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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

Former Trump campaign staffer Carter Page emailed TPM his statement on the disputed Nunes memo, released on Friday:

‘The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy. Now that a few of the misdeeds against the Trump Movement have been partially revealed, I look forward to updating my pending legal action in opposition to DOJ this weekend in preparation for Monday’s next small step on the long, potholed road toward helping to restore law and order in our great country.’

The memo is centered around what it claims were improper actions by the FBI in its efforts to get a warrant to surveil Page, who had numerous contacts with people linked the Russian government.

Page is a major figure of interest in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has consistently maintained his innocence, though former CIA officers and opposition researcher Glenn Simpson have described him as an easy target for foreign intelligence.

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seeking documents from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump Administration in order to determine whether “Russian-backed shell companies” inappropriately sought to influence the 2016 election through the gun group.

Last month, McClatchy reported that the FBI is probing whether Aleksandr Torshin, a Putin ally, illegally funneled money to the NRA to boost Donald Trump. The NRA last week denied to TPM that it had been contacted by the FBI “about anything related to Russia”.

The news of Wyden’s letters was first reported by the Associated Press.

“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” Wyden wrote to Treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin.

The letter requests “any documents in the holdings of the Department of the Treasury associated with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Russia” from the Treasury, noting Wyden’s specific interest in “documents from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network” and from the Treasury’s office of terrorism and financial intelligence.

In his letter to the NRA treasurer Wilson Phillips, Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote that he was “troubled” by the possibility that Russian interests had tried to influence the elections “by abusing the rules governing 501(c)(4) tax exempt organizations.”

Wyden asked Phillips for “any remuneration, transaction, or contribution that involved any of the 501(c)(4) entities associated with your organization and any entity or individual associated with any Russian official, Russian national, or Russian business interest.”

Torshin — and his friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 are both “life members” of the NRA, Torshin has said. Life members must give at least $1,500 to the group. It’s not illegal for foreigners to contribute to the NRA’s general coffers, but it would be illegal if the group used foreign money for political activities.

As TPM has reported, Torshin has spent years cozying up to the NRA and courting American conservatives. At the same time, he has narrowly avoided arrest in Spain for his alleged role in the Taganskaya Bratva, a St. Petersburg-based criminal organization in which Torshin is allegedly a boss.

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Russians courting the NRA before the 2016 election came with a 35-inch long olive branch: the AK-47.

Alexander Torshin is the Russian banker and Putin ally reportedly at the center of an FBI probe into whether the NRA received illegal Russian money to help Donald Trump in 2016. Torshin has ties to the Kalashnikov Concern, the state-owned company that makes the AK and other popular rifles, according to a TPM review of bank statements. And in 2014, the NRA raised concerns about the Obama administration’s move to ban the Kalashnikov Concern from doing business in the U.S., which is easily the largest market for civilian firearms. 

The ban was part of the Obama administration’s broader sanctions regime introduced in response to the Russian seizure of Crimea that year.

What to make of the connections? The link between Torshin and Kalashnikov, along with the NRA’s support for lifting sanctions on the Kalashnikov Concern, suggests a confluence of interests between Torshin and the NRA which could have played in to the Russian efforts to influence the gun lobby group.

The NRA last week denied to TPM that it had been contacted by the FBI “about anything related to Russia”.

Torshin serves as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, which is Russia’s version of the U.S. Federal Reserve, but also controls a major Russian consumer bank, Sberbank, which it founded. Sberbank, which also is on the U.S. sanctions list, is a major lender to Rostec, a company owned directly by the Russian Federation that buys other companies near bankruptcy on behalf of the government and tries to recuperate them. One of Rostec’s holdings is Kalashnikov. Sberbank has often done business with Rostec, structuring its common corporate treasury and lending millions to its aerospace subsidiary in the immediate wake of the imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2014.

Those sanctions barred American companies from doing business with Rostec, Sberbank, the Central Bank of Russia, and oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft.

After the sanctions were issued, the NRA released a statement expressing concerns about the inclusion of the Kalashnikov Concern. It warned that the administration might be “using a geopolitical crisis as a convenient excuse to advance the president’s domestic anti-gun agenda.”

Already evidence has emerged that lifting or loosening the sanctions was a key part of the broader Russian effort to gain influence with the Trump campaign. In June 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with links to the Putin government, reportedly met with Trump campaign officials and spoke against the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned a number of government officials for the murder of a whistleblowing accountant. When President Obama threatened further sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference, Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak called Michael Flynn to complain.

Torshin’s overtures to the gun lobby emphasized his close relationship with his elderly friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the rifle. In early 2014, Torshin wrote about the Kalashnikov for the Washington Times opinion page, then under the editorship of former NRA president David Keene. Torshin called the gun, one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.” Both Torshin and Kalshnikov were lifetime NRA members.

Mark Galeotti, a historian of contemporary Russia, said the Kalashnikov isn’t important in terms of military strategy — many of Rostec’s companies are — but called it “an export champion and a part of the national brand.” Before the sanctions, the New York Times estimated that fully 28% of Kalashnikov’s total business came from the U.S. 

TPM has detailed the years of ties between Torshin and his assistant, Maria Butina, and the NRA.

Butina, who runs a shadowy Russian gun-rights organization, showed up at the 2016 libertarian Freedom Fest convention, where Donald Trump spoke. Video from the vent shows a redheaded woman with a Russian accent claiming to be from Russia asking Trump, then a candidate for president, whether he would consider lifting sanctions on Russia.

“Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?” the woman asked.

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The news that the controversial Nunes memo accuses Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of misconduct underscores a crucial but often overlooked reality about Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence in the election: If Mueller decides that President Donald Trump obstructed justice or otherwise broke the law — and such would have quite a bit of evidence — he may well still need Rosenstein’s sign-off to do anything about it.

The pivotal position Rosenstein occupies may help explain the determination of many Trump loyalists in and out of Congress to release the Nunes memo. Rosenstein has been facing calls since last year to step down or recuse himself from the Mueller probe — and his replacement would likely be a Trump loyalist. That means that if Rosenstein is forced out and a Trump loyalist takes his place, the move could neuter the Mueller probe.

At the heart of the issue are limits on the powers of the special counsel. Many legal scholars believe a sitting president can’t be criminally indicted, meaning that if Mueller finds evidence of crimes by Trump, his strongest recourse might well be to make a referral to Congress for potential impeachment proceedings. But some of those experts tell TPM that under the regulation governing the special counsel’s office, Mueller lacks the authority to make that referral without approval from Justice Department officials overseeing his investigation.

After Kenneth Starr’s pursuit of Bill Clinton, Congress changed the laws governing special investigations in 1999: No longer could a three-judge panel appoint an “independent counsel” acting with no direct DOJ oversight. Instead, the decision to appoint a “special counsel” had to be made by the attorney general. In Mueller’s case, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, because of meetings he had held with the Russian ambassador, leaving Rosenstein to appoint and manage Mueller and his probe.

“Those regulations don’t explicitly give the special counsel authority to make a referral,” William Yeomans, a 26-year DOJ veteran who has served as an acting assistant attorney general and is now a fellow at the Alliance for Justice, told TPM. “If there is a referral, it’s going to have to go through Rosenstein. Ultimately, it’s probably his decision.”

Susan Low Bloch, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown Law School, agreed. “Rosenstein decides what to do, and if he sees an impeachable offense I would say that he should send it to Congress,” she said in a phone interview on Monday. “But if he chooses not to, I don’t think you can do anything.”

If Rosenstein is fired or steps down, Trump would appoint his successor. And if Rosenstein recuses himself, the ranking official in the department of justice (DOJ) would be Rachel Brand, a Republican legal operative who worked in the George W. Bush White House*. Brand then would decide whether or not to send Mueller probe’s findings against the president, if any, to the House.

The memo, authored by the office of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), reportedly claims Rosenstein approved an FBI application to a secret court administering the foreign intelligence surveillance act (FISA). The application sought a warrant that reportedly was used to eavesdrop on Trump campaign staffer Carter Page, who has a web of ties to Russia. The memo says the application failed to tell the judge that it relied on a controversial intelligence dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.

As early as last June, Sean Hannity of Fox News, a key Trump defender, called on Rosenstein, along with Mueller, to resign, and Trump expressed displeasure with him in an interview with the Times where he expressed suspicion over Rosenstein’s background in historically Democratic Baltimore. CNN reported that Trump had threatened to fire Rosenstein in private over the weekend: “[L]et’s fire him, let’s get rid of him,” advisors told the network Trump had said, though they characterized the outbursts as “mostly bluster” according to the report. Rosenstein himself has threatened to quit in response to efforts by Trump to pin the blame on him for the firing of Jim Comey, the former FBI director.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Rosenstein is a potential witness to an obstruction of justice case against Trump. Rosenstein wrote the memo justifying Comey’s dismissal, which appears to have misrepresented Trump’s reasons for getting rid of him: The memo said Trump fired Comey because Comey publicly released details of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton — less than a month later, Trump told NBC that he fired Comey because he thought the Russia investigation was bogus. In the interim,  the White House tried to pin the firing on Rosenstein himself, who reportedly threatened to resign in protest

As a result, Yeomans said Rosenstein should recuse himself from the probe.

“One of the principles of the Justice Department is that you can’t supervise an investigation in which you are a witness,” Yeomans said. “Rosenstein has been the man in the spotlight. Mueller may want to keep him there, I don’t know, but it’s clear that he’s key to the investigation.”

What’s also clear is that the question of Rosenstein’s job security is crucial — and it underscores how much is at stake in the Republican effort to use the Nunes memo to discredit him.

 

Correction: Because of an editing error, this story originally reported that Rachel Brand is perceived as a Trump loyalist. In fact, there’s no evidence for that characterization of Brand’s views.

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A document filed Wednesday, apparently by accident, by lawyers defending former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort appears to show that the source for an Associated Press story detailing payments to Manafort’s firm by a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party was also a confidential source for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

The document may be part of an intended effort by Manafort’s defense to claim that investigators improperly collaborated with the media, a popular (and regularly debunked) right-wing talking point. But it appears to show only that prosecutors and the AP relied on the same source — something that’s not that surprising. 

“The suggestion that AP would voluntarily serve as the source of information for a government agency is categorically untrue,” Lauren Easton, the director of media relations for the AP, told TPM.

The document mentions two memos from Manafort to Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov is among Ukraine’s wealthiest men and a key ally of Vladimir Putin. It says the Manafort memos were “received by Maloni from AP.” That suggests that the Associated Press showed the memos to Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni for comment.

The document then says: “In the Winter of 2017 (sic 2016) employee of DMI –CS-1 permitted the reporter to view material on a hard drive copy of DMI’s electronic files.”

That suggests that AP’s source at Davis Manafort, referred to in the document as “DMI,” was also a confidential source (“CS1”) for Mueller’s investigation.

The document refers to an April 2017 AP story that suggested, based on Davis Manafort records, that the firm had received at least $1.2 million payments from the pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, the Party of Regions.

In October, Mueller charged Manafort with conspiracy against the U.S., conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, and false and misleading FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) statements. The FARA violations are unusual — prosecutions under that law are vanishingly rare.

Manafort’s team has in the past complained of overreach by Meuller’s office, the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ). In a lawsuit filed earlier this month against Mueller, Manafort’s lawyers called the charges against the lobbyist “completely unmoored from the Special Counsel’s original jurisdiction.”

Maloni declined to comment to TPM.

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Amid last week’s controversy over the Trump administration’s misleading report on terrorism and immigration, some Department of Justice (DOJ) veterans were deeply troubled by something else: A Justice Department lawyer was once again briefing reporters from behind the podium in the White House press briefing room. 

The appearance by Ed O’Callaghan, a principal deputy assistant attorney general for national security, and a former member of the Trump transition team, was at least the third time under the Trump administration that a relatively obscure DOJ political appointee has briefed reporters from the White House podium on an issue touching on illegal immigration, perhaps the hottest-button political topic of our time.

During the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, no Justice Department official aside from the attorney general briefed reporters from the White House podium, according to a search of a database of White House press briefings maintained by the University of California, Santa Barbara. The three times an attorney general did appear before press from the White House were on 9/11/2001 and twice more in the six weeks following.

Former Justice Department officials say those appearances at the White House are so rare because past administrations have rightly been wary of being seen to put Justice Department staff — as opposed to the attorney general him or herself, who is more clearly associated with the administration — in the service of the president’s political agenda.

“I don’t recall that ever happening [under Obama],” said Vanita Gupta, who served as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ under President Obama, and is now the CEO of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights. “Nobody is above the law in this country, and if the Justice Department appears to be operating on behalf of the president, those are benchmarks of authoritarian regimes.”

Some say having DOJ lawyers essentially speaking for the White House can damage both institutions.

“When you have a DOJ official coming to the White House podium — not the AG, the [Deputy Attorney General] or the [Associate Attorney General] — it gives the appearance of the White House directing their activities even if they’re not directing their activities,” Rudy Mehrbani, the director of the Obama White House’s Presidential Personnel Office — now at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice — told TPM.

Trump is already facing accusations that he has inappropriately politicized the DOJ: After public pressure from the president, the department has reportedly reopened two inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s behavior, both closed in 2016. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly pressured FBI director Christopher Wray to fire deputy director Andrew McCabe.

In June, John Huber, the U. S. Attorney for Utah, spoke from the White House podium about the dangers of so-called “sanctuary cities,” and in favor of a bill mandating harsh penalties for undocumented immigrants. “This pending legislation — ‘Kate’s Law’ and the ‘No Sanctuary for Criminals Act’ — advance the ball for law enforcement in keeping our communities safe,” Huber said. Huber was appointed to his job by President Obama in 2015, but resigned in March; Trump immediately reappointed him. 

The following month, Rob Hur, at the time a Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, joined Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to brief reporters on the administration’s anti-gang efforts, focusing heavily on on MS-13, which has origins in Los Angeles, though many of its members are Salvadoran. The presentation featured a picture of the face of an immigrant accused of a crime, Politico pointed out.

Hur has since been appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland.

Then came last week’s appearance by O’Callaghan, which aimed to promote a deeply flawed DOJ-DHS report prevalence of foreign-born people among those convicted in the U.S. of international terrorism. Trump appointed O’Callaghan to the National Security Division in November.

A Justice Department spokesman pointed TPM to two examples, both from 1998, of DOJ officials of similar rank appearing before press at the White House under President Bill Clinton. And TPM found other examples from the database from the Clinton years.

But none of those involved topics that were anything like as politically charged as immigration is today, or similarly appeared to be putting DOJ personnel in the service of the administration’s contested political agenda. Of the two cases flagged by the DOJ spokesman, one involved John Bentivoglio, a special counsel for health care fraud, speaking about the administration’s efforts on that issue. In the other, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mark Richard joined several administration officials in discussing international crime-control efforts.

William Yeomans, a lecturer at Columbia University and a 24-year career veteran of the DOJ, primarily in the Civil Rights division, says that political appointees are supposed to be doing exactly the opposite of bear-hugging the administration.

“One of the traditions in the Department of Justice is to protect career people and line people, the people who do the actual work and engage in litigation, because we don’t want them to be looking over their shoulders thinking, ‘If I indict this person or file this lawsuit, am I going to be called up to testify before Congress?'” Yeomans explained. “The political appointees have traditionally been the buffer between political people and career people.”

Another former DOJ official, who asked not to be named, said the practice of using DOJ officials to brief the press suggests the administration has no problem using government lawyers to advance its agenda. 

“I think we’re past the point of the administration not knowing where the boundaries are,” said one, who asked not to be named. “By this point it seems like the administration knows where they are and it doesn’t care.”

This post has been updated.

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A widely pilloried Trump administration report about immigrants and terrorism was compiled without any input from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) until the final sign-off, the Daily Beast revealed.

The report, released last week, was presented as a joint project of DHS and the Department of Justice. It found that 73 percent of international terrorism convictions since 9/11 involved “foreign-born” suspects. But that included foreign nationals extradited to the US after committing crimes abroad — an approach that was widely criticized as misleading.

According to the Beast, citing a government source familiar with the episode, DHS analysts didn’t contribute to the report at all. In fact, “[A]ttorney General Jeff Sessions’s office took charge of the report’s assemblage of statistics — which some terrorism analysts consider highly misleading—and sent it to DHS Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen for her imprimatur after it was all but finalized.”

The report was the subject of broad derision in the media, including during an uncomfortable press conference in which a Department of Justice lawyer, Ed O’Callaghan, spoke to skeptical reporters from the White House, a Trump administration tactic that has drawn criticism in the past. O’Callaghan said the document was “the first iteration of this report in response to the executive order’s directives.”

Former FBI counterterrorism officer Michael German told TPM on Tuesday that the report, which was conducted based on a presidential order issued in September, was “a political document.”

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Twitter underestimated the number of accounts spreading Russian propaganda by more than ten thousand, the company quietly disclosed late Friday.

A company spokesperson wrote on the Twitter blog that 50,258 automated accounts “identified as Russian-linked” had tweeted “election-related content during the election period.”

Twitter will individually email each of the 677,775 people who followed or retweeted a compromised account operated by or set to retweet posts from the Russian “troll farm” known at the time as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the company said. The IRA was reportedly operating on orders from the Russian government.

Twitter’s initial report issued in September relied on a separate assessment by Facebook. It examined Facebook’s 450 compromised users and identified only 179 accounts in its initial assessment. Lawyers for both companies and Google endured public tongue-lashings by committees of both the House and the Senate last fall, who accused them f not doing enough to protect Americans from foreign propaganda.

An intelligence community assessment issued shortly before President Donald Trump’s inauguration said that Russian efforts to influence the election demonstrated a clear preference for Trump over Clinton, and included a multi-pronged disinformation effort across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Russia’s own state news service Russia Today, which made overtures to American political figures during the period. What effect the Russian-backed digital propaganda campaign had on the election has been hard to quantify.

Twitter also included a selection of imagery tweeted by the allegedly Kremlin-controlled Twitter feeds in its post. One image called for the arrest of George Soros, the founder of the progressive Open Society Foundation. Another showed a man in a t-shirt reading “Obama called me Clinger/ Hillary calls me Deplorable/ Terrorists call me Infidel/ Trump calls me AMERICAN”.

Twitter said it had identified “both more IRA and automated Russia-based accounts.” But the lion’s share of the new accounts in the current figures appear to be bots amplifying the posts of a relatively small handful of trolls, some 3,814 accounts run directly by the IRA. The 175,993 tweets from those accounts were spread far and wide by the network of automated tweeters supporting them.

The numbers are relatively small compared to overall Twitter usage, about which the company is cagey. Twitter has 157 million users, according to an estimate based on the company’s own metrics by tech reporters at Recode.

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The FBI is probing whether a Russian banker with Kremlin ties illegally funneled money to the NRA in a bid to help Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, McClatchy reported Thursday.

There’s already a lot of reporting out there on the unlikely ties between the gun group and right-wing Russians. The banker at the center of the probe, Alexander Torshin (pictured), is a lifetime NRA member who’s spent years attending the group’s events and amassing a circle of influential American conservative friends. Several of those American conservatives have attended events organized by a Russian gun-rights group that Torshin helped launch.

It’s also worth noting that the NRA’s dark money arm spent more on the 2016 election than did any other dark money group. It spent three times as much in support of Trump as it did for Mitt Romney in 2012, despite the group’s antipathy to President Obama.

Here, in chronological order, is what we know on the NRA’s Russian ties:

  • 2011: According to the Washington Post, G. Kline Preston, a lawyer in Nashville, Tenn. with a specialty in Russian affairs, introduces Torshin to David Keene, at the time the president of the NRA and a former head of the American Conservative Union. Torshin,then a senator in the Duma from Putin’s United Russia party, was friends with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the revered inventor of the AK-47. Preston, who did not return TPM’s request for comment, told the Post that “the value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”
  • November 2012: At Preston’s invitation, Torshin observes the 2012 U.S. elections. Preston told the Post the two men saw violations of U.S. law in the form of Obama signs too close to a polling place. Preston had served as an international observer of the 2011 legislative elections in Russia, and reported that they were fair — a conclusion at odds with that of many international observers. The same month, presumably during the same trip, he visits NRA headquarters:

  • May 2013: Torshin attends the NRA convention in Houston, where conservative players Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, John Bolton, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry address one of the most important blocs in the Republican base.
  • Summer 2013: According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Torshin is set to attend a birthday party on the Spanish island of Mallorca for Alexander Romanov, a member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya gang. Torshin, El Pais reported, is believed to be the Taganskaya boss. Twelve Spanish police officers wait for him at the airport and the hotel where he would have stayed, ready to arrest him in connection with money allegedly laundered to buy a hotel in the Spanish vacation spot. But, the newspaper reported, a Russian prosecutor tips Torshin off at the last moment, and he never shows up.
  • September 2013: Keene visits Moscow to speak on behalf of the NRA at the conference of The Right to Bear Arms, a group supporting handgun legalization in Russia. The group is run by Maria Butina, then 25, who has been described as a protege of Torshin.
  • December 2013: Romanov is arrested on money laundering charges in Mallorca. He will ultimately be convicted. Among the evidence: 33 telephone conversations with Torshin. In those conversations, Romanov refers to Torshin as “the godfather.”
  • January 2014:  An op-ed written by Torshin on the occasion of Kalashnikov’s death appears in the Washington Times, where Keene, no longer the NRA’s president, is now the op-ed page editor. In the piece, Torshin extols the NRA, mentioning his 2013 visit to the conference and his lifetime membership.
  • March 19, 2014: In response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, President Barack Obama signs an order directly sanctioning several Russian officials, making it a crime to do business with them.
  • September 3, 2014: On an invitation from Butina, NRA member and Republican operative Paul Erickson, formerly a board member of the American Conservative Union — where Keene was president before his time at the NRA — speaks at Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow. Butina posts about the meeting on social media, including a picture of Erickson and the NRA logo.
  • January 2015: Putin names Torshin deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, the hugely powerful Russian state bank, which is the majority shareholder of consumer bank Sberbank. One of Torshin’s first acts as deputy governor is to name Butina his “personal executive assistant” according to El Pais.
  • July 2015: Butina attends Freedom Fest 2016, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas featuring Trump as speaker. A video interview with her is featured prominently in the group’s promotional material. During the Q&A portion of Trump’s speech, a Russian woman with red hair who sounds a lot like her asks, “Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?”
  • December 8, 2015: Several prominent NRA members embark on a five-day trip to Russia. They include Erickson, Keene, and gun accessory salesman Pete Brownell. Also in tow is Wisconsin sheriff and Fox News regular David Clarke, who tweets that he met with “the Russian foreign minister.” Clarke would later report that Right to Bear Arms paid for his trip to Russia. The Americans met with Torshin, Butina, and Dmitry Rogozin, the country’s deputy prime minister.
  • December 10, 2015: While the NRA members are in Russia, Putin himself sits down at a gala dinner honoring state news service Russia Today (RT) with future Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and Jill Stein. Flynn gives a talk for which he is paid $45,000 by the Russian government.
  • February 10, 2016: Erickson, the Republican operative and NRA member, starts a company, Bridges, LLC, with Butina, who is now Torshin’s assistant. It’s incorporated in South Dakota. Erickson told McClatchy that the LLC was for Butina’s grad school tuition, which McClatchy described as “an unusual way to use an LLC.”
  • February 14, 2016: Torshin tweets that Butina is in the U.S. “Maria Butina is now in the USA,” he writes, according to a translation by the New York Times. “She writes to me that D. Trump (NRA member) really is for cooperation with Russia.”

  • May, 2016: Torshin asks Donald Trump, Sr. to join him at a breakfast at the NRA’s annual meeting, this year in Louisville, Ky. According to CBS, Torshin hoped to meet the elder Trump but got his son; Alan Futerfas, Donald Jr.’s lawyer, said the conversation between the Russian banker and Trump Jr. extended only as far as “gun-related small talk.” Torshin tweets a picture of himself from the meeting months later. He’s sitting next to Keene, wearing a button that says “I’m NRA, and I Voted.”

  • June 2016: “Right around the time” of the June 9 meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr. and Kremlin-tied lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, according to CNN, Christian activist Rick Clay emails Trump aide Rick Dearborn on behalf of Torshin, offering a backchannel meeting between Trump and Torshin about “shared Christian values” with the subject line “Kremlin connection.” The campaign turns him down.
  • July 2016: Butina attends Freedom Fest 2016, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas featuring Trump as speaker. A video interview with her is featured prominently in the group’s promotional material. During the Q&A portion of Trump’s speech, a Russian woman with red hair who sounds a lot like her asks, “Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?”

  • November 12, 2016: Butina throws a costume party for her birthday at Cafe Deluxe near American University in Washington, D. C., the Beast reported, where she dressed as Russian Empress Alexandra. Erickson came as Rasputin. Two sources told the Beast that Butina bragged she had been “part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.” Erickson told guests he was on the Trump transition team, which the White House would not confirm or deny.
  • January 2017: A US-based LLC representing a Russian company files suit against Torshin-controlled Sberbank in the Southern District of New York, alleging a wide variety of illegal behavior. Torshin buys Allan D. Cors, current president of the NRA, a book about tanks for his birthday, according to one of Torshin’s tweets. The book is in Russian.

  • February 2, 2017: Torshin attends the White House prayer breakfast as part of the Russian delegation. According to Butina, who spoke to Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff, she and Torshin expected a meet-and-greet with the president, but the meeting was nixed the night before. Instead, Torshin had breakfast with Republican congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (California) and Tom Massie (Kentucky). Rohrabacher told Isikoff it had been “a good exchange” — Torshin seemed to agree with the American conservatives that “[t]he whole problem is with radical Muslims.”
  • May 10: Brownell, who attended the 2015 meeting of the Russian gun group, is elected NRA president.
  • August 2017: Sberbank hires Donald Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz to represent it in court in New York. The bank denies it is attempting to use Kasowitz’s political connections as leverage.
  • November 2017: Glenn Simpson, head of private political research firm Fusion GPS, tells the House Intelligence Committee that “it appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA” after having targeted “various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise.” Simpson describes Torshin as “a Russian banker-slash-Duma member-slash-Mafia leader” and mentions that Torshin “was supposed to have a meeting with President Trump after the inauguration. And somebody noticed that there had been some stories about him that weren’t pretty good.” He also mentions that Butina was “hanging around in the Trump transition” and suggested she enrolled at American University for the educational visa. He describes Right to Bear Arms as “a big charade.”

The Times said Keene “no longer works” there, though his last byline is January 2, 2018. He is no longer the paper’s op-ed section editor. TPM has emailed Keene through the contact information for his website and will update this piece with comment should he respond. An NRA spokesman did not return a voicemail. Requests for comment sent through contact forms on both of Clarke’s websites generated only automated responses, and an email address listed on a court filing, dclarke.cowboy@gmail.com, bounced back.

We will continue to update this post.

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On Tuesday, the Trump administration released a report filled with heavily gamed statistics that aimed to link immigration with international terrorism. At a White House briefing Wednesday, reporters said they weren’t fooled.

As TPM reported, the joint Department of Justice-Department of Homeland Security report found that nearly three in four people convicted of international terrorism in U.S, courts since 9/11 were foreign-born. The report was framed as offering support for President Trump’s strict immigration policies. But to get to the three in four number, it included foreigners who committed crimes on foreign soil before being extradited to the U.S. — cases which have no bearing on immigration issues. 

Justice Department official Ed O’Callaghan appeared at the White House briefing Wednesday to discuss the report. 

“A lot of the crimes that you’re using as examples to justify changing the immigration system are crimes that were attempted crimes or would have taken place outside the United States,” one reporter observed. “Can you give maybe better examples that fit what you’re trying to say?”

O’Callaghan responded that this was just “the first iteration of this report in response to the executive order’s directives.” He said the government would “have more statistics and address some of this issues we weren’t able to address” in later versions.

The reporter appeared unconvinced. “It seems like the focus there should be on things that people did in the United States, to people in the United States,” he followed up.

As O’Callaghan spoke, a CNN chyron flatly called the report “misleading.”

O’Callaghan also couldn’t answer a question about how many among the 549 people convicted of “terrorism-related” offenses were immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Session had said in a statement accompanying the report, and blasted out on Twitter, that the report shows “our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.”

The report has attracted widespread criticism from immigrant groups notably the Tahirih Justice Center, a 20-year-old nonprofit advocate for refugees, which called the report “deeply flawed” for failing to note that “immigrants are uniquely vulnerable to violence and exploitation by U.S.- and foreign-born perpetrators.”

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