Despite Europe’s clear disdain for President Trump it seems as though he’s over there every other week. In fact he’s arriving in France on Thursday at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron to help celebrate Bastille Day and have dinner at the Eiffel Tower. Considering that Trump has implied repeatedly that Paris is nothing but a hellhole these days, it’s a testament to just how desperate he is to get out of Washington. The heat is on and he wants out of the kitchen.
You have certainly heard that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer to get some promised dirt on Hillary Clinton that was represented as being part of a Russian government program to help Trump get elected. Now we know their breathless protestations that they didn’t know nothin’ about no Russians were lies, and we also know that this particular tawdry scheme reached into the highest levels of the campaign. We’ll have to wait for the next shoe to drop. There is always another shoe.
There was one new story on Wednesday that added an interesting detail to the saga and points to a possible larger conspiracy. McClatchy reported that House and Senate investigators as well as the Justice Department are looking at the Trump campaign’s digital operation, one of Jared Kushner’s pet projects (financed by big-daddy benefactor Robert Mercer), to determine if it may have worked with Russia’s sophisticated micro-targeting and propaganda program during the 2016 campaign.
This raises once again the question of just what was going on in the Republican Party during this period. After all, it wasn’t just Donald Trump who benefited from Russian hacking. The GOP-dominated House majority was a major beneficiary as well.
Remember, the congressional leadership knew in 2015 that it was happening. Reuters has reported that the so-called Gang of Eight (Republican leaders in Congress) was told that Russian hackers were attacking the Democratic Party but that the information was so top secret they could not share it. As we know, hackers attacked the Democratic National Committee and the personal email of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. But they also hacked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and information gleaned from that hack was put to use in some 2016 campaigns for Congress.
A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016 exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. […]
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
This was the day after news had broken that the Russians had hacked the DNC and Ryan and McCarthy had just come from a meeting with the Ukrainian prime minister, who “had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.”
Republican leaders kept this from the public for a year, then lied repeatedly about it when confronted until someone produced an audiotape, at which point McCarthy, Ryan, et al., said it was just a joke. Maybe it was. But we know for sure that this idea about Trump being under Putin’s thumb was in the ether in GOP circles even as the party was getting ready to nominate him as its presidential candidate.
Fast forward to late August when the intelligence community was becoming frantic over the evidence of Russian interference and Director of National Intelligence John Brennan held private classified briefings with eight top congressional leaders, telling then that there was evidence the Russians were helping Donald Trump and that unnamed advisers to the Republican nominee might be working with them. In September, intelligence officials convened a big meeting with the Gang of 12, meaning the House and Senate leadership along with chairmen and ranking members of committees on intelligence and homeland security. It was assumed this would result in a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” to protest this threat to the integrity of the American democratic process.
That was an erroneous assumption. The Republicans refused to sign anything that implicated the Russian government, only agreeing to tell state elections officials to beware of “malefactors” attempting to hack election software. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly said he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly “an act of partisan politics.” That was that.
There’s a lot of punditry every day bemoaning the fact that President Trump refuses to admit that the Russian interference in the campaign happened, seeing it as a stubborn (and insulting) rejection of the U.S. intelligence community and a dangerous unwillingness to take needed action to prevent it happening again. But really, why is Trump the only one on the hook? The Republican leadership has turned a blind eye to what was happening since 2015. They knew. They may have even known more about it than Trump did, at least in the beginning. They did nothing about it then and have shown no signs that they plan to do anything in the future.
It’s not all on Donald Trump. He may been the principal beneficiary but the leaders of his party aided and abetted the crime. We may just learn that they benefited from it too.
Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton and the true cause of Donald Trump’s legitimacy crisis — his own actions
HEATHER DIGBY PARTON
Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton (Credit: AP/Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)
On Wednesday Vox’s Ezra Klein published a long piece about the current crisis in our government. He wrote that “our president lacks legitimacy, our government is paralyzed, our problems are going unsolved.” I would say that legitimacy, the first of those issues, is the source of all the others.
Donald Trump’s legitimacy problem is not just a matter of losing the popular vote. Other presidents have assumed office after such an outcome. In 1824 John Quincy Adams became president after the election decision was thrown to the House of Representatives. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became president after losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden by more than 250,000 votes — although corruption was so rife in that election it’s fair to say no one will ever know for sure who got the highest tally. In 1888 Benjamin Harrison won 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168, but lost the national count by about 90,000 votes. It didn’t happen again for 112 years when George W. Bush was installed by the Supreme Court after a virtual tie in Florida and a dubious vote count. And then just 16 years later, it happened again.
Throughout that last 16 years questions have been raised about our democracy, including the workings of the anachronistic Electoral College, the fact that every locality and state seems to have a different system, and the way Republicans have systematically disenfranchised voters whom they believe would be likely to vote for their opponents. There has been underlying doubt about the integrity of America’s electoral system simmering for a long time. This year it has come to a boil.
For at least a year we’ve been aware of social-media propaganda and foreign actors hacking the systems of various arms of the Democratic Party in order to influence the presidential campaign. The experts tell us that the Russian government has directed a number of similar cyber operations around the world and that this one was their most sophisticated. Evidently, the idea was to sow chaos and undermine Americans’ already sorely tested faith in our electoral system.
According to a highly detailed investigative report by Massimo Calabresi of Time, the evidence suggests that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had a particular ax to grind against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he termed a “signal” she sent in 2011, which he claimed sparked protests against him. The extent to which Putin truly favored Donald Trump is still unknown, and the question of whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is now the focus of various investigations of Congress and a Justice Department special counsel. The odd behavior of Trump’s close associates as well as his obsession with shutting down the investigation certainly raise suspicions. But at this point it is pure speculation to think about what kind of “deal” might have been made.
This week’s story by The Intercept, reporting on an National Security Agency document that showed evidence the Russian military had made serious attempts to infiltrate voter information rolls around the country, suggests, however, yet another way the goals of Donald Trump and the Russian government were the same. Former FBI counterterrorism officer and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts (best known for his quip “follow the bodies of dead Russians” in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee) raised some additional questions in a piece for the Daily Beast this week. He believes that the main objective of this operation was not to alter the vote count but rather to instill more doubt about the process.
Watts wrote, “I noticed a shift in Kremlin messaging last October, when its overt news outlets, conspiratorial partner websites, and covert social-media personas pushed theories of widespread voter fraud and hacking.” He cited a Reuters article indicating that a Kremlin-backed think tank report “drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election.” The think tank also advised it would be “better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency.”
It’s interesting to note that at the same moment the operation shifted in that direction, Trump himself was relentlessly flogging exactly the same accusation, saying in every rally from October on that Clinton and her campaign had “rigged the system” in her favor. Over and over again he would suggest that the outcome was predetermined:
When the outcome is fixed, when the system is rigged, people lose hope — they stop dreaming, they stop trying
He routinely told his followers stories like this:
One of the reasons I’ve been saying that the system is so corrupt and is so rigged, is not only what happens at the voters’ booth — and you know things happen, folks.
In fact, Trump did more to create mistrust and doubt in the U.S. electoral system than the Russian government’s highly developed hacking and misinformation campaign. Whether they were working together is still unknown but they were definitely rowing in the same direction. As much as the president likes to whine and complain about the Democrats being sore losers, the irony is that Trump himself played the greatest role in undermining the legitimacy of his win.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
On March 2, a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington. For months, American spy hunters had scrambled to uncover details of Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 presidential election. In offices in both D.C. and suburban Virginia, they had created massive wall charts to track the different players in Russia’s multipronged scheme. But the report in early March was something new.
It described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.
As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.
For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology.
Current and former officials at the FBI, at the CIA and in Congress now believe the 2016 Russian operation was just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy. And they’ve become more vocal about their concern. “If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress on May 8.
If that sounds alarming, it helps to understand the battlescape of this new information war. As they tweet and like and upvote their way through social media, Americans generate a vast trove of data on what they think and how they respond to ideas and arguments–literally thousands of expressions of belief every second on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Google. All of those digitized convictions are collected and stored, and much of that data is available commercially to anyone with sufficient computing power to take advantage of it.
That’s where the algorithms come in. American researchers have found they can use mathematical formulas to segment huge populations into thousands of subgroups according to defining characteristics like religion and political beliefs or taste in TV shows and music. Other algorithms can determine those groups’ hot-button issues and identify “followers” among them, pinpointing those most susceptible to suggestion. Propagandists can then manually craft messages to influence them, deploying covert provocateurs, either humans or automated computer programs known as bots, in hopes of altering their behavior.
That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia’s influence operations tell TIME. The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic,” says a senior intelligence official. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. But as they have investigated the Russian 2016 operation, intelligence and other officials have found that Moscow has developed sophisticated tactics.
In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.
As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U.S. and its allies are only just beginning to figure out how to fight back. One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves. Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard. Uncovering “signals that indicate a particular handle is a state-sponsored account is really, really difficult,” says Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which tackles global security challenges.
Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U.S. learned its democracy could be hacked started with loose lips. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election.
What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U.S. officials didn’t know what to make of it. “We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” says the senior intelligence official. Investigators now realize that the officer’s boast was the first indication U.S. spies had from their sources that Russia wasn’t just hacking email accounts to collect intelligence but was also considering interfering in the vote. Like much of America, many in the U.S. government hadn’t imagined the kind of influence operation that Russia was preparing to unleash on the 2016 election. Fewer still realized it had been five years in the making.
In 2011, protests in more than 70 cities across Russia had threatened Putin’s control of the Kremlin. The uprising was organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets. Putin’s forces broke out their own social media technique to strike back. When bloggers tried to organize nationwide protests on Twitter using #Triumfalnaya, pro-Kremlin botnets bombarded the hashtag with anti-protester messages and nonsense tweets, making it impossible for Putin’s opponents to coalesce.
Putin publicly accused then Secretary of State Clinton of running a massive influence operation against his country, saying she had sent “a signal” to protesters and that the State Department had actively worked to fuel the protests. The State Department said it had just funded pro-democracy organizations. Former officials say any such operations–in Russia or elsewhere–would require a special intelligence finding by the President and that Barack Obama was not likely to have issued one.
After his re-election the following year, Putin dispatched his newly installed head of military intelligence, Igor Sergun, to begin repurposing cyberweapons previously used for psychological operations in war zones for use in electioneering. Russian intelligence agencies funded “troll farms,” botnet spamming operations and fake news outlets as part of an expanding focus on psychological operations in cyberspace.
It turns out Putin had outside help. One particularly talented Russian programmer who had worked with social media researchers in the U.S. for 10 years had returned to Moscow and brought with him a trove of algorithms that could be used in influence operations. He was promptly hired by those working for Russian intelligence services, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “The engineer who built them the algorithms is U.S.-trained,” says the senior intelligence official.
Soon, Putin was aiming his new weapons at the U.S. Following Moscow’s April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. considered sanctions that would block the export of drilling and fracking technologies to Russia, putting out of reach some $8.2 trillion in oil reserves that could not be tapped without U.S. technology. As they watched Moscow’s intelligence operations in the U.S., American spy hunters saw Russian agents applying their new social media tactics on key aides to members of Congress. Moscow’s agents broadcast material on social media and watched how targets responded in an attempt to find those who might support their cause, the senior intelligence official tells TIME. “The Russians started using it on the Hill with staffers,” the official says, “to see who is more susceptible to continue this program [and] to see who would be more favorable to what they want to do.”
On Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral in late August, then took on a life of its own after Clinton fainted from pneumonia and dehydration at a Sept. 11 event in New York City. Elsewhere people invented stories saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and Clinton had murdered a DNC staffer. Just before Election Day, a story took off alleging that Clinton and her aides ran a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor.
Congressional investigators are looking at how Russia helped stories like these spread to specific audiences. Counterintelligence officials, meanwhile, have picked up evidence that Russia tried to target particular influencers during the election season who they reasoned would help spread the damaging stories. These officials have seen evidence of Russia using its algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” says the senior intelligence official. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.
Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.) The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why, for example, four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (Google says it saw no meddling in this case.) Researchers at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, found that nearly 20% of political tweets in 2016 between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 were generated by bots of unknown origin; investigators are trying to figure out how many were Russian.
As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.
The congressional investigators are looking at ties between those companies and right-wing web personalities based in Eastern Europe who the U.S. believes are Russian fronts, a source familiar with the investigations tells TIME. “Nobody can prove it yet,” the source says. In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.
There are plenty of people who are skeptical of such a conspiracy, if one existed. Cambridge Analytica touts its ability to use algorithms to microtarget voters, but veteran political operatives have found them ineffective political influencers. Ted Cruz first used their methods during the primary, and his staff ended up concluding they had wasted their money. Mercer, Bannon, Breitbart News and the White House did not answer questions about the congressional probes. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica says the company has no ties to Russia or individuals acting as fronts for Moscow and that it is unaware of the probe.
Democratic operatives searching for explanations for Clinton’s loss after the election investigated social media trends in the three states that tipped the vote for Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In each they found what they believe is evidence that key swing voters were being drawn to fake news stories and anti-Clinton stories online. Google searches for the fake pedophilia story circulating under the hashtag #pizzagate, for example, were disproportionately higher in swing districts and not in districts likely to vote for Trump.
The Democratic operatives created a package of background materials on what they had found, suggesting the search behavior might indicate that someone had successfully altered the behavior in key voting districts in key states. They circulated it to fellow party members who are up for a vote in 2018.
Even as investigators try to piece together what happened in 2016, they are worrying about what comes next. Russia claims to be able to alter events using cyberpropaganda and is doing what it can to tout its power. In February 2016, a Putin adviser named Andrey Krutskikh compared Russia’s information-warfare strategies to the Soviet Union’s obtaining a nuclear weapon in the 1940s, David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported. “We are at the verge of having something in the information arena which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals,” Krutskikh said.
But if Russia is clearly moving forward, it’s less clear how active the U.S. has been. Documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Intercept suggested that the British were pursuing social media propaganda and had shared their tactics with the U.S. Chris Inglis, the former No. 2 at the National Security Agency, says the U.S. has not pursued this capability. “The Russians are 10 years ahead of us in being willing to make use of” social media to influence public opinion, he says.
There are signs that the U.S. may be playing in this field, however. From 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development established and ran a “Cuban Twitter” network designed to undermine communist control on the island. At the same time, according to the Associated Press, which discovered the program, the U.S. government hired a contractor to profile Cuban cell phone users, categorizing them as “pro-revolution,” “apolitical” or “antirevolutionary.”
Much of what is publicly known about the mechanics and techniques of social media propaganda comes from a program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that the Rand researcher, Waltzman, ran to study how propagandists might manipulate social media in the future. In the Cold War, operatives might distribute disinformation-laden newspapers to targeted political groups or insinuate an agent provocateur into a group of influential intellectuals. By harnessing computing power to segment and target literally millions of people in real time online, Waltzman concluded, you could potentially change behavior “on the scale of democratic governments.”
In the U.S., public scrutiny of such programs is usually enough to shut them down. In 2014, news articles appeared about the DARPA program and the “Cuban Twitter” project. It was only a year after Snowden had revealed widespread monitoring programs by the government. The DARPA program, already under a cloud, was allowed to expire quietly when its funding ran out in 2015.
In the wake of Russia’s 2016 election hack, the question is how to research social media propaganda without violating civil liberties. The need is all the more urgent because the technology continues to advance. While today humans are still required to tailor and distribute messages to specially targeted “susceptibles,” in the future crafting and transmitting emotionally powerful messages will be automated.
The U.S. government is constrained in what kind of research it can fund by various laws protecting citizens from domestic propaganda, government electioneering and intrusions on their privacy. Waltzman has started a group called Information Professionals Association with several former information operations officers from the U.S. military to develop defenses against social media influence operations.
Social media companies are beginning to realize that they need to take action. Facebook issued a report in April 2017 acknowledging that much disinformation had been spread on its pages and saying it had expanded its security. Google says it has seen no evidence of Russian manipulation of its search results but has updated its algorithms just in case. Twitter claims it has diminished cyberpropaganda by tweaking its algorithms to block cleverly designed bots. “Our algorithms currently work to detect when Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate Twitter’s Trends through inorganic activity, and then automatically adjust,” the company said in a statement.
In the meantime, America’s best option to protect upcoming votes may be to make it harder for Russia and other bad actors to hide their election-related information operations. When it comes to defeating Russian influence operations, the answer is “transparency, transparency, transparency,” says Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He has written legislation that would curb the massive, anonymous campaign contributions known as dark money and the widespread use of shell corporations that he says make Russian cyberpropaganda harder to trace and expose.
But much damage has already been done. “The ultimate impact of [the 2016 Russian operation] is we’re never going to look at another election without wondering, you know, Is this happening, can we see it happening?” says Jigsaw’s Jared Cohen. By raising doubts about the validity of the 2016 vote and the vulnerability of future elections, Russia has achieved its most important objective: undermining the credibility of American democracy.
For now, investigators have added the names of specific trolls and botnets to their wall charts in the offices of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. They say the best way to compete with the Russian model is by having a better message. “It requires critical thinkers and people who have a more powerful vision” than the cynical Russian view, says former NSA deputy Inglis. And what message is powerful enough to take on the firehose of falsehoods that Russia is deploying in targeted, effective ways across a range of new media? One good place to start: telling the truth.
–With reporting by PRATHEEK REBALA/WASHINGTON
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Jared Cohen’s title. He is CEO, not president.
Why is the speaker so blasé about Russian meddling? Maybe because he knows it helped the GOP win close races
HEATHER DIGBY PARTON
(Credit: Getty/Mark Wilson)
If there’s one thing you can say about the Donald Trump presidency so far, it isn’t boring. From horror stories at the border to Trump’s semi-triumphant teleprompter speech and Attorney General Jeff Sessions being personally connected to the growing Russia scandal, this week has been a doozy.
I was not surprised that Sessions finally recused himself from the campaign scandal. It was absurd that he was not required to do so before he was confirmed. What finally forced him to take the step was the report that he had met with the Russian ambassador twice during the summer and fall, after having told the Judiciary Committee that he had not had contact with any Russian officials during the campaign. Top Democrats are now calling for Sessions’ resignation, and the story of his contacts with the Russian ambassador is still unfolding with new details about whether he discussed the Trump campaign.
The upshot is that at the very least Sessions showed appalling judgment in agreeing to meet the Russian ambassador the day after The Wall Street Journal reported that the director of national intelligence had declared that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. It’s very hard to believe that this didn’t come up in the conversation. Even if the two men were unaware of that comment, they must have been aware of the discussion the previous night in a presidential town hall forum with Matt Lauer, in which Trump praised Vladimir Putin in such florid terms that The New York Times story that morning began this way:
Donald J. Trump’s campaign on Thursday reaffirmed its extraordinary embrace of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, signaling a preference for the leadership of an authoritarian adversary over that of America’s own president, despite a cascade of criticism from Democrats and expressions of discomfort among Republicans.
One of those discomfited was House Speaker Paul Ryan who was quoted in the article saying, “Vladimir Putin is an aggressor who does not share our interests,” and accusing the Russian leader of “conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks” on our political system.
This was just one of the many times Ryan zigged and zagged during the campaign, constantly calibrating how far he could go in criticizing Trump while keeping Trump’s passionate voters off his back. This particular issue was a tough one, since until quite recently the Republicans had been inveterate Russia hawks and the abrupt switch to dovish goodwill was undeniably disorienting.
Prior to Sessions’ recusal on Thursday morning, Ryan held a press conference in which he blamed the Democrats for “setting their hair on fire” to prompt the press to cover the story. That was ridiculous. The press needs no prodding to cover this scandal; it’s as juicy as they get. Ryan also pooh-poohed the idea that Sessions had any obligation to remove himself from the investigation unless he was personally implicated and robotically repeated the contention that nobody had seen any evidence that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
That may be true, and presumably we’ll find out sooner or later. But it’s important to remember that DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, were not the only targets of hacking. Russian agents also allegedly hacked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That story has been scandalously undercovered, something for which Paul Ryan is no doubt very grateful.
On Dec. 13 The New York Times published an article that laid out how the hacked material was used in various House races. At first the hackers just released a lot of personal information, which was used by hostile individuals to harass and threaten the candidates. Then the hacks and dumps by the person or group known as Guccifer 2.0 became more sophisticated and targeted certain close races, releasing politically valuable tactical information:
The seats that Guccifer 2.0 targeted in the document dumps were hardly random: They were some of the most competitive House races in the country. In [Annette] Taddeo’s district [in Florida], the House seat is held by a Republican, even though the district leans Democratic and Mrs. Clinton won it this year by a large majority.
To prepare for the race, the D.C.C.C. had done candid evaluations of the two candidates vying in the primary for the nomination. Those inside documents, bluntly describing each candidate’s weaknesses, are considered routine research inside political campaigns. But suddenly they were being aired in public.
Taddeo lost her primary race to another Democrat named Joe Garcia who used the hacked material against her. And then this happened:
After Mr. Garcia defeated Ms. Taddeo in the primary using the material unearthed in the hacking, the National Republican Campaign Committee and a second Republican group with ties to the House speaker, Paul Ryan, turned to the hacked material to attack him.
In Florida, Guccifer 2.0’s most important partner was an obscure political website run by an anonymous blogger called HelloFLA!, run by a former Florida legislative aide turned Republican lobbyist. The blogger sent direct messages via Twitter to Guccifer 2.0 asking for copies of any additional Florida documents.
By September, the hacker had released documents in close House races in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina, working with Republican bloggers who disseminated the information for them. They also posted information on Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, even though he was effectively running unopposed.
Both Luján and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote letters to Ryan asking him not to use the material and received no response. His spokeswoman told the Times that Ryan had no control over how the stolen information was used. Nonetheless, there were some Republicans who refused to do so, saying it was inappropriate. They were rare.
I don’t think anyone believes it’s likely that Paul Ryan personally colluded with the Russians in this operation. The fact that many Republicans, some affiliated with the National Republican Congressional Committee and a group closely affiliated with Ryan, eagerly used it to win their campaigns is not surprising. But it is highly unlikely that Republican strategists or party officials with strong knowledge of the House campaigns didn’t collude with the hackers at some point, because it’s difficult to believe that Russians would have which House races to target without some help from people with expertise concerning the 2016 map.
Republican congressional leaders must be thanking their lucky stars daily that the Trump administration is such a scandal-ridden Dumpster fire. If things ever calm down in the White House, somebody might just turn his or her attention to the question of what Paul Ryan knew and when.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
Donald Trump’s press conference Wednesday morning was an hour-long demonstration of oligarchic arrogance and contempt for democratic principles that has no parallel in modern American history.
The occasion for the press conference was the president-elect’s announcement of plans to put the Trump Organization, his main business entity, under the management of his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. The senior Trump would step down from all formal management roles while retaining his status as the principal owner.
These arrangements have been denounced by former government ethics officials as a travesty of longstanding norms: every US president in the modern period, no matter how wealthy, has been compelled to place all his assets in a blind trust to prevent overt conflicts of interest.
The event was dominated, however, by the issue of alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign during the 2016 elections, with many questions relating to a document containing unverified allegations that the Russian government collected compromising material on Trump with an eye to future blackmail.
While the Democratic Party has chosen to center its critique of Trump on material provided by its allies in the CIA, the real assault on the public embodied in the incoming administration was visibly demonstrated at the news conference.
A significant portion of the event was given over to Trump’s legal advisor, who declared that the “business empire built by President-elect Trump over years is massive,” and proceeded to explain why conflict-of-interest statutes do not apply to Trump. She assured the American people that Trump “is not exploiting the office of the presidency for his personal benefit.”
Trump aides piled up hundreds of manila folders allegedly comprising documents showing the various arrangements to be made with respect to the Trump Organization. While the president-elect boasted of his wealth and success, he reiterated that he is exempt from conflict-of-interest rules (due to an obscure 1978 law passed to retroactively legitimize the free pass given to billionaire Nelson Rockefeller when he was appointed vice president by Gerald Ford in 1974).
Trump was not just citing a legal technicality. He was declaring the complete immunity of the capitalist oligarchy from the laws and regulations that apply to the general population. All laws and democratic principles are subordinate to oligarchic privilege.
Insisting that he had the right to do whatever he wanted, Trump at one point declared: “As president, I could run the Trump organization, great, great company, and I could run the company—the country. I’d do a very good job [at both], but I don’t want to do that.”
The Freudian slip, mixing up “company” and “country,” was the most revealing moment in the press conference. For Trump, the “country” and the “company”—and, more broadly, the oligarchy—are one and the same.
Particularly significant during the news conference was Trump’s menacing of the press. He flatly refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, accusing the network of being “fake news” because it was the first news outlet to report on the document claiming that Russia had obtained compromising material on him. Trump also made an ominous threat against the Buzzfeed website, which published the document online, declaring, “They’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are.”
There was a heavy-handed atmosphere of bullying throughout the event, which had a fascistic smell to it. There is no question that the administration is prepared to use extreme levels of violence abroad and within the United States against what it perceives to be its main threat, the working class.
The personnel of Trump’s cabinet shows—in such figures as billionaire asset stripper Wilbur Ross, multi-millionaire fast food magnate Andy Puzder, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and billionaire heiress and charter school advocate Betsy DeVos—that the new administration will be one of unrelenting war against the working class, destroying jobs, social services such as education and Medicare, and any remaining restrictions on the exploitation of labor.
Behind it all is an overpowering element of decay, nepotism and social filth—a new low, even by the tawdry standards of American capitalist politics. It represents the establishment in the United States of government of, by and for the financial oligarchy.
The new occupant of the White House is the personification of what has been developing over decades: an ever-increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of American society, and the crystallization of a semi-criminal ruling class whose wealth is derived from financial manipulation, not the development of the productive forces.
The Democratic Party bases its opposition to Trump not on the social character of the new administration as a government of the oligarchs, but on disputes over foreign policy, in which the Democrats happily embrace the opportunity to adopt a neo-McCarthyite anti-Russian stance and align themselves closely with the military-intelligence apparatus.
This is because the Democratic Party too is a political instrument of the billionaires, a different variant on the same theme. Indeed, everything that Trump will implement has been prepared by the Obama administration.
There is deep and growing anger among workers and youth. According to the latest poll figures, Trump—the most unpopular president-elect in history—now has a favorable rating of only 37 percent, with the majority of the population viewing him unfavorably. This is before he even takes a single action as president of the United States. Masses of people are in for a shock beyond anything they are prepared for.
There must and will be mass opposition. It will come from the working class, the vast majority of the population that is completely excluded from official political life. To prepare for these struggles, the working class must be politically organized and mobilized, and armed with a revolutionary and socialist perspective.
I don’t doubt that the Russian Federation employs hackers and PR people to influence public opinion and even election outcomes in other countries. So does the United States of America. But I am skeptical that anything the Russians did caused Donald Trump to be president.
It wasn’t like Trump was a Manchurian Candidate, a stealth plant in the US body politic who would only be operationalized once elected.
Trump was in plain view. He had all along been in plain view. His hatred for uppity or “nasty” women, his racism, his prickliness, his narcissism, his rich white boy arrogance and entitlement (apparently even to strange women and other men’s wives), his cronyism and his fundamental dishonesty were on display 24/7 during some 18 months of the campaign, and it wasn’t as though he were an unknown quantity before that.
Americans voted for him anyway. Slightly more Americans voted for him than for a respectable person like Mitt Romney. No Russians were holding a gun to their heads. And they knew, or should have known, what they were getting.
By a “black swan” fluke, a few tens of thousands of the Trump voters were distributed differently, state by state, than the McCain and Romney voters; and in some key states like Michigan Sec. Clinton did not do as well as Obama had, even if she was beloved in California and New York.
One of the cleverest things Trump said during the campaign was directed to African-American voters, asking what they had to lose by challenging the status quo and voting for him. It was a trick, of course, and they have everything to lose, both because the Republican Party’s economic policies aim to help rich people at the expense of workers and most African-Americans are working class, and because the GOP since Nixon has connived at attracting a white racist constituency, and succeeded.
But despite the dishonesty of the quip (which did not fool African-Americans one little bit), that kind of thinking appears to have been widespread. In some states, as many as 14 percent of the white working class deserted the Democratic Party compared to the previous two elections, and, worse, 21 percent of white working class voters who used to vote for Obama just stayed home. They weren’t being irrational. Things have been bad for them and they haven’t participated in the recovery after 2008 the way the stock market has. Their death rates have even increased.
Nor did any Russian hacking related to Wikileaks, if that is what happened, prove decisive. Clinton’s own polling people found the big turning point was when she called Trump voters a “basket of deplorables.” Americans don’t like being talked down to, and had already gotten rid of Romney for the same sin. The spectacle of Clinton taking hundreds of thousands of dollars to give a speech to the people who put them out of their homes in 2008-9 also turned many of them off so that they stayed home, while another section of them decided to take a chance on Trump. He will screw them over, but from their point of view, they worried that she might have, as well. Trump was promising to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs via protectionism, whereas everyone understood that Sec. Clinton’s first instinct was to do TPP and send more jobs to Asia.
So it was Clinton’s public persona and public positions that hurt her and depressed Democratic turnout in places like Detroit and Flint, not anything in Wikileaks (can anyone name even one newsworthy email?) Or on the other hand it was neofascist disinformation campaigns like spirit cooking and pizzagate. It wasn’t anything as rational as a Putin sting.
No, America had its eyes wide open. The Republican Party, the usual 61 million, voted for Trump, despite his vulgar talk and vulgar style of life. Since the GOP is mostly the party of Protestant whites plus about 40 million Catholics who think they are white, nobody over there too much minded the racism against minorities. There were some defections among the white Protestant married women from the GOP (either stay-at-homes or aisle-crossers) and there were some defections among the white working class from the Democratic Party. But those two may well have just cancelled each other out.
The GOP voted for a champion of the business classes, which Trump will be, in spades. And that is what everyone should expect. There is nothing surprising about it. The GOP wins nationally when it can add to its base of small and large businesspeople and farmers and exurbanites, and Trump managed to attract a few tens of thousands of other sorts of people in the districts where it happened to matter.