Matt Shuham

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously associate editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at and on Twitter @mattshuham.

Articles by Matt

On Twitter, President Donald Trump is known for shining a spotlight on obscure accounts with a deep devotion to him, reposting their content on his own page and vaulting enthusiastic supporters onto the world’s largest cyber stage.

On Saturday, the supposed real-life identity behind one such account —@ProTrump45, which operates a pro-Trump merchandise website by the same name — unraveled in spectacular fashion. @ProTrump45 has been suspended from Twitter, as have a slew of accounts associated with it.

But important questions remain unanswered: Who created all those sham accounts hawking Trump gear? And how did they end up on the President’s radar?

President Trump thanked @ProTrump45 — who also used the name “Nicole Mincey” — for her support on Saturday afternoon.

Soon after, various Twitter accounts began to piece together that the ProTrump account wasn’t what it claimed.

Mincey’s profile photo was actually an image of a model advertising a “Your Image Here” t-shirt mockup company, Twitter user @Rschooley noticed. That turned out to be true for lots of accounts, many of which had posted on the blog, and who spoke to “each other” on Twitter.

The mockup company, Placeit, accused the accounts of identity fraud when the news broke, and said it would be in touch with law enforcement. It also posted a list of fraud accounts using its software.

Much of ProTrump45’s initial legitimacy reads like a tutorial in digital smoke and mirrors.

On March 20, YouTube user Pro Trump45 posted the video “GOP Shirts Available,” which shows an unnamed model wearing a “GOP” t-shirt — a “Placeit” watermark covers the video. A link to ProTrump45’s store appears in the video’s description.

On May 14, the popular conservative website World Net Daily published “Black, Liberal Woman Dumps Obama To Run Trump Store,” which featured an interview with someone claiming to be Mincey.

“I saw a financial opportunity and took it. That’s the perks of capitalism,” she told the website, explaining why she turned her popular Twitter account into an online store.

The interview quickly spread across the web. A portrait of “Nicole,” with a red “Make America Great Again” cap covering most of her face, even ended up on the “HottiesForTrump” subreddit (NSFW).

The author of the World Net Daily interview, Bob Unruh, did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.

On June 5, Mashable pointed out, the Daily Caller published a sponsored post under the byline “ProTrump45,” with the headline: “ProTrump45: Black Pro-Trump Conservative Begins Pro-Trump Empire.” The post was a mix of supposed biographical matter about the person claiming to be Nicole Mincey and arguments for black voters to support President Trump.

“ProTrump45 and Nicole are beautiful representations of black Republicans and overall minority conservatives,” ProTrump45 wrote.

The Daily Caller’s Jack Kocsis, who run’s the website’s “Daily Dealer” section and is named under the post, did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment.

A publisher’s note added to the post just before 6:00 p.m. ET Monday reads: The advertiser story below might be completely fake, but their deals are 100% real! Get your Trump swag while you can!”

A few weeks later, an identical post showed up on BuzzFeed’s “Community” section — where nearly anyone can post nearly anything — under the byline “vccdfrty,” that account’s only posting.

On June 30, YouTube user Pro Trump45 posted another video, this time of what appeared to be a spokesperson-for-hire reading off stats about the merchandise store. The video is produced to appear like a breaking news report, glossy newsroom and all.

On August 5, when Trump retweeted @ProTrump45, — known for its lightening-fast profiles of suddenly famous people — slapped together a quick list of facts about Mincey, or at least, the persona that Trump highlighted.

As Mincey’s professed identity began to dissolve in the face of scrutiny, Heavy’s profile of her changed with the breaking news.

Now, the website reports that there is a real Nicole Mincey — a college student who claims her identity was stolen and used without her permission. She said she would be filing a police report alleging identity theft. A page on that included the real Mincey’s contact information has been deleted, Heavy reported.

In a separate post, Heavy published the only recorded audio available online of the person claiming to be Mincey. In a May 25 interview with an radio show called Trending Today USA, she said: “I used to be a liberal, and I used to be a Democrat, and I used to be an Obama supporter, but things have changed. I realized the facts.” She said she started her store in January. “Everything is pro-Trump, pro-Republican, and it’s all made in America,” she added.

The person claiming to be Mincey also gave an interview on WVOX in June, Heavy noted. A representative at WVOX’s office said the shows aired on the station are independently produced. He said the time slot described in a web listing for the interview could have belonged to Peter Moses.

Moses told Heavy “I have no interest in this story” and said he couldn’t recall if he had interviewed Mincey. Responding to an email from TPM, Moses wrote: “She never called in and I know nothing about her.”

In a subsequent phone call, Moses added: “A colleague of mine communicated with Mincey to appear on our show in June. She never called. My colleague tried to reach out to her, and did not receive any reply whatsoever, and we moved on with the show. The reason why I didn’t remember her is because she never appeared on the show.”

And on July 4, published a press release advertising ProTrump45, with a physical address Heavy noted belonged to the college student whose identity she claims was stolen. TPM’s calls to the phone number listed in the press release have gone unanswered.

The website Whois, which documents public domain website ownership information, records’s registrant organization as Perfect Privacy, LLC, which advertises itself as a go-between website registrar to keep website owners’ personal information in the dark. Whois records that the went public in January.

@ProTrump45 and its associated accounts would be far from the first case of political messaging-associated identity fraud. In October, for example, a pro-Trump campaign mailer meant to show the diversity of his supporters showed a Sikh man, Gurinder Singh Khalsa, below the label “Muslims.” In fact, not only was Singh Khalsa not a Muslim, nor a Trump supporter — he leads a political action committee called “Sikhs PAC” meant to educate the public about the religion. In December, Racked profiled caucasian models whose images had been used without their permission to advocate white supremacy.

And Trump’s habit of re-posting Twitter accounts with tiny followings, and sometimes no tweets except for those to which he responded, has raised plenty of suspicion. Think of it as the 21st century version of “John Barron,” the persona Trump used to call tabloid reporters and pretend to be his own agent.

This post has been updated.

Read More →

The National Rifle Association continued a streak of publishing decidedly aggressive video content Thursday.

This time, the group’s video wing, NRATV, said they were going to “fisk” the New York Times, a slang journalism term for uncovering factual inaccuracies in reporting.

“We’ve had it with your constant protection of your Democrat overlords,” spokeswoman Dana Loesch says to camera, in a clenched-teeth, Sorkin-esque rant, adding: “We’ve had it with your pretentious, tone-deaf assertion that you are, in any way, truth- or fact-based journalism.”

There was some confusion over Loesch’s assertion that NRATV viewers were going to fisk the Times — to many, it sounded like she was advocating a much more familiar relationship:

But Loesch quickly put that speculation to bed.

The video comes after another in late June, which advocated fighting the “violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth,” seen by many as a call for actual violence.

Read More →

FBI agents monitored social media on Election Day for what they believed were Russian government-backed efforts to spread disinformation, CNN reported Friday.

Citing two unnamed sources familiar with the investigation, CNN reported that FBI analysts identified social media accounts they believed were pushing fake news articles on Election Day, and that “the suspicion was that at least some were part of a Russian disinformation campaign.”

One unnamed person briefed on the investigation told CNN the FBI’s operation was “right on the edge of Constitutional legality” because “we were monitoring news.”

The effort was part of a larger push to monitor cyber threats on Election Day, according to the report, with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence holding regular calls with the White House’s situation room.

Top officials ultimately congratulated each other after the day’s vote went uninterrupted, according to the report.

One unnamed Obama White House official disagreed, however: “What they did worked!”, the official told CNN they recalled saying.

Read CNN’s full report here.

Read More →

Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza on Friday posted pictures of top White House staffers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka posing with him and his new book, which argues that the modern Democratic Party practices tactics promoted by fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler.

Promotional material for “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left” reads: “The Democratic left has an ideology virtually identical with fascism and routinely borrows tactics of intimidation and political terror from the Nazi Brownshirts.” Ironically, Gorka has received a lot of press attention for his ties to ultranationalist groups in his parents’ native Hungary that have been accused of anti-Semitism.

It is illegal for federal employees to use their public offices to endorse a product, and executive branch conduct rules prohibit accepting gifts worth more than $20.

D’Souza’s book retails for less than that, but Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, said the pictures still raised “serious issues” about whether Bannon and Gorka had endorsed it.

Gorka and Bannon each posing for a picture in their office with D’Souza while holding his book raises a serious issues of whether they violated the ban,” Noble told TPM in an email. “I think a reasonable person would assume that the picture would be used to publicly suggest endorsement of the book.”

“I wonder whether they warned him it could not be used for publicity,” Noble added.

The White House press office did not respond to TPM’s request for comment on the photos.

D’Souza deleted the pictures from his Twitter account soon after he posted them, but later shared a cropped version of the photo with Bannon, alongside a graphic with a link to the book’s website.

The original photos appear to have been taken in Bannon’s office; the large white board checklist in the background has made news before, when rabbi Shmuley Boteach posted a photo of himself and Bannon posing in front of it, prompting analysis of Bannon’s prioritized agenda items.

Previously, at the urging of the Office of Government Ethics, the White House “counseled” Kellyanne Conway for promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on national TV from the White House briefing room, with official White House imagery in the background.

This post has been updated.

Read More →

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Friday delivered a warning to potential leakers of intelligence information: “Don’t do it.”

“Those disclosures have been disseminated to both the media and to our foreign adversaries,” Coats said from the Justice Department. “Let me be absolutely clear this morning. These disclosures have resulted in a major threat to our national security.”

Coats noted that criminal leaks have not come out of the intelligence community alone, but also the executive branch and Congress. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center had been tasked with making “recommendations to strengthen the security clearance process,” he said.

The press conference announcing the DOJ’s crackdown on intelligence leaks came a day after the Washington Post published full transcripts of phone calls between Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Australia, respectively. President Donald Trump has ceaselessly criticized his attorney general in recent weeks, including for being “very weak” on investigating leaks. 

Sessions on Friday emphasized that he had invested resources into addressing the issue, saying the agency “has more than tripled the number of active leak investigations, compared to the number pending at the end of the last administration,” he said.

The attorney general outlined three steps to combat the leaks: directing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray to oversee all leak investigations; instructing the DOJ’s National Security Division and U.S. attorneys to prioritize leak investigations; and increasing resources devoted to leak investigations, including by creating a “new counterintelligence unit” within the FBI to address them.

He also said that, at the suggestion of “career investigators,” he would be “reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas,” hinting at a pursuing journalists in court in order to reveal their sources.

“We respect the important role that the press plays and we’ll give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” Sessions said.

Neither Sessions nor Coats responded to a shouted question from a reporter: “Do you plan to prosecute journalists?”

Speaking to reporters after the press conference, Rosenstein said that the review of subpoena policy was part of a “fresh look” and that “leaks to the media are not whistleblowing,” according to the Washington Examiner. He said he would “consult” with the News Media Dialogue Group, a group of media representatives established during the Obama administration, on potential changes.

Rosenstein would not rule out changing the department’s practice of not prosecuting journalists, calling it a hypothetical question, according to CNN.

Journalists were subpoenaed during George W. Bush’s presidency as part of the investigation into the outing of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA operative. And the Obama administration used various tactics, including subpoenaing journalists and naming a Fox News reporter a criminal co-conspirator, in one instance, in attempts to reveal journalists’ sources.

Read More →

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway suggested Thursday night that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was becoming a “fishing expedition” as it looks into President Donald Trump and his family’s business dealings.

In an interview with Conway, CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked for reaction to two fresh news items: that Mueller had impaneled a grand jury as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election; and that, according to Reuters, grand jury subpoenas had been issued in connection with the July 2016 meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer who had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a Kremlin effort to aide Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Grand jury proceedings are supposed to remain private,” Conway began. “So it’s unfortunate that that’s not the case here.”

Conway referred to a statement put out Ty Cobb, a personal lawyer of Trump’s, that said “[t]he White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion” of the special counsel probe “fairly.” Another outside Trump attorney, Jay Sekulow, said the grand jury news was “not a surprise.”

Cuomo asked Conway if Mueller’s looking into Trump’s business empire, and the business ventures of his family members, crossed any “red lines” for the President, as Trump had suggested in a recent New York Times interview.

“The President has said that Jim Comey, the former FBI director, assured him on three separate occasions that he is not personally a target of any investigation,” Conway said. “We know that these types of endeavors end up being fishing expeditions. They’re a very broadly-cast net, and I would remind everybody that, in terms of President Trump, he has said that he has no financial dealings with Russia whatsoever.”

Trump administration officials and surrogates have repeatedly claimed that Trump has no business in Russia, although the President’s ties to the country’s business community have been documented extensively and are part of Mueller’s investigation. It’s impossible to know the full extent of the President’s business relationships without his tax returns, which he has refused to release.

Read More →

The governor of West Virginia, a Democrat, will introduce President Donald Trump at a rally in his state and switch his party affiliation to Republican Thursday, according to several reports.

The New York Times first reported Gov. Jim Justice’s plans to switch parties, citing three unnamed sources familiar with the plans.

The Times noted that Justice did not endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016, and was elected to his first term in the governor’s mansion in November with a significantly smaller margin of victory than that with which Trump won the state.

In February 2015, ahead of his campaign for governor, Justice switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, the Wall Street Journal noted at the time.

Justice, a camera-friendly billionaire-turned-politician in the Trumpian mold, called the press to the governor’s mansion in April to unveil a plate of bull feces — his metaphor for the state legislature’s proposed budget, what he called “a bunch of political bull-you-know-what.”

Not everyone got the memo of Justice’s plans to switch parties, however. Just hours before the Times reported the news, West Virginia’s Republican Party attacked Justice on Twitter, linking to a Charleston Gazette-Mail story on the state’s Division of Highways awarding contracts to a company whose founder pled guilty to involvement in a kickback scheme.

This post has been updated.

Read More →

Special counsel Robert Mueller and his expanding team of investigators have turned their attention to President Donald Trump, his company and his family’s business ties with Russia, CNN reported Thursday.

Such probing runs afoul of Trump’s supposed “red line” to the New York Times: that Mueller and his investigators ought not look into his business ties beyond what is directly relevant to the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Mueller’s investigation into Trump and his affiliates’ businesses has been reported previously — most recently by Bloomberg on July 20, and others. However, CNN’s reporting more extensively details the broadening scope of Mueller’s investigation:

[T]he FBI is reviewing financial records related to the Trump Organization, as well as Trump, his family members, including Donald Trump Jr., and campaign associates. They’ve combed through the list of shell companies and buyers of Trump-branded real estate properties and scrutinized the roster of tenants at Trump Tower reaching back more than a half-dozen years. They’ve looked at the backgrounds of Russian business associates connected to Trump surrounding the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. CNN could not determine whether the review has included his tax returns.

“This is like any investigation,” one unnamed person briefed on the investigation told CNN. “You start at the core and then move to the periphery. You have to explore the finances. Where this is going is no different from any investigation.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Mueller had recently impaneled a grand jury as part of his investigation, reflecting its scope.

Read CNN’s full report here.

Read More →

White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said Thursday that President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed could apply sufficient pressure on the Chinese government to force them to intervene in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“What card left do you have to get China to act?” Fox News’ Bill Hemmer asked Gorka, after referencing an op-ed in a state-owned Chinese newspaper that downplayed the influence China has over North Korea.

Trump has raged at China for not doing more in the face of increased North Korean missile testing.

“We have the President’s Twitter feed,” Gorka responded. “We have the most powerful man in the world making it very clear that we came out of the Mar-a-Lago summit with very high hopes.”

Gorka — a controversial member of the Trump administration, given his affiliations with right-wing nationalist groups tied to anti-Semitism and the targeting of Roma people, among other things — said China’s use of North Korea as a “buffer state” was not be worth the instability that the missile tests brought the region.

Hemmer returned to Gorka’s earlier comment: “With all due respect, can a Twitter feed change the mind of those leading China?”

“If you can win a U.S. election with it, I think it’s pretty powerful, Bill, don’t you?” Gorka replied.

Watch below:

Read More →

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) said Thursday that “no one could really believe that Mexicans were going to pay for a wall” and that President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico was a “metaphor for border security.”

The comments came in response to a transcript published by the Washington Post of a call between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, in which the Mexican leader maintained there was no way Mexico would pay for the wall, contradicting Trump’s endless campaign promises to Americans that the country would. Trump told Peña Nieto in the call that the issue of payment “is the least important thing,” but that, politically, it “might be the most important.”

“What do you make of that?” CNN’s Poppy Harlow asked Rooney, after referencing a passage in the transcript in which Trump told Peña Nieto he cannot talk about not paying for the wall to the press.

“It’s another bit of campaign rhetoric,” Rooney responded. “It’s highly unusual. But I don’t think anyone during the campaign seriously thought that Mexico would pay for that wall, even though we desperately believed in the wall as a metaphor for border security.”

CNN’s John Berman pointed out that Trump promised Mexico would pay for the wall “at every rally he gave.”

“You don’t think that was a campaign promise?” Berman asked.

“These campaigns are full of all kinds of comments: promises, commitments, expressions, vitriolic diatribe. And once the campaign is over, it’s time to move on to governing,” Rooney said.

Harlow pointed out that Trump had brought up Mexico paying for the wall even after the election. She asked if Rooney was comfortable with Trump misleading the public about his discussion with Peña Nieto.

“I think it would have been better had he not distracted the discussion of border security by bringing up who is going to pay for the wall and what kind of wall it would be,” Rooney said. “We have a lot of ways that we can strengthen our border, and physical barriers are one, technology is another. I think we need to be getting about doing that.”

“Knowing what you know from the transcript, which the White House is not disputing openly, do you think he was straight and honest with the American people?” Harlow asked.

I don’t think anyone really thought that the Mexicans were going to pay for a wall,” Rooney said. “I mean, regardless of a boisterous campaign or post-campaign comment. These politicians — these professional politicians make comments all the time. President Trump was not a professional politician, so maybe he made even some more comments that might be disputed later.”

“But the bottom line is no one could really believe that Mexicans were going to pay for a wall,” he continued. “And no one would believe that we don’t need to secure our border. So those are two asymmetrical concepts there.”

Though Rooney never called for Mexico to pay for a border wall during his own run for Congress in 2016, his first such campaign, the big-name GOP donor and one-time ambassador to the Holy See did advocate strongly for a border wall.

One of his advertisements was literally called “Wall.” In it, he bragged about his experience in the construction industry: “So I know a thing or two about building walls.”

“In Congress, I’ll fight to build a big one on our southern border,” he said.

In March, however, according to the Naples Daily News, Rooney said at a town hall that he didn’t know how the U.S. would build a border wall, or if it was possible.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s above my pay grade.”

Watch below via CNN and Raw Story:

Read More →