Friday, July 07, 2017

What We Know About Russian Meddling in 2016

 There has been a lot of information, misinformation, and outright lies and denial concerning Russia's influence in the 2016 election. Supporters of trump say that the claims of Russian interference are wildly overstated, while his more vocal opponents say that not only did Russia interfere but it is highly likely that there was collusion with the Republican Party and the trump campaign. So, in an effort to get everyone on the same playing field, here's what we know so far to be true.

Before we begin, though, we have to understand that all of this is based on publicly available information. Much of the information about Russian involvement is classified, so in some cases we will be making what may be considered to be educated guesses. We will make every effort to differentiate between what is known and what is supposed. Moving right along ...

Right off the bat, we must acknowledge that Russia got an incredible return on their investment. In terms of sheer cost-effectiveness and disruptiveness, this qualifies as one of the most effective espionage operations in history. Simply by use of a few small hacks with the Democratic National Committee and some basic online trolling of social media and news sites. the Kremlin managed to completely upend the politics of the world's one remaining superpower. Russia's chief rival in the geoplitical arena is spending more time sniping at each other than dealing with the foireign power that precipitated this crisis. While Russia's bill may one day come due, for now they are able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor ... and their victory grows larger with each partisan intramural attack. So what happened, exactly?

It all started in September of 2015, when the FBI became aware that Russian hackers had broken into DNC (Democratic National Committee) servers.6 Interestingly enough, it appears that these same hackers had also broken into systems associated with the Republican National Committee as well as accounts belonging to various Republican officials. However, in keeping within the assessment by the intelligence community that the Russian interference was specifically perpetrated to assist trump, they chose not to release any information obtained.

The hackers were identified by CrowdStrike, an independent cyber security firm, and they split them into two groups1. The first group, named by CrowdStrike as "Cozy Bear," focused their efforts on gaining access to emails and chat transcripts. The second group, dubbed "Fancy Bear," directed their attention toward gaining access to opposition  research. Confirmation of CrowdStrike's assessment of Russian infiltration came from two unnamed CrowdStrike competitors, who based their results on the following attributes of the break-ins:

  • The hack was analyzed, and it was discovered that the tools used by the hackers were the same as the ones that had been used by previous hacks from Russia.
  • The domain used in the spear-phishing scam against the DNC employees was the same one that had been used previously in other spear-phishing attacks.
  • The leaked files contained Russian language metadata, and error messages that were printed in Russian. Later versions of these files had this information removed.
  • Guccifer 2.0, identified as the leaker of the documents, claimed to be Romanian despite being unable to speak the language.

On August 24, 2016, Russian hackers sent spear-phishing emails, spoofed to look like a Gmail account, to employees of an unnamed election software company. The name of the firm was redacted for security reasons, although other evidence points to the company being VR Systems, of Florida. VR Systems has contracts in eight states: California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia2. Seven "potential victims" were identified. Of these, emails sent to three of the were returned by the server for unknown reasons (it could have been something as simple as those three people not working there any longer). At least one employee account was compromised.

Roughly a month before the election, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement that was considered to be unusual. In this statement they said "The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process."1

On October 27, 2016, Russian hackers set up an "operational" GMail account set up to appear as if it belonged to an employee at VR Systems.

On October 31 or November 1, 2016, spear-phishing emails were sent from the newly-created account to 122 employees of local government employees in the United States using the documents obtained from the previous hack. These emails had a Word attachment that contained a hidden PowerShell script that notified the hackers that they were in.

According to a report in The Intercept, an online national security publication, "Russian military intelligence executed a cyber attack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept." In addition, there were reports of long lines at polling places in Durham, North Carolina due to a malfunction with the voter registration system. This triggered election officials to switch to paper ballots and extend voting into the the late evening hours. Interestingly, Durham's voter rolls were maintained by VR Systems.2

The FBI and the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) released a declassified joint analysis of their evidence linking Moscow to the DNC hacks in late December. According to this report, "The U.S. Government confirms that two different actors participated in the intrusion into a U.S. political party. The first actor group, known as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 29 entered into the party’s systems in summer 2015, while the second, known as APT28, entered in spring 2016."1

After news reports surfaced on the intelligence community's analysis of the Russian interference in January, the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified version of its assessment7, requested by President Obama, of the role of the Kremlin: "[W]hile the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the classified assessment, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods."1 The main point of the report was this: "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. 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 President-elect Trump." The report further goes on to conclude that, while the hacking did not actually alter vote counts, Putin had spearheaded an elaborate effort to put trump in the White House. This was accomplished not only through the hacking efforts, but also through dissemination of false news stories, all with the intent of boosting trump and undermining Hillary Clinton.

President Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, said of the Obama administration's delay in publicizing Russian interference that officials were concerned they would be blamed for attempting to exert a partisan influence on the results of the election (the irony of which is not lost on us at the Blowhard Pundit, given trump's continuous railing against a "rigged election").

"Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson defended the Obama administration’s delay in revealing Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election, saying Wednesday that officials were worried that they’d be blamed for a partisan attempt to influence the results."

According to former FBI Director James Comey, these hackers were "unusually loud" in their intervention in that they left identifying digital fingerprints on both the DNC servers and the emails stolen from John Podesta that allowed them to easily be linked back to the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Russian state-sponsored media such as RT and Sputnik openly backed trump. In addition, automated Twitter accounts -- many of which were linked to Russia and assisted by professional trolls paid by the Kremlin -- flooded social media with fabricated news throughout the campaign, especially in the last few days before the election.

On June 21, 2017, a hearing was held by the Senate Intelligence Committee on "Russian Interference in the 2016 Elections."4 During the course of this hearing it was confirmed that at least one state had experienced a breach of its voter registration database. Testimony was conclusive, however, that there was no tampering with actual votes, even though "[t]here is unanimity of opinion in the intelligence community that hackers working on behalf of the Russian government undertook a coordinated effort to destabilize our election system."


So there's our timeline. But what does it all mean? Who are the key players? What's next?

The National Review9 attempted to answer the "what does it mean" question using a "Q&A" format3. It's a rather lengthy piece, so we won't reproduce it in its entirely here, but here are the main points:

According to this article, the Kremlin was behind attacks on several computers, but technically they did not "hack" the election. What they did do was to "sow confusion and chaos" through the use of planted fake news stories and social media posts, creating artificial waves of online commentary. Multiple intelligence agencies agree that there is strong evidence to support the idea that Moscow ultimately sought to have trump beat Clinton. There is a difference of opinion as to whether these efforts were successful enough to have altered the outcome of the campaign; the view of the National Review is that there is really no way to know due to the large number of other factors.

Basically, the consensus is that interference in the 2016 elections occurred, that the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin were ultimately behind it all, and (at least as far as the right is concerned) it's impossible to tell whether or not this had any effect on the election (our belief at The Blowhard Pundit is that it absolutely did have an effect, and the National Review is trying to spin things their way ... but getting back to the main story here).

It appears now that the hacking campaign took four distinct, yet related, paths6:
  1. Establish personal contact with American citizens who were perceived to be sympathetic to Russia. For example, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn, former trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page. The Kremlin would use these contacts to further Moscow's foreign policy goals.
  2. Hack the DNC servers and feed the resulting stolen data to Wikileaks, which then would leak the data in batches throughout the second half of 2016.
  3. Amplify the proganda value of the leaked data with a disinformation campaign. This was achieved through multiple social media avenues such as Facebook and Twitter, using both automated bots and paid trolls to spread fake news and pro-trump propaganda.
  4. Breach U. S voting systems in an effort to steal registration data that could be used to target and manipulate voters in future elections. Reports indicate that Russian hackers managed to infiltrate the systems in 39 states, although there is no evidence of vote tampering.
All this activity led to federal investigators looking into the activities of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, and Roger Stone to determine if they were willing or unwitting accomplices to the Russian hacking.
  • Manafort had actually been working to advance Russia's interests for over a decade. Beginning in 2004, he served as a top adviser to Viktor Yanukovich, former President of Ukraine. Yanukovich is a pro-Russia "strongman," and Manafort's efforts are credited with helping him win the presidency in 2010. Later, between 2006 and 2009, Manafort received millions of dollars to lobby on behalf of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire. In an interview with Fox News, Associated Press reporter Jeff Horwitz referred to Manafort as a "gun for hire," and said that he was willing to work "on behalf of Russian interests."
  • During the trump transition period Michael Flynn had discussed U. S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak. The official line form the trump administration was that Flynn had resigned because he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of these discussions. However, it was later reported that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House in January that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail due to U. S. intelligence knowing that Pence had publicly mischaracterized the interactions between Kislyak and Flynn. Interestingly, Flynn also had business ties to Russian firms and to RT, the Kremlin-owned propaganda network.
  • Page had taken a trip to Moscow in July of 2016 was cause for concern at the FBI, which was granted a warrant by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor his communications based on the suspicion that he was in communication with Russian officials.
  • An investigation was opened into Jared Kushner, trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, after intelligence officials intercepted communications suggesting he had proposed setting up a secret back-channel to Moscow using Russian diplomatic facilities on US soil. While back channel communications are not uncommon, the fact that he proposed using Russian facilities on U. S. soil, that he had met with both Russian banker Sergey Gorkov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and that he failed to disclose these meetings on his security clearance form all contributed to the decision to investigate his actions.
  • Roger Stone had communicated with self-described hacker Guccifer 2.0 in August 2016 This is the same Guccifer 2.0 who leaked information to Florida GOP operative Aaron Neveis, as we covered here). U. S intelligence officials hold the opinion that Guccifer 2.0 is a Russian prop.
In addition to these investigations, there were also the following revelations:
  • It came to light that then-nominee Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his Russian contacts. This forced him to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia's activities.
  • There were claims that Moscow had damaging information about trump that the campaign would want to keep suppressed, giving the Kremlin undue influence on his presidency. These reports became so prevalent that both trump and President Obama were brief on these claims by intelligence officials.
Of course, the trump administration has repeatedly claimed that nobody from his team was is contact with Russian officials during the campaign. However, anonymous intelligence officials have claimed otherwise and apparently have the intercepted communications to prove it.

According to former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts, speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee in May, said that the trump campaign itself may have been an unwitting Russian agent6. “Part of the reasons active measures have worked in the US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts said, citing both trump and Manafort's referring to fake news stories last year propagated by entities linked to Russia. “[Trump] denies the intel from the United States about Russia, and he claimed the election could be rigged — that was the number one claim pushed by RT, Sputnik News, all the way up until the election,” Watts said. “Part of the reasons Russian active measures work is because they parrot the same lines.”

In addition, U. S. intelligence agencies hold the opinion that Wikileaks has become a propaganda tool of the Kremlin.

So now the question under consideration is whether or not there was collusion between Moscow and the Republican Party and the trump campaign. This is huge, actually, as it could constitute treason against the United States. According to the article in The Intercept, "If collusion can ultimately be demonstrated — a big if at this point — then the assistance on Russia’s part went beyond allegedly hacking email to serve a propaganda campaign, and bled into an attack on U.S. election infrastructure itself.2" To date there has been little more than very circumstantial evidence that this happened ... not enough to actually say for sure, but enough to have the intelligence community worried.

As far as what to do next?

According to David Becker at The Hill4, we should bear the following points in mind:
  • Election officials are not the problem. They are part of the solution. A common thread is that local election officials are, at best, negligent, and at worst, wholly incompetent. By and large, these impressions are false. Election officials at both local and state levels are highly attuned to this problem and stand ready to address it.
  • Acknowledge the threat. Some people, especially some on the right, are willing to dust off their hands and claim "what's done is done." This is somewhat understandable because their guy won, but it ignores the very real fact that this will happen again unless we are vigilant. This attitude is demonstrated in trump's comments during his recent visit to Poland, when he said of the hacking attempts “I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.” The thing is, we do know for sure, and they will be back for another swing at this particular pinata.
  • Strengthening processes and auditing. Part of the problem after the 2016 election was a lack of data forensics. Many voting machines have no paper trail, making it very difficult to perform an accurate audit. We need to come up with more robust voting technologies that also include a hard-copy component.
  • Better training. Election workers at all levels need better training in security protocols and procedures.
  • Improved communications between all levels. We must facilitate better communication between local, state, and federal election officials as well as the intelligence community.
  • Election infrastructure. None of these things are without cost, and the first step is to harden election infrastructure against outside tampering.
It may sound like a fool's errand: make elections more open and fair while simultaneously hardining them against external intrusion. Yet this is the only way to prevent a repeat of the 2016 debacle.

I gotta lie down.

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1 The Washington Post, "Here’s the public evidence that supports the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election,", Philip Bump, 6/3/2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/07/06/heres-the-public-evidence-that-supports-the-idea-that-russia-interfered-in-the-2016-election/
2 The Intercept, "Top-Secret NSA Report Details Russian Hacking Effort Days Before 2016 Election," Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito, Sam Biddle, Ryan Grim, 6/5/2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/06/05/top-secret-nsa-report-details-russian-hacking-effort-days-before-2016-election/
3 The National Review, "A Beginner’s Guide to the Trump/Russia Controversy," David French, 3/31/2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/446339/donald-trump-russia-2016-election-controversy-explained
4 The Hill, "The truth about Russia, 'hacking' and the 2016 election," David Becker, 6/25/17, http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/national-party-news/339225-what-we-know-about-russian-hacking-and-the-2016
5 The Los Angeles Times, "Former head of Homeland Security testifies on Russian interference in 2016 election," Joseph Tanfani, David S. Cloud, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-johnson-russia-20170621-story.html
6 Business Insider, "Evidence is mounting that Russia took 4 clear paths to meddle in the US election", Sonam Sheth, Natasha Bertrand, 6/24/2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/evidence-russia-meddled-in-us-election-2017-6
7 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Background to 'Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections': The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution", 1/6/2017, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf
8The Washington Post, "Russian Government Hackers Penetrated DNC, Stole Opposition Research on Donald Trump", Ellen Nakashima, 6/14/2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/russian-government-hackers-penetrated-dnc-stole-opposition-research-on-trump/2016/06/14/cf006cb4-316e-11e6-8ff7-7b6c1998b7a0_story.html?utm_term=.96b0b4c4a690
9In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that the National Review has a decidedly right-wing slant. For example, two of the headlines on the site were "Hillary Clinton: Nasty, Corrupt, Evil, Crooked, Ruthless" and "Chelsea Clinton – Creep", and they refer to liberals as "lefties" and attempt to minimize the effects of the hacking.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Willful Ignorance, Or Just Stupid?

I can't even begin to count the number of times I have been accused by conservatives/Republicans of being biased because I don't give equal time to conservative arguments. My response to this?

Well, duh. I am a liberal blogger, publishing opinion pieces. What did you expect?

That's not to say I operate in a completely fact-free environment, far from it. However, the facts are presented in the service of supporting my position. When possible I also include sources so that my suppositions can be independently corroborated.

The problem lies with the apparent inability of Republicans to understand this.

Out of the approximately 950 million posts I have published in the past few months, only two have not been subjected to an unending stream of outraged comments by members of the right, accusing me of liberal bias and of obfuscating the facts. Of those two, one was purely factual reporting of the shooting in Alexandria as it happened ... there was no opinion, no interpretation, just "this is what happened, this is where it happened, this is what law enforcement is saying now" (in fact, I did have one guy comment that I was guilty of liberal bias, but it turned out he hadn't even bothered to read the article in the first place). The second was my Independence Day post in which I simply posted the text of the Declaration of Independence ... which prompted one commenter to accuse me of being anti-Native American and that he hoped I enjoyed the genocide.

It takes all kinds, I guess.

Here's the thing. I have never knowingly published false information. Sure, I may engage in hyperbole from time to time to make a point, and some would argue that I am unnecessarily profane, but I never write anything with the intent to deceive. And on the rare occasion that I do get something factually wrong, I will offer a mea culpa.

So here are some of the facts as we know them today, along with my take on the conservative response (anticipated or actual).

Russian interference in the election of 2016
The Kremlin interfered in the election of 2016. This is undisputed fact by everyone except the brainstems on the far right. It has been confirmed by the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, Israel's Mossad, Britain's MI6, Bill Kristol, George Will, Keith Olberman (surprising, huh?), the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg, CNN, the BBC, AP, UPI, Reuters, the cast of "The West Wing," and some guy selling souvenirs on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian. So it's only natural to assume that these people and organizations are all wrong, and that Sean Hannity's four or five functioning brain cells are spot on.

In addition, Republicans seem to be incapable of discerning the difference between "interference" and "collusion." They also like to trot out the "collusion isn't a crime" trope, even though a) it is, and 2) in this case, if it is found to have happened, then it would constitute treason -- which, last time I checked, absolutely is criminal behavior.

Climate changeWhenever I have mentioned climate change, conservatives immediately start accusing me of being an alarmist and that we should wait for the science to be settled. I've got a news flash.

No science is "settled." Even something as fundamental as the law of gravitation was upended when Albert Einstein showed that gravity is not a force at all but a fundamental part of the very shape of the space-time continuum. So when conservatives say they are waiting for the science to be settled, what they are actually doing is trying to kick the can down the road so they can enjoy another quarter of healthy profit from the fossil fuel companies.

Here's the reality. Climate change is real. It is caused almost overwhelmingly by human activity, evidenced by the fact that global mean temperatures started rising with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting use of fossil fuels (coal at first, then oil). Glaciers have been shrinking. Polar sea ice is breaking up sooner in the spring and forming later in the fall. Flowers are blooming earlier, disrupting pollinators. Plant and animal ranges are shifting poleward.

Temperatures are expected to rise from 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. The Arctic Ocean is expected to completely ice-free in the summer by the middle of this century. Sea levels will rise by between one and four feet. We are already seeing the effects of this in some areas ... in south Florida, for example, wells that supply drinking water are being contaminated by saltwater intrusion. Parking lots in Miami that would flood only during storms or "king tides" (unusually high tides caused by a combination of meteorological conditions and the alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth) are now underwater twice a day during normal high tides.

But of course, Jim Inhofe was able to make a snowball during a snowstorm -- and in January, no less! -- so this is proof that climate change isn't happening, right?

Health care
This is my personal favorite, simply because the level of stupid is enough to bury Mount Everest without a trace. Any time I post anything even remotely related to the ACA, I get one or more of the following responses:
  • Obama care is a disaster and it's causing premiums to rise (it's not; those are set by the insurance companies).
  • Why should I have to pay for someone else's health care? (Because you're a member of society, dumbass. Ever heard of "no man is an island?")
  • I've already got insurance through the ACA that works just fine, thank you very much. I don't need any communist Muslim atheist gay Obamacare (this is my personal favorite as it demonstrates not just a partial, but a total, repudiation of reality on this person's part).
  • Why don't these people just get jobs so they can get insurance through their employer? (Well, sure. Let's tell the 79 year old Alzheimer's patient that she should go back to work, or the minimum wage worker for whom health insurance premiums would suck up about 75% of their pay.)
  • I've got Medicare. I don't need no socialized medicine (where to begin).
 And those are just the big three. I haven't even begun to touch on preposterous claims about voter fraud, or conflicts of interest, or North Korea, or corruption, or any of another 15,000 topics.

What it comes down to is this. Many people on the right are just plain stupid. In some cases it's deliberate, in others it's inherent, but in almost all instances it is viewed as some sort of badge of honor to deny reality even when it is bitch-slapping them across the face. In other hands this would be the basis of what I am sure would be a fascinating sociological study.I'm not that deep, though, so I will simply continue to point out the stupid and let conservatives make fools of themselves denying what is in plain sight before their eyes.

I gotta lie down.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Level Playing Field? Not So Much


We all know that one guy in high school who, despite being a complete dickbag, managed to use a combination of guile, bullying, sucking up, and outright lies to become the Big Man On Campus. You know the guy I'm talking about. He was class president. He edited the school paper. He got the lead in the school musical despite having a tin ear and a voice like Professor Bunsen from the Muppets. He was prom king. And everybody hated his guts.

This is today's Republican Party.

In the past, Republicans ran on a platform of limited government. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the GOP started adopting social conservatism as its raison d'etre. Since then they have been lurching further and further to the right, and their messaging has become more and more truculent and exclusive, so that today we have a Republican Party whose main campaign strategy is "We're not Democrats."

A Quinnipiac University poll1 (you can find the original results here) released in March of this year shows that the American public disagrees with trump and the Republican Party on almost every agenda issue:
  • Did Jess Sessions lie under oath during his confirmation hearings? 52% yes; 40% no.
  • Should Jeff Sessions resign as a result? 51% yes; 42% no.
  • Do you approve of the way in which trump is handling U. S. p;olicy toward Russia? 32% yes; 54% no.
  • Do you support the idea of an "independent commission investigating potential links between some of Donald Trump's campaign advisors and the Russian government?" 66% yes; 30% no. The only group -- racial, age, gender, etc. -- that varied markedly from this result was Republicans: 30% yes, 64% no.
  • A total of 61 percent are "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about President Trump's relationship with Russia. A total of 62 percent of voters say alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election is a "very important" or "somewhat important" issue.
  • Should trump support efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA)? 45% yes, 51% no.
  • Should health insurance be affordable for all Americans? 84% say it is "very important;" 12% say "somewhat important."
  • Are you confident Congressional Republicans will replace the ACA with something good or better? 44% said "very confident" or "somewhat confident;" 54% said "not so confident" or "not confident at all."
  • Should illegal immigrants be allowed to remain in the U. S. and eventually become citizens? 63% say yes; 11% say they should be allowed to stay but not become citizens, and 23% say they should not be allowed to stay. This 63% is the highest level of support since Qunnipiac began asking this question in 2012.
  • Under what circumstances should illegal immigrants be deported? 55% say only deport those who have committed a serious crime; 21% favor those who have committed any crime -- even parking tickets; 19% say all illegal immigrants should be deported; 3% say none.
  • Should federal spending be increased for infrastructure? 90% yes; 8% no.
  • Should federal spending be increased by $54 billion for the military? 45% yes; 51% no.
  • Should public schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms, etc. consistent with their gender identity? 48% yes; 45% no. Among women support runs 55% in favor and 37% opposed, whereas with men it runs 39% in favor and 54% opposed.
The Hart Research Associates conducted a poll2 (results available here) from June 3-5 asking if people supported trump's education agenda:
  • 74% opposed trump's cuts in trump's budget request from March.
  • 71% disagreed with cutting $2.4 billion currently used for teacher preparedness.
  • 73% opposed elimination of $1.2 billion for after-school programs.
  • 76% found elimination of $168 million for career and technical education unacceptable.
The poll was conducted among a representative sample of voters across America: 45% of those surveyed were trump voters, and 40% identified as Republicans, while 48% voted for Hillary Clinton and 41% identified as Democrats.

Even the Conservative Review, one of the more "tempered" voices of the Right Wing Shriek Factory, acknowledges that the party is in some disarray3: 71% of of Republicans surveyed say the Freedom Caucus (formerly known as the Tea Party) is having a negative effect on the party.

So what does all this mean, anyway?

Simple. The Republicans do not have a winning agenda. However, it is the agenda favored by large donors to Republican campaigns and the evangelical right, so rather than adjusting their platform to accommodate the American people they have resorted to political dirty tricks to stay in power.

For example, voter suppression. From voter ID laws intended to suppress the vote of the elderly and minorities, populations that tend to vote Democratic, to state-level measures that make it harder to get registered to vote, to Kris Kobach's "Cross Check" database that purges people from the voter rolls at random (true story: I was once told, at the polling place, that I could not vote because I had a felony on my record. It turned out that someone in my town has the same first and last name -- different middle initial, though -- as I do, and that person had been charged with a felony. Not convicted, mind you; the case was still pending, but only charged. He was later acquitted, but it still took several months to get my voting rights restored).

Then there's gerrymandering. Right about now the RWSF is bleating that "Democrats do it too," and they are correct. However, the Dems have done it twice: MD3 and IL4, whereas the GOP has at least seven gerrymandered districts across the country. For example, in Pennsylvania Republican candidates for Congress won 48% of the vote in 2012, compared to a hair under 50% for Democrats (the rest going to third party, independent, and bogus write-ins). Given that Pennsylvania has eighteen Congressional seats, this would lead one to believe that each party won nine seats, right?

Wrong. Republicans won 13 out of the 18, because the GOP was able to draw the districts pretty much unopposed in 2010 thanks to a Republican legislature and a Republican governor.

(That's not to say that Democrats are blameless. They aren't, but that's a topic for another article.)

What it boils down to is that the Republicans cannot win based on their agenda, and they know it ... which is why they are resorting to shady tactics. If the voter suppression and gerrymandering were removed, Democrats in general -- and liberals in particular -- would be winning in huge numbers. It is only because the left is artificially excluded from participation that the right is even marginally relevant.

I gotta lie down.

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1From March 2 - 6, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,283 voters nationwide with a margin of error of +/- 2.7 percentage points. Live interviewers call landlines and cell phones.
2U. S. News and World Report: The results are based on interviews with a nationally representative sample of voters conducted online from June 3 to June 5.
3Email poll conducted as part of the April Capitol Insiders Survey, CQ Roll Call’s email poll of congressional staff.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

An Important Read

Two hundred forty one years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote a document that would become one of the most enduring in human history. In it he laid out a specific list of grievances against the King of England, and announced to the world the intent of the American colonies to separate themselves from all political attachments to Great Britain.

Would that I was as eloquent as Jefferson, but that's a ridiculously high bar to clear, man. That being said, I'll let Tom take it from here.

Happy Independence Day, everybody.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance. 

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  • For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
  • For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Mad King


I've been quiet over the weekend because I was putting together a surprise party for my wife's birthday (full disclosure: she wasn't terribly surprised because I suck at that sort of thing) but I'm back now and ready to unleash some snark.

Unfortunately, I forgot to account for the sheer volume of stupid that emerges on an hourly basis from the trump administration, making it difficult to choose a topic to address. The tweets against Morning Joe? Nonsense about the health care bill? The flagrant use of the Federal government as his own ATM? Where to begin?

This got me to thinking of looking at this from a higher level. Not "higher" in the sense of "I'm smarter than you" (although, in the case of the idiot in the Honda minivan on Friday who couldn't just pick a fucking lane, already, I am), but in the sense of pulling back and taking a look at the bigger picture. What we have seen to date from pundits of various stripes -- including yours truly -- are attempts to react to whatever batshit crazy bullshit emanates from the roiling mudpit that passes for the brain of trump, sparking discussions, squabbles, and outright fights over whether or not he actually meant what he tweeted or was he just trying to be clever, or is he really going through with this or that policy strategy, or what fools trump supporters are for getting suckered in by the biggest con in United States history, and on and on and on ...

Meanwhile, trump continues to suck off the Federal teat, Republicans in Congress continue to take advantage of his role as Distractor In Chief to ram through an agenda that, in the past, would have been dismissed as being impossibly cruel before it ever saw the light of day, and the Right Wing Shriek Factory is in a hiring spree. On the other side of things, Democrats are wringing their hands in dismay and mumbling something about taking the high road, and they continue to practice pre-trump politics (and yes, we can actually use the term "pre-trump" to describe an era during which politics at least made sense because it followed some sort of rules and structure, as opposed to the anarchic train wreck it has become) by putting forth centrist candidates and focusing their efforts on fundraising.

So what is the bigger picture, exactly?

Simply put, America is being stripped for parts.

This is not a simple difference of governing style. This is more than disagreements about policy. What we are seeing is a wholesale dismantling -- dismembering, actually -- of our system of government, with suggestions that we are staring down the barrel of an America run by a mad king (trump) and his sycophantic courtiers (Steve Bannon, Kelly Anne Conway, Mitch McConnell, et al, with Paul Ryan making a special guest appearance as the court jester).

Entire agencies essentially are being obliterated. The EPA is run by a climate denier who doesn't believe the EPA should be doing anything at all. The Department of Education is being run by a semi-literate right-wing zealot who thinks the main mission of education is "to glorify the kingdom of God." The Department of Energy is headed up by a brainstem who was unaware that the DoE oversees America's nuclear arsenal, and thought he was going to be the most awesome oil lobbyist ever. The Secretary of the Interior is trying to sell off Federal lands as quickly as possible and is considering opening up the Grand Canyon to uranium mining interests.

All of which is bad enough, but now we have this request by Kris Kobach -- the architect of the CrossCheck database, aka the proprietor of Voter Suppression R Us -- for the voting records of all Americans.This reeks of a Nixonian "enemies list," a way for the trump administration to more effectively and efficiently intimidate the crap out of people who don't like him (which, according to the latest polling data, is pretty much everybody, Melania included) and maintain his grasp on power with his teeny-tiny wittle handsies.

It has gotten to the point that trump is painting himself (or trying to, anyway) as a "Dear Leader" of sorts -- sort of an American Kim Jong Un, but without the fashion sense. From a Cabinet meeting (to which the press was invited) that seemed to be arranged solely so everyone around the table could plant their noses firmly in trump's backside and tell him how America is lucky to have him, to bogus Time magazine covers with his picture on them hanging at his golf courses, we are but a short step away from replacing the Washington Monument with a statue of trump, glaring balefully across the Potomac as a missile parade goes down Constitution Avenue from the river to the Capitol building.

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans apparently have decided that this whole "representative democracy" thing that we've been trying for nearly 250 years isn't working, and they're going in a new direction in which they only represent a) people who voted for them, and b) people who donated money to their campaigns. BIG money. The philosophy here is that everyone else is obviously flawed and inferior and incapable of making such monumental decisions as for whom to vote (although the GOP wants them to have their guns!), and that it's just better for everybody -- well, everybody, who matters, anyway; Democrats and the poor can go fuck themselves -- if everybody just assumes they know what they're doing and don't ask too many questions.

For months I have been telling folks that we need to mobilize to drive the GOP from power, and I still believe we need to do that. However, it is beginning to look like the Democrats aren't really offering a viable alternative; they (with some notable exceptions -- Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, PA State Representative Daylin Leach, and a few others) are acting like GOP Lite. Every time a new topic becomes the center of attention, the GOP drags it further to the right and everybody else scrambles to catch up. Kim Davis decides to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couple because of her "sincerely held religious beliefs," yet not one prominent liberal pointed out the basic fact that Kim Davis isn't issuing the licenses, the Clerk of the the Court for Rowan County is -- and the office does not have "sincerely held religious beliefs." trump and the GOP routinely squawk about "collapsing Obamacare," and not a single liberal points out that a) it's not collapsing, it's just that insurance companies are leaving the exchanges, and b) they are leaving in large part in response to "poison pill" amendments introduced -- and passed, because the Dems didn't have the cojones to tell the GOP to piss off -- that were designed to make them pull out and to hamstring the ACA.
And it's not just policy. The media is a casualty of this campaign of disinformation as well.The New York Times issues a retraction to correct an error and the RWSF (Right Wing Shriek Factory) jumps on this as proof that the Times -- long considered the gold standard in unbiased journalism -- is nothing more than liberal propaganda, and everything they print is nothing more than a pack of unsubstantiated lies. Meanwhile, right-wing outlets such as Breitbart, InfoWars, the Daily Caller, etc. are able to completely fabricate a story about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizza place in DC, even though a) it never happened, and b) the pizza place doesn't even have a basement, and even though it is immediately discredited it retains enough legs to get a "-gate" affixed to the end of it, and it even gets so far that, when the lack of a basement is pointed out, this is dismissed as "fake news."


So what we have now is:
  • A president that doesn't understand how government works or what his responsibilities are, and who is only interested in how the presidency will enrich him.
  • A Congress whose only interest is a) keeping trump occupied with his Twitter account so he can continue to divert attention away from their nonsense, and b) consolidating their power.
  • A press that tends to gloss over substantive issues of real concern (the voter data request, concealed carry reciprocity, that sort of thing) because they are constantly being distracted by the shiny object that is trump's Twitter feed.
  • A group of supporters who are so in the tank for trump that they will deny actual physical reality in favor of trump's narrative.
In 1773, a small group of colonists in Massachusetts started protesting against the policies of the English king, based on the idea that the colonies deserved to have a voice in their own governance. Interestingly, they were not initially going for complete independence; all they wanted was for the king to take their concerns into account. The fact that he refused to do this is what led to the American Revolution.

We are at that same stage now. The time has come to rise up and demand that our voices be heard, and that government actually represent us, not just big donors and Republicans. We need to hold these folks accountable, and demand that they do the jobs we elected them to do. We haven't quite gotten to the "time for a revolution" portion of our program yet. If we're lucky, and our elected representatives actually listen for a change, we may not ever have to get there.

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I gotta lie down.

A Path Forward

The Democratic primaries are heating up, and I am already seeing purity tests of various stripes filtering across the intertubes. Bernie ...