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."

A new sign suggests part of Mueller's investigation may have survived Bill Barr

Florida man Douglass Mackey, a notorious white nationalist and right-wing social media troll, was arrested this week on charges of conspiring with others to deprive citizens of their right to vote ahead of the 2016 election, the Department of Justice announced on Wednesday.

"According to the allegations in the complaint, the defendant exploited a social media platform to infringe one of the most basic and sacred rights guaranteed by the Constitution: the right to vote," Nicholas McQuaid, acting Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division, said in a press release. "This complaint underscores the department's commitment to investigating and prosecuting those who would undermine citizens' voting rights."

It also suggests that the Russia investigation, at least in part, survived the tenure of former Attorney General Bill Barr.

According to the complaint, Mackey's Twitter account had nearly 60,000 followers, and in February 2016 the MIT Media Lab ranked him 107th in its list of the most influential personalities ahead of the election, higher than NBC News and Stephen Colbert. Prosecutors say that in the months before the election, Mackey collaborated with unnamed co-conspirators to encourage Hillary Clinton supporters to cast votes via text messages or social media — which are not viable or legal voting methods in any state.

The conspiracy charge against Mackey, who was arrested in West Palm Beach, could indicate that the Justice Department has been probing a broader network. Three of his co-conspirators were identified by HuffPost reporter Luke O'Brien, who wrote an in-depth 2018 profile of Mackey: white nationalist financier Jeff Giesea; conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, who has ties to onetime national security adviser turned QAnon hero Michael Flynn; and Jack Posobiec, a far-right provocateur with ties to neo-Nazi groups and longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone. The pro-Trump group, who called themselves "MAGA3X," fueled the Pizzagate social media campaign that smeared Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Notably, both Stone and Flynn came under the focus of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the weaponization of social media in 2016. Flynn had repeatedly shared content from the Russian-linked account @TEN_GOP, which shared disinformation to tens of thousands of followers under the auspices of the Tennessee Republican Party. Stone, a misinformation mastermind, also imprinted on the Trump campaign the importance of social media. Just this summer, Facebook wiped more than 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages that Stone and unnamed associates had used to push disinformation related to the 2016 election, as well as to Stone's criminal trial.

One arm of Stone's social media work in 2016 was an effort to suppress the Black vote, which is also specified in the charges against Mackey. Mueller had questioned and subpoenad Stone's associates who helped orchestrate his social media campaigns.

Former President Trump's efforts to block Mueller — or even fire him — have been well documented. In anticipation of possible acts of executive sabotage, the special counsel's office in the course of its work spun off a number of investigations to other divisions, primarily the Southern District of New York. As one of Barr's first acts in office, he appointed his own special prosecutor, Connecticut U.S. attorney John Durham, to investigate the origins of the Russia probe — and potentially pursue charges against FBI agents and Obama administration officials. Barr has long been suspected of spearheading a secret effort to suppress evidence and snuff out ancillary investigations, and after Mueller submitted his final report, congressional Democrats requested the attorney general's communications regarding the spinoff cases.

Considering all this, it seems possible, even likely, that the Mackey indictment indicates that some Russia-related inquiries have survived Barr's efforts to uproot them. Investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler proposed another, deeply ironic possibility: The charges could have stemmed from Trump's efforts to undermine the 2020 election and reverse his defeat.

About a week after the election, Barr, under pressure from Trump, took the unprecedented step of authorizing prosecutors to pursue election fraud cases ahead of the Electoral College vote. It's possible, Wheeler suggests, that if one of those prosecutors had ahold of evidence from prior investigations, Barr's authorization could have allowed that prosecutor to prioritize the Mackey case and bring an indictment — which would be a prodigious case of cosmic payback.

Tom Cotton's 'Army Ranger' masquerade goes back at least 8 years

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has over the years routinely puffed up his political bona fides by embellishing his military service record, claiming in multiple interviews and campaign ads not only to have been a U.S. Army Ranger, but to have served in action as a Ranger — and, at one point, to have earned the Bronze Star "as a Ranger."

Salon reported on Friday that during Cotton's first congressional campaign, the Harvard Law grad claimed to have served as a Ranger and acquired "experience" as a Ranger in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of people came to the senator's defense, observing that as a graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger School, Cotton — who once said that "bombing makes us safer" — is within his rights to lay colloquial claim to the title. Salon's original article has been upheld as correct by the fact-check site Snopes, but even those who believe it's acceptable for Cotton to call himself a Ranger, as opposed to the more accurate "Ranger-qualified," would likely agree that he can't claim battlefield experience as a Ranger, nor that he served as one. Yet the Arkansas senator appears to have done both, on more than one occasion.

Cotton still has not provided comment to Salon, but he addressed the issue directly in an interview with Fox News' Bret Baier on Monday.

"Were you straightforward with voters about your military service?" Baier asked.

"Yeah thanks, Brett. I graduated from Ranger School and wore the Ranger tab in combat with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. This is not about my military record; this is about my politics," Cotton replied. "Ranger Regiment legends like Gen. Scotty Miller or Gen. Craig Nixon have used the term to describe both alumni of the Ranger Regiment and graduates of the Ranger School, as did the secretary of the Army. As did most of my buddies in the Army. As did most of the liberal media, until a conservative veteran was using the term that way. But if some people disagree, that's fine; I respect their views. What's most important, I respect the service of all Rangers and indeed all soldiers who serve our country."

That resembles a coherent answer. But Cotton has in fact suggested that he served with those Rangers. A 2014 campaign ad from his first Senate run, for instance, features Cotton telling the viewing audience that he "made tough decisions as an Army Ranger in Iraq." Perhaps most egregiously, a 2012 congressional campaign ad approved and paid for by Cotton even claims that "as a Ranger, Tom Cotton earned the Bronze Star."

It is unclear why Cotton, who is thought to be laying the brickwork for a 2024 presidential bid, has so routinely linked his military service to his Ranger School graduation, but his name and the title have over time become linked in media reports.

To be clear, passing Ranger School, a grueling 62-day course open to any member of the military, is considered a top honor for any soldier, but it is not the same thing as passing the Army's Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), which produces the elite troops who deploy as Rangers, in their distinctive tan berets and special ops badges. The question of whether any Ranger School graduate is a Ranger by definition is a matter of semantic debate in the military, and far from settled, as pointed out in a article about the reaction to Salon's reporting: "While the distinction is rarely brought up outside of military circles, it has been fiercely debated among veterans and encapsulates the nuances of military titles." A Pentagon official not authorized to speak on the record told Salon in a call over the weekend that, according to the Army, Cotton is technically "Ranger-qualified," and not "a Ranger." (The Army and its Special Operations unit have not answered Salon's multiple requests for comment.)

Two Republican Ranger School grads sparred over the issue in last year's New Hampshire's GOP Senate primary. Colorado lawyer Bryant "Corky" Messner claimed he "served as a Ranger," but his opponent, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, disagreed.

"Unless you served in a Ranger battalion, I think you're overstretching your claim," Bolduc told Messner last spring, reported Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. "I'm Ranger-qualified, and I always stipulate that. I never served in a Ranger battalion." Kessler, after several conversations with Army officials, rated it a two-Pinocchio lie on Messner's part.

But with Cotton, a war hawk who has been deemed a "maniac" even by the conservative Washington Examiner, the issue goes deeper: Cotton hasn't simply said that he was a Ranger, but has strongly suggested or implied that he had deployed, even fought, as a Ranger.

After Salon's original article was published, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt came to Cotton's defense on Twitter, calling the piece a "scurrilous attack."

"I've interviewed @SenTomCotton almost weekly for 8 years," Hewitt wrote. "He's rightly proud of his service w/ 101st in Baghdad and w/ The Old Guard and of his Ranger Tab for Ranger School but never confused units or his service. Never claimed to have served in a Ranger unit. Scurrilous attack."

In fact, in one of those interviews, conducted in 2013, Cotton leads Hewitt to believe that he had actually fought while deployed as a Ranger.

After Cotton explains that he had enlisted as an infantry officer and "became an Army Ranger," Hewitt inquires about his combat experience as a Ranger, asking: "And so as a Ranger and in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, were you ever attacked by suicide bombers?"

Cotton answers directly, without distinction: "My patrols personally were not, Hugh, thankfully for my men and for me."

The show's title refers to Cotton as "Former Army Ranger."

During a live interview in 2019 for CSPAN's BookTV series, the Arkansas senator told Hewitt a story about a soldier who had the integrity to report himself for a violation, even though he could have gotten away with it. He then does not correct Hewitt when the latter refers to Cotton's Ranger claim.

"Now you, Senator, are a Ranger, and 'Rangers lead the way' is the motto," Hewitt says, asking about the transition to a non-combat role after he "came out of the surge leading a platoon in Baghdad."

Cotton quips: "Well, you know, people weren't trying to kill me anymore. That was the biggest difference."

Complaints about Cotton's use of the term, in fact, have circulated locally as early as his first congressional campaign in 2012.

In response to Salon's report on Friday, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Wis., who served in the Ranger battalion, tweeted, "Hey @SenTomCotton, unless you wore one of these berets you shouldn't be calling yourself a Ranger. Truth matters."

Cotton has not offered a response to Salon, but after the publication of Salon's original article, the senator's communications team sent the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative site, its email exchange with Salon for an article about Salon's purported collaboration with an outside researcher.

The Free Beacon, it turns out, has deep ties to Cotton, dating to his relationship with leading conservative (and now Never Trumper) Bill Kristol, who helped elevate Cotton to the Senate. Cotton hired Kristol's son, Joseph, as his legislative director, and Kristol's son-in-law is the Free Beacon's founding editor. One of Cotton's foreign policy advisers and legislative directors, Aaron MacLean, was formerly managing editor at the Free Beacon.

From The Nation:

The Washington Free Beacon — whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol's son-in-law — highlights Cotton's exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year's July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator's expertise.

The Beacon's writer on the piece about Salon was formerly a paid Republican operative, and was named a Beacon "man of the year" for his work helping defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri in 2018. Another man of the year for 2018? Tom Cotton, for advocating against prison reform.

Tom Cotton has claimed he was an 'Army Ranger.' That's just not true

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has accrued a resume tailor-made for a Republican politician: He leapt from a small-town Arkansas cattle farm to Harvard University and then Harvard Law School; he left a leading New York firm to join the military after George W. Bush's re-election; he was discharged after nearly eight years and two war-zone deployments as an Army captain and decorated hero — including two commendation medals, a Bronze Star and a Ranger tab.

This article first appeared in Salon.

But when Cotton launched his first congressional campaign in 2012, he felt compelled to repeatedly falsify that honorable military record, even as he still served in the Army Reserve.

In his first run for Congress, Cotton leaned heavily on his military service, claiming to have been "a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan," and, in a campaign ad, to have "volunteered to be an Army Ranger." In reality, Cotton was never part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the elite unit that plans and conducts joint special military operations as part of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

Rather, Cotton attended the Ranger School, a two-month-long, small-unit tactical infantry course that literally anyone in the military is eligible attend. Soldiers who complete the course earn the right to wear the Ranger tab — a small arch that reads "Ranger" — but in the eyes of the military, that does not make them an actual Army Ranger.

Yet Cotton told the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record in February 2012: "My experience as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan and my experience in business will put me in very good condition." The year before, he told Roby Brock of Talk Politics in a video interview that he "became an infantry officer and an Army Ranger." A Cotton campaign ad placed in the Madison County Record in May 2012 identifies Cotton as a "Battle-Tested Leader" who "Volunteered to be an Army Ranger."

Reached for comment, Cotton spokesperson Caroline Tabler told Salon in an email, "Senator Cotton graduated from Ranger school and is more of a Ranger than a Salon reporter like you will ever be." (It is not immediately clear whether Tabler herself is a Ranger, or whether she graduated from Ranger school. Further, Tabler, a spokesperson for Cotton's Senate office, copied the office's chief of staff, Doug Coutts, on the email, but to a Cotton campaign address; senate offices may not coordinate with campaigns. Tabler asked to arrange an off-the-record call in that email; Salon declined, citing the unfavorable terms.)

It isn't a minor or insignificant distinction. Last summer, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler addressed it during New Hampshire's Republican Senate primary, which featured two Ranger School alums: Colorado lawyer Bryant "Corky" Messner, and retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. Messner claimed repeatedly that he was a Ranger; Bolduc did not make such claims, and called out his opponent over it.

"Unless you served in a Ranger battalion, I think you're overstretching your claim," Bolduc told Messner last spring. "I'm Ranger-qualified, and I always stipulate that. I never served in a Ranger battalion."

The Ranger Regiment is considered the Army's top action unit, and over the course of the so-called War on Terror, Rangers have killed or captured more high-value targets than any other unit. The regiment comprises four battalions, and members wear distinctive tan berets as well as a red, white and black Ranger "Scroll," a cloth badge distinct from the black-and-gold tab that Cotton earned at Ranger School. Attending the school, in fact, is not a prerequisite to serve in the Ranger Regiment.

"It should be noted that Ranger School and the 75th Ranger Regiment are completely different entities under completely different commands with completely different missions, and one is not needed for the other," writes one Ranger veteran for the Havok Journal.

When Kessler asked the Army to evaluate Messner's claim, a Special Operations Command spokesperson made a distinction: Ranger qualified vs. an Army Ranger.

The U.S. Army Ranger Course is the Army's premier leadership school, and falls under Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Eustis, Virginia, and is open to all members of the military, regardless of whether they have served in the 75th Ranger Regiment or completed the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. A graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger Course is Ranger qualified.
The 75th Ranger Regiment is a special operations unit with the mission to plan and conduct joint special military operations in support of national policies and objectives. The Regiment's higher headquarters is the U.S. Army Special Operations Command located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Regiment is the Army's largest, joint special operations force. All members of the 75th Ranger Regiment have passed the Ranger Assessment Selection Program 1, 2, or both. Anyone who is serving or has served within the 75th Ranger Regiment is a U.S. Army Ranger.

Messner told the Post that his claim had never been closely examined until he ran for Senate, and provided five statements from retired officers saying that anyone who graduated from the school had the right to call themselves a Ranger. Kessler went to the retired colonel who headed the Ranger School between 2014 and 2016, who said the difference was indeed a matter of debate, but concluded: "Should [Messner] say he was 'Ranger-qualified' in his ads? Probably. Maybe."

Kessler described Messner's phrasing — "Corky became an Army Ranger, serving abroad guarding the Berlin Wall during the Cold War" — as "especially problematic." Some of Cotton's claims appear to go even further, especially when describing his "experience as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Kessler gave Messner two "Pinocchios," the Post's measure of falsehood. Cotton, who in a fiercely criticized New York Times op-ed last summer advocated for calling in the military to put down Black Lives Matter protests, deserves at least as much.

Newly-elected GOP members deny giving 'reconnaissance' tours before Capitol attack. So who did?

Three newly-elected Republican House members have denied giving "reconnaissance" tours to rally participants on Jan. 5, the day before the terrorist insurrection against the Capitol.

The lawmakers — Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — all told Salon that they had not escorted anyone that day outside of the course of normal legislative business. All three have come under fire for their public embrace of the Jan. 6 rally and its cause — baselessly and aggressively challenging President Joe Biden's election victory over outgoing President Donald Trump.

Boebert has faced the most scrutiny, after tweeting "1776" on the morning of the attack and offering vocal support from the House floor for her "constituents" gathered at the rally. She was also photographed at the rally itself, posing for pictures while Kylie Kremer of Trump booster group Women for America First addressed the crowd. During the siege, the Colorado fringe conservative, who has expressed admiration for the QAnon conspiracy theory, tweeted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been relocated. It was later revealed that insurrectionists planned to kidnap and assassinate elected officials, and several appeared equipped to do so.

Asked whether she had given any tours on Jan. 5, Boebert told Salon, "I did not. No."

Speculation about the newly-elected far-right Republican members escalated after Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., made the explosive claim that she had seen a fellow member giving what she described as a "reconnaissance" tour the day before the deadly attack. Thirty of her Democratic colleagues later signed on to a letter notifying the acting House sergeant at arms that some of them had noticed "unusually large groups of people throughout the Capitol" on Jan. 5, which they say could only happen with the help of a member of Congress or staff. Some of the people in those groups, the letter says, appeared to be connected to the following day's Stop the Steal rally, and the writers add that attackers seemed to have "an unusually detailed knowledge" of the building's complicated layout. The group has requested visitor logs and security camera footage from Jan. 5, and, pointedly, want to know whether law enforcement has also tried to access visitor information.

On Friday, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., perhaps inadvertently accelerated suspicions of Boebert when he told MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace on Wednesday that he'd spoken with a colleague who described a member "showing people around" ahead of the attack, then quickly added that he had concerns about his "new colleagues."

Wallace asked Maloney if he could confirm there were tours the day before the attack, and while Maloney said he could, he admitted he had no firsthand knowledge, but had spoken to another member "who saw it personally, and he described it with some alarm."

Maloney continued, "Some of our new colleagues, the same ones, of course, who believe in conspiracy theories and who want to carry guns into the House chamber, who today — today — have been yelling at Capitol Police, shoving them, [the people] who a week ago were risking their lives to save ours. This conduct is beyond the pale, and it extends to some of this interaction with the very people who attacked the Capitol." He added that "it's a sad reality that we find ourselves at a place where the enemy is within, and we cannot trust our own colleagues."

Maloney, who had not signed Sherrill's letter, did not name Boebert or any other member, but his remarks, in their full context, fueled rumors that she was one of the "new colleagues" he was referring to. Along with her professed admiration for the QAnon conspiracy theory, Boebert has declared she will carry a gun on the House floor and has fiercely resisted the Capitol's new metal detector policies.

Maloney has not named the lawmaker in question, but said "that's going to be a real story," adding that this activity went beyond traditional congressional oversight into "criminal behavior under federal sedition laws."

Boebert's communications director, Ben Goldey, stepped down in the wake of Jan. 6, reportedly writing his resignation letter just hours after the attack. He told Salon that he has been inundated with messages from people suspicious of his former boss, whom he had only served for a few days.

"Internet warriors have been sending me messages, acting as if I know something and telling me I need to go to the FBI — which of course I would do if there was something to say," Goldey told Salon.

Boebert responded angrily on Friday at what she called Maloney's "false and baseless conspiracy claims," which she said had implicated her personally and led to death threats and harassment. Maloney replied that he had never said her name in public, and pointed to the interview transcript as proof.

Two other newly-elected members, Cawthorn and Greene, fit parts of Maloney's description of the lawmakers that caused him concern: Both advocate for carrying guns in the Capitol building (something a senior aide told Salon is more common than has been reported), and both have, to varying degrees, embraced conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election. Greene has publicly endorsed the ridiculous QAnon theories, which center on claims that Democratic leaders rape and cannibalize children.

Spokespeople for both Cawthorn and Greene denied allegations that they showed visitors around on Jan. 5. A spokesperson for Greene told Salon that she had worked in the Capitol building all day, and that any video from that day would show her accompanied only by staff in the halls.

Unlike Boebert and Greene, Cawthorn gave a speech at the Stop the Steal rally ahead of the ratification of Biden's victory, saying, "This crowd has some fight in it" and adding that "the Democrats, with all the fraud they have done in this election, the Republicans hiding and not fighting, they are trying to silence your voice. Make no mistake about it, they do not want you to be heard." Weeks earlier, the freshman member from former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows' onetime North Carolina district, told an audience it should "lightly threaten" lawmakers to support "election integrity," remarks that have led to calls for his resignation. Cawthorn also carries a firearm in the Capitol. A Cawthorn spokesperson, however, flatly denied any involvement in the alleged tours in a conversation with Salon.

Cawthorn himself has denied blame for the violence, telling Charlotte's Spectrum News1 on Monday that he was in fact "trying to stop it."

"I wouldn't say we were complicit in anyone storming the Capitol. Actually, I think we were, in many ways, trying to stop it. You know, I went and spoke at the rally outside of the White House. And I literally said, I'm about to go to the Capitol to fight this fight for all of you, you have a voice in me, I'm here to fight on your behalf," Cawthorn told the outlet.

It seems likely that Maloney did not mean to imply that one of those three lawmakers had given the tour in question. Multiple current and former congressional staff tell Salon that it's unlikely any of the three could have developed a deep understanding of the labyrinthine Capitol corridors in their first few days in office, knowledge that lawmakers and staff typically accumulate over years.

Asked Sunday about the feud with Boebert, Maloney told MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart that she had "jumped to a conclusion and didn't bother to look at what I said."

"She apologized, by the way, a short while later because we produced the transcript which demonstrated her comments, her tweet, her letter were farcically stupid and wrong," he continued. "So the problem is when you get this kind of incompetence mixed together with arrogance, when people believe that they're right when they are demonstrably wrong."

But on Monday, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., reignited the suspicions, telling CNN's Jim Scuitto that he and Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., had seen Boebert with a group in the Capitol tunnels in the days leading up to the attack — although he could not specify the precise date, nor say whether those people were part of the siege.

"Congressman Yarmuth refreshed my recollection yesterday," Cohen said. "We saw Boebert taking a group of people for a tour sometime after the 3rd and before the 6th. ... Now, whether these people were people that were involved in the insurrection or not, I do not know."

In response, Boebert sent Cohen a letter calling his comments "false" and "slanderous." While she acknowledged that she had shown family members around on Jan. 2 and 3 — the day she was sworn into office — she said the tours had stopped there.

"I haven't given a tour of the U.S. Capitol in the 117th Congress to anyone but family," she tweeted.

In a text message with Salon, Cohen said that he had not seen Boebert showing anyone around on Jan. 5, the day of the alleged "reconnaissance" tours. It is unclear why he did not rule out that day in his CNN interview on Monday.

None of this rules out the central allegation that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists had inside knowledge of the Capitol and possibly assistance. The public record suggests that is at least plausible. For instance, a number of Republican elected officials had heavily promoted the rally, most specifically Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who coordinated for weeks with key organizers. One of them cited Gosar and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama by name as helping foment a "maximum pressure" campaign on Congress.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, chair of the House subcommittee that oversees funding for the Capitol Police, said on Jan. 12 that "a couple" of his colleagues seemed to fit Sherrill's description, and that this information had been passed to authorities as soon as the night of the attack.

"You look back on certain things and you look at it differently," Ryan said.

Meet the two losers behind 'Stop the Steal'

In January 2013, a 26-year-old right-wing blogger named Ali Akbar joined the campaign of Curtis Bostic, a former Charleston, South Carolina, city councilman and Tea Party conservative who was running against disgraced former governor Mark Sanford in a Republican congressional primary. Bostic narrowly lost to Sanford (who served two more terms in the House before getting primaried out in 2018), and the campaign disassociated itself from Akbar, whose history as a convicted felon and hack political operative had caught up with him once again.

But over those first three months of 2013, Akbar — now known to the world as Ali Alexander, architect of the 2020 Stop the Steal movement — befriended the candidate's son, Daniel Bostic, then a 20-year-old aspiring model and actor who over the next eight years would partner with Ali in a number of failed ventures, including a cryptocurrency project, a listless consulting agency, a defunct MAGA gossip blog, and a scam donation project created with right-wing trolls Jacob Wohl and Laura Loomer. The partnership's lasting contribution to the world, however, came earlier this month, when the massive pro-Trump rally they organized on the National Mall on Jan. 6 turned into a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, defiling the seat of American democracy and leaving half a dozen people dead, including two police officers.

Back in 2013, Akbar (as he was then known), a fast-talking aspiring strategist from the Dallas-Fort Worth region, had been casting about for a new gig after Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid failed, taking with it his own efforts to make inroads with mainstream Republicans. Conservatives had grown increasingly wary of Akbar's felony fraud convictions and other allegations of improper conduct, such as asking donors for personal information. Akbar's political journalism project, known as National Bloggers Club, was struggling, too, after its founder's history and conduct created complications for top advisers to the Romney campaign. (Akbar was first anti-Romney and then pro-Romney.) He claimed the site was a nonprofit but apparently never registered it as such with the IRS. Its current status is "revoked," according to federal tax records.

"Akbar was a Libertarian, a Reagan conservative, and a Tea Party journo all at the same time," said freelance reporter Ron Brynaert, whose complicated history with Akbar/Alexander stretches back more than a decade. "He's always been a delusional liar with a messiah complex, who talks out of both sides of his mouth and contradicts himself."

Akbar's work with the Bostic campaign focused on boosting name recognition through social media, including creating a hashtag that got a shout-out from former Republican senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who had co-sponsored Akbar's CPAC "Blog Bash" parties two years in a row and flew in to campaign with Bostic for a day. Bostic did see a surge, but it was too little too late — Slate awarded the campaign its "social media fail of the week" during the primary, specifically citing one of Akbar's sites,, as having become "a one-stop shop for #SC01 news, with a jaundiced view of Sanford."

Notably, Akbar also created a since-deleted donations landing page "paid for by the committee to elect Curtis Bostic," which was quite likely illegal, since the campaign denied ever officially hiring the convicted felon. After Bostic's primary defeat, the campaign dismissed Akbar in the press as an overzealous volunteer.

But Akbar had grown close with Daniel Bostic, who had a certificate in theology from Appalachian Bible College and a few months experience as staff assistant to then-Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., now the state's junior senator. Bostic yearned to be a professional actor, but had landed only done a few regional ads for American Eagle and Nokia and some local short films, along with an extra role in an episode of "Army Wives," which he described as something of a formative experience.

Akbar's online footprint dries up a bit after Curtis Bostic's defeat, but he re-entered the political sphere in 2014, with a hybrid PAC called the Black Conservatives Fund, which took in $150,000 from right-wing financier Robert Mercer. But for much of that spring and summer, it seems that Akbar devoted much of his time to helping Daniel Bostic convince people that he was a celebrity with a rabid, obsessive fan base.

Operation Bostic involved a coordinated lineup of fake Twitter fan accounts promoting a number of blog sites, interviews and press releases with Bostic fan content, which Bostic and Akbar most likely either commissioned or created themselves. The profile of one Twitter account, "Daniel's Lover," links out to a Wordpress site called Daniel Bostic Daily, which the account would regularly promote in hundreds of tweets at a time, drawing hardly any response from the larger world. One tweet from May 29, 2013 ("Fans are CRAZY about Daniel's Twitter!") tags Akbar's Twitter account and links to a Daniel Bostic Daily entry that itself quotes a since-deleted tweet from Akbar:

Few folks have the honest joy that @debostic has. It's fun to watch happy positive people online.
— Ali A. Akbar (@ali) May 28, 2013

Three days later, the same blog published another entry titled, "Euphoria for Ladies — Daniel Bostic posted a shirtless picture and became an Instagram sensation," which features said shirtless selfie and a quote about it from a website called Viral Read.

The news site VIRAL READ had this to say:

Walking the fine line between #hotmess and #hotness, Bostic wins the day and lands gracefully in the hotness column. Who knew this skinny kid had this hiding under his bro-tanks? He's the eventual celebrity you'll love to hate and we intend on watching him closely. All of him.

The now-defunct Viral Read was one of Akbar's blog sites, which named controversial right-wing blogger Robert Stacy McCain as editor-in-chief on March 13, 2013, while Akbar was working in South Carolina. The Viral Read article on Bostic from May is similarly titled "Daniel Bostic, Hotness or Hotmess?" and begins like this:

ViralRead was first introduced to the young actor, Daniel Bostic, during a special election run-off in April where his father, Curtis Bostic was up against now-Congressman Mark Sanford. Our Publisher and Editor even traveled down to the lowcountry district. Sadly, they came back with zero pictures of him. Epic fail.

Other Bostic fan sites include "Bostiholics," which migrated from the "allwewantisdaniel" blogspot site. "We are here for one reason and one reason alone," reads the Bostiholics tag line. "We are OBSESSED with Daniel Bostic." Other Twitter accounts include Dan Bostic Is Life and Dan Bostic Daily. It also seems that Akbar helped place Daniel-centric content in other outlets around that same time. In March 2013 alone, as Curtis Bostic was waging a vigorous campaign, posts about his fake celebrity son appeared on sites called Jakes Take, Daily Entertainment News and Entertainment Worlds, as well as in a Newswire press release titled, "Born To Be Distinguished, Daniel Bostic Has Made A Huge Difference In The World Of Acting."

"Being young has not deterred this young actor from climbing heights in this intricate acting career," the release says, then lists "exciting films" in which he has "made headlines": "From Darkness into Light," "Gone for the Day," "Crash" (no, not that "Crash"), "Secrets in the Fall." The release also says Bostic "is much into politics" and "a proud certified black belt Tae-Kwon-Do." His LinkedIn and IMDb pages boast of the 2008 black belt, but for the art of karate.

Two months later, Bostic featured in another Newswire press release, titled, "Bostic Calls on His Fans to Support Oklahoma Tornado Victims." The release is attributed to Marti Youngue, and gives a phone number and address. The address is Curtis Bostic's law firm, but the phone number belongs to Marti Young, former owner of a Nashville agency called Illuminating Talent, which at one point represented Daniel Bostic. Presented with the press release, Young told Salon in a text message, "Wow that's the first time I ever saw this."

While the extent of Akbar's involvement in Bostic content creation is unclear, his prints appear to be on some of the self-promoting replies, including those aimed Dana Loesch and Michelle Malkin, who were relatively obscure at the time but would go on to become big names in right-wing political circles.

By 2014, however, Akbar had moved on from South Carolina's low country, landing himself a consulting gig in Louisiana with his new Mercer-backed PAC, the Black Conservatives Fund. According to investigative journalist Lamar White Jr., this PAC was mostly a proxy for former Louisiana State Sen. Elbert Guillory, who at the time was putting together an ultimately unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. CNBC reported the PAC distributed money that year to a handful of successful Black conservative candidates, including Rep. Mia Love of Utah, as well as Bostic's former boss Tim Scott, who won South Carolina's special election to the Senate in 2014.

Bostic in the meantime attended Anderson University, a private Christian school with both online and in-person degrees, eventually earning a BS in international business, according to his LinkedIn page. He appears to have done some political blogging, identifying as a never-Trumper in 2016 and becoming one of the few donors to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's ill-fated presidential campaign.

Politico reported in 2018 that a PAC advised by Akbar had accepted $60,000 from Mercer just before the 2016 presidential election. After Trump's victory, Akbar popped up again amid the Unite the Right controversy, and in 2018 tried to help kickstart a Trump-centric alternative to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) called the American Priority Conference, which collapsed in short order.

After that defeat, Alexander (having dumped his original surname at some point) teamed up with longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, who first conceived of the Stop the Steal movement — which, believe it or not, did not originate with the 2020 election. The name and the "movement" began with the 2018 midterms, and specifically with the Florida U.S. Senate campaign in which then-Gov. Rick Scott narrowly defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. That was when Roger Stone launched the group as a kind of tribute or coda to his infamous "Brooks Brothers riot" during the Florida recount of 2000.

Alexander signed on to work for the "Stop the Steal" campaign, which was aimed at locking down Scott's victory over Nelson. In a Periscope video, as reported in Right Wing Watch, Alexander said he hoped to motivate not just Republicans, but QAnon followers, Democrats and "homeless people in all the adjacent counties" to keep an eye on the vote count in Broward County.

"Ali Alexander is a noxious political activist who often animates extremist groups and individuals to fulfill his activism goals," Jared Holt, journalist and expert in domestic extremism, told Salon. "Political groups and organizations that have turned to him for his work should be embarrassed and ashamed. The fact that he has a molecule of influence in GOP organizing is a damning indictment of the priorities of pro-Trump politics."

Alexander has associated with a number of young pro-Trump flunkies who would also seem to fit Holt's description, as with his aforementioned ill-fated 2019 joint venture in Minneapolis with right-wing personality Laura Loomer and the recently-indicted Jacob Wohl.

That scam also involved Daniel Bostic. Alexander, Loomer and Wohl directed donations to a company called Cystra Ventures Ltd., which had been created in Bostic's name just three weeks before the group met up in Minnesota. Cystra Ventures is apparently held under Cystra LLC, Bostic's "consulting company," whose website doesn't work (this archived version does) but which received $14,477 in federal coronavirus small business loans this spring — after much apparent consternation on Bostic's part.

Cystra appears to have been designed to get Bostic and Alexander in the cryptocurrency game. In late June 2017, less than two months before Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Alexander and Bostic teamed up to pitch a new cryptocurrency "focused heavily on free speech." According to the pitch, the coin would be "a medium of exchange for individuals who value free speech above all else," and would be exchanged on the Crown platform, based on the Dash network. "Our project will feature no pre-mine and a decentralized governance with the sole goal of promoting free speech," they claimed.

Nothing came of this venture, shockingly, but the duo were back at it in 2018, cranking out a series of videos pitching the Crown crypto platform, whose "overarching goal is to build a community of dedicated users who maintain a free, legally compliant, open-access and decentralized sandbox economy." Nothing came of that, either.

Then in 2019, Alexander launched a tabloid called Culttture, a right-wing organ that employed a handful of writers to write breathless gossip about MAGA-world's second-string celebs, often plugging Alexander's tweets and videos in the course of the day. The site's homepage took a hiatus the next spring, however, citing the coronavirus pandemic ("China's virus") for the need to "simplify." Although the homepage still promises a steady stream of content, that promise appears not to have materialized. Twitter suspended Culttture's account when it suspended Alexander, on Jan. 10. Bostic had claimed on his Twitter profile to be a "lead at Culttture," but deleted that sometime after Jan. 9.

Alexander also still retains control over the Black Conservatives Fund, and the group regularly promoted Stop the Steal rallies to its more than 80,000 Facebook followers. One post ahead of the Jan. 6 riots read: "D.C. becomes FORT TRUMP starting today. Fight to #StopTheSteal with President Trump." It then listed rally locations, including at the Capitol building. That post disappeared from the Facebook page after an inquiry from CNBC.

That PAC's treasurer, Patrick Krason, also happens to be treasurer for Stop the Steal PAC — the group that initially registered in November with Bostic as designated agent. During the two months prior to the riot, Bostic, who also listed himself as the media contact for Stop the Steal, helped organize rallies and sometimes addressed crowds briefly himself.

On Jan. 6, Bostic was in Washington with Alexander. The two can be clearly identified in video clips climbing the Capitol steps with Alex Jones. After the violence, Bostic tweeted, "This could've all been avoided if we were shown signatures and allowed to audit our elections. You cannot expect elections to be conducted in secret without repercussions. I do not in any way endorse violence, but path has been traversed time and time again throughout history."

Two days after the attack, Bostic's name was removed from the Stop the Steal PAC's statement of organization. Bostic told Salon that "some answers are too long for Twitter," adding that "you have slandered me, my friends, all to meet your monthly ad revenue quota."

Salon then asked Krason, the PAC's treasurer who manages compliance for a number of political committees, why Bostic was no longer a listed agent. Krason outlined a complex but somewhat plausible scenario in which he had to change bank accounts. Krason would not say what role, if any, Bostic had played in that well-timed change, and would not say whether Bostic had asked to remove his name, or why he had been listed as an agent to begin with.

After Alexander went into hiding, apparently concerned about the authorities, Bostic at first made his Twitter account private. He reopened it again this past Friday, having deleted all tweets prior to Jan. 5 (except for a New Year's Eve post), as well as a number of tweets from Jan. 6, the day of the riot, including one that called Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer "evil" for posting an image of a Stacey Abrams votive candle. Bostic has also removed two tweets that appeared to show live-streamed video which he had captioned "Storming the Capitol." Those tweets are archived here and here, but the media files appear inaccessible. He did, however post that the chants of "Stop the Steal" that day were "indescribable."

That refrain, believe it or not, can be traced all the way back to the apparent ears beginning of Bostic and Alexander's relationship. One of the first tweets from the "Daniel's Lover" fan account is a retweet of an uncannily prescient post from Curtis Bostic, Daniel's dad, whose underdog campaign had just hired Akbar, perhaps unofficially.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." - Benjamin Franklin
10:47 AM · Jan 22, 2013·Twitter for iPhone

Alexander could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mark Meadows could face criminal exposure for his role in Trump's Georgia phone call

In the wake of last Wednesday's attack on the Capitol, President Trump is reported to have compiled a lengthy list of potential subjects of presidential pardons, including top aides, outside advisers, family members, rappers and other celebrities, and himself. Among those on the list is current White House Chief of Staff and former North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows, who has so far not been accused of a crime, but could be in jeopardy for his role in the now-infamous phone call during which Trump pressured Georgia's secretary of state to "find" votes for him, an apparent solicitation of fraud.

In addition to potential criminal exposure, Meadows identified himself in his White House capacity during an overtly political conversation and would appear to have violated the Hatch Act, a federal statute that the Trump administration has rendered virtually meaningless. Trump's pardon power would not affect any possible civil action on campaign finance violations that might result from a complaint that a watchdog group filed against Meadows with the Federal Election Commission this fall, based on Salon's reporting.

On the Jan. 2 call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a tape of which was leaked the next day to the Washington Post, Meadows played a dual role as emcee and translator for Trump's possibly criminal demands. At the top of the conversation, he identifies himself as "the chief of staff," then lists the participants, including the mysterious role of lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who Meadows said "is not the attorney of record but has been involved." Later, Trump asked Raffensperger to "find" enough votes for him to win the state.

"All I want to do is this," Trump says. "I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state."

The president also warned Raffensperger that both the secretary of state and his general counsel, Ryan Germany — who was also on the call — were taking a "big risk" by not complying with Trump's demands, suggesting they might be opening themselves up to criminal liability. "It is more illegal for you than it is for them," Trump said, apparently referring to unnamed others he believed had committed election fraud, "because you know what they did and you're not reporting it. That's a criminal, that's a criminal offense. And you can't let that happen. That's a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer."

The tape's publication prompted two House Democrats to ask FBI Director Christopher Wray to open a criminal probe, saying that they "believe the president engaged in solicitation of, or conspiracy to commit, a number of election crimes." Former attorney general Eric Holder tweeted that it is a federal crime for a person "who in any election for federal office knowingly and willfully deprives, defrauds or attempts to deprive or defraud the residents of a state of a fair and impartially conducted election process."

Election lawyer Matthew Sanderson told NBC News, however, that it would be difficult to meet the bar of criminal intent "against an individual who seems pathologically unable to recognize his own loss." That may be true, other experts say, but in legal terms would not matter: Trump had been repeatedly informed of the reality of the situation for nearly two months, including during the phone call in question.

Meadows, who pushed Raffensperger for cooperation up until the final call's moments, does not have that same exit ramp available. However, he may be able to avail himself of another ignorance plea.

"It is possible that Meadows could be involved in a conspiracy to defraud Georgia electors of their rightful electoral votes," election law expert Rick Hasen told Salon. "The problem is that we don't know that Meadows had any idea that Trump was going to engage in potentially criminal activity on the call."

Mitchell, the veteran attorney on the call, resigned from her senior position at the prominent Washington== firm Foley Lardner when the tape became public. She had previously done legal work for Meadows' congressional campaign, and it seems likely that the chief of staff asked her to join the call and help steer the legal discussion. Such a move — adding an election law expert unaffiliated with Trump's campaign or fringe groups — could indicate that Meadows did anticipate illegal activity from the president, who one year earlier had been impeached for blatant extortion during a political phone call.''

On Jan. 4, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an accountability watchdog organization, filed a criminal complaint against the president that referred Meadows' role 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." The document also points out that Meadows sought during the call to access voter data that was protected by law.

As for the other possible liabilities facing Meadows, Hatch Act violations are administrative and do not carry criminal charges — but the alleged FEC violations could.

In October, Salon reported that the Meadows campaign reported spending thousands of dollars on what appear to be personal expenses, including for gourmet cupcakes, private clubs, a Washington jeweler and lodging at the president's hotel. CREW later filed a complaint urging the FEC to administer any and all appropriate fines and to take further action, "including, but not limited to, referring this case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution."

The complaint cites suspicious transactions among nearly $75,000 in campaign expenditures after Meadows announced his retirement from Congress in December 2019, payments that extended well past his resignation from the House when he joined the White House on March 30.

"One of the clearest rules in campaign finance is you can't spend your campaign's finances on yourself," Noah Bookbinder, director of CREW, said in a statement accompanying the complaint.

Meadows' campaign committee kept on racking up expenses throughout 2020, including more than $6,500 in spending at numerous clubs and high-end restaurants. Other charges included grocery stores and the Lavender Moon cupcake bakery in Washington. FEC records also show that the campaign dropped $2,650 on "printed materials" from Washington custom jeweler Ann Hand on the day Meadows resigned from Congress.

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance expert at the firm Harmon Curran, previously told Salon he could see "no legitimate explanation for that one." The purchase, he said, was strongly suggestive of a personal use violation, and could indicate that Meadows had made false statements to the FEC, another crime.

Hand, 87, told Salon in a phone interview that her custom work for private clients can run well above $10,000, and her website showcases a number of individualized pieces, some fashioned for members of Congress and the White House. Photos show that Meadows' wife, Debbie, wore a necklace to the Republican National Convention event on the White House lawn that matches one of Hand's designs.

"Mark and Debbie are wonderful clients," Hand said. She said she could not remember any specific purchases that the former congressman made at the time, adding that even if she could, she would not discuss them.

Arrested Proud Boys leader has history of business failure -- and apparently lives with his mom

Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boy leader who toured the White House last month and was arrested Tuesday in Washington on vandalism and weapons charges, appears to have ties to a Republican mega-donor as well as the owner of a landmark Washington nightspot popular among conservatives. Tarrio, the neofascist group's chairman and a convicted felon, also failed to file federally mandated financial disclosures related to his brief, unsuccessful congressional campaign last year, and appears connected to a number of businesses, most of them defunct and none of them apparently profitable.

Despite the Harrington Hotel's efforts to distance itself from the Proud Boys, who in November brawled on the streets of the nation's capital with counter-protesters and police, the owner of Harry's, the downtown landmark bar, was one of the first donors to Tarrio's ill-fated 2020 congressional campaign.

From Politico:

In a city known for its high-powered, wood-paneled eateries, Harry's can seem out of place. Housed on the ground floor of the Hotel Harrington, Washington's self-proclaimed "tourist hotel" where rooms begin at $95 per night, Harry's is a rare dive bar in the middle of the city's expense account district, an oasis of $6 Bud Lights in an ocean of $18 Manhattans. Hundreds of police patches hang on the walls of the narrow bar, which is filled with old-school red vinyl stools and faux-Tiffany lamps, while black-and-white tiled floors gives the place a sort of fun-house feel. The food is cheap, and the atmosphere is casual. "Don't eat the fish," counsels a top review on Yelp.
But what for years was a low-key haunt for off-duty police officers and busloads of tourist groups has, during the Donald Trump presidency, attracted a brand-new clientele. In the past four years, Harry's has become the de-facto D.C. headquarters of the Proud Boys, the all-male extremist group known for its members' thinly veiled racism, penchant for street violence and unwavering support for the president. When they're in town for rallies or protests, the Proud Boys and other rank-and-file MAGA loyalists toast Trump and down beers among the vinyl stools here, or on the patio, under the eerie technicolor glow cast by the pub's neon signs.

On election night last November, a group of Proud Boys, Tarrio among them, were reportedly assaulted while leaving a watch party at Harry's. Right-wing provocateur Bevelyn Beatty was stabbed in the back in the attack. The next month, Harry's was ground zero for more stabbings after the pro-Trump Million MAGA March on Dec. 12, resulting in four hospitalizations, according to district police.

Anticipating further violence ahead of this Wednesday's right-wing rally against the election results — which led to an unprecedented uprising and assault on the U.S. Capitol — the Harrington Hotel shut its doors, and in doing so, shut Harry's as well.

"While we cannot control what happens outside of the hotel, we are taking additional steps to protect the safety of our visitors, guests, and employees," the century-old hotel said in a statement, without offering further reason or specifying the widely suspected true target: the attached street-level bar.

While the bar's longstanding association with the Proud Boys is well known, the relationship between the bar's owner, John Boyle, and the white nationalist group's chairman has not attracted attention.

In February, one month after Tarrio kicked off his bid to represent Florida's 27th congressional district with a 250-plus person soiree at the Trump National Doral club near Miami, Boyle, a D.C. resident, gave the Tarrio campaign $250, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Records show that it was the third donation Tarrio collected in his brief run — and also the first and so far only federal campaign contribution Boyle has ever made.

A few weeks later, Tarrio's Telegram account posted a plea for donations from his fellow Proud Boys.

"I need to come up with $10,440 to be put on the ballot. There's 130 chapters in the presidents chat ... if a fraction of those will give $200 by April 18th we will have a Perry in Congress," Tarrio wrote, referencing the brand of polo shirt often sported by members. "There is no bigger 'fuck you' to the establishment than getting one of our own elected into high office," he added, then pointed his colleagues to a donation link created "just for us."

"Share it only on Proud Boys chats," the chairman told his charges. "I need to fill that bar."

Tarrio ultimately failed to make the ballot, but because his campaign raised and spent more than $5,000, he was required by law to file a financial disclosure form with the House of Representatives. Tarrio never submitted the form, which would have revealed information on his assets, debts and possible business ties. A filing with the Florida secretary of state's office shows that Tarrio is the registered agent for a company called WARBOYS LLC, which lists as managers fellow Proud Boys Joe Biggs and Ethan Nordean.

Further, Tarrio's given name, Henry Tarrio Jr., is connected in filings with the inactive businesses SPIE SECURITY, PROUD BOYS and FUND THE WEST. (The Proud Boys self-identify as "Western chauvinists.") According to FEC records, a Florida company called Spie Surveillance & Automation received $215 for a security system in 2019 from New Jersey Republican Hirsh Singh's Senate campaign. (Singh unsuccessfully challenged his primary defeat in court, and in November turned his sights on the governor's mansion.) While Tarrio's LinkedIn profile lists him as having been CEO of Spie Surveillance & Automation Technologies since 2006 — a Miami company that provides "the ultimate experience in residential and commercial security solutions," according to its website — no business is registered under that name in Florida.

In 2019, Tarrio told the Daily Beast that he was the "business owner" of a website called 1776 Shop, but the company declined to confirm that claim in an email. The outlet noted that the email came under the name "fundthewest," a name shared by the now-defunct business Tarrio had registered the previous October. Florida state records obtained by Salon show that Tarrio's mother, Zuny Duarte, a Cuban immigrant, owns the fictitious business name 1776 Merchandise, which runs the 1776 Shop website. (It appears that Tarrio, 36, legally resides with his mother at that company's Miami address.)

Tarrio's name is also associated with Lunar GPS Solutions LLC, which cites the same address as Spie but was run by Tarrio's younger sister as well as another relative in Sugar Land, Texas. In 2016, Tarrio launched a Kickstarter for a proposed joint venture between Lunar GPS and his company, Spie, for a pet surveillance system called the Halo Collar. The product was equipped with a tracking device and a camera designed to stream a first-person view of what the wearer — presumably a domestic animal — was seeing, and allowed two-way remote communication between pet and owner.

The Kickstarter video shows Tarrio demonstrating the collar on a French bulldog, but his name was not associated with the campaign itself, which listed only Ernesto Maldonado, Tarrio's Sugar Land relative. The campaign was canceled after 26 backers pledged a combined $4,330 — $75,670 short of its $80,000 goal.

As Salon previously reported, Tarrio still has not paid the $1.2 million in restitution he owes to Abbott Labs for stealing and reselling diabetes test strips, a crime for which he was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison in 2014. The conviction raises new questions about how Tarrio was cleared for a White House tour last month, when he posted photos from inside the gates ahead of a violent pro-Trump rally, claiming he had received a "last-minute invite to an undisclosed location."

The White House later said that Tarrio was not personally invited, but had instead taken part in a public tour. A routine White House background check, however, would have noted the felony conviction — which would have disqualified any visitor for such a tour unless an administration official personally intervened, a former senior White House official previously told Salon.

In a further wrinkle, Tarrio was joined at the White House by other members of his group Latinos for Trump, including Bianca Garcia, the president, and her son, Armani Garcia, a former intern for Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. The plane that flew the group, including Tarrio, to Washington is owned by Texas Republican mega-donor Steven Webster, through Webster Air. During the 2020 election cycle, Webster contributed nearly $400,000 to GOP campaigns and committees, including tens of thousands of dollars to committees supporting President Trump.

Webster, today co-CEO and managing partner at Avista Capital, a private equity firm that specializes in health care, initially made his fortune in offshore drilling. His former company, R&B Falcon, was the first owner of Deepwater Horizon, the infamous offshore oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, creating the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The week after Webster's jet flew Latinos for Trump to D.C., Avista announced that it was acquiring the dental supplier Solmetex, whose main business is in amalgam separators — mercury filtration devices which are among the few products to have escaped the ruthless EPA regulatory rollbacks unleashed by the Trump administration: Formerly on the chopping block, amalgam separators are, as of July 14, 2020, mandatory for all dental offices in the U.S.

Tarrio did not reply to Salon's request for comment. Boyle and Webster could not be immediately reached for comment.

Kelly Loeffler makes mysterious last-minute donation to her own campaign

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., the unelected multimillionaire facing a tight runoff against Democratic rival Rev. Raphael Warnock next week, has submitted a number of irregular last-minute contribution reports with the Federal Election Commission, failing to disclose employment information for hundreds of donors in the final weeks of the campaign. For some donors, the reports show what appears to be misleading information about their employer or their position — including lobbyists and executives — some of them with notable names or corporate or personal ties to the appointed senator.

One of the more glaring irregularities is a last-minute donation from Loeffler herself, in the amount of $67,200. While the wealthy former financial exec has made a public show of funding her own campaign, those donations have so far come in injections of millions of dollars. This $67,200 contribution is notable in that it parcels out to 24 donations of exactly $2,800 — the maximum allowable amount. Because the candidate is by default an agent of the campaign, Loeffler can match donor contributions and can accept checks from donors on behalf of the campaign. However, if she does accept checks on someone's behalf, the campaign must still report the donor's identity to the FEC. And if those donors have already given the maximum $2,800, their donations would be illegal. If Loeffler were knowingly acting as a fence for those donors, that too would be illegal.

The Loeffler campaign did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

Loeffler's conflicts of interest are inescapable: She worked for more than a decade at a top global financial firm, Intercontinental Exchange, which was founded by her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, and owns the New York Stock Exchange; now Loeffler sits on the Senate committee that has direct oversight of that business. A number of donors this year have raised eyebrows, including several million dollars from billionaire Ken Griffin, whose company closed a major deal in November that required NYSE approval.

Salon recently reported that among the donors Loeffler failed to identify were several members of the Asplundh family, owners of the eponymous multibillion-dollar infrastructure clearing company, which one of Loeffler's committees oversees, and who have properly identified their employer in other FEC reports this election cycle.

This week, Karl and Randall Meyers, listing themselves as CEO and CFO at XPO Last Mile — a subsidy of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's former company XPO Logistics — made Christmas Eve donations to Loeffler. The Meyers brothers also gave this month to the other multimillionaire Republican Senator under federal scrutiny while facing a runoff in the Peach State, David Perdue, as well as the Senate Battleground Georgia fund, but neither brother appears to have made any donations to any other candidate or committee this year. Each appears to have made only three other contributions ever — an amount they doubled this month alone.

Earlier this month, XPO announced plans to spin off the Meyers' former subsidy of XPO into a new publicly traded company, and both companies will be traded on the NYSE — which Loeffler's husband's company owns. However, an XPO spokesperson told Salon that the Meyers brothers had not worked for XPO in several years. It is unclear why they listed XPO as their employer, and their specific positions as CEO and CFO.

The irregularities come despite what the Loeffler campaign describes as its "best efforts" — as well as readily available public information, including from the donors' own recent FEC contribution history — her joint fundraising committee, which shares the same treasurer as the Loeffler campaign, responded just this month to to an FEC notice that it had not reported employer information for dozens of donations over the summer. Indeed, the campaign failed to identify employers for hundreds more donors in several reports filed since responding to that notice — for example, here; here; here; and here.

Recent FEC reports from Perdue are also missing employer information, though not to the same extent as Loeffler (e.g., here; here; and here). By comparison, none of the recent reports for either Democratic candidate in the Georgia runoffs — Loeffler challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, and Perdue rival Jon Ossoff — are missing any employer information.

An analysis of Loeffler's three most recent reports reveals a number of significant omissions, and shines a light on who might want to fund her fight from the shadows.

Kirsten Chadwick, of the lobbying firm Fierce Government Relations, gave Loeffler $2,500 on Dec. 27. She is listed as a "consultant" but is in reality the president of the firm, which does about $13 million in lobbying work annually, including for industries under Loeffler's purview, such as forestry, healthcare and finance. She has also worked as a registered lobbyist for both Facebook and Apple, companies Loeffler has trashed recently when she sided with President Trump against "Big Tech."

A similar story applies to Christopher Bravacos, who gave Loeffler $1,400 on Christmas Eve, and lists his job at Bravo Group as "public relations." Bravacos' Wikipedia pages identifies him as the founder and CEO of the prominent communications and lobbying firm, which in 2020 lobbied on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America — an area where Loeffler conducts oversight.

Anthony Dinovi, who reports being "investment manager" at Thomas H. Lee Partners, gave a max $2,800 on Christmas Eve as well. Dinovi is in reality the chairman of that Massachusetts firm which focuses "primarily on North America middle-market buyouts" for financial services and healthcare, both of which intersect with Loeffler.

W Russell Carothers, III, chair of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta gave along with his wife a total of $5,000 to Loeffler on Dec. 28, but his employer is not disclosed "per best efforts." The Director of Corporate Development for Sprecher's company, Intercontinental Exchange, came there from FHLB Atlanta.

John Pasquesi, whose occupation is listed as "self-employed," is actually the Chairman of Arch Capital Group, a Bermuda-based global real estate insurance underwriter with about $11 billion in capital. Pasquesi is also the managing member of Otter Capital LLC, a private equity investment firm he founded in 2001, according to the Wall Street Journal. He and his wife, Meredith, each gave Loeffler $2,900 — one hundred dollars more than the legal limit, which the campaign will need to return or redesignate.

Loeffler donor John MacGregor Fox listed his employer as "none," and occupation as "retired," but in earlier FEC reports this year he is identified as the Executive Chairman of Trona Energy. He is also Chairman of the Board of Kona Mountain Coffee, the Hawaii-based coffee farm. His $5,000 donation is over the maximum limit.

Melanie Foster gave $1,000 to Loeffler on Dec. 24, and listed her occupation as retired. Foster ran multiple commercial landscaping companies, but currently serves on the financial advisory board of the Michigan State University board of trustees. According to survivors of the sexual assault scandal involving Larry Nassar, the Olympic gymnastics team doctor, Foster worked in her capacity as a trustee to block an independent review of thousands of pages of documents related to sexual assault cases. The survivors allege Foster "continually demonstrated a complete lack of moral conviction to pursue the truth and ensure that what Larry did to hundreds of women and children never happens to anyone again on MSU's campus."

Another $2,800 Christmas Eve gift came from James H. Drew III of Augusta, Georgia. Drew says his employer is "Continental GA Corp," but he is perhaps more well known in Georgia for operating traveling carnival and midway company Drew Expositions, which issued a denial in 2019 after nationwide reports that the company employed a serial killer.

In 2003, Drew pleaded guilty to giving $5,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Georgia's former agricultural commissioner.

This fall, Loeffler's husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, completed a major acquisition of a real estate firm that marked the first foray into the mortgage industry for his company, Intercontinental Exchange. A striking number of donations have come to Loeffler from executives that industry.

One max-out donor, Edward Inman, is listed as self-employed, but has worked for more than a decade at Atlanta-area investment firm Ashford Advisers, according to his LinkedIn page. And Lincoln International's Lawrence Lawson, who contributed $1,700 to Loeffler on Dec. 27, says his occupation is "entrepreneur." He is the chairman and global co-CEO of the multinational financial firm.

Douglas Neff lists his occupation as "real estate investment" at IHP Capital Partners. He is the chairman and CEO of the prominent real estate equity firm, and gave $1,000 to Loeffler on Dec. 27.

John K. Castle gave Loeffler the maximum allowable $2,800 on Christmas Eve, and lists his occupation as "merchant banker." He is the billionaire founder and CEO of private equity firm Castle Harlan, according to his own Wikipedia page. In 2016 he sold his Palm Beach estate, once known as the "Winter White House" for former president John F. Kennedy, for $31 million. The buyer was billionaire real estate mogul Jane Goldman, who also gave Loeffler $2,800 on Christmas Eve.

Loeffler also received a Dec. 24 contribution from Pat Deon, who lists Progressive Management as his employer, and his occupation as "real estate." A 2019 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Deon is subtitled, "Meet the most influential man in Pennsylvania you've never heard of."

Loeffler donor Chuck Ames identifies himself as an energy trader at Vitol, a firm whose energy futures business intersects with Loeffler's government oversight role and the primary functions of her husband's business at both Intercontinental Exchange and the NYSE. This month, Vitol agreed to pay $163 million to settle civil and criminal charges that employees paid bribes for oil bids in Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador.

Indeed, a great number of last-minute contributions come from wealthy and influential donors with patent conflicts of interests: The CEO of Woodforest Financial; the co-founder of industrial real estate investment firm Black Creek Group; the chief strategy officer of Payroc, an Atlanta-based global payment processing firm whose business overlaps neatly with Loeffler's crypto payment platform firm, Bakkt; a principal at real estate equity firm Huizenga Capital Management; a partner at venture investment firm Rock Creek Capital; the head of fund and brokerage operations & technology at Fidelity; and a V.P. at NextEra Energy Resources, which uses Sprecher's ICE platform to handle payment processing.

George Archer Frierson II, who contributed a max donation on Christmas Eve, reports as a "self-employed investor," but for other donations this election cycle is listed as an agent for Vintage Realty. The Dec. 24 maximum donation from John Ginger lists him as a retiree, but as recently as Dec. 8 he was identified in press as the CEO of J. Ginger Masonry, one of the largest masonry outfits in the Western U.S. Another "retired" West Coast donor, Jim Godfrey, is the founder and CEO of Chateau Retirement Communities, according to the company's website.

Caroll Neubauer's $1,000 Christmas Eve contribution says that the longtime CEO of the U.S. branch of the healthcare and pharmaceutical multinational corporation B. Braun is now retired. But a news release this October names him as a new executive advisor at the firm Water Street Healthcare. Loeffler oversees healthcare.

Finally, Loeffler received $1,000 from former U.S. Senator Connie Mack, R-Fla., but the campaign could not seem to retrieve his employment information, "per best efforts."

Attorney for Blackwater murder victim: Trump's pardons 'a slap in the face' to US justice

With less than a month left in his presidency, President Trump on Tuesday pardoned four Blackwater security contractors whose convictions for killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007 had in recent years become a right-wing rallying cry.

One of the contractors, Nicholas Slatten, was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, and the others — Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough — had each been sentenced to between 12 and 15 years for voluntary manslaughter. Their convictions came after the largest and most expensive federal investigation since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The accompanying White House statement, which came among a batch of 20, claimed that the pardons were "broadly supported by the public," citing specifically Fox News personality Pete Hegseth and a number of conservative members of the House. The statement described the 14 deaths and other injuries as "unfortunate."

The four convicted killers, all military veterans, worked for Blackwater Worldwide, a security firm founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The State Department had contracted with Blackwater to provide private protection for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The company changed its name to Xe Services in 2009, and then changed it again to Academi after Prince sold the business to private investors in 2011.

"The investigation was monumental," Paul Dickinson, a plaintiff's attorney in North Carolina who represented six of the Iraqi victims in a lawsuit in U.S. civil court, told Salon. "To put it all aside because Erik Prince is one of Trump's cronies is a slap in the face to the U.S. legal system, a slap in the face to the Justice Department and the assurances it put in place to ensure these men had fair trials. And despite being the 'law and order president,' Trump has humiliated these families for obtaining justice for the crimes committed against them."

On Sept. 16, 2007, in response to reports of a nearby car bomb, a Blackwater security detail blocked off traffic in Baghdad's Nisour Square to create a safe exit path for diplomatic officials leaving a nearby meeting. However, the guards soon began firing their machine guns indiscriminately into the stopped cars, even deploying grenades, reportedly out of fear that one had matched the description of a suspicious vehicle in the area. The massacre left at least 17 Iraqis dead — all of them unarmed, including a nine-year-old child, whose brain fell to the ground at his father's feet. The official number is uncertain, however, because of the difficulties the chaotic scene presented for investigators: Some bodies could not be recovered, some evidence may have been moved or removed, and shell casings could not be definitively linked to the incident, because, as an FBI official later told The New York Times, "The city is littered with brass."

A U.S. military investigation found the shooting was unprovoked. "It was obviously excessive," a defense official told The Washington Post. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the [Iraqi police] or any of the local security forces fired back at them." The FBI later concurred, saying that investigators found no evidence to support the claims by Blackwater guards that Iraqi civilians had opened fire on them.

Asked about the deaths in a 2019 debate with NBC legal analyst Mehdi Hasan, Blackwater founder Prince explained, "Sadly, the insurgents don't wear uniforms."

The attack sparked global backlash against U.S. efforts to contain the fallout from the Iraq War through the use of private contractors — many of them veterans — who wielded military power in war zones, but operated outside the military chain of command. The Iraqi government immediately yanked Blackwater's license the nation, and within a few years Prince had changed the company's name and then sold it, after the Blackwater name became shorthand for the perceived reckless impunity of contract mercenaries around the world. Prince later lobbied Trump to "privatize" the war in Afghanistan by replacing U.S. troops with mercenaries, citing the notorious East India Company as a model.

"Prince made millions by sending these men back to Iraq, but Blackwater made it harder for the soldiers to do their job," Dickinson told Salon. "The sad fact is that they didn't follow rules of engagement. They drove around in tan-colored Army vehicles without markings, and most Iraqi citizens didn't know the difference until it was too late. Blackwater convoys that ran through town, shooting indiscriminately, made it more difficult for soldiers trying to do the right thing the right way."

The U.S. refused to allow the four men to be tried in Iraq, and on Dec. 31, 2009, a federal judge dismissed charges against them in the U.S., citing inappropriately handled evidence. At the time, then-Vice President Joe Biden, who had recently taken office, told the Iraqi government that the Obama administration would continue with the prosecution.

"A dismissal is not an acquittal," Biden said.

Over the next decade, as the complicated criminal and civil cases made their way through the justice system, the Blackwater guards became known as the "Biden Four" in right-wing circles.

Prince captured the criticism of that process in his debate with Hasan, claiming falsely that the men were prosecuted four times, which would have violated of basic constitutional rights. "The federal government finally got them in a D.C. jury on the fourth time they tried it," Prince said. Hasan asked if Prince was saying that a Washington, D.C., jury is not legitimate. Prince responded: "A jury of your peers — it does not really compare to the rest of America. No."

Dickinson, the attorney who represented some of the victims, including the family of the nine-year-old, Ali Kinani, told Salon that the criticism gets it backwards: The trial ran long precisely because it was fair.

"It misses the point that somehow there were multiple attempts to convict. The point is that the trials went through, the system worked," Dickinson said. "The case went through the full appellate process. It needed to be fair, and they were given fair trials and fair convictions."

The men were not tried four times. After the 2009 dismissal, the government appealed, and in 2011 the D.C. Court of Appeals reinstated the charges, a ruling which the Supreme Court declined to review. The case went to trial, and in 2014 a jury convicted Slatten, who had fired first, of first-degree murder; the other three men were convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Slatten appealed the verdict, and three years later, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, ruling that his case should be tried separately. The court also ordered new sentences for his associates, ruling that their 30-year terms qualified as "cruel and unusual punishment."

Slatten, who has maintained his innocence, declined to accept a plea deal on manslaughter charges, and in his 2018 retrial was once again convicted of first-degree murder. The next year, a federal judge sentenced him to life, and sentenced his associates to between 12 and 15 years.

President Trump has intervened in similar military crimes before, such as pardoning Army Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted of second-degree murder charges in the deaths of two Afghans, and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher — described as "freakin' evil" by members of his own unit — who and was convicted of war crimes in July 2019 after posing in pictures with the body of a teenage prisoner he had killed with a hunting knife.

Dickinson lamented the effect that Trump's actions would have on allies, and on the way the world views the U.S. justice system.

The men were not tried four times. After the 2009 dismissal, the government appealed, and in 2011 the D.C. Court of Appeals reinstated the charges, a ruling which the Supreme Court declined to review. The case went to trial, and in 2014 a jury convicted Slatten, who had fired first, of first-degree murder; the other three men were convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Slatten appealed the verdict, and three years later, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, ruling that his case should be tried separately. The court also ordered new sentences for his associates, ruling that their 30-year terms qualified as "cruel and unusual punishment."

Slatten, who has maintained his innocence, declined to accept a plea deal on manslaughter charges, and in his 2018 retrial was once again convicted of first-degree murder. The next year, a federal judge sentenced him to life, and sentenced his associates to between 12 and 15 years.

President Trump has intervened in similar military crimes before, such as pardoning Army Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted of second-degree murder charges in the deaths of two Afghans, and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher — described as "freakin' evil" by members of his own unit — who and was convicted of war crimes in July 2019 after posing in pictures with the body of a teenage prisoner he had killed with a hunting knife.

Dickinson lamented the effect that Trump's actions would have on allies, and on the way the world views the U.S. justice system.

In a January 2019 Fox News opinion column, then-Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., described the "Biden Four" as "political pawns who now sit in jail. ... The fact remains, these brave men were sent to prison for doing their jobs."

A year later, Hunter resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to misuse of campaign funds, including expenses for multiple extramarital affairs. He was slated to begin an 11-month prison sentence, until he was also pardoned by Trump on Tuesday.

Mark Meadows has dinosaur  skeletons in the closet — and that's not even the weirdest part

Last week, Lin Wood, a right-wing Georgia attorney who has recently inserted himself into Donald Trump's failed crusade to rewrite the results of the election, attacked White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for reportedly shooting down a number of harebrained, illegal strategies to hijack victory floated in an Oval Office meeting last weekend. (Wood also represents Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man accused of shooting three people, killing two of them, during a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.)

"Someone needs to do a deep dive on @MarkMeadows," Wood wrote on Twitter. "I have heard there are some serious skeletons."

In a sense, Wood is correct about skeletons — as well as about digging deep. Meadows, a former Republican congressman from North Carolina, had since at least 2018 apparently failed to disclose a loan and monthly income of $11,000 related to the sale of a deed to a Colorado fossil park dedicated to promoting the creationist fiction that humans coexisted with dinosaurs.

Though Meadows has not been cited for this apparent violation, it would not be his first breach: The House Ethics Committee sanctioned Meadows in 2018 for failing to respond appropriately to sexual harassment allegations made against his former chief of staff, and for paying the alleged harasser more than $40,000 in taxpayer money when the staffer was no longer employed in Congress.

Further, Salon reported earlier this year that Meadows appears to have misused congressional funds again in 2020, this time to help a friend of his wife raise money for her failed campaign to fill Meadows' congressional seat. Additionally, the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a complaint accusing Meadows of campaign finance violations, based on a previous Salon report.

But at the time of the dinosaur-park purchase, first reported last year in The New Yorker, Meadows was still just a restaurateur and aspiring real estate baron, devoted to teaching his home-schooled children the tenets of fundamentalist Christian creation science. Not only did Meadows score the real estate deal, he also appeared in a documentary about what turned out to be a fake discovery of a real allosaur, which is currently on display at a creation science museum as a purported piece of scientific evidence that the Big Bang never happened.

In May 2002, Meadows, who is a fundamentalist Christian, took his family on a dinosaur fossil hunt for homeschoolers, with the intent to "discover what the Bible says about dinosaurs and the Great Flood." The expedition was organized by a group of self-identified "creation scientists" who contend that dinosaurs walked the earth with human beings, and that their extinction was caused by the great flood of Noah's time, which was no more than a few thousand years ago.

The Meadows family joined a group of about 30 other homeschoolers on the expedition, which traversed a nearly 100-acre park in Dinosaur, Colorado, owned by creation scientist Dana Forbes — property that Meadows himself would purchase just five months later. The trip was led by two creation science groups, who had each promoted the event as a recruiting tool.

The first group, Creation Expeditions, was a family-run operation out of Florida, headed up by patriarch Pete DeRosa, who had a contract with the landowner to carry out six such tours a year. According to its now-defunct website, Creation Expeditions held to the belief that "God created in six literal consecutive 24-hour days, the heavens, earth, and all that is within them. We believe in a young earth that is not more than 6,000 years old."

Creation Expeditions marketed the expedition as "the Dragon's Den Dig," an allusion to the creation-science contention that all dinosaurs are dragons (although, strangely enough, not all dragons are dinosaurs). Promotional materials promised that participants would work with "a professional excavation team" in "the famous Dinosaur Triangle," a nickname bestowed on the fossil-rich Colorado region by actual paleontologists.

The second expedition was headed by Doug Phillips, president of Vision Forum, a San Antonio-based group that published a popular online and print catalog of books and videos aimed at homeschoolers. The catalog had promoted the 2002 fossil hunt — priced at $995 per person — next to a book entitled "The Great Dinosaur Mystery Solved" by Ken Ham of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, who would go on to purchase the deed to the dinosaur park from Meadows. (Ham's concerted campaign to undermine modern archaeology was documented in a Salon report from August 2005, published the day the levees broke in New Orleans.)

Julie Ingersoll, a religious studies professor at the University of North Florida, told for a 2017 article on then-Senate candidate Roy Moore that Phillips and Vision Forum were "extreme and far outside the mainstream of organized religion." Moore had faced scrutiny that year for his connections to Phillips, including for participating in a 2011 textbook which argued that Christians are morally bound not to vote for women, and that women should not work outside the home or vote, among other activities.

(Phillips resigned from Vision Forum after confessing to an affair with a girl who later alleged in a lawsuit that Phillips began grooming her when she was fifteen.)

The documentary was Phillips' idea. The movie, "Raising the Allosaur: The True Story of a Rare Dinosaur and the Home Schoolers Who Found It," was intended to show homeschool students discovering an allosaur skeleton, believed to have lived about 150 million years ago, which the children would then "scientifically" prove had actually died 6,000 years ago in the Biblical flood.

Meadows and his family, including his wife, mother and two children, make appearances throughout the video, but Meadows nabbed a pivotal role. On the final day of the dig, the narrator (identified as "Winston MacArthur," but really Doug Winston Phillips, who also plays himself in the film) laments that it appears the troupe will not find an allosaur — but a voice comes over Phillips' walkie-talkie: "Hey Doug, we've got a claw up here!"

Phillips rushes to the discovery site, where he finds future White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and his daughter Haley, then 9, whom a Vision Forum press release would later credit for the find: "Nine-year-old home schooler Haley Meadows was dusting away dirt with her brush when she found the claws to a 100-foot Sauropod, presently believed to be of the rare Ultrasaurus variety."

Phillips and Meadows then engage in a dialogue.

Phillips: Mark, I understand that we found a little something here.
Meadows: We did
Phillips: Tell me what happened.
Meadows: Well, my daughter Haley and I, we were working towards the end of the day here, just trying to get just one last bit of rock out before we finished. And so she was back-digging, and we were taking the brush and trying to take some of the sand out and all the sudden we spotted a little bit of bone, we thought, and we found a claw.
Phillips: Pretty exciting. Haley, is this the very first behemoth claw you've found?
Haley Meadows: Yes.
Phillips: Do you think you'll be finding others?
Haley: Yes.
Phillips: Good, I like that. Hey, that must have been very exciting.
Meadows: It has been exciting. This has been the trip of a lifetime.

The narrator then explains that the discovery has changed the course of the excavation, delivering a "resurgence of hope" that rallies the diggers to find the allosaur's skull. The group turns to prayer, beseeching Jesus to "bring forth the skull for the glory of God," so that they may shatter "the lies of evolution."

In no time the skull is found, and along with it "deposits of partially fossilized and unfossilized organic material," according to the narrator, the existence of which "clearly points to a recent deposition."

The narrator concludes: "The search for the allosaur is over, but God has answered their prayers and given them yet another devastating evidence for rapid burial, recent deposition and the Biblical Flood Model."

Vision Forum posted "Raising the Allosaur" for sale just in time for Christmas. It cost $15. Meadows was apparently impressed enough by the operation that he bought the set itself, shelling out $250,000 and entering into a ten-year, $1,000 per-year commercial lease with Creative Expeditions.

"Raising the Allosaur" was successful enough that it spurred Phillips to create the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival in 2004. Just before the festival opened, however, Phillips had to yank the film: It turned out that the skeleton had not in fact been discovered by Haley Meadows, but had been uncovered two years earlier by Dana Forbes, the landowner who eventually sold the site to Meadows. A paleontologist named Joe Taylor had identified the skeleton as an allosaur in May 2001, a year before Meadows' trip. When these facts were exhumed they mired Phillips' documentary in controversy.

This led to a bitter dispute over who owned the dinosaur. Before the conference, Phillips sent out a letter to attendees that said "a series of ethics-based issues have been brought to our attention," leading him to suspend sales of his film "pending a season for Creation Expeditions to appropriately address the aforementioned issues."

Creation Expeditions posted a note to its website claiming that its ministry had "endured an outrageous attack."

"This doesn't surprise us, as we know the wiles of the evil one is to try to thwart the Kingdom advance," the post said.

The allosaur eventually found its way to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which is owned by Answers in Genesis. That group received the skeleton as a donation in May 2014 from a charity group that had bought the fossil from Taylor, the paleontologist.

"It was a bad deal that we had to accept," Taylor told the New Yorker, who said the dispute mediation with Creation Expeditions would have left him nearly $100,000 in debt and destroyed his business. He sold the fossils for about $125,000 to a Christian foundation, which eventually donated them to the museum. At that time the estimated market value of the allosaur was about $450,000.

It's unclear if any additional dinosaur fossils were ever found on Meadows' land. In 2016, he sold the property to Answers in Genesis for $197,000, taking a deed of trust for $192,000, which had a 4.5% interest rate and monthly installments of about $11,000. That deed was released in 2018, and Meadows presumably would have collected the $11,000 payments for the following 18 months, which he never reported.

In December 2019, Meadows announced he would not seek re-election to Congress. In fact, he resigned before the end of his term after President Trump appointed him chief of staff in March. And while Lin Wood's tweet was cryptic, it would appear that Meadows long ago escaped the reach of House ethics investigators.

Trump met with Pence before calling on the vice president to thwart the Electoral College: report

Just before President Donald Trump shared a tweet calling for Vice President Mike Pence to "act" against the Senate's coming ratification of the Electoral College vote, he reportedly met for more than an hour with his second-in-command, CNN reported.

While a person familiar with the events told CNN that the Oval Office discussion was "entirely unrelated" to the demand in the tweet, the person declined to say if the ratification issue came up. Trump soon left town for Mar-a-Lago, reportedly still obsessed with overturning his loss to President-elect Joe Biden. On the flight to Palm Beach, accompanied by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — the former spokesperson for LifeLock brand identity theft protection services — Trump retweeted a demand for Pence to refuse to certify the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, an impossibility that arose from baseless chatter in right-wing internet crawlspaces.

Giuliani will spend the holidays at the outgoing president's Mar-a-Lago club, where the two men will likely discuss the limited post-election actions that may still be available to them. Trump and his GOP allies have gone one-for-sixty so far in their efforts to sue their way to victory ahead of the Electoral College's vote. Giuliani now faces a defamation suit from an executive at a voting machine company who was forced into hiding following threats on his life stemming from some of the former New York mayor's remarks in those efforts.

Trump has recently griped that his vice president, who as President of the Senate will formally preside over the ratification of his loss, has not gone to bat for him. CNN reported that Trump has raised the issue with Pence, but appears "confused" about why the vice president can't use his role to overturn the election.

Speaking this Tuesday at an event in Florida for the young conservative group Turning Point USA, Pence did not mention the ratification, but promised to fight "until every legal vote is counted" and "every illegal vote is thrown out."

That same day, the conservative Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit against Pence and the entire Electoral College, claiming that Pence should not be allowed to count the votes because states have not "affirmatively voted to certify the Presidential electors" — despite the fact that the electoral college has already voted. The court filing includes Pence due to what the plaintiffs describe as his "legal obligations under the Constitution and federal law" to preside over ratification.

"I can't even describe it," election law attorney Marc Elias wrote on Twitter. "It's really dumb."

The vice president is not constitutionally bound to ratify the final vote. For instance, in 1969, when then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey declined to preside over his loss to Richard Nixon, the role fell to the Senate president pro tempore — a post currently held by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

In a parallel fit of absurdity, Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama conservative, has volunteered to lead a floor debate on Jan. 6, and claims he has the support of "multiple Senators." Brooks recently discussed the plan at a meeting with Trump and a number of GOP representatives, and claimed Pence had made an appearance. The debate as planned would last 12 hours, after which Biden would be ratified as the next President of the United States.

A Pence spokesperson in a lengthy email exchange refused to reply to Salon's request for comment.

Loeffler didn't disclose top donors own multibillion-dollar company cited for illegal hiring scheme

Georgia's unelected Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler received several recent max-out donations from ten members of the Asplundh family, which owns the eponymous Pennsylvania-based utility and infrastructure clearing company, as well as from the company's president, according to two recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. However, the Loeffler campaign filings did not fulfill the federal agency's requirement to report who employed those donors. Their company, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., a Pennsylvania-based tree trimming company, notably settled a $95 million criminal settlement after a Department of Homeland Security investigation found the company circumvented laws to undercut competitors by hiring undocumented workers.

Asplundh has also faced backlash in Loeffler's home state of Georgia for discriminatory employment practices against Black employees and applicants. In 2019, the Department of Labor forced the company to pay back wages to employees of color who were victim of the "illegal practices" at its Macon facility. According to a government press release, the action came after an investigation found that, beginning in 2015, Asplundh had discriminated against 124 Black applicants in the hiring and selection process for a number of positions at its Macon facility. As part of the arrangement, the company agreed to make job offers for specific positions, for "eligible class members."

Loeffler happens to sit on the Senate committee that oversees labor and the Senate's forestry subcommittee, which oversees aspects of Asplundh's business. The federal government is also an Asplundh customer, with contracts for infrastructure work through the Department of Energy.

Despite what the Loeffler campaign describes as its "best efforts" — as well as readily available public information, including from the donors' own recent FEC contribution history as well as from the company itself — Loeffler's joint fundraising committee, which shares the same treasurer as the Loeffler campaign, responded to an FEC notice that it had not reported employer information for dozens of donations over the summer.

In addition to the Asplundhs, Loeffler's campaign failed to provide employer information for more than 100 donors in its latest report. Indeed, the campaign for the multimillionaire appointed by Georgia's GOP governor failed to identify employers for hundreds more donors in several reports filed since responding to the FEC notice — for example, here; here; here; and here.

Loeffler happens to sit on the Senate committee that oversees labor and the Senate's forestry subcommittee, which oversees aspects of Asplundh's business. The federal government is also an Asplundh customer, with contracts for infrastructure work through the Department of Energy.

Despite what the Loeffler campaign describes as its "best efforts" — as well as readily available public information, including from the donors' own recent FEC contribution history as well as from the company itself — Loeffler's joint fundraising committee, which shares the same treasurer as the Loeffler campaign, responded to an FEC notice that it had not reported employer information for dozens of donations over the summer.

In addition to the Asplundhs, Loeffler's campaign failed to provide employer information for more than 100 donors in its latest report. Indeed, the campaign for the multimillionaire appointed by Georgia's GOP governor failed to identify employers for hundreds more donors in several reports filed since responding to the FEC notice — for example, here; here; here; and here.

"The FEC will definitely be asking the Loeffler campaign for an explanation for why it failed to provide occupation and employer information for such a large number of contributors," Kappel said.

Loeffler, a former top executive at a financial multinational whose husband chairs the New York Stock Exchange, has for months faced scrutiny from the media, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for well-timed stock transactions made in advance of the coronavirus epidemic. Last week, Salon reported on millions of dollars in donations to a Loeffler-backing super PAC from billionaire hedge fund exec Ken Griffin, who had business before the NYSE. The Senator also happens to sit on the committee that has direct oversight of her husband's companies and her former colleagues and Wall Street associates, and she was also a member of the subcommittee that focused specifically on the subject, only stepping aside after her trades became public. That same committee also has jurisdiction over her brother's agriculture operation in Illinois, which has received millions of dollars in government funds.

A Reuters report two months ago married the two subjects: Members of the Asplundh family have been in talks with investment bankers about a sale in anticipation of possible tax hikes under a Biden administration. The article cites a senior partner at investment firm PJT Partners named David Perdue, son of the Georgia Senator who has also been investigated amid allegations of insider trading.

"Since the summer we have seen a lot of dialogue from family offices about exploring a sale of some assets. Many of these investors are sophisticated about how they handle their affairs from a tax perspective," Perdue told the outlet.

In late November, two days before the first Asplundh maximum contributions to Loeffler rolled in, the company's PAC reported that it only had $1,100 in its account. None of the family donors gave to Loeffler before the general election, according to FEC records.

Trump's tangled relationship with the Saudi royal family now includes extensive cover-ups for multiple murders

One year ago, three U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack at Pensacola Naval Air Station by an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force, who had been coordinating with al-Qaida operatives for years while completing a pilot training program at the base. Earlier this month the three service members were posthumously honored with the Purple Heart. Their families, however, are still waiting for President Trump to make good on what he had assured them the day after their children were killed: That he would get to the bottom of the attack, and that the Saudi royal family — specifically, King Salman himself, the desert monarchy's absolute ruler — would take care of them.

They are also still waiting for Trump himself, or anyone in the administration, to contact them.

Now the Trump administration is reportedly weighing whether to grant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legal immunity from a federal lawsuit accusing him of targeting a former intelligence officer for assassination. The decision could also lead to the dismissal of other cases against MBS, including one accusing him of directing the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The move, however, could also thwart possible legal action on the part of the Pensacola victims, who may be covered under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over a foreign state's support for acts of terrorism against U.S. targets, even if the foreign county is not a designated state sponsor of terrorism.

Hanging over all this is the recently renewed possibility that members of the Saudi Royal family could be called as witnesses in a lawsuit brought against the kingdom by families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

The Pensacola attacker, Mohammad al-Shamrani, was later revealed to have been in regular contact since 2015 with what the FBI described as "dangerous operatives" in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That predates by two years his 2017 arrival at the U.S. on a special visa for flight training at NAS Pensacola, the same base where some of the 9/11 hijackers listed an address.

About a week before the attack, al-Shamrani visited the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, and on Sept. 11, 2019, just months before the shooting, he posted a social media message saying that "the countdown has begun." While officials have not gone so far to say the attacker was directed by al-Qaida, they have said his ties to the group were "significant." No foreign terrorist organization has successfully directed a deadly attack in the U.S. since 2001.

The attack lasted about 15 minutes before security forces killed the shooter. In that time he shot to death Ensign Joshua Watson, Petty Officer 3rd Class Mohammed Haitham and Petty Officer 3rd Class Cameron Walter, and wounded eight other service members, using a semiautomatic handgun with about 180 rounds of ammunition.

The morning after the shooting, President Trump told reporters as he departed for a fundraiser at another location in Florida that King Salman was "very, very devastated" about the shooting, and the royal family would help the affected families "very greatly." The king, Trump said, would involve himself in the effort personally.

"I spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia. They are devastated in Saudi Arabia," the president said. "We're finding out what took place, whether it's one person or a number of people. And the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He's very, very devastated by what happened and what took place. Likewise the crown prince. They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola. And I think they're going to help out the families very greatly."

"But, right now, they send their condolences," Trump continued. "And, as you know, I've sent my condolences. It's a very shocking thing. And we'll find out — we'll get to the bottom of it very quickly."

A family member of one of the victims told Salon that neither country had lived up to its promises. "No one from the Saudi government has reached out to any of the families," this person said. "No one from the White House has ever called us. No one has been held accountable. We're still waiting."

The Navy released its investigation in November. The heavily redacted report concluded that the attacker had self-radicalized, but a synopsis added that "the organizational environment inherent in the aviation pipeline" played a role, and that conditions to an extent were little different from what could lead to similar actions from "our own Sailors and civilian personnel." (The report notes "an adverse microclimate for all students" where superiors subjected foreign students to "derogatory and sometimes abusive comments as well as humiliating public reprimands" — such an incident in which an instructor referred to al-Shamrani as "Pornstache.")

A month after the attack, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that nearly two dozen other Saudis in the U.S. for military training were being deported for having anti-American or "jihadist" content on their social media. Seventeen of them had also reportedly come in contact with child pornography.

However, the unclassified sections of the 267-page Navy report contain just one passing mention of AQAP. At one point the report reveals that investigators had not reviewed the shooter's responses to security questions on his visa application: "The security portion contains 55 yes or no questions pertaining to such areas as terrorism, espionage, illegal activity, immigration violations, felony convictions, etc. The submitted A-2 visa application was not reviewed for derogatory material as part of this investigation."

The document contrasts sharply with FBI Director Christopher Wray's press conference six months earlier.

"The new evidence shows that al-Shamrani had radicalized not after training here in the U.S. but at least as far back as 2015, and that he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP operatives ever since," Wray said. "It shows that al-Shamrani described a desire to learn about flying years ago, around the same time he talked about attending the Saudi Air Force Academy in order to carry out what he called a 'special operation.' And he then pressed his plans forward, joining the Air Force and bringing his plot here — to America."

Wray said that the attacker associated with AQAP while he lived in Texas and Florida, and discussed his plans and tactics directly with the group, "taking advantage of the information he acquired here, to assess how many people he could try to kill."

"He was meticulous in his planning," Wray said, adding: "He wasn't just coordinating with them about planning and tactics — he was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders. And he continued to confer with his AQAP associates right until the end, the very night before he started shooting."

In the days after that attack, Trump, offered a conspicuous non-response, strongly out of character for someone who has often been among the first public figures to politicize a terrorist attack apparently carried out by a Muslim. Early in his presidency he falsely denounced a casino robbery in the Philippines as an act of terrorism, a knee-jerk mistake that reportedly drew laughs in the White House situation room. He once appeared to invent a terrorist attack in Sweden that had not happened, and then doubled down on it.

But the president refused to call the al-Qaida-inspired attack on U.S. troops an act of terrorism, let alone "radical Islamic terrorism." (Barr called it a terrorist attack the next month, following an preliminary investigation.) The closest Trump came was a retweet of a TV interview of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., using the term.

(The president, whose retweets are a cesspool of fringe-right and white supremacist accounts, often uses the technique to create a layer of deniability between himself and the tweet's actual claim. "That was a retweet," he once said, after sharing a tweet that connected the Clintons to the death in custody of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. "That wasn't from me. That was from [the original account].")

Trump's own tweet after the attack, however, only said he'd spoken on the phone with King Salman, who expressed "sincere condolences":

King Salman of Saudi Arabia just called to express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack that took place in Pensacola, Florida. The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.

By contrast, 11 months prior, Trump boasted on Twitter about avenging al-Qaida's 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, claiming that "our work against al Qaeda continues."

"Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the USS Cole. We have just killed the leader of that attack, Jamal al-Badawi," Trump wrote. "Our work against al Qaeda continues. We will never stop in our fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism!"

Two months after Pensacola, the U.S. confirmed that it had killed the AQAP leader who claimed responsibility for the attack, in a drone strike in Yemen. Trump had already alluded to the assassination in several tweets, but he still had not contacted any of the families robbed of their loved ones in an attack on his own soldiers at Pensacola.

"Where was our president?" asked the family member who spoke to Salon. "Where was the man that refuses to lose and loves America?"

For whatever reason, Trump's fight stops at the gates of the Saudi royal palace. For instance, the president took the kingdom's side when it blockaded Qatar, home to a critical U.S. military base. He has defended the country's continued bombing of Yemen, which has created a humanitarian disaster, and vetoed an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill to halt weapons sales as that tragedy escalated.

Weeks before the Pensacola shooting, CNN reported that the State Department and Pentagon were deploying teams to Saudi Arabia to investigate the network's reports that, only months after Trump jammed a multibillion-dollar Saudi weapons deal through Congress, U.S.-made weapons were being transferred to groups including al-Qaida fighters in Yemen, in violation of the sales agreement. The State Department said that the Saudis' "continued insufficient responses" were muddling the probe.

(The joint U.S.-Saudi military training program at Pensacola NAS is a part of the weapons package.)

Trump's deference to the Saudis came to the forefront the year before, in October 2018, when a hit team of Saudi nationals dismembered Khashoggi — a Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident — in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence concluded with its highest degree of certainty that Crown Prince Mohammed had personally directed the murder. (In October 2019, MBS took "full responsibility" for the killing, but denied any advance knowledge.) In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Congress condemned Saudi Arabia and passed legislation blocking arms sales to the kingdom — sales Trump had bragged about repeatedly.

Trump disputed his intelligence community's conclusion on the Khashoggi murder, and the New York Times reported that Jared Kushner advised the president to ignore the bipartisan outrage and support Prince Mohammed until it passed. A few weeks after the murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia, where in a closed-door meeting he reportedly passed the Crown Prince a "road map" meant to help him navigate the scandal.

According to a CNN report last year, Pompeo was reportedly one of only two men in the room with Trump — the other being former national security adviser John Bolton — during the president's post-Khashoggi phone call with Saudi leaders. The transcript of that call was immediately sequestered.

"Officials who ordinarily would have been given access to a rough transcript of the conversation never saw one, according to one source," CNN reported. "Instead, a transcript was never circulated at all, which the source said was highly unusual."

Additionally, CNN reported that there were "no transcripts made of the phone conversations between Trump and the Saudi king or crown prince to prevent leaks." The officials said the radical step didn't stem from concerns about classified information, but instead seemed designed to shield Trump from potential political consequences.

The White House, of course, was not the only party capable of creating transcripts or recording those calls. Whoever else might have them — which would include various parties on the Saudi side or any intelligence agencies that might have intercepted the call — would have devastating blackmail material on the outgoing president. That would also include the Saudis themselves.

"They give us a lot of jobs. They give us a lot of business," Trump said to explain his non-response to Khashoggi's murder.

Though Trump has in recent years denied having financial ties to Saudi Arabia, he and a number of people close to him have had many business dealings with the kingdom. At a 2015 campaign rally, candidate Trump said, "Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much." He also said that he likes doing deals with the Saudis because "Saudi Arabia pays cash."

In May 2017, Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner flew to Saudi Arabia on the president's first international visit. On that trip, Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis — a number since proved to be wildly overstated — as part of an even larger $350 billion investment deal, in which the royal family pledged to invest $20 billion in a $40 billion U.S. infrastructure fund.

Kushner is literally in debt to the company that manages this fund — the Blackstone Group — which over the last six years has loaned Kushner Companies, long plagued by financial woes, more than $400 million to fund a number of deals. Kushner also has ties to Tom Barrack, who went in with Blackstone on the fund. A 2019 congressional report alleged that Barrack urged the Trump administration to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia while simultaneously going in with the kingdom on a company that would benefit from the new policy.

In 2018, The New York Times reported that the Saudis have been ingratiating themselves to Kushner for years. In October 2017, a year before Khashoggi's murder, Kushner made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly gave Prince Mohammed a list of Saudi dissidents that came directly from the President's Daily Brief, one of the U.S. government's most sensitive intelligence documents. Six months later, MBS visited Trump in Washington, but a sizable portion of the Saudi entourage stayed in Manhattan at the Trump International Hotel. The Washington Post's David Farenthold reported that the Saudis' five-day stay yielded a profit for the quarter:

After two years of decline, revenue from room rentals went up 13 percent in the first three months of 2018. What caused the uptick at President Trump's flagship hotel in New York? One major factor: "a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia," wrote [the hotel's] general manager Prince A. Sanders in a May 15 letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post...."Due to our close industry relationships,' he wrote, 'we were able to accommodate many of the accompanying travelers."

And in the summer of 2016, weeks after Trump claimed the GOP nomination, Donald Trump Jr. met in Trump Tower with George Nader — an adviser to Prince Mohammed — along with a representative from an Israeli psy-ops firm. The New York Times reported that Nader told Trump Jr. that the Saudi and United Arab Emirates royal families were "eager to help his father win election as president." It's not clear what, if anything, came of this, but Nader later cut the owner of the Israeli firm a check for up to $2 million. One explanation for the payment, according to the Times, concerned "an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump's victory."

Bill Barr accused of arresting impeachment witnesses to shield Trump: court filing

Lev Parnas, a former business associate of Rudy Giuliani, made explosive allegations against outgoing Attorney General Bill Barr in a federal court filing on Tuesday. Parnas, who is under indictment for campaign finance violations and fraud charges, has accused Barr of timing his arrest last fall in order to prevent him from testifying at House impeachment hearings last fall.

The motion was filed in the Southern District of New York by attorneys for Parnas, a Ukrainian-born businessman who in 2018 and 2019 ran political errands in Ukraine on behalf of Giuliani and Trump. Parnas argues that his indictment last October was part of an intervention by Barr "to protect the President and thwart [Parnas'] potential testimony in the impeachment inquiry."

Parnas filed his complaint as reports broke that federal prosecutors in New York have discussed with Justice Department officials in Washington seeking a warrant for Giuliani's electronic communications, and, according to a person familiar with the case, at least one of the former New York mayor's cell phones. Approval from higher-ups at Justice is required before prosecutors may request a search warrant for any materials that may be protected by attorney-client privilege. It is unclear whether such approval has been granted in this case.

According to multiple reports and individuals familiar with the case, Giuliani's business dealings abroad have been part of a federal probe led by the FBI and the Southern District of New York — the very office Giuliani once led as U.S. attorney. Those investigations grew out of the arrest last October of Parnas and business partner Igor Fruman, who were detained at Dulles International Airport outside Washington as they waited to board an overseas flight. The two men were arrested just hours after meeting with Giuliani at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. According to the court filing, Giuliani was originally supposed to join Parnas and Fruman on their trip to Ukraine, but canceled earlier that day. Two other Giuliani associates also slated to make the trip had canceled a few days earlier, according to the document.

Prosecutors charged Parnas and Fruman, along with two other associates, with conspiring to make campaign donations on someone else's behalf and violating the federal prohibition on soliciting donations from foreign sources. A superseding indictment this September added fraud charges in connection with their company, Fraud Guarantee, which contracted with Giuliani to do promotional work. Giuliani has not been charged in connection with any aspect of the case. Parnas and Fruman have both pleaded not guilty.

In the new filing, Parnas lays out a series of events that he believes Barr helped engineer to secure his silence.

In late September, Parnas received a letter from House investigators asking him to preserve documents and prepare for a deposition. When Parnas told Giuliani about this, he was directed to attorney John Dowd, who had previously represented President Trump in connection with Robert Mueller's investigation of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair now serving time in prison. After securing the president's personal approval, Dowd took Parnas as a client.

On Oct. 8, a Tuesday, Dowd sent an email to a number of attorneys affiliated with Trump's defense team, calling the president "Boss" and promising that Dowd would "eliminate any doubt" that Parnas and Fruman would answer questions before Congress. Dowd then sent a letter to House investigators informing them that Parnas and Fruman would not appear for their scheduled deposition on Thursday, Oct. 10.

The next day, Parnas and Fruman were arrested. Two of the attorneys copied on Dowd's email were the same people who had been scheduled to fly with them to Europe. That night, Barr, who had been informed about the indictment in advance, met Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch for dinner in New York. The attorney general visited the Southern District offices the following morning on what aides described as a "routine" visit.

At the time of the arrest, however, the federal investigation into Parnas was not over, and did not in fact conclude for 11 more months, until a grand jury returned the fraud charges. It is not entirely clear why an immediate arrest was deemed necessary, although Parnas was described as a flight risk — on a trip the president's personal attorney was supposed to make with him.

Days after the arrest, Giuliani parted ways with his own attorney, Jon Sale, a prominent Miami lawyer Giuliani said he had retained for impeachment defense. Giuliani previously told Salon that Sale had been the person who first connected him with Parnas in 2018. He and Sale also shared a significant client: Venezuelan financier Alejandro Betancourt, who was under investigation in a multibillion-dollar money laundering probe and also knew Parnas.

Within a few weeks of these events, Parnas fired Dowd, after what he later described in a TV interview as a jailhouse loyalty shakedown.

"I called Dowd to come there. And I started seeing in the process of the bail stuff, the way things were going on ... I didn't feel they were trying to get me out," Parnas told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in January. "John Dowd, instead of comforting me and trying to calm me down and telling me I'm going to be OK, he started talking to me like a drill sergeant."

"Were they telling you to sacrifice yourself to protect the president?" Maddow asked.

"That's the way I felt," Parnas replied. He dismissed Dowd along with Kevin Downing, another former Manafort attorney. In subsequent months, Parnas apparently turned over evidence to House impeachment investigators, but was never called to testify, likely because of his tarnished reputation following the arrest.

Parnas' motion seeks to convince the court to turn over numerous documents about the circumstances surrounding his investigation and arrest, as well as the investigation (or lack thereof) of other people associated with the Ukraine affair.

To make his case, Parnas must show that Barr improperly intervened in the indictment. His filing cites numerous instances of the attorney general improperly inserting himself on Trump's behalf in other legal matters, such as the cases of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone and Trump sexual-assault accuser E. Jean Carroll. Parnas must also show that he and his associates were singled out for these campaign finance violations where others involved, such as the people who actually made the donations, were not.

The court filing quotes a voicemail Giuliani left with Parnas' attorney, the second half of which was apparently captured accidentally after Giuliani forgot to hang up. In the message, Giuliani asks whether it's possible to speak with or about Parnas, and leaves his number. After a pause, according to the transcript, Giuliani can be heard telling his attorney, who apparently was also present, "That's the soon-to-be-gotten-rid-of number." The two carry on a short conversation, then the voicemail ends.

Kushner and Trump signed off on  shell company arrangements to pay top campaign officials: source

Top White House adviser Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, personally signed off on keeping salary payments to top campaign officials off the books, according to a person involved with the arrangements.

Federal Election Commission records show that the Trump campaign has made no salary payments to chief strategist Jason Miller, who came on board in June, or to campaign manager Bill Stepien, who joined the campaign in late 2018 and took over the top job from Brad Parscale in July. Kushner agreed to both arrangements, and personally directed the payments to Miller, the person involved said.

While the Trump campaign has reported $20,000 monthly salary payments to chief of staff Stephanie Alexander and senior adviser Katrina Pierson, it has not done the same for COO Jeff DeWit or senior advisers Bob Paduchik and Bill Shine. Deputy campaign manager Justin Clark has not taken a direct payment from the campaign since February 2019, according to federal records.

Instead, the campaign has paid these top-tier advisers through intermediaries — some of which are still unknown.

For instance, according to the source, after salary negotiations with Miller, Kushner directed the campaign to route the top strategist's $35,000 monthly payment through Jamestown Associates, a media and production firm where Miller once worked, and which the campaign contracts for video production. Miller, who is currently contesting child-support payments in court, requested the anonymous arrangement for the $420,000 annual rate, for unclear reasons. Communications, court documents and FEC filings reviewed by Salon make clear that the money was paid to Miller's by way of Jamestown. President Trump himself was aware of the deal, a person involved said.

To this point, the campaign has not told government that it has paid Miller anything. Instead, it has stated that its payments to Jamestown are for "video production," without mentioning Miller's name or strategy work. Furthermore, Miller's official role means that he has often directed how and when the campaign uses Jamestown Associates, the company that technically pays him.

Stepien replaced Parscale as campaign manager in mid-July, and allegedly pleased Trump by taking a pay cut when he accepted the position. Salon reported last week that in 2018 the campaign created an in-house shell company called American Made Media Consultants (AMMC) in response to rumors about Parscale's spending, which according to a campaign source had made the president uneasy.

Reports over the summer said that Parscale had stepped aside partly in response to criticism of his profligate spending, which Stepien promised to rein in. In fact, the campaign's expenses increased significantly after Stepien took over, including, FEC records show, payments to a company called Elections LLC, a legal firm that Stepien founded in 2019 with fellow campaign adviser Justin Clark.

Stepien and Clark, who worked together in the Trump White House until late 2018, were paid by the firm instead of directly by the campaign, according to a person involved, and Kushner approved the third-party arrangement. FEC records show that some campaign expenses to Elections LLC are marked "ATTN: Stefan Passantino" — the former White House deputy counsel who also incorporated the campaign committee for Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican and QAnon supporter. Payments to Elections LLC increased from $20,000 a month to $60,000 over the course of 2020.

Stepien and Clark formed another firm in February 2019, called National Public Affairs. A Trump spokesperson told Salon that AMMC does not pay that firm, but would not say whether Stepien was paid through Elections LLC.

By contrast, Parscale's salary came through a firm that had his name on it — Parscale Strategy — which took in more than $47,700 a month until the campaign reduced that by $15,000 a month following his demotion, federal filings show.

Another top campaign adviser, Bob Paduchik, also does not appear to have received any payments from the campaign. Paduchik served as co-chair of the Republican National Committee from January 2017 to January 2019, when he departed to work for the Trump campaign. Federal records show that the RNC had him on the payroll during that time, but those RNC payments actually increased after he left for the campaign — except they then went to his consulting firm, Agincourt.

It is even less clear how the campaign compensates Shine, a former Fox News executive who was on the network's payroll while serving in the Trump White House. The same holds true for campaign COO Jeff DeWit, whom Trump had previously appointed as CFO at NASA.

It's not clear what role Kushner had in those arrangements, if any, but the person familiar with the campaign told Salon that Kushner would have signed off on any and all decisions at that level.

Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh told Salon that the allegation Kushner had signed off on the payment arrangements was false, and said that "the campaign reported all expenditures as required by federal law." Murtaugh did not respond to specific follow-up questions about how top campaign officials were compensated.

When previously asked about the missing payroll receipts, Brendan Fischer, director of the Federal Reform Program at the Campaign Legal Center, told Salon, "It doesn't surprise me at all. The Trump campaign has disguised millions of dollars in payments to personnel and vendors by routing the money through LLCs created or managed by senior Trump campaign officials."

In July the CLC filed an FEC complaint alleging that the Trump campaign had unlawfully covered up at least $170 million in payments through AMMC, thereby keeping its spending a secret from federal enforcement agencies, its own donors and the public. Some campaign disbursements allegedly went towards salaries, the complaint says, such as payments to Kimberly Guilfoyle and Lara Trump, who were on the Parscale Strategy payroll.

Trump is at odds with his own administration once again — over Russia

At a press conference on Monday, outgoing Attorney General Bill Barr became the latest senior official to link the Russian government to a massive and ongoing cyberattack against U.S. federal agencies, even as President Donald Trump downplays the hack and seeks again to shift focus away from Moscow.

Experts have specifically blamed the hack on a group known as APT29, or "Cozy Bear," a Russian intelligence cyber unit that had targeted Democratic National Committee systems in 2016. Over the last week it was revealed that perhaps as far back as 2019, hackers hijacked an update in a piece of commercial software sold by Texas company SolarWinds to a number of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, the Departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security and Commerce, as well as the National Institutes of Health. Nearly 20,000 SolarWinds customers received updates containing APT29 malware.

Though the full extent of the damage is still unknown, Trump's former head of Homeland Security, Tom Bossert, said last Wednesday that "the magnitude of this national security breach is hard to overstate" and requires a response in which "all elements of national power must be placed on the table." On Friday, Trump's U.S. Cybersecurity Agency warned that the hack posed a "grave risk" to national security, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pinned the responsibility on Russia that same day.

"This was a very significant effort, and I think it's the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity," Pompeo said in a radio interview on "The Mark Levin Show," adding: "I can't say much more as we're still unpacking precisely what it is, and I'm sure some of it will remain classified."

The next day, however, Trump, who had still not commented on the cyberattack, undercut that assessment in a pair of tweets, claiming that he had been "fully briefed" and "everything is well under control," and accusing the media of pushing a false narrative about Russia.

"The Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because Lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of ....discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!)," Trump wrote.

"There could also have been a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election, which is now obvious that I won big, making it an even more corrupted embarrassment for the USA. @DNI_Ratcliffe @SecPompeo," he added, tagging Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Ratcliffe.

The tweets reportedly came as the White House prepared to issue a statement blaming Russia, and sent aides scrambling. Officials were reportedly told to stand down, and the White House still has not released a statement.

The next day, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he has "no reason to believe it's China," and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told CNN's Jake Tapper that the president's tweets came as no surprise, considering Trump's "blind spot" to Moscow.

"The President has a blind spot when it comes to Russia, and so you can expect that that's the response that he would have," Romney said.

"What Russia has done is put in place a capacity to potentially cripple us in terms of our electricity, our water, our communications," the former GOP presidential candidate added. "This is the same sort of thing one can do in a wartime setting and so it's extraordinary dangerous and it's an outrageous affront on our sovereignty and one that's going to have to be met with a very strong response, not just rhetorical, important as that is, but also with a cyber response of like magnitude or greater."

Barr, a formerly devout Trump loyalist who was fired via executive tweet last week, joined the chorus on Monday.

"I agree with Secretary Pompeo's assessment. It certainly appears to be the Russians, but I'm not going to discuss it beyond that," the outgoing top prosecutor said.

President-elect Joe Biden's transition team said the next administration is weighing its options, which could include retaliatory cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, according to Reuters.

"It's not just sanctions. It's steps and things we could do to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to engage in this sort of attack," incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Experts say that it could take months or even longer before the government has a full grasp on the extent of the attack.

Trump has repeatedly refused to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin directly accountable for carrying out cyberattacks on Trump's behalf in the 2016 election, and has deferred to him repeatedly in public. During Trump's term, the real estate mogul has resisted retaliatory sanctions, at one point even firing back at Congress in a written signing statement, calling near-unanimous sanctions "seriously flawed."

The Russian government has denied involvement in the hack.

Kelly Loeffler says she uses $10 million private jet to save taxpayers — but they're still covering her flights to DC

Three days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke a story in which a spokesperson for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., said she used her private jet to "save taxpayer money," the unelected Republican took a taxpayer-funded commercial flight from Atlanta to Washington. Three days later, she took another one home.

In all, Loeffler has taken at least two dozen taxpayer-backed commercial flights between back and forth to Washington after claiming her personal airplane was an asset that benefited the people she served, according to biannual reports published by the secretary of the Senate.

The latest of those reports covers expenditures up to Sept. 1; it is unclear how many times Loeffler has flown on commercial aircraft since then.

Senators and their staff can avail themselves of public funds for travel that is deemed necessary to their government jobs. Conversely, ethics rules allow Loeffler to use her private plane for government business as long as she doesn't expense it to her government account. Aides told the Atlanta paper in February that the "majority" of her private flights are her trips between Atlanta and Washington, adding that the multimillionaire "occasionally" flies commercial to D.C. — in coach class, believe it or not.

At the time of that report, however Loeffler had not reported taking any commercial flights at all, according to Senate records, although her staff appears to have taken several.

In all, Loeffler's airfare cost taxpayers $3,665.45, a sum that would likely be substantially higher in a normal year, as the steep drop in demand brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has forced major airlines to make dramatic price cuts.

Loeffler's expense reports show a significant difference in cost between trips taken in the months of May and June, when airfares had cratered, suggesting that Loeffler has not always flown in coach class, as she has claimed.

For instance, the senator's May 4 flight to Washington cost $87.31, and her return to Atlanta on May 7 cost the same amount, to the penny. For her next round trip to the nation's capital, the first leg cost $233.36, but the return once again cost $87.31. These discrepancies, in those same amounts (with one exception), hold true for all 16 taxpayer-funded flights in May, June and July, when average fares between the two cities were almost always under $100.

In July, Loeffler said in a Fox News interview that she had been flying on Delta Airlines, which is based at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the the busiest in the country. Delta's PACs and CEO made maximum donations to Loeffler's campaign at the end of March, as she was working on the CARES Act.

Salon reported in April that airlines that gave large amounts to President Trump's re-election were among the first recipients of corporate bailout money included in that $2.2 trillion relief bill. Delta alone got $5.4 billion.

If Loeffler had indeed used her private jet for the "majority" of her flights to Washington, she would be squeezing in an additional 25 trips, minimum. But because the senator and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, chartered their plane under a company that offers anonymity, the jet is "not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator," according to a database on the site FlightAware.

Loeffler's spokesperson claimed last February that not only did the senator use her $10 million 2010 Bombardier Challenger 300 — which she and Sprecher bought after her appointment to the Senate — to save her constituents money, but that she paid for it "out of her pocket." It appears possible, however, that the couple joined the "frenzy" of Wall Street money managers who leapt at a loophole in the 2017 Republican tax bill that turns private jets into flying tax shelters: The provision allows a company to write off the full price of a new or used airplane against the company's earnings.

(Loeffler's financial disclosure forms also show that Sprecher owns a Fulton County jet hangar worth $1 million, which pulls in somewhere between $100,001 and $1 million in annual rent.)

Loeffler has also used her private jet for campaign-related trips as short as an 18-minute hop from a central Georgia town to Savannah, on the Atlantic coast.

The senator's former Republican opponent in the 2020 primary, Rep. Doug Collins, frequently invoked the jet on the campaign trail in an effort to paint Loeffler, by far the wealthiest member of Congress, as out of touch with Georgia voters.

"Who buys a $30 million jet in secret then posts a picture with their new KIA on Facebook around the same time?" a Collins spokesperson told the Journal Constitution in February. "That's all you need to know about Kelly Loeffler."

Next month, Loeffler faces a runoff against her Democratic opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who grew up in government housing and later became pastor at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Polls suggest the race will be very close.

Hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin is a huge fan of Sen. Kelly Loeffler —  and the timing is intriguing

On Oct. 9, billionaire Ken Griffin, the head of a multinational financial services company, gave $2 million to a super PAC called Georgia United Victory (GUV), which had originally been launched by allies of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp but at the time exclusively supported Sen. Kelly Loeffler's election campaign.

Griffin ranks among the richest people in America, and during the 2020 election cycle he spent at least $57 million to support conservative candidates, most of that on Republicans in tight U.S. Senate campaigns. He donated significant sums to support Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona and Michigan GOP candidate John James, among others. But his $2 million to GUV on Oct. 9 was one of his 10 largest contributions ever, and he had already given the Loeffler-centric PAC $1 million about five weeks earlier.

Most major Republican donors at that time were avoiding Loeffler's race, a nonpartisan "jungle primary" in which she faced not just Democrats like the Rev. Raphael Warnock — her current opponent in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff election — but also Rep. Doug Collins, a conservative Republican closely allied with President Trump.

Furthermore, there was no indication that Loeffler needed the money. She is the richest member of Congress, with an estimated net worth of $800 million. After Kemp appointed her to the Senate last January to fill the seat left vacant by the retirement of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, she had promised to spend as much as $20 million funding her own campaign. She consistently told voters that her independent wealth conferred an advantage: She would not be bought by corporate interests.

Griffin's donation to GUV on Oct. 9 also came one day after the Wall Street Journal reported that one of his companies, Citadel Securities — a separate entity from the Citadel hedge fund, which Griffin also runs — had reached an initial agreement to buy one of its competitors, a company called IMC, for a price "in the tens of millions of dollars."

Citadel Securities is one of the world's leading "market makers" — meaning a company that quotes both a buy and a sell price for a trade, hoping to make a profit on the spread — and the proposed acquisition would make Citadel Securities the largest designated market maker, or DMM, on the New York Stock Exchange, with domain over trades for more than half of all securities listed on the exchange.

But before that could happen, management at the world's most famous stock exchange — a central institution in American capitalism since its founding in 1792 — had to approve the deal. That followed in due course, and according to a Citadel Securities press release, the acquisition of IMC was finalized on Nov. 18.

As it happens, Kelly Loeffler's husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange — as well as founder and CEO of Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the company that has owned the exchange since acquiring it in a $10.9 billion deal in 2013. Loeffler herself sits on a Senate committee that oversees Wall Street and the financial markets.

To be clear, there is no evidence of any illegality surrounding Griffin's contributions to the Loeffler super PAC. As for the Citadel Securities/IMC deal, a spokesperson for ICE, Sprecher's company, told Salon by email that NYSE approval "was a straightforward, staff-driven process that had zero involvement from Jeff."

After considerable discussion off the record, Zia Ahmed, a spokesperson for Griffin, issued a statement placing Griffin's donations to Loeffler in the larger context of his political giving in 2020:

Ken supported several diverse and talented Republican candidates in highly-contested races for Senate this year, including Sens. Collins, [Joni] Ernst and McSally, as well as John James. Sen. Loeffler is a successful businesswoman and an exceptionally strong member of the Senate, and Ken supported both Sen. Loeffler and Sen. [David] Perdue in the general and runoff elections.

Still, the circumstances and timing of the Loeffler donations remain distinctive, and serve to illustrate the haze of money, power and influence that surround the newly-minted Georgia senator, who walked away from an immensely lucrative career as a top executive within her husband's firm when she entered politics a little less than a year ago. Given Loeffler's connections, as well as the government oversight she now exercises over those connections, almost every contact she has with her husband's industry reverberates with potential conflicts of interest.

At the time of Griffin's donations, this had been made clear in months of reporting about Loeffler's wealth and corporate ties, as well as the widespread scrutiny she drew, along with several other senators, for a number of well-timed stock trades ahead of the coronavirus pandemic.

A Justice Department investigation later cleared Loeffler of criminal wrongdoing, but she and her husband liquidated all individual stocks — except for their shares of Sprecher's firm, Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of NYSE.

On Nov. 18, the same day that Citadel Securities formally announced its purchase of IMC, with the runoff campaign between Loeffler and Warnock underway, Griffin gave $5,600 to the Senate Georgia Battleground Fund, a PAC established to support both Loeffler and Perdue (who also faces a Jan. 5 runoff). That curious amount may reflect a misunderstanding: A PAC can accept much larger sums, but in this instance Griffin gave the maximum any individual could have donated directly to the two runoff candidates.

The NYSE says that DMM firms like Citadel Securities are "the cornerstone of the NYSE market model." DMMs analyze market data to match buyers with sellers, executing trades both manually and electronically in real time, sometimes in flashes of a second. Their matchmaking also helps limit volatility, such as during this year, which has proved a boom time for Citadel. In return, DMMs collect small fees on massive numbers of transactions, scrape potentially useful data and, to some degree, shape markets.

Citadel Securities, however, also excels in high-frequency trading, where nanoseconds can make a difference. The combination presents the firm with a virtually inimitable advantage that has vaulted it to the top of its industry.

Ben Edwards, a securities law expert and professor at University of Las Vegas Nevada School of Law, told Salon that Citadel's purchase of IMC would give it a greater presence into the market, especially with the recent rise of app-based trading, an emergent focus for Citadel.

"As Citadel grows in size, its view of the market also expands — likely allowing Citadel to become even more efficient in market making and high-speed trading," Edwards said. "As retail trading expands with apps like Robinhood, market makers should profit significantly by executing uninformed trades."

Citadel Securities' buyout of IMC was a consequential transaction, according to the Wall Street Journal. It reduced the number of DMM firms on the world's most famous stock exchange from four to three, and gave Citadel oversight of daily transactions for more than 60% of NYSE listings, "potentially raising concerns that the DMM business is becoming overly concentrated," the Journal reported.

That consolidation was unlikely to impact the real-time experience of regular investors, Edwards told Salon, but the NYSE might see it as beneficial synchronicity.

"The NYSE may actually welcome Citadel's acquisition of a market maker because it aligns their interests to a greater degree," he said. "Although Citadel and NYSE may not always agree, Citadel's purchase of a NYSE market maker likely means that Citadel isn't going to undermine the NYSE or try to shift order flow away from the NYSE. If they did, it would result in less business for their market-making subsidiary."

Last year Citadel joined a number of other major firms — such as Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan, Fidelity Investments and Bank of America — in opening its own exchange, MEMX, that would compete with the NYSE directly.

"We will not fight it," Sprecher said on a call with investors after the MEMX announcement, a notably different approach than his purported detachment from Citadel Securities' bid for IMC. "We think it has spillover benefits for the New York Stock Exchange."

Sprecher and Griffin were the top two donors to Georgia United Victory, the pro-Loeffler PAC. The third-biggest donor gave $500,000. Again, Griffin was one of the biggest individual donors of the 2020 election cycle, ranking sixth out of all Americans, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets. Sprecher, too, has spent tens of millions of dollars, much of it on his wife's campaign.

But it's also true that before the Nov. 3 general election, GUV apparently received contributions from only a few donors. In the four months between the PAC's July launch and Election Day, Griffin and Sprecher were among only 26 contributors. Griffin's $3 million was exceeded only by Sprecher's $10.5 million, with all other GUV donors chipping in a combined total of about $3 million.

Otherwise, as mentioned above, major Republican donors mostly stayed away from Loeffler during the "jungle primary." That wasn't true of Griffin: Two of his 10 largest donations went to Loeffler, with the rest going to national Republican-oriented committees and to a PAC supporting John James, the Republican candidate taking on Democratic Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan.

In the period before the Nov. 3 election, GUV entirely deployed its resources in going after Rep. Doug Collins, Loeffler's principal Republican opponent, and did not spend a dime attacking Warnock or any other Democrat. From Election Day onward, GUV raised only about $2 million — and that came from 850 individual contributions, which together account for less than Griffin's two contributions before the election.

Collins attacked Loeffler's wealth and her stock trading scandal throughout the fall campaign. "Raising money — especially from small donors — is a great barometer of support and it is clear that Doug has a dedicated grassroots army marching with him," Collins campaign spokesperson Dan McLagan told ABC News in July. "Kelly Loeffler is mainly supported by Kelly Loeffler, her super wealthy stock-exchange-owning husband and a bunch of lobbyists. She leads a very small and lonely parade."

Collins, however, had also vigorously supported President Trump's 2017 tax bill, which disproportionately benefited corporate and financial interests and multinational firms. Between 2014 and 2016, Collins voted against multiple efforts to close offshore tax loopholes like the ones Loeffler and Sprecher have so successfully marketed through Intercontinental Exchange.

In other words, there are no obvious political or ideological reasons why Ken Griffin would value Kelly Loeffler so much higher than Doug Collins, or why he was evidently so much more invested in her success than were other GOP mega-donors. As noted above, however, Loeffler sits on the Senate committee that conducts oversight of stock trading.

"It's safe to assume that the donations are being made because Citadel stands to benefit by keeping her in office," Edwards told Salon. "It may be as simple as desiring to keep Republican control over the Senate. If Sen. Sherrod Brown [a liberal Ohio Democrat] gained control of the Senate Banking Committee, it could create political risk and increased oversight for the industry. Griffin may also believe that she's more likely to understand and support their industry than most because of her prior work and husband."

Loeffler estimated wealth of $800 million makes her by far the richest member of the Senate, but that's only 4% of Griffin's Bloomberg-estimated net worth of $20 billion, which makes him one of the 50 richest people in the U.S.

For millions of Americans, 2020 has been a financial nightmare, but for Griffin — who last year bought the most expensive home in the country, a Manhattan penthouse — it has been a bonanza. The acceleration in stock transactions has made Citadel Securities one of the financial world's biggest winners of 2020: The firm doubled its profits in the first half of the year as compared to 2019, increasing Griffin's personal net worth by about a third, or $5 billion, according to Bloomberg.

"Sen. Loeffler's close familial ties to market makers and the NYSE may make it less likely that she'd consider policy reforms which might benefit the public and hurt Griffin's business," Edwards said. "For example, a transaction-based tax would likely significantly shrink overall trading volume. That isn't something I'd expect her, Griffin or the NYSE to support."

While Griffin's $3 million might seem like pocket change for someone with his immense wealth, it is not paltry to most Americans, or to most political campaigns. Loeffler's campaign, for instance, raised $28 million in total, and only $3.8 million of that amount came from individual contributions. Another $23 million came from the candidate herself.

The Loeffler campaign did not reply to Salon's request for comment. Citadel Securities eventually provided a comment from Griffin's spokesperson, printed above in full.

How a Proud Boys leader with a felony record got into the White House

The chairman of the white nationalist Proud Boys group, a convicted felon, posted photos from inside the White House gates ahead of a violent pro-Trump rally in Washington DC on Saturday, raising new questions about the president's apparent embrace of the right-wing agitators.

Enrique Tarrio revealed that he visited the executive mansion on Saturday after receiving a "last-minute invite to an undisclosed location." The White House later said that Tarrio had not been invited, but had instead taken part in a holiday tour. "He was on a public White House Christmas tour," White House spokesperson Judd Deere said over the weekend. "He did not have a meeting with the president, nor did the White House invite him."

White House public tours are self-guided, and anyone who wants one, including Christmas tours, must apply no fewer than 21 days ahead of their booking date because the application includes a security form and background check. Hopefuls with a felony are generally denied, a former Trump White House official told Salon, unless a senior member of the administration intervenes.

In 2013, Tarrio, also known as Henry Tarrio Jr, was convicted of two class C, one class D and one class E felonies for stealing and reselling $1.2 million worth of diabetes test strips from Abbott Labs, and served 16 months in federal prison. Court records show that he was released in December 2014 with two years probation, and ordered to pay restitution for the full $1.2 million.

On Saturday, Tarrio was accompanied to the executive mansion by other members of Latinos for Trump, including Bianca Garcia, the president of the group, and her son, Armani Garcia, a former intern for Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. It is unclear if or when Latinos for Trump applied for its White House tour, and unclear why Tarrio received a security pass.

In the past, people who have been invited to the White House specifically because of their work on criminal justice reform have been denied entry. For instance, Vicki Lopez, a former county commissioner in Florida who had been previously sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for mail fraud, was not allowed into the Obama White House in 2009, despite receiving a commutation from former President Bill Clinton. People with prior convictions who are able to gain entry are generally given special badges and personal escorts. It would be highly unusual for someone with Tarrio's criminal history to get inside the White House without someone high up in the administration personally pulling strings, according to the former White House official.

A White House spokesperson declined to reply when asked who had checked Tarrio in on Saturday: The East Wing, where visitors usually enter, or the Executive Office of the President.

During the first presidential debate in September, Trump had the opportunity to denounce white supremacists and violent far-right groups — specifically, Democratic opponent Joe Biden invited him to condemn The Proud Boys. Trump did not denounce the group but told them "stand back and stand by," a directive that the group took as an endorsement. The Proud Boys Telegram account wrote, "standing down and standing by sir." Another known account incorporated a version of the phrase — "Stand back. Stand by" — into a new group logo.

"I think this 'stand back, stand by' thing will be another Proud Boy saying," Tarrio told The Daily Beast. (The Beast pointed out that previous slogans were: "The West Is the Best," and the warning "F*ck Around and Find Out.")

Trump eventually condemned the group in a Fox News interview two days later but he also claimed he knew "almost nothing" about them. "I condemn the Proud Boys," Trump said. "I don't know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that."

The Proud Boys self-identify as "Western chauvinists," but deny being part of the racist alt-right. Members claim they are instead simply a men's group that promotes an "anti-political correctness" and "anti-white guilt" ideology, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On his 2020 Ballotpedia candidate questionnaire, Tarrio cited as his favorite book Pat Buchanan's 2001 "The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization."

"This book shows the growing problems and divide in our country," Tarrio wrote. "It allows me to learn how to find solutions to conserve our nation and restore the love we have for it. We are not a perfect nation, but we must strive everyday to get as close to perfection as possible."

The group's initiation process demands aspirants to, among other things, denounce masturbation and recite five brands of breakfast cereal while fighting off an attack from other members. The final requirement for membership involves "a major fight for the cause," founder Gavin McInnes told in a 2017 interview.

"You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa" and possibly get arrested, McInnes explained.

"Their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions," the SPLC says on its profile of the group. "Rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric."

In 2017, Proud Boys marched at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virg., but after a neo-Nazi terrorist attack on counter-protesters left one woman dead, the group's founder Gavin McInness sought to create distance from the white supremacist movement. In recent months, members have shown up to counter Black Lives Matter protests, and last month President Trump shared a video of a post-election Proud Boys brawl in D.C., selectively edited to make it appear that a member was a victim, not an instigator.

The group has held rallies where hundreds of members attended, many of them armed. However, its chairman, Tarrio, cannot legally own a gun, because he is a convicted felon. He often appears in photographs wearing a tactical vest with a fruit-flavored malted alcoholic beverage tucked into a front pocket.

The Proud Boys also have ties to longtime Trump associate and convicted felon Roger Stone, and they are open about its support for the outgoing president. Another leader, Joe Biggs, boasted last year that he was having dinner with Trump at the president's D.C. hotel, and shared a picture of himself seated beside Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Trump's official schedule that evening included "remarks at a fundraising committee reception" at Trump International Hotel at 8:00 PM.
Tarrio's Saturday visit coincided with a rally in the nation's capital where thousands of right-wing protesters, including several hundred Proud Boys, a number of them dressed in tactical vests and fatigues, took to the streets to protest Trump's election defeat.

This January, Tarrio launched his ill-fated congressional campaign with a launch party at Trump National Doral in Miami on Jan. 25. (Tarrio had to accept Roger Stone's endorsement in absentia that evening, as the Trump confidant had been arrested that morning.) About 300 people attended the event, which caught the tail end of the Republican National Committee's winter meeting and ended with fireworks.

However, his campaign's finance records do not indicate any payments on the night other than a $900 expense on Jan. 27 to Trump's BLT Prime restaurant in Washington, D.C. (There is a BLT Prime at Trump's Doral club as well.) Tarrio later bragged that "We exceeded our expectation by three-fold with 250+ in the building."

A White House spokesperson referred Salon's questions about security checks to the U.S. Secret Service. The Secret Service did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

Kelly Loeffler's campaign condemns photo with longtime KKK member convicted of beating a Black man

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the unelected multimillionaire Georgia Republican facing a critical runoff election in January, says she had "no idea" that the supporter she recently posed for a selfie with is a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

"Kelly had no idea who that was, and if she had she would have kicked him out immediately because we condemn in the most vociferous terms everything that he stands for," Stephen Lawson, a Loeffler campaign spokesperson, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday. At a Friday campaign event, Loeffler posed for a photo with Chester Doles, a violent former Klansman with longstanding ties to neo-Nazi groups. The picture with Loeffler was captioned: "Kelly [Loeffler] and I. Save America, stop Socialism!"

While Loeffler's campaign now denies it knew about Doles background before the senator smiled for a picture by his side, the photo drew swift backlash amid the heated Senate runoff that pits Loeffler against Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Black pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, Martin Luther King Jr's old church in Atlanta. In a debate against Loeffler last week, Warnock hit the appointed senator for her record on race.

"She used her enormous privilege and power as a United States senator to pick a fight with the Black women on her team," he said. "She says she is against racism, and that racism has no place. But she welcomed the support of a QAnon conspiracy theorist, and she sat down with a white supremacist for an interview," he added, apparently in reference to Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and One American News Network host Jack Posobiec.

For his part, Doles told the Associated Press that he had "publicly renounced racism on several occasions in the past couple of years." He added that he had attended a "redemption service," where he stood "in front of an all-Black congregation and told my story and renounced all racism and asked for God's forgiveness."

A former imperial wizard for the Territorial Klans of America, a KKK chapter based out of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, Doles told the Washington Post in a 1998 interview that he was a fifth-generation Klansman and that Nazism was "my religion."

"I definitely follow the Nazis. National Socialism is my religion," Doles said at the time. "I believe in it and I look for the Fourth Reich."

His history with white supremacism has been violent. In 1993, Doles was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to beating a Black man nearly to death in Maryland. Doles attacked the Black man because he had been riding in a pickup truck with a white woman. He had been charged with a hate crime, but prosecutors dropped it because of a recent constitutional challenge to that law in the state.

Doles also has ties to Hammerskin Nation, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as the "best organized, most widely dispersed and most dangerous Skinhead group" with a "relatively sophisticated political outlook."

"Not only are we in a Race struggle, but we're in a Class struggle as well," advises one of the group's publications. "This is something the reactionary right-wingers . . . have failed to acknowledge. This is something we will continue to stress! We will continue to focus on race and economics. . . Avoid the Nationalists, Capitalists, Marxists, Left/Right, and Judeo-christian rhetoric, and labor with a Race First motto."

In 2017, Doles marched at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville with the Hammerskin Nation. That same year he pleaded to assault charges stemming from a barroom brawl where he had smashed a woman's head into a wall while fighting alongside the group.

Two years later, after supposedly renouncing racism, Doles created a new group in support of President Donald Trump called American Patriots USA, which has known and extensive ties to neo-Nazis and the far-right militia movement. At some point Doles was banned by Facebook, so he promotes the group on VK, a Russian online haven for white nationalists barred from American social media platforms.

Before Loeffler, multiple Republican candidates in Georgia drew fire for appearing with Doles. In the spring, Georgia state Rep. Matt Gurtler was forced to disavow connections to Doles after speaking at an event hosted by American Patriots USA. And congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, an adherent of the fanatical QAnon conspiracy theory, posed for a photo with Doles under an American Patriots USA banner.

The AJC reported in the spring that Greene's campaign did not respond when asked about that photo, instead calling the questions "silly and the same type of sleazy attacks the Fake News Media levels against President Trump."

However, Greene later said Doles was "not welcome at any events I attend" after having him removed from a campaign event in September.

"Yes, I asked him to be removed. He is not welcome at any events that I attend. Period," she told the AJC. "I don't know him and have no relationship with him. He's not a donor and has never worked for the campaign."

That September event also featured Loeffler. Her campaign said at the time that the senator was not aware of Doles, and did not know about the controversy that his attendance at the event would have stirred.

On Sunday, Warnock, Loeffler's Democratic rival in the upcoming runoff, cited that event when he dismissed her statement about the most recent photo.

"While Kelly Loeffler runs a campaign based on dividing and misleading Georgians, she is once again trying to distance herself from someone who is a known white supremacist and former KKK leader who nearly beat a Black man to death," Warnock spokesperson Michael Brewer told The Post in a statement. "There's no acceptable explanation for it happening once, let alone a second time."

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