Saturday, June 17, 2017

Russian Cyberattacks Hit 39 States During Election

Newly released details of Russian cyberattacks indicate that the Russian hacking during the election was far more widespread than previously indicated. Sources within the investigation reported that Russian cyberattacks hit at least 39 states. The hackers accessed software used by poll workers and at least one state’s voter database. The extent of the attacks raises concerns about the integrity of future elections since Russia has also been implicated in hacking other elections including the recent French presidential voting.

The recent revelations were made to Bloomberg Politics by three people with direct knowledge of the US investigation. The details released to Bloomberg come on the heels of the report leaked by Reality Winner, a contract employee of the NSA. The classified NSA report revealed that Russian hackers traced to the GRU, Russian military intelligence, had targeted US companies that provide software for voting machines.

The Bloomberg report states that the hackers tried to alter or delete voter registration data in Illinois in addition to the “spear phishing” attacks that compromised the emails at the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Russian hackers were trying to take over the computers of 122 election officials shortly before the election.

The sources report that Illinois was considered “Patient Zero” for the investigation. The state gave federal investigators almost full access to its election computer systems. Unauthorized access to systems at the state board of elections was detected as early as July 2016 and as many as 90,000 voter records in the state database were compromised with personal information on voters such as names, Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, birth dates and gender.

The sophistication and sheer number of the attacks prompted the Obama Administration to complain directly to the Kremlin via the hotline between Washington and Moscow. In October, the US reportedly used a back channel to provide evidence of Russian complicity to the Kremlin and threatened that continued hacking could lead to an expanded conflict. The hacking continued up to the election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any involvement by the Russian government in the cyberattacks. Earlier this month, Putin suggested that the hacking might have been carried out by “patriotic hackers” not connected to the Russian government.

During the election, the federal government did not have jurisdiction over state election systems. Some states cooperated with federal counterintelligence operations, but others did not. Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, proposed in August 2016 that election systems be considered a critical national infrastructure, which would give the federal government more latitude in protecting state systems from cyberattacks. Ultimately, partisan disagreements meant that the designation was not made until January 2017.

There were hints of the Russian hacking revealed prior to the election, but Bloomberg reports that the Obama Administration kept the full scope of the attacks from the public. The government feared that the full truth would undermine public confidence in the election.

The claims of Russian hacking have become a source of amusement for many conservatives, but the recent revelations show the frightening extent of Russian interference in a core function of American democracy. So far there is no evidence that Russians were able to manipulate votes or voter rolls, but it was not for lack of trying.

And it probably isn’t over. Former FBI Director James Comey warned the Senate Intelligence Committee in his testimony, “They’re coming after America. They will be back.”

Originally published on The Resurgent

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Time to step back from the brink

With this morning’s shooting at the congressional practice field in Virginia, it is fair to say that our political discourse has finally sank too low. After watching rhetoric on both sides become more incendiary and violence slowly escalate over the past few years, someone has really gotten hurt.

Not bruises, broken bones or damaged pride either. Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.) or the other people at the practice, including the security officers, could have been killed. That was apparently the aim of the attack.

The Washington Post has identified the shooter as James T. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill. Hodgkinson was a campaign worker for Bernie Sanders whose Facebook page allegedly features a post that reads, “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”

Political violence is not new to this country. We fought a War Between the States over our political differences. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan used violence and intimidation to further their political aims. There have been assassinations, from Abraham Lincoln to Huey Long. Radical anti-war groups in the 1960s used bombings to further their political aims.

In the last half-decade, things seemed to change. We have enjoyed a relatively peaceful period. There was violence against political figures, but for the most part, it was the work of the mentally ill, not political assassins. The attempted murderers of Ronald Reagan and Gabrielle Giffords were both crazy, not trying to make a political point.

While it is still too early to say for sure, the baseball field shooting feels different. The shooter reportedly asked which team was playing, the Republicans or the Democrats, before opening fire. If the reported Facebook posts are accurate, there seems to be a clear motive for the attack.

There will be plenty of anger against the liberal media and Democrats for stoking the fires of Hodgkinson’s anger. At this point, those charges seem to be legitimate. Much of the reporting about the Trump Administration has been sensationalist and over-the-top. The problem is that the liberals aren’t the only ones to blame.

Both sides are guilty of whipping up the anger of the base with outrage-of-the-day styles of reporting that focus on the most extreme and offensive actions of the opposition. For every action, there is an equal and opposite overreaction.

Hodgkinson’s Facebook post was repeated almost verbatim on many right-wing timelines over the past eight years. Just substitute “Obama” for “Trump.”

Liberals stage a play depicting the assassination of President Trump. Conservatives circulated internet picture of President Obama with his head in a noose. Liberal protesters riot and stop traffic. Conservative protesters stage armed revolts and occupy a federal building in Oregon and engage in standoffs with law enforcement on federal land. Businesses destroyed by riots had it coming according to the leftist narrative, but so did reporters and protesters who get beat up, if you listen to those on the right. President Trump is a Russian traitor? President Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, so there!

The two sides barely even talk anymore. We listen to different media, read different newspapers and websites. We focus on our differences and they become magnified.

Originally published on The Resurgent

As David French recently wrote, we seem to be headed for a national divorce. If we really love our country, we need to look at what a spouse would do to prevent a divorce. Look to find the good in our political opponents. Look for common ground instead of nitpicking. Realize that we aren’t going to get everything on our political wish lists. The alternative is likely to be more political violence and national divorce that is unlikely to come amicably. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Trump Claims 'Vindication' For Something Comey Never Said

In the days since the Senate testimony by former FBI Director James Comey, the Trump camp has claimed that the testimony vindicated the president. Beginning with a tweet by the president the following day, Trump supporters claim “total and complete vindication” from Comey’s statements under oath. However, the claim focuses on only one part of Comey’s testimony and the claim of vindication is for something that Comey never said.

The focus of the Trump Administration since last Thursday when Comey testified was Comey’s statement under oath that President Trump was not under investigation by the FBI. The problem with this claim is that Comey had never claimed that the president was personally under investigation.

It is likely that many people may have assumed after Comey’s Senate testimony in March that President Trump was being investigated, but a look back shows that Comey never made that claim. Comey’s testimony a month before he was fired contained the bombshell revelation that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign for its links to Russia, but he never said that the president was under direct scrutiny.

Here is a look back at what then-FBI Director James Comey said before Congress on March 20, 2017 (video available here):

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment as to whether any crimes were committed.

Comey told Congress that the FBI was investigating “individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” not the president. The individuals were left unnamed, but FBI inquiries about Mike Flynn, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort had been known for months. Carter Page was the target of a FISA warrant obtained by the FBI prior to the election last year.

At some point after the March testimony, President Trump apparently became obsessed with the idea of proving that he was not under investigation. Comey testified that he privately assured the president that he was not under investigation on several occasions. Comey also said that the president asked him to publicly announce that he was not under investigation, a request Comey resisted because “because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.” In his letter firing Comey, Trump awkwardly thanks Comey for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

Trump supporters seem to believe that, since the president was not under investigation, that Comey’s firing could not be an obstruction of justice. To the contrary, Trump was alleged to have interfered with the investigation of Michael Flynn, not an investigation into his own ties with Russia. Even though the FBI probe was targeted at Flynn, Page and the others instead of Trump, firing the FBI director to interfere with the investigation could still represent obstruction of justice.

A second trope by Trump supporters is that since Trump was not under investigation, the inquiries by the Congress and the Special Counsel should be halted. This represents a misunderstanding of what the investigations are about. These investigations were also not targeting Trump personally. The purpose of the congressional investigations is to determine exactly what Russia did to interfere in the 2016 elections. The investigation by Special Counsel Bob Mueller focuses on whether any members of the Trump campaign worked with Russian operatives and whether any crimes were committed.

Despite the Trump Administration spin, James Comey’s testimony did not clear the president. In fact, the most damaging part of Comey’s June 8 testimony may be a statement that has scarcely been mentioned. When asked why he thought Trump fired him, Comey answered, “Again, I take the president's words. I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that.”

The investigations will continue and President Trump is not in the clear. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Deputy AG: No Good Reason to Fire Mueller

The deputy attorney general is speaking out in response to rumors that President Trump is considering firing Special Counsel Bob Mueller. Reports have surfaced in the last 24 hours that the president may fire the head of the independent investigation into possible collusion by members of the Trump with Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared before the Senate Appropriations Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee after Attorney General Jeff Sessions abruptly cancelled a planned appearance. Rosenstein, who hired Mueller after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, was asked by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), “Have you seen good cause for firing Mueller?”

“I have not,” Rosenstein answered according to reports in The New York Times. “You have my assurance that we are going to faithfully follow that regulation, and Director Mueller is going to have the full independence he needs to conduct that investigation.”

Shaheen pointed out that under the law creating the special counsel position, the president cannot fire Mueller. Only the attorney general, in this case Rosenstein since Sessions has recused himself, can fire the special counsel and only for good cause.

“I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe that those are lawful and appropriate orders,” Mr. Rosenstein said, adding: “If there were good cause, I would consider. If there were not good cause, it would not matter what anybody says.”

There was no indication why Attorney General Sessions sent Rosenstein to testify in his place. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Mike Flynn Is the Key To the Trump-Comey Dispute

As the furor rages unabated after the testimony of James Comey, both sides are coming to the realization that it settled nothing. Comey said just enough to allow both sides to reinforce their preconceived notions and declare a victory. Comey’s testimony is not the end, but is more like pulling a thread that causes other threads to unravel. Even though Comey did not present irrefutable evidence of criminal activity by the president, he did make a blatant accusation that the president is corrupt. The investigations will continue and, at this point, it seems that the trails all point toward Michael Flynn.

The investigation of Michael Flynn is at the center of the dispute between James Comey and President Trump. In Comey’s opening statement, the former director claimed that it was the investigation of Flynn that prompted Trump’s alleged request that, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy.”

Who is Michael Flynn? Flynn is a retired US Army general who rose to command the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama. He served honorably in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of the War on Terror. Flynn abruptly retired a year early from his position at the DIA, apparently under pressure from the Obama Administration. Sean Spicer confirmed in May that Barack Obama had warned the Trump camp about getting too close to Flynn.

In fact, Flynn became an early advisor to the Trump campaign and was considered as a vice presidential candidate. Flynn eventually was appointed as President Trump’s National Security Advisor after delivering a fiery speech to the Republican National Convention.

As National Security Advisor, Flynn lasted just over three weeks. The issue was false statements that Flynn had made to Vice President Pence, Press Secretary Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Before the election and during the transition, Flynn had secret communications with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in which he discussed sanctions that the Obama Administration had imposed on Russia in response their interference in the election. Flynn denied discussing the sanctions until the Washington Post reported that leaks revealed that there was evidence from surveillance that Flynn was not being truthful.

Even after Flynn’s duplicity was revealed, Trump waited 18 days before finally deciding to fire him. Shortly after the Flynn’s dismissal on the basis of loss of trust, The Hill reported that Trump called him “a wonderful man” and said that the media had treated him “badly.” The is in sharp contrast to the firing of Comey, who was attacked by Trump on Twitter in the days after his dismissal.

Since leaving the White House, Flynn’s troubles have only gotten worse. Flynn is under investigation for failing to disclose a $33,000 payment from the Russian state-owned propaganda network, RT, after leaving the DIA. The New York Times reported in April that Flynn initially failed to disclose other payments from “companies linked to Russia.”

Flynn also may have broken the law by doing consulting work that benefitted the government of Turkey without the permission of the US government. After being fired by Trump, Flynn registered with the US government as a paid foreign agent for work done the year before that could have aided the Turkish government. Flynn may have also failed to fully disclose his contracts and payments from the Turkish consulting work.

Further, the Wall Street Journal reported that Flynn met with Turkish government contacts last summer, while he was still working for the Trump campaign, and discussed the possibility of returning Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric that Turkey blames for last summer’s failed military coup, without going through legal US extradition procedures. Former CIA Director James Woolsey said the discussion involved “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.” Woolsey said he did not hear a specific plan and would have objected if he had.

Even before Donald Trump was nominated as the Republican candidate, Flynn drew criticism for his ties to Russia. In December 2015, Flynn was paid $45,000 by RT to speak at the network’s 10th anniversary gala. The network also paid airfare for the trip and hosted Flynn at a luxury hotel in Moscow according to NBC News. Flynn sat at the same table as Russian President Vladimir Putin at the event.

In 2013, as head of the DIA, Flynn arranged a controversial trip to Russia for a group of US intelligence officers with the goal of building a working relationship with the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Flynn planned to host GRU officers in the US, but the Russian invasion of Crimea led to chilled relations between the two countries.

There are many questions about Mike Flynn that are unanswered. There is not even a definitive answer on how Flynn and Trump came to know each other. In an interview with the New Yorker, Flynn claimed he hit it off immediately with Trump in an August 2015 meeting in New York. In his interview with NBC News in May 2017, Trump denied knowing Flynn in 2015 In any case, Flynn was identified as an advisor to Trump by February 2016.

Trump’s relationship with Michael Flynn is central to the question of whether the president tried to interfere in the investigation of Flynn and whether he abused his authority in firing Director Comey. Trump is also alleged to have asked other intelligence officials to back off from the Flynn investigation. When asked by senators, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Advisor Mike Rogers said that they have never been “pressured” to interfere in an investigation. Neither would answer the question of whether Trump had ever broached the subject, however.

Right now, even after James Comey’s testimony, there are far more questions than answers. At this point, it is unknown whether a crime has been committed by either Mike Flynn or Donald Trump, but if there has been no crime then what has the White House cover-up been about? Did President Trump act illegally to protect Flynn? If so, why? Why did Trump really fire Comey? And why fire him when he did, months after taking office and seemingly out of the blue? The timing of the firing endangered the Republican legislative agenda at a time when the Republican health care reform had just passed the House and the party was looking towards tax reform.

Mike Flynn seems to hold many of the answers, but he isn’t talking. The retired general is invoking his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to comply with a subpoena to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Flynn also initially refused to comply with a subpoena for personal documents relating to his businesses. Eventually Flynn agreed to provide some documents after senators issued subpoenas his businesses as well.

With Special Counsel Bob Mueller likely investigating Flynn alongside the Senate Intelligence Committee, the probe into the Russian interference in the election and possible collaboration by members of the Trump campaign isn’t over yet. It’s just getting started and the relationship between President Trump and Gen. Flynn is likely to generate many more headlines before it’s over. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Trump is safe from impeachment... until 2018

Trump supporters are still celebrating the “vindication” of Donald Trump after this week’s testimony by James Comey. The lack of incontrovertible evidence of criminal action by the president has given the Trump Administration a new lease on life. President Trump will not resign and Republicans will not cross party lines to impeach him based on the evidence offered so far. Still, Trump is not out of the woods.

Opinions on whether Trump’s actions constituted obstruction of justice fell largely along party lines. Republicans called Trump’s request inappropriate but not illegal while Democrats say that the president broke the law. Republicans won’t vote to impeach Donald Trump and Democrats don’t have the votes for impeachment. But what happens after 2018?

Control of the House of Representatives can change in the blink of an eye. Since every House seat is up for election every term, a Democrat wave could easily shift control of the lower house of Congress in one election. Republicans currently hold a 45-seat majority in the House so Democrats would only need to pick up 23 seats to win a majority. That number might decrease if Jon Ossoff wins a special election in Georgia later this month.

Democrats seem to have an edge in the House races at the moment. Earlier this week, a Gallup poll reported that Republican party identification had plummeted four points since last year’s election. At the same time, Democrat affiliation had increased, giving Democrats a seven-point advantage.

Further, even before the Comey testimony, President Trump’s approval had fallen to a record low in a Quinnipiac poll. Barely a third of voters (34 percent) approve of Trump’s performance while 57 percent disapprove. While 80 percent of Republicans still approve of Trump, two-thirds of independents, the deciding demographic in most elections, disapprove. Gallup shows similar numbers while Rasmussen looks slightly better for the president with 46 percent approval, still a sharp decline.

Under the Constitution, it is the House of Representatives that votes to impeach the president, but the Senate decides whether to remove the impeached official from office. If Democrats win a majority, the probably of impeachment would rise dramatically, but, like Bill Clinton, President Trump could remain in office after being impeached if Democrats don’t control the Senate.

It is more difficult to win control of the Senate since only a third of senate seats are up for election in a given term. In a break for the Republicans, Democrats will be defending most of the Senate seats in play in 2018. Of 33 seats up for election, only eight are held by Republican incumbents.

The downside for Republicans is that Democrats only need to flip three seats to win a majority. Two defending Republicans, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), are from states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. If Democrats pick up those seats and find one more state dissatisfied with President Trump, while successfully defending their own seats, Republicans could find themselves the minority party in short order.

The 2018 midterms are a long way off. Seventeen months seems to be an eternity these days with bombshell revelations seeming to burst almost every day. In a year and a half, almost anything can happen and, in the current political climate, it probably will. While it is far too early to say how the 2018 midterms will turn out, it is very possible that President Trump could find himself in legal jeopardy early in 2019.

President Trump’s best insurance against impeachment or a failed presidency is to buckle down and get serious about governing. Put down the Twitter. Stop the cover-ups. Listen to the advisors who have experience with policy and lawyers who know what is legal and what isn’t.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lesson Of The Comey Hearings: Character Counts

James Comey’s testimony is not going to break the impasse in Washington and will satisfy neither side. Trump supporters are claiming that the president was exonerated because Comey did not claim that Trump ordered him to drop the Russia investigation and did not present an airtight accusation of obstruction of justice. Trump opponents point to the fact that Comey stood by his claim that the president asked him to drop the investigation of Mike Flynn and that such a request is unethical, even if it doesn’t clearly rise to the standard of obstruction of justice.

Whatever your opinion of the he said-he said dispute between Comey and Trump, the matter underscores just how wrong Trump supporters were about one thing: Character does still matter.

The fundamental question in the matter is who to believe. Do Americans trust the former FBI director with an axe to grind and a reputation for protecting himself politically or do they trust the sitting president with a casual regard for the truth, a man who has a reputation for saying whatever seems expedient at the moment and walking it back or pretending it was never said later.

When a president needs the benefit of the doubt from the country, as Trump does now, it helps if he has a good reputation. Trump does not. A Quinnipiac poll from May found that 61 percent say that Trump is not honest. When asked the first word that comes to mind about Donald Trump, the top three answers were “idiot” (39 percent), “incompetent” (31 percent), and “liar” (30 percent).

Right now, given the choice of whether to believe Donald Trump or James Comey, most Americans are going to believe Comey on the weight of their reputations. That Trump realizes this is evident by attempts to smear and discredit Comey with personal attacks. These attacks serve to make Trump look more guilty and there is a good chance that they will backfire disastrously for the administration.

The problem for Trump and the strategy of attempting to destroy Comey’s reputation is that Comey is likely to have evidence. Comey testified in his opening statement that he shared Trump’s comments with the senior leadership team of the FBI immediately after their dinner on January 27. If these other FBI agents corroborate Comey’s testimony, then Trump supporters are left in the unenviable position of either admitting that the president abused his authority and then lied about it or believing that Trump is telling the truth and everyone else is lying.

A second possibility is that Trump “taped” one or more of the meetings and that these tapes, if found and released, would show who is telling the truth. The odds are that it would not be Trump, given the rumors that Trump made similar requests of other intelligence officials.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said at one point in his testimony. So do I, because that is likely to be the only way to prove the case to the Trump faithful. As if that would even do it.

Comey’s testimony won’t be enough to impeach Trump. The case for obstruction of justice is tenuous enough that it probably won’t persuade many Republicans in Congress to desert him.

What it will do is end his legislative agenda (such as it is). Gone is almost any chance of working across the aisle for health care reform, tax reform or the myriad other issues that are vital to the future of the country. It is looking more and more like Obamacare is here to stay thanks to President Trump’s poor judgment… along with the poor judgment of the voters who made him the Republican candidate. 

Originally published on The Resurgent