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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After deep partisan divides threatened the integrity of the House investigation into Russia’s election meddling, all eyes turned to the Senate. Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) in March committed to providing the public with a thorough, bipartisan probe into the extent of Russia’s interference and whether President Donald Trump’s staffers colluded with Kremlin actors.

But little progress has yet been made, three sources close to the committee told the Daily Beast. Three months after agreeing on the breadth of its investigation, the sources said, the panel has assigned no full-time staffers to dig through evidence and conducted no interviews with key Trump allies with ties to Russia.

Their efforts to date have been devoted to reviewing “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” a report put out by the intelligence community and released in declassified form in January, according to the Daily Beast.

Burr and Warner noted in a March press conference that the seven staffers assigned to the probe had access to far more classified information than they did for previous investigations, like the one into the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Yet the Daily Beast reported that none of the staffers, a mix of Democratic and Republican senior aides with top security clearances, are working on the probe full-time, have any prosecutorial or investigative experience, or even much expertise on Russia.

A spokesman for Burr did not respond to the Daily Beast’s request for comment.

This unpromising news from the Senate side comes as the House probe seems to be righting itself. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) stepped aside from the probe in early April over allegations that he revealed classified information when he publicly claimed that he had viewed intelligence reports that showed the inappropriate collection of information about Trump staffers.

He was replaced by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-CA), who is working closely with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democrat, to resume the investigation. On Friday, Schiff announced that they have invited key Obama administration officials and senior intelligence officials, including former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, to testify before their committee.

U.S. intelligence officials obtained evidence that Russian operatives tried to infiltrate the Trump campaign through its sprawling network of advisers, CNN reported Friday.

Carter Page, who served as an adviser on Russia and energy policy until he departed over allegations that he met with Kremlin-allied figures during a July 2016 visit to Moscow, is one of those advisers, according to the report.

Page told CNN that he never collected intelligence or worked on behalf of the Russian government.

“My assumption throughout the last 26 years I’ve been going there has always been that any Russian person might share information with the Russian government … as I have similarly done with the CIA, the FBI and other government agencies in the past,” Page said.

Multiple anonymous U.S. officials told CNN that Page was only one of several Trump advisers that intelligence agencies in the United States and Britain found to be in frequent contact with Russian officials and Russians “known to Western intelligence.”

Page, an investment banker, gave a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School last summer calling for the U.S. to lift the sanctions put in place after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea. He also belatedly acknowledged meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. at the 2016 GOP convention, and confirmed to BuzzFeed that he met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in 2013, years prior to his association with Trump.

The White House has insisted Page only played a minor advisory role and never met with Trump himself during the campaign.

Page pushed back on that characterization in a letter to the House Intelligence Committee in which he offered to testify.

“For your information, I have frequently dined in Trump Grill, had lunch in Trump Cafe, had coffee meetings in the Starbucks at Trump Tower, attended events and spent many hours in campaign headquarters on the fifth floor last year,” Page wrote, as quoted by CNN.

A mysterious shell company formed just weeks before the Republican National Convention dropped $3.1 million to purchase 11 luxury condos in a Las Vegas tower co-owned by Donald Trump in the months leading up to his election, USA Today reported Friday.

No one will acknowledge who is behind the company, known only as Milan Investment Limited.

The address associated with the company tracks back to the strip mall office of a financial services firm, whose owner told USA Today he was “completely in the dark” about what Milan Investment was or why the company would use his address. The newspaper’s effort to track down the listed officers for Milan Investment, Jun Xu and Qi Huang, were similarly fruitless. Reporters came up empty-handed after contacting every phone number and address found for the pair in both the United States and Canada, where they’re also listed as owners of multi-million condos.

This kind of murky real estate purchase is just one of the many practices that ethics experts worry wealthy people, companies and foreign interests may take advantage of in order to curry favor with the President. Trump has placed his assets in a trust run by his adult sons, who continue to manage his real estate business, and from which he can withdraw money at any time without disclosing it to the public.

Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the arrangement “wholly inadequate,” saying the United States “can’t risk the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for professional profit.”

USA Today’s exhaustive investigation found that Trump’s companies stand to earn up to $250 million in property sales in the United States alone, and that shell companies like Milan Investment are able to snatch up huge quantities of that available real estate, leaving the public in the dark.

Read the full report at USA Today.

After a troubled two months that saw the “temporary” recusal of Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), announced Friday that the panel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election was “back on track.”

Schiff and the new senior Republican on the committee, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), sent out letters asking key Obama administration officials and senior intelligence officials to testify before the committee.

FBI Director James Comey and National Security Advisor Adm. Mike Rogers were invited to appear at a closed hearing on May 2, according to a statement from Schiff’s office. Former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates also were asked to appear in an open hearing that would be scheduled after May 2.

Those officials were initially scheduled to come before the committee in March. But Nunes scrapped their appearances after going public with claims that he’d seen intelligence reports that showed information about President Donald Trump and his staffers was “incidentally collected,” and Nunes asserted that the identities of those persons were inappropriately unmasked in the reports.

Other lawmakers from both parties who later viewed the same reports said the documents showed no evidence of wrongdoing. At the time of the cancelations, Schiff charged that Nunes was trying to “choke off” public information about the Russia probe.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the White House staffer who reportedly helped funnel intelligence reports to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was at the heart of another, much more behind-the-scenes Trump administration drama, the Guardian reported Thursday.

A retired marine serving as the CIA’s liaison to the White House was summarily dismissed in mid-March, sources told the newspaper, after a clash with Cohen-Watnick, the 30-year-old intelligence director for the National Security Council.

“It was the most disrespectful thing they could have done,” an anonymous White House official aware of the incident told the Guardian, praising the professionalism of the former staffer, who has since returned to the CIA. “He’s a good man. What happened to him was fucked up.”

The liaison’s role involved briefing senior White House officials with top secret security clearances about covert operations, according to the report.

The CIA and White House did not provide the newspaper with comment.

Cohen-Watnick, a protégé of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, was reportedly almost fired himself amid an internal struggle for control over national security policy in Trump’s White House. Once Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster replaced Flynn, he allegedly tried to fire the young intelligence official but was overruled after Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, intervened.

Cohen-Watnick was later reported to be one of the sources who played a role in getting Nunes to the White House to view classified intelligence reports that Nunes claimed show the identities of members of Trump’s campaign staff were inappropriately unmasked. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who later viewed those same intelligence reports say the documents indicate no improper surveillance, and are instead standard intercepts of conversations that involve individuals targeted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Republicans may now hold the House, the Senate and the White House, but their failure to mobilize early and follow through on long-held campaign pledges has political observers wondering: can a unified GOP government actually govern?

“The biggest thing that hasn’t happened in the first 100 days is that Donald Trump hasn’t developed a relationship with Congress,” Stan Collender, a former top staffer on the House and Senate Budget Committees who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, told TPM. “That’s something that should’ve happened during the transition so they could’ve just started off like a house on fire on Inauguration Day, but just hasn’t.”

The cost of that failure to forge a steady working relationship is that, though he declared Tuesday that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days,” Trump will almost certainly complete 100 days in office on April 29 with no notable pieces of legislation to his name.

Members of Congress who had some experience in the governing trenches had tried to temper expectations on some of Trump’s signature promises, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) declaring a 200-day window to push campaign pledges through rather than the typical 100 days. But they were similarly optimistic about the prospects for what Ryan called a “big, bold agenda” for the GOP.

Then reality set in. Divisions within the Republican caucus derailed the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare in a mortifying defeat. Hundreds of White House jobs sat unfilled, complicating efforts to produce big-ticket pieces of legislation. To date, the one campaign pledge Trump has unequivocally checked off is the confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, practically a given with Republicans controlling the executive and legislative branches.

“There is not a lot to show for all of this kinetic political activity other than the fact of the activity itself,” Russell Riley, an expert on the U.S. presidency at the University of Virginia’s non-partisan Miller Center, told TPM.

Over the course of the campaign Republican leaders and Trump in particular heralded an impending sea change in Washington, D.C.: After eight years of obstructionism, they would go on the offensive, vanquishing the Obamacare bogeyman, slashing taxes, and rolling back hundreds of environmental and corporate regulations. Ahead of Trump’s 100th day in office, here’s a look at how the Republican administration is faring on fulfilling four central campaign promises.

A piecemeal approach to rolling back regulation

The only real progress on rolling back regulations has come through the Congressional Review Act, a previously little-used law that gives Congress 60 legislative days to undo federal regulations. Using only Republican majority votes and Trump’s signature, they have undone 11 Obama-era regulations.

Some of these, like the resolution allowing Internet service providers to sell customers’ data without permission, garnered public opposition. Few of them actually have touched on the populist issues that helped propel Trump to office. In an early April press call, the White House legislative director all but begged reporters to spill more ink about the newly aggressive use of the CRA.

“This is an important story that has not been told,” Marc Short said, as journalists asked if he was trying to paper over the administration’s lack of legislative achievements.

Trump’s other move on this front was an executive order requiring that two regulations be cut for every new one put forth. One regulatory expert cautioned that while that policy might have a nice ring to it, the President risked stepping on the toes of lawmakers who have worked on regulatory reform for years.

“Congress had put in so much work on the subject, I thought they might have a chance to lead,” Kevin Kosar, governance project director at the conservative R Street Institute, told TPM. “But that’s not the way it went.”

A jaw-dropping health care meltdown

“Repeal and replace Obamacare” was the GOP’s seven-year battle cry until the party failed to do either in a high-stakes March effort to pass the American Health Care Act. Stark divides on what that replacement bill should contain cleaved away votes from both moderates and hard-liners, and mixed messages from Trump, who said he was “100 percent” behind the bill while doing little to drum up public support for it, ended up killing the legislation before it was even put up for a vote.

Trump and the GOP have laid out two possible next-step scenarios: Either allow Obamacare to “fail” on its own and blame Democrats, or continue to tinker with the AHCA behind closed doors until all the GOP factions reach an agreement. Experts say both options are politically fraught.

“The fact of the matter now is the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you buy it,” Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law who has written several books on Obamacare, told TPM. “I don’t think if the bill unravels on President Trump’s watch he can blame it on Obama or the Democrats.”

If they go the other route, moderates who want to keep Medicaid funding intact and preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions will have to reconcile with House Freedom Caucus members who want to see Obamacare ripped up by its roots.

Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he never thought those divides could be surmounted in the first 100 days. But he warned that the GOP faces potentially catastrophic political consequences if they can’t achieve repeal with a unified Republican government.

“If Paul Ryan and Donald Trump continue to try not to repeal Obamacare and continue to divide their caucus and break their promises and trigger this internal warfare, then there will be a political price,” Cannon said.

Turning to tax reform no easy pivot

The GOP was banking on repealing nearly $1 trillion in taxes associated with Obamacare in order to pave the way for the more aggressive tax cuts Ryan has promised to secure. But after the AHCA failed to pass, both Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have walked back Mnuchin’s pledge that the President will sign a tax bill before the next congressional recess in August.

“I don’t want to put deadlines,” Trump said last week. “Health care is going to happen at some point. Now, if it doesn’t happen fast enough, I’ll start the taxes. But, the tax reform and the tax cuts are better if I can do healthcare first.”

Ken Kies, managing director of Federal Policy Group LLC, a conservative tax lobbying firm, remains optimistic, noting that both congressional Republicans and the President believe in the GOP dogma of cutting taxes to encourage economic growth.

“If you just take the people who seem to have been a problem, the Freedom Caucus guys, they’re much more aligned with Ryan and the sort of mainstream Republicans on taxes than they are on health care,” he told TPM.

Still, Kies said he is “confident” there will be no last-minute progress on the issue by the 100-day mark. That’s because Congress returns from Easter recess with only four legislative days to extend a continuing resolution to fund the federal government.

“As long as that’s all going on, they’d be crazy to release a tax reform draft because it wouldn’t get the press coverage they’d want,” Kies said.

An uncertain road ahead for infrastructure

Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure bill is one of the few issues on which Democrats have signaled they might be interested in cooperating. Despite the pressing legislative focus on health care and a tax overhaul, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently declared that a comprehensive bill covering transportation, energy, water and “potentially broadband and veterans’ hospitals” would be unveiled by the end of this year.

Still, Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, doubts that this will be the ticket for an administration “groping around for ways to try to kick-start their agenda.”

DeGood said congressional Republicans can’t really opt to go it alone by simply adding line items for specific infrastructure proposals to an appropriations bill. And GOP politicians hell-bent on reducing the deficit are unlikely to propose costly building projects, he noted, as they spent years railing against the 2009 stimulus bill, that bankrolled such endeavors as “full of waste, fraud and abuse.”

Trump’s reported pledges to tie infrastructure spending to health care or a tax overhaul to pick up Democratic votes are a fundamental miscalculation of the political math, according to DeGood.

“Democrats are not going to go along with taking away 24 million people’s health insurance for a little bit of bridge money, or to engage in the largest upward redistribution of wealth the country has ever seen through a massive tax cut bill in exchange for some bridge money,” DeGood said.

After Attorney General Jeff Sessions questioned the authority of a U.S. federal judge “sitting on an island in the Pacific” to block the President Donald Trump’s travel ban, the Justice Department pointed out that Sessions was right both on his geography and his argument for the ban’s legality.

“Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific – a beautiful one where the Attorney General’s granddaughter was born,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement. “The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the President’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe.”

Sessions’ comment about U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson, who blocked a revised version of Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries, left some critics wondering if the attorney general even considered Hawaii a state.

“Hey Jeff Sessions, this #IslandinthePacific has been the 50th state for going on 58 years. And we won’t succumb to your dog whistle politics,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said in a tweet.

Her fellow Democratic senator from the Aloha State, Brian Schatz, asked Sessions to “have some respect.”

Hawaii’s Democratic senators on Thursday quickly went after Attorney General Jeff Sessions for questioning how a federal judge from the Aloha State, which he instead referred to as “an island in the Pacific,” was able to block the Trump administration’s travel ban.

“Hey Jeff Sessions, this #IslandinthePacific has been the 50th state for going on 58 years. And we won’t succumb to your dog whistle politics,” Sen. Mazie Hirono wrote on Twitter, adding that the attorney general’s remarks were “ignorant & dangerous.”

Sen. Brian Schatz also chimed in, urging Sessions to “have some respect” for his home state.

The attorney general made waves by telling conservative radio host Mark Levin on Wednesday that he was “amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”

U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson was one of several federal officials who moved in March to block President Donald Trump’s revised executive order barring refugees and immigrants from six majority-Muslim countries.

As Schatz pointed out, Watson was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in 2013, when Sessions was still a Republican senator from Alabama.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions can’t believe that a federal judge based on “an island in the Pacific”—what the rest of us simply call Hawaii—was able to block President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from a handful of majority-Muslim countries.

“We are confident that the President will prevail on appeal and particularly in the Supreme Court, if not the Ninth Circuit,” Sessions said in a Wednesday night interview on “The Mark Levin” radio show, first flagged by CNN’s KFILE. “So this is a huge matter. I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”

U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson in March blocked a revised version of the travel ban hours before it was set to go into effect, arguing that its primary purpose remained “suspending the entry of Muslims” rather than ensuring national security, as the Trump administration has insisted.

Watson pointed to Trump team staffers’ frequent calls for a “Muslim ban,” made both during the campaign and at the start of his administration, in blocking the order.

Federal officials who are located on the mainland shared Watson’s interpretation. Judge Theodore Chuang of Maryland also issued an injunction against the revised travel ban, and the Democratic attorneys general of Washington, New York, Oregon and Massachusetts also sued in an attempt to block the order.

Sessions finds readings of the executive order like Watson’s “weird.”

“I think our President, having seen some of these really weird interpretations of the executive orders that he’s put out, I think he’s more understanding now that we need judges who follow the law, not make law,” he told Levin.

“The judges don’t get to psychoanalyze the President to see if the order he issues is lawful. It’s either lawful or it’s not,” Sessions continued. “I think that it will be real important for America to have judges in the model of Judge [Neil] Gorsuch and [the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia, people who serve under the law, under the Constitution, not above it, and they are faithful to the law. They honor it and don’t try to remake it as they’d like it to be.”

Listen to a clip of the interview below via KFILE:

UPDATE 1:37 p.m.: Princess Anne Police Chief Tim Bozman announced Thursday that the hate crime and second-degree arson charges against D’Asia Perry and Joy Shuford were dismissed after their case was called in Maryland District Court. Bozman said the dismissal was a joint decision made by the police department and Somerset County State’s Attorney’s Office, and said the other charges will be scheduled for trial “at a later date.”

Original story below:

Like most states, Maryland’s hate crime statutes target criminal conduct based on race, color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, disability and national origin. A local police officer recently took it upon himself to add another category to that list of protected classes: Trump voters.

D’Asia Perry and Joy Shuford, 19-year-old friends, were charged Tuesday with a slew of crimes including second-degree arson, trespassing, and committing a hate crime for setting fire to a large Donald Trump billboard displayed near a family sporting goods store.

In the charging documents, Princess Anne Police Sgt. Robert Smith laid out his justification for the hate crime charge: “The intentional burning of these political signs, along with the beliefs, religious views and race of this political affiliation, directly coincides with the victim.”

Smith’s explanation suggests that those who share the sporting goods store owner Robert Wink’s “political affiliation” as a Trump-voting Republican all have the same “beliefs, religious views and race.” Wink is white, and Perry and Shuford are black.

“It almost seems like the officers were trying to make a political point by charging the defendants with that statute versus actually applying the law,” Steven Silverman, a Baltimore attorney who has worked on hate crimes cases, told TPM. “It’s an absurd hypothesis and a total misapplication of the statute.”

The Princess Anne Police Department declined to release its police report on the incident, but the charging documents spell out the events that led to the early Friday morning blaze outside of Wink’s Sporting Goods.

Emergency personnel arrived at the scene and found a sign advertising Glock pistols, a large Trump billboard, a Trump yard sign and a sign advertising failed U.S. Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga all ablaze, as was the surrounding vegetation, according to the charging documents. The fire department estimated a total of $800 in damage, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Surveillance footage helped the police locate Perry’s silver Volkswagen beetle on the nearby campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black college where she is a student. Perry told police she didn’t know the other woman, who she referred to as “April,” and “just gave her a ride,” according to the charging documents.

The next day, Shuford, a former UMES student, turned herself in to Princess Anne police. She told Sgt. Smith that she and Perry were friends, and saw the sign on their way back from a trip to the Food Lion grocery store, according to the charging documents. They “joked about ripping it down,” Shuford told police, and she held a lighter to it after the screws holding it in place made pulling it from its post too difficult.

She told police the safety function kept the lighter from working, and that “when they left the area the sign had not caught fire.”

Both women, who were released on a $20,000 unsecured bond, now face up to 33 years in prison and/or more than $40,000 in fines, according to court documents obtained by Delmarva Now.

Silverman, the Baltimore hate crimes attorney, predicted that the hate crime charge was certain to be thrown out as the case proceeds.

“In Maryland, the police file charges generally at their discretion and then there’s a vetting process either by the state’s attorney or by a judge,” he explained. “I would expect that as that process continues, the hate crime charge would either be dismissed voluntarily by the state’s attorney’s office or certainly be dismissed by a judge.”

“It’s just kind of thrown out there from left field,” Silverman continued, saying he didn’t know what the officer who charged the case was thinking.

He noted that Princess Anne was located in a “very rural,” Republican county in the traditionally blue state. The town is home to only 3,325 people, according to the 2015 Census estimate, and Somerset County voted for Trump over Clinton 57.7 percent to 39.7 percent. Maryland overall voted for Clinton 60.5 percent to Trump’s 35.3 percent.

Wink’s sign has caused controversy before, even in this conservative pocket of the state.

It was previously set on fire in October 2016, and has been vandalized on multiple occasions and stolen twice.

Jamie Wink, the store owner’s son, told the Baltimore Sun that other visitors stop to pose for selfies with the sign and that it has helped drive business to the store, which sells firearms and hunting supplies.

“It’s been a pretty good attention-getter,” he said.

Read the charging documents below: