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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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This week saw a huge shakeup on the President Trump’s personal legal team. After the White House denied reports of impending staffing changes, longtime lead attorney John Dowd abruptly resigned, apparently because his client was ignoring his advice. Trump has retained former U.S. attorney and frequent Fox News talking head Joe DiGenova, who has pushed the conspiracy theory that FBI officials framed the President.

The President’s defense team is now composed of people sympathetic to his worst impulses and inclinations, such as agreeing to an in-person interview with the special counsel. Trump on Thursday repeated that he’d like to sit down with Bob Mueller.

But that overture came after Trump spent several days attacking Mueller by name for the first time, saying his investigation into Russia’s interference should never have started. The White House insists that this criticism does not indicate that Trump intends to fire the special counsel. Trump’s anti-Mueller tirade sparked alarm among congressional Democrats and the occasional Republican, but Congress did not take any action to protect the Russia investigation.

Capitol Hill GOPers had other matters on their minds. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley is organizing a hearing on the forthcoming DOJ inspector general report that contributed to last week’s surprise firing of former FBI deputy director Andy McCabe. McCabe was allegedly given the axe for a lack of “candor” in describing the FBI’s handling of investigations related to the 2016 election — a decision Trump cheered.

Grassley’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, also took aim at the DOJ, issuing subpoenas for documents on the surveillance of ex-Trump adviser Carter Page, the Clinton email probe, and McCabe’s firing.

Cambridge Analytica, the data firm used by the Trump campaign, was revealed to have used millions of Facebook users’ data without their permission. On Thursday, the Daily Beast reported that Guccifer 2.0 — the shadowy hacker who took credit for providing WikiLeaks with emails stolen from the DNC — was an officer in Russia’s military intelligence arm. Meanwhile, TPM revealed that the FEC had not, as reported, initiated an investigation into whether Russians illegally channeled money through the NRA to benefit Trump’s campaign.

Across the Atlantic, Vladimir Putin won reelection by a landslide in a race widely discredited as illegitimate. Trump called Putin to congratulate him on his victory, despite his advisers’ urging that he not.

With the departure of Dowd — a moderating force despite his own occasionally erratic behavior — and the replacement of national security adviser H.R. McMaster with superhawk John Bolton, Trump is increasingly surrounded by loyalists inclined to let him lead the way on the Russia investigation and Trump-Russia relations. This is all happening as Mueller’s probe gets even closer to the President, his family, and his finances. Buckle up.

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Democrats are running a staggering number of candidates in state-level offices this year, especially in conservative areas the party once wrote off.

It’s a testament to the massive outpouring of grassroots energy spurred by the Trump era.

In Texas, Democrats are contesting 14 of 15 state Senate seats up this year, as well as 133 of 150 state House seats—an almost 50 percent boost from 2016. For the first time in years, almost all of the 170 state legislative races in North Carolina will feature both a Republican and Democratic candidate. Pennsylvania Democrats have filed to get on the ballot in 180 of the state House’s 203 districts—the most they’ve engaged in since 2000.

A string of Democratic successes in special election races, some in districts President Trump resoundingly won, has upended expectations of which of those seats are in play. Conor Lamb eked out a victory in a deep-red pocket of Pennsylvania, while Doug Jones became the first Democrat in a quarter century to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate.

Rather than focusing just on flippable seats or purple states, Democrats, particularly on the state legislative level, are giving it a go pretty much everywhere.

The goal of this “flood-the-zone” approach isn’t just to win midterm races or regain control of the redistricting process, grassroots progressive organizations tell TPM. It is instead a concerted effort to channel the base’s current enthusiasm into local politics—a long overdue effort to get the Democratic Party engaged on the ground looking towards 2020 and beyond.

“It’s about rebuilding the Democratic bench from the ground up,” Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, told TPM. “It isn’t about a short term win. We don’t expect to take back the Oklahoma state senate in a year, or flip the Kansas state legislature. What we do hope is to make ground and take steps forward.”

Litman suggested that a Democratic candidate now running in those states could run for Congress or governor a few years down the line.

“We don’t get there unless we invest in it now,” she said. “It’s a long game we have to play with that in mind, and measure our success accordingly.”

While Trump’s election may have been the wellspring for the current torrent of progressive energy, plenty of Democratic candidates are running hyper-local campaigns focused on what they describe as extreme policies pushed by Republicans in their state governments.

“Forced fetal funeral bills, ‘bathroom bills,’ ‘arm-your-teacher’ bills, bills that ban public schools from teaching kids about climate change — things just way, way beyond the mainstream,” said Forward Majority communications director Ben Wexler-Waite by way of example.

In Kansas, it’s the failed tax cut experiment pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R). In Oklahoma, it’s the four-day school week enacted to allow economically struggling teachers to pursue second jobs.

In the surprising Virginia legislative elections last November, in which Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates, it got even more local than that.

“Danica Roem ran on fixing Route 28!” said Nicole Hobbs, co-founder of Every District, a group focused on investing in Democrats at the state legislative level. “That resonates with voters.”

Roem, the first openly transgender person elected in any U.S. state legislature, became the face of the kind of progressive wins possible in this climate after she defeated Republican incumbent Bob Marshall. Marshall — who sponsored one of the so-called “bathroom bills” aimed at forcing transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth gender — had held his seat for 25 years.

Forward Majority is focused on targeting these sorts of long-sitting state-level incumbents who have faced few or no real challengers, said Wexler-Waite. To account for the decline of local media, the super PAC plans to conduct opposition research and run targeted ad campaigns highlighting the voting records and gaffes of particularly out-there candidates.

“There has just been no one holding them accountable in any way,” he said.

This strategy is easier in states like Virginia, which have lax campaign finance laws. While the institutional Democratic party concentrated on the most winnable, flippable seats, outside groups flooded the state with advertising, volunteers, and money, providing crucial support for candidates in lower-profile races. Other states have stricter regulations that make it harder for outside groups to have as much influence.

That’s deterred some national Democratic groups from getting involved in local elections, according to Run for Something’s Litman. Republicans, meanwhile, were “willing to make the investment in it and figure it out anyway,” she said. “They’ve bought into local races being important for a lot longer than we have.”

Groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) have spent well over a decade cultivating candidates for local races. Though the RSLC is responding to the newfound energy and coordination on the Democratic side by channeling tens of millions more dollars into local races, the group says they’re not fazed by the sheer quantity of Democrats running this year.

“Flipping nearly 1,000 seats in the past decade for Republicans, on map lines largely drawn by Democrats, took having the right candidate with the right message and the right policies,” RSLC spokesman David James told TPM in an email. “During that same time period, liberals touted the quantity of candidates they had filed, which have usually been more than Republicans, with far fewer actual victories.”

Even if Democrats can pull off a blue wave in 2018, the GOP margins are so large in so many states — and districts are currently so gerrymandered in their favor — that Republicans are likely to retain control of the majority of state legislatures.

Progressive groups say they’re well aware of the constraints they’re up against. But they say any victories are steps in the right direction, and those are only possible if candidates are actually registered.

“I have really bought into the idea that if we don’t run, we can’t win,” Lisa Goodgame, board president at Indivisible Austin, told TPM.

Pointing to the dozens of contested races in play in Texas, Goodgame added: “It’s never too late. And thank God it’s happening now.”

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An interesting figure shows up in a 2013 video pushed by Right to Bear Arms, a Russian gun rights group with close links to the National Rifle Association: former U.N. ambassador John Bolton.

In the video, first surfaced Thursday by NPR, Bolton encourages Russia to follow the United States’ example and incorporate gun rights into the country’s constitution.

TPM has previously reported on the links between the NRA and Right to Bear Arms, which was founded by Russian banker and “lifetime” NRA member Aleksandr Torshin. The FBI is reportedly investigating whether Torshin illegally channeled Russian funds to the NRA on behalf of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. The NRA has denied any wrongdoing.

Torshin is a close friend of former NRA president David Keene. Keene asked Bolton to record the short clip, and had appointed Bolton to the NRA’s international affairs subcommittee in 2011, according to NPR’s report.

In the same year the video was made, Torshin attended the NRA convention in Houston with conservative heavyweights including Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Bolton himself.

Keene also traveled to Moscow that fall to speak on behalf of the NRA at the Right to Bear Arms’ conference.

Bolton’s involvement appears to conflict with his reputation as a vocal anti-Russia hawk. He is reportedly one of the candidates under consideration to replace H.R. McMaster as President Trump’s national security adviser.

Watch the full video below.

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday blasted Republican lawmakers for pushing to impeach state Supreme Court justices who ruled that the Keystone State’s congressional districts were unfairly gerrymandered on partisan lines.

“This is an unprecedented and undemocratic attempt to retaliate against the judicial branch,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement. “The legislature should be helping people, not settling personal grudges. This is nonsense and a waste of precious time and resources.”

Twelve Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers on Tuesday filed legislation to remove four of the five Democratic justices on the court — David Wecht, Christine Donahue, Kevin Dougherty and Debra McCloskey Todd — for “misbehavior in office.”

The court in January voted 5-2 on party lines to strike down congressional maps drawn in 2011, determining that they were so gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor that they violated the state constitution and needed to be replaced before the May primary. The map has typically given Republicans 13 out of 18 congressional seats, even as they have won around 50 percent of the statewide vote.

After lawmakers failed to meet a court-imposed deadline to negotiate new maps with the governor’s office, the court ordered that its own map, drawn by an outside expert, be used.

That decision inspired a federal lawsuit from Pennsylvania Republicans, who also made two unsuccessful appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the court-drawn map.

It also prompted Rep. Cris Dush (R) to kick off the impeachment charge, rallying other GOP lawmakers to back his legislation calling for the justices’ ouster. Backers of the measure say the court overstepped its judicial authority by imposing new district lines. Justice Max Baer, the court’s fifth Democrat, escaped an impeachment resolution because he said the current map could stay in place until 2020.

It’s unclear how much support the impeachment push has in the GOP-controlled legislature.

“I have not heard much from leadership on the matter nor all that much from my colleagues,” Rep. John McGinnis, one of the Republican co-sponsors, told TPM in an email.

The public response has been similarly mixed, according to McGinnis: “Reactions I received from the public split between those grateful for my action and those accusing me of being a fascist.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R) and House Speaker Michael Turzai (R), who led the federal lawsuit against the new maps, did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment on the impeachment resolutions.

A spokesperson for Turzai told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that leadership still needed to survey members about the resolutions and review evidence, and that the decision would not be “taken lightly.”

Removing justices would require a two-thirds vote in the state Senate, where Republicans control 34 of the 50 seats.

As controversial as this proposal may seem, Pennsylvania Republicans on Capitol Hill have said it deserves consideration. Rep. Ryan Costello called the new map a form of “judicial activism” worthy of impeachment. And Sen. Pat Toomey said impeachment was a “conversation that needs to happen.”

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A St. Louis prosecutor has subpoenaed a former veterans’ charity founded by Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.

The subpoena suggests that the probe into Greitens — who was indicted last month in connection with allegations that he blackmailed a woman with whom he as having an affair — may be widening.

The Kansas City Star reported Monday that St. Louis Circuit Court Attorney Kim Gardner has issued subpoenas to The Mission Continues, indicating she is looking into long-swirling questions about the links between the charity and the fundraising operation of Greitens’ 2016 campaign.

A grand jury empaneled by Gardner, a Democrat, indicted the Republican governor for taking a partially nude, non-consensual photo of the woman with whom he was having an affair in 2015.

Greitens has admitted to the affair but denied the blackmail claim and insisted he “committed no crime.” The governor’s legal defense team is currently fighting to have his invasion of privacy trial moved up from mid-May to early April, insisting he deserves to have the case heard quickly.

The team did not respond to TPM’s request for comment on the subpoena requests.

Two other entities have also issued subpoenas to The Mission Continues, according to the Star. Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, who said early this month he has an open investigation into the charity, issued them last week. The Missouri state House panel convened after Greitens was indicted is also seeking information from the charity.

The Associated Press has documented the striking overlap between people who donated to The Mission Continues, which Greitens left in 2014, and those who subsequently donated to his 2016 campaign. If Greitens’ campaign used The Mission Continues’ donor list, it could have violated campaign finance laws.

Through his Nov. 2016 election, Greitens denied using the list. But last spring, after Missouri Democrats filed a complaint with the state ethics commission, he agreed to a settlement that required his campaign to retroactively disclose that it received the donor list and to pay a $100 fine.

The charity has denied giving the list to the campaign. Mission Continues spokeswoman Laura L’Esperance told the Star on Monday that the charity was cooperating with all documents requests.

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News broke late last week that the Federal Election Commission had opened a preliminary inquiry into whether Russians illegally channeled money to the National Rifle Association to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

But the FEC’s move, which came after a complaint from a Democratic group, amounts to little more than a standard response, experts say. It will likely be months before the matter moves up through the appropriate channels and the controversy-averse panel of commissioners votes on whether to launch a formal investigation. And they’re highly unlikely to vote to do so.

“Until the commission actually acts and votes — and they need four votes to open an actual investigation — it’s not really an investigation,” former FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel told TPM in a Monday phone call. “It’s just a sort of looking at the publicly available facts.”

According to Ravel, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama, that preliminary look could include examining existing campaign finance records already filed by the NRA, but won’t involve requesting new documents from the group.*

“There is no evidence gathering from the NRA, as a preliminary matter,” she said. “This would be highly unusual.”

And Ravel said it’s an extreme long-shot that the panel, which currently includes two appointees from each party, would vote to open a full-blown investigation.

“It would take everybody to agree to do it, which is highly unlikely,” said Ravel, who has publicly criticized the FEC’s Republican members for what she views as their unwillingness to enforce campaign finance laws.

Brad Woodhouse, the treasurer of ADLF and a long-time Democratic operative, provided to TPM the FEC’s response letter. The letter confirms receipt of the complaint, and lays out the process to determine whether the agency will open a formal probe.

“To the extent that Federal Election Commission is looking into this, we’re obviously pleased,” Woodhouse told TPM in a Monday phone call. “All of these financial transactions and relationships between the Trump campaign and Russia are presumably part of Mueller’s investigation, but this very specific allegation that we outlined in our complaint, that the NRA accepted illegal foreign money to do election activities in support of President Trump, is quite firmly an issue for the Federal Election Commission to investigate.”

“We hope that what we received from them, while probably standard, means they are taking this seriously and planning to investigate,” Woodhouse added.

It’s possible that Politico, which reported that the FEC was looking into the matter, has information suggesting that the agency is taking a more serious look than is typical into the issue.

The FEC cannot by law confirm or deny the existence of pending investigations.

“As you probably know, the Commissioners have to vote at many junctures when considering an enforcement matter, including a vote to authorize an investigation,” an agency spokesperson told TPM in a statement. “That vote would take place only after the Office of General Counsel produces a report on the allegations — after respondents have been given an opportunity to respond to those allegations — and recommendations on how to handle the matter.”

In fact, that explanation downplays the complexity of the process. Most FEC investigations start with a complaint, which is referred to a body in the general counsel’s office — known as the Complaints Examination & Legal Administration (CELA) office — for processing. Complainants receive notification that their documents have been filed — that’s the letter Woodhouse received — while respondents receive a heads up and are given a 15-day period in which they can provide evidence challenging the complaint’s validity. If it moves forward, CELA decides where the complaint should be prioritized among the long list of matters already awaiting FEC consideration.

The general counsel’s office then spends considerable time gathering facts and putting together a report laying out a recommendation for whether or not there is “reason to believe” the respondent has violated or is about to violate election law. Finally, the commission votes on whether to initiate a full investigation.

The chronically short-staffed agency is currently down two commissioners. Republican Lee Goodman resigned abruptly in February, leaving only two Republicans and two Democrats on what is typically a six-person panel. At least four commissioners need to vote together in order for any probe to get underway.

The FEC is notoriously hamstrung by partisan bias and averse to involving itself in high-profile, partisan legal matters. The ADLF’s complaint touches on red-hot issues including the federal Russia probe, the funding sources of the country’s largest gun lobby, the 2016 presidential campaign, and dark money ads.

Still, the agency is only one potential avenue for probing whether the NRA received Russian money and used it for political ends. McClatchy has reported that the FBI is investigating the issue. And Democrats in the Senate and House have asked questions of the gun group.

*This sentence has been edited to clarify the FEC’s process.

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Former CIA Director John Brennan tore into President Donald Trump on Saturday for celebrating the firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.

Brennan said Trump had turned McCabe into a “scapegoat,” labeling the Preident a “demagogue” who threatened the destruction of America.

Trump applauded McCabe’s dismissal, two days before he would become eligible for his pension, as a “great day for democracy.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the decision to fire McCabe, saying he was not entirely truthful in interviews with the DOJ Inspector General about how the bureau handled investigations related to the 2016 presidential election.

McCabe denied any wrongdoing. He said his firing was part of a broader push by the Trump administration to “politicize” the DOJ and FBI, and to discredit him as a witness in the investigation into the ouster of former FBI director James Comey.

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President Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, on Saturday said it was time for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to end the special counsel’s Russia investigation for good.

In a statement, Dowd said Rosenstein should follow the “courageous” example set by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Friday firing of former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe.

“I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier,” Dowd told TPM in an email.

The Daily Beast was the first to report Dowd’s comments. Dowd initially told the Beast that he was speaking on behalf of the president, but subsequently told TPM he was speaking for himself.

Trump’s legal team has until now urged Robert Mueller’s team to conclude their investigation into Russia’s election interference as quickly as possible, but not asked that Mueller be fired.

This response comes in the wake of Sessions’ firing of McCabe for a “lack of candor” in his responses to an internal Justice Department investigation into how the FBI handled probes relating to the 2016 election.

Trump cheered McCabe’s dismissal on Twitter, calling it a “great day for democracy.”

Earlier this week, Rosenstein said Mueller was not an “unguided missile” and that he had not seen any “justification” for ending the special counsel investigation.

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Editor’s Note: A TPM report published March 19 calls into question the significance of the FEC action described here. The agency appears to have done little more than provide a standard response to a complaint. A full investigation is a long way off and appears to be unlikely to happen at all, TPM reports. 

 

The Federal Elections Commission has opened a preliminary inquiry into whether Russian individuals or entities funneled money to the National Rifle Association to boost Donald Trump’s campaign, Politico reported Friday.

The probe stems in part from a complaint filed by the American Democracy Legal Fund, a progressive advocacy group. The group’s treasurer, Brad Woodhouse, confirmed to Politico that he’d received notification from the FEC that an investigation was underway.

An NRA spokesman declined Politico’s request for comment, while the FEC said it could not confirm or deny the existence of ongoing investigations.

Per the report, if investigators find troubling information while digging through the NRA’s campaign finance records, the FEC could launch a full probe, impose fines, or even refer criminal matters to the Justice Department and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

McClatchy has previously reported that the FBI is investigating whether Russian banker and “life member” of the NRA, Aleksandr Torshin, illegally channeled money to the NRA to help Trump’s 2016 campaign.

The NRA responded to that story by saying the FBI was looking into Torshin, not the NRA.

The NRA and its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, collectively spent a whopping $30 million on Trump’s campaign.

Democratic congressmen, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA), have initiated their own fact-finding inquiries into the NRA-Russia ties.

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President Trump celebrated the firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, just two days before McCabe was eligible for his pension, calling it a “great day for democracy.”

“Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – A great day for Democracy,” Trump wrote in a tweet just after midnight Friday, a few hours after the news broke. “Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”

McCabe has given a very different version of events. In a strongly-worded statement, he said his firing was trying to discredit him as a witness in the investigation into the ouster of former FBI director James Comey and part of a broader push by the Trump administration to “politicize” law enforcement.

The President and his allies have for months smeared the 21-year FBI veteran as a partisan, in part because his wife ran and lost a Democratic state legislative campaign in 2015.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the decision to fire McCabe, citing a yet-to-be-released Justice Department inspector general report that he said determined McCabe made an “unauthorized disclosure” to the press and “lacked candor” in the IG’s investigation.

The IG report into the handling of matters related to the 2016 election touches on leaks McCabe condoned to the media about the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

McCabe stepped down in January ahead of the IG report’s release, using his unpaid vacation days to go on leave.

Trump followed up with two more tweets later Saturday, criticizing “corruption” at the DOJ and FBI and mocking the “Fake News” reaction to over McCabe’s firing.

This post has been updated.

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