Mueller now investigating Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta

NBC News reports: Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group are now the subjects of a federal investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, three sources with knowledge of the matter told NBC News.

The probe of Podesta and his Democratic-leaning lobbying firm grew out of Mueller’s inquiry into the finances of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to the sources. As special counsel, Mueller has been tasked with investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Manafort had organized a public relations campaign for a non-profit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU). Podesta’s company was one of many firms that worked on the campaign, which promoted Ukraine’s image in the West.

The sources said the investigation into Podesta and his company began as more of a fact-finding mission about the ECMU and Manafort’s role in the campaign, but has now morphed into a criminal inquiry into whether the firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. [Continue reading…]

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Trump pledges at least $430,000 of his own money to help cover aides’ legal costs related to Russia probes

The Washington Post reports: President Trump plans to spend at least $430,000 of his personal funds to help cover the mounting legal costs incurred by White House staff and campaign aides related to the ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in last year’s election, a White House official said.

The Washington Post reported last month that the Republican National Committee had spent roughly that amount to pay lawyers representing Trump and his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., in the multiple investigations.

The White House official said Trump’s pledge is not meant as a reimbursement to the RNC, but that it does not preclude Trump from doing that at a later time or for increasing the amount available for his aides.[Continue reading…]

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Jeff Sessions just confessed his negligence on Russia

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes write: The headlines from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday focused on his refusal to answer questions about his conversations with President Donald Trump and his declaration — dragged out of him with all the elegance of a tooth extraction — that he had not yet been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Lost in the back-and-forth and amid focus on his testy exchange with Sen. Al Franken about Russian contacts, however, was a truly damning moment about Sessions’s tenure at the Justice Department thus far.

That moment came not in the context of hostile questioning from a committee Democrat but in a perfectly cordial exchange with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse.

With Midwestern gentility, the Nebraska senator told Sessions that he wasn’t going to grill him about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Rather, he said, “I would like to continue talking about the Russians but in the context of the long-term objectives that Vladimir Putin has to undermine American institutions and the public trust.… We face a sophisticated long-term effort by a foreign adversary to undermine our foreign policy and our ability to lead in the world by trying to undermining confidence in American institutions.”

Russia will be back in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, Sasse argued. “We live at a time where info ops and propaganda and misinformation are a far more cost-effective way for people to try to weaken the United States of America than by thinking they can outspend us at a military level.… So as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and as a supervisor of multiple components of our intelligence community … do you think we’re doing enough to prepare for future interference by Russia and other foreign adversaries in the information space?” [Continue reading…]

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Conflict of interest: Trump personally interviewed U.S. attorney candidates

Politico reports: President Donald Trump has personally interviewed at least two potential candidates for U.S. attorney positions in New York, according to two sources familiar with the matter — a move that critics say raises questions about whether they can be sufficiently independent from the president.

Trump has interviewed Geoffrey Berman, who is currently at the law firm Greenberg Traurig for the job of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Ed McNally of the firm Kasowitz Benson Torres for the Eastern District post, according to the sources.

It was unclear when the discussions took place. Trump has not announced nominees for those positions. Neither Berman nor McNally responded to calls or emails requesting comment.

The White House did not deny that Trump had personally conducted the interviews with those two candidates. A White House official noted: “These are individuals that the president nominates and the Senate confirms under Article II of the Constitution.”

“We realize Senate Democrats would like to reduce this President’s constitutional powers,” the White House official said. “But he and other presidents before him and after may talk to individuals nominated to positions within the executive branch.”

The Southern District of New York is an especially notable position since it has jurisdiction over Trump Tower. Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney there, has said he had been told that Trump would keep him on despite the change in administrations. Yet he was among those abruptly fired by Trump in March. [Continue reading…]

It’s a shame we can’t see how Trump shook hands with each candidate and see how they yielded (or didn’t) to his standard shoulder-dislocation test — the test in which he yanks a body to find out whether it is suitably compliant with his demands.

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FBI informant blocked from telling Congress about Russia nuclear corruption case, lawyer says

The Hill reports: An American businessman who worked for years undercover as an FBI confidential witness was blocked by the Obama Justice Department from telling Congress about conversations and transactions he witnessed related to the Russian nuclear industry’s efforts to win favor with Bill and Hillary Clinton and influence Obama administration decisions, his lawyer tells The Hill.

Attorney Victoria Toensing, a former Reagan Justice Department official and former chief counsel of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday she is working with members of Congress to see if they can get the Trump Justice Department or the FBI to free her client to talk to lawmakers.

“All of the information about this corruption has not come out,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “And so my client, the same part of my client that made him go into the FBI in the first place, says, ‘This is wrong. What should I do about it?’”

Toensing said she also possesses memos that recount how the Justice Department last year threatened her client when he attempted to file a lawsuit that could have drawn attention to the Russian corruption during the 2016 presidential race as well as helped him recover some of the money Russians stole from him through kickbacks during the FBI probe. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is showing increasing contempt for Trump

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It seems that Russian state media is starting to chip away at Trump’s burnished image.
Maxim Apryatin

By Cynthia Hooper, College of the Holy Cross

Four major Russia investigations are underway in Washington, along with at least six related federal inquiries.

Anxiety currently swirls around the Kremlin’s manipulation of popular social media platforms Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Cybersecurity sleuths claim Russia used Pokemon Go to inflame racial tensions and accuse Twitter of deleting crucial data detailing Russian efforts to sow discord during the 2016 presidential election.

“Russia, Russia Everywhere,” read The New York Times Oct. 13 “Week in Technology” review.

But as a cultural historian, I’m interested in how Russia’s media outlets – many of which are state-controlled – are covering these same stories.

It’s no secret that for years the Kremlin has claimed Washington possesses a knee-jerk, anti-Russian bias. Moscow officials have cast recent U.S. charges that Russia has been acting to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” as simply part of this same phenomenon, albeit one that has blossomed, of late, into full-fledged hysteria.

Russia’s most popular media outlets compare the investigations to those of the McCarthy era, calling them “witch hunts” focused on a “phantom menace.”

However, I’ve noticed something surprising. Amid all the emphasis of “Russophobia run wild,” Russian media coverage seems to have become more positive in regard to one issue: the Justice Department’s investigation led by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.

[Read more…]

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Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes

Politico reports: Twitter has deleted tweets and other user data of potentially irreplaceable value to investigators probing Russia’s suspected manipulation of the social media platform during the 2016 election, according to current and former government cybersecurity officials.

Federal investigators now believe Twitter was one of Russia’s most potent weapons in its efforts to promote Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, the officials say, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

By creating and deploying armies of automated bots, fake users, catchy hashtags and bogus ad campaigns, unidentified operatives launched recurring waves of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton story lines via Twitter that were either false or greatly exaggerated, the officials said. Many U.S. investigators believe that their best hope for identifying who was behind these operations, how they collaborated with one anotherand their suspected links to the Kremlin lies buried within the mountains of data accumulated in recent years by Twitter.

By analyzing Twitter data over time, investigators could establish what one U.S. government cybersecurity consultant described as “pattern of life behavior,” determining when Russian influence operations began, and how they “were trying to nudge the narrative in a certain direction.”

“So if you have access to all this, you can basically see when botnets appeared and disappeared, and how they shaped narrative around certain events,” said the analyst, who could not speak for attribution given company policy.

But a substantial amount of valuable information held by Twitter is lost for good, according to the cybersecurity analysts and other current and former U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

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Robert Mueller can’t save us

Quinta Jurecic writes: We don’t just hope that Mueller’s investigation will expose whatever wrongdoing took place. We want him to reestablish the order that has been lost. It’s a demand for justice in the sense described by the philosopher Immanuel Kant: We punish a crime not only to assert that the act was wrong but also to reaffirm the existence of the moral system disregarded by the criminal.

Trump’s disrespect for institutions is also a disrespect for the moral systems they represent. His repeated efforts to interfere with the independence of the Justice Department are a declaration that right and wrong, legal and illegal are whatever he says they are. This stance is an outgrowth of his flexible relationship with truth — his willingness to say anything and contradict himself moments later, with no expectation of consequence. Mueller is an avatar of our hope that justice and meaning will reassert themselves against Trumpian insincerity.

The trouble, of course, is that Mueller cannot and will not save us.

There’s no way of knowing how long his investigation will take and what it will turn up. It could be years before the probe is completed. It could be that Mueller’s team finds no evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of the president himself. And because the special counsel has no obligation to report his conclusions to the public — indeed, the special-counsel regulations do not give him the power to do so without the approval of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — we may never know what he uncovers.

More profoundly, it is a mistake to conflate whatever legal wrongdoing the president and those around him may have engaged in with Trump’s even more profound failures of morality and leadership. The horror of much of his behavior is that it may be well within the law and presidential authority — and yet entirely unacceptable. [Continue reading…]

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Hoping to have Trump cleared, legal team eases resistance to inquiry

The New York Times reports: White House officials once debated a scorched-earth strategy of publicly criticizing and undercutting Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian efforts to disrupt last year’s election. Now, President Trump’s lawyers are pursuing a different course: cooperating with the special counsel in the hope that Mr. Mueller will declare in the coming months that Mr. Trump is not a target of the Russia inquiry.

Mr. Trump has long sought such a public declaration. He fired his F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, in May after Mr. Comey refused to say openly that Mr. Trump was not under investigation.

The president’s legal team is working swiftly to respond to requests from Mr. Mueller for emails, documents and memos, and will make White House officials available for interviews. Once Mr. Mueller has combed through the evidence, Mr. Trump’s lawyers plan to ask him to affirm that Mr. Trump is not under investigation, either for colluding with Russian operatives or for trying to obstruct justice.

More than a half dozen White House officials, witnesses and outside lawyers connected to the Russia inquiry have described the approach, which is as much a public relations strategy as a legal one. The president’s legal team aims to argue that the White House has nothing to hide, hoping to shift the burden to Mr. Mueller to move quickly to wrap up an investigation that has consumed the Trump administration’s first year. [Continue reading…]

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FBI concocts new terrorist threat: ‘Black identity extremists’

The Guardian reports: The US government has declared “black identity extremists” a violent threat, according to a leaked report from the FBI’s counter-terrorism division.

The assessment, obtained by Foreign Policy, has raised fears about federal authorities racially profiling activists and aggressively prosecuting civil rights protesters.

The report, dated August 2017 and compiled by the Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, said: “The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.” Incidents of “alleged police abuse” have “continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement”.

The FBI’s dedicated surveillance of black activists follows a long history of the US government aggressively monitoring protest movements and working to disrupt civil rights groups, but the scrutiny of African Americans by a domestic terrorism unit was particularly alarming to some free speech campaigners.

“When we talk about enemies of the state and terrorists, with that comes an automatic stripping of those people’s rights to speak and protest,” said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “It marginalizes what are legitimate voices within the political debate that are calling for racial and economic justice.”

The document has emerged at a time of growing concerns about Donald Trump’s links to the far right and white nationalists, and increasing anxieties about his administration’s efforts to further criminalize communities of color and shield police from scrutiny. Anti-Trump protesters and Black Lives Matter activists have continued to face harsh prosecutions and close federal monitoring.

The FBI did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment on Friday, but defended its tracking of “black identity extremists” in a statement to Foreign Policy, claiming the “FBI cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights”.

The FBI’s report noted specific cases of recent violence against police, most notably Micah Johnson, a 25-year-old shooter in Dallas who killed five officers and said he was targeting white people and law enforcement. Black Lives Matter – a movement protesting the disproportionate killings of black citizens by police in the US – had no ties to Johnson or other targeted killings of police and has condemned those shootings.

The number of police officers killed on the job also remains a fraction of the number of citizens killed by officers each year, and statistics suggest that more white offenders than black offenders kill officers. [Continue reading…]

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Civil liberties groups decry Sessions’s guidance on religious freedom

The Washington Post reports: Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued sweeping guidance to executive branch agencies Friday on the Justice Department’s interpretation of how the government should respect religious freedom, triggering an immediate backlash from civil liberties groups who asserted the nation’s top law enforcement officer was trying to offer a license for discrimination.

In a memorandum titled “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty,” Sessions articulated 20 sweeping principles about religious freedom and what that means for the U.S. government — among them that freedom of religion extends to people and organizations; that religious employers are allowed to hire only those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs; and that grants can’t require religious organizations to change their character.

Though the principles are lofty — and some of them in no way objectionable — they could have a broad negative impact, permitting religious groups to impinge on the rights of LGBT people and others, said civil liberties advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Federation and others. The announcement, though, was welcomed by groups like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council. [Continue reading…]

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Sally Yates, Preet Bharara stress high bar for criminal charges in Russia probe

The Wall Street Journal reports: Two of the most high-profile law-enforcement officials fired by President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller faces a high bar in proving criminal conduct in his investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, addressing the possibility that he may not bring a case.

Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, and Preet Bharara, the former Manhattan U.S. attorney, both emphasized in a joint interview Wednesday at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit that Mr. Mueller’s task is challenging.

“I know a lot of people are sort of putting all their hopes into Bob Mueller. And I’ve got tremendous confidence in Bob Mueller,” said Ms. Yates, in one of the few public interviews she has given since she was fired in January after refusing to defend Mr. Trump’s original executive order that suspended immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Mr. Trump said the order was needed to protect the U.S. from potential terrorism attacks.

“But the fact of the matter is, he’s going to determine whether there’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt that felonies were committed, that crimes were committed that can be used for prosecution or impeachment,“ she said of Mr. Mueller. That, she suggested, is but one standard by which to judge the president’s conduct, drawing a distinction between criminal behavior and otherwise objectionable conduct. Mr. Mueller “is not going to answer the question of whether anything bad happened here,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s company had more contact with Russia during campaign

The Washington Post reports: Associates of President Trump and his company have turned over documents to federal investigators that reveal two previously unreported contacts from Russia during the 2016 campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.

In one case, Trump’s personal attorney and a business associate exchanged emails weeks before the Republican National Convention about the lawyer possibly traveling to an economic conference in Russia that would be attended by top Russian financial and government leaders, including President Vladi­mir Putin, according to people familiar with the correspondence.

In the other case, the same Trump attorney, Michael Cohen, received a proposal in late 2015 for a Moscow residential project from a company founded by a billionaire who once served in the upper house of the Russian parliament, these people said. The previously unreported inquiry marks the second proposal for a Trump-branded Moscow project that was delivered to the company during the presidential campaign and has since come to light. [Continue reading…]

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Officials expressed concerns White House Counsel would quit over Donald Trump-Jared Kushner meetings

The Wall Street Journal reports: White House Counsel Don McGahn this summer was so frustrated about the lack of protocols surrounding meetings between President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law whose activities are under scrutiny in the Russia probe, that West Wing officials expressed concerns the top lawyer would quit, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Mr. McGahn expressed concern that meetings between Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump could be construed by investigators as an effort to coordinate their stories, three people familiar the matter said.

Two senior White House officials—then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and former chief strategist Steve Bannon —urged Mr. McGahn not to resign, according to people familiar with the conversations. One person characterized Mr. McGahn’s frustration as, “Fine, you’re not taking my advice? Why stay?” [Continue reading…]

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DOJ demands Facebook information from ‘anti-administration activists’

CNN reports: Trump administration lawyers are demanding the private account information of potentially thousands of Facebook users in three separate search warrants served on the social media giant, according to court documents obtained by CNN.

The warrants specifically target the accounts of three Facebook users who are described by their attorneys as “anti-administration activists who have spoken out at organized events, and who are generally very critical of this administration’s policies.”

One of those users, Emmelia Talarico, operated the disruptj20 page where Inauguration Day protests were organized and discussed; the page was visited by an estimated 6,000 users whose identities the government would have access to if Facebook hands over the information sought in the search warrants. In court filings, Talarico says if her account information was given to the government, officials would have access to her “personal passwords, security questions and answers, and credit card information,” plus “the private lists of invitees and attendees to multiple political events sponsored by the page.”

These warrants were first reported by LawNewz.com.

Facebook has not responded to a request for comment about whether it has, or plans to, comply with the search warrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the three Facebook users, filed a motion to quash the warrants Thursday.

“What is particularly chilling about these warrants is that anti-administration political activists are going to have their political associations and views scrutinized by the very administration they are protesting,” said ACLU attorney Scott Michelman. [Continue reading…]

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Twitter may have been used even more extensively than Facebook in the Russian influence campaign

The New York Times reports: After a weekend when Americans took to social media to debate President Trump’s admonishment of N.F.L. players who do not stand for the national anthem, a network of Twitter accounts suspected of links to Russia seized on both sides of the issue with hashtags such as #boycottnfl, #standforouranthem and #takeaknee.

As Twitter prepared to brief staff members of the Senate and House intelligence committees on Thursday for their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, researchers from a public policy group have been following hundreds of accounts to track the continuing Russian operations to influence social media discourse and foment division in the United States.

For three weeks, a harsh spotlight has been trained on Facebook over its disclosure that Russians used fake pages and ads, designed to look like the work of American activists, to spread inflammatory messages during and since the presidential campaign.

But there is evidence that Twitter may have been used even more extensively than Facebook in the Russian influence campaign last year. In addition to Russia-linked Twitter accounts that posed as Americans, the platform was also used for large-scale automated messaging, using “bot” accounts to spread false stories and promote news articles about emails from Democratic operatives that had been obtained by Russian hackers. [Continue reading…]

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Warner sees Reddit as potential target for Russian influence

The Hill reports: Reddit could be the next target for federal investigators exploring Russian influence over the 2016 presidential election.

A representative from Sen. Mark Warner’s (Va.) office told The Hill that Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is interested in Reddit as a potential tool of Russian social media influence.

Warner has also spearheaded efforts to scrutinize Facebook and Twitter as potential tools for foreign interference in the election. Reddit declined to comment.

Experts who have studied Russia’s attempts to influence the election say that Warner is right to be interested in Reddit. They note that many fake news stories can be traced back to the platform, pointing to it as the catalyst behind the spread of Pizzagate, a baseless conspiracy theory that sought to link Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to a fictitious pedophilia ring in a Washington pizzeria in the final days of the campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Blumenthal: ‘99 percent sure’ of Russia indictments

Politico reports: Criminal charges against two former top advisers to President Donald Trump are virtually certain, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday.

Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort are almost sure to be indicted as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Connecticut senator told POLITICO.

“I’m about 99 percent sure there will be some criminal charges from this investigation,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Blumenthal has also served as a U.S. attorney and spent 20 years as his state’s attorney general.

Blumenthal said he is less certain Trump himself would end up facing charges, including for possible obstruction of justice for his firing of FBI Director James Comey.

But he said that several Trump associates may find themselves under indictment. [Continue reading…]

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Dismayed by Trump’s lack of respect for the law, head of Drug Enforcement Administration resigns

The New York Times reports: The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration will resign at the end of the week, according to law enforcement officials, who said he had become convinced that President Trump had little respect for the law.

The official, Chuck Rosenberg, who twice served as chief of staff to the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey and remains a close confidant, had grown disillusioned with Mr. Trump. The president fired Mr. Comey in May, and then in July told law enforcement officers “please don’t be too nice” when handling crime suspects.

Mr. Rosenberg forcefully rejected Mr. Trump’s comment, sending an email to all D.E.A. employees at the time to tell them that they should not mistreat suspects.

“We must earn and keep the public trust and continue to hold ourselves to the very highest standards,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote in the internal email. “Ours is an honorable profession and, so, we will always act honorably.”

Mr. Trump has injected the White House into law enforcement matters in ways that have made many career officials uncomfortable. The president spoke disparagingly about ongoing criminal investigations into his own associates, encouraged the Justice Department to investigate political rivals including Hillary Clinton and said he would never have nominated Jeff Sessions to be attorney general if he had known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from an investigation into his associates.

Mr. Rosenberg, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2015, is a career prosecutor. Under President George W. Bush, he served as the United States attorney in both southern Texas and eastern Virginia. [Continue reading…]

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