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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White nationalist Jared Taylor and his organization American Renaissance are suing Twitter for permanently suspending their accounts, accusing the social media giant of “the silencing of dissident voices.”

The suit, filed Tuesday in California Superior Court’s San Francisco District, alleges that Twitter is engaging in viewpoint discrimination against the site for its racist views, in violation of the state constitution.

A spokesperson for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Taylor and American Renaissance were banned in December 2017 as part of a crackdown by Twitter against users affiliated with hate groups “on and off the platform.” Those who made “specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people” were banned, as were those whose profiles include “hateful imagery and display names.”

The move came in the wake of the deadly August white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, which was organized largely on Twitter and other social media platforms by users who bragged about committing violence. Taylor and his group are part of an older guard of suit-and-tie-wearing white nationalists who are careful to couch their views on the racial inferiority of blacks and desire for a white homeland in academic language.

Taylor has retained Las Vegas-based attorney Marc Randazza, who is known for his defense of other controversial clients like conspiracy peddler Mike Cernovich and trolls on the platform 8chan. Randazza is currently representing Andrew Anglin, publisher of neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, in a federal lawsuit in which Anglin is accused of orchestrating an anti-Semitic harassment campaign against a Montana Jewish woman.

Michigan State University law professor Adam Candeub and Washington, DC attorney Noah Peters are also representing Taylor. In a Wednesday op-ed in the Daily Caller, Peters wrote that the suit “is not about whether Taylor is right or wrong” about race but about ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their views, have access to free speech.

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For the first time, the Southern Poverty Law Center included two male supremacist groups in its annual “Year in Extremism” report, released Wednesday.

The report, which tracks groups that target specific populations based on their identities, race or religion, also found that the Trump administration has “buoyed white supremacists” by appointing far-right advisers.

Houston-based A Voice for Men and Washington, D.C.-based Return of Kings were among the 954 hate groups included in the 2017 report. The male supremacist groups believe it’s natural and desirable for men to have more power than women, and lament what they see as the oppression of men by modern society. A recent post on A Voice for Men argued that many women who experience violence at the hands of men in their lives “ask for it.”

In a call with reporters, Heidi Beirich, head of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, likened the men’s rights groups’ rhetoric about women to the way the white nationalist organization American Renaissance categorically describes the inferiority of black people.

“These men right’s groups talk in the same way about women,” Beirich said. “They demonize them as an entire population, so they use slurs like, ‘They’re whores, they’re destroying men, they’re bitches, they’re evil.’ It’s the same kind of language directed at demonizing all women and trying to make women look essentially like a lesser form of humanity.”

In recent years there has been frequent overlap between the “men’s rights” community and the broader amalgamation of racists and online trolls known as the “alt-right.”

Beirich said the SPLC has been tracking the men’s rights movement since 2012 and this year determined that these two organizations met the criteria required to be added to their annual count.

The groups make up a tiny fraction of the overall 2017 report, which found a 4 percent rise in hate groups nationwide since 2016. The biggest upticks were among black nationalist and neo-Nazi group chapters, which saw their ranks swell from 193 to 233 and 99 to 121, respectively. Separately, the SPLC identified 689 anti-government or “Patriot” groups, up from 623 in 2016.

The report found that the Trump administration has “thrilled and comforted” white supremacists by appointing advisers with ties to the “alt-right” like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and by enacting immigration policies that target Muslims and Latinos. White supremacist websites like the Daily Stormer and Stormfront have also helped proliferate hateful ideas to thousands of predominantly young men who are not formerly affiliated with any particular hate group, per the SPLC report.

One such person was Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who, police say, murdered 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida last week. Though Cruz was not a member of any group, he was steeped in white nationalist and anti-Islam ideology, authoring dozens of hateful social media posts.

Like many of the people who commit acts of mass violence, Cruz also had a history of misogynistic behavior and violence against women. The New York Times reported he was abusive towards his ex-girlfriend and behaved threateningly towards other female students.

Gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety found that in 57 percent of mass shooting cases between 2009 and 2015, a spouse, former spouse or other family member was among the victims. Everytown’s analysis, based on FBI data, also found that 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.

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On a sunny afternoon last Wednesday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of his former high school in Parkland, Florida and unleashed a fusillade of bullets, slaughtering three adults and fourteen teenagers.

In the days since, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have made their heartbreak public. They’ve gone on camera to call for renewed efforts to reduce gun violence, and they’ve harshly criticized the National Rifle Association, President Donald Trump and Congress for blocking gun control legislation. They’ve also organized the March for Our Lives, a mass rally in Washington, D.C. slated to take place next month.

The grieving teenagers have received widespread praise for their impassioned response to the loss of their peers. But they’ve also become a target of conspiracy theorists on the far right.

Fringe sites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit have suggested that the student organizers are fronts for left-wing anti-gun interests, working in collaboration with the mainstream media to undermine Trump. Some of their claims have been endorsed and boosted by higher profile figures like Donald Trump Jr., Bill O’Reilly, and a former Republican congressman.

Survivors of past mass shootings have been smeared as crisis actors or media-trained plants. But this is likely the first time allies of the White House are helping with the smearing — and that the targets are publicly pushing back.

Most of the attacks have focused on senior David Hogg, a student journalist who recorded interviews with his classmates while the shooting was still underway and they were hiding huddled in a closet. As Hogg later told the press, his father is a retired FBI agent who taught him about weapons — helping him recognize in the moment that the sounds of gunfire he’d heard were real.

This link to the FBI was catnip for those who have pointed to the investigation into Russian election meddling to claim that the bureau is a hotbed of anti-Trump sentiment. After the FBI acknowledged Friday that it had failed to investigate a detailed tip about Cruz’s pledge to become a school shooter, supporters of the administration — and Trump himself — said the bureau of 35,000 employees was too distracted by the Russia probe to do its job properly.

In a Monday post that spread like wildfire on social media, far-right site Gateway Pundit alleged that Hogg was “coached on anti-Trump lies” and a “pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation.” A photo above the post shows the word “exposed” and an FBI badge superimposed over the 17-year-old’s face.

The site True Pundit attacked Hogg for “running his mouth” about Trump and blamed him for not informing his father of the threat Cruz posed.

On Twitter, Trump Jr. liked that story, which was headlined “Outspoken Trump-Hating School Shooting Survivor is Son Of FBI Agent; MSM Helps Prop Up Incompetent Bureau.”

Trump’s eldest son also lent his approval to a since-deleted error-filled post shared by conservative One America News Network suggesting that the student was “running cover for his dad.”

Three posts liked by Trump Jr. on Tuesday

An aide to Florida State Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Republican, on Tuesday emailed a Florida reporter claiming that Hogg and another student who had recently been interviewed on CNN were plants.

“Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis (sic) when they happen,” wrote the aide, Benjamin Kelly.

Harrison soon after called the tweet “inappropriate.”

Other conspiracy-based articles have suggested that Hogg was being fed lines, pointing to the ear piece he was wearing during a remote TV interview; that Hogg’s appearance last August in a local CBS News segment in Los Angeles as an eyewitness to an altercation on a beach “raised questions” about his re-emergence in the news now; and that his mother, Rebecca Boldrick, is an “anti-Trump activist” because she shared posts critical of the president on social media.

The attacks have come in broader strokes, too. Critics of the student activists speculated that they could not, in the days since the Parkland shooting, have independently organized plans for the national rally against gun violence on March 24.

“O really? ‘Students’ are planning a nationwide rally?,”Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, tweeted Sunday. “Not left wing gun control activists using 17yr kids in the wake of a horrible tragedy? #Soros #Resistance #Antifa #DNC”

Kingston went further in a Tuesday appearance on CNN, insisting that the teenagers “probably do not have the logistical ability to plan a nationwide rally” and that George Soros or others promoting a “pre-existing anti-gun agenda” were leading the way.

“They have the money for the bus, and they’re ready to go,” Kingston said sarcastically of the students, who traveled to the state legislature in Tallahassee on Tuesday to meet with lawmakers. “I mean I just have a hard time believing it.”

Former Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly weighed in to say that Kingston’s claims that the students were “being used by leftist people in the gun control debate” were “most likely true.”

Of course, groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America have offered vocal support for the Parkland survivors and used the tragedy to highlight the need to reduce gun violence, as they do with every mass shooting. Celebrity giants like George and Amal Clooney have donated $500,000 to help pay for the march, praising the students’ inspirational “courage and eloquence.”

But O’Reilly, along with other right-wing figures like The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson, have found a subtler way to undermine the students. They’ve argued that the news media is taking advantage of children still vulnerable from a tragedy who might not fully understand the stances they’re taking.

“The national press believes it is their job to destroy the Trump administration by any means necessary,” O’Reilly wrote on his website. “So if the media has to use kids to do that, they’ll use kids.’

Erickson’s post made a similar point: the survivors of the shooting haven’t “had time to mourn” and were not yet ready to share their stories on national television.

The March For Our Lives organizers did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment. But some students, like senior Sofie Whitney, have responded to the attacks.

“I think they’re really insensitive for saying those things,” Whitney told CNN’s Jake Tapper during a Tuesday interview. “The fact that someone is against us when we just lost people we used to see every day — I can’t fathom how someone can have a mindset like that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) offered support in a tweet, chastising the “disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency” who are claiming “some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors.”

And in interviews and on their own social media accounts, Stoneman Douglas’ students have made it clear that they are speaking for themselves.

“Us 17yrs really are planning a nationwide rally! It’s crazy what determination, and a strong work ethic can lead to!” Sarah Chadwick, a 16-year-old at the school tweeted in response to Kingston. “But I mean you have neither of those things so I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

This post has been updated.

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Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) has added a new lawyer to his defense team amid an expanding criminal probe, KMOV reported Monday.

The addition of former circuit judge Jack Garvey comes after reports that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has convened a grand jury. Garvey’s hiring is a possible sign that Greitens is preparing for a drawn-out investigation.

Gardner launched the probe last month after allegations emerged that Greitens blackmailed a woman with whom he carried out an extramarital affair. TPM reported that the woman also alleged Greitens slapped her.

Last week, two investigators with Gardner’s office reportedly questioned lawmakers at the Capitol. One said the investigators had asked about Greitens’ use of so-called “dark money” organizations that don’t disclose their donors, suggesting the probe may have expanded beyond its original focus.

Greitens, who was elected in 2016, has admitted to carrying out the 2015 relationship with the woman, whose name has not been made public. He has denied the blackmail and slapping allegations.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, Republican State Rep. Nate Walker, and Democratic State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal are among those who have said they’ve been contacted by investigators.

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The Executive Director of the Maine Republican Party has admitted he created, runs and writes articles for a pro-Republican anonymous website that has come under fire from state Democrats.

Attorneys for Jason Savage wrote to the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics to say he operates the Maine Examiner “on his own free time and does not utilize Maine Republican Party resources,” Maine News Center reported Friday.

The letter asserted that the website was a proper news site and not subject to state campaign finance disclosure laws, as state Democrats have alleged. Last month, the Democrats filed a complaint with the ethics commission saying the site slandered their unsuccessful mayoral candidate without disclosing its ties to the Republican Party.

The commission will meet Thursday and decide whether to open a formal investigation into the allegations.

The site describes itself as run by “a small group of Mainers who simply publish Maine news, trends, and interesting pieces about you, the people of Maine.” Metadata directly linked Savage to the site.

As TPM previously reported, a number of political entities, such as the reelection campaign for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), have started websites that resemble local news sites, sometimes without disclosing who they are. Government transparency experts say they can easily mislead readers who are unaware who is funding or promoting the stories being put in front of them.

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For a year and half, President Donald Trump and his supporters have dismissed the growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election as a hoax. But Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals Friday suggests it’s all too real.

Trump has maintained that Democrats, pained by their surprise electoral loss, invented the notion that Russian operatives spread propaganda on social media and leaked emails stolen from top Democratic operatives. Pinpointing the bad actor behind the attacks was simply not possible, Trump insisted. He has said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia played any role.

Trump was wrong, according to U.S. prosecutors. Mueller’s indictment lays out in precise detail how, prosecutors believe, Russia’s Internet Research Agency carried out a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project to impersonate U.S. citizens on social media, hold on-the-ground protests in states like Florida, and even further bogus claims that Democrats committed voter fraud. The 37-page document is backed up with dates, names, bank account numbers, and the text of specific ads that the Russians paid to promote.

It provides conclusive public evidence that Russians were behind the mass interference campaign in the 2016 election, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded back in their January 2017 report.

As both documents make clear, Russia’s intention was both to undermine trust in the U.S. political system and, at least from mid 2016 on, to get Trump into the Oval Office. The indictment also says Russia sought to help Trump in the Republican primary.

Trump was suspicious of this notion from the get-go. During the campaign, he alternately suggested that the Democratic National Committee’s servers were hacked by its own staff (June 2016), China or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” or nobody at all.

After Trump won the election, his official line was that federal and congressional investigations into Russia’s interference were based on “Fake News Media” stories, “sleazebag political operatives,” and a “phony Democrat excuse for losing the election.”

Trump continued to press for a closer relationship with Russia, even tweeting in July 2017 that he had spoken to Putin at the G20 Summit about “forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, [and] many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

The President quickly backed down in the face of widespread outrage. But he continued to tell the media he believed Putin was “sincere” when he told him in their face-to-face meetings that Russia did not intervene.

Proof of Russia’s social media influence campaigns surfaced by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees did not change his mind.

“The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook,” Trump tweeted in September 2017. “What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?”

Mueller’s indictment notes that Internet Research Agency operatives began purchasing ads on social media sites to promote their bogus activist groups in 2015, spending thousands of U.S. dollars per month on the effort.

The ads were real. The fake social media accounts existed (and Trump himself even interacted with one of them). The DNC emails were hacked and leaked. And we now have hard evidence that Russia funded and orchestrated the whole elaborate effort.

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The big news in the Trump-Russia story came Friday, when special counsel Robert Mueller’s office released an indictment of 13 individuals and three organizations related to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm that sought to sow division and meddle with the US election process starting in 2014. It made clear that IRA’s efforts to interfere in the election were far more extensive than had previously been reported, including, for instance, efforts to push the false claim that voter fraud was rampant in the US, a claim Donald Trump also made during and after the election.

Friday also saw the release of a plea agreement for a previously unknown-to-reporters individual named Richard Pinedo. Pinedo pleaded guilty to identity fraud; court documents released by the special counsel’s office suggested Pinedo used stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were used by Russians.

Before the Friday afternoon news dump, there were hints that Mueller might have another cooperating witness. Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates is reportedly nearing a plea deal with Mueller’s team—a move that would pressure Gates’ longtime boss Paul Manafort to do the same.

Steve Bannon found himself in the hot seat this week, enduring some 20 hours of interviews with Mueller’s team over multiple days. Bannon also finally responded to the House Intelligence Committee’s subpoena, returning to Capitol Hill for an interview on his tenure in the presidential transition and Trump administration.

Yet his answers were reportedly inadequate; Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said he refused to answer “all but 25 questions concerning his time after the campaign,” and that the responses were drafted by the White House. Legal experts say this sort of broad invocation of executive privilege would not fly with the special counsel. The House panel is now considering holding Bannon in contempt.

White House Counsel Don McGahn is also facing new scrutiny: A Washington Post report this week revealed that, last year, McGahn asked a top DOJ official to push former FBI director Comey to publicly state that President Trump was not personally under investigation. He did so at Trump’s command—a fact that could be yet another building block in Mueller’s obstruction of justice case.

The Democrats’ rebuttal to the memo put out by Rep. Devin Nunes remains in limbo after the White House refused to release it last week, claiming that it contained too much classified information. Democrats are working with the FBI on a new draft that ensures no intelligence sources or methods would be revealed to the public.

Most of the U.S. intelligence chiefs denied any involvement in discussing the declassification of either the GOP or Democrats’ memo at a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. The exception, understandably, was FBI director Christopher Wray, whose agency’s activities are central to both memos. The intelligence chiefs also released a written assessment asserting that Russia will continue to use “propaganda, social media, false-flag personas” to “exacerbate social and political fissures” in the U.S.

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The 2010 midterm elections were, in Barack Obama’s words, a “shellacking” for Democrats—and not just those in Congress.

That was the year Republicans poured money and resources into key state legislatures in order to control the once-a-decade redistricting process that would follow. The GOP emerged with full control of numerous key states, allowing them to draw congressional and state legislative district lines to their advantage, and giving them a major edge in elections for the rest of the decade. In 2012, Democrats won 1.4 million more votes for the House than the GOP, but wound up with 33 fewer seats.

With the next Census less than two years away, Democrats are mobilizing to try to prevent the same thing from happening again. But going further, by setting themselves up to carry out their own gerrymander, doesn’t appear to be on the agenda—at least for now.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), backed by Obama and spearheaded by former Attorney General Eric Holder, is teaming up with other Democratic campaign organizations to target specific governorships, legislative chambers, and ballot initiatives in 2020 with an eye on getting a say in the redistricting process.

So far, at least, Democrats appear focused more on fighting for fairer maps than on letting themselves draw maps that advantage their party. 

“Our goal is to restore fairness to the system,” NDRC Communications Director Patrick Rodenbush told TPM Thursday. “If you look at our list of target states, we’re trying to break trifectas in states that were most badly gerrymandered by Republicans and then protect against gerrymandering in a handful of other ones.”

Trifectas are where one party controls all three influence-points for the redistricting process: both legislative chambers and the governorship.

Indeed, in many of the states the NDRC is targeting like Florida, Georgia, and Texas, their goal is only to have a voice in the redistricting process by winning control of one chamber or the governorship—not to win total control in a way that would’ve them a free hand to gerrymander. That’s in part because winning full control isn’t realistic in many states.

“The NDRC is saying all the right things and it might be that they would be happy with fair districts,” Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert at Loyola Law School, told TPM. “In some places that’s all they’re going to get, by the way. I will see what happens when they actually get control of states. I’ll see if they put their money where their mouth is.”

Still, even where they end up with the power to do so, there are plenty of factors that may keep Democrats from pressing their advantage. Demographics are a central one.

“Democratic voters are badly distributed geographically,” Theodore Arrington, a voting rights expert at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told TPM in an email. “They are very concentrated in urban areas. Therefore, it is difficult to avoid creating a number of districts that are heavily Democratic, which wastes their votes. Given that the courts will look for districts that are compact and follow other traditional districting principles, this bad concentration will hurt the Democrats.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing three major redistricting cases out of GOP-gerrymandered Wisconsin and Texas, and Democrat-gerrymandered Maryland. Those cases could set limits on how extreme partisan gerrymanders can be.

Whatever they determine, the energized Democratic base is also pressing leadership to move towards a fairer system where independent arbiters draw up maps based on neutral redistricting principles that better reflect the parties’ vote shares. These grassroots activists appear motivated as much by a commitment to small ‘d’ democratic principles as by a partisan desire to maximize Democratic gains.

“Post-2016, people have elevated the issue of redistricting from something that was obscure—that we had to engage in a civics lesson on—to something that’s pretty much their number one demand,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause. “Wherever we go to, this has been a rallying cry.”

That energy has already prompted significant movement in two states that were heavily gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor during the last cycle. Ohio’s legislature approved a bipartisan resolution that would put an independent commission in charge of the congressional redistricting process, which voters will now decide on in May. Voters in 2015 approved an initiative to create a similar commission to handle state legislative redistricting. And in Michigan, a reform group collected over 425,000 signatures late last year for a 2018 ballot initiative that would install a similar setup.

“I think the biggest reformist impulses from the inside right now are coming from places where citizens are angry and loud about it,” Levitt, the Loyola professor, said. “And the legislators are desperately trying to get ahead of what they fear to be a loud angry tidal wave against them.”

That’s not to say all blue states or Democratic lawmakers are on board, or have been in the past. In Maryland and particularly Illinois, Democrats drew districts that protected incumbents. In Illinois, House Speaker Michael Madigan campaigned against a 2016 effort to create an independent redistricting process that garnered over 500,000 signatures. In California, state Democratic leadership fought hard against an ultimately successful reform initiative to create a similar process despite strong support from local Democratic clubs, according to Common Cause’s Feng.

But the party at large seems to recognize that simply having fairer maps rather than ones that heavily favor Republicans will benefit them in the long run.

Democrats are in the “comfortable position of being able to advocate for fair maps knowing that, number one you occupy the high ground,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic political strategist and CEO of marketing consulting firm TargetSmart. “It’s hard to argue against transparency and public input. But they also know that fair maps would produce a much better landscape for Democrats.”

Non-partisan redistricting advocates like Feng hope that once that system is in place and voters see the benefits, they’ll be less likely to have to engage in another all-out battle with the GOP again in another ten year’s time.

“I analogize this to The Lord of the Rings,” she said. “You gotta take this ring away from them and throw it in the volcano. The power to draw lines for the next ten years to benefit yourself, your party and your buddies is very tempting to hold onto. And it brings out ugly monsters in both parties.”

Throwing the ring away, Feng said, is “the only way we can move beyond this tug-of-war.”

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St. Louis investigators are questioning Missouri lawmakers as part of an ongoing criminal probe into Gov. Eric Greitens (R).

In a Wednesday visit to the Capitol, two investigators working with the office of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner interviewed a number of lawmakers from both parties about Greitens’ conduct, the Kansas City Star reported Wednesday.

The questions they’re asking suggest that Gardner’s investigation has expanded beyond allegations that Greitens blackmailed and once slapped a woman with whom he carried out an extramarital affair, to look at Greitens’ campaign finance practices.

State Rep. Nate Walker, a Republican and an early supporter of the governor who has since called for him to step down, told the Star that the inquiries covered issues including “dark money and different things like that.”

In a Thursday phone call with TPM, Walker declined to expand further on the questions he received from investigators but said he had the impression from the sit-down in his office that this was a “pretty major investigation.”

Walker reiterated his belief that the various scandals engulfing Greitens had become a “major distraction” and that the governor needs to step down.

Greitens has admitted to the affair but denied allegations that he took a nude photograph of the woman and threatened to release it if she went public.

Greitens ran on a platform of government transparency, but has come under fire during his first year in office for relying heavily on contributions from nonprofits that engage in political activity without disclosing their donors.

Gardner’s office confirmed to the Star that Jack Foley and William Tisaby — a pair of private investigators with FBI experience — conducted the interviews with lawmakers.

Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal said during a Wednesday Senate debate that Foley and Tisaby had tried to contact her, according to the Star. Reached for comment, a spokeswoman told TPM Chappelle-Nadal has not yet met with the investigators and had no further information on what they were looking for.

Other signals have emerged suggesting that Gardner’s inquiry may be escalating. A lawyer for the woman’s husband, Al Watkins, told reporters last week that the circuit attorney’s office has convened a grand jury.

Watkins said his client was served with a subpoena to provide testimony.

Greitens and his attorney, Jim Bennett, have said they have received no contact from law enforcement officials.

Bennett told the Star Wednesday that they believe “any fair investigation will result in a conclusion that Gov. Greitens has committed no wrongdoing.”

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Read a reporter’s notebook (Prime access) on this article »

Last month, a site called the Maine Examiner reported that Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, was the state’s only member of Congress to vote to shut down the government. The site illustrated its story with a picture of Pingree next to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), though Lewis wasn’t mentioned in the story.

Two weeks ago, another site, the California Republican, shared an article promising to explain “the process behind #ReleaseTheMemo,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) push to release a document that he has said shows anti-Trump bias at the FBI.

Both sites look like news outlets. But neither have staff writers, editorial guidelines, or physical offices. Instead, the Maine Examiner appears to be linked to the state’s Republican Party. And the California Republican is a project of Nunes’ reelection campaign.

The sites certainly aren’t the first political mouthpieces to disguise themselves as journalism. Mike Pence planned to create a state-run news service during his tenure as Indiana governor, before pulling the plug in the face of fierce criticism. The Republican Governors Association set up a partisan news site last summer that didn’t disclose who was behind it until reporters made inquiries.

Nor are the sites likely generating huge traffic, based on their social media numbers.

But for the political interests behind them, the sites represent a useful way to spread their message to supporters while falsely conveying the authority of independent journalism. Such fake “news” is particularly troubling at a time when online content can spread virally without consumers knowing who’s behind it, and the 2016 election saw hundreds of thousands of Americans were unwittingly duped by news articles, ads and social media posts produced by Russian “troll farms” and Macedonian teenagers.

“There’s a general lack of transparency here,” Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center told TPM. “When you have these ongoing accusations of fake news and attacks on the legitimate news media, and then partisan candidates creating what are actually fake news sites to help muddy the waters and push their message, it helps weaken trust in journalism and the media as an institution.”

The California Republican briefly went offline after Politico reported on it on Sunday. The site said that was due to “heavy traffic and an attack on our servers.” It was back up as of Tuesday. 

Nunes’ campaign and congressional office did not immediately respond to TPM’s requests for comment.

The Maine Republican Party has staunchly denied any involvement in the Maine site, but according to a local news report, metadata indicates that a username linked to the group’s executive director, Jason Savage, registered the site’s web hosting account and downloaded the design template.

Neither Savage nor Maine GOP communications director Garrett Murch responded to TPM’s request for comment.

The Maine Democratic Party last month filed a complaint with the state ethics commission requesting an investigation into the GOP’s ties to the site and whether campaign finance laws were violated. The commission confirmed to TPM that the complaint will be reviewed at a meeting next week.

Both the Nunes campaign and the Maine site appear designed to mimic the conventions of legitimate news sites. They feature a mix of local and national news articles largely excerpted from other mostly conservative publications and framed with a conservative slant, as well as sports and human interest stories unrelated to politics. (The Nunes site promises “the best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis.”) On Facebook, they’re catalogued as “media/news” companies.

And neither site gives much indication to a casual news reader that they’re political propaganda. The California Republican has no “About” page explaining its purpose. At the very bottom of each page, in seven-point type, appears the line: “Paid for by the Devin Nunes campaign committee.” The Maine Examiner offers even less information, telling readers on an About page that it’s the work of a “small group of Mainers.”

The Republican Governors Association’s site set up last year, the Free Telegraph, still doesn’t include a disclosure on its social media feeds.

“It’s very clear on the Free Telegraph site that it is connected to the RGA,” RGA communications director Jon Thompson told TPM in an email, saying the site was “just another outlet” to tout the successes of GOP governors. “On every article post, at the bottom, it notes that the RGA has sponsored the article/site.”

Thompson also said a Google search would make clear the Free Telegraph is a project of the RGA—though few news consumers would likely have any reason to run one.

The FEC requires a “clear and conspicuous” disclaimer on all communications by a campaign committeeStephen Spaulding, a former FEC lawyer now at Common Cause, said the sites’ meager or non-existent disclosures raise particular issues in an era when consumers often encounter news on social media rather than on the website of the news provider. 

“The way that news is shared now, things kind of spread organically and it’s just not always clear who is behind it,” said Spaulding, who called the use of news-style sites “dangerous for democracy.” 

A series of academic studies done in the wake of the 2016 campaign suggest a low level of news literacy among consumers. A Stanford University study of some 7,800 students found that news consumers a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their inability to evaluate the credibility of information they consumed online. Another report by a trio of political scientists found that “almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets.”

As a result, campaign sites without transparent disclosures can become just another part of the morass of legitimate news, sponsored content, political gossip and pure hogwash available online.

As Alex Howard, deputy director of the government transparency advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation, put it, these site disclosures are the only way that “the public, when they’re staring at the same glowing box, has at least a prayer of being able to understand who paid for it, what that entity is and what its goals are.”

Correction: This story initially said that Alex Howard was the Sunlight Foundation’s executive director, rather than deputy director.

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