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

In a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent last week, four top congressional Democrats laid out reams of evidence suggesting that President Trump is improperly using the proposed Time Warner-AT&T merger to pressure Time Warner-owned CNN for gentler coverage.

“[W]e are deeply concerned by reports of inappropriate interference by the White House,” the Democrats wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose department sued to block the deal in November. The Democrats also took Sessions to task for declining to say, during congressional testimony, whether DoJ communicated with the White House on the issue. 

The Justice Department’s lawsuit is anything but an easy case. But in the most important sense, the result may not matter: Merely by picking the fight, Trump appears to be putting news organizations on notice that he’s willing to use the powers of the federal government to hurt them if they don’t play nice.

It’s hardly the first time that Trump has appeared to use DOJ to advance his political agenda. But this instance represents a double threat. By sending a message to the corporate owners of leading news outlets that their businesses can expect to pay a price for hard-hitting coverage, the move jeopardizes the independence not just of the U.S. justice system, but of the media, too.

Timothy Karr of the media advocacy group Free Press told TPM he worries that the next step could be charges against reporters for publishing stories that damage the administration  something that would likely have a chilling effect on the media similar to or worse than the DoJ’s lawsuit and something that appeals to Trump, who vowed to “open up our libel laws” as a candidate. The Obama administration, he added, helped lay some of the groundwork, setting a record for prosecutions under the Espionage Act, often of whistleblowers.

“The Trump administration doesn’t like leakers in its midst,” Karr said. “It may only be a matter of time before we see those prosecutions from Trump.”

Successfully neutering CNN would be a major coup for the White House. And it almost certainly would be personally satisfying to Trump, who is notoriously sensitive to his image on cable news.

In June, the network retracted a flawed story about the Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund, and cut ties with three journalists involved. Trump celebrated on Twitter that CNN “got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories.”

“He’s trying to bully us, and we’re not going to let him intimidate us,” CNN president Jeff Zucker reportedly told employees in response. “You can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves.”

Karr and other advocates for tough antitrust policies say it’s legitimate to worry about the impact on consumers of the AT&T-Time Warner merger. In its lawsuit, the Justice Department alleged that the deal would lead to less innovation and higher costs for consumers.

But there are reasons to think that’s not what’s driving the Trump administration’s actions — not least the administration’s broad anti-regulatory stance elsewhere.

Trump has put outspoken foes of excessive regulation in charge of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. And in December, he stood next to giant stacks of paper as he celebrated what he called the “most far-reaching regulatory reform” in U.S. history.

Even the Justice Department official who brought the case against the AT&T-Time Warner merger, Makan Delrahim, who leads the department’s antitrust division, was on a different side of the issue in 2016, when he was a conservative law professor.

“Just the sheer size of it and the fact that it’s media will get a lot of attention, but I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem,” Delrahim told Canadian network BNN two weeks before the election.

AT&T is reportedly seeking to put Delrahim on its witness list. And the company is suggesting that his apparent change of heart was the result of inappropriate political pressure.

“[W]e do not have to prove why Makan Delrahim decided to pursue this case, but if evidence does emerge that it was pursued for some improper purpose, that’s not going to obviously help the DOJ,” Dan Petrocelli, AT&T’s general counsel said on an earnings call last month.

Trump’s opposition to the merger didn’t come after a careful look at the impact on consumers. By his own admission, his mind was made up as soon as he heard about the potential deal.

“As an example of the power structure I am fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN — a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” he told rally-goers in Gettysburg, Penn. in October 2016, the day the planned merger was announced.

Then the week before the inauguration, Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson (the merger didn’t come up, Stephenson has said). Trump also met the same week with the CEOs of Monsanto and Bayer, which also had a proposed merger on the table. The meetings provoked criticism from anti-trust experts, who said it was troubling that Trump was departing with the usual White House practice of steering clear of companies with merger plans that might require Justice Department approval. 

Less than a month into Trump’s administration, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, complained to Gary Ginsberg, a Time Warner exec, about CNN’s coverage, which Kushner viewed as hostile.

In July, a senior administration official told the New York Times that the White House had discussed the merger as “a potential point of leverage over their adversary,” in the paper’s words. The admission received little scrutiny at the time, but it was a remarkably brazen effort by the White House to publicly warn that it recognizes how its power over the merger proposal might be used to bend CNN to its will.

That same month, Trump tweeted a gif of himself tackling a wrestler with the CNN logo superimposed over his head—something the Democrats noted in their letter to Sessions. Other Trump tweets have attacked CNN as ‘fake news.” 

The legal push to block the merger began in earnest in November. A year to the day after the election, DOJ officials quietly tried to pressure AT&T and Time Warner to commit to selling CNN as a condition of the transaction, an idea Stephenson publicly rejected the same day. Two days later, Kushner met with Ginsberg again to tell him he thought CNN should fire 20% of its staff.

The following week, Sessions testified before the House Judiciary Committee where Rep. David Cicilline asked him whether he’d discussed the merger with Trump. In response, Sessions refused to answer, though he didn’t assert executive privilege.

“I am not able to comment on conversations or communications that Department of Justice top people have with top people at the White House,” Sessions said.

Six days later, the Justice Department filed suit to block the merger.

“Personally, I’ve always felt that that was a deal that’s not good for the country,” Trump told reporters at a White House press conference soon afterward.

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At a Tuesday Senate Intelligence Committee meeting, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) scolded the president — and his appointees — for not responding to Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, saying that without a clear doctrine of deterrence there was no reason for the Kremlin not to continue to interfere in American politics without fear of consequence.

We cannot confront this threat, which is a serious one, with a whole of government response when the leader of the government continues to deny it exists.” King observed. “We’re trying to fight a global battle with our hands tied behind our back.” 

King referred to the opening statement from Director of National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, calling his assessment of the 2016 Kremlin disinformation operation during the U.S. election “stunning.”

“They will work to use cyber operations to achieve strategic objectives unless they face repercussions for their operations,” King summarized. “Right now there are none! Is that not the case? There are no repercussions. We have no doctrine of deterrence. How are we going to get them to stop doing this if all we do is patch our software and try to defend ourselves?”

Trump has been slow to punish Russia, and, without the President on board, King said he has faced backlash from constituents for pushing for Russia to face consequences. “My problem is I talk to people in Maine that say, ‘The whole thing is a witch-hunt and hoax because the president told me.'”

I am sick and tired of going to these hearings, which I have been going to for five years, where everybody talks about cyber attacks, and our country still does not have a policy or a doctrine or a strategy for dealing with them,” King said. The Obama administration, he observed, “didn’t do it either.”

“Director Pompeo, you understand this issue, do you not?” King said to CIA director Mike Pompeo. “We have to have a doctrine of deterrence — if they strike us in cyber, they’ll be struck back in some way.”

Pompeo demurred, saying the public nature of the hearing precluded him from speaking about the ways the U.S. had punished the Russian government for the 2016 cyberattacks. “I’d argue your statement that we have done nothing does not reflect the responses that frankly some of us at this table have engaged in and the United States government engaged in, during and before this administration,” Pompeo said. Pompeo deferred questions about response to Russia later in the hearing, as well, telling Jack Reed (D-RI) that “We have a significant effort, I’m happy to talk to you about in closed session, and it’s not just our effort. It is certainly an all-of-IC effort.”

That wasn’t good enough for King. “Deterrence doesn’t work unless the other side knows it,” he said. “The doomsday machine in Dr. Strangelove didn’t work because the Russians hadn’t told us about it.”

Coats was less coy, saying that 9-11 had happened because of a similar failure of intelligence. If someone is attacking you and there’s no retribution or response, it is going to incentivize more contacts,” he said. “Right now, there are a lot of blank checks for things we need to do.”

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At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday morning, CIA Director Mike Pompeo fielded a disturbing question from ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA): “Has the intelligence community assessed how the North Korean regime would react to a preventive United States attack?”

“We have,” Pompeo replied. “I would prefer to share that with you in closed session this afternoon.”

In open session though, Pompeo elaborated slightly: “We have written about various forms of actions,” he said. The intelligence community had also measured “the certainty and uncertainty we have around that analysis, as well as what we think happens in the event that the United States decides not to do that and continues to allow Kim Jong-un to develop his nuclear weapons arsenal,” Pompeo told the committee.

Feinstein pressed him further: “Have you explored what it would take to bring them to the table?” she asked.

“We have,” Pompeo said. “I’d prefer to share that with you in closed session.”

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For more than a year, there’s been intense scrutiny of Russia’s sprawling campaign to influence the 2016 election, and of the extent to which Donald Trump’s campaign was complicit in it.

But the question of just what Russia hoped to get from Trump has stayed mostly on the back-burner. 

That has obscured a crucial reality. On numerous occasions, in numerous ways, Russians working for or linked to Vladimir Putin’s government have asked Trump or his team to weaken or lift U.S. sanctions on Russia. And — through his public rhetoric, through a weak approach to enforcement, and, most recently, through his resistance to fully implementing a sanctions law passed by Congress — Trump has mostly done what he can to oblige.

Among Russia’s top concerns has been the Magnitsky Act, which was passed by Congress in 2012 in retaliation for Russia’s mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who died in prison in 2009 — European investigators concluded he was murdered — after exposing an alleged money-laundering scheme that implicated top Russian officials. The law targeted specific Russian officials determined to be involved with Magnitsky’s death, barring them from entering the U.S. or using its banking system.

Then in 2014, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on a range of Russian institutions including state banks, in retaliation for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier that year. And in December 2016, Obama imposed additional sanctions on Russian nationals and tech companies, including ordering the removal of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S., in response to Russia’s campaign to influence the U.S. election.

It’s the Magnitsky Act that’s especially enraging to the Putin government, because it hits powerful figures in Russian business and government, whose ongoing support is crucial to Putin, Russia experts say.

“Putin hates targeted sanctions,” said Bill Browder, the American-born hedge-fund manager who employed Magnitsky when he uncovered the alleged money laundering, and has become an outspoken Putin critic. “If the country was sanctioned, they could always bring in planeloads of luxury goods. [Specific sanctions] target, at a precise level, the elite, and they leave the rest of the people alone.”

And as the Russia expert Amy Knight points out in a history of the Magnitsky affair in the New York Review of Books, laws like Magnitsky that punish Russia for internal human rights abuses strike at the source of Putin’s power: his ability to turn the law off and on when it suits him.

The Kremlin’s Quiet Push Against Sanctions

So the Russian government set out to ask for help from Trump. The Magnitsky Act was a topic of conversation at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign staff and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-linked lawyer, the latter told Bloomberg last November. 

They had already approached him overtly at the start of his campaign: Maria Butina, a top aide to the Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, asked Trump to lift sanctions during the Q&A portion of a speech at a libertarian conference in Las Vegas in July 2015. Trump interrupted Butina’s question to praise Putin and say he wanted better relations with the country.

More overtures followed. In July 2016, Trump advisor Carter Page visited Moscow where he discussed the ways lifting sanctions would be “advantageous” to a Russian state oil company. Later that month, Trump officially received the Republican presidential nomination.

The campaign continued through backchannels. After the election, Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., called Michael Flynn to discuss the Obama administration’s December 2016 sanctions expelling Russian diplomats, according to documents charging Flynn with lying to federal investigators. Flynn asked Kisylak not to retaliate for those sanctions, suggesting the incoming Trump administration would undermine them.

The push got even more direct once Trump took office. In July 2017, Trump and Putin held a closed-door meeting where they discussed “adoption,” Trump later told the press. That was almost certainly a reference to the sanctions on American adoptions Putin imposed on the U.S. in retaliation for Magnitsky.

Donald Trump, Pushover

Trump appears to have been glad to go along with the Russian pressure campaign. In one key early sign of its willingness to play ball, the Trump campaign in July 2016 gutted the GOP platform’s hardline position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Two months later, another foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, was inveighing against sanctions to Russian news agency Interfax. Papadopoulos would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation.

Once Trump took office, however, things became trickier. Despite Flynn’s promises to Kisylak about sanctions, by February Flynn had been fired amid the FBI probe, and legislation punishing Russia beyond the expulsion of the 35 diplomats appeared to be moving forward.

In August 2017, Congress responded to the Russian election interference by passing new sanctions nearly unanimously. The bill required Trump to name businesses and individuals to be added to a list, maintained by the Treasury, of entities with which it is illegal for Americans to do business.

It would have been politically damaging for Trump to veto the sanctions, especially given the ongoing focus on his campaign’s ties to Russia. But in signing the bill, Trump issued a statement protesting what he labelled unconstitutional provisions. Parts of the bill, Trump said, “purport to direct my subordinates in the executive branch to undertake certain diplomatic initiatives, in contravention of the President’s exclusive constitutional authority.”

In retaliation for the new sanctions, Putin expelled hundred of diplomats from Russia. In response, Trump thanked him, saying the State Department’s budget needed cutting anyway. He later said he was being sarcastic.

Still, Trump dragged his feet on implementing the new sanctions law. His administration released the list of 39 businesses nearly a month after an October 2017 deadline had passed. And on January 29 of this year, a day before the list of persons was due, the State Department announced it wouldn’t release one, saying the threat of punishment was punishment enough.

“[S]anctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.

The same day, the Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin, as required by the law. But it didn’t sanction them — Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin suggested he might do so later. Treasury turned out to have cribbed the list from Forbes.

The list was released the same week that three Russian intelligence officials — one of them himself under U.S. sanctions — were reported to have met with CIA director Mike Pompeo in the U.S.

“I think that the Trump administration was persuaded not to publish a narrow list of people to be sanctioned and instead to come out with this broad list of officials that ended up being meaningless,” said Knight, the Russia scholar and the author of Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder. “I think they were pressured by the Kremlin indirectly, possibly through this visit of the three intelligence chiefs.”

The Limits Of The Presidency

And yet, the Trump administration also has done plenty to anger Putin. The son of Yury Chaika, the power player behind Donald Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting, has been added to the Magnitsky list. And the U.S. is arming Ukraine—something Obama never did, and exactly the position his campaign tried to strip out of the GOP platform.

“There are a lot of things that are not great news for Russia under this administration,” said Browder.

Both Knight and Browder said the Kremlin likely has some buyer’s remorse about Trump, after seeing the limits on his ability to carry out their requests. The U.S. president, after all, has much less authority than Russia’s authoritarian leader.

“I think that Putin and his supporters are beginning to realize now that Trump can’t just wave a magic wand and have sanctions go away,” Knight adds. “There are a lot of things he can’t do! I don’t know that they’re so much disappointed in Trump as disappointed in finding out that in fact he has quite a few constraints.”

This post has been updated.

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A Russian pro-gun group with ties to the National Rifle Association boasted an “honorary members” list that’s a who’s-who of far-right and nationalist Russian political figures.

The group, The Right To Bear Arms, is run by Alexander Torshin, the Russian central bank official and Putin ally at the center of an FBI investigation into whether the NRA received illegal Russian money to boost Donald Trump in 2016.

The NRA has denied being contacted by the FBI about anything related to Russia, but has said almost nothing about the reported probe. The NRA spent more dark money in the 2016 election than any other political organization.

The honorary members list offers additional evidence that the Right To Bear Arms enjoys support from powerful far-right figures in Putin’s Russia. And it raises questions about the NRA’s relationship with the group: The Right To Bear Arms hosted top NRA officials for a 2015 meeting in Moscow and has forged other close contacts with the NRA. One person on the honorary members list told TPM he received his membership at a 2015 NRA meeting.

As recently as 2016, Right to Bear Arms listed 22 “honorary members” on its website, according to an archived version of the site, which described them as “individuals who make decisions on a national scale, as well as opinion leaders.” The Right To Bear Arms site said the honorary members were listed “with their consent.”

Many of those listed work alongside Torshin in the Russian parliament. They include top brass from the right-wing nationalist LDPR and Rodina parties. That’s a powerful membership for a group which was founded in 2012 by a then-24-year-old Siberian furniture store owner, Maria Butina, and which has had little success in promoting Russian gun rights.

“For nearly a year, the NRA has avoided answering basic questions about why it cozied up to Moscow and a Russian gun group with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told TPM. “Until the NRA comes clean and starts answering questions, Americans will continue to wonder what the NRA might be hiding.”

An NRA spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

One name on the list, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is a longtime ally of Putin, who he has called “the tsar.” For decades, Zhirinovsky has been a leader of Russia’s far right. He has blamed Jews for starting the Second World War and provoking the Holocaust, and he played a key role in helping the intelligence officer suspected of poisoning defector Alexandr Litvinenko get elected to Russia’s parliament. A 2002 video shows a drunken Zhirinovsky threatening Condoleezza Rice, then the U.S. National Security Adviser, with gang rape. In October 2016, Zhirinovsky threatened “Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere” if Americans voted for Hillary Clinton.

Oleg Volk, a Tennessee-based photographer who makes pro-gun posters and graphics, also is listed as an honorary member of The Right to Bear Arms. Volk told TPM that Butina and Torshin presented his honorary membership to him at “a brief lunch meeting” during the 2015 NRA conference in Nashville, as a thank you for making Russian-language images for the group to use.

Volk said he was “amused” to see Zhirinovsky’s name near his own.

“He was kind of the bogeyman in Russian politics, he was very anti-Semitic,” said Volk, who is Jewish. “People like him caused my family to get out of Russia.”

Among the other names on the Right to Bear Arms list: Ilya Drozdov, the deputy head of LDPR, who has called for Ukraine to be “wiped off the map;” as well as at least three other LDPR members.

Alexei Zhuravlev, also on the list, is a high-ranking member of the Russian parliament and the head of the Rodina party, which, like LDPR, opposes the pro-Western government in Ukraine. Zhuravelv has publicly supported the head of the Donetsk Separatists, who declared the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk a separate region called “Little Russia.” 

Rodina backs the The Antiglobalization Movement of Russia, which has courted aspiring secessionists in California, Texas and Puerto Rico and actively courts neo-Nazis. In 2015 Rodina hosted a nationalist event that featured attendees from Greek fascist group Golden Dawn and the violent far-right organization Britain First, as well as Ku Klux Klan lawyer and white supremacist Sam Dickson, and Jared Taylor, who leads the white nationalist group American Renaissance*.


*CORRECTION: This story originally referred incorrectly to American Renaissance as an American Nazi group. We apologize for the error.


Russian translation provided by Jerry Vinokurov

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded to Devin Nunes’s disputed memo about the Russia investigation on Friday, saying “concerns have been raised about the Department’s performance” and that the DOJ is accountable not just to the American people but to “those they have elected.”

Sessions said in a statement:

Congress has made inquiries concerning an issue of great importance for the country and concerns have been raised about the Department’s performance.  I have great confidence in the men and women of this Department.  But no Department is perfect.

Accordingly, I will forward to appropriate DOJ components all information I receive from Congress regarding this.   I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth.

We work for the American people and are accountable to them and those they have elected.  We will meet that responsibility.

Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Russia probe after the Washington Post revealed he had met with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign.

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Former Trump campaign staffer Carter Page emailed TPM his statement on the disputed Nunes memo, released on Friday:

‘The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy. Now that a few of the misdeeds against the Trump Movement have been partially revealed, I look forward to updating my pending legal action in opposition to DOJ this weekend in preparation for Monday’s next small step on the long, potholed road toward helping to restore law and order in our great country.’

The memo is centered around what it claims were improper actions by the FBI in its efforts to get a warrant to surveil Page, who had numerous contacts with people linked the Russian government.

Page is a major figure of interest in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has consistently maintained his innocence, though former CIA officers and opposition researcher Glenn Simpson have described him as an easy target for foreign intelligence.

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seeking documents from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump Administration in order to determine whether “Russian-backed shell companies” inappropriately sought to influence the 2016 election through the gun group.

Last month, McClatchy reported that the FBI is probing whether Aleksandr Torshin, a Putin ally, illegally funneled money to the NRA to boost Donald Trump. The NRA last week denied to TPM that it had been contacted by the FBI “about anything related to Russia”.

The news of Wyden’s letters was first reported by the Associated Press.

“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” Wyden wrote to Treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin.

The letter requests “any documents in the holdings of the Department of the Treasury associated with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Russia” from the Treasury, noting Wyden’s specific interest in “documents from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network” and from the Treasury’s office of terrorism and financial intelligence.

In his letter to the NRA treasurer Wilson Phillips, Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote that he was “troubled” by the possibility that Russian interests had tried to influence the elections “by abusing the rules governing 501(c)(4) tax exempt organizations.”

Wyden asked Phillips for “any remuneration, transaction, or contribution that involved any of the 501(c)(4) entities associated with your organization and any entity or individual associated with any Russian official, Russian national, or Russian business interest.”

Torshin — and his friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 are both “life members” of the NRA, Torshin has said. Life members must give at least $1,500 to the group. It’s not illegal for foreigners to contribute to the NRA’s general coffers, but it would be illegal if the group used foreign money for political activities.

As TPM has reported, Torshin has spent years cozying up to the NRA and courting American conservatives. At the same time, he has narrowly avoided arrest in Spain for his alleged role in the Taganskaya Bratva, a St. Petersburg-based criminal organization in which Torshin is allegedly a boss.

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Russians courting the NRA before the 2016 election came with a 35-inch long olive branch: the AK-47.

Alexander Torshin is the Russian banker and Putin ally reportedly at the center of an FBI probe into whether the NRA received illegal Russian money to help Donald Trump in 2016. Torshin has ties to the Kalashnikov Concern, the state-owned company that makes the AK and other popular rifles, according to a TPM review of bank statements. And in 2014, the NRA raised concerns about the Obama administration’s move to ban the Kalashnikov Concern from doing business in the U.S., which is easily the largest market for civilian firearms. 

The ban was part of the Obama administration’s broader sanctions regime introduced in response to the Russian seizure of Crimea that year.

What to make of the connections? The link between Torshin and Kalashnikov, along with the NRA’s support for lifting sanctions on the Kalashnikov Concern, suggests a confluence of interests between Torshin and the NRA which could have played in to the Russian efforts to influence the gun lobby group.

The NRA last week denied to TPM that it had been contacted by the FBI “about anything related to Russia”.

Torshin serves as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, which is Russia’s version of the U.S. Federal Reserve, but also controls a major Russian consumer bank, Sberbank, which it founded. Sberbank, which also is on the U.S. sanctions list, is a major lender to Rostec, a company owned directly by the Russian Federation that buys other companies near bankruptcy on behalf of the government and tries to recuperate them. One of Rostec’s holdings is Kalashnikov. Sberbank has often done business with Rostec, structuring its common corporate treasury and lending millions to its aerospace subsidiary in the immediate wake of the imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2014.

Those sanctions barred American companies from doing business with Rostec, Sberbank, the Central Bank of Russia, and oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft.

After the sanctions were issued, the NRA released a statement expressing concerns about the inclusion of the Kalashnikov Concern. It warned that the administration might be “using a geopolitical crisis as a convenient excuse to advance the president’s domestic anti-gun agenda.”

Already evidence has emerged that lifting or loosening the sanctions was a key part of the broader Russian effort to gain influence with the Trump campaign. In June 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with links to the Putin government, reportedly met with Trump campaign officials and spoke against the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned a number of government officials for the murder of a whistleblowing accountant. When President Obama threatened further sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference, Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak called Michael Flynn to complain.

Torshin’s overtures to the gun lobby emphasized his close relationship with his elderly friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the rifle. In early 2014, Torshin wrote about the Kalashnikov for the Washington Times opinion page, then under the editorship of former NRA president David Keene. Torshin called the gun, one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.” Both Torshin and Kalshnikov were lifetime NRA members.

Mark Galeotti, a historian of contemporary Russia, said the Kalashnikov isn’t important in terms of military strategy — many of Rostec’s companies are — but called it “an export champion and a part of the national brand.” Before the sanctions, the New York Times estimated that fully 28% of Kalashnikov’s total business came from the U.S. 

TPM has detailed the years of ties between Torshin and his assistant, Maria Butina, and the NRA.

Butina, who runs a shadowy Russian gun-rights organization, showed up at the 2016 libertarian Freedom Fest convention, where Donald Trump spoke. Video from the vent shows a redheaded woman with a Russian accent claiming to be from Russia asking Trump, then a candidate for president, whether he would consider lifting sanctions on Russia.

“Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?” the woman asked.

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The news that the controversial Nunes memo accuses Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of misconduct underscores a crucial but often overlooked reality about Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence in the election: If Mueller decides that President Donald Trump obstructed justice or otherwise broke the law — and such would have quite a bit of evidence — he may well still need Rosenstein’s sign-off to do anything about it.

The pivotal position Rosenstein occupies may help explain the determination of many Trump loyalists in and out of Congress to release the Nunes memo. Rosenstein has been facing calls since last year to step down or recuse himself from the Mueller probe — and his replacement would likely be a Trump loyalist. That means that if Rosenstein is forced out and a Trump loyalist takes his place, the move could neuter the Mueller probe.

At the heart of the issue are limits on the powers of the special counsel. Many legal scholars believe a sitting president can’t be criminally indicted, meaning that if Mueller finds evidence of crimes by Trump, his strongest recourse might well be to make a referral to Congress for potential impeachment proceedings. But some of those experts tell TPM that under the regulation governing the special counsel’s office, Mueller lacks the authority to make that referral without approval from Justice Department officials overseeing his investigation.

After Kenneth Starr’s pursuit of Bill Clinton, Congress changed the laws governing special investigations in 1999: No longer could a three-judge panel appoint an “independent counsel” acting with no direct DOJ oversight. Instead, the decision to appoint a “special counsel” had to be made by the attorney general. In Mueller’s case, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, because of meetings he had held with the Russian ambassador, leaving Rosenstein to appoint and manage Mueller and his probe.

“Those regulations don’t explicitly give the special counsel authority to make a referral,” William Yeomans, a 26-year DOJ veteran who has served as an acting assistant attorney general and is now a fellow at the Alliance for Justice, told TPM. “If there is a referral, it’s going to have to go through Rosenstein. Ultimately, it’s probably his decision.”

Susan Low Bloch, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown Law School, agreed. “Rosenstein decides what to do, and if he sees an impeachable offense I would say that he should send it to Congress,” she said in a phone interview on Monday. “But if he chooses not to, I don’t think you can do anything.”

If Rosenstein is fired or steps down, Trump would appoint his successor. And if Rosenstein recuses himself, the ranking official in the department of justice (DOJ) would be Rachel Brand, a Republican legal operative who worked in the George W. Bush White House*. Brand then would decide whether or not to send Mueller probe’s findings against the president, if any, to the House.

The memo, authored by the office of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), reportedly claims Rosenstein approved an FBI application to a secret court administering the foreign intelligence surveillance act (FISA). The application sought a warrant that reportedly was used to eavesdrop on Trump campaign staffer Carter Page, who has a web of ties to Russia. The memo says the application failed to tell the judge that it relied on a controversial intelligence dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.

As early as last June, Sean Hannity of Fox News, a key Trump defender, called on Rosenstein, along with Mueller, to resign, and Trump expressed displeasure with him in an interview with the Times where he expressed suspicion over Rosenstein’s background in historically Democratic Baltimore. CNN reported that Trump had threatened to fire Rosenstein in private over the weekend: “[L]et’s fire him, let’s get rid of him,” advisors told the network Trump had said, though they characterized the outbursts as “mostly bluster” according to the report. Rosenstein himself has threatened to quit in response to efforts by Trump to pin the blame on him for the firing of Jim Comey, the former FBI director.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Rosenstein is a potential witness to an obstruction of justice case against Trump. Rosenstein wrote the memo justifying Comey’s dismissal, which appears to have misrepresented Trump’s reasons for getting rid of him: The memo said Trump fired Comey because Comey publicly released details of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton — less than a month later, Trump told NBC that he fired Comey because he thought the Russia investigation was bogus. In the interim,  the White House tried to pin the firing on Rosenstein himself, who reportedly threatened to resign in protest

As a result, Yeomans said Rosenstein should recuse himself from the probe.

“One of the principles of the Justice Department is that you can’t supervise an investigation in which you are a witness,” Yeomans said. “Rosenstein has been the man in the spotlight. Mueller may want to keep him there, I don’t know, but it’s clear that he’s key to the investigation.”

What’s also clear is that the question of Rosenstein’s job security is crucial — and it underscores how much is at stake in the Republican effort to use the Nunes memo to discredit him.


Correction: Because of an editing error, this story originally reported that Rachel Brand is perceived as a Trump loyalist. In fact, there’s no evidence for that characterization of Brand’s views.

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