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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Veteran senior Trump Organization official Allen Weisselberg has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in the criminal probe of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are investigating Cohen for a host of financial matters, including the hush money payments he made to women on Trump’s behalf. Sources familiar with the investigation told the Journal that Weisselberg is considered a witness in that investigation.

Weisselberg has worked at the Trump Organization since the 1970s, working his way up to become executive vice president and chief financial officer. He currently runs the business with Trump’s two adult sons. Weisselberg also served as the treasurer for the troubled Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was sued by the New York Attorney General for engaging in “repeated and willful self-dealing transactions to benefit Mr. Trump’s personal and business interests.”

The longtime ally of the president cropped up in a newly-released audio recording of Cohen and Trump discussing how to buy the rights of a former Playboy model’s account of her alleged 2006 affair with Trump. On the tape, which was made public by Cohen’s attorneys, Cohen said he spoke to “Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up.”

Cohen ultimately set up and dissolved an LLC without ever making any payments to AMI Inc., parent company of the National Inquirer, for Karen McDougal’s story.

But, as the Journal reported, Weisselberg did set up a $35,000 monthly retainer to Cohen through the Trump Organization that was used to reimburse him for the $130,000 he gave to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her from publicly discussing her alleged liason with Trump. A source told the newspaper that Weisselberg did not know about the payment to Daniels when he set up the retainer arrangement with Cohen.

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Last week’s Justice Department’s indictment of Russian national Mariia Butina refers to her as an “agent of a foreign government and official.”

The word “spy” does not appear anywhere in that six-page document, nor in the initial complaint against her, the accompanying 17-page affidavit filed by an FBI agent, or a 29-page request for pretrial detention. Butina has not been charged with espionage.

Still, she has been referred to as a “spy” by pundits and publications for her years-long effort to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and curry favor with high-level conservative operatives.

Experts on intelligence and the Russian political system told TPM that this is understandable. There’s a lot of overlap between the activities of “foreign agents,” “spies,” and unregistered “operatives.” The three-letter word also fits better in headlines.

But those experts caution that such a loose application of the term is unhelpful and actually works to conceal the specifics of what Butina was allegedly up to and on whose behalf. Spies are typically directly employed by a foreign government’s intelligence agency to gather and transmit information—particularly national defense secrets—back to their home country.

“The intelligence community distinguishes between agents/officers and assets,” Mike Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who focused on Russia, told TPM in an email. “The former are career spies on the agency’s payroll. They recruit the latter, often with money but also by taking advantage of ideological affinities, family connections, and blackmail.”

Butina, Carpenter continued, “seems more like an asset than an agent to me. My guess is she probably craved the access she had to senior Russian officials like [Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Alexander] Torshin and was used by them as well as by Russia’s intelligence services, who saw in her an opportunity to create a front organization in the United States to penetrate the NRA and ‘2A’ political circles.”

Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Robert Mueller in the Justice Department, said calling Butina a “spy” was an “inappropriate, sort of hyperbolic use of that word.”

“These are terms that have very specific meanings; they carry huge criminal penalties,” Zeldin said.

Butina was charged with one count of failing to register as a Russian agent, and another of engaging in conspiracy against the United States.

Court documents related to her case lay out in detail how she allegedly worked at Torshin’s direction to make high-level connections in the NRA and Congress in order to influence policy attitudes towards Russia.

Some of her alleged activities are striking. The FBI alleges that Butina maintained contact information for members of Russia’s intelligence agency, lied about still being employed by Torshin on her F-1 student visa application, and received funding from a billionaire Russian businessman.

But there is no indication that Butina worked directly for the Federal Security Service, or FSB. She and Torshin allegedly spoke openly about their plans in Twitter direct messages, rather than over encrypted apps. Intelligence experts say these sloppy communication habits strongly suggest that the 29-year-old was likely more of an eager freelancer than a skilled intelligence operative.

Anders Aslund, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council, called Butina’s practices “extremely unprofessional.”

“Her tradecraft, her basic operational security was sufficiently amateurish that she does not strike me as someone who has been trained,” Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher focused on Russia at the Institute of International Relations Prague, added in a phone interview.

Galeotti suggested Butina was something of a “wannabe” and that he’d prefer the term “unregistered foreign operative or lobbyist” to “spy.”

“I go back to this description of political entrepreneur,” Galeotti continued. “This is the way the Russian system works. People who reckon they have some chance of building some kind of connection, acquiring some kind of access which they can then leverage—in effect monetize—whether it’s taking it to the state, taking it to some oligarch or minigarch who might therefore be willing to use it.”

In one alleged exchange cited by prosecutors, Torshin jokingly likened Butina to Anna Chapman, the similarly red-haired spy arrested in the U.S. in 2010 for “recruiting sources and collecting information for Russia.”

The DOJ complaint against Chapman, who was ultimately sent back to Russia as part of a spy swap with the U.S., notes that she and the fellow members of her spy ring worked “to hide all connections between themselves and Russia, even as they act at the direction and under the control of the SVR,” a division of Russia’s external intelligence agency.

That was not Butina’s alleged modus operandi. Though she lied about details of her biography in her interactions with GOP politicians and U.S. gun lobbyists, prosecutors allege, she openly sought to promote Russian interests.

Was it a covert influence operation? As described in the allegations, yes. Was she a spy? Not exactly.

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Federal prosecutors were granted access on Friday to 12 audio recordings seized from President Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen.

That development was formalized in a Monday letter by Barbara Jones, the special master overseeing the document review in Cohen’s criminal case. She announced that “the parties” involved no longer wanted to designate the recordings as protected by attorney-client privilege.

“On July 20, 2018, the parties withdrew their designations of ‘privileged’ as to 12 audio items that were under consideration by the special master,” Jones wrote. “Based upon those de-designations, the special master released the 12 items to the government that day.”

Cohen reportedly had a habit of secretly taping conversations. One such chat was a 2016 conversation between Cohen and Trump about hush money payments made to a former Playboy model who claimed to have an affair with Trump, as the New York Times first reported Friday.

Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed the report, but said the recording was “exculpatory” and showed no wrongdoing on Trump’s part.

Per CNN, Trump’s attorneys waived attorney-client privilege on his behalf on the recording about ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, and that it is among the 12 now in the government’s possession. CNN reported that it is the only tape of the 12 that features Trump.

The President appeared to be incensed that his onetime ally recorded their conversation, tweeting that it was “totally unheard of & perhaps illegal” for Cohen to do so.

New York is a “one-party state” that legally permits a person to record someone else without first obtaining consent.

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President Trump began the week by holding a historically disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Trump said he could think of no reason why Russia interfered in the 2016 election and called the special counsel investigation a “disaster.” Standing at his side, Putin dismissed the “so-called” interference as a sham, declined to deny that Russia had compromising material on Trump, and offered Russia’s help in analyzing U.S. intelligence about his country’s own election meddling.

The fallout was swift. Fox hosts, local and congressional Republicans and former intelligence chiefs described Trump’s performance with terms like “disgusting” and mused about what Putin has on the U.S. president. GOP leadership and Trump’s own intelligence officials again affirmed that Russia was responsible for the hacking and influence campaign. A few of Trump’s most loyal toadies defended him.

This backlash inspired an unbelievable (and rare) Trump walkback: He’d meant to say that he saw no reason why Russia “wouldn’t” have been involved in the attack, rather than “would.” White House staff are demoralized and the intelligence community said they’ve been left in the dark, with Trump going rogue and abandoning all the carefully laid plans for the one-on-one Putin summit.

Meanwhile, Moscow is releasing communiqués about various plans that the duo discussed, including a Putin visit to D.C. in the fall and their intention of hauling in former Obama officials for questioning. The Senate voted 98-0 to keep that from happening.

As all of this was unfolding, alleged covert Russian agent Mariia Butina was arrested, charged, and indicted for conspiring against the U.S. Butina allegedly used her romantic relationship with GOP operative Paul Erickson to forge connections with NRA leaders, congressmen, and other Republicans.

Butina was apparently carrying out this years-long influence operation at the direction of Russian official Alexander Torshin. Her attorney says she’s just a grad student who hoped for better relations between Russia and the U.S.

Butina is being held in a D.C. jail ahead of her trial because she’s been deemed an “extreme flight risk.” Cinematic court filings allege that she offered sex for access, planned to flee Washington, and had ties to Russian intelligence.

Russia and some of the Republicans she met, like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (D-CA), insist the charges against Butina are “bogus. Russia’s foreign ministry even started a #FreeMariaButina campaign on social media.

The FBI is in possession of a number of recordings Michael Cohen made of his conversations with Trump, including one where the pair discussed a hush money payment to a former Playboy model. Cohen also reportedly made recordings of his calls with other “significant individuals.”

In a setback for Cohen, the special counsel overseeing document review in his case rejected over a third of his privilege claims.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is seeking immunity for five witnesses in the Manafort trial, which will get underway in Virginia next week. Attorneys from Mueller’s team also held a mysterious sealed hearing with lawyers for former Roger Stone aide Andrew Miller in a D.C. courtroom.

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Lordy, there are (lots of) tapes.

CNN reported Friday that President Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen secretly recorded multiple conversations between the two, including one about a payment made to a former Playboy model who says she slept with Trump.

According to CNN, the President had no idea the calls were being recorded. When he learned this week about the tapes, which are now in the possession of the FBI, he reportedly said, “I can’t believe Michael would do this to me.”

The New York Times broke the news earlier Friday that Cohen had recorded a fall 2016 call in which he and Trump discussed paying Karen McDougal to keep her quiet about her alleged 2006 affair with the president.

All of the recordings were seized in April when the FBI executed search warrants on Cohen’s premises as part of a criminal investigation into his finances. Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani confirmed the existence of the McDougal tape, but said the two-minute call showed no wrongdoing on Trump’s behalf and was actually “powerful exculpatory evidence.”

The McDougal tape appears to be the only Trump-Cohen recording “of substance,” according to a source of CNN’s Dana Bash.

But Bash noted on air that Cohen apparently recorded his calls not just with Trump but with “people around the president” and other “significant individuals.” CNN did not name any of those other individuals.

In addition to working as a longtime fixer for Trump and the Trump Organization, Cohen arranged a hush money deal for powerful GOP donor Elliott Broidy and did legal work for Fox News host Sean Hannity.

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Michael Cohen secretly recorded a 2016 conversation in which he and President Trump discussed paying hush money to a former Playboy model who claims she slept with Trump, the New York Times reported Friday. The FBI is in possession of the recording.

Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed that the taped conversation about the payments to Karen McDougal occurred. Giuliani told the Times that the brief recording contained no suggestion that Trump has “any knowledge of it in advance” and said it was actually “powerful exculpatory evidence.”

Giuliani also said that the recording is interrupted twice because “someone brings soda in for them,” suggesting the conversation happened in person rather than over the phone.

The Times reported that the conversation reportedly focused on the $150,000 that the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., gave to McDougal to “catch and kill” her story about her alleged yearlong 2006 affair with Trump, as well as an additional payment that Cohen planned to make directly to McDougal.

Maggie Haberman, one of the Times reporters who broke the story, said on CNN that Giuliani was trying to argue that Trump instructed Cohen to send the money by check “so that it was done properly, as opposed to cash,” which would not be traceable. That additional payment was never actually sent, Haberman said.

The Washington Post subsequently published a notably different account by a “person familiar with the recording.” That individual said that the pair discussed a plan for Cohen to try to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI for $150,000.

These differing accounts leave it not yet clear whether Trump and Cohen discussed sending an additional payment to McDougal, or instead reimbursing AMI the $150,000 it spent on McDougal’s story in order to take control of her rights.

The recording was among the huge trove of materials that the FBI seized from Cohen’s Manhattan office in an April raid. Cohen is under criminal investigation in New York for a host of financial dealings, including the payments he doled out during the 2016 campaign to silence women who claimed to have had sexual relationships with Trump.

Those payments could violate federal finance laws.

“Three people briefed on the matter” told the Times that Cohen’s lawyers discovered the recording when reviewing the seized materials for anything covered by attorney-client privilege, and shared it with Trump’s attorneys.

Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis told the Times he had “nothing to say on this matter.”

Later Friday afternoon, Davis sent a tweet saying the recording “will not hurt” Cohen.

The story of McDougal’s alleged affair with Trump came to light in March, when the former Playboy model sued AMI for an alleged breach of contract. McDougal said she sold the story of her affair to the tabloid, but that the publication, which is owned by Trump’s friend David Pecker, declined to publish it to protect Trump.

Former adult film star Stormy Daniels also received funds from Trump, via Cohen, to keep her silent about her own alleged affair with the president.

Rumors about Cohen’s habit of recording phone conversations first circulated when the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room in April. Friday’s revelation leaves open the possibility that the feds may have seized recordings of other conversations between Cohen and Trump.

This post has been updated.

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A court-appointed special master has shut down many of the latest requests by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to keep hundreds of documents out of the hands of federal investigators.

Cohen’s lawyers have consistently argued that much of the material seized from his hotel room, office and apartment by the FBI is either protected by attorney-client privilege or highly personal.

But in a report filed Thursday, special master Barbara Jones determined that 1,452 of the 4,085 documents designated as privileged by Cohen’s legal team did not actually fit that designation. Jones agreed that the other 2,633 were either fully or partially privileged.

The non-privileged items will “promptly be released” to prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office for use in their criminal investigation into Cohen’s business and financial dealings, according to the filing. This is the second report Jones has issued on the trove of materials that federal agents seized from Cohen’s premises in an April raid.

Cohen recently shook up his legal team, replacing the attorneys at McDermott Will & Emery who assisted with the document review with former Manhattan prosecutor Guy Petrillo and former White House lawyer Lanny Davis. Since then, he has displayed a new willingness to cooperate with the federal investigation, telling the press that his loyalty is to his country and family rather than Trump.

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Alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina was indicted this week on two very serious charges: conspiring against the U.S. and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

But the influence campaign Butina allegedly carried out over the past few years was so brazen that it was almost comical. The 29-year-old essentially made her very own “Where’s Waldo?” series out of the 2016 GOP presidential campaign.

Butina was captured on camera at a 2015 Las Vegas libertarian convention asking then-candidate Donald Trump about U.S. sanctions. She popped up at NRA events throughout the Midwest and at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C. On the day of President Trump’s inauguration, Butina even sent a selfie to her alleged handler, Russian Central Bank official Alexander Torshin, of her beaming near the U.S. Capitol building.

Many of those interactions, like her run-ins with short-lived GOP candidates Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, were just embarrassing photo ops for those politicians she was allegedly targeting. But some of the connections—like her intimate relationship with GOP operative Paul Erickson and her association with former NRA president David Keene—were involved and forged over years.

As the Washington Post and others have documented, Russia used religion and guns to make inroads with the American conservative community. According to court documents, Butina also used sexual favors as a lure, allegedly offering sex for a position at a special interest organization.

View full-sized version

Infographic by Christine Frapech

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President Trump on Wednesday lent his support to a Republican Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has cast himself in Trump’s image: self-proclaimed “politically incorrect conservative” Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Just days before Tuesday’s primary runoff, Trump fired off a tweet backing Kemp over his more staid opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

“Brian is tough on crime, strong on the border and illegal immigration,” Trump said. “He loves our Military and our Vets and protects our Second Amendment. I give him my full and total endorsement.”

Kemp thanked Trump and vowed to “unapologetically stand with the President to secure our border, deport criminal aliens, crush street gangs, and ensure a bright and promising future for our families.”

Trump remains wildly popular with Peach State GOP primary voters, and both Cagle and Kemp have fought to position themselves as the Trumpiest candidate in the close race. Cagle has touted his endorsement from the National Rifle Association and stumped with NRA President Ollie North, while Kemp gained national recognition for a series of inflammatory ads, including one in which he promised to personally deport “illegals” in his “big truck.”

Cagle has been dogged by a series of leaked surreptitious recordings created by former GOP primary rival Clay Tippins. In one, Cagle told Tippins that he backed a flawed education bill to damage an opponent. In another, Cagle called the state’s vicious five-man primary a competition to see “who could be the craziest.”

Cagle has lost his lead and is now slightly trailing Kemp for the first time. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/WSB-TV poll of likely Republican runoff voters released last week had Kemp leading 44 percent to 41 percent.

Around 21 percent of respondents said their main reason for casting a ballot was to support the stronger ally of the President.

Following trump’s endorsement of Kemp, Cagle put on a brave face, tweeting that there were “no hard feelings” and that he “look[ed] forward to receiving” the President’s endorsement against Democrat Stacey Abrams in the fall.

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In a detail-packed request for pretrial detention filed Wednesday, federal prosecutors alleged that accused Russian agent Mariia Butina represents an “extreme flight risk” and was likely in touch with Russian intelligence operatives “throughout her stay in the United States.”

Prosecutors said they fear that if not jailed Butina will seek safe harbor in a Russian embassy or otherwise try to flee the country due to “the nature of the charges, her history of deceptive conduct, the potential sentence she faces, the strong evidence of guilt, her extensive foreign connections, and her lack of any meaningful ties to the United States,” according to the document, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Butina is due in court for a hearing at 1:30 p.m ET. She was indicted Tuesday on one count of engaging in conspiracy against the U.S. and another of failing to register as an agent of Russia. She was arrested Sunday.

Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, maintains that Butina was working openly to foster closer U.S.-Russia relations. Driscoll argued in court that she did not pose a flight risk because she had chosen to stay in the country even as details of the influence operation she engaged in on behalf of senior Russian official Alexander Torshin were published in the press over the past year and a half.

The government’s main arguments for keeping Butina in jail ahead of her trial are laid out below.

Contacts with FSB and Russian oligarchs

Prosecutors allege that Butina was in contact with “officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives,” including employees of the FSB, or Russian federal security service.

Electronic contact lists and documents seized by the FBI while executing a search warrant at her apartment allegedly include a handwritten note that reads “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?,” per the filing. The FBI claimed it observed Butina having a private meal with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence officer in March 2018, the document alleges.

In addition to these intelligence connections, prosecutors allege that Butina is “well-connected to wealthy businessmen in the Russian oligarchy,” citing regular electronic communications about a Russian billionaire who she allegedly referred to as her “funder.”

The U.S. government fears Butina could leverage these political and intelligence connections to receive “safe harbor.”

Sex for access

Perhaps the most scandalous details of the filing relate to Butina’s alleged use of sexual favors to gain influence with her U.S. targets.

Prosecutors allege that the FBI determined that the 29-year-old was “believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship” with an individual identified only as U.S. Person 1. Corroborating details indicate that person is South Dakota-based longtime GOP operative Paul Erickson. Per the filing, the FBI determined Butina saw the relationship only as a means to an end and that she, “on at least one occasion,” offered a different individual “sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.”

Plans to depart D.C.

The FBI determined that Butina and “U.S. Person 1” had spent the past week preparing for her departure from Washington, D.C., where she’d lived while attending graduate school at American University.

Butina’s lease was due to end on July 31 and she and “U.S. Person 1” visited on July 14 a U-Haul rental facility to discuss renting a track, per the filing.

“When agents executed a warrant at their Washington, D.C., apartment on July 15, 2018, the defendant’s belongings were packed and a letter was discovered notifying the landlord that the lease was to be terminated on July 31, 2018,” the document states.

Butina also allegedly sent an international wire transfer for $3,500 to an account in Russia last week, per the document.

Was acting covertly

The pretrial request notes that Butina’s “legal status in the United States is predicated on deception” because she allegedly falsely claimed on her student visa application that she was no longer working as an assistant to Torshin, the Russian official.

This is just one example of the kind of covert activity Butina allegedly engaged with in order to keep the true nature of her presence in the U.S. under wraps. Other details included in the document include requests that “U.S. Person 1” complete her schoolwork because her grad school attendance was a “cover,” and texts she allegedly exchanged with Torshin about the need to keep their activities “underground.”

Seriousness of charges

Prosecutors allege that the FBI has compiled “substantial” evidence to support their allegations, including email and other electronic communications, paper documents, and planned testimony from “numerous witnesses.”

Given that evidence and the possible maximum sentences she faces—ten years for acting as an agent of a foreign government and five for conspiracy—she has a strong motivation to flee, according to the document.

Read the full filing below.

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