Posts Tagged ‘Russia’s election meddling’

Trump grabs midterm election spotlight — But anti-Trump groups have winning messgaes

July 30, 2018

He may not be on the ballot in November, but with 100 days to go before the midterms, the critical race for control of Congress has become all about President Trump.

Midterms have traditionally been referendums on the president and the party in power, but Trump has had an influence over this year’s race in a way that strategists say they have never seen before. And that could be a double-edged sword — for both Democrats and Republicans.

The Hill

Republicans have hitched themselves completely to the president, making primaries a competition over who can sound and act most like Trump. But with Trump’s approval rating stuck in the mid-40s, that loyalty to the president could backfire should his numbers not start improving soon.For Democrats, opposition to Trump has fired up the base in primaries across the country. But strategists worry it could drown out more winning messages such as improving health care, especially if the anti-Trump base forces Democratic candidates into potentially controversial positions like calling to impeach the president.

“The most difficult thing I’ve found in races at every level are people having any interest in any of it other than talking about the president,” said Adam Goodman, a GOP strategist in Florida.

“I’ve never seen a time in my career where everything and anything emanates from one place and one person.”


Parties face excited midterm electorate with reservations

GOP worries trade wars will last as Trump engages in temporary tiffs

Dems have midterm edge, but it’s not historic

The stakes are especially high for Republicans, given that the party in power has historically lost seats in both the House and Senate during the midterms.

Trump’s numbers remain underwater, with the average of polls tracked by RealClearPolitics showing the president with an approval rating of about 43 percent.

Strategists and political observers say those ratings would need to improve fast to increase the prospects of Republicans in midterms, especially in the House.

In 2010, former President Obama’s rating was at around 45 percent, below the “magic number” of 46 percent that Republicans believed would give them the House, according to Doug Heye, who was the communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Democrats are already aggressively targeting all 25 GOP-held seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, while also wading into GOP-leaning swing seats and even some deep-red seats. Democrats believe the number of seats at play for them could exceed 100, way more than the 23 seats they need to flip to take over the House.

Democrats see special opportunities in suburban seats where polls show weak favorability ratings for Trump, and plan to turn out women, especially minority women — a game plan that helped propel Democrats to victory in the governor race won by Ralph Northam (D) in Virginia and Doug Jones’s (D) stunning win in the Senate special election in Alabama.

Trump’s impact could be more favorable for Republicans in the Senate since 10 Democratic incumbents are up for reelection in states the president won in 2016 — with five of those by double digits.

The president still remains popular in states like West Virginia, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana, which also hold marquee Senate races. Trump has already made a number of campaign stops in these states and has upcoming rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania, both states the president won narrowly.

Trump could come to haunt Republicans in other ways as well — by undercutting what should be winning issues in the shape of an improving economy and a surge in job creation.

Estimates on Friday showed the U.S. economy expanding at a 4.1 percent rate in the April-June quarter, the fastest pace since the third quarter of 2014.

GOP strategists say Republicans should be taking credit for that and campaigning on the tax cuts signed into law late last year, depriving Democrats of the chance to frame that action as a giveaway to billionaires and corporations.

Yet to the frustration of many Republicans, the good news on the economy keeps getting drowned out by Trump himself and his penchant for generating negative headlines, including after his performance at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Republicans also cite frustration with the president’s frequent tweets railing against special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s election meddling and his public spats with foreign leaders as unhelpful to their cause.

“The economy and tax reform isn’t an abstract issue like Russia. I wish the president would talk every day about the economy and tax reform instead of other things he talks about,” said Ryan Williams, a former adviser on Mitt Romney’s (R) 2012 presidential campaign.

The stakes are equally high for Democrats. The president has been a rallying force in primaries, and Democrats believe they can campaign as a check on Trump and a Republican Congress.

Unpopular presidents have been a winning issue for both parties in the past. In 2006, Democrats campaigned against deeply unpopular President George W. Bush to take over the House by winning 31 seats. And in 2010, Republicans used opposition to ObamaCare, and Obama more broadly, to win a stunning 63 seats to regain the House.

But some Democrats also believe that campaigning on an anti-Trump message alone will not be enough to hand them Congress, especially as a fired-up base calls for positions many leaders find uncomfortable, such as impeaching the president or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Strategists say Democrats will need to expand their message to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton sought to make the election all about Trump, only to go on to lose in one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history.

“There was extreme anger towards Trump leading into 2016, that didn’t cross the line electorally, so Democrats certainly need something to galvanize for Democrats, not just against,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic strategist in Florida who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign.

These strategists say Democrats have an especially winning issue in health care. In fact, ObamaCare, and popular provisions like coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, have become winning issues for Democrats, unlike in 2010, these strategists say.

Yet whether Democrats can use that opportunity remains very much in doubt, especially as Trump continues to suck up all the coverage.

“Our candidates are not going to lead with talking about Trump,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D). “They’re going to lead by talking about economic growth and improving education. You don’t have to mention Trump very much.”

Reid Wilson contributed to this report.


Trump news conference performance ‘nothing short of treasonous’ — Ex-CIA Chief John Brennan says

July 16, 2018
At the news conference following his one-on-one meeting Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Trump declined to endorse the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election over Putin’s denial, saying the Russian President was “extremely strong and powerful” in his denial.
“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous,” Brennan, a frequent critic of Trump, tweeted during the event. “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Brennan served as director of the CIA from 2013 through January 2017.



Former CIA Director John Brennan Slams Donald Trump for Whatever He Is Hiding After Trump-Putin Meeting and News Conference

July 16, 2018

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From The Hill

Former CIA Director John Brennan on Monday slammed President Trump for meeting alone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Brennan, a frequent Trump critic, questioned what the president was “hiding” from his own advisers by insisting on meeting one-on-one with Putin at their summit in Helsinki.

“Why did Trump meet 1 on 1 with Putin? What might he be hiding from Bolton, Pompeo, Kelly, & the American public?” Brennan tweeted. “How will Putin use whatever Trump could be hiding to advantage Russia & hurt America? Trump’s total lack of credibility renders spurious whatever explanation he gives.”

Trump and Putin met one-on-one in Helsinki before moving into an expanded bilateral meeting with advisers. In their first meeting, only translators were present. Trump reportedly did not want to have a note-taker in the room because of a concern that details would leak.

Trump and Putin sat down with photographers and reporters before heading into the meeting. Trump said he thinks the U.S. and Russia would “end up having an extraordinary relationship.”

He said before the start of the expanded meeting that the summit was off to a “very, very good start.”

Hours before the start of the meeting, Trump sent a tweet blaming “years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” as well as the federal investigation into Russia’s election meddling, for poor U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump said he would raise the issue of election meddling with Putin, but suggested that he did not think anything would come of it.


G-7 foreign ministers say North Korean nuclear and missile suspension is not enough

April 24, 2018


APR 24, 2018
 Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing
 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland poses for a photo with her British counterpart Boris Johnson before a reception for G7 foreign ministers at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Sunday, April 22, 2018. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP) 

Group of Seven foreign ministers pledged Monday to maintain “maximum pressure” on North Korea to compel it to give up its nuclear and missile programs, determining that Pyongyang’s decision to suspend nuclear tests and long-range missile launches is not sufficient to meet the demands of the international community.

In part of a joint communique issued after a two-day meeting in Toronto, Canada, the G-7 ministers affirmed they will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, and pushed Pyongyang to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction, missiles and related facilities in a complete, verifiable and irreversible way.

“We reaffirm that we will never accept a nuclear-armed DPRK and remain committed to the goal of achieving complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the DPRK’s WMDs, including biological and chemical weapons, missiles and related facilities, for the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and beyond,” it said.

DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Noting that meaningful negotiations must imply concrete actions by the DPRK toward denuclearization, we are committed to maintaining maximum pressure, including by cutting down or reducing DPRK diplomatic representation abroad and downgrading economic relationships,” the statement said.

The ministers pledged that until North Korea denuclearizes, the G-7 further commits to countering its sanctions-evasion tactics, particularly through its illicit maritime activities such as ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum and sales of coal and other commodities banned under U.N. conventions against the rogue state.

The ministers met after North Korea announced Saturday it will suspend nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missiles launches, as well as dismantle its only known nuclear test site — a pronouncement seen as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un playing a card ahead of his planned meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday and with U.S. President Donald Trump by early June.

The top diplomats of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States plus the European Union “acknowledge” the North’s announcement as “a first step toward full denuclearization, assuming full implementation,” according to the statement.

The G-7, meanwhile, pressed Pyongyang to resolve its abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s “immediately.”

Referring to security issues elsewhere in the region, the G-7 expressed their “strong opposition” to any unilateral actions that undermine regional stability or the international rules-based order — alluding to China’s militarization of outposts in disputed areas of the South China Sea and Beijing’s attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The G-7 statement referred to “the threat or use of force, large-scale land reclamation and building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes,” in a veiled criticism to Chinese actions in the South China Sea in particular.

China has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which over one-third of global trade passes.

Regarding a crackdown by Myanmar’s military on the Rohingya Muslim minority that has driven nearly 700,000 refugees into neighboring Bangladesh, the G-7 ministers said they are “deeply concerned” that the repatriation planning process and conditions for Rohingya are not sufficiently established.

The ministers pledged to help address human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar, especially in the crisis-hit Rakhine State.

As part of efforts to support refugees, mostly Rohingya women and children, the United States on Monday announced an additional $50 million in humanitarian assistance to support a U.N.-led joint response plan in Bangladesh.

The G-7 also united to condemn Russia for what they called “a pattern of irresponsible and destabilizing” behavior, and urged Moscow to help resolve the conflict in Syria.

The ministers agreed to create a working group to study Russia’s “malign behavior” and said they were working on a plan to improve coordination to push back against foreign interference in elections.

“We call on Russia to cease this behavior, which is highly detrimental to prospects for constructive cooperation,” they said in the joint statement.

The two-day meeting in Toronto was intended as preparation for a G-7 leaders’ summit in Charlevoix, Quebec on June 7-8.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and Russia was also blamed for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain last month, which the G-7 statement strongly condemned. Moscow has denied involvement in either event.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said G-7 ministers expressed deep concern about Russia’s efforts to destabilize democracies by interfering in elections.

“The G-7 countries are committed to preventing, stopping and responding to foreign interference,” she told a news conference at the end of talks.

“There are consequences for those who seek to undermine our democracies,” she said, adding there was clear unity among G-7 allies on Russia.

Later, Freeland told reporters the G-7 would soon detail a plan on improved coordination among member states when faced with foreign interference.

“Coordinated action and cooperation are needed to build resilience and reinforce our democratic institutions and process against foreign interference by state and non-state actors,” Freeland told reporters.

“There is a concern within the G-7 countries that authoritarian states are actively working to undermine democratic systems … today we said ‘enough is enough,’ ” she added.

See also:

Johnson: G7 officials focus on Russia’s ‘malign’ behavior


Nunberg episode marks the dawn of Mueller’s March madness — Many Expecting “Great Unravelling.”

March 6, 2018

Updated 3:05 AM ET, Tue March 6, 2018

Washington (CNN)The grinding pressure of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is starting to do strange things to people’s heads.

How else to explain a staggering, reality TV-style meltdown of short-lived Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg on Monday, played out in a batch of cable news interviews, marking the oddest twist of the Russia saga yet?
In a stunning blast of accusations, insults and non-sequiturs, Nunberg vowed to defy a grand jury subpoena, dared Mueller to arrest him and claimed the relentless prosecutor believed that Donald Trump was a Manchurian candidate.
It all unfolded in hour upon hour of car-crash television, in a compelling self-immolation that it was impossible to look away from and provided a reminder of the cast of erratic, oddball characters who drift in and out of the President’s employ — some of whom staffed his campaign and his White House.
At times, Nunberg appeared close to the end of his rope, saying he had already spoken to Mueller’s team and did not wish to spend another “80 hours” digging through his communications with Trump aides that had been subpoenaed by the special counsel.
“Screw that,” Nunberg told CNN’s Gloria Borger when asked if he would testify to the grand jury on Friday. “Why do I have to go? Why? For what?”
His defiance risked landing him in jail on contempt charges and threatened to create a sideshow for the straight-laced special counsel while his outbursts were sure to trigger days of news coverage and will therefore likely infuriate Trump.
But though Nunberg’s emotional outpouring might be seen as the ramblings of someone under intense duress, it had enough hints of where the Russia investigation may be heading to worry the President.
“This guy is all over the map,” former FBI special agent Josh Campbell said, dubbing the Nunberg show “the Great Unravelling.”
“Up until this point Mueller’s team has been so tight, we haven’t seen the leaks so it has been very difficult to see what he’s looking for,” Campbell said. “I think it’s incredible, seeing today this episode unfold before our eyes because it gives us that insight into where the investigation is ultimately headed.”

What he said


Nunberg, apparently interpreting questions already put to him by Mueller’s investigators, said for instance that he believes that the special counsel has something on Trump related to the Russian meddling effort on the 2016 election: “I suspect they suspect something about him,” he told Borger.
He also claimed the special counsel is trying to prove that Trump associate Roger Stone colluded with Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks site which is reputed to have links with Russian intelligence.
In another claim that would be highly significant if it turns out to be true, Nunberg claimed Trump knew about a meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr., campaign officials and a Russia delegation offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
“He talked about it a week before and I don’t know why he did this,” said Nunberg, in his second CNN interview, this time with Jake Tapper.
“I don’t know why he went around trying to hide. He shouldn’t have,” Nunberg said.
The President has denied he knew anything about the meeting.
Nunberg also said he suspected that former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page had colluded with the Russians, and said he was a “moron” — though argued that he was too low-level to have much influence with Trump.
While much of what Nunberg said was insulting toward Trump and his staff, he also insisted that the President did not conspire with the Russians during the election, offering a rather backhanded defense of his former boss.
“Vladimir Putin is too smart to collude with Donald Trump,” Nunberg told CNN. “Donald Trump couldn’t keep his mouth shut if Putin colluded with him.”

White House reaction


whpb sanders nunberg response acosta sot tsr_00000120
White House blindsided, baffled by Nunberg 01:47
In the middle of his cable spree, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders delivered her daily briefing and suggested Nunberg was woefully misguided in his allegation that Trump may have committed wrongdoing during the campaign.
“I think he definitely doesn’t know that for sure because he’s incorrect,” Sanders said. “There was no collusion.”
But the manner of Nunberg’s unburdening on cable television and the eye-popping nature of his claims cannot have helped but attract the notice of Trump, an avid cable news viewer, and are unlikely to improve his festering mood over Russia.
In his interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Nunberg slammed the White House, saying the Trump team was doing a terrible job, given the President’s low approval ratings. “They can say whatever they want about me,” he said.
At least part of Nunberg’s motivation appeared to lie in his anger about how he and Stone were treated by Trump — a provocation that may be all but impossible for the President’s twitchy Twitter finger to ignore.
At the White House, Trump’s aides watched the Nunberg interviews in shock, calling them “nuts” and “bizarre” CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported.
The outlandish nature of Nunberg’s charges are bound to raise questions about his credibility as a witness and will give the White House an opening as it seeks to discount his claims about the scope of the Mueller investigation.
At one point, Burnett said that she smelled alcohol on Nunberg’s breath. Though he said he had not been drinking, there must be some question about the state of his mind.
But there’s no doubt his appearances also present Trump’s team with a problem, since the President has been prone to his own emotional outbursts about the Russia probe, and any inflammatory reaction on his part will only prolong the story.
Even before the Nunberg meltdown, Trump appeared fixated and angry about the Russia investigation Monday, going further than before in accusing his predecessor Barack Obama of intervening in the 2016 election against him.
“Why did the Obama Administration start an investigation into the Trump Campaign (with zero proof of wrongdoing) long before the Election in November? Wanted to discredit so Crooked H would win. Unprecedented. Bigger than Watergate! Plus, Obama did NOTHING about Russian meddling,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
The tweet was wrong on a number of counts, but it may offer some insight into Trump’s own current state of mind.

More alleged scandals

Trump’s feelings can hardly have been tempered by two other prominent news stories about alleged scandals on Monday related to the bizarre eco-system of scandals and accusations surrounding his campaign and personal conduct.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen complained to friends he had not been reimbursed for a six-figure payment to a porn star alleged to have had an affair with the billionaire-turned-politician.
Cohen previously said he had facilitated a payment to Stephanie Clifford, better known as the porn star Stormy Daniels, but has denied that Trump and Clifford had an affair in 2006, as the paper reported.
For a while Monday, the scene of the Russia election intrigue shifted to Bangkok and a sweltering Thai detention center where a self-styled “sex coach” who claims to have detailed insider knowledge of Russian meddling in the US election told CNN she wants to cooperate with US investigators.
Image result for Anastasia Vashukevich, photos
Anastasia Vashukevich
Belarus-born Anastasia Vashukevich claims she has an hour of audio recordings and photos of meetings. She also claims to be the former mistress of Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, and says she witnessed several meetings in 2016 and 2017 between the oligarch and and at least three unnamed Americans.
Back in Washington, what passed for normality in the Trump era went on in the shadow of the Russia storm. Trump met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is himself under a legal cloud, fighting several cases of alleged corruption.
America’s allies piled desperate pressure on the White House to try to head of steel and aluminum tariffs promised by Trump that could spark a trade war.
But March 5, 2018, will forever be remembered as the day of Nunberg TV.

Why Does Trump Ignore Top Officials’ Warnings on Russia?

February 15, 2018
Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, center, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, along with other intelligence chiefs. Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times

The phalanx of intelligence chiefs who testified on Capitol Hill delivered a chilling message: Not only did Russia interfere in the 2016 election, it is already meddling in the 2018 election by using a digital strategy to exacerbate the country’s political and social divisions.

No one knows more about the threats to the United States than these six officials, so when they all agree, it would be derelict to ignore their concerns. Yet President Trump continues to refuse to even acknowledge the malevolent Russian role.

It’s particularly striking that four of the men who gave this warning to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday — the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo; the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats; the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray; and the Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley — were all appointed by Mr. Trump.

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FBI Director Christopher Wray (from left), CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday.

They testified that the president has never asked them to take measures to combat Russian interference and protect democratic processes.

Mr. Trump isn’t completely oblivious about Russia, of course. He fired Mr. Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, to derail the F.B.I.’s investigation of possible Trump campaign involvement with the election hacking, and reportedly asked Mr. Coats and Mr. Pompeo to help end the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Mr. Flynn’s contacts with Russians.

With the midterm elections only nine months away, the federal government is taking some defensive measures. It is trying to get at least one election official in each state a security clearance to make them aware of threats, and is providing states with enhanced online security to ensure that Americans’ votes will not be manipulated.

Nevertheless, absent Mr. Trump’s commitment, there can be no robust mobilization to take all measures needed to confront an insidious problem that strikes at the heart of the democratic system. These would include a comprehensive and well-funded plan for protecting critical infrastructure, countering cyberattacks and mitigating propaganda.

The president should not only be strengthening electoral defenses, but also pushing back against Russia, instead of ignoring a law Congress adopted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions for election meddling and aggression against Ukraine. The list of potential activities meriting sanctions covers weapons deals, human rights abuses and Russian cyberattacks against the United States and other democracies.

Although Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin assured Congress on Wednesday that sanctions “are coming,” there’s little reason to believe him. The State Department recently argued that it didn’t impose sanctions against companies doing weapons deals with Russia because the threat of sanctions was enough to deter some of those deals. But there is no excuse for not acting against Russia for cyberattacks — Mr. Trump’s own intelligence chiefs say such activity has increased, not diminished.

So why is Mr. Trump still ignoring such conclusions? Some have said he is giving Russia a green light to tamper with the 2018 elections. That would have once been an absurd suggestion. It can no longer be dismissed out of hand.

Mueller Removes FBI Agent for Apparent Anti-Trump Bias

December 2, 2017

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The Hill

Mueller removed FBI agent from Trump investigation over possible bias: reports

Special counsel Robert Mueller removed a veteran FBI agent from his team amid an investigation into the agent potentially sending anti-Trump text messages, according to new reports on Saturday.

Three people close to the matter told The New York Times that Mueller reassigned Peter Strzok from the team investigating Russia’s election meddling to the FBI’s human resources department.

Strzok is a veteran FBI investigator who previously worked on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State, as well as the investigation into potential connections between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

The Times reported that Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team after the Department of Justice’s inspector general launched an investigation into text messages sent by the agent that could appear to contain anti-Trump views.

The agent reportedly exchanged text messages with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, whom he was dating, during the campaign and Clinton investigation that appeared to support the Democratic presidential candidate, people with knowledge of the matter told The Washington Post.

The Post could not reach Strzok or Page.

“Immediately upon learning of the allegations, the Special Counsel’s Office removed Peter Strzok from the investigation,” Mueller spokesman Peter Carr told The Hill. “Lisa Page completed her brief detail and had returned to the FBI weeks before our office was aware of the allegations.”

The news comes just one day after Mueller’s team charged former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn with lying to FBI agents. Flynn pleaded guilty to the charge.

— Updated 1:02 p.m.

The Varied—and Global—Threats Confronting Democracy

November 20, 2017

As China and Russia proffer alternatives, the U.S. system shows signs of strain

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Just over a year has passed since Election Day 2016, and a special counsel plus three congressional committees continue to struggle to figure out whether Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to help tip that election.

That is a hugely important question, of course. But the danger in focusing on it too much is that the country could lose sight of a broader and more pernicious reality: Whatever Russia did last year amounted to an attack on American democracy. Worse, that is only one of several ways the democratic model is under threat.

William Burns, a career foreign service officer who served as both ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary of state, sees “a conflict of ideas and models” playing out on the world stage. Both Russia and China are holding up what Mr. Burns calls their “authoritarian managed economic models” as alternatives to democracy.

Moreover, to the extent that the U.S. itself sometimes seems not to take its own democratic ideals seriously, or fails to make them work well, it can actually help erode the appeal of a system that has long served as an international beacon of hope.

In short, the democratic model is under threat on three fronts. Let’s look at them in turn:

China: President Xi Jinping used a recent Communist Party Congress to cement his own power, reduce the potential for internal challenges from other figures and establish a kind of cult of personality built around a constitutionally blessed school of “Xi Jinping Thought.”

That all thwarted democratic impulses and cemented Mr. Xi’s personal control, while solidifying his vision of an economy built on big and strong state-owned enterprises. He also declared that he intends for the resulting economic strength to make China a “great power” at the center of international affairs.

Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. What’s behind his rise and how long will he remain in power? Photo: Reuters

Implicitly, at least, Mr. Xi also is creating an authoritarian model for others to follow. “What’s interesting to me, at least, is the extent to which Xi, in ways I can’t remember in the last 40 years or so, is holding up the Chinese model as an example,” says Mr. Burns. That has particular importance in Asia, where other nations watch China closely.

Russia: President Vladimir Putin is busy dismantling notions of real democracy in Russia. He’s widely expected to seek and win a fourth six-year term as president next year, and he served as prime minister during the only four years since 2000 he hasn’t been president.

Moreover, he has created a new National Guard, headed by his former chief bodyguard, to protect the country’s leaders from unspecified threats, and has just proposed increasing its power. That sounds like a kind of modern-day Praetorian Guard.

At the same time he is thwarting democratic trends at home, Mr. Putin seems determined to discredit the Western democratic model on the world stage. His intelligence services appear to have meddled in elections in, among others, France, Britain and Montenegro, and engaged in campaigns to sow discord in political systems elsewhere.

Clint Watts, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation counterterrorism expert now at George Washington University, says Russia began inserting itself into the American presidential campaign in the summer of 2015, with an apparent goal of weakening Democrat Hillary Clinton, then the odds-on favorite to be the next American president.

Only later, it appears, did the Russians decide that Donald Trump was the candidate they wanted to help win, he says. Throughout, though, the Kremlin had a broader goal: weaken the image of the U.S. by using covert social-media campaigns to stoke social and cultural divisions and make democracy look messy and unstable.

The U.S.: His critics charge that Mr. Trump exhibits some authoritarian tendencies of his own, and his occasional disparaging remarks about “rigged” democratic institutions seem to suggest that. The fact is, though, that the American system of checks and balances—a hallmark of the democratic model—remains strong and vibrant.

Yet there are reasons to worry about the health of the American model. Current leaders seem unable to find their way to consensus or even compromise on the biggest issues of the day, which can breed voter despair and disillusionment.

Demographic trends also are straining the American model. Because of the way the Electoral College works, two of the past three presidents first won office while losing the popular vote. And David Birdsell, dean of the school of public and international affairs at Baruch College, notes that by 2040, about 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states. They will have only 30 senators representing them, while the remaining 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them.

That’s the way the system works, of course. But there will be growing need for enlightened leaders who can show it actually does work for all.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at


Use of ‘keyboard armies’ to manipulate media has gone global, report says

November 14, 2017


© Freedom House | Online manipulation and disinformation tactics affected elections in at least 18 countries this year, including the US, according to the 2017 Freedom on the Net report.


Latest update : 2017-11-14

More governments are following the lead of Russia and China by manipulating social media and suppressing dissent online in a grave threat to democracy, a human rights watchdog said Tuesday.

A study of internet freedom in 65 countries found 30 governments are deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year.

These efforts included paid commentators, trolls, “bots” — the name given to automated accounts — false news sites and propaganda outlets, according to the 2017 “Freedom on the Net” report by human rights group Freedom House.

The report said online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States.

“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project, explained such manipulation is often hard to detect, and “more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking.”

The organization said 2017 marked a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, as a result of these and other efforts to filter and censor information online.

China is worst, again

Freedom House said China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a third straight year, due to stepped-up online censorship, a new law cracking down on anonymity online and the imprisonment of dissidents using the web.

Other countries also increased their efforts to censor and manipulate information, the report said.

This included a “keyboard army” of people employed and paid $10 a day by the Philippine government to amplify the impression of widespread support of a brutal drugs crackdown, and Turkey’s use of an estimated 6,000 people to counter government opponents on social media.

Meanwhile, as Russia sought to spread disinformation to influence elections in the US and Europe, the Kremlin also tightened its internal controls, the report said.

Bloggers who attract more than 3,000 daily visitors must register their personal details with the Russian government and abide by the law regulating mass media — while search engines and news aggregators are banned from including stories from unregistered outlets.

The study also found governments in at least 14 countries restricted internet freedom in a bid to address content manipulation. In one such example, Ukraine blocked Russia-based services, including the country’s most widely used social network and search engine, in an effort to crack down on pro-Russian propaganda.

“When trying to combat online manipulation from abroad, it is important for countries not to overreach,” Kelly said.

“The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary. Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline.”

Freedom House expressed concern over growing restrictions on VPNs — virtual private networks which allow circumvention of censors — which are now in place in 14 countries.

It said internet freedom also took a hit in United States over the past year.

“While the online environment in the United States remained vibrant and diverse, the prevalence of disinformation and hyperpartisan content had a significant impact,” the report said.

“Journalists who challenge Donald Trump‘s positions have faced egregious online harassment.”

What Robert Mueller’s indictments of former Trump campaign officials mean for the president

October 31, 2017

By indicting two former Trump campaign officials and getting a guilty plea from a third associate, the independent probe into Russian election meddling has entered a new phase. Here’s how it will affect the presidency.

F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller speaks at a news conference at the bureau's headquaters (Getty Images/C. Somodevilla)

How dangerous are the indictments for US President Donald Trump?

It is important to note that the indictments against the former manager of Trump’s presidential campaign, Paul Manafort, and another former campaign associate, Rick Gates, are not directly linked to the Trump presidential campaign and the president. It is also important to state that Manafort and Gates are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Having said that, the 12-count-indictment against Manafort and Gates which include charges of money laundering, failure to report foreign bank accounts and failure to report working as a foreign agent for a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party “reveals strong ties to Russia and financial motives to assist Russia,” said Lisa Kern Griffin, a law professor at Duke University.

And because three of the charges against Manafort include the period he served as Trump’s campaign manager — contrary to what Trump tweeted — there is at least a chronological connection between the Manafort case and the Trump campaign.

Read more: Donald Trump aide Paul Manafort pleads not guilty to 12 charges

Still, Trump’s first reaction was likely relief that the indictments were not directly campaign-related, said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina. And should the case go on trial and the defendants be acquitted, the danger the issue poses for the Trump presidency would be greatly reduced, said Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University.

But assuming, as the scholars tend to, that this is likely just the first major step in Mueller’s widening probe into Russian election meddling and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, then President Trump has reason to be worried.

“This is very threatening”, said Professor Shane. That’s because even while not directly linked to the Trump campaign, the indictments and the guilty plea convey a clear message to others who may be in Mueller’s legal crosshairs.

“It sends a strong signal to all potential witnesses and potential defendants that Mueller is going to proceed without fear of the external political noise and he is going to charge everyone for whom the facts support a charge”, said Professor Kern Griffin. “Everyone in the orbit of the Russian connections to the campaign has reason to be concerned.”

What’s more, unlike the indictments against Manafort and Gates, the indictment against Papadopoulos, albeit a lower level campaign aide, does assert a direct Russia link.

According to the document, Papadopoulos tried to facilitate a contact with a “professor” with ties to the Russian government and met with a “female Russian national.” The focus of at least one of their conversations was “thousands of emails” allegedly in the possession of the Russian government containing “dirt” on electon rival Hillary Clinton.

Read more: Hillary Clinton ‘won’t rule out’ contesting election

Papadopoulos’ guilty plea is also a reminder to others potentially in Mueller’s crosshairs to consider whether they may not want to cut a deal to provide valuable information to authorities in exchange for going free or for a more lenient sentence. The information provided in these initial cases can then be used to build additional indictments.

“There is no doubt that these prosecutions do give increased leverage over the people who have been indicted in terms of their providing information”, said Shane. “It is clear that this not the end of the investigation.”

“There will be more defendants charged,” predicts Duke’s Kern Griffin.

Can President Trump fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller?

Read more: Robert Mueller in possession of Donald Trump letter explaining Comey firing

Yes, he can. Given that Trump has repeatedly called the probe into Russian meddling in the US presidential election and the Trump campaign a “witch hunt” and that he fired former FBI chief James Comey, who had alleged in a memo that the president had asked him to close the Russia investigation, which Comey would not do, it is not a stretch to wonder whether Trump would be considering firing Mueller to end his Russia investigation.

The best legal option for him to do so would be via the Justice Department. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the matter because he is implicated in it himself, Trump could ask Sessions’ deputy Rod Rosenstein to dismiss Mueller. But firing Mueller is not easy since it would require him to establish a “good cause” as to how he violated the Justice Department’s prosecution policy, said Shane. Should Rosenstein refuse to dismiss Mueller, Trump could fire him and essentially continue with this process until he finds someone willing to do so, he added. But firing Mueller would surely cause a major political firestorm and probably lead to legal challenges.

“If he tries to fire Mueller on his own it will be on the constitutional basis that could be disputable,” said Michael Gerhardt, constitutional law professor at University of North Carolina. The “disputable” constitutional foundation that Gerhardt refers to is called “unitary executive theory” and stipulates in a nutshell that the constitution gives the president complete authority to fire anyone in the executive branch. It is highly contentious among legal scholars; should Trump fire Mueller directly based on this principle, the move would surely be challenged in the courts.

Can President Trump pardon his former campaign manager Manafort and other aides?

Read more: First charges filed in US special counsel’s Russia investigation

Yes, he can. Not only can he pardon Manafort and any other defendants for any federal offenses committed, it is pretty well established, noted the scholars, that he can even issue a presidential pardon before a trial has begun.

But the reported collaboration of Mueller’s team with New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s office on the Manafort case could blunt the benefit of any potential presidential pardon. That’s because while the president can pardon for federal offenses, he can’t pardon state offenses. And several of the charges filed against Manafort and Gates — such as money laundering — could be prosecuted under state law as well. So should Trump issue a pardon, then Manafort and Gates could be charged under New York state law.

While pardoning Manafort and Gates would thus appear to have a limited impact, they would trigger a major backlash. But that still does not mean that Trump wouldn’t do it.

“If he can pardon Sheriff Arpaio, he can likely pardon Manafort,” said UNC’s Gerhardt.

Asked about the likely steps President Trump and his team would take now next after his former campaign manager has been indicted, Duke’s Lisa Kern Griffin summed up the legal scholars sentiment like this.

“What happens in TrumpWorld defies the logic of past political actions and similar investigation.”