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Trump, the GOP, Russia and Election Manipulation: A Convergence of Interests

June 18, 2019

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This week ABC News aired an interview in which Trump stated that he saw nothing wrong with accepting campaign help from a foreign power and no reason to inform the FBI if that happened. Fox News immediately rushed to defend Trump with Sean Hannity declaring that it was “another round of fake, phony, moral selective outrage over that interview but it’s the perfect setup…that was a genius setup because the media mob will fall right into his trap breathlessly spewing fake, phony outrage over a non-story for days…”  Senate Republicans then killed a bill introduced by Mark Warner (D-VA) that would have explicitly made accepting foreign help for election campaigns a crime.

It’s time to step back from this latest rotting tree and see the whole malignant forest that the Trump administration has become as it spreads across America’s political landscape like an incurable MRSA infection.

We have a president who remains strangely, but indisputably, deferential to Russia and Vladimir Putin and whose election campaign had Russian help. Whether Russian meddling tipped the election may be debatable, but there is no real question that Trump and his team both invited Russian help (“Russia, if you’re listening…”) and were quite eager  (“I love Wikileaks!”) to accept it when it was offered and delivered.  Upon hearing in June 2016 that the Russians wanted to meet about “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary”, Don Jr. enthusiastically emailed “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” [emphasis added] That last phrase, which oddly has received little attention, certainly seems like a suggestion for when Russian-provided dirt would do the most good. 

According to the Mueller Report, Paul Manafort instructed Rick Gates in April or May 2016 to send internal Trump campaign polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian/Russian associate of Manafort who was still working for Russian intelligence. Gates continued to send polling data to Kilimnik even after Manafort left the campaign in August. Also according to the report, Manafort briefed Kilimnik about polling data and the campaign’s strategy focusing on the “battleground states” of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Mueller shed no light on exactly what the Russians did with that information, but his report details a massive cyber operation to disseminate disinformation via social media and to publish potentially embarrassing material stolen by hacking the DNC and Clinton campaign.

Mueller’s failure to connect these and many other data points remains maddening and difficult to explain.  But whether or not there was the direct coordination required to establish the crime of conspiracy, and whether or not there was an agreed quid pro quo, the fact that there have been so many highly unusual contacts with Russians by Trump and his team both before and after the election leaves little doubt that Russian help for the Trump campaign was more than just a coincidence.  Add to that their failure to disclose such contacts and outright lies told when they were uncovered by the press, and it establishes a legitimate basis for suspicion that Trump and others in his entourage have been compromised. Yet that counterintelligence aspect of the Mueller investigation is completely absent from the published report.  The House Intelligence Committee has issued a subpoena to DOJ for documents and materials related to this part of the investigation, but so far AG Barr has refused to comply.

Trump’s behavior in office has only added to such suspicions. There were the one-on-one meetings with Putin with no other Americans present (except an interpreter in some cases) of which no official record appears to exist. There was the Oval Office  meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador (again, with no other Americans present), which was disclosed only after it appeared in Russian media. There was the press conference with Putin in Helsinki where Trump publicly accepted Putin’s denial of interference in US elections–contrary to both the conclusions of the US Intelligence Community and, later, the Mueller Report. Just this week there was the incident in the East China Sea where a Russian naval ship narrowly missed colliding–apparently deliberately–with a US Navy ship. Not a peep of protest has been heard from the White House about that, though Trump has tweeted about every other imaginable subject and his government seems eager to seize on any pretext to incite a war with Iran.

Perhaps more important and beneficial to Moscow has been Trump’s willful destruction of faith in US commitment to its democratic allies–particularly NATO–and gratuitous insults to allied democratic leaders, all the while snuggling up to the likes of Duterte, Viktor Orban, Kim Jong-un, and of course Putin. Under Trump, American foreign policy has switched from strong support for the European Union to indifference or even hostility, with Trump enthusiastically cheering for Brexit and providing at least tacit support for Nigel Farage and other right-wing nationalist European politicians. Weakening NATO and breaking up the EU have been long-term Russian strategic goals, and Putin could scarcely have imagined hitting such a jackpot, even though Congress has prevented Trump from dropping US economic sanctions as he attempted to do immediately after taking office. Even Trump’s “trade war” with China has redounded to Russia’s economic and geopolitical benefit, as Russian agricultural exports to China have surged to the detriment of US farmers.

So how does one explain doing so many things that subvert US economic and foreign policy interests, threaten painfully constructed strategic alliances, and flout national security procedures, while simultaneously advancing Russian interests? There really is no benign explanation.  It’s not necessary to know exactly what kind of kompromat the Kremlin has on Trump in order to see its result.

Meanwhile, the central issue of the Mueller investigation–continuing Russian interference in US elections and what to do about it–remains almost completely unaddressed. Trump’s position on this can be summed up as: “It’s a hoax and never happened.” According to the New York Times, former Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen was warned not to even broach the subject with Trump, even though Russian penetration of the US electoral machinery is now known to be far more extensive than has been acknowledged by the administration.

Yet there is still no US government task force to find ways to counter hacking of voter databases and machinery for vote recording and tabulation. Our decentralized system is controlled by state and local agencies which lack the sophistication and resources to foil skilled hackers. Several bills have been drafted (almost entirely by Democrats) to institute measures to safeguard the country’s electoral apparatus against malign manipulation, but the Republican leadership in the Senate–specifically Mitch McConnell–has blocked them from being introduced for debate and vote. The question then is cui bono or who benefits? One obvious answer is Trump. But almost certainly the other beneficiary will be the entire Republican party, which has based its future largely on targeted voter suppression. If Russian hackers can help with that, why should Republicans do anything to stop it?

Thanks to the electoral college, it doesn’t take much to alter a presidential election. The 2016 vote wasn’t really all that close–Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump–but Trump won the electoral vote by a margin of only 77, 742 votes cast in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In 2000, George W. Bush also lost the popular vote, but a mere 537 votes in Florida gave Bush the electoral college victory (after the conservative-controlled Supreme Court stopped the recount). How hard would it be for Russian hackers (or ones from somewhere else) to affect the result in “battleground” states just enough to tip the balance? And would we even know if it happened?

Doing that wouldn’t necessarily require anything so crude as altering the vote count (although that remains a possibility). Altering voter databases to remove selected categories of legitimate voters who show up at the polls only to discover that there are problems with their registration would be much easier. Such a tactic would supplement domestic Republican efforts to purge voter rolls already deployed with considerable success. In Georgia, for example, Brian Kemp defeated Stacy Abrams for governor by only 54, 723 votes–a margin of 1.4%. As Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brian Kemp headed the office charged with overseeing the state’s elections, which since 2010 had “purged upwards of 1.4 million voters from the rolls, including more than 660,000 Georgians in 2017 and almost 90,000 [in 2018]. Many of those voters found their registration canceled because they had not voted in the previous election.” As elsewhere, the suppression efforts were mostly targeted against African-American voters.

We now know that the voter registration systems of at least two Florida counties were penetrated by Russian hackers during the 2016 election. Florida has been critical in every presidential election of this century, and was won by Trump by only 112,911 votes or a margin of 1.2% after going for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Then-Governor Rick Scott also engaged in voter suppression and purges, and then won a US senate seat in 2018 by 10,023 votes (a 0.13% margin) in an election that went to a manual recount. In that same election, current Republican Governor Ron DeSantis defeated his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum by only 32,463 votes (0.4%). which also triggered a recount. Of course, recounts reveal nothing about how many people were prevented from voting because of “irregularities” in the registration rolls and other tactics such as reduced early voting days and closing selected polling places. Moreover, if Russian (or other) hackers had messed with voter rolls, how many local county election officials have the capacity to detect that or prevent it from occurring? This administration simply doesn’t care.

The panoply of voter suppression measures in state after Republican-controlled state across the country dovetails perfectly with the current administration effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census form. While adding such a question may sound innocent enough at first glance, there is clear evidence that it would significantly reduce compliance with the census particularly in areas with large immigrant populations, both legal and undocumented, which also tend to vote strongly Democratic. Surveys have shown that immigrants fear that such information would be used by the government to target them for deportation or other forms of harassment and discrimination. That likelihood has risen sharply because of the anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric of the Trump administration. The result would be a much larger undercount of the population in those areas–such as South Florida, South Texas, Southern California, and major metropolitan areas throughout the country. This would hurt the Democrats and help the Republicans by falsely reducing the official population of districts that generally favor Democrats, which could have a major impact when congressional and state legislature district boundaries are redrawn based on the 2020 census data.

Accurate census data is critical to federal, state, and local government because it forms the basis for political districting and allocation of government resources, affecting almost all aspects of American life. If certain areas are not counted fully, then they are disadvantaged compared to other districts where there is little or no undercount. The Census Bureau has long struggled to reduce the undercount of  marginalized populations such as homeless, urban and rural poor (especially minorities), and immigrants. What is different now is that the Trump administration has deliberately introduced a measure that it knows will increase the undercount. We know that because documentary evidence has emerged of policy discussions between top Commerce Department officials and the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican political operative and gerrymandering guru, in which the goals, methods, and rationalizing arguments were openly discussed. This issue will be decided by the Supreme Court, and this decision will show just how politicized the Court has become.

What all this adds up to is a concerted attack on the integrity and credibility of US elections–not just by Russia, but by Trump and the Republican party. The GOP knows that the demographic tide is against them, but it’s committed to a message aimed mainly at white voters in non-urban areas. But that base is shrinking as the country’s ethnic complexion changes.  The Republican response is to double down on frightening–and thereby mobilizing–its white base, and deploying a metastasizing set of voter suppression instruments to help it hold on power with a minority of voters. And it is working. The courts may strike down one trick or another, but each case takes time and there is always another one to deploy while the Democrats play whack-a-mole. If the Russians do something that helps keep Trump and his party in power, one or two Republicans may shed a few crocodile tears, but they’re certainly not going to do anything to stop them.

Meanwhile, Putin can check off one more item on his wish list:  destroying America’s faith in its electoral system.

 

 

 

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