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Sam Thielman

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

Articles by Sam

Aleksander Torshin, a former Russian parliamentarian and banking official accused of laundering money for organized crime by Spanish authorities last year, met with Donald Trump, Jr. according to a new report by CBS.

The younger Donald met with Torshin for only a few minutes at an NRA event in 2016, according to the network’s anonymous source. Torshin had proposed meeting with the senior Donald Trump during an event scheduled to take place during the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky. According to the New York Times, the invitation was an emailed five-page proposal passed to Jared Kushner inviting the president to the event—he did not attend—where Trump could meet Torshin.

Torshin, who runs an all-Russian organization called The Right to Bear Arms, pitched the campaign’s shared values around both Christianity and gun rights, for which Torshin, a lifetime member of the American NRA, is an advocate in Russia.

Torshin contacted the campaign through a Christian advocate and former Iraq contractor in West Virginia named Rick Clay. Also in May 2016, Clay emailed campaign staffer and now White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn to offer a channel to Torshin; Dearborn emailed Kushner offering a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” according to the email’s subject line. Kushner left the email out of documents he provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, who requested it specifically among “several documents that are known to exist” in a follow-up.

Both Torshin and his assistant, Maria Butina, claim to be members of an all-Russian organization called The Right to Bear Arms, named after the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Butina, a former Siberian furniture store owner, according to the Daily Beast, now lives in Washington, D.C.

A delegation of the NRA met with The Right to Bear Arms on a trip to Moscow in December 2015, the Beast reported. Butina also shares a business with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican activist.

The CBS report referred only to “an NRA event in May 2016” but previous reporting on the topic suggests that Torshin sought Trump Sr. and got Trump Jr.

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Robert Mueller’s probe into collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign is now handing out document requests on Mueller’s home turf: The probe asked the Justice Department for what ABC News described as “a broad array of documents” in a report filed Sunday evening, citing anonymous sources.

The sources told ABC that Mueller was looking for information related to Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the entire Russia inquiry.

The request was issued “within the last month,” ABC’s sources say. Trump fired Comey in the midst of the ongoing investigation into potential misconduct; a part of the Mueller probe’s investigation appears to be whether that firing constituted obstruction of justice. The Mueller probe’s recent interviewees have included Trump aide and speechwriter Stephen Miller, who helped Trump draft a thus-far-unreleased memo describing the reasons he wanted Comey gone.

Questions remain, as well, about Sessions’ conversations with Russian officials during the campaign, which he denied under oath in October before correcting himself in another session last week, saying he had forgotten some important meetings. Sessions’ performance before Congress has been remarkable for other reasons, too, among them the the attorney general’s refusal to answer questions before his former Senate colleagues without invoking executive privilege or the Fifth Amendment, and much about the nature of his discussions with representatives of the Russian government is still unknown.

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A new report from watchdog group Global Witness says that a Colombian money launderer currently in U.S. custody participated in the advance sale of units in a Panama development bearing the president’s name: The Trump Ocean Club. Trump has made $13.9 million from the Ocean Club in the last three years alone, according to NBC’s own reporting on the matter.

From the Global Witness report:

Trump may not have deliberately set out to facilitate criminal activity in his business dealings. But, as this Global Witness investigation shows, licensing his brand to the luxurious Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama aligned Trump’s financial interests with those of crooks looking to launder ill-gotten gains. Trump seems to have done little to nothing to prevent this. What is clear is that proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking were laundered through the Trump Ocean Club and that Donald Trump was one of the beneficiaries.

David Murcia Guzmán is the Colombian fraudster who just completed a nine-year sentence in the US for money laundering that defrauded more than 200,000 people of $2 billion, according to the report. A Brazilian real estate salesman named Alexandre Ventura Noriega confirmed to Global Witness and NBC that Guzman participated in the pre-sale of Ocean Club units, purchasing as many as 10 of them in the period when the developers were trying to raise money to complete the project.

Global Witness cites Colombian authorities in connecting Guzman not only to drug trafficking through his enterprise DMG, but to the Colombian revolutionary group FARC, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US.

Colombian media coverage describes a police raid netting evidence that a member of rebel group Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria [de Colombia] (FARC) invested in DMG. Press reports also allege that Murcia Guzmán moved money for the paramilitary organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). At the time, both FARC and AUC were designated by the U.S. as terrorist organizations.
Read the full report:

This post has been updated.

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What was happening while Wikileaks was trying to get Donald Trump Jr. to help with the press rollout of Democratic officials’ hacked emails?

Amid the questions of what Donald Jr.’s messages to Wikileaks “prove,” it’s worth looking at when exactly they fall in the summer 2016 sequence of theft and distribution of Clinton campaign and Democratic party emails.

As always, it’s hard to tell what constitutes small talk and what should be construed as cooperation. But after Julia Ioffe’s revelation of Donald Trump, Jr.’s direct-message back-and-forth with the Wikileaks account, it’s clear from both the Donalds Trump and public interviews by Roger Stone that the campaign was excited about the possibility that Wikileaks might have something genuinely incriminating about Hillary Clinton to release to the general public—following the senior Trump’s public request in July that Russia release exactly that sort of thing and “be rewarded mightily by our press.”

In all of this, consider the way the press handled the various leaks of Democratic politicians’ emails: When those emails were posted on the DCLeaks blog or sent to reporters by Guccifer 2.0—two distributors that were painfully obviously cutouts for Russian intelligence—the press understandably treated the distributions as an information security story. And indeed, Guccifer in particular was recently found to have altered the stolen information before passing it along to journalists, as the same Russian intelligence unit has done in other cases.

But, probably because of its role in the Edward Snowden revelations, Wikileaks commanded much more serious treatment (it also doesn’t appear to have changed the contents of the emails it received and distributed).

July: Wikileaks Drops The DNC Emails

On July 22, Wikileaks published almost 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee. The understanding that the Russian government was behind the initial hack was by that point widespread, both in the government and the news media.

The DNC and the Clinton campaign, who had been warned by the FBI months earlier that DNC systems had been compromised by Russian state actors, finally agreed to go public with those accusations on the 25th. They had hired an independent cybsecurity firm, CrowdStrike, rather than turn their servers over to the FBI, which was still investigating whether Clinton had mishandled classified information.

August: Trump Associates Size Up Wikileaks

Roger Stone repeatedly communicated with multiple people who had the emails stolen by the Russian government. On the 14th, he had “innocuous” direct-message conversations with Guccifer 2.0 on Twitter, according to the Washington Times. On August 16, Roger Stone told popular conspiracist blogger and YouTube personality Alex Jones he was in contact with Wikileaks, and that Julian Assange had “political dynamite” on Clinton. He repeated the claim on C-Span—Wikileaks denied it. On August 21, Stone tweeted that it would soon be John Podesta’s “time in the barrel.”

But the idea of cooperating with Wikileaks held appeal for the rest of the campaign, too: Some time that same month, major Trump donor Rebekah Mercer reportedly asked Cambridge Analytica whether it could more effectively organize the DNC email dump, which Wikileaks was apparently having trouble handling due to its huge size and timely nature.

September: Wikileaks Starts Communicating With Donald Trump, Jr. Directly

Late on Sept. 20, the Wikileaks Twitter account sent Donald Trump, Jr. a message providing the password to a new Mother Jones project called putintrump.org (the password was putintrump).

Donald Jr. emailed senior campaign officials about the exchange, Mother Jones reports—and then the project was flooded with suspicious traffic and spam, and the people working on it saw their personal information spread online. Donald Jr. thanked Wikileaks—probably Assange—and the conversation went dark …

October: Wikileaks Begins Helping The Trump Campaign In Earnest

…until October 3, when Wikileaks asked the younger Trump to promote a story about Clinton joking about killing Assange in a drone strike. Donald Jr. had already tweeted the story, but wanted more information on “The Wednesday leak”—yet another thing Roger Stone had tweeted about that day (a Sunday).

It didn’t come Wednesday, but Friday: The Washington Post published a story including excerpts from a recording of Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” into a hot mic. An hour later, Wikileaks began dumping John Podesta’s emails including excerpts from Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches. Assange had hated Clinton for years—now, it seemed, he was taking revenge.

A few days later, Wikileaks asked Donald Jr for help promoting the story, which dominated headlines that week. The Wikileaks message praised “you and your dad talking about our publications,” and suggested Donald Jr tweet a more obscure link that would help curious users search its huge database of Democratic emails. He did, two days later; 15 minutes after the pleased message, Donald Sr. tweeted about “very little pickup by the dishonest media” of the Wikileaks dumps, something that, while in no way true, probably helped to drive the story further.

Wikileaks also offered to do damage control for Trump through Donald, Jr. by getting out ahead of embarrassing revelations—Wikileaks requested a Trump tax return on October 21—though they don’t appear to have gotten one.

November and beyond: “Wow.”

That was Wikileaks’ one-word reaction to Trump’s election. Weeks later, in December, Wikileaks asked Donald Jr. to put in a good word for him in an especially novel way: Ask Australia to make him ambassador to the US.

Trump should say “‘That’s ‘a real smart tough guy and the most famous australian [sic] you have!’ or something similar,” the Wikileaks account operator wrote. “They won’t do it but it will send the right signals to Australia, UK + Sweden to start following the law and stop bending it to ingratiate themselves with the Clintons.”

Trump did not get to that request in his first formal conversation with the Australian government in Janaury, which went about as badly as possible.

“I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day,” Trump told Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“Putin was a pleasant call.”

 

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One of Donald Trump’s former real estate partners has agreed to be interviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Felix Sater, who tried to broker a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 election, told TPM that he will cooperate.

“I intend on cooperating fully with any and all government agencies and investigations,” Sater said in a text to TPM. “And if I am called I hope you make the trip to witness it in person because I don’t think it’s going to go the way of everyone’s favorite narrative.”

The request, from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, asks for a number of specific documents that could shine a light on how Trump’s business interests in Russia intersect with his policymaking, and what role those interests might have played in the 2016 campaign.

“Mr. Sater intends to be fully cooperative with any and all government investigations in this matter,” Sater’s attorney Robert Wolf told TPM in an emailed statement. McClatchy first reported Sater’s cooperation Wednesday night.

Sater told TPM this summer that he has regularly worked for US intelligence since his arrest for fraud in a pump-and-dump stock scheme in 1998.

The California Democrat’s invitation is not a formal Judiciary Committee subpoena, but Sater’s cooperation could fill some significant gaps in the story of Donald Trump’s business dealings in Russia. Feinstein asked Sater to turn over “all documents related to the proposed Trump Tower in Moscow,” as well as a any communications with the campaign or related to the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and everything related to Sater’s financial dealings with the Trump Organization.

“In light of your involvement in brokering business deals for the Trump Organization in Russia, and your apparent efforts to leverage business relations to wield influence and curry favor with high-ranking Russian officials and candidate Trump,” Feinstein wrote, “we believe that you have information that would advance the Committee’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Committee would ask to schedule an interview with you to take place in November 2017.”

Feinstein also asked for documents related to the notorious Ukraine-Russia “peace deal” Sater tried to broker between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and ousted Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko in January. At that meeting, Cohen said Sater had given him a written proposal in a sealed envelope, which Cohen said he gave to Michael Flynn. The document in that envelope has never been produced.

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Almost no one sets out to be an asset to a foreign intelligence service, and many who do aren’t even aware that they’re doing so, intelligence professionals tell TPM.

That troubling ambiguity—whether seemingly innocuous conversations with senior Russian officials constituted aid to a hostile government—may lie at the heart of the investigation into what role, if any, the Trump campaign played in Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

As multiple investigations delve deeper into suspected collusion between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign staffers, embarrassing questions about the Trump campaign’s players keep coming up: Does the fact that Paul Manafort appears to have used Bond007 as his Dropbox password not make him seem kind of silly? Were people like George Papadopoulos and Carter Page sophisticated enough for a foreign intelligence service to bother targeting?

Silly? Perhaps.

Too unsophisticated? No, says CIA clandestine service veteran John Sipher. As an intelligence officer, “it’s my job to recruit sources who have access to gaps in knowledge,” he says. “And I’m getting promoted for finding new sources.”

It’s not about intelligence, it’s about information: Information that is foreign, of interest, new, clandestine, and authoritative—FINCA, to intel pros.

Sources who travel extensively and criticize the U.S. government while working for a major political campaign—like Page and Papadopoulos—are sending clear signals to Sipher: “They’re showing leg, essentially,” he told TPM. Manafort had already taken millions to work for foreign governments before signing on to the Trump campaign. None of these things by themselves make these men traitors—they just suggest to people looking for traitors that it might be a good idea to talk to them.

Page has said often that he spoke regularly on the international circuit, sometimes deploring the hidebound nature of American authorities from the podium. Papadopoulos spoke more than once in Greece, TPM’s Tierney Sneed wrote last week, preaching the gospel of improved international relations between the U.S. and Cyprus, the Mos Eisley Cantina of international finance for Russian oligarchs.

Some people betray their employer or government out of genuine conviction, says David Chasteen, a former CIA clandestine service officer, but that’s not necessarily the rule. “People are confused: What people think of as a spy is actually an intelligence officer, an IO, an employee of the CIA […] or the SVR.” An asset, Chasteen explains, is more properly a spy—a person who is already inside an institution and has agreed to work with a CIA officer. Some act on principle, but as a class they’re similar to criminal informants.

Or, as Chasteen puts it, “Most assets are Fredos.”

What’s usually true of those kinds of sources, Sipher said, is that they rarely have much that is valuable to an intelligence officer. The reason the Trump campaign staffers under investigation are being scrutinized so carefully, Sipher said, is that “those guys also happened to have access. They were working for the Trump campaign.”

Page in particular has found himself coincidentally meeting with at least one very august Russian official. At Moscow’s New Economic School, Page gave a talk in July 2016 critical of the US establishment; also on the bill was Russian deputy prime minister Arkadiy Dvorkovich, Page testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee under questioning by Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-FL).

“He was also speaking,” Page explained to Rooney, emphasizing that he perceived the meeting to be a simple exchange of pleasantries. “He had been delayed because he had meetings with the government. And he came in, gave a brief speech. As he was walking out, I said hello to him.” That he and the Russian deputy PM were on the same bill in the first place could be the red flag.

Intelligence officers use the acrostic MICE to describe the primary ways to manipulate potential assets: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. “The big one, frankly, is ego,” says Sipher.

Sipher says that were he to approach Page for recruitment he would seek to flatter him. “[You would] talk to him and say ‘Oh my god, you can play a role in international affairs. You can get your information to the top levels of the Russian government,'” he hypothesized. “Honestly, I’d be worried it was too easy. ‘Your insights are really interesting! If you’ll give me a paper that’s just for me, I’ll take it back to the highest levels.'”

This is part of gathering information, Sipher says; after that comes recruitment. “Next step is getting them to follow directions: ‘Next time meet me in public.’ ‘Don’t take papers from the office, but memorize stuff and we’ll talk about it.’ [Your source] thinks he can play footsie with the Russians without stepping over the line.”

Page refused to answer specific questions from TPM, saying he had “more important things to work on today;” besides, he said, “I have extensive experience with the U.S. intelligence community making false assessments throughout its history.” Sipher’s judgment that he might be likely to be approached by Russian agents constituted “ignorant comments to you based on false or no evidence, a la Sleazeball Steele,” he told TPM, apparently referring to Christopher Steele, the author of the so-called Trump dossier.

As far back as May, intelligence professionals from the top tier of CIA have been publicly warning Congress, not merely about the danger of espionage, but about the danger of people who had committed espionage without knowing it. The former head of the CIA, John Brennan, told Congress that Russian intelligence was working to recruit spies within the Trump campaign “either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”

“Frequently,” Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee, “individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.”

Sipher said Brenann’s line “jumped out at [intelligence professionals] like a bolt from the blue. He had crafted that.”

As for the president himself, Sipher said, would probably not make a good asset. “Trump is the perfect mark in the sense that his ego is totally out of control and sleazy and willing to cut corners to make money,” Sipher said. “But you can’t control him. He doesn’t follow orders.”

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Robert Mueller’s probe into suspected collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has interviewed top Trump aide Stephen Miller, according to multiple reports.

Miller is the aide credited with writing many of Trump’s most controversial speeches and helping to craft the parts of the presidential agenda most hostile to immigrants. He is one of Mueller’s few interviewees currently working in the Trump White House.

Sources tell CNN that “Miller’s role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey” was among the topics discussed. Miller helped Trump draft a memo describing the reasons Comey should be fired. Trump sent a separate letter to Comey himself, saying he was dismissing the head of the FBI for acting too quickly to close an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. The letter Miller helped Trump write was several pages long and included more reasons to dismiss Comey, including the fact that Comey would not say publicly that his investigation of Trump’s campaign was not focused on Trump himself, according to the Washington Post.

Miller would have been uniquely privy to Trump’s stated intentions during the drafting of the firing letter. Miller’s potential usefulness to the probe doesn’t end with the Comey firing letter: campaign worker George Papadopoulos told other Trump staffers at a March 2016 meeting that he could arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin; Miller attended that meeting, a source told CNN.

Miller has been with Trump since January 2016, when he left his job as Jeff Sessions’ Senate communications director.

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After a business meeting in preparation for the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, a Russian who attended the meeting told Donald Trump’s personal bodyguard Keith Schiller he could “send five women” to Trump’s hotel room, according to an NBC report on the congressional testimony Schiller gave behind closed doors Wednesday.

Schiller said he told the Russian, “We don’t do that type of stuff,” sources told NBC.

On their way back to the hotel Schiller said he and Trump laughed about the offer, and that he personally stood by Trump’s door after he went to bed. Multiple sources told NBC Schiller was confident that no one sent Trump any women that evening, and that he and Trump were aware of the possibility of wiretapping or hidden cameras in the hotel room.

According to Aras Agalarov—Putin confidant, Russian billionaire, and Trump’s business partner on both the Miss Universe Pageant and an abortive real estate project in Moscow—Trump stayed at the Ritz Carlton when he visited Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant. That hotel appears in in the so-called Trump dossier as the site of the collection of “kompromat,” or compromising material, about Trump’s personal life. Trump appears to have visited Russia only the once during 2013. The dossier was a collection of unverified, raw intelligence compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele and paid for by the Clinton campaign through a law firm. It’s been a focus of the various probes in to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The AP reported in July that Emin Agalarov, Aras’s pop-singer son, offered to supply Trump with prostitutes, but that Schiller had rejected the overture. The source for that detail of the Times story was anonymous because “they were not authorized by Trump” to give the interview.

Schiller, who has worked as personal protection for Trump since 1999, punched a Latino protestor in the face on camera in 2015 after grabbing the protestor’s sign out of his hands; he remained the head of Trump’s personal security detail, a job that traditionally goes to the Secret Service, for two more years almost to the day. During that time he was assigned many sensitive duties by Trump, notably the task of hand-delivering Trump’s letter firing FBI Director James Comey to Comey’s office in May of this year.

Schiller’s lawyer told NBC he was “appalled by the leaks that are coming from partisan insiders” when questioned about his client’s testimony.

Matt Shuham contributed to this story.

This post has been updated.

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At the urging of President Donald Trump, CIA director Mike Pompeo met with former NSA official and Russian email hack skeptic William Binney in October, according to a report published Tuesday by Intercept. In addition to pushing a sketchy theory at odds with the consensus conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, Binney “mentioned the case of Seth Rich to Pompeo during their meeting,” the Intercept reported.

Trump told Pompeo that if he “want[ed] to know the facts,” he should talk to Binney, Binney told The Intercept. A senior intelligence source confirmed the meeting to the publication.

The pressure from Trump appears to publicly undermine the American intelligence community’s own assessment of the DNC hack and subsequent phishing and disinformation campaigns, a move that is unlikely to endear Trump to the CIA or NSA, which already regard him with deep suspicion.

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Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch’s week did not improve on Wednesday.

Fresh off a hiding Tuesday from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), Stretch appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) read the social media executive the riot act for what he called a refusal to take the problem of foreign interference in elections seriously.

“In meetings with your leadership as you became more aware of this problem, you aggressively promoted the fact that you took down 30,000 accounts around the French elections,” Warner told Stretch. “Now you say not all of those were Russian related. Have you gone back and cross checked those accounts you took down in France to see if they were active in the American election?”

Stretch tried to give a discursive answer, but Warner cut him off. “The accounts related to Russian accounts that you took down, your leadership bragged about how proactive you were in the French election process,” Warner said, “did you check those accounts to see if any of them were active in the American elections?” 

Stretch tried for a second non-answer, which appeared to anger Warner. Just please answer my question,” he said. “Have you reviewed the accounts you took down in France that were Russian related to see if they played any role in the American election?”

Stretch said he was “trying to answer the question.”

“The answer is yes or no,” snapped Warner. Facebook, he said, had looked at the 470 American accounts identified for payment in rubles. Had it applied the same techniques to the accounts seeking to interfere in the European elections “to see if those accounts were active in the United States?”

“I will have to come back to you on that, senator,” Stretch said.

Warner was irate. “Sir, we had this hearing scheduled for months,” he said. “I find your answer very disappointing. On the question of we just discovered you had 80,000 views in terms of Russian views on Facebook. We discover in the last 48 hours 120,000 Russian-based posts on Instagram. Have you done any similar analysis on those 120,000 posts? Know the 80,000 reached 126 million Americans. Have you done the same analysis on the 120,000 posts on Instagram?”

Stretch answered that Facebook had indeed analyzed those posts.

“How many Americans did those touch?” Warner asked.

Far more than Facebook had initially admitted, it turned out. “The data on Instagram is not as complete, but the data we have indicates that beginning in October of 2016, those Instagram posts reached an additional 16 million people in addition to the 126 million people that we identify,” Stretch said.

“Now we’re seeing the Russian activity is roughly at 150 million Americans without knowing how many times they were reshared,” Warner said.

Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer, quickly issued a comment, which also did not answer the question of whether the accounts run in Germany and France were active in the American election. Stamos did say that “[a]ll of the accounts disabled automatically [in the sweep of European disinfo accounts] are still included in our searches for organized disinformation actors like the Internet Research Agency.”

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