Category: Donald Trump

Another Useful Idiot

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The Washington Post is out with a story about the American right’s ties to Russia and the article centers on the tale of accused Russian Mob boss and Russian Duma member Alexander Torshin and his red-headed friend, Maria Butina, which I’ve written about here. 

In that post, I wrote that David Keene — opinion editor of The Washington Times editorial page and past NRA president — was a useful idiot who allowed a suspected Russian mobster to get close to the president.

Torshin is a member of the Russian Duma and, simultaneously, (while the Post story doesn’t mention it), he was accused by Spanish police of being a ranking member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate. He was slated to meet with President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast until a White House national security aide noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage.”

The Post adds an important new detail: How Torshin met Keene.

At least one connection came about thanks to a conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had done business in Russia for years.

Preston said that in 2011 he introduced then-NRA President David Keene to a Russian senator, Alexander Torshin, a member of Putin’s party who later became a top official at the Russian central bank. Keene had been a stalwart on the right, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who was NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013.

I never realized that Vladimir Putin had such open and effusive admirers in the United States like George Kline Preston.

Preston, born in 1966, is an expert on Russian law who displays a white porcelain bust of Putin in his office, according to the Post.

He believes that we have it backwards: Putin is the good guy in this story. He has told friends for years not to believe reports that Putin murdered journalists or political opponents. Here he is effusively praising Putin to his friend Torshin on Twitter.

Translation: “@torshin_ru Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day in the USA. I want to say that you are fortunate to have President Vladimir Putin.”

Preston’s relationship with Torshin goes back to at least 2009 when Preston briefed Russian legislators on the implementation of immunity agreements in Russia:

Mr. Torshin asked me to briefly describe the concept of a “deal with the investigation,” or, more precisely, the “plea bargaining”, as we used to call this term in the West. (source: archived web page of prestonkline.com)

Preston was an international observer during the 2011 Russian duma elections that led to mass street protests about election fraud. Preston said he concluded the Russian election system was “impressive” and “very well-organized,” but the Western view was overwhelmingly negative. The reason why, he said, lay in the fact the West does not like Vladimir Putin. Asked why, he speculated that “maybe because he’s a strong leader, maybe he’s done a pretty effective job:”

Interestingly, this video was posted to YouTube (and possibly made by) Johan Backman, a controversial Finnish academic. Backman is a Putin cheerleader and Kremlin propagandist (which is detailed in this lengthy expose).  Preston was apparently didn’t know or didn’t mind that he was being used for propaganda purposes.

In 2012, Preston returned the favor and  invited Torshin to be an election observer in Nashville. Both men appear in the picture below (Preston on the left, and Torshin in the middle). Torshin’s tweet below reads: “Standing in line at the polling place. As an ordinary American. 6:45 a.m.”

In contrast to his experience observing voting Russia, Preston said he saw violations of U.S. law during the presidential election: pro-Obama signs posted too close to a polling place.

Preston earned his bachelors degree in Russian language and literature at the University of Tennessee in 1989, the same year he  studied in Leningrad via an Indiana University program at Leningrad State. He and earned his law degree at Nashville School of Law in 1994.  For a time, Preston was involved in trading Russian/Ukrainian securities and importing Kievskaya Rus ultra premium vodka.

Preston’s law practice appears heavily focused on Russia. A version of his website archived in 2011 appears in both English and Cyrillic. On his office web page of is what appears to be a double-headed eagle, the symbol on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation.

A portion of the Preston’s practice involved assisting Americans in adopting children born in the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. (Putin in 2012 signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.) Preston also represented Bering Strait, a classically-trained Russian bluegrass and Russian scholar Mikhail Anikin, who claimed that author Dan Brown stole his idea for the “Da Vinci Code.”

On his Twitter feed, @gittinpaid, Preston often retweets Russian propaganda from RT, Pravda and other news outlets:

I’m not sure what happened to G. Kline Preston, but it’s hard to look at him and see a man who has turned himself, quite happily it seems, into another of Putin’s useful idiots.

Donald Trump and the Russian with the Million-Dollar Watch

Vladimir Resin and his million-dollar watch

Eight years ago, I came across an interesting item in the Russian publication Vedemosti. A reporter decided to take a close look at the ridiculously expensive watches worn by Russian government officials.

Vedomosti found the most expensive watch on the wrist of Vladimir Resin, the former deputy mayor of Moscow.

He was photographed wearing an extremely rare Swiss watch made of platinum called the La Pressy Grande Complication model, which retails for more than $1 million. (The original story is gone, but you see another version here.)

It was interesting to learn that Resin met with Donald Trump during early business forays into Russia in the 1990s. This was an interesting moment for two larger-than-life characters: The Russian city official with the million-dollar watch and the future American president looking to do his first overseas deal in Moscow.

Trump has insisted that he has no loans, no deals, and no business, but it’s not for want of trying. In the mid 1990s, Trump was trying to put his name something in Moscow. But no matter what he wanted to build, renovate or brand, Trump had to go through Resin, who for two decades oversaw construction in Russia’s capital city as deputy mayor.

Resin listed his work as his only hobby in his official biography, but it was a different kind of labor that earned him a $1 million watch. Moscow government officials welcomed foreign partners into their hotels — and demanded their own pound of flesh in return. “Corruption is a very, very big problem,” an anonymous Western hotel executive told Businessweek in a story about the Russian hotel wars during Resin’s time in office.

Trump had reportedly grown interested in the Moscow luxury apartment market after noticing how many Russians were buying space in Trump Palace, Trump Parc and Trump Plaza towers in New York.

In November 1996, Trump traveled to Russia to explore the possibility of replicating the success of Trump Tower in Moscow. In a news conference at Moscow’s Baltschug Hotel, Trump announced he planned to invest $250 million to build two “super-luxury” residential towers to be called Trump International and — surprise — Trump Tower, both of which he said “Moscow desperately wants and needs.”

“Moscow is going to be huge, take it from the Trumpster!” he told Playboy magazine.

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Donald Trump in Moscow Nov. 5, 1996

It’s not clear whether Trump had the money to do deals in Moscow because 1996 was a difficult time for the future president. Although Trump claimed to be worth $2 billion, partial tax returns published by The New York Times revealed that Trump declared a loss of $916 million for the previous year. During his Moscow trip with then-wife Marla Maples, Trump had to suffer the indignity of flying commercial airlines. “We had to wait about an hour in London for a flight, right out there with all the other passengers,” Marla told Playboy. “Well, you can imagine how that went over with Donald.”

Trump met with Resin during his 1996 visit to Moscow. The Moscow Times quoted one of Trump’s partners in the deal, David Geovanis, as describing Resin as “one of the key people in charge of attracting foreign invest to the Moscow real estate market.” Geovanis added that the city was “very receptive” to Trump’s developments in Moscow.

Except they weren’t. Maybe the whole build-a-tower-in-Russia was just another in a long series of self-promotion. Or maybe Resin put his foot down. Resin said he wasn’t interested in having a glass-and-steel tower in the middle of Moscow. “We are not building any towers in the old part of the city,” he told the ITAR-Tass news agency. “We are not going to turn the ancient city into a Manhattan.”

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Hotel Rossiya

Resin had other ideas for Trump. In December 1996, Resin offered him the chance to invest in a pair of decrepit Moscow hotels, the Hotel Rossiya, just off Red Square, and the rundown Hotel Moskva. The city controlled the hotels through a joint-stock company.

Back in New York, Trump seemed excited about the prospects of putting his imprint on the Moskva or the Rossiya when he met in with Alexsandr Lebed, who at the time was viewed as a potential successor to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. A profile in The New Yorker quoted Trump telling Lebed:

“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”

The Moskva was a small, venerable Moscow hotel that is now run by the Four Seasons. The Rossiya was another matter.

The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box and Europe’s biggest hotel, intrigued Trump, but it was a nightmare. The Economist magazine called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.”  The city had tried without success to close it in 1994 because it was overrun by rats and cockroaches. Renovating it would cost a small fortune.

The Rossiya was also plagued by an even more dangerous problem: Organized crime. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period from 1996 to 1998.

Then there were the all-powerful city officials to deal with, like Resin.

Trump wisely passed on the fortresslike Rossiya, and the hotel was eventually razed in 2006 to make way for a new development.

Trump, however, did show some interest in the other Moscow hotel Resin offered him, the Moskva. Trump submitted a proposal for a $175 million renovation of the crumbling Moskva with the top floor converted into luxury apartments. Trump promised to turn the hotel around in 18 months.

In January of 1997, Resin told Interfax that an agreement with Trump’s representatives was “practically reached”.  In the end, the Moskva deal fizzled out, too.

I should note that two of Trump’s friends longtime friends brought him to Moscow, Howard Lorber and Bennnett S. LeBow. Lorber’s New Valley LLC partnered with Trump on Moskva deal and LeBow’s Liggett-Ducat Ltd. subsidiary helped out on the would-be tower in Moscow. Today,  Lorber is president and CEO and Bennett is chairman of the Vector Group, the parent company of both the Liggett tobacco firm and New York real estate giant Douglas Elliman.  Both men are close friends and supporters of Trump.

By 2004, Resin had changed his mind about skyscrapers in Moscow. A $5 billion development plan called for 60 skyscrapers to be built, with the tallest reaching 116 floors. Resin flew to New York to to discuss the project with Trump’s representatives. As far we know, nothing came of that meeting.

Today, Resin serves in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. In 2010, he was named acting mayor of Moscow when President Dimtry Medvedev fired his boss, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.  Resin resigned the following year.

The fact that nothing came of Trump’s meeting of the man with the million-dollar watch is somewhat reassuring, given the president’s questionable judgment as president in foreign affairs and his rumored ties to Moscow.  No doubt Trump could have done a deal in Moscow had he wished. And he probably wanted to — “Moscow’s going to be huge” — and putting his name on one of the world’s biggest hotels might have been tempting. In the end, we hope, he found the cost or the risk of dealing with men like Resin, or both, too high.

 

Why Did a Russian NHL Player Sue Trump’s Lawyer, Michael Cohen?

Vladimir Malakhov is a Russian-born retired professional hockey player. He was active in the NHL 1992 to 2006, playing for the New York Islanders, the Montreal Canadiens, and the New Jersey Devils.

In January of 1999, Malakhov wrote a check for $350,000 to Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer. The check was deposited — and then the money disappeared.

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What happened to the money and how this check came to be written to Michael Cohen was the subject of years of litigation in Circuit Court in Miami, Florida. (See Fomina v. Netscheret, 2006-001330-CA-01.)

Malakhov sued Cohen (/a/k/a “Michael D. Hacking”) in 2010 in Miami Circuit Court. (Malakov v. Cohen, 2010-14576-CA-03). I’ve embedded the lawsuit at the bottom of this post.

The story begins in late 1998 or early 1999, when Malakhov was living in Florida, and earning millions as a professional hockey player playing with the Montreal Canadiens.

One day, an acquaintance asked him for a large loan. The acquaintance was a woman named Julia Fomina. According to an affidavit filed by Malakhov’s agent, the money was intended not for Fomina but rather her boyfriend in Russia, Vitaly Buslaev. (For more on Buslaev’s background, see Yuri Felstinsky’s original article at the website Gordonua.com. There’s also a story out in Buzzfeed.)

Malakhov loaned $350,000 to Fomina and, on the advice of his attorney, secured the loan by having Fomina sign over a mortgage for her apartment on the 24th floor of Miami Beach condo tower.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Fomina instructed Malakhov’s wife to send the $350,000 loan to Michael Cohen. The check was issued in January 1999 to Cohen personally, not his law firm or many businesses, and deposited in Cohen’s Citibank trust account.

Sometime later, Fomina defaulted on her loan.  When Malakhov moved to foreclose on the condominium, Fomina swore under oath that she never received the $350,000 that had been sent to Cohen.

It took years before Cohen was finally deposed and asked what happened to the money. Cohen’s response: “I don’t recall.”  He insisted he didn’t know Malakhov, had no idea why the hockey player would write him such a huge check, had no records relating to the check, and had no clue what happened to the money.

A Miami judge accepted Cohen’s story and dismissed the case.

In deposition, Cohen speculated that one of the reasons why Malakhov might have sent him the check were his ties to Russians, including his business partner, the Ukrainian-born “Taxi King” Simon Garber. I’ve written previously about Cohen’s family ethanol business in Ukraine.

The Malakhov story connects to Trump in another roundabout way.

A few years before he wrote the check to Cohen, Malakhov was shaken down by a Russian mobster, according to testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing on Russian organized crime.

Malakhov, who at the time was playing for the New York Islanders, was approached in the National Restaurant in New York City’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. The man who demanded money from the hockey player worked for Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, one of the most powerful Russian Mafia bosses in America.

As I noted in an earlier post, Ivankov is one of several Mobsters who turned up in Trump Tower. Invakov also showed up Trump’s New Jersey casino, the Taj Mahal. Ivankov’s phone book included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower residence, and a Trump Organization fax machine.

Ivankov was arrested in 1995 and sent to prison for extortion. After his release he returned to Russia where he was assassinated.

As for Malakhov, after he was shaken down, he spent the next months in fear, looking over his shoulder. His worries ended when he was traded to the Canadiens.

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

The Guardian is out with a report that contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence occurred much earlier than previously reported:

GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information, they added.

Looking at the Trump-Russian Timeline, this puts other events around that time into context. Beginning in late 2015,  the following events occurred:

  • December: Accounts associated with Russian propaganda “troll farm” called the Internet Research Agency begins supporting Donald Trump
  • December 17: Vladimir Putin praises Donald Trump at his annual news conference. “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt. He is the absolute leader of the presidential race.”
  • Feb. 2: Alexander Dugin, a conservative “philosopher” with close ties to the Kremlin, endorses Trump.
  • March: Individuals linked to the Russian government begin openly supporting Donald Trump. Government-funded propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik cast Trump as the target of unfair coverage from mainstream media outlets.
  • March: A hacking group known as “Fancy Bear” or “APT28” launches a spearfishing campaign targeting email addresses at hillaryclinton.com and dnc.org that gains them access to DNC network. The hacking group is run by the Russian foreign military intelligence service (GRU) and appears focused on a single target: the DNC’s opposition research files on Donald Trump.

What the publicly available information shows is a steady ramping up of Russian support for Trump.

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Our man in Moscow

The GHCQ information fills in the missing piece. The contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence appear to be the catalyst for the covert and overt support from Moscow.

Michael Flynn’s December 10 trip to Moscow also emerges as a possible lynchpin in this story. Flynn, you will recall, attended RT’s 10th anniversary gala in Moscow, where was seated at the head table next to Vladimir Putin. It’s not clear what Flynn’s role in the campaign was in this time, if any. The two men first met in August; Flynn announced he was advising Trump in February 2016.

A website that tracked Trump’s evolving campaign team lists the following people as part of Trump’s inner circle in late 2015:

  • Corey Lewandowski
  • Michael Glassner
  • Donald F. McGahn
  • Michael Cohen
  • Hope Hicks
  • Roger Stone (resigned Aug. 8, 2015)

More TK.

 

 

 

 

 

Op-Ed: Trump’s $95 million home sale to Russian deserves scrutiny

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Trump outside Maison de l’Aimitie, which he sold to a Russian billionaire.

Published online April 6, 2017 in The San Diego Union-Tribune

by Seth Hettena

When the FBI recently revealed that it was investigating the nature of any links between President Trump, his associates and the Russian government, I was reminded of another scandal involving disgraced San Diego County Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

The story, which began with a report published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, grew into one of the biggest political scandals in county history. In 2006, a federal judge sentenced Cunningham to 100 months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors to whom he steered lucrative Pentagon contracts.

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Duke Cunningham

While there are many differences between the two men — Cunningham, unlike Trump, served his country honorably during the Vietnam War and became a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot — there are similarities where their political careers are concerned.

Like Trump, Cunningham had a loose tongue that often got him in trouble. Like Trump, he mocked, taunted, bullied and insulted his political opponents. And like Trump, Cunningham was drawn into far-fetched conspiracies. Look in the Congressional Record, and you’ll find Cunningham denouncing President Bill Clinton as a traitor and a KGB dupe because of a visit to Moscow as a college-aged man.

At the center of Cunningham’s bribery scandal was a real estate deal. Cunningham sold his home in Del Mar to a defense contractor and campaign contributor named Mitchell Wade, one of the shady “friends” the congressman attracted. Wade paid $1.675 million for the congressman’s home in 2003, an eye-popping figure that attracted attention even in San Diego County’s red-hot housing market.

Wade bought the home without ever having set foot in it, and only later found out that it was in sorry shape, darkened by the bars Cunningham installed over every window and skylight to foil Del Mar’s burglars. Wade put the home up for sale a month later, but it languished for a year before he managed to unload it for a $700,000 loss. To prosecutors, it smelled like bribery. And it was.

President Trump also sold a home for more than it was worth — except the house itself and the sale price were both much, much bigger. The property was a sprawling, oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Florida that Trump sold for $95 million after purchasing it four years earlier for $41 million. At the time, it was the most expensive U.S. home sale ever.

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Dmitry Rybolovlev

The buyer of the 6-acre property was a Russian fertilizer magnate named Dmitry Rybolovlev. The sale took place in July 2008, a time when the overheated U.S. real estate market was showing signs of distress and the supply of luxury homes exceeded demand.

Rybolovlev overpaid. Five years after the sale, Palm Beach County officials appraised the house at less than $60 million.

To be fair, no one has accused Trump or Rybolovlev of bribery, but the similarities between the sale of Cunningham’s property and Trump’s are striking. Not unlike the defense contractor who bought Cunningham’s Del Mar home, the Russian fertilizer king showed little interest in Trump’s mansion before or after he bought it. He never lived in it and is said to have visited it only once.

The home was plagued by mold, and, amazingly, a lawyer for Rybolovlev’s ex-wife told the Palm Beach Post he found no evidence that the Russian billionaire had hired anyone to inspect the property before he paid Trump a $50 million premium for it. In 2015, Rybolovlev got permission to demolish the 61,744-square-foot home, and is now selling off the land underneath it.

Other coincidences link Rybolovlev and Trump. Reporters have tracked the Russian billionaire’s private plane to cities where Trump was traveling during the 2016 presidential campaign and into his presidency. Both men say they have never met.

It could be that the sale of the Palm Beach mansion is an example of Trump’s ballyhooed deal-making skills. And it is also possible that it was something else: that the purchase of the mansion known as Maison de l’Aimitié (House of Friendship) was a covert form of payment from friends unknown in Russia or elsewhere.

The major difference between the two transactions is that at the time of the sale of the Palm Beach mansion, Trump was not a public official. But now that he occupies the most powerful office in the world, the FBI, Senate and House intelligence committees who are examining the president’s ties to Russia should learn the lessons of the Cunningham scandal and give the enormous premium paid for Trump’s moldering mansion — purchased sight unseen — the close scrutiny it deserves.

Hettena, a former military writer, is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

The Godfather Goes to Washington (Updated)

 

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Reputed Russian mob “godfather” at the 2016 NRA convention in Louisville, Ky.

How did a suspected Russian mob “Godfather” (update: and Kremlin emissary) nearly make it to a private meeting in February with President Trump? With help from friends in the NRA.

Dramatis Personae

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The “Godfather” Alexander Torshin

The Godfather: Spanish police investigating the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate laundering ill-gotten gains through banks and properties in Spain learn that Alexander Torshin, while serving as  a deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament in Russia, instructed members how to launder criminal proceeds. Wiretaps recorded Torshin talking in 2012 and 2013 to the alleged Taganskaya leader in Spain, Alexander Romanov. An internal document from the Spanish Civil Guard Information Service, explains Torshin’s central role in the criminal plot.

“As a consequence of the phone tapping carried out in the aforementioned inquiries it has been ratified that, above Romanov, on a higher hierarchical level, is Alexander Torshin. In the numerous phone conversations and with different contact persons, Alexander Romanov himself recognized his subordination before someone who he describes as ‘the Godfather’ or ‘the boss’ … which in itself is telling when it comes to situating their relationship.”

Torshin also has longstanding ties to the FSB, successor agency to Russia’s KGB.

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Maria Butina

The Honeypot: Maria Butina. In 2011, this tall redhead was involved in sales of appliances and furniture in the Altai region of Siberia, A year later, she was rubbing elbows with Torshin and putting together Право на Оружие (translated as “Right to Bear Arms”) in Moscow, an international gun rights organization.

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David Keene

The Useful Idiot: David A. Keene is a political consultant, longtime director of the American Conservative Union, past president of the National Rifle Association, and currently the opinion editor of The Washington Times. Although not the power broker he once was, Keene still wields influence. He takes a liking to Torshin and Butina and opens doors for them in Washington and introduces them to influential people.

Our Story Begins

It’s election day in America, 2012. Barack Obama is running for a second term against Mitt Romney. Enter Torshin.

Nov. 6 2012: Torshin travels to Nashville, Tennessee where the NRA an American friend has granted him special status as an observer for the 2012 presidential election. Tweet below reads: “Standing in line at the polling place. As an ordinary American. 6:45 a.m.” At the time, Torshin is a senator in Putin’s United Russia in the upper house of Russia’s parliament.

Nov. 8, 2012: Torshin visits the Russian ambassador’s residence in Washington and NRA headquarters in Washington, DC.

May 2013: Torshin attends the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas.

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Torshin photographed in 2013 with then NRA president David Keene at the NRA’s annual convention in Houston.

August 21, 2013: Torshin decides not to attend a birthday celebration for Taganskaya leader in Spain, Alexander Romanov, as planned. Spanish authorities believe he was warned by the Russian prosecutor that if he stepped onto Spanish soil he would be arrested.

November 2013: NRA president David Keene travels to Russia for a conference hosted by The Right to Bear Arms. Keene speaks at the conference, with Torshin in attendance.

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David Keene and Maria Butina in Moscow. (Source: Facebook)

January 2, 2014: David Keene publishes an op-ed piece in the Washington Times by his friend, Alexander Torshin. “Last year, I had the pleasure of attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston,” he writes. Torshin says he has been a “life member” of the NRA for years.

April 2014: Torshin and Butina attend the NRA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, where they are given the red carpet treatment. Butina attends the annual NRA Women’s Leadership Luncheon as a guest of former NRA President Sandy Froman and participates in general meetings over the weekend as a guest of former NRA President David Keene. She also presents the then-NRA president Jim Porter with a plaque. Butina is given the “rare privilege” of ringing a Liberty Bell replica.

May 5, 2014: Maria Butina visits NRA headquarters in Washington, DC. and meets with David Keene.

May 6, 2014: Butina and her organization are profiled by conservative website Townhall.

We are a young organization. We are three years old. And we invited David Keene. He made a speech at our annual meeting. And so it’s like an answer from one side. The next side is the life member of our organization. He is our Russian senator. His name is Senator Alexander Torshin. He is a life member of NRA too, and he’s usually a participant of such events, and every annual meeting of NRA. But now the situation between (our) two countries is very difficult. And we have to go here together with Senator Torshin. He is a great gun lover, he supports our organization and he’s a friend of the NRA.

September 3, 2014: Paul Erickson, NRA member, GOP operative, campaign manager for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential run, attends an open forum in Moscow organized by Right to Bear Arms.

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Butina and Erickson in Moscow

January, 20 2015: Torshin is named deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, responsible for liaison with the Federal Assembly chambers, and also federal and regional state executive bodies. Torshin selects Maria Butina as his special assistant.

April 2015: Torshin and Butina both attend NRA’s annual meeting in Nashville.

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April 10, 2015: Butina, Torshin and Keene meet future  Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker during an event in Tennessee.

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July 11, 2015: Maria Butina attends Trump Freedom Fest rally in Las Vegas and poses a question to the Republican candidate: “I’m from Russia. My question will be about foreign politics. If you will be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? Do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging both economies? Or [do you] have any other ideas?”

Trump replies: “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we’ll get along with Putin. … I would get along very nicely with Putin, I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”

July 13, 2015: Butina attends the official launch of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s run for governor.

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December 2015:  An NRA delegation travels to Moscow to meet with Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s defense industry who is a subject of US sanctions. The delegation consists of David Keene, Paul Erickson, and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin sheriff David A. Clarke. Right to Bear Arms pays $6,000 for Clarke’s meals, hotel, transportation, and entertainment. (Daily Beast story)

Feb. 7, 2016: Torshin attends National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

February 10, 2016: Paul Erickson forms a limited liability corporation with Maria Butina called Bridges, LLC., based in South Dakota. What this company does is a mystery.

May 2016: According to The New York Times, Torshin tries to meet with Trump during the NRA comeeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Torshin Rick Clay, an advocate for conservative Christian causes, to Rick Dearborn, a Trump campaign aide.

May 2016: Paul Erickson, Marina Butina’s friend and business partner, writes an email to a Trump campaign aide, The New York Times reports.

Subject: “Kremlin Connection.”

Russia, Erickson writes, was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would use the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky, to make “first contact.”

“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Erickson writes to Trump aide Rick Dearborn. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let’s talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions’s advice on how to proceed.” Sessions says he does not recall the outreach.

“The Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House,” Erickson writes. “Ever since Hillary compared Putin to Hitler, all senior Russian leaders consider her beyond redemption.”

By “happenstance” and the reach of the NRA, Erickson says he had been put in position to “slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin” in recent years.

“Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration.”

May 20, 2016: Torshin attends NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. He shares a table with Donald Trump, Jr. at a private dinner. According to The New York Times, Torshin had tried and failed to meet with candidate Trump in Louisville to pitch a “backdoor meeting” with Putin. In the picture below, David Keene is in the background and Torshin is wearing a button that reads “I’m the NRA and I Voted.”

May 2016: Taganskaya mafia boss Alexander Romanov is sentenced to almost four years in a Spanish prison, after pleading guilty to illegal transactions totaling 1.65 million euros ($1.83 million) and $50,000.

August 8, 2016: Bloomberg reveals Torshin’s connections to organized crime.

Nov. 12, 2016: Butina celebrates her birthday with a costume party in Washington, DC. attended by several Trump’ campaign consultants.

January 15, 2017: Torshin tweets that he brought a gift for NRA President Allan D. Cors.  President Cors loves tanks.

 

January 20, 2017: Maria Butina and Paul Erickson attended the invitation-only Freedom Ball to celebrate Donald Trump’s swearing in as President of the United States.

Feb. 2, 2017: Torshin and Butina are excited to meet newly-elected President Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast. Their hopes are dashed at the last minute when a White House national security aide notices Torshin’s name and flags him as a figure who had “baggage,” a reference to his suspected ties to organized crime, according to Yahoo News.

Butina told Yahoo:

“Late the night before, we were told that all meet and greets were off,” Butina wrote in an email. “There were no specific questions or statements that Mr. Torshin had in mind during what we assumed to be a five-second handshake. We all hope for better relations between our two countries. I’m sure there will be other opportunities to express this hope.”

Fin.

Unwitting Agents, Useful Idiots, Donald Trump and other dupes

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In his excellent testimony March 30 before the Senate intelligence committee, Thomas Rid, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, explains how Russia has perfected the art of exploiting unwitting agents.

Unwitting agents are fools who are doing the bidding of another person or country without realizing it. Another term for them is “useful idiot,” a phrase supposedly used by Lenin to describe liberals and Social Democrats who helped advance the Communist cause outside the Soviet Union.

Rid said three different types of unwitting agents stand out from the chaos of the 2016 election:

Unwitting agent #1: Wikileaks.

The US intelligence community concluded with a high degree of confidence that Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU, was the source for the reams of stolen Clinton campaign emails published by Wikileaks.

Wikileaks has repeatedly denied that Russia was the source for the leaked DNC emails, which shows why an unwitting agent is so useful.

Wikileaks clings to the moral high ground because it believes it acted in the name of justice or goodness, not in the name of a Russian intelligence agency.

So when Wikileaks insists that the emails were leaked to them by an insider, it does so with considerable conviction that has taken others such as the influential Fox commentator Sean Hannity.

Unwitting Agent #2: Twitter

Twitter was hugely influential among opinion leaders in the 2016 election, foremost among them the Twitterer-in-chief, Donald Trump. But it’s very hard to tell what on Twitter is real and what is fake.

A recent study by computer scientists at Indiana University and USC tried to tackle the question of how many Twitter accounts are bots. These are automated and semi-automated software applications that mimic human behavior and can be used to drive grassroots political support, spread rumors, or bully opponents.

The researchers conclude that as many as 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are bots, and given the increasing sophistication of bots, this may be a conservative estimate. Twitter claims it has 313 million “active” monthly users. If the study is correct, 47 million Twitter users are not human.

Twitter for its part could easily inform the public how many of its accounts are bots, whether influential accounts during the 2016 election were human or not, or how many Twitter trends began overseas.

But it is not in the company’s interest to do so. The inflated numbers make it appear that Twitter has active users than its published numbers claim it has. Pulling back the curtain on bots would depress Twitter’s value as a publicly-traded company.

Unwitting Agent #3: Journalists

The Soviet Union excelled at planting stories. Operation INFEKTION planted the devastatingly rumor that AIDS had been created by US scientists seeking new and potent biological weapons that still echoes around the globe.

But planting these stories was hard work, as this CIA history shows. It took time to craft believable forgeries and build relationships with newspapers. A CIA study estimated that the Soviets spent $3 billion annually influencing world perceptions through its “active measures” campaigns.

That was then. Now, Rid says, it’s much easier:

Cold War disinformation was artisanal; today it is outsourced at least in part — outsourced to the victim itself. American journalists would dig deep into large dumps, sifting gems, mining news, boosting ops.

The hours and reams of newsprint that reporters devoted to hacked emails — with little thought to the who, what or why of their appearance — made American journalism an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence.

Unwitting Agent #4: Donald Trump

Trump is not part of Rid’s testimony, but I felt the need to add him. Donald Trump is the biggest unwitting agent of them all.

He has professed his love for Wikileaks and for Twitter, as well as for rumors that originate with Russia. He has allowed himself to used and manipulated by people with questionable motives.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell summed it up this way:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

Fake News as a Weapon: Trump, Russia and the World of Rumors

Have you heard the rumor that Donald Trump is mentally ill? Did you hear that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower? With the help of British intelligence?  Or that a child-sex ring connected to Democrats was being run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant?

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via New England Historical Society

American society is being bombarded by rumors. Fake news websites push stories like the aforementioned “Pizzagate.” Russian has an army of Twitter trolls who blast out all sorts of wild rumors. Even Donald Trump’s own tweets deluge us with confusing and contradictory information.

It seems awful hard to know what’s true and what’s not these days. Where is the antidote for the epidemic of fake news? Many of us may feel like we can’t even trust our own judgment. And maybe, that’s the point.

The post-truth era, as it’s been called, might feel very familiar to American spies operating behind enemy lines in World War II. Back then, U.S. operatives were coming up with creative ways to damage morale and divide the leadership of Nazi Germany. One of their best weapons was the use of carefully crafted, well-timed rumors.

Rumors were a specialty of the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of today’s CIA. One of the most famous of the OSS’ rumor campaigns was “Where Is Hitler?” The OSS would broadcast a fake report that Hitler was supposed to appear at an upcoming rally.  When Hitler inevitably failed to show, the OSS would float rumors that Hitler was ill or suffering from a mental breakdown. These rumors spread so widely that they became the subject of articles in American newspapers, including The New York Times.

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Creating a loss of confidence in leaders was just one was just one the tricks dreamed up by the OSS Morale Operations branch. Others are spelled out in a now declassified field manual, which is a guide on how to use rumors, forgeries, blackmail and bribery to destabilize a country. What the OSS called “subversive rumors” could be used to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources, create division among racial, political and religious lines, to create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports, and to tip the balance when public opinion was in a precarious state, among other things.

Viewed in this light, fake news seems less a nuisance and more like something that would trouble our intelligence community. And indeed, they do appear concerned. The U.S. intelligence community recently concluded that Russia mounted an “influence campaign” during the 2016 presidential election that blended covert intelligence operations with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia influence campaign sought to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and denigrate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In essence, Russia has created a modern version of the OSS Morale Operations branch. Social media gives the modern operative powers the likes of which his or her OSS forerunner could only have dreamed. Whereas the OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors, the modern influence campaign can without leaving home harness the power of social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are machines for the rapid transmission of rumors.

While the technology behind rumor campaigns has evolved, the nature of rumor itself hasn’t changed much in the 74 years since the OSS wrote its field manual. The OSS defined a rumor as “an unauthenticated, unofficial story or report, represented and transmitted as fact.” This distinguishes it from propaganda, which stamps its authorship on its message. Anybody can start a rumor. Crafting a good one is an art form.

via New England Historical Society

The old OSS characteristics of what makes a good rumor still hold true: A good rumor still must be simple, consisting of a single idea. It must be plausible. It is tied to some known facts, yet is impossible to completely verify. It frequently appears as an “inside” story.  The best rumors to spread are existing ones. “In many cases, the most effective rumor policy will be to spread further rumors that have arisen spontaneously in enemy territory,” the field manual advises.

A good rumor must also be vivid. Rumors with “strong emotional content” are extremely effective. (Case in point: the unforgettable, unverifiable story of Trump cavorting in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes.) A suggestive rumor was well adapted to spreading fear and doubt, by doling out limited but tantalizing bits of information that allow the audience to formulate conclusions (“FBI Director James Comey made an unexpected trip to the White House.”)

Robert Knapp, who developed the section of the OSS’ Field Manual on rumors and wrote academic papers on the subject, likened a rumor to a torpedo. “Once launched, it travels of its own power,” he wrote. Knapp had an insight into what gave rumors their power: They expressed and gratified the emotional needs of the community, just as daydreams and fantasies expressed the needs of the individual. Rumors gave sense and direction to fears, resentments or hopes. ”No rumor will travel far unless there is already a disposition among those who hear it to lend it credence,” he wrote in a 1944 paper.

Among the many coincidences involving Russia and Donald Trump, one that goes unnoticed is their mutual grasp of the power of rumor. Trump used rumors to stunning effect in his campaign, beginning with the suggestion that President Obama was born in Kenya. This rumor tapped into deeply-held beliefs about President Obama that many people were not comfortable expressing publicly. Outright racism is unacceptable to most Americans. However, many found the disguised racism of a rumor about the African-American president’s birthplace more palatable. There is frequently a racist undertone to many of Trump’s rumors: Muslims celebrating Sept. 11 in New Jersey, illegal immigrants voting, terrorist incidents that didn’t happen, and so on.

Rumors may also help explain Trump’s appeal. In a recent interview, Time magazine’s Michael Scherer pressed Trump on his use of rumors. “What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right,” the president told him. “I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works.” In other words, Trump’s rumors feel true to him, even if they can’t be verified. Trump’s words also feel true to his supporters, almost like an article of faith. He is making a connection on a deep emotional level that, once established, is difficult to break.

However, Trump’s predilection for rumors over facts is dangerous, for it leaves him wide open to manipulation. Unwittingly or not, Trump has spread rumors that originated in Russia. The story spread by the White House that President Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump and his associates started as a story on RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet.  On the campaign trail, Trump quoted a report that appeared to originate on Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed media outlet.  At a March 30 Senate intelligence committee hearing, Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and an expert on Russian disinformation, explained  in striking terms the problem with having a rumor-monger for a president:

Rumors do work on the campaign trail, but they are toxic to the presidency. Credibility is one of the president’s strongest assets, never more so than in moments of crisis. Trump seems not to understand that, as president, he is the authority, and the White House is the place where rumors end, not where they begin. If President Trump truly wants to make America great again, he must stop spreading rumors.

If Trump won’t quash rumors, others must do it for him. Many news organizations are now regularly refuting the president’s rumors. This effort harkens back to World War II, when rumors were an even bigger problem then they are now. Robert Knapp, the OSS’ rumor expert, founded a “rumor clinic” in Boston that collected rumors and sought to put and end to them. A column first published in the Boston Herald in 1943 quoted the rumor in italics followed by the word FACT. Rumor clinics opened in many cities, but quickly faded following a clash with the Roosevelt administration’s Office of War Information. Government bureaucrats wanted to smother rumors with facts, rather than call attention to them by singling them out for disproof. (For more on this click here.)

Knapp proposed that rumors could serve as an “index of morale.” They may be a better gauge of the true state of public opinion than any poll or survey. Rumors allow expression of the deeply held beliefs and fears that won’t be repeated to a stranger. A look at the rumors prevalent in American society show we are a deeply divided along racial, political, and religious lines. Many Americans have little or no confidence in our elected leaders. We distrust our own news sources.

In sum, American morale has been deeply wounded. We are much weaker than we think we are.

Obama and GCHQ tale is Russian disinformation

Note: This piece has been updated.

It anyone surprised that the allegation that President Obama used Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency to eavesdrop on Donald Trump was first broadcast on RT, the Kremlin’s international propaganda outlet?

This allegation has gone in a few days from being a crackpot theory on social media to an international dispute. Britain was furious when White House spokesman Sean Spicer cited the GHCQ story as part of his defense of Trump’s claim that he was “wire tapped” by President Obama. The GHCQ, Britain’s version of the National Security Agency, issued a rare denial.

That this GHCQ allegation was first given life by RT shows the influence of the Kremlin-backed network, which has found a sympathetic ear in the White House. According to the U.S. intelligence community that Trump so openly distrusts, RT has the goal of undermining its viewers’ trust in US democratic procedures.

On March 5, the day after Trump tweeted that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” RT broadcast an interview with Larry C. Johnson, once an analyst with the CIA.

In the clip, linked above, Johnson said “very good friends” had told him that information  gathered by GHCQ on Donald Trump was illegally disseminated within the US government in an effort to destroy his candidacy.  Obama, Johnson said, “gave the green light” to distribute the information from GHCQ in an improper way.

On his blog, Johnson goes into more detail about his sourcing. (Update: Johnson’s blog was taken off line shortly after this piece was published).

No one involved with the Trump campaign reached out to me and asked me to get involved with this. I spoke three months ago with a source that, if the source’s name was revealed, would be known and recognized as a reliable source of information. Based on that contact I reached out to friends in the intel community and asked them about the possibility that a back channel was used to get the Brits to collect on Trump associates. My sources said, “absolutely.” I later confirmed this via a cut out with a person who is a Senior Intelligence Service executive in the CIA.

Assuming that’s true, why would Johnson, a former CIA analyst, would go on a Russian propaganda network that presents anti-American views?  CNN’s Brian Stelter put that question to Johnson on his show, Reliable Sources.

STELTER: Why is it appropriate for any American to appear on a Kremlin propaganda network?

JOHNSON: Well, it’s not a Kremlin propaganda network. … What I found the difference with Russia Today is they don’t do pre-interviews. I’ve done pre-interviews with your people. I’ve done pre-interviews in the past when I appeared on other networks.

Just two days ago, I did a pre-interview with BBC. They were going to have me on air. But once they heard what I had to say, they came back and said, oh, no, we don’t need to use you now. So, I’m —

Johnson’s point is that RT doesn’t censor its guests. Stelter’s point, which he presses later in the interview, is that anyone can go on RT and say whatever they want without bothering about details like sourcing and verification.

Johnson theories about GHCQ are likely to prove false: officials in Britain and Washington have called it ridiculous.  For RT’s purposes it doesn’t matter whether Johnson is telling the truth, only that his information serves its broader goals.

RT’s GHCQ story is the textbook definition of disinformation:

false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

So back on March 5, while former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was knocking down Trump’s claims on Meet the Press, RT was quickly building a counter-narrative that besmirched the United States with Johnson’s help.

An outfit like Meet the Press needs a big audience to deliver ad dollars; since it strives to be objective, it has to present credible sources. That means it has guests like Clapper who as insiders know whether Obama really “wire tapped” Trump or not.  If Meet the Press had people like Larry Johnson or RT’s Illuminati correspondent sitting around talking about what their friends supposedly told them, the audience would find something better to do and the ad dollars would dry up pretty quickly.

RT, on the other hand, is funded by the Russian government. It doesn’t need a big audience. So it can quickly disseminate poorly sourced, unverified information that drives home the message that Russia is not the bad guy and America isn’t so great, anyway.

Johnson sought to minimize his role in the GHCQ affair by telling Stelter that nobody watched RT.

STELTER: You’re saying Russia today is not that influential?

JOHNSON: I’m telling you that’s the truth. I mean, who watches it?  The fact that I spoke about it two weeks ago and it didn’t even surface — it wasn’t even a blip anywhere in the U.S. news media. And so, I guarantee, if people like yourself who were very informed, very up to speed on things, don’t pick up on something like that, you expect a coal miner in Pennsylvania, an auto worker in Michigan, that they’re going to be on top of Russia Today?

But information warfare, as Johnson surely knows, doesn’t need a big audience to work.

It has just to plant a false idea that contradicts the conventional narrative. Johnson made a big fuss about how it took so long for his story to spread, but that’s how rumors work. And that’s what makes them so effective. They are spread person-to-person by social media and word-of-mouth  until they reach a critical mass. If you wanted to drive a wedge between allies, there’s no way to do it better. It’s cheap, bloodless, and stunningly effective.

Johnson’s unsupported allegation was rebroadcast on right-wing Internet on blogs and websites until March 14 when it jumped into mainstream media. Fox contributor Andrew Napolitano repeated the allegation on the talk show “Outnumbered” and then repeated it again on Fox News. Johnson told The New York Times he was one of Napolitano’s sources.

On Friday, Trump refused to back down from the allegation, telling reporters, “All we did was quote a very talented legal mind.”

Did the president realize he was also quoting Johnson via Russian media?

Johnson, who is almost always referred to as a former CIA analyst, worked for the spy agency in the 1980s. After four years in the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, Johnson left government service in 1993.

Since then, he gotten embroiled in controversy such as his claim that Republican operatives possessed a tape of Michelle Obama railing against “whitey.” (Johnson claims he was manipulated by Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal.) Or that Bush White House advisor Karl Rove had been indicted.

Johnson has been a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of intelligence professionals formed in 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence that was used as a grounds for the invasion of Iraq.

VIPS and Johnson have been critical of the US intelligence community’s findings that Russia hacked the U.S. election. On Dec. 15, Johnson co-signed a VIPS letter that stated the hacking allegations “have no basis in fact” and suggested an “inside leak,” not hacking, was behind the release of DNC emails. Not surprisingly, RT publicized the letter.

It’s worth noting here that Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and founding member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity attended the now infamous 2015 RT 10th anniversary dinner in Moscow, where he sat at the same head table with President Vladimir Putin and former Gen. Michael Flynn. (link) It seems McGovern makes an annual pilgrimage to Moscow where we find him pontificating in RT’s studios.

Napolitano for his part has also peddled Kremlin disinformation before. On May 6, 2016, he reported that “there’s a debate going on in the Kremlin between the Foreign Ministry and the Intelligence Services about whether or not they should release the twenty thousand of Mrs. Clinton’s emails that they have hacked into and received and stored.” (archived link)

Now, mind you, this was days before hacked emails from the Clinton campaign began appearing on the Internet.

According to Malcolm Nance’s informative book, The Plot to Hack America, Napolitano’s source this go-around appeared to be a conspiracy website called Whatdoesitmean.com.

It appears that the source of the story emanated from a mythical figure, a journalist named Sorcha Faal. Sorcha Faal is widely believed to be a pseudonym for David Booth. Booth hosts a wild-eyed conspiracy theory website called Whatdoesitmean.com. Usually websites like this and the more popular and crazier Infowars.com are easily dismissed as tinfoil hat crowds who see government conspiracy everywhere. Yet in this case “Sorcha Faal” appears to be so well wired into the Kremlin that “her” work at this website was often copied by mainstream Russian information propaganda like Russia Insider’s Svobodnaya Pressa (“ Free Press”). This site pushes wild conspiracy theories such as the proposition that the US trains and directs ISIS, and writes op-eds about the dangers of European multiculturalism. It is a core component of the Russian propaganda system, and such news organs as Ren TV (a large, private, pro-Putin Russian television channel) and Sputnik News (a multinational propaganda organ of the Russian government)

We might as well learn the Russian word for this, folks.

Dezinformatsiya.