Facebook to turn over thousands of Russian ads to Congress, reversing decision

The Washington Post reports: Facebook on Thursday announced it would turn over to Congress copies of more than 3,000 politically themed advertisements bought through Russian accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, reversing a decision that had frustrated lawmakers.

The company has been struggling for months to address the steadily mounting evidence that Russians manipulated the social media platform in their bid to tip the presidential election in favor of Republican Donald Trump.

Democratic lawmakers in recent days had demanded that Facebook be more open about what it knows and to dig more deeply into its troves of data to analyze the propaganda effort, which the company has acknowledged involved at least 470 fake accounts and pages created by a shadowy Russian company that spent more than $100,000 targeting U.S. voters. Lawmakers particularly wanted copies of the ads bought through the fake accounts, some of which Facebook officials showed to Hill investigators and then took away, making further study impossible. The company said sharing the ads would compromise users’ privacy. [Continue reading…]

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How a Russian outlet sought to reach American voters on Twitter

Foreign Policy reports: Before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had even wrapped up their respective bids to secure the nomination for president, Kremlin-funded media outlet RT was plotting to promote its election coverage in the United States, Foreign Policy has learned.

RT hoped to take over at least two Twitter accounts or handles for its media coverage: @NotHillary and @NotTrump. Their goal, RT told Twitter’s advertising department, was to use the accounts to push their 2016 election coverage, but neither handle or username has any identifying information tracing the owner back to the Russian government-funded media organization.

Twitter denied the request. The company declined to comment on the record on the specific accounts “for privacy and security reasons.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. monitored Manafort after he left Trump campaign

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. authorities placed Paul Manafort under surveillance after he was ousted as Donald Trump’s campaign manager in the summer of 2016, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.

The surveillance, which was part of a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference with the presidential election, didn’t involve listening to Mr. Manafort’s phone communications in real-time, the officials said.

But armed with a warrant, investigators still could have conducted clandestine surveillance of Mr. Manafort, possibly by obtaining copies of his emails and other electronically stored communications, or by having agents follow him or conduct physical searches of his property.

The surveillance began after Mr. Manafort left the Trump campaign in August, but it is not clear when it was suspended. Mr. Manafort resigned after a spate of publicity about his consulting work in Ukraine on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. [Continue reading…]

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‘How do we use [this] to get whole?’: The most intriguing new Paul Manafort-Russia email

Aaron Blake writes: The trouble Paul Manafort is in is still coming into focus. The latest development: emails he sent to a Ukraine-based employee of his consulting business talking about setting up a briefing with a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.

The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Carol D. Leonnig and Adam Entous just broke that big story, and it comes on the heels of a New York Times report this week that investigators have told Manafort they plan to indict him — apparently in hopes of getting him to flip on President Trump.

For me, though, the most intriguing email in The Post’s report is this one:

In one April exchange days after Trump named Manafort as a campaign strategist, Manafort referred to his positive press and growing reputation and asked, “How do we use to get whole?”

Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni said Wednesday that the email exchanges reflected an “innocuous” effort to collect past debts.

“It’s no secret Mr. Manafort was owed money by past clients,” Maloni said.

We can argue over what’s innocuous and what’s not, but that seems to be an acknowledgment from his own spokesman that Manafort was discussing how he could leverage his status as a leading strategist on an American presidential campaign to chase down debts he was owed — i.e. to enrich himself financially. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller wants lots of White House documents. Trump may be forced to comply

Cristian Farias writes: Just days before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, a federal court in Washington quietly expanded the powers of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the long-running Whitewater controversy. Thanks to that court order, the prosecutor could now look into whether Lewinsky and others “violated federal law” in connection with an unrelated civil lawsuit by Paula Jones against President Bill Clinton. And that meant Starr even had the authority to subpoena White House lawyers who may know about potential crimes implicating the president and his office.

That bit of ancient ’90s history is suddenly relevant. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating potential criminal activity arising from Russia’s interference in the presidential election, may rely on legal precedent from that era and beyond to get the White House to cooperate with the probe. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Mueller has requested a detailed list of documents related to 13 areas of interest to his inquiry. They include some of Trump’s more troubling moments while in office, such as the firing of James Comey in May. Or the time Trump told Russian officials visiting the Oval Office that getting rid of the FBI director, whom he had relieved a day earlier, took “great pressure” off the administration. Or the circumstances surrounding the firing of Michael Flynn, who remained in his post as Trump’s first national security adviser, despite warnings from Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, that he may be compromised by the Russians.

Ty Cobb, the attorney leading the White House response to Mueller, has already indicated that he wants to play nice with the special counsel and turn over as many documents as possible. But of all places, he seems to be facing resistance from within: Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, was described by Cobb — within earshot of a reporter — as someone who is “very conservative” with the production of documents, some of which he appears to keep “locked in a safe,” according to a Times report earlier this week. [Continue reading…]

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Lewandowski: Manafort should go to jail for the rest of his life if he colluded

The Hill reports: President Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said this week that, if anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election, they should “go to jail for the rest of their lives.”

“I think if anybody, and I’ve said this, if Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, or Rick Gates or Carter Page, or anybody else attempted to influence the outcome of the U.S. election through any means that’s inappropriate – through collusion, coordination or cooperation – I hope they go to jail for the rest of their lives,” Lewandowski said at George Washington University on Tuesday, according to the Washington Examiner.

“It’s very simple. Our election process is too serious, our democracy is too important to allow people to try and try and have influence from the outside for their own gain,” he added.

Lewandowski’s comments came after CNN reported Tuesday that investigators had wiretapped Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, before and after the 2016 election. [Continue reading…]

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Manafort used Trump campaign account to email Ukrainian operative

Politico reports: Former Donald Trump aide Paul Manafort used his presidential campaign email account to correspond with a Ukrainian political operative with suspected Russian ties, according to people familiar with the correspondence.

Manafort sent emails to seek repayment for previous work he did in Ukraine and to discuss potential new opportunities in the country, even as he chaired Trump’s presidential campaign, these people said.

Manafort had been a longtime consultant for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president until 2014, and his Party of Regions. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Ukrainian investigators said they had discovered evidence that Manafort received millions of dollars in off-the-books payments for his work there.

In the emails to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Manafort protégé who has previously been reported to have suspected ties to Russian intelligence, the longtime GOP operative made clear his significant sway in Trump’s campaign, one of the people familiar with the communications said. He and Kilimnik also met in the United States while Manafort worked for the Trump campaign, which he chaired until an August 2016 shake-up. [Continue reading…]

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Manafort offered to give Russian billionaire ‘private briefings’ on 2016 campaign

The Washington Post reports: Less than two weeks before Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign chairman offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Paul Manafort made the offer in an email to an overseas intermediary, asking that a message be sent to Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate with whom Manafort had done business in the past, these people said.

“If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote in the July 7, 2016, email, portions of which were read to The Washington Post along with other Manafort correspondence from that time. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller seeks White House documents related to Trump’s actions as president

The New York Times reports: Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, has asked the White House for documents about some of President Trump’s most scrutinized actions since taking office, including the firing of his national security adviser and F.B.I. director, according to White House officials.

Mr. Mueller is also interested in an Oval Office meeting Mr. Trump had with Russian officials in which he said the dismissal of the F.B.I. director had relieved “great pressure” on him.

The document requests provide the most details to date about the breadth of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, and show that several aspects of his inquiry are focused squarely on Mr. Trump’s behavior in the White House. [Continue reading…]

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Russians appear to use Facebook to push Trump rallies in 17 U.S. cities

The Daily Beast reports: Suspected Russia propagandists on Facebook tried to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during last year’s election, The Daily Beast has learned.

The demonstrations—at least one of which was promoted online by local pro-Trump activists— brought dozens of supporters together in real life. They appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump.

The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state. It’s difficult to determine how many of those locations actually witnessed any turnout, in part because Facebook’s recent deletion of hundreds of Russian accounts hid much of the evidence. But videos and photos from two of the locations—Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs—were reposted to a Facebook page run by the local Trump campaign chair, where they remain to this day. [Continue reading…]

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Special counsel’s office has interviewed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has authority over probe

The Washington Post reports: Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office has interviewed Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein as part of its probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — a conversation that put investigators in the unusual position of obtaining the account of a man who has authority over their work, according to people familiar with the matter.

The interview was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which said that it took place in June or July and that it was about President Trump’s removal of James B. Comey as FBI director. Special counsel investigators have been probing whether the president might have attempted to obstruct justice leading up to Comey’s firing.

Precisely what investigators have asked Rosenstein, or how key a figure he is in the probe, remains unclear. Rosenstein undeniably played a role in Comey’s firing — authoring a memo highly critical of the FBI director, which the White House used initially to justify the firing.

Rosenstein told the Associated Press in June that if his conduct were to become germane to the probe, he would step aside.

“I’ve talked with Director Mueller about this,” Rosenstein told AP. “He’s going to make the appropriate decisions, and if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there’s a need from me to recuse, I will.”

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment Tuesday night. Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said: “As the deputy attorney general has said numerous times, if there comes a time when he needs to recuse, he will. However, nothing has changed.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump using campaign, RNC funds to pay legal bills from Russia probe

Reuters reports: U.S. President Donald Trump is using money donated to his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee to pay for his lawyers in the probe of alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Following Reuters exclusive report on Tuesday, CNN reported that the Republican National Committee paid in August more than $230,000 to cover some of Trump’s legal fees related to the probe.

RNC spokesperson Cassie Smedile confirmed to Reuters that Trump’s lead lawyer, John Dowd, received $100,000 from the RNC and that the RNC also paid $131,250 to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, the law firm where Jay Sekulow, another of Trump’s lawyers, is a partner. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn prepping for a $1 million legal tab

The Daily Beast reports: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn plans to spend more than a million dollars on his legal defense, a source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast on Monday. But because of the structure of the fund he has set up to pay for it, the public won’t know who is footing the bills.

The retired Army lieutenant general is facing legal scrutiny as part of an ongoing federal probe into alleged Russian government meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He’s now searching for ways to pay the resulting legal bills, including through a crowdsourcing effort he announced on Twitter on Monday morning.

“We deeply appreciate the support of family and friends across this nation who have touched our lives,” Flynn wrote.

Flynn is dealing with a multitude of potentially complex legal problems stemming from the Russia investigation, which has expanded to examine the private business activities of a number of current and former Trump aides and associates, including Flynn’s advocacy on behalf of a Turkish government-linked company last year. He belatedly disclosed that work under a federal law governing domestic lobbying and public relations on behalf of foreign governments and political parties. [Continue reading…]

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Trump uses Putin’s arguments to undermine the world

Spencer Ackerman writes: The leader stepped to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, as close to a literal world stage as exists, and issued a stringent defense of the principle of national sovereignty.

“What is the state sovereignty, after all, that has been mentioned by our colleagues here? It is basically about freedom and the right to choose freely one’s own future for every person, nation and state,” he said, attacking what he identified as the hypocrisy of those who seek to violate sovereignty in the name of stopping mass murder.

“Aggressive foreign interference,” the leader continued, “has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster.”

The leader was not Donald Trump on Tuesday, but Vladimir Putin in 2015. Whatever nexus between Putin and Trump exists for Robert Mueller to discover, the evidence of their compatible visions of foreign affairs was on display at the United Nations clearer than ever, with Trump’s aggressive incantation of “sovereignty, security and prosperity” as the path to world peace. “There can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations, nations that are rooted in the histories and invested in their destiny,” Trump said, hitting his familiar blood-and-soil themes that echo from the darker moments in European history. [Continue reading…]

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What’s the U.S.’s best chance with North Korea? Russia

Dmitri Trenin writes: Sanctions, no matter how strict, will not stop Pyongyang from pursuing its program, which it sees as the key to its very survival; as Mr. Putin said recently, North Koreans will “eat grass” before they give up nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s latest missile launch on Friday was a direct rebuke to the new sanctions, notably on oil imports, that the U.N. Security Council passed last Monday.

This is not to say that sanctions are a mistake. They remain a valuable expression of collective condemnation and reassert the goal of nuclear nonproliferation. But they will not halt North Korea’s nuclearization.

A total blockade of the country might, but it is too risky to even attempt. It could push North Korea to start a war or cause the country’s collapse, a prospect that China, for one, cannot tolerate.

And so the only viable strategy left is to convince the North Korean leadership that it already has the deterrent it needs, and that going beyond that — by developing more nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles — would only be counterproductive.

This is where Russia comes it: It can help nudge Pyongyang toward strategic restraint, and help defuse tensions in the meantime, by offering it new economic prospects. [Continue reading…]

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Why foreign propaganda is more dangerous than it used to be

Samantha Power writes: In the Cold War era, Soviet attempts to meddle in American democracy were largely unsuccessful. In 1982 Yuri Andropov, then the K.G.B. chairman, told Soviet foreign intelligence officers to incorporate disinformation operations — the so-called active measures meant to discredit adversaries and influence public opinion — into their standard work. They had an ambitious aim: preventing Ronald Reagan’s re-election.

Soviet agents were instructed to infiltrate party and campaign staffs in the United States in search of embarrassing information to leak to the press, while Soviet propagandists pushed a set of anti-Reagan story lines to the Western media. Ultimately, they failed to influence the election. President Reagan defeated Walter F. Mondale, winning 49 states. Margaret Thatcher, who was similarly targeted, also won re-election in a landslide.

What exactly has changed since then to make foreign propaganda far more dangerous today?

During the Cold War, most Americans received their news and information via mediated platforms. Reporters and editors serving in the role of professional gatekeepers had almost full control over what appeared in the media. A foreign adversary seeking to reach American audiences did not have great options for bypassing these umpires, and Russian dezinformatsia rarely penetrated.

While television remains the main source of news for most Americans, viewers today tend to select a network in line with their political preferences. Even more significantly, The Pew Research Center has found that two-thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news through social media.

After the election, around 84 percent of Americans polled by Pew described themselves as at least somewhat confident in their ability to discern real news from fake. This confidence may be misplaced. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Intelligence Committee interview with Trump lawyer abruptly canceled

The Washington Post reports: The Senate Intelligence Committee has unexpectedly canceled a Tuesday session to interview Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for President Trump’s business and a close associate of the president.

The meeting was scheduled as part of the committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Cohen arrived for the interview with his attorney Tuesday morning, but left the closed door session after about an hour, informing reporters waiting outside that committee staff had suddenly informed him they did not wish the interview to go forward.

“We will come back for a voluntary interview whenever we can to meet with them, and we look forward to voluntarily cooperating with the House committee and with anyone else who has an inquiry in this area,” Cohen’s lawyer, Steve Ryan, told reporters after the aborted meeting.

In a joint statement, committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking Democrat Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.) said the session was canceled because of public statements by Cohen before the interviews.

“We were disappointed that Mr. Cohen decided to pre-empt today’s interview by releasing a public statement prior to his engagement with Committee staff, in spite of the Committee’s requests that he refrain from public comment,” they said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Manafort before and after the election

CNN reports: US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official now at the center of the Russia meddling probe.

The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump.

Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation. Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which is leading the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election, has been provided details of these communications.

A secret order authorized by the court that handles the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) began after Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation that began in 2014. It centered on work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine’s former ruling party, the sources told CNN.

The surveillance was discontinued at some point last year for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources.

The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year.

Sources say the second warrant was part of the FBI’s efforts to investigate ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives. Such warrants require the approval of top Justice Department and FBI officials, and the FBI must provide the court with information showing suspicion that the subject of the warrant may be acting as an agent of a foreign power. [Continue reading…]

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With a picked lock and a threatened indictment of Manafort, Mueller’s inquiry sets an aggressive tone

The New York Times reports: Paul J. Manafort was in bed early one morning in July when federal agents bearing a search warrant picked the lock on his front door and raided his Virginia home. They took binders stuffed with documents and copied his computer files, looking for evidence that Mr. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, set up secret offshore bank accounts. They even photographed the expensive suits in his closet.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.

The moves against Mr. Manafort are just a glimpse of the aggressive tactics used by Mr. Mueller and his team of prosecutors in the four months since taking over the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s election, according to lawyers, witnesses and American officials who have described the approach. Dispensing with the plodding pace typical of many white-collar investigations, Mr. Mueller’s team has used what some describe as shock-and-awe tactics to intimidate witnesses and potential targets of the inquiry.

Mr. Mueller has obtained a flurry of subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify before a grand jury, lawyers and witnesses say, sometimes before his prosecutors have taken the customary first step of interviewing them. One witness was called before the grand jury less than a month after his name surfaced in news accounts. The special counsel even took the unusual step of obtaining a subpoena for one of Mr. Manafort’s former lawyers, claiming an exception to the rule that shields attorney-client discussions from scrutiny.

“They are setting a tone. It’s important early on to strike terror in the hearts of people in Washington, or else you will be rolled,” said Solomon L. Wisenberg, who was deputy independent counsel in the investigation that led to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999. “You want people saying to themselves, ‘Man, I had better tell these guys the truth.’”

A spokesman for Mr. Mueller declined to comment. Lawyers and a spokesman for Mr. Manafort also declined to comment.

Few people can upend Washington like a federal prosecutor rooting around a presidential administration, and Mr. Mueller, a former F.B.I. director, is known to dislike meandering investigations that languish for years. At the same time, he appears to be taking a broad view of his mandate: examining not just the Russian disruption campaign and whether any of Mr. Trump’s associates assisted in the effort, but also any financial entanglements with Russians going back several years. He is also investigating whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct justice when he fired James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director. [Continue reading…]

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