June 29, 2018

Here's another line you can draw on your conspiracy board: Retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy has a connection to Germany's Deutsche Bank, which has been suspected of allowing Russian money laundering and is President Trump's biggest known lender, The New York Times reports. While the Trump administration has waged a long campaign to encourage Kennedy to retire — a not uncommon practice among presidents, as all are eager to fill Supreme Court vacancies — the Trumps and the Kennedys already had a long history of working together:

President Trump's glowing reference to Justice Kennedy's son at his address to Congress was apparently an attempt to remind the judge of their connection. As the Times suggests, Trump's months of praise of the senior Kennedy was all part of a campaign to assure him "that his judicial legacy would be in good hands should he step down at the end of the court's term that ended this week." Jeva Lange

June 14, 2018
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Of all the revelations in the Justice Department inspector general's report on the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, perhaps the most surprising is the news that former FBI Director James Comey used a private Gmail account for official business. "We identified numerous instances in which Comey used a personal email account (a Gmail account) to conduct FBI business," writes Inspector General Michael Horowitz in the report, going on to cite five examples.

Asked about the use of his personal email, Comey told the investigators, "I did not have an unclass[ified] FBI connection at home that worked. And I didn't bother to fix it, whole 'nother story, but I would either use my Blackberry, must have been, or Samsung … Or if I needed to write something longer, I would type it on my personal laptop and then sent it to [James] Rybicki, usually I copied my own address." Comey said he only used his personal account and laptop "when I needed to word process an unclassified [document] that was going to be disseminated broadly, [such as a] public speech or public email to the whole organization."

When asked if using his personal email in such a way was in line with department protocol, Comey said: "I don't know. I think so, but I don't know." The inspector general confirmed "Comey's use of a personal email account on multiple occasions for unclassified FBI business to be inconsistent with the DOJ policy statement."

The news is an especially bitter pill for Hillary Clinton's supporters to swallow, as many blame Comey for her election loss. In July 2016, Comey famously summarized Clinton's use of a private email server as being "extremely careless," even as he said she was not guilty of any crime. Jeva Lange

June 11, 2018
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Several Democrats are raising concerns about connections between NRA officials and Russians with ties to the Kremlin, with Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.) telling McClatchy DC that it seems like "something very bad happened in 2016." The questions arise as federal investigators are looking into whether the NRA received illegal donations from Russians to support the Trump campaign.

"Now U.S. investigators want to know if relationships between the Russian leaders and the nation's largest gun rights group went beyond vodka toasts and gun factory tours, evolving into another facet of the Kremlin's broad election-interference operation," McClatchy DC writes. Among the Russians who were in contact with NRA officials was Alexander Torshin, who allegedly helped launder money for the Russian mob in Spain, and Dmitry Rogozin, a far-right nationalist. "I can't understand the NRA meeting with Rogozin since he was sanctioned in 2014," said Russia expert Anders Aslund. "It's so embarrassing."

NRA officials also were in touch with Sergei Rudov, the head of the religious charity St. Basil's the Great Charitable Foundation, which has allegedly been used to finance causes like the separatist movement in Crimea.

Lieu claims it is fishy that the NRA was meeting with the Russians in the first place because "they don't actually have a similar interest in making sure that people bear arms" — Russia has much stricter gun laws than the United States. Read more about the ties between the NRA and Russian agents at McClatchy DC. Jeva Lange

May 30, 2018

President Trump reportedly touched on details of a classified attack in Syria that left dozens, if not hundreds, of Russians dead in February while he was meeting with donors in Manhattan last Wednesday, Politico reports. The White House declined to comment to Politico about Trump's statements, though, "because information about the Syria strikes remains classified."

Russia previously said that "several dozen" Russians were killed in the skirmish in Syria, where their troops are backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who served as the CIA director in February, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S.-led coalition killed "a couple hundred Russians" in comments made last month. Aside from Pompeo's remarks, the administration has so far remained tight-lipped about what actually happened in the battle.

At the closed-door fundraiser, which apparently brought in some $5 million, Trump allegedly bragged about American F-18 pilots who participated in the battle, and alluded to the strikes taking just "10 minutes," which had not been reported. In a separate report, The New York Times reviewed Pentagon accounts of the battle and said the entire assault took nearly four hours in total. Jeva Lange

May 25, 2018
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Wealthy Chinese businesspeople are apparently gaining access to President Trump by paying middlemen to get them into political fundraisers, as a way of dodging U.S. election law, The Washington Post reports. It is illegal for anyone but U.S. citizens to contribute to a political campaign, such as an upcoming official Trump fundraiser in Dallas on May 31, although at least three Chinese companies are offering VIP trips to the events that cost thousands of dollars and promise a handshake and photo with the president.

"[T]he solicitations, if offering a legitimate service, raise questions about whether attendees are indirectly paying for their tickets through a U.S. donor, which would be illegal," writes the Post, which adds that foreigners may attend fundraisers only if "they do not pay their own entry."

One Republican Party official confirmed that a group of Chinese citizens attended a similar Trump fundraiser last December through one such company in the capacity "as guests of a U.S. citizen donor." Sun Changchun, the "the head of a Chinese cultural exchange company" who allegedly arranged that New York trip and is apparently working on the Dallas one, said he gives the ticket proceeds to the RNC, and that the RNC would donate them to charity.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation includes tracking if any foreign money flowed into the presidential campaigns. "What a regulator or prosecutor would be interested in is whether this is essentially the foreign national making a donation through a U.S. person," explained Matthew Sanderson, who served as a campaign finance lawyer for the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign. Read more about the sketchy scheme at The Washington Post. Jeva Lange

May 25, 2018
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Less than two weeks before the inauguration, President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, met with a Russian oligarch to discuss strengthening relations between Washington and Moscow, The New York Times reports. Viktor Vekselberg, who has ties to the Kremlin, met with Cohen three separate times, including on the day of the inauguration.

Just days afterwards, the private equity firm of Andrew Intrater, who is Vekselberg's cousin and client, awarded Cohen a $1 million contract. Intrater spoke to the Times, saying he did nothing wrong and made the decision independently.

Earlier this week, it was reported that Cohen was separately paid at least $400,000 to arrange a talk between Trump and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Cohen also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from businesses like AT&T and Novartis to provide access and insight into the Trump administration.

The Times writes that the Vekselberg meeting "sheds additional light on the intersection between Mr. Trump's inner-circle and Russians with ties to the Kremlin." Read more about the meetings at The New York Times. Jeva Lange

May 22, 2018
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Amazon has reportedly spent several years hawking its facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday to accuse the company of having "officially entered the surveillance business," The New York Times reports. Amazon's service, called "Rekogniton," was developed in late 2016, and it identifies "faces and other objects in images," the Times writes. Amazon has promoted the technology to police departments, noting that officers can use it to aid investigations — or, say, track "undocumented immigrants or black activists," as the ACLU warns.

In one extreme case, in Orlando, police are apparently using Rekognition to search for "people of interest" in surveillance cameras "all over the city," the ACLU alleges. (A spokesman for the Orlando Police Department told the Times that it is not at this time using Rekogniton in investigations or public spaces). Amazon's promotional materials also suggest using Rekognition in police body cameras.

A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services told the Times that the company requires users of Rekognition to follow the law and "be responsible," and that the deployment of the technology is not so unlike other image recognition programs already used around the country. That isn't reassuring for many critics, though.

"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government," the ACLU writes. "[A]utomating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo." Jeva Lange

May 22, 2018

Less than three months ago, NRA spokesperson and radio host Dana Loesch was sparring at a CNN townhall with Parkland shooting survivors and a mother who had lost her child. On Tuesday, she was once again on television to respond to the latest school shooting, although this time she had a rather unusual proposal for stemming the epidemic of violence.

Speaking on Fox & Friends, Loesch said "we need to make sure we are funding security measures" in schools, and to do that she suggested, "How about we take the half a billion dollars from Planned Parenthood and redirect that into making sure that our schools are secure, and that we have armed security and metal detectors?"

Many advocates for gun reform have protested against "armed security," arguing that more guns in schools is not the solution. "In the event an armed guard actually did intervene [in an active shooting], more deaths or injuries would likely be the result," writes Slate. "Armed guards exchanging fire with one or more shooters would result in a chaotic scene filled with deadly crossfire, and would complicate any law enforcement response too." Additionally, armed teachers and security guards have been known to leave loaded guns behind in the bathroom.

Watch Loesch's appearance on Fox News below, via ThinkProgress' Aaron Rupar. Jeva Lange

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