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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Shuham contributed to this story.

This post has been updated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stretch answered that Facebook had indeed analyzed those posts.

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

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

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

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

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Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that his company had taken down the account of Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, who lives in the US, on the strength of a report filed to the tech giant by the Chinese government.

Guo, a billionaire living in New York City who is a harsh critic of the Chinese government, published on Facebook “sometimes outlandish tales of deep corruption among family members of top Communist Party officials,” the New York Times wrote a month ago, as it reported that Guo’s account had been taken down.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the pointed question: “[Guo’s] Facebook account was blocked, and Facebook has informed us that he violated terms of service. I think he published personal identifying information about individuals and that violated the terms of service. I understand that argument. My question, what I want to be clear is was there any pressure from the Chinese government to block his account?”

Stretch, initially, appeared to mislead Rubio in his answer: “No, senator, we reviewed a report on that account and analyzed it through regular channels using our regular procedures,” he said. “The blocking was not of the account in its entirety, but I believe was of specific posts that violated our policy.”

Rubio was dubious. “You can testify that you did not come under pressure from the Chinese government or any of its representatives or people working for them to block his account or to block whatever it is you blocked?” he asked.

Put in those terms, Stretch could not, in fact, pull off a denial. “I want to make sure I’m being precise and clear,” he said. “We did receive a report from representatives of the Chinese government about the account. We analyzed that report as we would any other and took action solely based on our policies.”

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“Do you have a profile on me?”

That was Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, in a moment that seemed to stretch out to an hour during Tuesday afternoon’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Russian election interference on social media.

Facebook, Twitter and Google all sent their lawyers to answer lawmakers’ questions, but Kennedy, who began his question round by complimenting Stretch’s resume, was prepared. In just a few minutes, he forced Stretch to admit that Facebook had far less insight into its advertisers than it did into each individual user.

“Mr. Stretch, how many advertisers does Facebook have?” Kennedy asked sleepily, after thanking the three tech giants for being American companies.

“We have approximately 5 million advertisers on a monthly basis, Senator,” Stretch replied. 

 

“Did China run ads in the last election cycle? That tried to impact our election?” Kennedy asked.

“Not that I’m aware of, senator,” Stretch answered.

“Not that you’re aware of. Did Turkmenistan?”

Kennedy asked about ads from Turkmenistan and from North Korea, each time getting a variation of “I’m not aware” in response.

“How could you be aware?” Kennedy eventually snapped. “I mean, this is—this—you’ve got 5 million advertisers? And you’re going to tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of all of those advertisements? If I want to hire a lawyer, if I wanted to hire you when you were in private practice, you have an incredible resume, and say, let’s go through about four shell corporations. I want to go through four or five shell corporations, because I want to hide my identity. You’re telling me you have the ability to go—to trace through all of these corporations and find the true identity of every one of your advertisers. You’re not telling me that, are you?”

After a little more back-and-forth, Stretch, exasperated, caved.

“To your question about seeing essentially behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no,” he said. “We cannot see behind the activity.”

Kennedy then appeared to switch gears. Were he to join Facebook as an advertiser, he would need to buy targeted advertising, he told Stretch, and you can help me narrow down. Because that’s your business model. You collect data, and lease it out to companies who use that data to sell people products, services and candidates. Isn’t that basically your business model?”

Stretch seemed to sense what was coming. “Senator, we do provide targeted advertising. We don’t actually share the data of individuals with advertisers,” he said.

“Right,” Kennedy replied. “Do you have a profile on me?”

After a beat Stretch replied: “Senator, if you’re a Facebook user, we would permit you to be targeted with an advertisement based on your characteristics and your likes, along with other people who share similar characteristics.”

That raised an even less comfortable question from Kennedy, who proposed, “Let’s suppose your CEO came to you—not you, but somebody who could do it in your company. Maybe you could. And said, ‘I want to know everything we can find out about Sen. Graham. I want to know the movies he likes, I want to know the bars he goes to. I want to know who his friends are. I want to know what schools he goes—went to.’ You could do that, couldn’t you?”

Stretch said Facebook could not know those things, which Kennedy wasn’t buying.

“You can’t put a name to a face to a piece of data?” Kennedy asked. “You’re telling me that?”

“We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that, to protect the privacy of our users,” Stretch replied.

“I understand,” Kennedy said. “But you can get around that to find that identity, can’t you?”

Stretch dropped the “we” for his next answer: “No, senator. I cannot.”

 

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Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch on Tuesday offered broad details about the way Russian ads were targeted on the platform, something journalists and citizen groups have been agitating for.

Stretch said only a quarter of the ads were specifically geotargeted, however.

“The advertising targeting that was used, in the main, was a combination of very broad geographic targeting,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Most of the ads, about 75 percent of we have given you, was targeted to the United States as a whole. And a quarter of the ads were targeted at a more granular level to states. And they were targeted to interest groups. So we have various what we call like-based or interest-based targeting that was apparently intended to attract people who were following the causes you’ve identified.”

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A Google executive told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the company had discovered two Russian-operated ad accounts that spent $4,700, and also had found 1,100 YouTube videos it suspects were part of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

On YouTube, we found 18 channels with approximately 1,100 videos that were uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this effort, and that contained political content,” Richard Salgado, himself a former Department of Justice official, told the committee.

These videos mostly had low view counts, just 3 percent of them had more than 5,000 views. And constituted only around 43 hours of YouTube content,” he continued. “While this is relatively small, people watch over 1 billion hours of YouTube content a day, 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute, we understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious.” 

Salgado observed that while YouTube doesn’t offer geotargeting, links to the suspected Russian videos were often posted to platforms that did. He also obliquely referred to “safeguards we had in place in advance of the election” that limited Google’s exposure to the Russian campaign. 

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A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the social media portion of Russia’s 2016 election interference opened Tuesday with portentous statements from Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the latter of whom rattled off some numbers that gave the fullest picture yet of the extent of the disinformation campaign.

“Facebook has identified 470 accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency,” Feinstein said, referring to a Russian troll farm. “Twitter has identified 2,752 IRA-related accounts and almost 37,000 Russian linked accounts that generated automated election content. From what we’ve seen so far, Russian backed trolls used fake accounts on Facebook for more than 3,000 paid advertisements.”

Reports out Monday said Facebook would tell lawmakers that those advertisements reached approximately 126 million people.

The Twitter revelations, however, are far more significant: The platform appears to have identified not just the accounts run directly by Russian trolls working for the IRA (now the Federal News Agency, or FAN), but 37,000 automated accounts that generated information that would promote Russian interests in the American election.

Twitter and Facebook representatives opened their statements with apologies and began to detail how they planned to review previous posts and change rules to thwart future disinformation campaigns.

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During the Trump administration’s very first week in office, the seeds were planted for the initial charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

Thanks to an indictment unsealed Monday morning, we now know former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos lied about the extent of his Russian contacts in an interview with FBI agents on Jan. 27, exactly one week after the inauguration. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to making false statements in that interview about his Russian contacts.

Mueller’s appointment didn’t come until May, after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the bureau’s probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election—and the collection of evidence for that investigation had already begun before Trump had even taken his hand off the Bible. The day before inauguration, the New York Times reported that law enforcement and intelligence sources were already looking at intercepted communications and financial records “as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.” Comey later testified before Congress that the FBI investigation into those links began in July 2016; Manafort was arrested on Monday.

Papadopoulos wasn’t even the first campaign adviser accused of misleading the FBI during the initial week of Trump’s presidency: Three days before Papadopoulos’ interview, Michael Flynn, at the time Trump’s national security advisor, denied to FBI investigators that he had discussed sanctions on Russia with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—even though the Washington Post cited U.S. officials saying Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office.

The same day that Papadopoulos met with the FBI, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with White House Counsel Don McGahn to share her concerns about Flynn’s “underlying conduct” for a second time.

The following Monday, Trump fired Yates.

Under oath before Congress, Yates later asserted that problems with Flynn went much farther than being “compromised by the Russians,” as she said the Justice Department believed under her tenure.

“Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said in May. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”

Mueller’s investigators are looking into Flynn’s failure to disclose contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and transition, as well as his work on a lobbying contract for a Turkish businessman, and whether he played any role in a former GOP operative’s efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Flynn has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

That same Friday Papadopoulos lied and McGahn met Yates, Trump also surprised Comey with a private dinner, just the two men alone.

“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told him, according to Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey interpreted the dinner as “at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” he told the committee.

Trump went on to fire Comey on May 9, giving rise to Mueller’s appointment.

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