Allegra Kirkland

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.

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The FBI is reportedly probing whether a Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association (NRA) to help Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

But if the gun lobby did take Russian money, it likely couldn’t have done it without a determined campaign by Republicans, with a major assist from the Supreme Court, to weaken laws governing money in politics. To fully understand the news about the FBI’s probe, we need to first understand how the effort to gut campaign finance laws has left the U.S. deeply vulnerable to foreign money infiltrating our elections.

“Citizens United opened up the floodgates to any kind of corporate money,” Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at good government group Public Citizen, told TPM. “It’s easy to launder foreign money through corporate entities or LLCs, and it goes entirely unreported as coming from foreign sources.”

McClatchy reported that Maria Butina teamed up with Paul Erickson, a Republican operative and NRA member, to set up an LLC, named Bridges, in February 2016. Butina is a top aide to the Russian banker, Alexander Torshin, who is a long-time ally of the NRA. Erickson told McClatchy last year that the company was created in case Butina needed financial help for her graduate studies in the U.S. McClatchy described that as “an unusual way to use an LLC.”

TPM has laid out the web of ties between Torshin, Butina, and top NRA figures.

Foreigners are barred from contributing to U.S. political campaigns. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political activities, fueled a spike in the number of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profits, which are permitted to spend big on political campaigns without disclosing the source of their funds. That makes it hard for government watchdogs or federal agencies to know with certainty if foreign money is being funneled to these so-called “dark money” groups

Campaign finance advocates and prominent Democrats warned about the danger back in 2010.

During his first State of the Union address that year,  Obama cautioned that the Citizens United ruling, which had come days earlier, “will open a floodgate for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limits in our elections.”

In response, Justice Samuel Alito, seated in the audience, mouthed “not true.” His disagreement was echoed by Capitol Hill Republicans and conservative organizations, who argued that the existing legal prohibition on foreign corporations spending money on U.S. campaigns would be sufficient (though no one disputed that they could now do so through their American subsidiaries).

Even Politifact called Obama’s claim “mostly false.” 

But Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center told TPM that the law is now easy to get around. 501(c)(4)s are required to file reports including the donor’s name if money comes in that is expressly earmarked for an ad boosting a particular candidate. But as long as the non-profit doesn’t divulge the specific content of an ad to the donor, no disclosure is necessary.

Anonymity, of course, would be appealing to those like Torshin, the Russian banker whose activities are reportedly under investigation by the FBI.

Neither the NRA nor Butina, the Torshin aide, responded to TPM’s request for comment.

Noble said any case against Torshin or the NRA would be complex. The FBI will have to look through “bank records, the money coming in, where it went,” Noble said. “And try to trace it through to what it was spent on. Beyond that, you want to know who was involved with it, what they discussed with foreign nationals, who approached who, what were their understandings.”

No dark-money group spent more on the 2016 election than the NRA’s dark-money arm. In all, the NRA spent a $55 million on the campaign, including $30 million to support Trump. And because non-profits don’t need to reveal how much they spend on Internet ads or get-out-the-vote efforts, a more realistic estimate of the NRA’s total spending could creep as high as $70 million, according to McClatchy.

The $30 million spent in support of Trump is twice what the group spent to back Mitt Romney in 2012, despite its well-publicized loathing for President Barack Obama.

If Russians did use the NRA as a conduit to financially support Trump, a whole new set of questions opens up.

“This NRA spending, if it turns out to be true, is it unique?” asked Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a campaign finance expert at Stetson University. “Did they try to push it through other opaque non-profits?”

After all the months searching for incontrovertible evidence of pro-Trump Russian intervention in the 2016 election, the answers to those questions, Torres-Spelliscy said, could be “the holy grail.”

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So much for “The Art of the Deal.”

The Trump campaign on Saturday released a new campaign ad calling congressional Democrats “complicit” in all murders committed by undocumented immigrants. The spot seems unlikely to ease tensions on Capitol Hill as the Senate tries to negotiate a compromise on the fate of the 700,000 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children in order to reopen the shuttered federal government.

“Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants,” a narrator says, as images of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) appear on the screen.

The 30-second ad blames Democrats for endorsing these acts of “pure evil” by refusing to allow President Donald Trump to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress was unable to secure a deal to fund the federal government before Friday’s midnight deadline, in large part because of disagreement over extending protection to the so-called Dreamers. Republicans are refusing to discuss the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program until Democrats agree to reopen the government, while Democrats say they need to secure protection for the Dreamers first.

Watch the full ad below.

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Embattled Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) insisted to the Associated Press Saturday that there was “no blackmail” and “no violence” involved in his months-long extramarital affair with his former hairdresser.

“This was a consensual relationship,” Greitens told the AP in his first interview since the allegations surfaced. “There was no blackmail, there was no violence, there was no threat of violence, there was no threat of blackmail, there was no threat of using a photograph for blackmail. All of those things are false.”

The Missouri Republican did not directly say “yes” or “no” when asked if he tied the woman to a piece of exercise equipment in his basement and took a partly nude photograph of her without her consent, according to the AP.

He had a firmer response to allegations that he once slapped her as TPM and other outlets have reported: “Absolutely not.”

As he has throughout the week, Greitens insisted he would remain in office despite calls for his resignation from a handful of Republican state lawmakers, telling the publication, “I’m staying. I’m staying.”

He is under investigation by the St. Louis Circuit Court Attorney for the various allegations against him. CNN reported Saturday that the FBI has also opened an inquiry into Greitens.

Asked about CNN’s report, Greitens said neither he nor his attorneys have been contacted by the FBI about any issue.

“As far as my conduct, there is nothing to investigate,” he claimed.

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FBI counterintelligence officials were alarmed last year when a handful of Russian business leaders and activists with close ties to President Vladimir Putin showed up at Donald Trump’s inaugural festivities, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Though the report does not specify which attendees drew of the FBI’s interest, former U.S. officials told the Post that they were concerned by the presence of individuals who had come up in the federal probe into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia.

The FBI and White House respectively declined and did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment.

Those in attendance included oil tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, pharmaceutical executive Alexey Repik, and lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Veselnitskaya’s summer 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. and other key campaign officials.

According to the Post’s report, these members of Russia’s one percent rubbed shoulders with high-ranking U.S. officials at balls and other events celebrating Trump’s surprise victory.

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Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) has helped advance the fight against sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, but the New York Times reported Saturday that he had to settle his own misconduct complaint involving a former aide last year.

Meehan reportedly expressed his romantic interest in a decades-younger aide, and retaliated against her professionally after she became involved in a serious relationship outside the office and rejected his overtures.

The aide, whose name has not been made public, left Meehan’s office are the situation became unsustainable. Several people familiar with the situation told the Times she ultimately reached a confidential agreement with the lawmaker that included a settlement for an undisclosed amount, totaling thousands of dollars, that was paid out from a congressional office fund.

Those sources, which include friends and former colleagues of the former aide, told the newspaper that she struggled to find work and pay legal bills stemming from the complaint.

Meehan declined to offer comment to the Times. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong told the newspaper that the settlement was “new information to us.”

The Pennsylvania Republican is the latest in a series of lawmakers who have settled misconduct complaints or been forced out of office over sexual harassment allegations. Of the four congressmen who faced investigations from the House Ethics Committee, Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and John Conyers (D-MI) resigned late last year, while Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and Ruben Kihuen (D-NV) have said they won’t run seek reelection in 2018.

Meehan, who sits on the House Ethics Committee and has spoken out against domestic and sexual violence, was already facing a tough road in the midterms. Hillary Clinton almost won his swing district in 2016.

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The FBI recently opened an inquiry into Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R), who is accused of blackmailing and slapping a woman with whom he had an affair, CNN reported Friday.

Two U.S. officials confirmed to the network that the inquiry was initiated, but did not provide information on its scope or the date it began.

The St. Louis office of the FBI has declined to comment on the existence of any probe into Greitens. The St. Louis circuit attorney’s office announced last week that it was investigating the actions of the governor, who has admitted to having an affair but stridently denied allegations of blackmail and physical violence.

Greitens’ personal lawyer, Jim Bennett, has maintained that neither he nor the governor have been contacted by the FBI. On Friday, Bennett told CNN that he didn’t believe the bureau was interested in “this personal matter that took place years ago” or other conduct by the governor unrelated to the affair.

Eli Karabell, a 22-year-old who said he volunteered with Greitens’ transition team in December 2016, contacted the network to say he was interviewed by two FBI agents in an hour-long November 2017 conversation.

Karabell has retained Missouri attorney Al Watkins, who is also representing the ex-husband of the woman who carried out an affair with Greitens.

Watkins previously told TPM that he has personally been “receiving ongoing consistent contact” from an FBI special agent, beginning in October 2016.

It’s unclear if the interviews with Watkins and Karabell are part of the same inquiry that the two US officials confirmed to CNN.

The governor has kept his head down this week as a handful of Republican state lawmakers have called for his ouster and rumors that he would resign swirled through the State House. In lieu of making a planned statewide tour to tout his tax cut plan, he released a 300-word summary.

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President Donald Trump on Saturday groused that he was marking his one-year anniversary in office with a government shutdown, blaming Democrats for putting him in this unpleasant position.

“Democrats are far more concerned with Illegal Immigrants than they are with our great Military or Safety at our dangerous Southern Border,” the President wrote in the first of three early morning tweets. “They could have easily made a deal but decided to play Shutdown politics instead. #WeNeedMoreRepublicansIn18 in order to power through mess!”

“This is the One Year Anniversary of my Presidency and the Democrats wanted to give me a nice present,” he added. “#DemocratShutdown.”

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate failed to come to an agreement on a spending bill to fund the federal government before Friday’s midnight deadline. Though the GOP controls the White House, has a majority in both the Senate and House, and a handful of Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to filibuster legislation that would have averted a shutdown, Republicans on Capitol Hill are blaming Democrats for the shutdown.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) struck back Saturday morning, blaming Republicans for spending all their time on a corporate tax cut when they could have been negotiating to keep the government funded, and highlighting Trump’s tweet from last summer saying “our country needs a good shutdown.”

“Your wish has come true for your one-year anniversary,” she said, slamming Trump and congressional Republicans for “all-around incompetence, inefficiency and prioritizing with all your hearts and soul that one percent at the expense of the rest of the country.”

“Despite controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, the Republicans were so incompetent, so negligent that they couldn’t get it together to keep the government open. They could get it together to pass a tax credit, 83 percent of which benefits the top one percent, but they couldn’t get it together to pass CHIP,” she continued.

Trump was supposed to attend a lavish fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida Saturday night, but the White House has said he won’t leave D.C. until he signs off on a funding agreement.

The Daily Beast reported that the President is unhappy to miss “my party”—a lavish affair hosted by Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel where tickets reportedly sold for $100,000 a pair.

Cameron Joseph contributed reporting.

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The Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to derail, undermine, and distract from the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has had some crucial help from the President’s enablers on Capitol Hill.

These Trump allies have turned public committee hearings with senior intelligence officials into debates about leaks to the media. They’ve proposed bills to decapitate special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, recasting the lifelong Republican former FBI director as a liberal hack. They’ve called for additional investigations into what they describe as anti-Trump bias at the FBI and DOJ. And of course, they’ve aimed to change the subject by attacking Hillary Clinton.

In doing all this, they’ve often appeared to put their loyalty to the president ahead of the need to conduct a full investigation into a major threat to national security.

In descending order, these are the GOP lawmakers who have most aggressively gone to bat for Trump.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA)

Nunes has used his powerful perch to cast doubt on the existence of any links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and to carry out shadow probes that better suit the administration’s storyline.

First, there was his one-man “unmasking” debacle last spring. The California Republican took to the press “evidence” he received directly from the White House, describing it as proof that Obama administration officials improperly revealed the identities of Americans caught up in classified intelligence reports. After Nunes’ claims were debunked by bipartisan lawmakers and national security experts, he found himself facing a House Ethics Committee probe for allegedly mishandling classified documents. In response, Nunes temporarily recused himself from his panel’s Russia probe.

That didn’t stop him from issuing a series of subpoenas to intelligence agencies and to Fusion GPS, the firm that assembled a dossier documenting Russia’s alleged coordination with the Trump campaign. He and other House Intelligence Committee Republicans are currently hunting for evidence that top DOJ and FBI officials improperly handled the dossier.

Nunes has also put himself on the frontline of two other issues the GOP has used as counterweights to the Russia probe. In October, he announced a new probe into the debunked Uranium One scandal involving the Obama administration’s approval of a deal selling part of a company that exports uranium to Russia’s government, a move said to have benefited a donor to the Clinton Foundation. And he threatened to hold DOJ leadership in contempt of Congress for allegedly withholding information about former top FBI official Peter Strzok, who was forced off of Mueller’s team after the discovery of text messages he’d sent disparaging Trump.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

Grassley began the new year by sending off Congress’s first criminal referral in the Russia probe. But the target wasn’t anyone accused of colluding with Putin’s government. Rather, it was Christopher Steele, the former British spy who put together the dossier detailing alleged collusion, and a favorite target of the right. Grassley and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) alleged that Steele lied to federal agents about his contacts with the media.

The Iowa Republican also wrote to the Justice Department suggesting that then-Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe may need to recuse himself from the Russia probe for matters related to his wife’s unsuccessful Democratic campaign for state office in Virginia. And he publicly questioned whether the FBI warned the Trump campaign about ties between some of its staffers and Russian officials. Both moves furthered the conservative storyline alleging anti-Trump prejudice at the bureau.

Grassley has also called for a special counsel to investigate Uranium One, and made much hay of the allegations against Strzok, announcing in December that he was opening a probe into the former FBI official’s “reported bias.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)

The freshman Florida congressman in November became the first lawmaker to openly demand Mueller’s firing.

After months of calling for a second special counsel, Gaetz led a group of GOP lawmakers in introducing a resolution calling for Mueller to step down immediately because he was the head of the FBI when the Uranium One deal was approved. Gaetz called Mueller’s impartiality “hopelessly compromised” and urged other Republicans to join his cause.

The outspoken Freedom Caucus member frequently appears on Fox to float allegations that it was the DNC that collaborated with Russia. And Gaetz has said he personally warned Trump about his concerns that Mueller’s probe is “infected with bias,” putting the country at risk of a “coup d’etat.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)

Jordan has leveraged his seat on the House Judiciary Committee to push conspiracy theories in public hearings with senior U.S. officials.

The Ohio Republican has called for a special counsel to investigate whether Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the FBI cooperated to promote the Steele dosser. And he offered FBI director Wray his “hunch” that Strzok was personally responsible for using the dossier as justification for the FBI to “spy” on the Trump campaign.

The Freedom Caucus member kicked off 2018 with an op-ed calling for Sessions to step down for failing to plug the steady stream of leaks emanating from the DOJ on the Russia probe.

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL)

DeSantis in August became the first lawmaker to propose a measure that would end Mueller’s investigation, which DeSantis has called a“fishing expedition.” It would have eliminated funding for the probe six months after the amendment’s passage, and prohibited Mueller from looking into matters that occurred prior to the June 2015 launch of Trump’s presidential campaign.

At the same time, DeSantis, who is running for governor of Florida, has argued that the dossier—which was initially funded by the Washington Free Beacon before the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign took over—proved “without a shadow of a doubt” that the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC)

UNITED STATES - JULY 28: Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on July 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Freedom Caucus Chairman co-wrote the Washington Examiner piece with Jordan calling for Sessions’ resignation over leaks.

But his op-ed campaign to change the conversation about Russia dates back far earlier. Last June, he lamented that the Democrat-led “hysterics surrounding Russia” were a concerted effort to derail Trump and Congress’ agenda. After all, Meadows reminded CNN’s readers, “no formal charge has been leveled against anyone.”

Meadows would make a similar case in a Fox News op-ed published just days before Mueller’s team announced its first charges, asserting “it’s time to move on” from investigations into Trump’s campaign and Russia. In the op-ed, he called for a special counsel to investigate matters involving Clinton and the Obama DOJ.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

In early 2017, Graham, a long-time foreign policy hawk, was questioning Trump’s softness on Russia and mocking Nunes’ “Inspector Clouseau” investigations into classified leaks. By the end of the year, Graham had changed his tune.

The veteran South Carolina senator signed off on Grassley’s letter referring Steele for criminal investigation. He alleged that Trump’s “blindspot” on Russia is “changing for the better.” And he has lent weight to calls for a second special counsel with his loud, public calls for independent investigations of the Trump-Russia dossier, Uranium One deal, and alleged anti-Trump bias at DoJ.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC)

Gowdy has maintained his public support for the Russia probe and Mueller, but the House judiciary and intelligence committee member has done plenty to cast doubt on the investigation’s legitimacy.

The South Carolina lawmaker latched on to the leaks issue early on, and spent much of the House Intelligence Committee’s first hearing on Russia last March grilling then-FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers about how the press obtained classified information about Trump officials. Gowdy ran through a list of Obama officials who could have leaked ousted national security adviser Mike Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador, even suggesting that the former President himself could have been behind it.

Gowdy has dismissed calls for a second special counsel, but has railed against leaks from and bias on Mueller’s team, recently telling CNN it was “tone-deaf” that the special counsel was unable to “find prosecutors that don’t have an ‘I’m With Her’ T-shirt on.”

Gowdy came to national prominence as the chair of the special House committee created in 2014 to investigate the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attacks. Many Democrats described the panel as an effort to damage Clinton.

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Two foreign allies of President Donald Trump — the face of Brexit and founder of WikiLeaks — may have had multiple, previously undisclosed meetings during the 2016 presidential campaign. In November testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that was made public Thursday, Glenn Simpson, founder of private intelligence firm Fusion GPS, said he’d heard reports that Brexit leader Nigel Farage provided data to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.

“I’ve been told and have not confirmed that Nigel Farage had additional trips to the Ecuadoran Embassy than the one that’s been in the papers and that he provided data to Julian Assange,” Simpson testified.

Simpson, whose firm assembled the so-called Trump-Russia dossier, added that the data came in the form of a thumb drive.

Farage is known to have made a trip to the embassy in March 2017 to meet with Assange, who has been accused of working with Russian hackers to release stolen emails and other material intended to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The former UKIP party leader, who campaigned on Trump’s behalf, was identified as a “person of interest” in the federal investigation into Russia’s election interference in a Guardian report published last summer.

Both Farage and Assange have dismissed the suggestion that they took any action to influence the election results. The former British politician insisted he has “no connections to Russia,” while Assange has denied that WikiLeaks had any interest in helping Trump win.

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As a fifth Missouri GOP lawmaker called for his resignation, Gov. Eric Greitens (R) remained defiant on Tuesday, saying he’s focused on “moving forward,” and asking supporters for forgiveness for what he described as a “personal mistake.”

In his first extended public response since the news of his affair and alleged blackmail attempt broke last week, Greitens apologized to his family for the relationship and pledged to go “back to work for the people of Missouri.”

“Much has now been written about this, and many of the assertions made have not been truthful and have proven extremely hurtful to Sheena, as well as to me,” Greitens said in a statement emailed to supporters and posted on Facebook. “For us, the allegations that go so far beyond the facts have made this much more difficult.”

“We are focused on moving forward,” the statement continued. “I ask for your forgiveness and hope you can find it in your heart to do so. I assure you that this personal mistake will not deter us from the mission we were sent here to do continued.”

Greitens has admitted to the affair, but denied a claim made by the woman involved, in audiotapes recorded by her husband, that Greitens took a compromising photo of her and threatened to release it if she revealed the affair. He also has denied the woman’s claim, made to her husband, that he slapped her after she told him she’d had sex with her husband.

But the swirling scandal has upended the state legislature and prompted a criminal investigation by the City of St. Louis Circuit Attorney.

On Tuesday evening, State Sen. Rob Schaaf (R) became the fifth Republican lawmaker to call for Greitens’ resignation.

“When you ran for office, you promised that you would be a governor known for ethics and transparency,” Schaaf said in a speech from the floor of the Senate chambers at the State Capitol. “Instead, you have defined yourself through scandal and covering things up.”

“So governor, I’m asking you: please resign,” Schaaf pleaded.

Schaaf is of the governor’s staunchest foes. Earlier this year, a Greitens’-linked dark money group shared Schaaf’s cell phone number to punish him for opposing legislation supported by Greitens.

But four other GOP lawmakers, including one of Greitens’ earliest backers, have also said the governor should step down.

Greitens’ past ethics scandals and failure to develop individual relationships with lawmakers have left him with few outspoken defenders in the GOP-led legislature, TPM has reported.

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