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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Defense attorneys are typically wary of letting their clients share information with those investigating them, so reports that Jared Kushner agreed to a November interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller came as something of a surprise. Was President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top aide officially just a witness in the sprawling investigation clouding the White House?

Not exactly, former federal prosecutors say.

Kushner was brought in for an approximately 90-minute interview that focused primarily on the Russia contacts of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to reports in the New York Times and CNN. But former federal prosecutors note that political as well as legal considerations colored Kushner’s decision to talk, and that the reported focus on Flynn doesn’t mean that Mueller won’t want to learn more about other topics pertaining to Kushner.

“One thing it certainly means is that his lawyer thought there was not any significant criminal liability for Kushner as a result of that interview, which leads me to think it was fairly limited,” former assistant U.S. attorney Renato Mariotti told TPM, noting that the terms of what would be discussed were likely agreed upon ahead of time.

“But it would shock me if [Kushner attorney] Abbe Lowell thought that Kushner had no liability anywhere else,” Mariotti, who is now running for Illinois attorney general, added.

Lowell did not respond to TPM’s request for comment by press time, but said in a statement to CNN that Kushner “has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and will continue to do so.”

Kushner, a core member of Trump’s tight inner circle, is reportedly under scrutiny for a number of issues. The top White House aide failed to disclose dozens of meetings with foreign contents on his national security clearance forms; had multiple meetings with Russians including the head of the sanctioned Vnesheconombank; and reportedly encouraged the firing of former FBI director James Comey.

Given all that, former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said that “no defense attorney in his right mind would let Jared Kushner anywhere near a prosecutor.”

But Zeidenberg pointed out that there are optics issues at play in special counsel investigations, and White House attorneys have maintained that administration officials are fully cooperating with Mueller’s team.

A similar situation played out during his time working on the investigation into the leaked identity of former CIA officer Valerie Wilson, Zeidenberg said, because officials in George W. Bush’s administration followed White House orders to cooperate with the probe.

“Even [indicted former White House adviser] Scooter Libby came in multiple times, and it wasn’t helpful to him,” Zeidenberg told TPM.

“There are political considerations as opposed to just legal ones,” he added. “If you’re looking at it from a legal perspective, you just keep your mouth shut and see what the government, the prosecutor comes up with. But if there are political considerations, it’d be a real problem if Jared Kushner asserted his Fifth Amendment or if other people close to the White House said they were pleading the Fifth. There would be a terrible perception problem.”

One former DOJ official sees a more innocent explanation for Kushner’s willingness to conduct the interview: he may have been a witness to key events or been sloppy in filing his national security clearance application, but none of the publicly available evidence suggests that he is criminally liable.

“So far I don’t see the things Kushner has done to be criminal, and you want to continue to send a message to the prosecutors that your client is cooperative,” said Michael Zeldin, a former federal counsel who worked closely with Mueller in the DOJ’s Criminal Division. “So it would make sense that you’d bring him in to help the prosecutor in the areas that they’re investigating, as long as it doesn’t implicate your client’s liberty.”

Though prosecutors are mindful of the optics of bringing high-profile White House officials in for multiple interviews, Mariotti and Zeidenberg said Mueller’s team will likely need Kushner to address the other issues that pertain to him, and it’s unclear if Lowell will agree to all of those discussions. Cautioning that most of the developments in the probe are happening out of sight, the three former prosecutors said that reports that Flynn’s legal team may be hammering out a possible deal don’t necessarily say anything about the progress of investigations into matters like obstruction of justice.

News that former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos was indicted and pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his Russia contacts, for example, emerged like a “bolt out of the blue,” Zeidenberg said.

The prospect of other bolts raining down render the President’s rosy predictions about the probe’s impending conclusion unlikely, prosecutors warned.

“The idea that this is going to be wrapped up by the end of this year is laughable,” Zeidenberg said. “That I can say with a high degree of confidence is not true.”

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An undercover operative whose work for a conservative activist group was exposed this week spent months trying to infiltrate the Washington Post and other mainstream news outlets, the newspaper reported Thursday.

From July until this week, when she was exposed trying to convince the Post to publish a fabricated sexual misconduct allegation against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore (R), Jaime Phillips joined some two dozen journalism and left-leaning networking groups.

This effort was apparently undertaken on behalf of James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, an organization with a track record of using secret, deceptively edited videos to try to discredit liberal targets.

Using three pseudonyms and several different telephone numbers, Phillips tried to get close to individual journalists, presenting herself alternately as the owner of a start-up looking to recruit writers, a graduate student and a contractor new to Washington, D.C., according to the Post. She even showed up at events for departing Post staffers, and sent condolences to a Post employee experiencing a family tragedy.

Asked about Phillips’ undertaking, O’Keefe told the newspaper that he refused to give up the identity of his “sources.” He acknowledged in a fundraising email this week that an operative “embedded” with the newspaper “had their cover blown” and Phillips was seen walking into Project Veritas’ New York office on Monday.

The newspaper has since taken a closer look at her social media presence, which took an abrupt turn this summer from pro-Trump posts to ones criticizing the candidate, and heard from people like a top Democratic operative who said Phillips rented an apartment in his D.C. home.

Despite the exposure of her real identity, Project Veritas is framing the Post project as a successful gambit, highlighting secretly recorded comments from one of the newspaper’s national security reporters saying definitive proof that President Trump colluded with Russia has not yet emerged. Media observers have countered that the project actually exposed the rigor of the Post’s reporting and fact-checking processes, and drew attention to Project Veritas’ sloppy, underhanded practices.

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The same woman who approached the Washington Post with an apparently false allegation of sexual misconduct against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore (R) also rented an apartment in the home of a top Democratic operative, according to a follow-up report in the newspaper published Tuesday.

Jaime Phillips, who appears to be a recruit of controversial conservative activist James O’Keefe, rented out the basement of a Washington, D.C. home owned by former Democratic National Committee communications director Brad Woodhouse for two weeks in July, Woodhouse told the Post.

Her stay at Woodhouse’s home came shortly after she launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her move to New York for a new gig where she would “combat the lies and deceipt [sic] of the liberal MSM.”

It was that remarkably transparent GoFundMe page that caused Post reporters to doubt the account she provided them of Moore initiating a sexual relationship with her when she was 15 years old and convincing her to have an abortion after she became pregnant. The Post has reported extensively on credible accusations of sexual assault and harassment against Moore by a number of Alabama women, including one who said she was 14 years old when he initiated a sexual encounter with her.

The newspaper’s reporters witnessed Phillips entering the New York office of O’Keefe’s group Project Veritas, which is known for promoting deceptively edited videos intended to smear or embarrass Democratic groups.

In a fundraising email this week, O’Keefe acknowledged that “our investigative journalist embedded within the [Post] had their cover blown.” He declined to answer the newspaper’s question about whether he told Phillips to rent the apartment in Woodhouse’s home.

The Democratic operative has felt the effects of O’Keefe’s “sting”-style operations before. Two people associated with the group where he previously served as president, Americans United for Change, were forced out shortly before the 2016 election after a Project Veritas worker secretly recorded them discussing how to disrupt GOP events.

But the group’s efforts are not always so successful. O’Keefe pleaded guilty in 2010 for breaking into former Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) office, and last year he accidentally left a message detailing his playbook to an employee of a non-profit associated with billionaire Democratic philanthropist George Soros.

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The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is reportedly scheduling interviews with as many as 20 business associates and lenders of indicted Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, including a fellow adviser on the Trump team.

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Stephen Calk, who served on the Trump campaign’s economic advisory council, is one of the individuals whose ties to Manafort are being scrutinized by Manhattan prosecutors. Calk’s Chicago-based Federal Savings Bank lent millions of dollars to properties owned by Manafort, whom special counsel Robert Mueller indicted on financial crimes charges in late October.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to those charges, but his legal troubles are far-reaching. Since this spring, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has been looking into possible tax evasion and the falsification of business records relating to his web of real estate transactions, according to Bloomberg. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is conducting a separate probe into potential money laundering by the GOP operative.

Notably, individuals found guilty of state crimes, unlike those convicted of charges brought by federal prosecutors, can’t be pardoned by the President.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that both state investigations were sharing information with Mueller’s probe.

Spokespeople for the bank, Manafort, Vance’s office and Schneiderman’s office declined Bloomberg’s requests for comment.

President Donald Trump has shown no particular sympathy for Manafort’s plight thus far. After news broke that Manafort was indicted for a money laundering conspiracy and for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Trump said that the charges predated Manafort’s involvement with the campaign, and the President tried to redirect attention to “Crooked Hillary & the Dems.”

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Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka found a new venue for his pro-MAGA message: the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

The foundation confirmed to TPM Tuesday that the onetime Trump adviser has entered into a contract to give a series of five foreign policy speeches to its audiences, the fourth of which will be delivered at its D.C. headquarters in mid-December.

But this does not mean he has formally joined the think tank, as the Washington Examiner suggested in an article that first reported Gorka’s association with Heritage.

“Dr. Gorka is an independent contractor,” John Cooper, Senior Communications Manager for Heritage’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, told TPM in an email. “He is solely responsible for the content of his speeches and other statements, and his views are not necessarily those of Heritage or any of its personnel.”

Gorka’s LinkedIn profile lists him as a “consultant” for the foundation as of October 2017.

The self-proclaimed counterterrorism expert, who came under scrutiny for his ties to a Hungarian knightly order originally founded by a Nazi collaborator, departed the administration this summer under uncertain terms. Though the White House said he was forced from his position, Gorka called that claim “disappointing” and insisted he resigned.

He has since rejoined Fox News as a national security strategist, and served as chief strategist for the MAGA Coalition, a little-known pro-Trump organization. Per his LinkedIn, he left that position in November. A MAGA Coalition spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

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The focus of former national security adviser Mike Flynn’s tangle of business dealings with Turkey is one man: Fethullah Gulen, an ailing septuagenarian Muslim cleric who lives in a Pennsylvania compound.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the hundreds of thousands of dollars Flynn received to produce negative PR materials about Gulen and about Flynn’s alleged discussions with Turkish officials about forcibly removing him from the U.S.

What’s received less attention is why Turkey would take such extraordinary steps to take down the aging cleric, and why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government thought Flynn would be able to facilitate them.

The former top U.S. intelligence official’s well-compensated work for Turkey is just one tentacle of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. But it speaks directly to the central question of how foreign actors may have attempted to influence the actions of top Trump campaign figures.

TPM spoke to five Turkey experts to get a sense of Erdogan’s anti-Gulen crusade in the U.S., and how Flynn fit into those schemes.

Why is Turkey so desperate to discredit Gulen?

Flynn is hardly the first American that Turkey has used to lend credence to Erdogan’s campaign against the man he believes orchestrated a failed July 2016 coup against him. In the past few years, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has launched a lobbying blitz in the U.S. aimed at discrediting Gulen and his Hizmet, or “service,” movement.

Firms like Amsterdam & Partners and Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, receive lucrative contracts to paint the cleric—who promotes a moderate, pro-market version of Islam through a worldwide network of well-funded schools and charitable institutions—as a suspect actor bent on undermining Turkey’s democracy. This effort has been aided by anti-Islam groups like ACT! for America and outlets like Breitbart News, which routinely characterize Gulen as the head of a “shadowy and corrupt cult.

Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the non-partisan Atlantic Council, told TPM that Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s energy minister, is “behind” these lobbying efforts. Albayrak attended a Sept. 19, 2016 meeting with Flynn Intel Group, where discussions of removing Gulen from the U.S. were reportedly first raised.

“There is documented evidence that he oversees efforts within the United States through cut-out organizations to funnel money to lobbyists and PR firms who try to change the narrative on Gulen,” Stein said of Albayrak. “That definitely happens.”

Experts caution that there are legitimate concerns about financial misdeeds by some Gulen-linked institutions and about the secretive ways in which the cleric leverages political influence in Turkey through his network. But they say that Erdogan’s crusade against Gulen, who has lived in the U.S. since 1999, is primarily about self-preservation.

The two men were political allies until about 2010, when Erdogan’s consolidation of power prompted what former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffries described to TPM as a “series of ever more dramatic confrontations.” By 2013, these involved politically-motivated prosecutions of Erdogan allies by Gulen-linked prosecutors and a subsequent purging of Gulenists from the judiciary.

Why hasn’t the U.S. extradited the cleric?

In an Election Day editorial in The Hill penned on behalf of his Turkish lobbying client, Flynn described Gulen as a “shady Islamic mullah” behind the coup attempt who should immediately be turned over to “our NATO ally.”

This closes mirrors Turkey’s stance on how “perplexing and deeply frustrating” it is that the U.S. has not yet turned over the man who “masterminded” the effort to overthrow Erdogan’s government.

The actual narrative is not so clear. Experts told TPM evidence that the U.S. Justice Department helped gather suggests that Gulenists played a significant role in the coup, but that Turkey has failed to prove that he was personally behind it. The attempted putsch was most likely the work of a coalition of groups, they said.

David Tittensor, an Australian religion professor who authored a book on the Gulen movement, said the evidence “didn’t meet the standard to initiate an extradition and warrant process” through the U.S. State Department and judicial system. Some of the alleged Gulen-linked coup plotters say they were tortured or that their confessions were forced, Tittensor noted.

He said the impasse with the DOJ could have prompted officials to hold secret talks with Flynn.

“Possibly the fact that these kind of talks were happening speaks to the lack of an evidence base that has been provided thus far and that they were looking for an alternative in order to get what they want, which is to get Gulen out of the U.S. and back to Turkey,” Tittensor said.

Flynn pushed Turkey’s line on Gulen in exchange for cash

Flynn was forced to belatedly register as a foreign agent earlier this year for accepting $530,000 from Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin to produce negative PR materials about Gulen.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating Flynn Intel Group’s work for Alptekin, who has close ties to Erdogan’s government. Mueller’s team is also reportedly probing two alleged meetings in New York between Turkish officials and Flynn about forcibly removing Gulen from the U.S.

Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey told the Wall Street Journal that he was startled by the plans to “whisk” Gulen away that he heard at the first meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, which was attended by Alptekin, Turkey’s energy and finance ministers, and members of Flynn Intel Group.

Discussions of a $15 million payout for Flynn and of possibly “transporting Mr. Gulen on a private jet to the Turkish prison island of Imrali” did not unfold until the second discussion in December, according to the Journal’s reporting.

Both sides have stridently denied that any such discussions occurred.

What if Turkey gets its wish?

Gulen is currently the “pawn in the middle” of U.S.-Turkey relations, as George Washington University international affairs professor Scheherazade Rehman put it, and it’s not clear that Erdogan wants his return as much as he professes to.

For one, Gulen’s presence here provides negotiating leverage, as Jeffries, the former U.S. ambassador, pointed out.

“It gives them a good talking point to put the U.S. under pressure,” Jeffries said. “And the Turks like that, that’s how they do foreign policy.”

Though Jeffries said the Turkish people and government do want answers for the coup, which resulted in the deaths of some 300 people, other experts noted that Gulen’s return through traditional legal channels, which remains unlikely, could undermine the Erdogan administration’s account of how the coup unfolded.

“If he comes back then that will force an actual trial,” said Josh Hendrick, a Loyola professor on Islamic political identity who wrote a book on Gulen. “It will force a ‘prove it.’ All the inconsistencies in the narrative could come out.”

Erdogan has used the coup as cover to fire and jail his political opponents and consolidate power.

Did Flynn try to advance the extradition?

Not long after Trump and Flynn entered the White House, the FBI was reportedly asked to conduct a new review of Turkey’s extradition request. Though NBC reported that the FBI turned it down because there was no additional evidence to alter the Obama administration’s assessment of it, it remains unclear if Flynn or State Department officials made the request.

When questioned on the matter by House Judiciary Committee member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) at a hearing this week, Attorney Jeff Sessions said only that he knew the “Turkish government continued to press the federal government” on Gulen’s return and that though his department “had a role to play in that,” he was unable to discuss it.

The Atlantic Council’s Stein said it was not necessarily surprising that a new administration would want a review of such a sensitive situation.

“What is noteworthy is the reasons why they asked for it,” he said. “Was Mike Flynn on the take and was he fulfilling a contractual quid pro quo?”

Correction: This piece has been updated to correct an editing error. Erdogan, not Gulen, has used the coup as cover to fire and jail his political opponents and consolidate power.

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Some of the country’s most prominent white nationalists accused Twitter of censorship on Wednesday after the social media site retracted the verified status of their accounts.

Twitter’s changes to its verification process, including the move to take away the little blue check that provided white nationalists like Richard Spencer higher prominence in search results, come as the company faces pressure for failing to crack down on hate speech on its platform.

Under the new guidelines, Twitter can remove verification “at any time without notice” for users “promoting hate and or/violence” against others based on their identities. Behaviors “on and off Twitter,” including “inciting or engaging in harassment,” now warrant removal.

Unsurprisingly, the white nationalists targeted flipped out—on Twitter.

“Verified no more! Is it not okay to be proudly White?” Spencer asked, subsequently tweeting that anyone on the right who retained their verified status was “system approved” and “utterly irrelevant.”

Jason Kessler, organizer of this summer’s violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and whose verification last week prompted a mass backlash that ushered in these changes, posted the full letter he received from Twitter.

“Twitter has changed their verification policy just to be able to censor me,” Kessler lamented.

The company acknowledged in a series of tweets that verification, which was originally intended to authenticate the identities of prominent figures like celebrities and politicians, “has long been perceived as an endorsement.”

“This perception became worse when we opened up verification for public submissions and verified people who we in no way endorse,” Twitter said.

A slew of social media companies and web hosting sites took similar action in the wake of the Charlottesville rally, deleting white nationalists’ accounts. As many on the far right have acknowledged, losing access to mainstream sites makes it much harder for them to spread their message.

Far-right activist Laura Loomer repeatedly compared the removal of her allies’ blue check marks to the Holocaust, likening it to the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to annihilate Europe’s Jewish population.

Tim Gionet, the far-right troll known as Baked Alaska, was similarly dramatic after he was permanently banned from the platform.

In a video live stream from a California In-N-Out Burger parking lot, Gionet ranted that Twitter shouldn’t be allowed to “get away with this.” He was chastised by an elderly man for talking too loudly and by a British man who informed him that a private company like Twitter is able to alter its policies as it sees fit.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied knowing that former national security adviser Michael Flynn lobbied on behalf of Turkey and allegedly discussed with Turkish officials the possibility of kidnapping of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric while serving on the Trump campaign.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) grilled Sessions on his awareness of Flynn’s Turkey dealings in a taut exchange during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Tuesday.

The California representative first asked Sessions, who oversaw the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team, if he knew either before or after the 2016 election about Flynn’s lobbying work to discredit Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. The attorney general said he didn’t “believe” he ever obtained such information.

Lofgren then moved on to two 2016 meetings Flynn reportedly had with Turkish government ministers to discuss the forcible removal of Gulen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes orchestrated a failed July 2016 coup attempt against him.

“I’ve read that in the paper recently, but I don’t recall ever being made aware of that before this recent release in the paper,” Sessions said of Flynn’s conversations.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday on an alleged December 2016 meeting in which Flynn was offered $15 million to successfully evacuate Gulen. Flynn’s lawyer strenuously denied the Journal’s report. The newspaper first broke the news of these discussions back in March with a report on a separate September 2016 meeting Flynn held with Turkish representatives on the same topic.

Flynn’s work on behalf of foreign governments is under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to the Journal and NBC News.

Sessions did acknowledge to Lofgren that extraditing Gulen remained one of Turkey’s highest priorities.

“I’m aware that the Turkish government continued to press the federal government with regard to seeking the return of Mr. Gulen to Turkey,” Sessions said. “And our department had a role to play in that though I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of that.”

NBC has reported that Trump administration officials asked the FBI to conduct a new review of the Gulen situation after inauguration, but that the FBI denied it because Turkey provided no new evidence to bolster its case.

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After President Donald Trump again cast doubt on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on Saturday, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo issued a statement contradicting the commander-in-chief’s remarks.

“The Director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” a CIA spokesperson told CNN. “The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed.”

Trump suggested that the assessment was not so definitive, telling reporters accompanying him to an economic summit in Vietnam that Russian President Vladimir Putin said “he absolutely did not meddle in our election.”

“Every time he sees me, he said: ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe, I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said after holding brief meetings with Putin on the sidelines of the summit.

The President also lashed at the leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies, as he has in the past. Trump dismissed the former heads of those agencies, which concluded that Russia intervened in the presidential race to swing it in his favor, as “political hacks.”

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A Virginia judge on Thursday dismissed two of the three felony counts levied against a prominent white nationalist charged after a torch-lit rally at the University of Virginia.

Christopher Cantwell of Keene, New Hampshire, is accused of pepper-spraying counterprotesters during an Aug. 11 Charlottesville protest, a day before the much larger white nationalist rally in the city. Cantwell, wearing a faded jail jumpsuit, testified that he acted in self-defense.

An Albemarle County judge dismissed one count of malicious bodily injury with a “caustic substance,” explosive or fire, concluding there was a lack of evidence that counterprotester Emily Gorcenski had been injured by the spray, local media outlets said.

But the judge declined to dismiss one of the two counts of the illegal use of tear gas or other gases. A prosecutor said Cantwell, 36, had no reasonable claim for self-defense and clearly hated the counterprotesters, The Daily Progress reported . The judge said Cantwell admits to deploying the pepper spray, but there is enough of a question as to whether it was self-defense. The judge then certified the charge to circuit court.

The other tear-gas charge was dismissed after the judge agreed with Cantwell’s attorney that counterprotester Kristopher Goad is no longer certain Cantwell is the person who sprayed him.

Rally organizer Jason Kessler was present during the preliminary hearing, along with a group of white nationalists dressed in black, as well as people who oppose them, WVIR-TV reported .

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