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During his FBI career, McGonigal oversaw investigations of Deripaska and other oligarchs suspected of various crimes, including espionage. Now the exposure of his illegal connection with Deripaska may provide fresh insights into Trump's tainted victory.
On October 4, 2016, a month before Election Day, FBI director James Comey appointed McGonigal as special agent in charge of the FBI counterintelligence division in New York City, an exceptionally influential job that he took over at an extraordinarily sensitive moment. The bureau already had open investigations of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican adversary Trump. The Clinton investigation concerned "her emails," of course, and the Trump investigation involved his campaign's Russian connections.
What followed McGonigal's sudden ascent to power in the New York FBI office were two seemingly separate incidents, occurring days before the election, that had a fateful impact. On October 28, Comey sent a letter to the Congress publicly announcing that the bureau had resumed its investigation of Clinton due to the discovery of a laptop owned by former Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose spouse Huma Abedin was a top Clinton aide.
Months earlier the Justice Department months had cleared Clinton of any crime, but Comey violated Justice Department guidelines in accusing her of being neglectful about classified information, though it was later revealed that her emails contained no classified documents. (That means zero, zilch, nada, none, nothing.) But then Comey was driven to examine Clinton emails on the Weiner laptop.
Comey's announcement stopped the Clinton campaign's forward momentum and almost certainly cost her the election — even though the FBI director acknowledged on November 2, days before the election, that nearly all of the data on the Weiner laptop duplicated emails the FBI already had seen. None contained any damaging information. Just as Clinton was severely damaged among swing suburban voters, Trump's base voters were galvanized.
While Comey's broadside against Clinton stunned the nation, perhaps nobody should have been shocked. Trump crony Rudolph Giuliani —who for decades maintained a close relationship with Republican-leaning officials in the New York FBI office as the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York — had repeatedly hinted on Fox News in the weeks before the election that the bureau was sitting on a "big surprise" that would vault his candidate to victory.
Meanwhile, on October 31, 2016, the New York Times published a front-page story on that other FBI investigation, known internally as "Crossfire Hurricane," which unlike her emails had gotten no public attention (and inspired no leaks). The headline was declarative and conclusive: "Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia." That false story, exonerating Trump of Kremlin connections that we now know were extensive and incriminating, was pushed by Trump operatives and agents and clearly originated in the New York FBI counterintelligence division — which had played a key role in the beginning of Crossfire Hurricane. It quoted anonymous "law enforcement sources," which did not mean a local police lieutenant.
Before he moved on to other positions at FBI headquarters, McGonigal's career had begun in New York, where he worked closely with James Kallstrom — the right-wing ideologue who headed the New York office for decades. A bosom buddy of Giuliani and Trump, Kallstrom is suspected of leading the pressure campaign that induced Comey to reopen the Clinton investigation. The explicit threat of leaks by agents and former agents like Kallstrom, who reportedly hated Clinton, spurred Comey's disastrous decision and his public announcement, which again violated department policy against election interference.
Damning as those facts may seem, they only get us so far. There is much more to learn before we can understand the full story of 2016. The scrupulously nonpartisan presidential historian Michael Beschloss asked this week whether McGonigal's indictment will lead us closer to the truth. Will the prosecution of McGonigal reveal the details of his relationship with Deripaska, whom he had once investigated before becoming his corrupt stooge? Will Comey provide a full and honest accounting of what happened in the New York FBI office before the election? Will the New York Times examine — and disclose — how that misleading story about Trump and Russia appeared on its front page? Who briefed the Times for that bogus story?
With Trump seeking to return to the White House, the answers to those questions do not merely reckon with the past but are critical to democracy's future. The malign conspirators who first brought that would-be tyrant to power, both foreign and domestic, are still at large.
Pistol-packing Black pastors are fighting to preach while armed — with the help of Republican-connected law firms
The scent of coffee and vanilla wafted from the foyer where the 200 worshippers would mingle and discuss social justice projects after the service.
But as the children's choir sang "God is in Control,” fear filled the church as a sweaty, disheveled man stumbled in, and stood behind the pews.
He clutched a battered backpack.
Congregation deacons who edged closer heard him murmuring to himself. Suddenly, the man screamed, "Get back, demons!"
The deacons grabbed the man and hustled him outside. He opened the backpack for them. It contained t-shirts and a screwdriver. They called 911 — and gave the man cinnamon rolls and coffee to go. They later learned he was schizophrenic and homeless.
No one in the church was harmed that day. Yet for a moment, the pastor, who described the never-before-reported scene with Raw Story on condition that he and his church not be named, had wished he had been carrying his Beretta APX handgun while preaching from the pulpit. He had worked in law enforcement and in security so he would often quip that he had “muscle memory” of a gun at his hip. But he later acknowledged to church elders that he wasn't a skilled enough marksman to shoot someone without accidentally wounding congregants.
The pastor’s predicament — keep houses of worship gun-free or go armed to the pulpit — is no longer novel. Recent, violent attacks on houses of worship — from Texas to South Carolina to Pennsylvania to Alabama — compel Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists alike to protect their congregations while still embracing their missions of welcoming strangers and comforting the sick.
More than four in five Black voters rank crime as their top concern, according to a 2020 Pew Research poll.
And states such as New York, for example, are tackling the problem by banning guns from "sensitive" places throughout the state, including houses of worship.
But not all clergy believe New York state’s approach is correct. They’re willing to fight for their convictions, too: Expect 2023 to bring a pitched legal battle — one with notable political and partisan undertones — over whether guns are the ideal protection God’s shepherds can offer their flocks.
Already, two Black evangelical ministers, a white evangelical pastor, and a synagogue leader are suing to lift that ban.
The results of these cases could have national implications.
A GUN-OWNER’S VIEW FROM THE PULPIT
The two Black pastors suing to pack heat from the pulpit minister in high-crime neighborhoods in Buffalo, N.Y., and nearby Niagara Falls.
One of the pastors, Trinity Baptist Church Rev. Jimmie Hardaway Jr., is so devoted to his Niagara Falls community that he serves as a public school substitute teacher in addition to ministering to his congregation.
His church is near Gluck Park, where volunteers installed colorful playground equipment a few years ago and picnics, block parties, and children’s fun fairs are increasingly common. But locals say that at night, men go there to drink, and fights often escalate into gunfire. Hardaway says he carried a licensed gun for protection before the new ban on firearms in churches became law.
Hardaway's fellow plaintiff is the Rev. Larry Boyd of Open Praise Full Gospel Baptist Church who serves Buffalo's historic Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood — a diverse community dotted with restaurants serving Polish, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi and soul food.
The predominantly Black East Side neighborhood recently won $10 million in grants for streetlights, a new park and farmers' market. But gun violence from within threatens East Buffalo, and last year, an out-of-town white supremacist traveled from across the state and killed 10 people at the local Tops Friendly Markets grocery store.
Hardaway has befriended New York State Jewish Gun Club founder Tzvi Waldman, a leader in Rockland County’s Hasidic community, after meeting in a Facebook discussion group focused on gun laws and small businesses. Waldman, too, is suing to lift New York state’s gun ban for synagogues.
Waldman introduced Hardaway to the law firm Cooper & Kirk — a firm that Hardaway said was looking for religious leaders to be pro bono plaintiffs.
Waldman told Raw Story that the Hasidic faithful don’t use phones or drive cars on Sabbath so they sometimes worry about anti-Semitic encounters as they walk to worship. He says he believes Jewish worshippers are safer if he's armed whether they are praying or communing indoors or out.
His club, meanwhile, teaches gun safety as well as first-aid and marksmanship.
“If you’re prepared to take a life you should learn how to save a life,” he explained. The religious leaders’ legal fight is about defending innocent people from those who will do them harm.
“We don't want to be a militia. We don't hate government," Waldman said, adding that hopes for the day when gun violence will be an interfaith issue with churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples sharing information and searching for solutions.
"Military personnel live in a different universe from ours when they train to defend themselves and others. Not everyone can put themselves in the combat mindset," Waldman said.
LAWYERS WITH POWERFUL GOP CLIENTS
Cooper & Kirk is no mom-and-pop outfit. On the contrary, it’s built itself into a powerful legal force, particularly in conservative circles.
For example, the Miami Herald reported that it earned $5.9 million from legal wrangling spawned by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis culture war sorties, including blocking felons from voting, opposing vaccination requirements and advocating for the Parental Rights in Education bill, or so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill because of its prohibition on discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with young public school students.
Cooper & Kirk’s other Republican clients include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, former national security adviser John Bolton, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Hardaway told Raw Story there’s one key difference between himself and many of Cooper & Kirk’s other clients.
"I'm a Democrat," he said.
Hardaway has no plans to convert to the GOP.
"I just accepted free legal help offered from an effective law firm,” he explained.
But he’s nevertheless been bombarded with right-wing media interview requests.
"Everyone wants to be my friend," Hardaway said. "They want me to say I agree with them on guns. But I don’t agree on everything although I’d like to build on what we have in common.”
Hardaway, for example, disagrees with GOP opposition to universal background checks. He supports red flag alerts, which the National Rifle Association and its affiliates detest. And he supports a ban on gun sales to those convicted of domestic violence which GOP elected officials fight against.
Hardaway expressed gratitude toward Cooper & Kirk lawyers who research the right-wingers requesting interviews with him then share their candid assessments of the interviewers with Hardaway. It helps him deflect those who might make him or his church uncomfortable.
"Cooper & Kirk researched our church's social media before they represented us to make sure we weren't crazy or strange," Hardaway recalls.
Cooper & Kirk managing partner and Harvard magna cum laude alum David Thompson declined Raw Story's interview request, citing a heavy workload.
A separate lawsuit against New York involves the white evangelicals at His Family Tabernacle in the low-crime village of Horseheads, N.Y.
First Liberty Institute, a Texas law firm with powerful GOP connections, represents the church’s leader, the Rev. Michael Spencer, who told Charisma News — an online religious magazine that prints "prophecies" of Trump's return to power — that he fears attacks by "lunatics, whether they be demon-possessed, whether they just be individuals that are God-haters."
First Liberty Institute’s CEO, Kelly Shackelford, has been friends with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for 30 years.
The Associated Press reports that when Paxton took office in 2015, "his first, most prominent hires were First Liberty attorneys.” First Liberty lawyers were on the 2016 Trump White House transition team.
Spencer is also represented by President George W. Bush's U.S. Solicitor General, Paul Clement, one of an elite handful of lawyers who has argued more than 100 U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Now in private practice, the New York Times called Clement a "rock star" among oil industry lawyers. Clement's unswerving devotion to the National Rifle Association exploded into melodrama on June 23, the day he won a case for an NRA ally.
Minutes after Clement's victory, his employer, Kirkland & Ellis, announced it would never take another Second Amendment case. Clement and SCOTUS litigator Kim Murphy immediately resigned from Kirkland and announced they would found their own firm with the NRA as a client.
The month before this legal clash, America was devastated by massacres at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the mass shooting in Buffalo. Social media trolls defending the NRA by posting bogus false flag theories prompted lawyers to debate whether scorched earth gun enthusiasts were a good fit for their talents.
Shira Feldman, an attorney for the nonprofit Brady United Against Gun Violence, said that powerful, conservative law firms can afford to take on pro bono gun cases.
"If a law firm representing the gun industry sues a state or city and wins, they could be eligible for attorneys' fees paid by the state or city," Feldman told Raw Story. "Litigation can be long and expensive, and municipal budgets are often very limited. Fortunately, this hasn't discouraged cities and towns from continuing to pass and defend important life-saving gun laws that keep our communities safe."
LEARN TO SHOOT BEFORE TAKING A GUN TO CHURCH
Paul Lake grew up in rural Alabama with a family who taught him gun safety and marksmanship. A former policeman and volunteer EMT, he trained a safety team for his church years ago. He left a corporate world job to launch Dallas-based Sentry One Consulting whose clients range from congregations of 200 to megachurches of 15,000.
And Lake doesn't believe everyone should handle a gun, "not even in the Wild West."
He advises against pastors being armed in pulpits regardless of their shooting skills.
"Most congregations want pastors focused on their sermons and their roles of comforting and guiding congregations," Lake said.
Lake advises churches to hire off-duty police for security.
Since that’s not financially feasible for all places of worship, Lake teaches safety teams to stop potentially dangerous people before they enter a sanctuary. Doorway greeters and parking lot guides should warn each other and sanctuary deacons using walkie-talkies or phone apps when they spot a disoriented or angry person.
Pastors, in particular, should be aware of worshippers' mental health triggers; job loss, divorce, an IRS audit.
These steps can prove more powerful — and effective — than any pistol-packing pastor.
"If the only thing you know about guns is which end to point at the bad guy, you aren't going to be able to help a church safety team," Lake told Raw Story.
For armed church security guards, Lake and his Sentry employees test volunteers, who must clear their guns from their holsters and jackets, unlock the safety and shoot accurately in less than two seconds. Lake sees the test as literally life and death. He studied security camera video of a 2019 Texas church shooting. In less than five seconds, a stranger whips out a sawed-off shotgun to kill an armed volunteer and an usher. If a worshiper is too slow, Sentry urges him to take an unarmed protective role.
CAN GUN VIOLENCE BRING NEW VOTES TO THE GOP?
In struggling segments of a city, even residents who never enter urban houses of worship can appreciate their impact. Sociologists describe houses of worship as oases that keep a neighborhood vibrant in harsh times by offering free pantries, social hubs, mentoring and a moral compass.
During Buffalo’s December blizzard, for example, a pastor opened his church to more than 154 neighbors without power and shared his family’s stocked fridge for days.
Likewise, when a congregant is killed or wounded by gun violence, the church is there to comfort the bereaved long after the candle-lit sidewalk altars of photos and flowers disappear.
In 2020, pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety surveyed more than 1,000 Black voters about their most urgent issues. Gun violence was a top priority. But 96 percent wanted a candidate who supports background checks for all gun sales, a position the GOP base emphatically opposes. And 93 percent support disarming domestic abusers and red flag laws.
While the days when houses of worship could comfortably leave their doors open all night for lost souls searching for supernatural comfort have largely passed, Pastors such as Hardaway still hope they can be what Psalm 91 describes as a fortress where visitors don’t fear the “terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day.”
While the court battles over defensive weapons in churches ensue, Lake urges church safety teams to remember their primary mission — being an ambassador of their faith, and using that faith as a shield and protection.
Lake explains: "A greeter could say, "Brother, it looks as if something is troubling you or weighing on your heart. Would you like to talk or pray with me?"
A teammate can call 911, just in case. As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10, be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
“All of you are life savers, and thousands of newborn babies are the result of your heroic efforts,” Abbott told the crowd who attended the 2023 Texas Rally for Life, one of the larger gatherings by anti-abortion advocates since the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its decision last summer, which removed the constitutional right to abortion.
That decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case activated Texas’ trigger law banning abortion in nearly all cases. But Texas, nearly a year earlier had effectively blocked access to abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and its own law withstood Supreme Court scrutiny that same year. That Texas measure was signed into law by Abbott.
“We promised we would protect the life of every child with a heartbeat, and we did. I signed a law doing exactly that,” Abbott said, also noting to the crowd that he signed into law a measure that bans mail-order abortion drugs.
The crowd spent the day on the Texas Capitol’s south lawn, celebrating their victory, a decades-long fight to bring an end to abortion. The rally was held on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that was made on Jan. 28, 1973.
Prominent Texas anti-abortion advocates applauded the work of Abbott and other GOP leaders for legislation that banned the procedure. Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, celebrated the near-complete end to abortion in the state, noting the harsh penalties for providers who administer or enable the procedure.
“Let’s continue to make Texas a state in which abortion is entirely unthinkable and where everyone, from conception to natural death, is protected and thrives,” Pojman said.
While Abbott and others lauded the work of the anti-abortion movement other rally participants said they felt there was still work to be done.
“We want abortion to be unthinkable,” said Aidan Garza, of Austin, echoing a refrain splashed on posters and expressed by several attendees of the rally.
Garza said he was marching in the walk to the Capitol that preceded the rally, as a member of his congregation of the St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church. He said he wants to see a federal law outlawing abortion.
Katie Martin, who also came with a small group from her church in Austin, said she plans to pour support into organizations and churches who can help pregnant Texans with everything from diapers to child care so the option of abortion becomes less attractive.
Abbott stressed the need to support mothers. He pointed to how the state has poured more than $100 million into its Alternatives to Abortion program, which helps mothers before and after giving birth.
Critics of the program have said the program is secretive in how it distributes funds and is a “waste” of money. The program’s entire subcontractor process has not been made public and exactly how well it has helped mothers is hard to determine.
Still, Abbott touted the program, saying it “provides for the needs of women before birth and for up to three years after birth.”
He stressed that the state “must redouble those efforts to protect the mother and the child,” but offered no specifics.
Also absent from Abbott’s comments, was any mention of creating exceptions for rape or incest, which remains a major focus for Democrats this legislative session.
But advocates gathered at the Capitol hope to maintain their momentum by not giving any concession to the near-total abortion ban in Texas, including for rape and incest.
Mollie Kemp and Valerie Muñoz both said they opposed amending the current abortion ban.
Kemp and Muñoz, both 19, joined the rally as members of the group Pro-Life Aggies, a secular anti-abortion organization at Texas A&M University. They say their generation is waking up to the “pro-life movement.”
“It’s traumatic enough,” Kemp said of rape or incest. “But we don’t want to create a second tragedy.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/28/texas-rally-for-life-anti-abortion/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.