Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.

Articles by Sam

A document filed Wednesday, apparently by accident, by lawyers defending former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort appears to show that the source for an Associated Press story detailing payments to Manafort’s firm by a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party was also a confidential source for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

The document may be part of an intended effort by Manafort’s defense to claim that investigators improperly collaborated with the media, a popular (and regularly debunked) right-wing talking point. But it appears to show only that prosecutors and the AP relied on the same source — something that’s not that surprising. 

“The suggestion that AP would voluntarily serve as the source of information for a government agency is categorically untrue,” Lauren Easton, the director of media relations for the AP, told TPM.

The document mentions two memos from Manafort to Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov is among Ukraine’s wealthiest men and a key ally of Vladimir Putin. It says the Manafort memos were “received by Maloni from AP.” That suggests that the Associated Press showed the memos to Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni for comment.

The document then says: “In the Winter of 2017 (sic 2016) employee of DMI –CS-1 permitted the reporter to view material on a hard drive copy of DMI’s electronic files.”

That suggests that AP’s source at Davis Manafort, referred to in the document as “DMI,” was also a confidential source (“CS1”) for Mueller’s investigation.

The document refers to an April 2017 AP story that suggested, based on Davis Manafort records, that the firm had received at least $1.2 million payments from the pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, the Party of Regions.

In October, Mueller charged Manafort with conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, and false and misleading FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) statements. The FARA violations are unusual — prosecutions under that law are vanishingly rare.

Manafort’s team has in the past complained of overreach by Meuller’s office, the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ). In a lawsuit filed earlier this month against Mueller, Manafort’s lawyers called the charges against the lobbyist “completely unmoored from the Special Counsel’s original jurisdiction.”

Maloni declined to comment to TPM.

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Amid last week’s controversy over the Trump administration’s misleading report on terrorism and immigration, some Department of Justice (DOJ) veterans were deeply troubled by something else: A Justice Department lawyer was once again briefing reporters from behind the podium in the White House press briefing room. 

The appearance by Ed O’Callaghan, a principal deputy assistant attorney general for national security, and a former member of the Trump transition team, was at least the third time under the Trump administration that a relatively obscure DOJ political appointee has briefed reporters from the White House podium on an issue touching on illegal immigration, perhaps the hottest-button political topic of our time.

During the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, no Justice Department official aside from the attorney general briefed reporters from the White House podium, according to a search of a database of White House press briefings maintained by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The three times an attorney general did appear before press from the White House were on 9/11/2001 and twice more in the six weeks following.

Former Justice Department officials say those appearances at the White House are so rare because past administrations have rightly been wary of being seen to put Justice Department staff — as opposed to the attorney general him or herself, who is more clearly associated with the administration — in the service of the president’s political agenda.

“I don’t recall that ever happening [under Obama],” said Vanita Gupta, who served as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ under President Obama, and is now the CEO of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights. “Nobody is above the law in this country, and if the Justice Department appears to be operating on behalf of the president, those are benchmarks of authoritarian regimes.”

Some say having DOJ lawyers essentially speaking for the White House can damage both institutions.

“When you have a DOJ official coming to the White House podium — not the AG, the [Deputy Attorney General] or the [Associate Attorney General] — it gives the appearance of the White House directing their activities even if they’re not directing their activities,” Rudy Mehrbani, the director of the Obama White House’s Presidential Personnel Office — now at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice — told TPM.

Trump is already facing accusations that he has inappropriately politicized the DOJ: After public pressure from the president, the department has reportedly reopened two inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s behavior, both closed in 2016. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly pressured FBI director Christopher Wray to fire deputy director Andrew McCabe.

In June, John Huber, the U. S. Attorney for Utah, spoke from the White House podium about the dangers of so-called “sanctuary cities,” and in favor of a bill mandating harsh penalties for undocumented immigrants. “This pending legislation — ‘Kate’s Law’ and the ‘No Sanctuary for Criminals Act’ — advance the ball for law enforcement in keeping our communities safe,” Huber said. Huber was appointed to his job by President Obama in 2015, but resigned in March; Trump immediately reappointed him. 

The following month, Rob Hur, at the time a Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, joined Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to brief reporters on the administration’s anti-gang efforts, focusing heavily on on MS-13, which has origins in Los Angeles, though many of its members are Salvadoran. The presentation featured a picture of the face of an immigrant accused of a crime, Politico pointed out.

Hur has since been appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland.

Then came last week’s appearance by O’Callaghan, which aimed to promote a deeply flawed DOJ-DHS report prevalence of foreign-born people among those convicted in the U.S. of international terrorism. Trump appointed O’Callaghan to the National Security Division in November.

A Justice Department spokesman pointed TPM to two examples, both from 1998, of DOJ officials of similar rank appearing before press at the White House under President Bill Clinton. And TPM found other examples from the database from the Clinton years.

But none of those involved topics that were anything like as politically charged as immigration is today, or similarly appeared to be putting DOJ personnel in the service of the administration’s contested political agenda. Of the two cases flagged by the DOJ spokesman, one involved John Bentivoglio, a special counsel for health care fraud, speaking about the administration’s efforts on that issue. In the other, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Richard joined several administration officials in discussing international crime-control efforts.

William Yeomans, a lecturer at Columbia University and a 24-year career veteran of the DOJ, primarily in the Civil Rights division, says that political appointees are supposed to be doing exactly the opposite of bear-hugging the administration.

“One of the traditions in the Department of Justice is to protect career people and line people, the people who do the actual work and engage in litigation, because we don’t want them to be looking over their shoulders thinking, ‘If I indict this person or file this lawsuit, am I going to be called up to testify before Congress?'” Yeomans explained. “The political appointees have traditionally been the buffer between political people and career people.”

Another former DOJ official, who asked not to be named, said the practice of using DOJ officials to brief the press suggests the administration has no problem using government lawyers to advance its agenda. 

“I think we’re past the point of the administration not knowing where the boundaries are,” said one, who asked not to be named. “By this point it seems like the administration knows where they are and it doesn’t care.”

This post has been updated.

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A widely pilloried Trump administration report about immigrants and terrorism was compiled without any input from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) until the final sign-off, the Daily Beast revealed.

The report, released last week, was presented as a joint project of DHS and the Department of Justice. It found that 73 percent of international terrorism convictions since 9/11 involved “foreign-born” suspects. But that included foreign nationals extradited to the US after committing crimes abroad — an approach that was widely criticized as misleading.

According to the Beast, citing a government source familiar with the episode, DHS analysts didn’t contribute to the report at all. In fact, “[A]ttorney General Jeff Sessions’s office took charge of the report’s assemblage of statistics — which some terrorism analysts consider highly misleading—and sent it to DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen for her imprimatur after it was all but finalized.”

The report was the subject of broad derision in the media, including during an uncomfortable press conference in which a Department of Justice lawyer, Ed O’Callaghan, spoke to skeptical reporters from the White House, a Trump administration tactic that has drawn criticism in the past. O’Callaghan said the document was “the first iteration of this report in response to the executive order’s directives.”

Former FBI counterterrorism officer Michael German told TPM on Tuesday that the report, which was conducted based on a presidential order issued in September, was “a political document.”

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Twitter underestimated the number of accounts spreading Russian propaganda by more than ten thousand, the company quietly disclosed late Friday.

A company spokesperson wrote on the Twitter blog that 50,258 automated accounts “identified as Russian-linked” had tweeted “election-related content during the election period.”

Twitter will individually email each of the 677,775 people who followed or retweeted a compromised account operated by or set to retweet posts from the Russian “troll farm” known at the time as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the company said. The IRA was reportedly operating on orders from the Russian government.

Twitter’s initial report issued in September relied on a separate assessment by Facebook. It examined Facebook’s 450 compromised users and identified only 179 accounts in its initial assessment. Lawyers for both companies and Google endured public tongue-lashings by committees of both the House and the Senate last fall, who accused them f not doing enough to protect Americans from foreign propaganda.

An intelligence community assessment issued shortly before President Donald Trump’s inauguration said that Russian efforts to influence the election demonstrated a clear preference for Trump over Clinton, and included a multi-pronged disinformation effort across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Russia’s own state news service Russia Today, which made overtures to American political figures during the period. What effect the Russian-backed digital propaganda campaign had on the election has been hard to quantify.

Twitter also included a selection of imagery tweeted by the allegedly Kremlin-controlled Twitter feeds in its post. One image called for the arrest of George Soros, the founder of the progressive Open Society Foundation. Another showed a man in a t-shirt reading “Obama called me Clinger/ Hillary calls me Deplorable/ Terrorists call me Infidel/ Trump calls me AMERICAN”.

Twitter said it had identified “both more IRA and automated Russia-based accounts.” But the lion’s share of the new accounts in the current figures appear to be bots amplifying the posts of a relatively small handful of trolls, some 3,814 accounts run directly by the IRA. The 175,993 tweets from those accounts were spread far and wide by the network of automated tweeters supporting them.

The numbers are relatively small compared to overall Twitter usage, about which the company is cagey. Twitter has 157 million users, according to an estimate based on the company’s own metrics by tech reporters at Recode.

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The FBI is probing whether a Russian banker with Kremlin ties illegally funneled money to the NRA in a bid to help Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, McClatchy reported Thursday.

There’s already a lot of reporting out there on the unlikely ties between the gun group and right-wing Russians. The banker at the center of the probe, Alexander Torshin (pictured), is a lifetime NRA member who’s spent years attending the group’s events and amassing a circle of influential American conservative friends. Several of those American conservatives have attended events organized by a Russian gun-rights group that Torshin helped launch.

It’s also worth noting that the NRA’s dark money arm spent more on the 2016 election than did any other dark money group. It spent three times as much in support of Trump as it did for Mitt Romney in 2012, despite the group’s antipathy to President Obama.

Here, in chronological order, is what we know on the NRA’s Russian ties:

  • 2011: According to the Washington Post, G. Kline Preston, a lawyer in Nashville, Tenn. with a specialty in Russian affairs, introduces Torshin to David Keene, at the time the president of the NRA and a former head of the American Conservative Union. Torshin,then a senator in the Duma from Putin’s United Russia party, was friends with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the revered inventor of the AK-47. Preston, who did not return TPM’s request for comment, told the Post that “the value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”
  • November 2012: At Preston’s invitation, Torshin observes the 2012 U.S. elections. Preston told the Post the two men saw violations of U.S. law in the form of Obama signs too close to a polling place. Preston had served as an international observer of the 2011 legislative elections in Russia, and reported that they were fair — a conclusion at odds with that of many international observers. The same month, presumably during the same trip, he visits NRA headquarters:

  • May 2013: Torshin attends the NRA convention in Houston, where conservative players Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, John Bolton, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry address one of the most important blocs in the Republican base.
  • Summer 2013: According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Torshin is set to attend a birthday party on the Spanish island of Mallorca for Alexander Romanov, a member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya gang. Torshin, El Pais reported, is believed to be the Taganskaya boss. Twelve Spanish police officers wait for him at the airport and the hotel where he would have stayed, ready to arrest him in connection with money allegedly laundered to buy a hotel in the Spanish vacation spot. But, the newspaper reported, a Russian prosecutor tips Torshin off at the last moment, and he never shows up.
  • September 2013: Keene visits Moscow to speak on behalf of the NRA at the conference of The Right to Bear Arms, a group supporting handgun legalization in Russia. The group is run by Maria Butina, then 25, who has been described as a protege of Torshin.
  • December 2013: Romanov is arrested on money laundering charges in Mallorca. He will ultimately be convicted. Among the evidence: 33 telephone conversations with Torshin. In those conversations, Romanov refers to Torshin as “the godfather.”
  • January 2014:  An op-ed written by Torshin on the occasion of Kalashnikov’s death appears in the Washington Times, where Keene, no longer the NRA’s president, is now the op-ed page editor. In the piece, Torshin extols the NRA, mentioning his 2013 visit to the conference and his lifetime membership.
  • March 19, 2014: In response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, President Barack Obama signs an order directly sanctioning several Russian officials, making it a crime to do business with them.
  • September 3, 2014: On an invitation from Butina, NRA member and Republican operative Paul Erickson, formerly a board member of the American Conservative Union — where Keene was president before his time at the NRA — speaks at Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow. Butina posts about the meeting on social media, including a picture of Erickson and the NRA logo.
  • January 2015: Putin names Torshin deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, the hugely powerful Russian state bank, which is the majority shareholder of consumer bank Sberbank. One of Torshin’s first acts as deputy governor is to name Butina his “personal executive assistant” according to El Pais.
  • December 8, 2015: Several prominent NRA members embark on a five-day trip to Russia. They include Erickson, Keene, and gun accessory salesman Pete Brownell. Also in tow is Wisconsin sheriff and Fox News regular David Clarke, who tweets that he met with “the Russian foreign minister.” Clarke would later report that Right to Bear Arms paid for his trip to Russia. The Americans met with Torshin, Butina, and Dmitry Rogozin, the country’s deputy prime minister.
  • December 10, 2015: While the NRA members are in Russia, Putin himself sits down at a gala dinner honoring state news service Russia Today (RT) with future Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and Jill Stein. Flynn gives a talk for which he is paid $45,000 by the Russian government.
  • February 10, 2016: Erickson, the Republican operative and NRA member, starts a company, Bridges, LLC, with Butina, who is now Torshin’s assistant. It’s incorporated in South Dakota. Erickson told McClatchy that the LLC was for Butina’s grad school tuition, which McClatchy described as “an unusual way to use an LLC.”
  • February 14, 2016: Torshin tweets that Butina is in the U.S. “Maria Butina is now in the USA,” he writes, according to a translation by the New York Times. “She writes to me that D. Trump (NRA member) really is for cooperation with Russia.”

  • May, 2016: Torshin asks Donald Trump, Sr. to join him at a breakfast at the NRA’s annual meeting, this year in Louisville, Ky. According to CBS, Torshin hoped to meet the elder Trump but got his son; Alan Futerfas, Donald Jr.’s lawyer, said the conversation between the Russian banker and Trump Jr. extended only as far as “gun-related small talk.” Torshin tweets a picture of himself from the meeting months later. He’s sitting next to Keene, wearing a button that says “I’m NRA, and I Voted.”

  • June 2016: “Right around the time” of the June 9 meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr. and Kremlin-tied lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, according to CNN, Christian activist Rick Clay emails Trump aide Rick Dearborn on behalf of Torshin, offering a backchannel meeting between Trump and Torshin about “shared Christian values” with the subject line “Kremlin connection.” The campaign turns him down.
  • July 2016: Butina attends Freedom Fest 2016, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas featuring Trump as speaker. A video interview with her is featured prominently in the group’s promotional material. During the Q&A portion of Trump’s speech, a Russian woman with red hair who sounds a lot like her asks, “Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?”

  • November 12, 2016: Butina throws a costume party for her birthday at Cafe Deluxe near American University in Washington, D. C., the Beast reported, where she dressed as Russian Empress Alexandra. Erickson came as Rasputin. Two sources told the Beast that Butina bragged she had been “part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.” Erickson told guests he was on the Trump transition team, which the White House would not confirm or deny.
  • January 2017: A US-based LLC representing a Russian company files suit against Torshin-controlled Sberbank in the Southern District of New York, alleging a wide variety of illegal behavior. Torshin buys Allan D. Cors, current president of the NRA, a book about tanks for his birthday, according to one of Torshin’s tweets. The book is in Russian.

  • February 2, 2017: Torshin attends the White House prayer breakfast as part of the Russian delegation. According to Butina, who spoke to Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff, she and Torshin expected a meet-and-greet with the president, but the meeting was nixed the night before. Instead, Torshin had breakfast with Republican congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (California) and Tom Massie (Kentucky). Rohrabacher told Isikoff it had been “a good exchange” — Torshin seemed to agree with the American conservatives that “[t]he whole problem is with radical Muslims.”
  • May 10: Brownell, who attended the 2015 meeting of the Russian gun group, is elected NRA president.
  • August 2017: Sberbank hires Donald Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz to represent it in court in New York. The bank denies it is attempting to use Kasowitz’s political connections as leverage.
  • November 2017: Glenn Simpson, head of private political research firm Fusion GPS, tells the House Intelligence Committee that “it appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA” after having targeted “various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise.” Simpson describes Torshin as “a Russian banker-slash-Duma member-slash-Mafia leader” and mentions that Torshin “was supposed to have a meeting with President Trump after the inauguration. And somebody noticed that there had been some stories about him that weren’t pretty good.” He also mentions that Butina was “hanging around in the Trump transition” and suggested she enrolled at American University for the educational visa. He describes Right to Bear Arms as “a big charade.”

The Times said Keene “no longer works” there, though his last byline is January 2, 2018. He is no longer the paper’s op-ed section editor. TPM has emailed Keene through the contact information for his website and will update this piece with comment should he respond. An NRA spokesman did not return a voicemail. Requests for comment sent through contact forms on both of Clarke’s websites generated only automated responses, and an email address listed on a court filing, dclarke.cowboy@gmail.com, bounced back.

We will continue to update this post.

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On Tuesday, the Trump administration released a report filled with heavily gamed statistics that aimed to link immigration with international terrorism. At a White House briefing Wednesday, reporters said they weren’t fooled.

As TPM reported, the joint Department of Justice-Department of Homeland Security report found that nearly three in four people convicted of international terrorism in U.S, courts since 9/11 were foreign-born. The report was framed as offering support for President Trump’s strict immigration policies. But to get to the three in four number, it included foreigners who committed crimes on foreign soil before being extradited to the U.S. — cases which have no bearing on immigration issues. 

Justice Department official Ed O’Callaghan appeared at the White House briefing Wednesday to discuss the report. 

“A lot of the crimes that you’re using as examples to justify changing the immigration system are crimes that were attempted crimes or would have taken place outside the United States,” one reporter observed. “Can you give maybe better examples that fit what you’re trying to say?”

O’Callaghan responded that this was just “the first iteration of this report in response to the executive order’s directives.” He said the government would “have more statistics and address some of this issues we weren’t able to address” in later versions.

The reporter appeared unconvinced. “It seems like the focus there should be on things that people did in the United States, to people in the United States,” he followed up.

As O’Callaghan spoke, a CNN chyron flatly called the report “misleading.”

O’Callaghan also couldn’t answer a question about how many among the 549 people convicted of “terrorism-related” offenses were immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Session had said in a statement accompanying the report, and blasted out on Twitter, that the report shows “our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.”

The report has attracted widespread criticism from immigrant groups notably the Tahirih Justice Center, a 20-year-old nonprofit advocate for refugees, which called the report “deeply flawed” for failing to note that “immigrants are uniquely vulnerable to violence and exploitation by U.S.- and foreign-born perpetrators.”

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The Trump administration wants everyone to know that many of the people convicted by the U.S. of international terrorism weren’t born in America.

That unsurprising finding, itself obtained through a brazen sleight of hand, is the key revelation in a new report released Tuesday by the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The ten-page paper was written in response to an executive order issued last year by President Donald Trump that directed the government to report numbers on foreigners in the U.S. who have been charged with terrorism. It aims to build support for the Trump administration’s strict immigration policies.

“This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality—our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a press release accompanying the report.

The report finds that of the 549 people convicted in the U.S. of international terrorism since 9/11, 402, or nearly three out of four, are “foreign-born.” But to get to that number, it includes foreigners who committed crimes on foreign soil before being extradited to the U.S. — cases which have no bearing on immigration issues.

House minority whip Steny Hoyer said the report’s “picture of a nation under assault from foreigners” served no serious purpose. The report, the Maryland Democrat said in a statement send to press and posted to his website, “cannot be taken seriously because it is so deeply misleading.”

“The fraction of immigrants who engage in terrorism is minuscule, barely registering against the overwhelming share who contribute positively to our economy and national security,” Hoyer wrote. “The report counts those who committed terrorist acts overseas and were brought here to face trial – such individuals are not ‘immigrants’ by any stretch of the imagination.”

Of course, that’s just the most obvious problem with the report. Michael German, formerly an FBI counterterrorism agent and now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security program, said the report’s use of the term “international terrorism” exclusively refers to Muslim groups. Neo-Nazis, the Klan, anti-abortion terrorists and other terrorists, aren’t counted by the report as international terrorists even if they were foreign-born.

“International terrorism” is an internal phrase used by the FBI, German said. “Domestic terrorism just means ‘not affiliated with Muslim groups.’ If you’re a Neo-Nazi terrorist in the United States, even if you’re Canadian or French, you’re a domestic terrorist.”

The authors of the report suggested that they had sought information not just about the immigration status of terrorists themselves, but of their families, especially of American citizens. “Information pertaining to the citizenship status of the parents of these 147 [American-born] individuals was not available at the time of this report’s issuance,” reads one footnote.

The report comes as the White House and Congress are engaged in a heated debate over the potential for an immigration overhaul. A hard line on immigration was the most prominent policy stance of Trump’s presidential campaign.

This post has been updated.

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“Carter Page seemed to us to be a typical person who the Russians would attempt to co-opt or compromise or manipulate,” Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a transcript released Tuesday.

Simpson cited what he described as Page’s youth, his ambition, and his naïveté as three reasons the Kremlin would have targeted Page, an energy consultant who served as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.

Simpson’s testimony took place in August but was released Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee.

Simpson also testified he had “reason to believe” someone had offered Page business deals designed to influence him.

Simpson’s assessment is in line with that of former US intelligence professionals who spoke on the record to Talking Points Memo in November. They described Page as a soft target. “Most spies are Fredos,” ex-CIA officer David Chasteen said, referring to Michael Corleone’s hapless brother in The Godfather.

“There was a fair amount of open source [public information] on his consulting firm, his complaint that he’d lost money on Russian investments and he owned stock in [state-owned Russian oil giant] Gazprom and he was really mad about the sanctions [on Russia by the U.S.] and he went over there in this hastily-arranged trip to speak to this school and that was all pretty unusual,” Simpson told Senate investigators in August, “but there’s a lot of skepticism in the press about whether he could be linked between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign because he seemed like a zero, a lightweight.”

“I remember sort of not being able to kind of explain to people [in the press], that’s exactly why he would end up as someone who they would try to co-opt,” Simpson said.

Simpson listed Page’s speech in Moscow as one of several events that gave him pause alongside the Trump campaign’s surprisingly friendly stance toward Russia.

“[T]hey changed the Republican platform,” Simpson recalled. “Carter Page shows up in Moscow and gives a speech. He’s a campaign advisor and he gives a speech about dropping sanctions. Trump continues to say mysterious things about what a great guy Putin is.”

Simpson observed that Christopher Steele’s raw intelligence dossier — the primary topic of discussion during the hearing — identified Page as someone who “seemed to be in the middle of the campaign, between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and he later turned out to be an espionage suspect who was, in fact, someone that the FBI had been investigating for years.”

That confluence of credulousness and access, John Sipher, another former CIA officer, told TPM in November, is very rare in the world of clandestine work. Simpson, too, observed that people often spy without knowing it — something intelligence agents as high up as former CIA director John O. Brennan have said publicly.

“[T]he definition of compromised is someone who has been influenced sometimes without even without their knowledge,” Simpson said. “We had reason to believe that he had, in fact, been offered business deals that were — that would tend to influence him, business arrangements.”

Read Tierney Sneed’s story on the transcript and the transcript itself here.

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A homeschooling lobby group with a low profile, but growing influence, has a surprising agenda: keeping public money away from home-schoolers, the better to ensure that parents can operate free from government regulation, including from child-welfare workers.

Critics of the group, called the Home School Legal Defense Association, say less scrutiny is the last thing homeschooling needs. And they point to a spate of recent instances of misconduct in the home-school community, including child abuse.

In May, HSLDA met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to urge her not to let federal dollars go to home-schoolers. The conservative evangelical Christian group, which has 85,000 dues-paying members and was founded in 1983, also has influenced draft legislation on homeschooling created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive business lobbying group, of which it’s a member. Its director of federal relations, William Estrada, was a member of the Trump transition team as an advisor on education policy.

“We want to be left alone,” Estrada told TPM.

“As far as power and influence, I would say HSLDA as an institution is the most powerful home-school lobbying arm and organization, and one of the most powerful religious-right groups that nobody’s really heard of,” said Kathryn Brightbill, a policy analyst at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE). “They see themselves as representatives for the whole home-school community in the U.S.”

Brightbill’s group supports greater regulation of homeschooling, and believes HSLDA’s anti-regulatory stance puts home-schooled kids at risk.

“There are children who are falling through the cracks, and often — well, I don’t know how often because it’s so hard to get numbers — children are experiencing abuse and neglect as a result of that lack of oversight,” said Brightbill. 

HSLDA’s prime mission is providing legal assistance to home-schooling parents, sometimes including criminal defense and public relations for members charged with abusing or mistreating children. Several of the people it has defended in the courts or in the media have spurred controversy:

  • In 1995, HSLDA represented two home-schooling parents who had been ordered by a judge to send their two children to public schools after four of the couple’s other children had died in their care. The couple were ultimately allowed to continue to home-school the children.
  • In 2005, HSLDA lawyer Scott Somerville called Michael Gravelle, a home-school father who had been accused of keeping 11 of his adopted children in cages, “a hero.” (Somerville did not represent Gravelle in court). Gravelle and his wife were later convicted of child endangerment and abuse.
  • In 2013, a lawyer affiliated with HSLDA represented Carolyn and John Jackson, a couple who were indicted on 17 counts of child endangerment and assault, including allegedly keeping their children dehydrated and having their siblings police them to make sure they did not drink from the toilet in desperation. The couple were convicted on multiple counts. 

The cases attracted attention from religion writers, notably Patheos blogger Libby Anne. In response to her work, HSLDA said in a 2013 Facebook post that it receives hundreds of calls each year from parents seeking help after facing false or malicious accusations from child welfare agencies.

Asked by TPM about HSLDA’s work on behalf of these clients, Estrada did not respond. 

Although there were 1.8 million homeschooled students in the country in 2012, the most recent numbers available, there is currently no federal program to financially support home-schooling, and state and municipal support is largely limited to dual enrollment in public high schools and participation in sports programs. HSLDA wants to keep it that way, fearing that with public money comes public scrutiny, which leads to government interference.

“If some homeschoolers take the money, then all homeschoolers will be seen as being on the government dole and there’ll be government strings attached to it,” Estrada said.

In January 2017, President Donald Trump, addressing a joint session of Congress, called for a school choice bill that funded homeschooling. HSLDA responded with a formal letter in March thanking Trump for the shout-out, but adding: “We do, however, wish to ask that you ensure that any school choice legislative proposals specifically exclude homeschool families.”

The May one-on-one with DeVos was a major coup for HSLDA, and marked the first time an education secretary had sat down with the group.

DeVos has campaigned in support of homeschoolers since long before her appointment.”What you’re seeing is parents who are fed up with their lack of power to do anything about where their kids are assigned to go to school,” DeVos told Philanthropy magazine in 2013. “To the extent that homeschooling puts parents back in charge of their kids’ education, more power to them.”

HSLDA asked for the meeting with DeVos in order to lobby her to deny federal funds to home-schoolers, and to offer “general thanks,” according to an email sent before the meeting by Estrada to DeVos’s staff obtained by TPM through a Freedom of Information Act request.

A Department of Education spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the meeting.

To advance its agenda against government money, HSLDA also joined ALEC. HSLDA’s goal has been to block or modify model legislation authored by ALEC that has sought to expand access to public money for home-schoolers.

Estrada pointed to a footnote that HSLDA managed to have added to a recent piece of ALEC model legislation, which reads: “Due to the differences in each state’s homeschooling laws, homeschoolers in some states may oppose attempts to make homeschoolers eligible to receive state education dollars. The authors encourage you to reach out to homeschool organizations in your state in advance to discuss this with them.”

Brightbill said HSLDA’s policy and lobbying work is far more conservative and anti-government than many of its members might like. Some parents may have conservative views about national politics, she said, but they often want their kids to play sports on local school teams or dual-enroll in public schools when they get old enough to require more sophisticated teaching.

HSLDA members who spoke to TPM said they liked having access to lawyers who could help them comply with local regulations. But they also echoed Brightbill’s assessment: Interest in sports, in dual-enrollment, in money without the specter of restrictive curricula.

Brightbill says maintaining a basic level of regulation is crucial to kids’ safety, which is why HSLDA’s growing profile is troubling.

A 2000 HSLDA white paper that the association still promotes to its members, “The Social Worker At Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints” offers tips for avoiding child protection workers including “Do not spank children in public” and “Do not spank someone else’s child unless they are close Christian friends.”

“[T]he policies they’ve pushed have directly led to kids being abused … because of a lack of oversight,” Brightbill said.

This post has been updated.

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House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes announced Wednesday night that the Department of Justice had agreed to turn over to the committee all documents and witnesses related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

“After speaking to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein this evening, I believe the House Intelligence Committee has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice that will provide the committee with access to all the documents and witnesses we have requested,” Nunes said in a statement emailed to press. “The committee looks forward to receiving access to the documents over the coming days.”

The California Republican, a staunch Trump supporter, has repeatedly tried to redirect House Intel’s own investigation to targets other than the president. Nunes has focused in particular on intelligence gathered by research firm Fusion GPS in the form of a dossier of raw intelligence that was leaked to Buzzfeed a year ago.

Nunes stepped down from the probe in April amid investigations that he had disclosed classified information, leaving the probe’s leadership with fellow Republican Mike Conaway. But Nunes continued to use the committee’s subpoena power in August to request documents related to the FBI’s own involvement in putting together the dossier, which the Bureau has said do not exist.

The FBI also refused to respond to the subpoena with documents related to “FBI confidential human sources,” Nunes said in a letter made public last week. He also threatened deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and FBI director Christopher Wray with contempt of Congress, a move that drew censure from fellow Republicans.

Nunes’s ethics probe focused on his assertion that someone—he refused to say who—had told him that Donald Trump was under surveillance by American intelligence during his campaign. Nunes later backed down from the statement and was cleared of any wrongdoing by an ethics investigation in December, though in September, CNN reported that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had indeed been wiretapped as a result of a classified FISA warrant.

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