Roger Sollenberger

One phone call with Donald Trump destroyed this Republican lawyer's career

Last month, veteran political attorney Cleta Mitchell was forced to resign as a partner at the prominent Washington-based firm Foley & Lardner after it became clear she had secretly aided former President Trump's efforts to overturn the election results, in violation of the firm's policy.

It's been a rough few months for Mitchell: The firebrand conservative activist and political lawyer was listed as an officer on a nonprofit run by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, which is now part of a federal fraud investigation. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, a friend and client of Mitchell's, has attracted legal scrutiny for allegedly misusing political contributions. Shortly after Mitchell's departure from Foley & Lardner, the firm appears to have taken steps to resolve newly-discovered issues with its own super PAC.

Cleta Mitchell was born Cleta Deatherage in 1950, in Oklahoma, where she served in the state legislature from 1976 to 1984 — as a Democrat focused on women's rights, believe it or not. In the 1990s, she changed her party affiliation to independent after the federal government investigated and convicted her husband, Dale Mitchell, of bank fraud, fining him $1.3 million in restitution and sentencing to five years' probation. Though the judge in the case suggested that Dale had lucked out by avoiding prison time, the episode convinced Cleta Mitchell that "overreaching government regulation is one of the great scandals of our times," and she soon became a registered Republican.

Since then, Mitchell has been one of the most influential, if largely invisible, figures in conservative politics, serving as legal counsel for both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as the National Rifle Association. Individual clients have included numerous Republican elected officials and candidates, including Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Marco Rubio of Florida, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, whose GOP networking firm hired Mark Meadows a week after he left the Trump White House. Mitchell has also served on the boards of a number of powerful conservative organizations, including the NRA, the Bradley Foundation and the American Conservative Union Foundation, which runs the Conservative Political Action Conference and endured an embezzlement scandal while she was there.

Mitchell has spoken out fiercely against marriage equality, led attacks on the IRS amid allegations that Tea Party-affiliated nonprofits were treated unfairly during the Obama administration and, more recently, criticized coronavirus restrictions for allegedly infringing on religious groups' rights.

In 2011, Mitchell represented Donald Trump against allegations that his exploratory campaign had violated federal election laws by accepting unlawful in-kind contributions from his own business. She defended Trump's knowledge of campaign finance laws in a 2018 Wall Street Journal article about the Stormy Daniels scandal, a clip that Foley & Lardner deleted from its page shortly after her departure.

When news broke of Bannon's arrest on fraud charges last August, Salon reached out to Mitchell for comment on her involvement with his nonprofit Citizens of the American Republic (COAR), which federal prosecutors allege Bannon and associates used as a vehicle to create phony invoices related to their larger scheme. Mitchell declined to speak about the matter, citing attorney-client privilege, but when Salon pointed out that she had not only represented the group but also served as an officer — the organization's most recent IRS filing lists her as secretary — she hung up. Mitchell appears to have blocked this reporter's phone number, and when Salon attempted to reach her through her husband for this story, her husband claimed he was "not authorized to share her contact information."

Bannon was later pardoned by Trump, and is not clear whether COAR is still part of the ongoing federal investigation into the alleged conspiracy. Prosecutors in New York are now considering bringing Bannon up on state charges, which would likely not be shielded by the presidential pardon.

Not long before Bannon's arrest, Trump appointed one of Mitchell's friends to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan body whose investigatory ambit includes voting rights. Mitchell, a longtime proponent of baseless election fraud claims — in 2010 she said that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "intends to steal this election if he can't win it outright" — appeared with Trump at an Oval Office event that same month, where Trump introduced her as a "great attorney."

During the 2020 election, Mitchell publicly defended Trump's false claims that the election was stolen from him. She told Reuters that the president's allies were prepared to fight what she characterized as a "very well-planned-out assault" by liberals to change rules about ballot counting after Election Day, measures that Democrats say were intended to ensure that all proper votes were counted. After the election, Mitchell had a role in a Fox News clip that went viral, when anchor Sandra Smith was caught expressing disbelief at the attorney's claims while her mic was still on.

"Just because CNN says — or even Fox News says — that somebody's president doesn't make him president," Mitchell said, prompting Smith to roll her eyes and say, "What? Trace, we've called it," referring to Fox's projection that Joe Biden had won the election.

Despite the media appearances, Mitchell's post-election work with Trump went largely unremarked until the Washington Post published a recording of a phone call in which the then-president asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes that would overturn his state's result. Mitchell's presence on that call — in an "informal" capacity, according to Meadows — was noteworth because at the time Trump was having trouble finding reputable attorneys to take up his desperate attempts to reverse his defeat, instead relying on conspiracy theorists such as Sidney Powell and former LifeLock spokesperson Rudy Giuliani.

At one point in that call, Trump interrupted Mitchell when she spoke up about allegedly problematic ballots cast for Biden in Atlanta.

"I know about it, but —" Mitchell said, before Trump jumped in.

"OK, Cleta, I'm not asking you. Cleta, honestly. I'm asking Brad," Trump said, in reference to Raffensperger.

It's unclear exactly when Mitchell began working with Trump's team, but Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported that she had been advising him for "weeks," and had been brought aboard by Meadows, her longtime friend. At the time, Meadows was the subject of a federal election complaint filed by the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, based on Salon's exclusive reporting that the former North Carolina congressman appeared to have habitually misused campaign donations for personal expenses. A recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, which includes a large, anomalous payment from Meadows' PAC to Mitchell's former firm, Foley & Lardner, suggests that the complaint triggered a federal investigation.

After news of the Raffensperger phone call surfaced, Foley & Lardner released a statement saying the firm's policy barred it from representing anyone trying to contest the 2020 election results, and that it was "concerned" by Mitchell's role in the call and was "working to understand her involvement more thoroughly." She resigned the next day, blaming a "massive pressure campaign" brought against her by "leftist groups via social media."

After her departure, however, the firm appears to have reviewed her work with its employee PAC, and decided to take control back from employees hired by Mitchell. Last year, the PAC received two letters from the FEC notifying it that the group's treasurer, Chris Marston, had failed to sign monthly reports. Mitchell had hired Marston, a Republican operative, to replace the PAC's former treasurer and firm partner Theodore Bernstein. Foley & Lardner reversed that decision after Mitchell resigned, reinstalling Bernstein. It is unclear why Marston did not sign the reports, and unclear when the firm first became aware of the FEC notices.

Foley & Lardner did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

What caused the Texas disaster? Decades of Republican deregulation and 'laissez-faire run amok'

The massive energy failure that brought Texas to a halt in the middle of a record-setting winter snap this week was not an unavoidable natural disaster. It has roots in decades of deregulation driven by conservative elected officials that prized the state's rogue mythology and short-term gains over long-term catastrophic risk.

When temperatures plummeted across the Lone Star State on Sunday night, demand for heat soared. The Texas power grid, uniquely detached from the Eastern and Western national grids, faltered under the strain, forcing the state's energy regulator, ERCOT, to mandate that cities and towns cut as much usage as possible to head off a total collapse which could have left residents in the dark for months.

Much of the state's generator capacity goes offline for maintenance during low-demand winter months, and the sustained extreme temperatures knocked out critical functioning infrastructure that hadn't been winterized, creating an insurmountable deficit with no backup to speak of, either internally or across state lines. Without that headroom, the rolling blackouts enacted as a temporary measure soon stopped rolling, depriving millions of people of power during one of the bitterest cold streaks Texas has ever seen. Icicles grew on hammocks and ceiling fans. Water mains burst. Homes and apartments were flooded with numbing water. People died for lack warmth.

In a media blitz, Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, tried to pass blame to perceived liberal enemies with baseless claims about the longtime oil- and gas-producing state's dependence on renewables like solar and wind. Those source indeed comprise an increasingly large share of the state's energy blend — a change largely driven by the market conservatives claim to love — but had little to do with the collapse, which primarily concerned the natural gas sector. Those lies also obscured a broader truth, which is that the renewables that failed did so for the same reasons that fossil fuels failed: The wishful thinking that Texas winters will always be mild, and therefore cheap.

Former Texas Democratic state senator Kent Caperton said in an interview that it's difficult to capture the full story behind the current crisis, because it has been so long in the making, and the consequences are decades removed from some of their most immediate causes.

In 1983, Caperton introduced a bill that created the Office of Public Utility Counsel (OPUC), the first state agency dedicated to representing the interests of residential and small commercial energy consumers before the courts and state and federal regulators. OPUC was a step in the right direction, Caperton said, but its ultimate aims were thwarted in 1999 when the state opened its utility markets to retail competition, which created complexities for pricing and regulation.

"It was a big deal for Texas to open up to regulation, but that didn't last. In hindsight it looks like my bill was successful, because we didn't have any major failures in that time," Caperton said. "The 1999 bill essentially allowed private providers to take over and set their own rates, and after that it seems like ERCOT has been a toothless institution. The providers have had all the control."

The trade-off, Caperton said, was wider profit margins and short-term savings — at the price of unknown long-term risks. "You might not have an event like this every 10 years, or even every 50, and it could come in the summer or the winter," he said. "But you've at least got to prepare for it, because it will happen."

In the old system, local plants generated power for local use. But in the open market, retailers purchased electricity at wholesale from generators anywhere in the state, putting a new strain on the state's power grid. Deregulation also led to a less uniform and predictable consumer base, Caperton said, which is more difficult to serve, and in recent years the state's production capacity has not kept up with demand. Texas can largely fend off blackouts in the summer because producers are at the ready to take advantage of the high rates that accompany scorching seasonal heat, but that base demand disappears in the winter, and many operators take their generators offline.

Such a system is specifically vulnerable to the kind of deep freeze that struck the state this week. Add to that the fact that Texas has uniquely refused to join the larger national power grid, which allows the state to duck federal winterization requirements while isolating it from outside support, and the stage was set for disaster.

Caperton noted that the national health care debate offered a good analogy. "You have a common need, which requires certain agreements and tradeoffs, and the state and various private interests do not want to be part of that," he said.

But former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, also a Democrat, told Salon that the state's leadership doesn't get to hide behind the state's famous independent streak, because Texas picks and chooses what it accepts from the federal government.

"I think it's a mistake that Texas isn't connected to the national grid. We're going it alone and don't have the necessary support," Barnes said. "But we're happy to take federal regulation for other things, like our drugs and our water. Just not this."

Texas also had advanced warning for this specific scenario. In 2011, a deep freeze knocked out power to millions of Texans and triggered a review of the state's energy systems. Federal regulators recommended that private utilities take steps to insulate and winterize their production and transmission facilities. But because Texas operated on its own grid, it was free to ignore the guidance — which it did.

"It's an ideological failure," Caperton said. "Laissez-faire run amok."

Deregulation did kick-start the state's wind energy industry by opening the market to new competitors, but consumer prices did not drop as planned because those competitors found it difficult to offer distinct products. On that front, the blackout offers a possible opportunity: Weatherizing windmills to sustain a long freeze, as is routinely done in colder climes around the country and the world. In Texas, natural gas picks up if wind power drops off, but the winter demand for natural gas heat had already put strain on that resource, and when those production facilities themselves froze and failed, there was nowhere to turn.

Deregulation also left state leaders flying blind through the crisis. Austin Mayor Steve Adler told Salon that neither he nor his city's community-owned utility, Austin Energy, had been able to access real-time information or state-level insight into the situation, which left as many as 200,000 of his constituents without power, a number that he said has since fallen to 50,000.

"Our power crews have been working incredibly hard this week. When the state says you have to dump power quickly, it's disruptive, and left us in a position where we weren't able to do rolling outages, so some people have gone without power here for 60-plus hours," Adler said.

"Everybody in the community is angry and frustrated, and I am too, because I can get just about as much information from the state as you can. Every one of these utilities is independently owned and operated, and the state doesn't appear to require public reporting. I would have hoped that ERCOT would have been able to give us a better read. It's frustrating not to know the details and make assessments about when the power will be back on, so we can plan, and help our community plan."

Adler also pointed to the future: "We don't have a system hardened to withstand a long period of time in these extreme temperatures, and it's happening every 10 years now. Changes in climate will happen more frequently, and with so much deregulation I'm not sure that the incentives are built in to invest what it takes to harden our energy system and make that as inexpensive as possible. The state should set new standards, at a minimum."

The fight against climate change in Texas has been hampered by Republicans who appear ever more eager to fight against climate change legislation, even in the face of shifting public opinion and overwhelming scientific consensus. Caperton, a moderate Democrat even by Texas standards, said that he became a pariah for introducing legislation in the 1980s to commission a study on wind energy. "It was just a study, but I was basically seen as a commie for doing that," he said.

"There are some disasters that you just can't prepare for, but this wasn't one of them," said Barnes, the former lieutenant governor. "This was a failure of leadership. There are things we could have done to prevent this, but we didn't."

Sean Hannity's private plane and the Wake Forest tennis team: A morality fable

During a broadcast about two weeks ago, Fox News personality Sean Hannity seized on a favorite trope, saying that former Secretary of State John Kerry, recently appointed to a post as climate envoy by President Biden, "frequently enjoys the comfort, the convenience of his very own private jet" while advocating for policies to combat climate change. Publicly available records, however, raise abundant questions about Hannity's own use of his private jet in support of his son's tennis career at Wake Forest University, and his relationship with the team's star coach, Tony Bresky.

According to NCAA and sports law experts, the timeline of those events exhibits an unusual and at times suspicious level of engagement between Hannity and Bresky, including but not limited to the school's frequent use of Hannity's plane. Facts of that relationship also appear to have triggered a previously unreported federal grand jury investigation — which has been closed without indictments, to be clear — into events surrounding the recruitment of Hannity's son, specifically the striking fact that Bresky purchased a luxury home next door to one bought by Hannity, according to documents obtained by Salon and a person familiar with the case.

Hannity, through his lawyer, Charles Harder, and Bresky, through Wake Forest, both denied ever being aware of any such federal investigation.

More broadly, the story exposes uncomfortable truths about the quiet leverage of wealth, power and race in collegiate athletics, particularly in low-revenue sports such as tennis that don't have as many eyes on them, or marquee athletes. As the "Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery scandal demonstrated, those programs have been particularly ripe for exploitation, some of which, in those cases, veered into criminality. The Hannity example does not appear to rise to that level — no specific crimes have been alleged, and the grand jury investigation has been closed — it shines a light into one of the NCAA's many legal gray zones, where law and ethics may not always go hand in glove.

The facts of the case

Patrick Hannity, Sean Hannity's son, is currently a redshirt senior on the tennis team at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He signed with the school in November 2016, and officially enrolled and joined the team in January 2017.

In January 2016, about nine months before Patrick officially applied to Wake Forest, his father, through a shell company, became the registered owner of a 2004 Gulfstream G200 jet, with the tail number N329PK. By Feb. 10, according to photograph metadata, Hannity had detailed the plane in black and gold — the colors of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. In more recent photos, the jet sports the Wake Forest logo on its tail.

Then, on June 23, 2016, before Patrick Hannity applied to Wake Forest and five months before he signed, his father's shell company SPMK XXII NC (created about two weeks earlier) purchased a house for $813,000 on Turnberry Forest Court in Winston-Salem. Three months later, in September, the Wake Forest men's tennis head coach, Tony Bresky, contracted to buy the house next door for $820,000, according to public property records. Bresky and his wife closed their deal about a month after Patrick Hannity signed with Wake Forest.

That's odd right off the bat," Ricky Volante, a sports and entertainment lawyer, told Salon. "It's suspicious, but it's hard to nail down what it means. It's far outside the norm for a parent to be purchasing property in the area, with the coach moving in next door before his son sent in his application."

According to Wake Forest, Patrick applied to Wake Forest at some point in the fall of 2016, and was accepted in October. In a tennis-themed Fox Business appearance on Aug. 29 of that year, in which Sean Hannity competed in a serving contest with a few of his on-air colleagues, he said that his son was "going to Wake Forest. He's so happy."

One of Patrick Hannity's coaches at Wake Forest moved into Hannity's new home in Winston-Salem almost immediately, and lived there with Patrick for some time. At some point in 2016, Cory Parr, who had earlier coached Patrick as a junior player on Long Island (where the Hannity family primarily resides), began listing his residence at the Turnberry Forest Court address, according to North Carolina voter and business records. Weeks after Patrick enrolled, the university announced that Parr, himself a Wake tennis graduate and former all-American, would come aboard as a volunteer assistant coach.

In legal terms, it is difficult to assess the interactions between Wake Forest, Bresky and the Hannitys. First, the rules governing NCAA recruitment are known for elasticity, and key points along the timeline of Patrick's journey to a redshirt, midyear addition to the tennis team are unclear. Both Wake Forest and the Hannity family, through attorney Harder, insist that nothing untoward occurred. But NCAA regulations experts have told Salon that this particular chain of events appears unusual, and that the school may have violated the rules governing early contact with a recruit. (Those rules, to be fair, are often ignored.) Compliance experts both inside and outside college athletic programs describe the timeline as "weird" and "suspicious," and say that even setting aside questions of legality, the ethics are not flattering.

"NCAA rules are not airtight. There are back doors," a legal expert in NCAA regulations told Salon, on the condition of anonymity. "It's sometimes difficult to see the differences between unlawful transactions and a wealthy helicopter parent doing all they can for their kid."

The lawyer added: "What I don't get is why. Why go to these lengths if the kid is qualified? Why this level of personal involvement? There may be an explanation, but it's just bizarre."

Volante noted that in addition to showing favoritism to schools and sports based on revenue, NCAA enforcement decisions sometimes display racial bias.

"If these benefits were flowing to Black athletes, or to a predominantly Black sport, the NCAA would be there within a flash," Volante said. "A predominantly white sport, a low-profile sport like tennis, often won't get the same scrutiny."

One NCAA compliance official at an Atlantic Coast Conference school — that is, a school in Wake Forest's conference — told Salon it was "not possible" that a random player with Patrick Hannity's relatively modest statistics could land a spot on a top-tier team without the backing of family money or influence. Many schools will happily pay tens of thousands of dollars to keep an athlete on the bench for four years "if it's worth that million-dollar donation" coming at some point down the road, the official said.

Asked whether he knew of other parents and coaches who had engaged in living arrangements similar to those of the Hannitys, Parr and Bresky, the official said: "No, I've never heard of that."

Wake Forest requires students to live in campus housing for three years, unless they live with a parent or guardian in the area. Harder, the family attorney, would not say whether Patrick Hannity, now a senior, has met that requirement, and would not say whether Patrick has lived in the Winston-Salem house with a parent, or whether Cory Parr was acting as his guardian.

Parr still lives at that address today, according to North Carolina voter records, and used it to register a company called Charity Raffles LLC in November 2016, a few weeks before Patrick signed with Wake. That company is the parent of another Parr entity called Give2Gain, which holds raffles and auctions for sports-related experiences on behalf of charities.

A university spokesperson told Salon in an email that the NCAA had not blocked the arrangement, adding that the Hannitys had been compensating the "volunteer" coach.

"Parr's relationship with the Hannitys was known to Wake Forest and disclosed to the NCAA and the NCAA did not preclude Parr from being a volunteer coach while receiving compensation from the Hannitys," the spokesperson said, adding that Wake Forest. "has no involvement with Parr's housing arrangement." Asked whether the NCAA had offered an opinion on whether their relationship was appropriate, the spokesperson repeated that the governing body had not prevented Parr from coaching.

Parr came out of retirement to play a doubles match with Patrick in June 2017. They lost in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. He now coaches at a boarding school in the Winston-Salem area, where he started last October.

The inquiry

The unconventional narrative outlined above at some point drew the attention of a federal prosecutor.

Bresky and Hannity, through their representatives, both said that they were not aware of any such investigation. Salon has reviewed documents and spoken with a person familiar with the case, making clear that one did indeed arise. That investigation, according to those sources, originated in the federal prosecutor's office in the Eastern District of New York — that is, on Long Island, where Sean Hannity lives, and where Cory Parr lived before he moved to Winston-Salem — and focused on Tony Bresky's improbable home purchase next door to Hannity's, and along with that the facts and events of Bresky's relationship with the Hannitys around the time of Patrick's recruitment.

The grand jury subpoenaed Bresky's financial records, but it is not clear whether the coach was himself subpoenaed or whether the documents were obtained directly from his bank. The prosecutors closed the investigation sometime around the summer of 2020 without finding evidence of criminality.

A Wake Forest spokesperson said that neither Bresky nor the university was aware of the investigation, and provided a statement about the home purchase. "Coach Bresky's housing choice is independent of Wake Forest," the spokesperson wrote. "However, the Hannitys did not provide any funding towards the purchase of Bresky's home."

Harder said this: "Mr. Hannity (including his family and businesses) had nothing to do with Tony Bresky buying an adjacent property, or any financing related to it. Mr. Hannity did not even know that Mr. Bresky was buying the neighboring property until long after the purchase had been completed. The house happened to come on the market after Mr. Hannity had bought his, and the Breskys happened to learn about it, and buy it (with zero assistance from Mr. Hannity) in or around December 2016."

Those two houses are next door to each other on a cul-de-sac, almost three miles from the Wake Forest tennis center.

The decision to open an inquiry also came in the context of news reporting about Sean Hannity's real estate transaction history, which not publicly known at the time of Bresky's purchase. In 2018, the Fox News star drew public scrutiny after The Guardian revealed that he owned more than 20 shell companies which had cumulatively spent at least $90 million on nearly 900 homes in seven different states over the previous decade, including apartment complexes in low-income neighborhoods. The shell companies all had variations of the name of the entity Hannity used to purchase the Winston-Salem house, a combination of his kids' initials.

Hannity denied any wrongdoing in that case: "The fact is, these are investments that I do not individually select, control, or know the details about; except that obviously I believe in putting my money to work in communities that otherwise struggle to receive such support."

In April 2020, two years after The Guardian's report, Morgan Dill, a current teammate of Patrick Hannity at Wake Forest, Morgan Dill, took an internship at an Atlanta-based company called Henssler Financial, which is the firm Hannity used to register those shell companies.

The game

It's impossible to understand these unusual decisions and the broader impact of their example without discussing Patrick Hannity's tennis career.

According to both Wake Forest and Harder, who deferred to the school on the issue, Tony Bresky offered Patrick a walk-on spot on the tennis team, and Patrick verbally committed to the school in August 2015, around the beginning of his junior year in high school. Five NCAA compliance experts told Salon that appears to be a violation of recruitment rules, which bar tennis coaches from contacting players before Sept. 1 of their junior year — meaning that Bresky apparently offered Patrick a spot before he was even supposed to send him recruiting materials. If Patrick called the coach, however, rather than the other way around, then no rules were broken. Wake Forest would not say who initiated the contact.

According to the NCAA, a male high school tennis player has a 1.6% chance of landing a spot on a Division I team. There are 264 Division I tennis teams, and Wake Forest is very near the top of the top — the tennis equivalent of Duke in basketball or Alabama in football. It is hard to overstate how good their starting recruits have been: During Bresky's tenure, the Deacons have consistently ranked in the top 10 and won the national championship twice, in 2018 and 2019. Patrick Hannity was on both those teams, but did not play in matches that counted towards the championship.

Wake Forest explained to Salon that every team needs solid walk-on players to give their starters the best practice opponents they can get, and that Patrick qualified on his merits.

"The combination of Patrick's academic and athletic credentials qualified him for formal admission at that time," a spokesperson said in an email. "In January 2017, he enrolled at Wake Forest with a 4.2 high school GPA. Patrick was a member of the National Honor Society, he was a four-star tennis recruit, and he was one of the top-10 recruits from the state of New York."

According to the Tennis Recruiting Network (TRN), an authoritative source on youth tennis, that's all correct but may be slightly misleading. The "four-star" designation means that a player was ranked somewhere between the 75th and 200th best prospect at a given grade level. Wake Forest's own signing announcement ranked Patrick 157th nationally in 2016, his junior year. By the next year, after Patrick had left public school for an online program in order to focus on tennis and graduate a semester early, his ranking had fallen to 197. (His younger sister, who plays at the University of Michigan, was a five-star recruit.)

Salon obtained research for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's rankings of the 10 best college men's tennis teams for 2016 and 2017, which shows that those teams' U.S. recruits had a median national ranking of 33. TRN also assigns a Ratings Power Index to tennis prospects: While the median rank for the aforementioned recruits was 50, Patrick Hannity was ranked 292 in 2016, and 329 in 2017.

The jet

It is similarly difficult to get concrete information about when Sean Hannity first flew someone affiliated with Wake Forest or its men's tennis team on his jet. Neither the university nor Harder would say for sure. Harder said by email that to the best of Hannity's recollection, "nobody from the University flew in the plane until his son was enrolled, and on the tennis team. If you have evidence to the contrary, please share it, and I will discuss with my client."

Harder also claimed that Wake had reimbursed Hannity for travel on his private plane, but the school would not answer direct questions on that point. A university spokesperson replied by email: "Patrick committed to Wake Forest prior to Hannity's purchase of the plane. The University's use of aircraft and the University's handling of transportation of its student athletes is a private matter."

Experts say that the NCAA frowns on "inducements," although those are ambiguously defined. "The NCAA and its members do not want athletes to receive extra benefits or inducements for choosing a particular school," Volante, the sports and entertainment lawyer, told Salon. "Despite this, certain schools have nicer facilities, higher profile coaches, etc., that naturally induce athletes to pick one school over another. This is OK since those are things provided directly to the athlete by the school.

"What the NCAA polices against is boosters or third parties offering inducements to athletes that would affect the recruiting process," Volante continued. "If a donor to a school were to make certain perks and amenities available to a school or individual program for the purpose of inducing athletes to pick that school over another, then it could cross the line into a major infraction by the institution. A series of major infractions would reach the threshold of lack of institutional control, the most serious scenario within NCAA compliance and infractions."

In February 2018, following Wake Forest's ITA indoor championship victory, Bresky tweeted a photo of the students, including Patrick, gathered in front of Hannity's plane. "Time to go home, bringing my girls a little present," the coach wrote.

Research obtained by Salon shows that in 2019, seven of the top 10 college tennis teams strictly took commercial flights while traveling to or from out-of-town matches and tournaments. One other school chartered a private plane occasionally. And then there was Wake Forest: Within the space of two years, Hannity's jet appeared more than a dozen times at locations where the Demon Deacons were playing, the research showed. Although Hannity at some point restricted public access to his plane's flight data, Salon has obtained information showing that the plane made seven trips to or from the Winston-Salem area between Feb. 24 and May 21, 2019. Instagram photos posted by one of Patrick's teammates show the team using the plane at other times.

NCAA rules do not expressly prohibit someone from donating the use of a private jet for team travel, but that act would make that person a major donor, or "booster." If the school reimbursed Hannity for the flights, as his attorney claims, however, that would likely not be considered a donation. It is unclear whether Hannity registered as a Wake Forest booster, and because neither Harder nor Wake Forest would say whether the Fox host had charged fair market value for the flights, it is also unclear who benefited, in financial terms, from the team's use of Hannity's jet — Hannity or the school.

Among other restrictions, the NCAA bars boosters from engaging in recruiting conversations on behalf of a given school. It is not clear whether Sean Hannity has ever participated in such conversations, but he seems to have been particularly engaged with Wake Forest men's tennis players, well before his son joined the team.

When Patrick was a high school player, Hannity was close not only with former Deacon Cory Parr, but also Jay Harris, who coached Patrick and ran a training facility that had a recruiting relationship with Wake Forest. According to a profile in the Mansfield News Journal, Harris "helped the younger Hannity through the recruiting process," which as far as Salon has found chiefly if not exclusively involved Wake Forest. (The Journal also reported in 2014 that Hannity once arranged to have a private jet on the tarmac for Harris, so that "Harris could mentor his academy-attendee son at a high-level tournament.")

The elder Hannity is also close with former Wimbledon junior singles champion Noah Rubin, who trained at both John McEnroe Tennis Academy and Jay Harris' Sportime, where Patrick Hannity also trained. After winning the junior title at Wimbledon in 2014, Rubin wanted to turn professional, but instead attended Wake Forest on a scholarship that allowed him to participate part-time in professional events, which he called "a difficult decision." He dominated college tennis for a year and then left school to become a full-time pro, and is still friends with Hannity.

Hannity's professional connections, including at Fox News, also appear to include Wake Forest. He gave Noah Rubin's sister Jessie a college internship at his show before Rubin accepted the Wake scholarship. Rubin's friend Sam Bloom, a three-time Wake Forest men's tennis captain, went to work for Fox News as a producer upon his graduation in June 2016, and later married Hannity's production assistant, Christen Limbaugh — Rush Limbaugh's niece. These interactions all preceded Patrick Hannity's enrollment at Wake Forest.

As mentioned above, last April Patrick's current Wake Forest teammate, Morgan Dill, took an internship at Atlanta-based Henssler Financial, where, as The Guardian first reported in 2018, Hannity registered dozens of "SPMK" shell companies that he has used to purchase at least $90 million worth of real estate.

The money

According to The New York Times college mobility tracker, 22% of all Wake Forest students come from families in the top 1% of the nation in terms of wealth, ranking it fifth on the Times list of 65 elite colleges. Almost 3% of all Deacons come from the top 0.1% wealthiest families in the country.

Serious tennis, of course, is expensive. But some of Patrick Hannity's wealthy teammates also appear to fall far well short of top-tier Division I prowess — more dramatically than he does, in fact. For instance, Charles Parry and his younger brother Jack — who made the Wake Forest team in different years — are the children of John Parry, a yacht broker in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, who also owns Gold Coffee, one of the largest private producers in the United States. Charles was a two-star recruit — in other words, two full levels below Patrick Hannity — while Jack's team profile is limited to three high school varsity letters and a title in a boys' tennis club tournament in Jupiter, Florida. Jack is unrated by Universal Tennis Ratings and ranked 878 in his national recruiting class.

The team's profile page for 2018 walk-on redshirt Tayte Dupree mentions no tennis accomplishments beyond his presence on a Virginia private school state championship team. He was ranked 602 in his recruiting class. His father, David Dupree, founder of the Halifax Group, a Washington, D.C.-area private equity investment firm, is a part owner of the Washington Nationals baseball team and received the 2016 Wake Forest Distinguished Alumni Award. Dupree and his wife are among five couples who gave $1 million each to kick off Wake Forest's matching gift program in 2018.

From 2014 to 2017, the operating budget for the Wake Forest men's tennis team more than doubled, going from $715,000 to more than $1.8 million. It remained at that level in 2018.

That dramatic budget increase tracks with a modest but noticeable increase in roster size. In 2014, the team had 13 players, a number that grew to 15 in 2018 and 17 the next year. The current 2020-2021 team boasts 18 players, significantly larger than the average roster size in men's college tennis, which the USTA reports is 8 to 12 members. Among the top-10 NCAA teams in 2019, only Wake Forest had more than 13 players; top-ranked Ohio State had 10 players on the roster, while second-ranked Texas had nine.

In a 2019 podcast interview, Wake Forest coach Tony Bresky suggested that he now had access to as much funding as he needed to recruit the best young talent. He said that the only thing he needed more of was time to travel and watch more players.

"We've been – we've become – very fortunate at Wake Forest," Bresky said. "We have some very gracious donors, and our administration has been so supportive of our program. ... For us, it's not a financial issue."

Sean Hannity is himself a member of Wake Forest's parent's athletic council, and has discussed his son and the team on the air. On May 23, 2018, after the school won its first NCAA championship, Hannity told Fox News primetime colleague Laura Ingraham, "I know all the kids on the team. They are amazing kids, they have an amazing coach — Tony Bresky — and you know [Patrick] is a freshman and it is probably the greatest experience so far in his life."

After that 2018 national championship, Hannity — who was often described as former President Trump's informal chief of staff — played a key role in scoring the team a White House visit. While NCAA champions frequently receive such honors, the Trump administration was more finicky. The New York Times reported that if not for Hannity, the tennis team would seem "an unlikely choice for a special visit hosted by a president whose administration has planned a crackdown on foreign students who overstay their visas as part of a broader drive to tighten immigration." All six of the leading singles players on that Wake Forest team had been recruited from other countries, including Croatia, Cyprus, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.

School spokesperson Dan Wallace confirmed that impression, telling the Times that Hannity "helped instigate the talks" that led to the visit. "That was the driving force," Wallace said.

At the ceremony, Trump, without prompting, called out his ally's son by name among the Wake Forest players. "Patrick is back there," the president said. Patrick Hannity had not played a match for the team for months.

Varsity Blues

In 2019, the "Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery scandal cast a pall over athletics programs at some of the country's most well-known schools. In response, Hannity published an adapted monologue on the Fox News website entitled, "College admissions scandal shows the new faces of greed, corruption and selfishness," in which the conservative provocateur bashed the wealthy and well-connected parents who had paid money to game college acceptances for their children, often through fraudulent acceptances to low-profile sports teams.

These parents, Hannity argued, were not acting primarily for the benefit of their children, but for themselves.

Dozens of wealthy families, business executives and yes, Hollywood celebrities, were caught rigging the system, paying huge crimes, fixing even SAT and ACT scores, so their little children, their precious kids could gain admission into some of America's top universities.
Why? I guess for status, bragging rights, so they could tell their friends that their privileged children got into the best schools, even though in reality, their children weren't good enough academically or weren't good enough athletically. To do so, they stomped on the futures of other people.

Hannity also leaned on his own experience as a tennis dad.

This is a zero-sum game. There's only so many spots in each school. For children who are probably not as financially well-off, or kids who had to work for everything, kids who put in the time academically or athletically.
We're talking about thousands and thousands of hours studying and training and actually earning their grades or position in their sport. Kids who spent all this time on and off the field to better themselves and enrich the school with their incredible athletic ability. Kids who played sports competitively. Most kids nowadays focus on one sport since about the time they are seven years old. I know because I've lived through it.

Hannity did not mention the indictment of Wake Forest's women's volleyball coach, Bill Ferguson. (The university itself was specifically targeted in a letter from Trump's Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.) Federal prosecutors alleged that Ferguson, who joined Wake the same month Hannity purchased his Winston-Salem mansion, had illegally accepted $100,000 from a foundation to help a wait-listed student gain admission by pretending the student was a premier volleyball recruit.

After a preliminary hearing, Ferguson's attorney suggested that the player had not been placed on the team unfairly: "Two weeks ago, the U.S. attorney told you about a litany of abuses: phony test scores, unqualified students, falsified athletic profiles. Well I can't speak to what happened at any other school, but not at Wake Forest University. No one, no one was admitted to Wake Forest who didn't earn it as a student and as an athlete," he said.

Observers say Mike Pompeo is 'absolutely' running in 2024 -- but financial questions linger

A recent filing with the Federal Election Commission suggests that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing to reboot his old campaign committee and start raising money again. However, the report itself, which involves income from a Kansas bank tied to the former congressman and his wife, also raises questions about what experts say would likely be unknowable irregularities in the campaign's accounting.

On Feb. 9, Pompeo for Kansas — Pompeo's campaign committee from his days as a House Republican — amended its original 2020 year-end report by tacking on $13,665.85 in revenue from the campaign's financial institution, Wichita-based Emprise Bank, and classifying it as a "bank adjustment." The attached memo reads: "Adjusting transaction of $13,665.85 to correct cash on hand due to bank reconciliation."

Multiple experts on FEC compliance and election law told Salon that the timing, coming weeks after the end of the Trump administration, suggests that Pompeo's campaign, which has been dormant since he left Congress in 2017 to become CIA director under Trump (and later secretary of state), could be squaring up with the FEC before opening its wallet.

"The first thing you do when you revive a dormant campaign committee is to review all the bank statements for the period when the committee was dormant and reconcile them with the FEC reports," a top campaign finance attorney told Salon. "The Pompeo campaign did that and found out that the figures didn't match — the campaign committee had more money in the bank than it had reported to the FEC."

Two campaign compliance directors agreed. "If a candidate is resuming fundraising efforts, then making sure the previous filings were reconciled is a proper first step," one said in an email.

While candidates sometimes convert existing committees — Pompeo has changed his committee's name before — another possibility is that the former top diplomat, whose alleged abuse of taxpayer funds for personal aides and lavish private dinners at the State Department triggered multiple internal investigations, is getting his finances straight before winding down this campaign committee and launching a new one.

"Pompeo is absolutely running for president. He's kept his committee open — typical for a once-elected official — because otherwise he'd have to zero out a federal account with $1 million in hard dollars in it, which nobody would want to do," Democratic campaign strategist Dave Hoffman said. "Those 'Madison Dinners' he held at State are more clear evidence of his ambitions, as they helped him make more introductions to major GOP donors and bundlers."

If Pompeo does jump in the race early, the news wouldn't surprise many observers: The Trump loyalist's White House aspirations have been an open secret, although Pompeo quietly supported his former boss' false claims of election fraud, refusing to acknowledge Joe Biden's victory or engage with the presidential transition. Pompeo apparently shut the door last June to a bid for the U.S. Senate seat that fellow Kansas Republican Jerry Moran will defend in 2022 (although politicians have been known to change their minds about such things.) Still, this appears to be the first official move that Pompeo — or any other Republican not named Trump — has taken to prepare for what will undoubtedly be a fierce and costly 2024 GOP primary.

Pompeo's campaign filing, however, struck several legal and compliance experts that Salon interviewed as puzzling. They remarked on the unusual "bank adjustment" explanation, which they said seemed design to obscures from the public, and possibly from federal regulators, what exactly went wrong with the campaign's accounting. It also raises questions about Pompeo's close personal and professional connections to the bank, and could be tied to an unexplained doubling in earned interest during a period when he held two positions in Trump's Cabinet.

"I would never report it that way," said one campaign compliance official who analyzed the filing. "It invites speculation. It seems pretty clear that they're matching their money in the bank against their books, but since they don't say what the mistake was, that may trigger a letter from the FEC. It could be something like unreported interest or an uncashed check, but for all we know it could be anonymous donor money appearing out of nowhere."

Without that explanation, the lump payment from Emprise Bank may indeed invite speculation, given the fact that Pompeo's wife Susan, was senior vice president at the bank and Pompeo sat on the board of governors as recently as 2012, while he was in Congress. Mike Michaelis, Emprise's chairman, president and CEO, worked on at least one of Pompeo's early campaigns, and the bank ranks as one of his top 10 all-time donors, according to data compiled by Open Secrets. A political law attorney told Salon that was unusual, comparable only to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who gets contributions from officials at his campaign's bank.

A second campaign compliance director agreed that the explanation was well out of the norm: "I've only used it once or twice, and I always spoke to the FEC analyst before going that route," the official said. (Salon could find only three filings that use the term, one of them being from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.) But the compliance expert added that under certain rare conditions the FEC actually prefers the term, which can offer a shortcut: "Otherwise they have to go back and review all of your amended reports, and if the difference in cash on hand is nominal it's not usually worth the work."

When Salon showed the amendment's language to an FEC official, withholding Pompeo's name, and asked about the lack of specificity, the official replied: "If anything in a report requires further explanation, the relevant Reports Analysis Division analyst can send a Request for Additional Information to clarify the public record."

Pompeo's committee, which was never a fundraising juggernaut, had about a million dollars on hand after his last congressional race in 2016. Its only income since then has come through monthly interest payments from Emprise Bank. But over the course of 2018 those payments nearly tripled in amount. Further, that increase began the month after Pompeo moved from the CIA to the State Department, shooting from $302 a month in April to $892 by December 2018. The payments stayed level for more than a year, before increasing slightly in January 2020 and then ramping back down, ending the year at $340 in December.

One campaign finance expert noted that while the interest returns rose, the amount of money in the account did not change. While the campaign may have underreported its 2020 interest, the expert said, that differential clearly wouldn't add up to $13,000.

"Pompeo's campaign continued to file FEC reports throughout his tenure in the Trump administration, and continued to report payments to a compliance firm to manage the reporting, so it is not clear how it lost track of $13,000," Brendan Fischer, Director of Federal Reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told Salon. "But there may be legitimate explanations for the financial discrepancies, and the amount in question is relatively minimal as compared to the total amount of cash-on-hand."

Two experts suggested that the campaign may have moved some or all of its cash from a low-interest account to a higher-return instrument, such as a CD or money market account. If both accounts had been held with Emprise, it's possible that the campaign could have overlooked reporting the shift, but that alone would not explain why it did not accurately report the income.

Of course, it's also possible that the earned interest and the bank adjustment are not related at all, and present another two minor mysteries about Pompeo's strange final year in the Trump administration.

While Trump pressured Mike Pence, his brother Greg was spending money at Trump's hotel

While former President Trump was agitating to overturn his election defeat, Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., the older brother of then-Vice President Mike Pence, was spending money at Trump's Washington hotel, according to a new filing with the Federal Election Commission. Weeks later, on the day Mike Pence publicly rejected a lawsuit that members of Congress filed against him, the Trump campaign returned a $4,000 donation that his brother had made seven months earlier.

According to a year-end FEC report filed last weekend, Greg Pence's campaign, which had previously drawn scrutiny for thousands of dollars in apparent personal expenses at Trump's hotel, reported spending $1,551 on Dec. 3 for a catered event at BLT Prime, the Trump International Hotel's restaurant and a popular hub for conservative allies of the former president. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the GOP House whip, reported a $1,000 expense at BLT Prime the same evening, for catering and facility rental.

Earlier that day, members of the House Freedom Caucus held a press conference to call on then-Attorney General Bill Barr to release the results of a Justice Department investigation into possible election fraud. That conference featured Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who later filed a statement in support of the doomed Supreme Court election challenge brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which both Pence and Scalise joined. (That suit was almost immediately rejected.)

A few weeks later, while Greg Pence mulled the decision of whether to object to the electoral votes, his campaign reported that the Trump campaign had never cashed a $4,000 contribution that Pence made in May, seven months earlier, according to FEC filings. The donation does not appear on the Trump campaign's receipts.

Pence ultimately joined three other Indiana Republicans to side with the former president and challenge Pennsylvania's votes — hours after rioters had hunted his younger brother through the Capitol. Pence had also objected to Arizona's votes earlier that day.

Pence later issued a statement saying that his choices "reflect both my support of the Constitution and the disenfranchised voters of the Sixth District," while declaring that "violence and anarchy is never the answer."

"I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution on behalf of Hoosiers in the Sixth District. The United States is a country of law and order," Pence said in the statement. "There are millions of American voters in our nation who currently feel disenfranchised, but violence and anarchy is never the answer. The way forward for our nation is to follow the U.S. Constitution."

That position diverged from Indiana's two Republican senators, Todd Young and Mike Braun. The latter had originally planned to challenge the electoral count but reversed that decision after the insurrection, saying in a statement on Twitter that the day's violence had "changed things drastically."

"Though I will continue to push for a thorough investigation into the election irregularities many Hoosiers are concerned with as my objection was intended, I have withdrawn that objection and will vote to get this ugly day behind us," Braun wrote.

It is unclear why Pence did not reverse his original decision amid widespread reports that the Capitol rioters had specifically targeted his brother for execution, after Trump's dissatisfaction with his vice president became widely known.

The Pence family as a whole has channeled a significant amount of money to the Trumps over the last four years. Between November 2017 and early 2019, Greg Pence, who won his brother's former seat in 2018, made headlines for substantial and frequent expenditures at Trump's Washington hotel. Those payments, totaling $45,000, included thousands of dollars in donor funds for personal lodging, an unlawful expense which his campaign later reclassified as fundraising events after USA Today exposed the apparent violations.

A Pence spokesperson said at the time that the campaign had only made the changes "in order to avoid confusion here from hostile reporters."

Greg Pence did not reply to Salon's request for comment. Mike Pence could not be immediately reached for comment.

New filing suggests it's 'highly likely' Mark Meadows is under investigation for campaign finance violations

A year-end federal filing from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows shows legal expenses that experts say indicate it is "highly likely" the North Carolina Republican is under scrutiny for campaign finance violations.

In October, the nonprofit government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) requesting an investigation into Meadows, based on a Salon report that detailed a series of apparent violations of the prohibition on using campaign funds for personal expenses. Those payments covered gourmet cupcakes, grocery store purchases, a cell phone bill, posh meals and lodging at Donald Trump's Washington hotel, according to filings with the FEC. Meadows' campaign also spent thousands of dollars on "printed materials" at an upscale Washington-area custom jeweler on the day he left Congress for the White House. (The jewelry retailer has said it sells nothing that could be categorized that way.)

The year-end report filed over the weekend by Meadows' leadership PAC, Freedom First — itself an extension of the onetime North Carolina congressman's former campaign operation — shows only three expenses in the last month of the year, one of them an anomalous $6,339 payment to the law firm Foley & Lardner, designated for "PAC legal services."

The only two other expenses listed in the filing went to Costco and Walmart, both for around $250 on Dec. 7, designated as "food/beverage for PAC reception honoring Secret Service members." According to FEC filings, no other federal political committee of any kind has ever designated an expense for the Secret Service. Before leaving office, Trump reportedly issued an unprecedented directive that Meadows receive Secret Service protection for an additional six months.

A campaign finance attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss potential legal proceedings, told Salon that the seriousness of the charges facing Meadows, together with the timing of the legal expense, indicate that it's "highly likely" the FEC has launched an inquiry.

"The CREW complaint was filed at the end of October, and the FEC gives the persons or entities named in a complaint 15 days to file a response," the attorney said. "The FEC frequently grants extensions to that deadline if they are requested. It is highly likely that these legal fees were incurred in November to prepare a response to the CREW complaint, or at least begin the process of preparing one."

(Salon reported last week that Meadows liquidated as much as $200,000 in stocks in November.)

Another campaign finance and FEC enforcement expert, also speaking on background, agreed that the filing suggested the first stages of an investigation: "Looks like it, but with Meadows, there's a lot of things he could need a lawyer for."

Similar charges have landed other politicians in prison. Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, was sentenced for using his campaign account for personal expenses, including at hotels and restaurants — including one of the venues Meadows routinely expensed, the Capitol Hill Club, a favored hangout of House Republicans that is just around the corner from Republican National Committee headquarters. Meadows made a $1,100 purchase there on Jan. 13, 2020, the same day Hunter resigned from the House for his numerous campaign finance violations.

(Hunter's campaign spent more than $100,000 at the Capitol Hill Club, stretching back to 2008. The Meadows campaign expensed about half that amount at the club across 109 expenditures beginning in 2012, though most of that spending — more than $37,000 — came in the four years after Trump's election.)

Meadows announced in late December of 2019 that he would not seek re-election in North Carolina's 11th congressional district, but his campaign went on to spend more than $60,000 before he officially converted it into the Freedom First leadership PAC in July. In that same timeframe, filings show, the campaign only raised $300. Salon also reported that a number of Meadows' campaign expenses in that time appear related to his effort to get Lynda Bennett, a friend of his wife, elected to his old congressional seat. Bennett lost to Madison Cawthorn in the 2020 Republican primary, and Cawthorn — himself a onetime Meadows protégé — is now serving in Congress.

Freedom First went on to spend about $14,000 between July and Oct. 21, the date of Salon's report, federal filings show — including on cupcakes, Costco, a cell phone and rooms at Trump's hotel. Despite those expenses, Freedom First reported raising no money at all in that time period, which is highly unusual for any PAC, especially in an election year. Further, federal records show that Freedom First never disbursed any money to Republican candidates until Oct. 23, two days after Salon's report. On that day, the PAC gave $1,000 to 19 Republican candidates, including Cawthorn.

While the FEC would enforce any possible civil actions that may arise from CREW's complaint, the charges against Meadows could veer into criminal territory, attracting attention from the Department of Justice, as was the case for Hunter. In December, Trump pardoned Hunter, one of his earliest supporters in Congress, just before his scheduled 11-month prison stint. Meadows has not been accused of any crime to date, but was reportedly also considered for a pardon list. In addition to possible campaign finance violations, he could face legal jeopardy for his role in a now-infamous phone call during which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes for him, an apparent solicitation of election fraud.

Also on that call was Cleta Mitchell, a veteran government law attorney who has primarily worked for Republican clients — including Meadows. On Jan. 4, CREW filed a criminal complaint against Trump that referred both Meadows and Mitchell to the Justice Department: "While this complaint focuses on President Trump's conduct, we believe that your offices should also review the conduct of Mr. Meadows, Ms. Mitchell, and any other individuals who aided the President's likely illegal activity."

When the tape of the Raffensperger call became public, Mitchell resigned from her senior position at Foley & Lardner, the same law firm to which Meadows' PAC paid more than $6,300 in December. It is unclear whether Mitchell or the firm still represents Meadows or the Freedom First PAC.

Neither Meadows, Mitchell nor Foley & Lardner replied to Salon's requests for comment.

Donald Trump's campaign owes almost half its debt to its own company: new filings

The Trump campaign can continue to raise money after claiming more than $2.7 million in debt in its last federal finance report of the year, with nearly half that deficit owed to a shell company that was created and run by top campaign officials.

The filing, submitted Sunday to the Federal Election Commission, also said that the campaign refunded more than $11 million in illegal donations to nearly 4,300 contributors after the November election, even though, as a senior campaign official told Salon, the Republican National Committee automatically redirected excessive repeat donations from the Trump campaign to the RNC.

In broad terms, perhaps the most notable information from the latest report is the steep drop in revenue. In the first 19 days after Trump's electoral defeat, his campaign and the RNC together pulled in more than $207 million with a fundraising rampage tied to the false allegation that Democrats had stolen the election, suggesting the money would go toward bankrolling a multi-state legal challenge that would reverse the outcome. Targeted donors were told in fine print that a chunk of their contributions would go towards paying down campaign debt, but that stream went dry when Trump began diverting money to his new leadership PAC.

But the new filing shows that in the weeks between Nov. 24 and Dec. 31, the campaign saw its cash stockpile drop, closing the year with $10.7 million on hand — less than one percent of the more than $1 billion raised over the course of Trump's four years in office. In the same time frame, Trump's new PAC, Save America, raised about $31 million, according to its year-end filing, hardly the runaway haul that some observers had anticipated.

However, the debt means that the campaign can legally continue to raise money until it makes good on what it owes, including through efforts like the post-election blitz, which split funds between the campaign and other entities, such as Save America — which could double as Trump's personal account. In this fashion, the campaign can potentially serve as a kind of pass-through revenue stream for the former president. If the Senate's impeachment verdict does not bar him from seeking elected office in the future, Trump may also reserve the right to keep the campaign running for 2024.

Notably, more than $1 million of that debt is owed to an entity called American Made Media Consultants (AMMC), a shell company created and run by top officials, including former campaign manager Brad Parscale and former White House political adviser Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law. AMMC was structured so the campaign paid the company directly, and then AMMC paid vendors for digital and media services. It quickly became far and away the campaign's largest vendor, receiving more than $700 million in about 18 months, FEC filings show. Campaign finance experts say the shell system is illegal, because it hides and misrepresents the true destinations and use of donor funds.

But this shell system not only hides the campaign's true vendors, it also obscures AMMC's own debts. This means that the campaign either owes money to unknown companies through AMMC, or owes money to its own officials. Campaign finance expert Brett Kappel told Salon that such a system would appeal to a campaign that needs or wants to prioritize who it pays and when.

"In the days leading up to the election, the Trump campaign was running out of cash, and it looks like they chose to defer payments to vendors who they knew wouldn't complain — like the U.S. Treasury, which the campaign still owes $600,000," Kappel said, referencing the second-largest debt listed in the campaign's latest filing. "Some of those vendors happen to have close ties to the campaign, and some, like American Made Media, happen to employ campaign officials themselves. These companies likely wouldn't mind waiting on their payments, at least not as much."

The finance report also shows that the campaign refunded more than $11 million in illegal donations. All those refunds came after the election, meaning that the campaign could effectively have treated these illegal donations as interest-free loans, spending the money before the election and refunding it through contributions collected afterwards.

It's also significant that the Trump campaign's refund lists appear to have grown shorter. In the weeks leading up to the election, the FEC notified the campaign multiple times that it would have to refund or otherwise re-designate money from thousands of donors who had exceeded the legal limit ($5,600 combined for the primary and general elections; $2,800 for each election individually). While these notices are fairly common, some of the lists of maxed-out donors were extraordinarily long, several hundred pages longer than notices sent to the Biden campaign.

This is likely a result of a fairly new fundraising option, where donors can choose automatically repeating contributions. Over time those add up, and since Trump's campaign began raising money almost immediately after he took office in 2017, chances that repeat donors would max out were high. But something counterintuitive happened: It would seem logical that more repeat donors would hit their limits as more time passes, but the FEC's notices to the Trump campaign grew significantly shorter as the election neared.

A top campaign official told Salon that the campaign captured and rerouted overages to the Republican National Committee: "We move people off the list and to RNC donations once over," the official said, adding that the RNC built the automated process — not the campaign. The official did not reply when asked whether donors were notified that their money had been redirected, or whether they were given the chance to reclaim or reassign their contributions on their own.

In an email to Salon, an RNC spokesperson pushed back on the characterization, explaining that committees participating in joint fundraising agreements typically transfer overages, and that in this case the arrangement was "part of the disclaimer," and that donors had the option to change where their money goes before making the contribution.

"To be clear: If a donor had already maxed out to the Trump campaign, and went to make another contribution to the Trump campaign, there is no mechanism in place that would automatically send that donation to the RNC," the spokesperson said. "It would be the Trump campaign's responsibility to refund it."

This article has been updated with comment from the RNC.

Republican lawmakers want to use campaign funds to protect themselves — from their own voters

Both of the national political committees dedicated to electing Republicans to Congress have asked the Federal Election Commission to allow lawmakers to use campaign donations to hire bodyguards, citing heightened fears related to the Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath — an attack overwhelmingly carried out by Republican voters.

In a letter sent last week, attorneys for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee requested guidance on whether regulations on campaign spending cover "personal security personnel" to protect members of Congress and their families from "threatened harm."

"In light of current events involving concrete threats of physical violence against Members and their families, Members have been compelled to consider further security measures for themselves and their families," the letter says. "As has been well-documented in the media, Members and their families continue to endure threats and security breaches, which are being timely reported to appropriate law enforcement officials."

While the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol chiefly targeted Democratic leaders, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed fears for their safety. Last week, more than 30 members asked House leadership to grant broader use of taxpayer-funded allowances to hire security in their local district offices.

Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., told CNN on Jan. 13 that he was afraid of threats that would follow his decision to break with the overwhelming majority of his party and vote to impeach former President Trump.

"I am not going to let that sway my decision," Meijer said. "I think if we give the assassin's veto, if we give the insurrectionist's veto, we lose something in this country, and I won't let that happen again." He later told MSNBC that he plans to buy body armor: "It's sad that we have to get to that point, but you know, our expectation is that someone may try to kill us."

Federal guidelines currently allow lawmakers to put campaign funds towards installing and upgrading home security systems without violating prohibitions on personal use, but the regulatory body has not ruled on personal protection. Only a handful of candidates have reported security details as expenses over the years, campaign filings show. In 2013, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spent about $30,000 in campaign cash on travel expenses for his security team, but filings show that he appears to have reissued those payments. In a single week between Oct. 29 and Nov. 7 last year, however, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., dropped more than $20,000 on personal security, some of that explicitly for protection on election night. A few weeks before those hires, Cawthorn, who complained that some young "punks" vandalized campaign signs outside his home. Later, at a December event, Cawthorn told a crowd of young supporters to "lightly threaten" their elected representatives while urging them to overturn the results of the presidential election.

While the FEC advisory process typically lasts up to two months, the GOP committees — citing a number of public incidents, news reports and a Jan. 19 arrest for threats to murder lawmakers — asked the six-member board to expedite the process. Trump's upcoming impeachment trial appears to figure prominently, with the letter citing an Associated Press report that "law enforcement officials are examining a number of threats aimed at members of Congress as the second [impeachment] trial of President Donald Trump nears," including "plots to attack members of Congress during travel to and from the Capitol complex during the trial."

Prior to the Jan. 6 attack, three newly-elected Republican members made headlines for their politically-driven defiance of local and federal laws regulating the carrying of firearms in Washington, D.C., and on the House floor. Salon reported that one of them, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, was given a customized Glock at a private event last week, which would be prohibited by law. After Salon contacted Boebert about the gift, she issued a statement to say that she had not accepted the gun but planned to pay for it in the future, which would probably be legal.

Following the Jan. 6 attack, some Democratic lawmakers expressed fear of their Republican colleagues, some of whom have expressed solidarity with groups involved with the riot. A group of 31 Democrats, concerned about whether some of the rioters had inside help, sent a letter to the acting House sergeant at arms last month asking for a review of visitor logbooks and closed circuit video from the day before the siege. The Democratic counterparts to the GOP national committees have so far not filed a similar letter to the FEC.

If the FEC grants the GOP's request, it is unclear whether or how it could restrict lawmakers from hiring personal security details that included members of fascist or anti-government organizations that were involved in the riots. Longtime Trump associate Roger Stone frequently receives protection from the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who escorted him in Washington on the night before the Jan. 6 riots. Boebert has drawn criticism for her public appearances with members of militia groups. At least one militia member is connected to the biker group that presented her with the customized Glock, and later shared video of the event on social media.

Marjorie Taylor Greene in 2019: Protesters should 'flood the Capitol'

In a video posted to social media months before announcing her congressional candidacy, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene called on supporters to "flood the Capitol Building" in a protest against "tyrannical" leaders, telling them that Democratic lawmakers "should fear us" and that "we should feel like we will" use violence "if we have to."

"All of us together, when we rise up, we can end all of this. We can end it," Greene said in the 90-minute rant, which was posted in February 2019 and unearthed on Sunday by Twitter user @zedster. "We can do it peacefully. We can. I hope we don't have to do it the other way. I hope not. But we should feel like we will if we have to. Because we are the American people."

Greene, an adherent of the QAnon fantasy movement whose internet posts about conspiracy theories had by that time already attracted a following, posted the video to recruit attendees for a Feb. 23, 2019, "Fund the Wall" march in Washington. At the time, the Southern Poverty Law Center described the event as Greene's "brainchild," citing national support from right-wing militia group American Defence Force. (It also featured members of Cowboys for Trump, including group leader Couy Griffin, who was recently arrested for his role in the Jan. 6 riots.)

In the video, Greene invoked a sprawling battle that pit "Americans" against an "out-of-control, tyrannical, insane" federal government, declaring that the latter's leaders should be "cowering in fear."

"They are nothing, and they should fear us. ... They should be cowering in fear," she said. "And you know what, if you show up in big numbers on Feb. 23, oh I promise you, I promise you, they'll be struck with fear on the inside." The enemy, she said, was not limited to Democratic leaders — "communist traitors and Islamist lovers" — but extended to a larger apparatus that the future congresswoman described as "all these different agencies and the courts, and all these different offices."

Greene also emphasized the importance of getting inside the Capitol Building: "If we have a sea of people, if we shut down the streets, if we shut down everything. If we flood the Capitol Building. Go inside. These are public buildings. We own them. We own these buildings. Do you understand that? We own the buildings and we pay all the people that work in the buildings."

Greene continued: "Feb. 23 — may be kind of cold. We're gonna go inside. We're gonna be warm. And we're gonna demand that our federal government serve we the people, because we're sick and tired of their ways."

Some protesters did indeed find their way into the Capitol, including Greene, who can be seen among a group haranguing Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., in her office, according to a video posted to Instagram by conservative internet personality and since-convicted criminal Omar Navarro. (At another event that day, Greene referred to Waters, a perennial target of death threats, as a "piece of taxidermy.")

Greene, like fellow freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., has longstanding connections to the QAnon universe and militia groups, both of whom played leading roles in the Jan. 6 attack. Those links have given rise to a deep unease among Democratic colleagues who were targeted in the attack, many of whom have called for Greene's censure or expulsion from Congress. Those calls escalated last week when news broke that in 2019, Greene endorsed executing top Democrats on social media, including "liking" a Facebook post that suggested removing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with "a bullet to the head."

At a press conference convened in response to that story, Pelosi said that Congress will likely need to increase its security budget because "the enemy is within the House of Representatives."

"We have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress," she said.

Watch the full video here.

Marjorie Taylor Greene .March Feb 23rd Washington DC

Six degrees of sedition: Was master trickster Roger Stone behind the Capitol riot?

The night before a mob of Donald Trump's diehard supporters laid siege to the U.S. Capitol, longtime Trump confidant and presidential-pardon recipient Roger Stone made his first public appearance in Washington since his trial, giving a pump-up speech at a Freedom Plaza rally organized by a group called Stop the Steal. In a helpful moment of clarity, the emcee for the evening, Stone associate and fellow convicted felon Ali Alexander (formerly Ali Akbar), a driving force behind the events that led to the attack the following afternoon, noted that "It was Roger Stone who coined the term first: Stop the Steal."

Stone did more than coin the term. He registered it with the federal government as a political nonprofit more than four years earlier, in 2016, and appears to have a hand in its successor, which was created less than a month before the 2020 election.

But while Alexander went on to claim to be the "father of the movement," that too traces to Stone, who had organized not just the 2016 effort, but another one two years later. All of this traces back deep in Republican dirty-trick history, all the way to the "Brooks Brothers Riot" orchestrated by Stone to interfere with the 2000 Miami-Dade County recount and help make George W. Bush president.

When Stone, escorted by bodyguards from the Oath Keepers anti-government militia group, delivered the keynote speech at the Freedom Plaza rally on Jan. 5, after showing off his dance moves, in his pinstripe suit and fedora hat, to a hip-hop remix of a song honoring his innocence, he made clear that Alexander had only "revived the Stop the Steal movement." In other words, all of this was, at its root, a Roger Stone production.

It appears that Stone bears as much responsibility as anyone — and quite a bit more than most — for the deadly riot that unfolded the next day, though the extent of his influence has not yet come into public focus.

Roger Stone created the first Stop the Steal organization in April 2016, raising and spending tens of thousands of dollars for the anticipated mission of defending Trump through the contested Republican primary and later challenging an apparent Hillary Clinton general election win, neither of which proved necessary. That group was shuttered in 2017, but Stone, a Florida resident, reactivated the movement after the 2018 midterms — specifically to protect then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott's narrow victory in a U.S. Senate race over Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. Stone even got help from Alexander, an itinerant provocateur who came aboard to help recruit for the effort, laying out his vision in a Periscope video, as reported in Right Wing Watch, in which Alexander said he hoped to motivate not just Republicans, but QAnon followers, Democrats and "homeless people in all the adjacent counties" to monitor the vote count.

That mission appears to have been something of an ad hoc project, and Stone didn't create an official organization around it. Two years later, though — and three weeks ahead of the 2020 election — a new nonprofit called "Committee to Stop the Steal" was created by a woman named Ashley Maderos, who according to her LinkedIn page works for Jensen & Associates, a personal injury firm in Southern California headed up by Paul Rolf Jensen, who has represented Stone for at least two decades. Jensen was also on the payroll for Stone's Committee to Restore American Greatness, which became a target of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In September 2020, just a few weeks before Maderos registered the Committee to Stop the Steal, Ali Alexander posted a Periscope video saying he wanted to revive Stop the Steal for 2020, as reported by Jared Holt for Right Wing Watch. The vision he articulated would create a text-messaging database to deploy Trump supporters to ballot-counts and "bad secretary of state" offices across the country, and would provide volunteers with the food, shelter, vitamins and "electrolytes" they would need to stop the proverbial steal. Where the funding for this would come from was unclear.

"In the next coming days, we're going to build the infrastructure to stop the steal," Alexander said in the video. "What we are going to do is we're going to bypass all of social media. In the coming days, we will launch an effort concentrating on the swing states, and we will map out where the votes are being counted and the secretary of states. We will map all of this out for everyone publicly and we will collect cell phone numbers so that way if you are within 100-mile radius of a bad secretary of state or someone who's counting votes after the deadline or if there's a federal court hearing, we will alert you of where to go. We're going to bypass all of Twitter, all of Facebook, all of Instagram, OK? We're going to bypass it all."

"We will camp out if we need to," Alexander added. "We will have tents. We will have water. We will have electrolytes. We will have vitamin D, C and A. We will have zinc. We will have sandwiches. We will have everything so that patriots can oversee the supposed people in our republic who are tasked with counting our votes, not making it. Counting our votes, not making new votes."

About a month later, the Committee to Stop the Steal was launched by Stone's associates. By November, Stone was posting disinformation about Trump's defeat.

Alexander spearheaded the grassroots and political dimensions of the protests that he eventually carried to the Capitol on Jan. 6, even launching a Stop The Steal super PAC in November, as first reported by Salon. In December, amid escalating violent rhetoric, Alexander boasted that the movement had attracted the cooperation of three far-right Republican members of Congress — Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs of Arizona and Mo Brooks of Alabama — who were helping him exert a "maximum pressure" campaign on Capitol Hill.

But the political and publicity efforts were just one arm of Stone's influence on the riot. His other contribution appears to have been brute force — the aforementioned Oath Keepers, as well as the neofascist Proud Boys.

After the insurrection, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Proud Boys played a major role in the violence on Jan. 6, and a number of group members and affiliates have since then been arrested and named in federal indictments. The Proud Boys also have longstanding ties to Stone, in recent years acting as a personal security detail during his trial and his public appearances. In November 2019, self-described Proud Boy "organizer" Joe Biggs traveled to Washington to support Stone at his trial, and in a video interview ahead of the trip said that he would be joined by current Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio and founder Gavin McInnes. Biggs can be seen in a number of videos from the Capitol riots, including images shot inside the building, and was arrested last week on charges of impeding Congress, illegal entry and disorderly conduct.

A video recorded outside the Capitol grounds just before the attack shows a group of Proud Boys psyching themselves up ahead of confrontations with police. The videographer can be heard hawking "Enrique did nothing wrong" shirts — a Proud Boy spin on the "Roger Stone did nothing wrong" catchphrase.

At this writing, no clear digital trail connecting the Capitol violence to Stone has yet emerged, although it would shock exactly no one of the ongoing investigations revealed a direct link. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have appeared in numerous photographs and videos providing security to Stone, including on the night of Jan. 5. Law enforcement officials are currently sorting through countless photographs and hours of video pulled from social media, showing who exactly was in or near the Capitol complex the next day. Hackers who exploited an absurdly simple vulnerability in the alternative social media platform Parler, now at least temporarily defunct, have uploaded dozens of terabytes of data to the web, some of which has already been put to use. Facial recognition software has also yielded results, such as the massive Faces of the Riot open-source database.

On the night before the rally, Stone surrounded himself with symbols of potential violence in the form of his Oath Keeper security detail, who also chauffeured him around in a golf cart. When he spoke, he made clear that he knew exactly what would drive the masses over the police barricades the following afternoon, casting the futile fight in the common language of the QAnon fantasy movement, of a struggle between "dark and light, between the godly and godless, between good and evil."

Reached for comment for this article, Stone told Salon to "have a nice day."


Happy Holidays!