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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Some flickering positive signs for democracy have lit up statehouses in recent months. Thanks to legwork by local activists, a slate of anti-corruption and voting rights reform initiatives have landed on November ballots in states from Michigan to Missouri.

But something darker is underway in North Carolina.

On Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) sued to block two constitutional amendments promoted by the Republican-dominated general assembly. The amendments would strip the governor’s authority to appoint judges, board members, regulators and other key officials and turn that power over to the assembly.

The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, asks for a temporary restraining order to keep the amendments off the ballots—which head to the printer on Wednesday. Cooper argues that Republicans are trying to “take a wrecking ball to the separation of powers” and are masking measures that will have far-reaching consequences for state government in vanilla ballot language.

“It’s a legislature gone wild, what we have down here,” Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson told TPM.

“If you want to put something on the ballot that actually says, ‘We want to take away all this power from the governor, flatten out the separation of powers and checks and balances in this state, and give it all to the legislature,’ put that on,” Jackson said. “What they’re putting on the ballot is purposefully deceptive because they want to hide from voters what they’re actually doing.”

The two amendments are among six in a package that the general assembly approved, mostly on party lines. One would transfer the authority to appoint thousands of commissioners and board members of key committees overseeing utilities, transportation and other critical issues from the governor to the assembly. The other would grant the assembly control of who the governor can consider to fill judicial vacancies.

The amendments’ are written in bureaucratic, dry language. They claim that they will “clarify” the authority of the governor to handle matters that the governor’s office is already constitutionally granted.

The amendment that would turn control over board appointments over to the legislature, for example, is described as a commitment to “establish a bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections to administer ethics and election laws, to clarify the appoint authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches.”

Under a 2016 law, a three-person state panel would typically have the task of explaining the true purpose of constitutional amendments in short captions that appear above their language. But Republicans on the assembly were concerned that two Democrats on the panel would cast the measures in a negative light, and passed a bill stripping them of that authority. Cooper vetoed it, but the assembly waited until the Saturday deadline to override his veto. That meant that the governor couldn’t file his lawsuit until Monday, just days before ballots start getting printed for North Carolinians in the military or living overseas.

“Rather than allow the voters to make an intelligent decision whether to restructure their own state government, the General Assembly has adopted false and misleading ballot language that conceals the true — and truly extraordinary — nature of these proposed amendments,” Cooper’s lawsuit states.

Republicans are accusing Cooper of using the courts to try to undermine the will of voters, denying any deceitful tactics.

In a Saturday statement, Rep. David Lewis, Chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, called such claims “ridiculous conspiracy theories” and say the policies in the proposed amendments “are overwhelmingly popular.”

“North Carolina faces a dark day if the courts allow @NC_Governor to prevent the people of North Carolina from voting on THEIR Constitution @NCGOP,” North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse chimed in on Twitter on Monday.

Lewis did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.

The North Carolina GOP’s work to chip away at the governor’s authority and consolidate control in the assembly was well underway by the time a Democrat took office. The general assembly has spent the years since the 2010 GOP wave election in an all-out effort to gerrymander districts, pass strict voter ID laws, limit early voting, and remove executive powers from the governor’s office.

Their gerrymandered congressional maps have since been overruled or ruled as unconstitutional by federal and state courts. They remain mired in legal wrangling.

Weeks before Cooper took office, in December 2016, the assembly called a special session to pass a series of bills stripping the governor of his power, including a law taking away his power to appoint a majority to the state board of elections and a law decreasing the number of state employees he can appoint.

If the two ballot amendments pass in November, the assembly will not only control the state’s purse strings, district maps, and policy priorities. They will also have a remarkable degree of power over who gets to sit on the boards that execute state policies by building roads, enforcing environmental regulations and setting utility rates. Most critically, they will have the authority to select appointees to fill judicial vacancies, allowing them to install justices less likely to rule against their laws and attempted power grabs.

“This makes it very clear that the Republican-controlled legislature understands the political environment they’re in and that they’re going to lose control this fall,” Jackson, the Democratic strategist, told TPM. “This is that last gasp to try to hold onto control in any way they can.”

This post has been updated.

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Alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina was in contact with former Trump campaign aide J.D. Gordon in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the Washington Post reported Friday.

Gordon, who served as a former foreign policy adviser to Trump, told the newspaper he disclosed their meetings and emails in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

According to Gordon, he met Butina at a party in Washington, D.C. in September 2016 and exchanged a series of messages after GOP operative Paul Erickson followed up to connect them more formally. Gordon also invited Butina to a Styx concert and to his birthday party, the Post reported.

Butina has pleaded not guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia, and is awaiting trial in a D.C. jail. She is accused of carrying out a covert influence campaign, befriending prominent U.S. conservatives and infiltrating organizations like the National Rifle Association.

Gordon confirmed to the Post that their interactions occurred, describing them as innocuous.

“From everything I’ve read since her arrest last month, it seems the Maria Butina saga is basically a sensationalized click bait story meant to smear a steady stream of Republicans and NRA members she reportedly encountered over the past few years,” he said in a statement, adding that Butina reached out to “likely thousand of people.”

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President Trump reignited his feud with Lebron James on Friday, mocking the NBA icon’s intelligence in a late-night tweet.

Trump appeared to be upset by a Monday CNN interview James conducted with anchor Don Lemon, which re-aired Friday, in which James lamented that the President is “dividing us” on racial issues and using sports as a cudgel to do so. James said that he wouldn’t have anything to say to Trump if he met him in person, joking that he’d “sit across from Barack [Obama], though.”

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We live in the age of the accidental conspiracy theory tweet.

The head of a Florida county GOP found himself in the hot seat last month for a July 4 tweet inviting voters to learn more about the “cryptic” QAnon conspiracy.

“You may have heard rumours about QAnon, also known as Q, who is a mysterious anonymous inside leaker of deep state activities and counter activities by President Trump,” the Hillsborough County GOP’s since-deleted tweet read.

It linked to an hour-long YouTube video called “Q Anon for Beginners.”

Hillsborough County GOP chairman Jim Waurishuk rushed to tamp down the ensuing media controversy, assuring publications that his group did not endorse the bizarre strings of hidden clues and associations that compose the fringe conspiracy.

But Waurishuk’s own Twitter account includes several posts about QAnon, and his blog posts for far-right news site “America Out Loud” routinely reference the sorts of deep state anti-Trump conspiracies that QAnon followers believe should land members of the Obama administration in jail. Both Waurishuk and QAnon adherents, for example, put stock in President Trump’s claim that there was a spy embedded in Trump’s 2016 campaign and think that Hillary Clinton committed treason.

Reached by telephone Friday, Waurishuk reiterated that he does not believe in “conspiracy theory stuff.”

Asked about the tweets on his page referencing QAnon, he said, “I have no idea how that happened.”

The Hillsborough County GOP’s QAnon problem started back in mid-July, when reporter Will Sommers noticed its pinned tweet. The Tampa Bay Times subsequently did a story on the post, which was also pinned to the top of the group’s Facebook page, and the national media latched on to the controversy, publishing stories of their own.

Waurishuk said the group’s posts were merely meant to be “informational” and removed them.

Then, this week, the QAnon phenomena rocketed from the fringes of Twitter and 8Chan to the national stage thanks to Trump’s rally in Tampa. Supporters carrying “Q” signs cheered from the stands at the Florida State Fairgrounds, where the President was introduced by Waurishuk.

The next day, dozens of publications posted explainers on the baffling conspiracy theory, which holds that the mysterious U.S. intelligence official, who holds a “Q”-level security clearance, is doling out “breadcrumbs” of information to his followers to prepare them for the coming “Storm.” The storm, according to Q’s followers, will be a Trump-imposed coup in which all of the President’s enemies—deep state-rs, globalist elites, and pedophiles masquerading as Democratic politicians—are arrested.

Those stories resurrected the Hillsborough County GOP’s tweet, prompting a fresh wave of calls to Waurishuk, who was asked to explain, again, how this post came to be on his group’s page.

“We try to watch all the different groups on social media that are involved in conspiracy theory stuff and bizarre kind of stuff, because part of our job as a local party is to educate voters,” Waurishuk told TPM.

He said a board member who tracks these “far-out, extreme kind of things” found this video to be “probably the most accurate,” and decided to share it “for informational purposes.”

“It was just: here’s an article that may help you understand more about who QAnon is,” he said. “Because as I recall about a month ago there were people in our party who were questioning who is this individual or group or entity so he saw it and put it out there.”

The chairman’s own Twitter feed features several tweets referencing the conspiracy.

On July 15, Waurishuk retweeted a pair of posts praising one of his America Outloud articles. Both include the hashtag #WWG1WGA, social media shorthand for QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all.” One also includes the hashtags #Qanon and “TheGreatAwakening,” a reference to an event preceding the “storm” that will come to fruition once Q’s followers solve the puzzle pieces Q has laid out for them. Waurishuk also retweeted a post from a user with the handle “Qanon Freedom Fighter.”

Waurishuk retweeted another message that actively promoted the QAnon phenomenon.

“Thank you for your service sir,” user Sheila Ryman wrote to Waurishuk, a retired U.S. Air force colonel. “Are you familiar with “Q” and #TheGreatAwakening #QAnon.

The video that the Hillsborough County GOP shared to inform local voters about QAnon was also created by a true believer: an Arizona-based paramedic and leading Q propagandist who goes by the handle “Praying Medic.” He opens the “Q Anon for Beginners” video by saying his intention is just to explain the phenomenon and “help you decide for yourself whether Q is worth your time,” but quickly discloses that he, personally, is “following Q.”

With the exception of one Etsy post promoting a “Scone of the Month” club, Praying Medic’s Twitter feed is a fever dream of warnings and predictions about the “coming” storm.

Waurishuk insisted that neither he nor the Hillsborough County GOP endorsed this type of outlandish conspiracy: “There are people out there that are literally crazy.”

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President Trump has more than a few characteristics that make him a challenging boss. He is mercurial, quick to turn on subordinates deemed insufficiently loyal, and has a slippery relationship with the truth.

Those traits help explain why so many of the President’s associates in business and government felt compelled to document their interactions with him.

Out of self-preservation, a desire to keep an accurate record, a lack of trust—or some combination of the three—everyone from former FBI Director James Comey to former Trump “pitbull” Michael Cohen created records of their encounters with Trump. These contemporaneous notes, official memos, and audio recordings will be invaluable evidence for prosecutors investigating whether Trump obstructed justice or engaged in other possible misconduct, former federal prosecutors tell TPM.

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A federal judge ruled Thursday that a former assistant to Roger Stone must testify before the grand jury convened by special counsel Robert Mueller.

As the Washington Post first reported, Chief Judge Beryl Howell rejected Andrew Miller’s challenge to Mueller’s subpoenas on the grounds that the entire special counsel investigation was unconstitutionally overbroad in its scope.

The ruling does not refer to Miller by name, but Miller’s attorney, Paul Kamenar, confirmed to the Post that it related to the request brought by his client.

“We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling,” Kamenar told the newspaper. “But the judge obviously took our challenge to Mueller’s constitutionality seriously as evidenced by the 93-page opinion.”

Howell’s ruling orders Miller, who served as a media liaison for Stone during the 2016 presidential campaign, to provide testimony as soon as possible and to turn over all subpoenaed records.

“The scope of the Special Counsel’s power falls well within the boundaries the Constitution permits, as the Special Counsel is supervised by an official who is himself accountable to the elected President,” Howell wrote.

In mid-July, TPM spotted attorneys from Mueller’s team and for Miller entering a closed-door hearing in Howell’s D.C. courtroom. The attorneys spent an hour and a half in the session.

Stone is under scrutiny in the special counsel investigation for his interactions with Guccifer 2.0, now known to be a group of Russian intelligence agents posing as a lone Romanian hacker. The self-proclaimed GOP dirty trickster also met with a Russian national during the campaign who asked for money in exchange for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Stone has said he’s being unfairly targeted because of his closeness to Trump, a longtime friend.

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In a sign of the broad scope of her influence operations, accused Russian agent Mariia Butina pushed a prominent American businessman to boost investments in a failing Moscow bank, the Daily Beast reported Tuesday.

Butina allegedly urged Hank Greenberg, former chairman of the New York Federal Reserve and of insurance giant AIG, to increase his investments in Russian bank Investtorgbank. According to the Beast, this ultimately unsuccessful request was made in April 2015, when bank officials had already been accused of illegally pocketing tens of millions of dollars.

Sources familiar with Butina’s actions told the Beast that it was unclear if she was acting alone or on behalf of other interests like the Russian government.

At the time, Butina was serving as the personal assistant to top Russian Central Bank official Alexander Torshin.

The FBI has alleged that Butina, acting on Torshin’s orders, carried out a covert influence campaign to infiltrate American conservative groups and advance Russian interests. She is awaiting trial in a DC jail. Torshin has not been charged with any crimes.

Butina’s ties to Greenberg appear to stem from the Center for the National Interest (CNI), a D.C. think tank where she and Torshin attended an April 2015 meeting with U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve officials. CNI is unusual in D.C. foreign policy circles for working to foster dialogue between Russia and the U.S.

CNI’s executive director Paul Sanders recently told TPM that the encounter they helped arrange was an “entirely routine” off-the-record discussion between visiting foreign officials and their U.S. counterparts.

The Beast reported that Greenberg is one of CNI’s main sources of funding and serves as chairman emeritus of the group’s board.

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Some $300,000 in suspicious bank transactions involving alleged covert Russian agent Mariia Butina and GOP operative Paul Erickson are under scrutiny by federal investigators, BuzzFeed reported Tuesday.

Bank documents reviewed by BuzzFeed refer to $45,000 wired to an unidentified D.C. law firm, $107,000 in cash withdrawals, and $90,000 sent to or from Russian financial institution Alfa Bank.

Per the report, Wells Fargo’s anti-money laundering team began tracking the duo’s bank activity in 2017 after it received a referral from the FBI, which had been investigating Butina since she arrived in the U.S. in 2016. The bank, in turn, prepared reports that it shared with the FBI and U.S. Treasury Department’s financial crimes division.

Wells Fargo’s investigators told Treasury officials they could find no “apparent economic, business, or lawful purpose” for some of the transactions, and were particularly concerned about the cash deposits, which are more difficult to trace, according to BuzzFeed.

Some of this unusual financial activity apparently relates to the fraud investigation into Erickson being carried out by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in his home state of South Dakota. The longtime GOP operative did not respond to BuzzFeed’s requests for comment.

Butina is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of acting as an unregistered Russian agent and conspiring against the U.S. to infiltrate conservative groups including the National Rifle Association.

Asked about the flagged bank transactions, Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll told BuzzFeed that they showed “no illegal, or even remarkable activity.”

“As she is a Russian national with a Russian bank account, it is hardly surprising that some of her international transactions triggered reports,” Driscoll told the news site. “It is unfortunate that the FBI chose to leak information based on such reports and/or to allow its investigative concerns to become public.”

McClatchy reported earlier Tuesday that several limited liability companies set up by Butina and Erickson, who were apparently dating, also drew early scrutiny from federal investigators.

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After seven months, tens of thousands of dollars, and three court rulings, Michigan voters were officially given the opportunity to decide how the redistricting process works in their state.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 late Tuesday night to uphold an appeals’ court’s decision to keep a local citizens’ group’s anti-gerrymandering initiative on the November ballot.

“The court’s decision upholds our right as citizens to petition our government for positive change,” Katie Fahey, founder and executive director of the group, Voters Not Politicians (VNP), said in a statement.

Some of the over 425,000 Michiganders who signed the petition to get the measure on the ballot have already pivoted to voter outreach efforts, knocking on over 86,000 doors to date to explain their push for an independent redistricting commission, according to Fahey.

The Supreme Court’s ruling represents a final defeat for Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution (CPMC), a conservative group funded by the state Chamber of Commerce that fought to block the measure through the courts. CPMC maintained that the initiative, which would strip state lawmakers of the power to redraw U.S. House and state legislative districts after each decennial census, was too far-reaching to be addressed with one ballot measure. The group argued that redistricting reform should instead be handled through a constitutional convention.

A 3-0 state Court of Appeals ruling that found CPMC’s complaint “without merit” did not deter the group, which filed an appeal to the Republican-dominated Supreme Court. Nor did a 3-0 June vote by the Michigan Board of Canvassers to approve VNP’s measure.

This pitched battle drew national attention, with voting rights group Common Cause teaming up with former Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to file an amicus brief in support of VNP.

Kathay Feng, Common Cause national redistricting director, said she was “thrilled” with Tuesday’s decision.

Asked for comment, CPMC spokesman Dave Doyle sent a brief email to TPM: “Disappointed in the ruling but accept the decision. Nothing else to say at this point.”

If it passes in November, the VNP measure will establish a 13-person bipartisan commission — composed of four Republicans, four Democrats, and five independents — to assume control of map-drawing responsibilities. Commission members will have to adhere to “accepted measures of partisan fairness” and avoid granting any particular party “disproportionate advantage.”

The current fight to reform Michigan’s redistricting process comes after twenty years of GOP control over the state legislature

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The question of whether President Trump obstructed justice in the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn has always hinged on his familiarity with the details of that probe — and when he learned them.

A new report out Tuesday in the New York Review of Books suggests Trump knew that there was an ongoing criminal investigation into Flynn and his interactions with Russian officials when he asked then-FBI director James Comey on Feb. 14, 2017 to let Flynn “go.”

Reporter Murray Waas said that he reviewed a White House memo that “explicitly states that when Trump pressured Comey he had just been told by two of his top aides — his then chief of staff Reince Priebus and his White House counsel Don McGahn — that Flynn was under criminal investigation.”

According to Waas, “people familiar with the matter” have told him that both Priebus and McGahn also testified to Special Counsel Robert Mueller that they personally provided this information to Trump during a Jan. 26, 2017 meeting.

These details flatly contradict the case that Trump’s personal legal team has made in denying the obstruction of justice allegations. In a confidential January 29 letter to the special counsel leaked to the New York Times in June, two of Trump’s attorneys say that the President knew only that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI. Trump believed the bureau’s investigation was over and that Flynn had been cleared, his attorneys claimed.

Setting aside how odd it would be for Trump to ask the FBI director to end a probe that he didn’t think was happening, the special counsel is reportedly in possession of testimony and documents that contradict that version of events.

This evidence includes interviews with Priebus, McGahn and several other members of the White House Office of Legal Counsel, according to Waas’ reporting. Waas said it also includes the Feb. 15, 2017 White House memo outlining a timeline of the events that led up to Flynn’s firing, as well as “underlying White House records quoted in the memo.”

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