The Facebook ads placed by a Russian troll farm and released Wednesday show the Russian propaganda campaign of 2016 didn’t favor either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, it mocked and goaded America.
This directly contradicts US intelligence assessments. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the assessment released in January stated. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference” for Trump.
If the ads placed by the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, a troll collective linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected restaurateur, reflect the strategy of the influence campaign, the intelligence community was wrong. The ads backed white nationalist as well as black causes. They often targeted Clinton before the election but switched to attacking Trump afterward. The ads against both were even visually similar.
A conceivable defense of the intelligence conclusion is that you can’t interfere in the election after the voters have chosen, so only the anti-Clinton bias of the Russian campaign really made a difference. That argument is lame, however.
Neither the trolls with their tiny budgets (at best, hundreds of thousands of dollars compared with the hundreds of millions spent by the candidates and their US backers) nor Russian state media with their laughable reach could’ve hoped to shape the election outcome. That would assume they knew more about US-based influence tools than the entire US political industry.
Even today, the best Russian experts on the political uses of the social networks believe it would’ve been impossible to tip the scales. Leonid Volkov, an Internet entrepreneur and campaign manager to Putin’s No. 1 domestic foe Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook on Thursday:
“When people discuss, in all seriousness, ‘election interference’ by means of $100,000 worth of Facebook ads (hundreds of times less than the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent on FB ads), when leading political publications show as ‘proof’ hellish pictures the most viral of which garnered all of 200,000 views (and most got only a few thousand; 500 rubles — not thousand dollars, not even dollars — was spent on promoting some of them) . . . it is, above all, simply shameful.
“Darn, we got a total of 2 million views for our social network ads before a rally in Astrakhan, and it cost us 20,000 rubles.”
The trolls, on entry-level salaries of about $1,000 a month, are far less savvy than Navalny’s. The silly mistakes they made in their English — the misuse of modal verbs, the missing articles, the clumsy turns of phrase — are evidence they were the lowest of info-war foot soldiers.
They weren’t playing to win the election, just to stir things up. They weren’t Republicans or Democrats: These parties don’t operate in St. Petersburg. They were trolls, happy to make a dent here, create a disturbance there.
The campaign was not tied to election timelines: It’s permanent, and it will go on while the United States and Russia are adversaries. Elections and government changes that do nothing to alter the relationship between countries are just a useful background for propaganda, disinformation and sheer trollery because they politicize the audience and draw its attention to the divisive issues that propagandists exploit. Instability and confusion are the primary goals, and they’re easy to achieve on the cheap.
The Kremlin’s goal was not to promote either candidate. Though Putin made no secret of his special dislike for Clinton, he was never short-sighted enough to trust Trump — and no one in a position of power in Russia ever indicated that he did. The influence campaign’s real goal was to amplify America’s organic discord and undermine trust in institutions.
The hearings about the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ads, with angry senators and squirming corporate lawyers hoping to avoid heavy-handed, misguided regulation, serve this purpose even better than the original ads did. US legislators look powerless; the Americans who were supposedly taken in by the cheap, badly made ads look ignorant.
US intelligence agencies look politicized and incapable of serious analysis, let alone an effective resistance, when it comes to Russian “active measures.”
The fit of US self-flagellation likely goes beyond the trolls’ and propagandists’ wildest dreams. A great nation, with the world’s best-funded and most professional media and an institutional framework other nations could only dream of, ought to be able to ignore the Russian propagandists’ pitiful, incompetent efforts.
©2017, Bloomberg View
Mr. Trump has made clear that he sees the attorney general and the F.B.I. director as his personal agents rather than independent figures, lashing out at both for not protecting him from the Russia investigation.
In May, he fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, who later testified that he had refused Mr. Trump’s demands that he pledge loyalty and publicly declare that the president was not personally under investigation. In July, Mr. Trump told The New York Times that he would never have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known that Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the investigation.
While his lawyers have for now persuaded Mr. Trump not to publicly attack Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, the president has not ruled out firing him, a scenario that other presidents facing special prosecutors considered virtually unthinkable. Asked on Friday whether he might fire Mr. Sessions if the attorney general does not investigate Democrats, Mr. Trump left open the prospect: “I don’t know,” he said.
The president’s Twitter posts and comments drew rebukes from Democrats and some Republicans. Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who served for six years under President Barack Obama, said Mr. Trump’s comments make the job of law enforcement officials more difficult.
“Combined with his improper attempts to influence Department of Justice actions, this demonstrates that he is a president who is willing to flout those norms that protect the rule of law,” Mr. Holder said in an interview.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican who has broken with Mr. Trump, said the Justice Department should be free of political interference.
“President Trump’s pressuring of the Justice Department and F.B.I. to pursue cases against his adversaries and calling for punishment before trials take place are totally inappropriate and not only undermine our justice system but erode the American people’s confidence in our institutions,” he said.
Some conservatives defended Mr. Trump’s right to exercise oversight of the country’s law enforcement agencies, saying that it would be dangerous to have an attorney general and an F.B.I. director who were not answerable to elected leaders.
“The notion that law enforcement, in particular, is somehow to be insulated from political influences and therefore inevitably insulated from political accountability is a horribly dangerous idea from the standpoint of civil liberty,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., a White House and Justice Department lawyer under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
However, Mr. Rivkin added, “That doesn’t mean you exercise your authority to direct those things in a crude and obscene fashion. You have to exercise some politesse about it.”
Other presidents have been criticized for political intervention when they spoke out about continuing criminal cases. Peter J. Wallison, who was the White House counsel under Reagan, said his president at times spoke out on cases of interest, including the investigation of Reagan’s onetime adviser Michael K. Deaver.
“I would try to discourage him, for all the good reasons people in the White House are probably trying to discourage Trump, but it was to no avail,” Mr. Wallison said. “Trump is doing the same, except to a greater extent.”
Mr. Wallison noted that Mr. Obama at times commented on investigations, recalling statements denying wrongdoing by the Internal Revenue Service when conservative groups found their tax exemptions targeted for scrutiny. “Presidents say these things because they are human beings and have emotions,” he said. “Nevertheless, there is little evidence that public statements have any effect on outcomes.”
Before Watergate, presidents were less reluctant to intervene in law enforcement. The administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had the F.B.I. wiretap the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. President Richard M. Nixon had the bureau eavesdrop on the telephone calls of reporters.
But in the past four decades, no president has sought to publicly pressure law enforcement as much as Mr. Trump.
In a barrage of a dozen tweets on Thursday night and early Friday, Mr. Trump railed at law enforcement agencies for not investigating Democrats. He cited Tony Podesta — the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta — who stepped down from his firm this week amid scrutiny of his lobbying business by Mr. Mueller. And he cited a book excerpt by Donna Brazile, the former interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman, who wrote that last year’s primaries were tilted by a fund-raising agreement that the committee made with Mrs. Clinton.
“I’m really not involved with the Justice Department,” Mr. Trump told reporters before leaving on a 12-day trip to Asia. “I’d like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at the Democrats. They should be looking at Podesta and all of that dishonesty. They should be looking at a lot of things. And a lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me.”
“At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper,” Mr. Trump wrote.
“Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems,” he also tweeted.
Mr. Trump’s interest in directing law enforcement decisions extends beyond his political opposition but carries its own risk. The president’s support for capital punishment for the New York terrorism suspect, Sayfullo Saipov — “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY,” he tweeted — could pose problems for prosecutors and help defense lawyers who could argue that their client cannot get a fair trial.
Mr. Trump also weighed in again on Friday on the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty to desertion and endangering other troops by walking away from his base in Afghanistan and getting captured by the Taliban. Mr. Trump, who last year called Sergeant Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” who should be executed, expressed outrage when a military judge on Friday gave the sergeant a dishonorable discharge but no jail time.
“The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
But Mr. Trump’s own outspokenness may have helped lead to the very result he was condemning. The judge did not explain his reasoning on Friday but last week said he would consider the president’s past comments as evidence for a lighter sentence.
“Well before any public knowledge of these events,” Sipher notes, Steele’s report “identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents. Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponize them in the U.S. election, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.”
(After this column went to print, The Times reported that Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page met with Russian government officials in a July 2016 trip to Moscow, something he has long denied. This further confirms another claim made in the Steele dossier.)
There’s more of this, but you get the point: The suggestion that the Steele dossier has been discredited is discreditable to the point of being dishonest.
This brings us to the second anti-Mueller contention, which is that his indictment of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort for tax fraud connected to his political work in Ukraine, along with news of the guilty plea entered by Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to the F.B.I., is merely evidence of the slimness of the special counsel’s case.
The nonchalance about Manafort’s illicit ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is almost funny, coming from the same people who went berserk over China’s alleged meddling on behalf of Democrats in the 1996 presidential campaign.
But if nothing else, the Manafort indictment underscores the Trump campaign’s astonishing vulnerability to Russian blackmail.
Did that vulnerability explain the campaign’s bizarre intervention (denied by Manafort) to soften the Republican Party platform’s language on providing help to Ukraine?
Why did the campaign pursue a course of semi-secret outreach to Russia through George Papadopoulos, giving him just enough visibility to let the Russians know he was a player but not so much visibility as to attract much media attention?
What else about Trump’s obsequious overtures to the Kremlin might similarly be explained by the contents of the Steele dossier?
These questions require answers, which is what makes calls to remove Mueller from his job or have Trump pardon Manafort, Papadopoulos and even himself both strange and repugnant. Since when did conservatives suddenly become conveniently bored with getting to the bottom of Russian conspiracies?
As it turns out, they’re not bored. They just want the conspiracies to involve liberals.
Thus the third Trumpian claim: That the real scandal is that the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee paid for the Steele dossier. Somehow that’s supposed to add up to “collusion” between Clinton and the Russians, on the remarkable theory that Steele was merely retailing Kremlin-invented fables about Trump.
Yet how else was Steele supposed to investigate allegations of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign except by talking to Russian sources with insight into the Kremlin? If Clinton was the beneficiary of the Kremlin’s designs, why did it leak her emails? And why would Putin favor the candidate most hostile to him in last year’s election but undermine the one who kept offering improved relations?
You already know the answers. The deeper mystery is why certain conservatives who were once Trump’s fiercest critics have become his most sophistical apologists. The answer to that one requires a mode of analysis more psychological than political.
Feeling cornered and under siege, an angry Donald Trump has embarked on a crucial trip to Asia, the longest foreign tour of his imploding presidency.
Increasingly, Trump is acting like a man who sees only two ways to survive. Given that, the only remaining question for him in his desperation may be this: “What should I do first?”
Will he fire Robert Mueller as the special counsel investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, which now seems only a matter of time, even though it is certain to trigger a constitutional crisis?
Or will he first try to regain popular support by risking a catastrophic nuclear war with North Korea, now closer than ever in the absence of any genuine diplomacy happening, even though it would inevitably result in hundreds of thousands of casualties?
This is a dangerous period in the turbulent Trump presidency, and for the world.
When the history books are written about this era, it is hard not to conclude that this week’s developments will loom large. This was the week we learned the first strong indications that — to put it in Trump’s vernacular — the jig is up.
The announcement from the Mueller team last Monday was a bombshell. Two senior Trump campaign officials have been indicted and a third Trump adviser has pleaded guilty. The 12-count indictment laid out the first charges in Mueller’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with last year’s U.S. election — including the headline charge of “conspiracy against the United States.”
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Even as a tiny fraction of what the Mueller team now undoubtedly knows, the court filings drew a staggering portrait of how Trump’s world operated last year. It revealed how Russian intelligence successfully penetrated Trump’s campaign operation at different levels.
For several months, including during the Republican convention of last summer, Trump’s campaign was run by Paul Manafort, who operated in secret as a foreign agent of a regime friendly to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Before Manafort joined Trump in an official capacity, the charges indicate he laundered tens of millions of dollars for the Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych.
Perhaps even more ominous for Trump is the unexpected guilty plea of former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos — once described by Trump in an interview with The Washington Postas an “excellent guy.” Papadopoulos admitted to lying to the FBI about his attempts to set up meetings with Kremlin contacts in search of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
This week’s developments, as an opening volley from the Mueller team, provide an indication of what their strategy is. They are pressuring Manafort to co-operate and reveal what he knows about Trump’s role. They have already done a deal with Papadopoulos to tell them what he knows about who else was involved.
As Trump himself must know, it is widely accepted that Mueller has Trump’s tax returns in his possession. This means that Mueller’s team is able to pull together a complete picture of Trump’s financial relationship with Russians — including the years well before he announced for the presidency.
There have been numerous reports that Trump and his associates have been heavily financed by Russian oligarchs and mobsters, including those involved in money laundering, extortion, drugs and racketeering. If so, this would help explain why Trump has been so obsessively reluctant to be critical of Putin or of Russia since being elected president.
More than anyone, Trump would know the extent of his involvement with Russia — although Mueller, by now, may be a close second. Therein lies the danger for Trump. He knows that Mueller has the potential to destroying his presidency.
So — if you’re Trump — Mueller, somehow, has to be gotten rid of. The only question is when. Neither Trump nor his associates have ever acknowledged this, although Trump once described it as a “red line” if Mueller ever started examining his financial holdings. Mueller has certainly crossed that line.
It is widely accepted in Washington political circles that Trump is seeking an opportunity to fire Mueller. To this end, many of his media boosters at Fox News are working overtime in trying to come up with ways to discredit Mueller and his team.
Yes, the risks for Trump in this are enormous. Any firing of Mueller — not unlike the fabled “Saturday Night Massacre” by Richard Nixon in 1973 — would trigger a constitutional crisis. But in Trump’s mind, that would be a risk worth taking if the stark alternative — as a response to Mueller’s eventual findings — is impeachment.
This drama is only beginning.
Tony Burman is former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News. Reach him @TonyBurman or at email@example.com.
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