leaks from the U.S. intelligence community is under investigation for the improper use of government computer systems, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Jeffrey Rambo was previously identified as the agent who obtained the confidential travel records of reporter Ali Watkins and pressed her to reveal her sources at a June 2017 meeting. Rambo reportedly used details about Watkins’ trip to Spain with her then-boyfriend James Wolfe, former security director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to pressure her into divulging information.

Per the Times, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is now investigating whether the California-based agent used Watkins’ travel data improperly or illegally.

Customs and Border Protection announced last month that its Office of Professional Responsibility was also looking into Rambo’s actions.

It’s still unclear whether any other government officials were involved in this extracurricular effort to obtain confidential information from journalists, or if Rambo was acting alone.

Wolfe was arrested last month on charges of lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters. He has pleaded not guilty.

News of his arrest also revealed that federal investigators secretly seized Watkins’ emails and phone records—the first such incident under the Trump administration.

Watkins was working at Politico in the summer of 2017 and joined the Times in December. The newspaper reassigned her from D.C. to a new beat in New York last month.

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