Roger Sollenberger

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 Alabama.com 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.

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