Trump’s lawyers defend Wikileaks’ publication of stolen DNC emails

Politico reports: WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of emails apparently hacked from the Democratic National Committee was legal and specifically protected by federal law, the Trump campaign argued in a court filing Wednesday.

Lawyers for the Trump presidential campaign came to the controversial transparency website’s defense in a bid to defeat a lawsuit three Democratic activists filed in July accusing Trump’s presidential campaign of conspiring to publish sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers and information suggesting that a Democratic National Committee employee was gay.

The Trump campaign’s motion to dismiss the case argues that WikiLeaks qualifies as the kind of online service that Congress rendered immune from legal liability through legislation passed more than two decades ago. [Continue reading…]

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Key Russia probe splinters as Grassley, Feinstein set own paths

Bloomberg reports: The Senate Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan Russia probe has fractured, with Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein saying they’re each going to set their own path on the investigation.

The two senators spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday, where they agreed to pursue different issues without giving up on the original probe — into the reasons President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and Russian attempts to interfere in the election.

Feinstein of California said she doesn’t understand a push by Republicans to once again investigate Hillary Clinton’s emails or pursue a 2010 Obama-era deal by a Russian-backed company to purchase American uranium mines.

“We have kind of agreed that each side is going to do its own thing,” she said. “I think they want to do some things that we don’t want to do. And that is go into the emails, and go into the uranium thing.”

Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said Wednesday that the chairman will continue his broad focus on multiple administrations, “even if the ranking member is only willing to focus on President Trump and unwilling to examine the role of the DNC and Clinton campaign,” referring to the Democratic National Committee.

Their remarks signal a significant rupture to what has been a bipartisan probe, which kicked off in June with some fanfare. At the time, Grassley’s move appeared to indicate new trouble for Trump, with the independent-minded chairman potentially opening up new — and more public — lines of inquiry into his campaign and his administration. [Continue reading…]

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Clinton campaign, DNC paid for research that led to Russia dossier

The Washington Post reports: The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund research that resulted in a now-famous dossier containing allegations about President Trump’s connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin, people familiar with the matter said.

Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained Fusion GPS, a Washington firm, to conduct the research.

After that, Fusion GPS hired dossier author Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer with ties to the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community, according to those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Elias and his law firm, Perkins Coie, retained the company in April 2016 on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Before that agreement, Fusion GPS’s research into Trump was funded by an unknown Republican client during the GOP primary. [Continue reading…]

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Hopes dim for congressional Russia inquiries as parties clash

The New York Times reports: In a secured room in the basement of the Capitol in July, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, fielded question after question from members of the House Intelligence Committee. Though the allotted time for the grilling had expired, he offered to stick around as long as they wanted.

But Representative Trey Gowdy, who spent nearly three years investigating Hillary Clinton’s culpability in the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, was growing frustrated after two hours. You are in an unwinnable situation, Mr. Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, counseled Mr. Kushner. If you leave now, Democrats will say you did not answer all the questions. If you stay, they will keep you here all week.

The exchange, described by three people with knowledge of it, typified the political morass that is crippling the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — and whether the Trump campaign colluded in any way.

But the problems extend beyond that panel. All three committees looking into Russian interference — one in the House, two in the Senate — have run into problems, from insufficient staffing to fights over when the committees should wrap up their investigations. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry has barely started, delayed in part by negotiations over the scope of the investigation. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while maintaining bipartisan comity, have sought to tamp down expectations about what they might find.

Nine months into the Trump administration, any notion that Capitol Hill would provide a comprehensive, authoritative and bipartisan accounting of the extraordinary efforts of a hostile power to disrupt American democracy appears to be dwindling. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller now investigating Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta

NBC News reports: Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group are now the subjects of a federal investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, three sources with knowledge of the matter told NBC News.

The probe of Podesta and his Democratic-leaning lobbying firm grew out of Mueller’s inquiry into the finances of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to the sources. As special counsel, Mueller has been tasked with investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Manafort had organized a public relations campaign for a non-profit called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU). Podesta’s company was one of many firms that worked on the campaign, which promoted Ukraine’s image in the West.

The sources said the investigation into Podesta and his company began as more of a fact-finding mission about the ECMU and Manafort’s role in the campaign, but has now morphed into a criminal inquiry into whether the firm violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. [Continue reading…]

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Trump campaign staffers pushed Russian propaganda from fake Twitter account days before the election

The Washington Post reports: Russian operatives used a fake Twitter account that claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans to persuade American politicians, celebrities and journalists to share select content with their own massive lists of followers, two people familiar with the matter said.

The list of prominent people who tweeted out links from the account, @Ten_GOP, which Twitter shut down in August, includes political figures such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and James Woods, and media personalities such as Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes.

There is no evidence that any of them knew the account was run by Russians. Independent researchers had suspected the account was Russian, and their work was confirmed Wednesday by two people familiar with the investigations into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. [Continue reading…]

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Interview with a former troll at Russia’s Internet Research Agency

Meduza reports: One of the many remarkable things about 2017 is that American journalists no longer have the Irish Republican Army in mind when writing “IRA,” which is now used most often to mean Russia’s Internet Research Agency — the “troll factory” responsible for buying ads on social media and polluting American online news discussion in an apparent effort to destabilize U.S. democracy. On October 15, the Russian independent news network Dozhd published the latest development in this ongoing story: an interview with a man who allegedly worked for the IRA from 2014-2015. Meduza summarizes that interview here.

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Dozhd calls him “Maxim,” but that’s not his real name. The TV network says Max’s employment records confirm that he spent 18 months at 55 Savushkina in St. Petersburg, working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), Russia’s infamous “troll factory.” He quit in early 2015, before Donald Trump even announced his presidential candidacy, but not too soon to get a taste of the “factory’s” war on Hillary Clinton.

According to Max, the IRA’s “foreign desk” had open orders to “influence opinions” and change the direction of online discussions. He says this department within the agency considered itself above the “Russian desk,” which he claims is generally “bots and trolls.” The foreign desk was supposedly more sophisticated. “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They’ll even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff,” Max told Dozhd. People in his department, he says, were even trained and educated to know the nuances of American social polemics on tax issues, LGBT rights, the gun debate, and more.

Max says that IRA staff were tasked with monitoring tens of thousands of comments on major U.S. media outlets, in order to grasp the general trends of American Internet users. Once employees got a sense of what Americans naturally discussed in comment forums and on social media, their job was to incite them further and try to “rock the boat.”

According to Max, the Internet Research Agency’s foreign desk was prohibited from promoting anything about Russia or Putin. One thing the staff learned quickly was that Americans don’t normally talk about Russia: “They don’t really care about it,” Max told Dozhd. “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he claims. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”

The trolls at the IRA were also careful about covering their tracks. Max says anyone working in the foreign desk was required to post comments using a VPN, to disguise their Russian origins. He says an employee once shared a photograph taken at the IRA’s office, which was especially forbidden, because photos can contain revealing metadata. This incident also revealed that the IRA employed staff to spy on its own trolls, Max says.

Even two years before Americans actually voted on their next president, St. Petersburg trolls were told to attack Hillary Clinton, reminding Internet users about her wealth, her husband’s legacy, and her various corruption scandals. The IRA even encouraged employees to watch Netflix’s “House of Cards,” supposedly as an education in U.S. politics. Staff would also monitor each other’s use of English, nitpicking over grammar and punctuation, in order to weed out ESL formulations. [Continue reading…]

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Russian trolls were schooled on ‘House of Cards’

Michael Isikoff reports: The Russians who worked for a notorious St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election were required to watch the “House of Cards” television series to help them craft messages to “set up the Americans against their own government,” according to an interview broadcast Sunday (in Russian) with a former member of the troll factory’s elite English language department.

The interview, broadcast by the independent Russian TV station Rain, provides new insight into how the troll factory formerly known as the Internet Research Agency targeted U.S. audiences in part by posting provocative “comments” pretending to be from Americans on newspaper articles that appeared on the websites of the New York Times and Washington Post.

A central theme of this messaging was demonizing Hillary Clinton by playing up the past scandals of her husband’s administration, her wealth and her use of a private email server, according to the interview with the agency worker, identified only as “Maksim,” with his face concealed. [Continue reading…]

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Pledge to impeach Trump, a key donor demands of Democrats

The New York Times reports: One of the Democratic Party’s most prominent financial backers is demanding that lawmakers and candidates on the left support removing President Trump from office, putting pressure on Democrats to make Mr. Trump’s ouster a defining issue in the 2018 midterm elections.

Tom Steyer, a billionaire California investor who spent more than $91 million supporting Democrats in the 2016 elections, issued the demand to his party in a letter on Wednesday. In his message, Mr. Steyer described Mr. Trump as a “clear and present danger to the republic” and called on Democrats to pledge that they would seek to remove him from office if they take control of Congress next year.

Mr. Steyer — who is considering a run for Senate, perhaps against Senator Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat — cited a range of acts by Mr. Trump to justify impeachment, including the president’s “relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia,” allegations that Mr. Trump has used the presidency to “promote his own business interests” and his “seeming determination to go to war.”

And he pointed to mounting expressions of concern on the right, including the warning by Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, that Mr. Trump was at risk of fomenting a world war, and reports that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson described Mr. Trump as a “moron.” Democrats, Mr. Steyer said, should be no less confrontational. [Continue reading…]

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Russia recruited YouTubers to bash ‘racist b*tch’ Hillary Clinton over rap beats

The Daily Beast reports: According to the YouTube page for “Williams and Kalvin,” the Clintons are “serial killers who are going to rape the whole nation.” Donald Trump can’t be racist because he’s a “businessman.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign was “fund[ed] by the Muslim.”

These are a sample of the videos put together by two black video bloggers calling themselves Williams and Kalvin Johnson, whose social media pages investigators say are part of the broad Russian campaign to influence American politics. Across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, they purported to offer “a word of truth” to African-American audiences.

“We, the black people, we stand in one unity. We stand in one to say that Hillary Clinton is not our candidate,” one of the men says in a November video that warned Clinton “is going to stand for the Muslim. We don’t stand for her.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration releases hard-line immigration principles, threatening deal on ‘dreamers’

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration released a list of hard-line immigration principles late Sunday that threaten to derail a deal in Congress to allow hundreds of thousands of younger undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally.

The administration’s wish list includes the funding of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a crackdown on the influx of Central American minors and curbs on federal grants to “sanctuary cities,” according to a document distributed to Congress and obtained by The Washington Post.

The demands were quickly denounced by Democratic leaders in Congress who had hoped to forge a deal with President Trump to protect younger immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump announced plans last month to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era program that had provided two-year work permits to the dreamers that Trump called “unconstitutional.”

About 690,000 immigrants are enrolled in DACA, but their work permits are set to begin expiring in March. Trump had met last month with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and agreed to try to strike a deal, worrying immigration hawks who feared that Trump would support a bill that would allow dreamers to gain full legal status without asking for significant border security measures in return.

The list released by the administration, however, would represent a major tightening of immigration laws. Cuts to legal immigration also are included. And, while Democrats have called for a path to citizenship for all dreamers, a group estimated at more than 1.5 million, a White House aide said Sunday night the administration is “not interested in granting a path to citizenship” in a deal to preserve the DACA program. [Continue reading…]

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How computers turned gerrymandering into a science

Jordan Ellenberg writes: About as many Democrats live in Wisconsin as Republicans do. But you wouldn’t know it from the Wisconsin State Assembly, where Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats, a bigger majority than Republican legislators enjoy in conservative states like Texas and Kentucky.

The United States Supreme Court is trying to understand how that happened. On Tuesday, the justices heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, reviewing a three-judge panel’s determination that Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn district map is so flagrantly gerrymandered that it denies Wisconsinites their full right to vote. A long list of elected officials, representing both parties, have filed briefs asking the justices to uphold the panel’s ruling.

Other people don’t see a problem. Politics, they say, is a game where whoever’s ahead gets to change the rules on the fly. It’s about winning, not being fair.

But this isn’t just a politics story; it’s also a technology story. Gerrymandering used to be an art, but advanced computation has made it a science. Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, after their victory in the census year of 2010, tried out map after map, tweak after tweak. They ran each potential map through computer algorithms that tested its performance in a wide range of political climates. The map they adopted is precisely engineered to assure Republican control in all but the most extreme circumstances. [Continue reading…]

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An exodus from Puerto Rico could remake Florida politics

The New York Times reports: Every day dozens of Puerto Ricans straggle into the Orlando area, fleeing their homes and lives ravaged by Hurricane Maria. In the months to come, officials here said, that number could surge to more than 100,000.

And those numbers could remake politics in Florida, a state where the last two presidential and governor’s races were decided by roughly one percentage point or less.

There are more than a million Puerto Ricans in Florida, a number that has doubled since 2001, driven largely until now by a faltering economy. But their political powers have evolved slowly in this state, and the wave of potential voters from the island could quickly change that calculus.

If the estimates hold, and several officials said they might be low, the Puerto Rican vote, which has been strongly Democratic, could have rough parity with the Cuban vote in the state, for years a bulwark for Republicans in both state and national races.

“What’s clear is that this is going to be a more powerful swing group,” said Anthony Suarez, a lawyer here, who has run for office as both a Republican and a Democrat. “Just like everybody has to go to Miami and stop in Versailles to have coffee to court the Cuban community, that is going to start happening here.” [Continue reading…]

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The partisan divide on political values grows even wider

Pew Research Center: The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.

And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.

A new study by Pew Research Center, based on surveys of more than 5,000 adults conducted over the summer, finds widening differences between Republicans and Democrats on a range of measures the Center has been asking about since 1994, as well as those with more recent trends. But in recent years, the gaps on several sets of political values in particular – including measures of attitudes about the social safety net, race and immigration – have increased dramatically. [Continue reading…]

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McConnell swats away talk of gun control

Politico reports: Mitch McConnell did not want to discuss gun control on Tuesday.

The Senate majority leader shut down all talk of legislative remedies to gun violence after a man killed 59 people in Las Vegas on Sunday night and injured hundreds more, mirroring the Tuesday morning remarks by his GOP counterpart in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan.

McConnell declared this is simply not the time to be talking about legislation targeting firearms.

Asked if he could support a bill banning the conversion of semi-automatic guns to automatic guns being written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), McConnell responded: “The investigation has not even been completed. I think it’s premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if there are any.”

The GOP leader similarly parried when pressed on why Democratic efforts have failed to resonate with voters. Senate Democrats put forward a universal background checks bill in 2013 that won the support of four GOP senators but was filibustered by most other Republicans. They lost the Senate in 2014 and the effort has never regained steam. [Continue reading…]

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Tyranny of the minority

Michelle Goldberg writes: Since Donald Trump’s cataclysmic election, the unthinkable has become ordinary. We’ve grown used to naked profiteering off the presidency, an administration that calls for the firing of private citizens for political dissent and nuclear diplomacy conducted via Twitter taunts. Here, in my debut as a New York Times columnist, I want to discuss a structural problem that both underlies and transcends our current political nightmare: We have entered a period of minority rule.

I don’t just mean the fact that Trump became president despite his decisive loss in the popular vote, though that shouldn’t be forgotten. Worse, the majority of voters who disapprove of Trump have little power to force Congress to curb him.

A combination of gerrymandering and the tight clustering of Democrats in urban areas means that even if Democrats get significantly more overall votes than Republicans in the midterms — which polls show is probable — they may not take back the House of Representatives. (According to a Brookings Institution analysis, in 2016, Republicans won 55.2 percent of seats with just under 50 percent of votes cast for Congress.)

And because of the quirks of the 2018 Senate map, Democrats are extremely unlikely to reclaim that chamber, even if most voters would prefer Democratic control. Some analysts have even suggested that Republicans could emerge from 2018 with a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.

Our Constitution has always had a small-state bias, but the effects have become more pronounced as the population discrepancy between the smallest states and the largest states has grown. “Given contemporary demography, a little bit less than 50 percent of the country lives in 40 of the 50 states,” Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Roughly half the country gets 80 percent of the votes in the Senate, and the other half of the country gets 20 percent.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration facing pressure to speed up recovery efforts in Puerto Rico

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration is under pressure to speed up recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where conditions in the wake of Hurricane Maria have become raw and primitive amid an intensifying fear that the worst of the crisis is yet to come.

Prominent Democrats, while not directly criticizing the Trump administration, offered pointed advice. Hillary Clinton on Twitter urged the Navy to send in the relief ship USNS Comfort — which instead is docked in Norfolk, sidelined because the Navy does not believe the compromised ports in the islands can handle the big ship right now.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the administration “must act immediately to make available additional Department of Defense resources for search-and-rescue operations, law enforcement and transportation needs.”

The administration said Monday that its response has been robust. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the recovery effort, said 10,000 federal employees have been deployed to the Caribbean. The Coast Guard has sent in 13 ships known as cutters. Commercial barges are arriving with relief supplies. The National Guard is being housed on barges and on a cruise ship that arrived this weekend.

However, officials leading the response and recovery admit they’re facing serious logistical challenges, starting with damage to the ports and airports. Many of those facilities have been reopened just within the past day or two, but only for daytime operations, because of safety concerns. Radar and control tower capabilities are low, limiting the pace of incoming flights.

For people on the islands, help is arriving glacially. In interviews, some have questioned why there’s so little sign, or no sign at all, of government agencies. [Continue reading…]

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How a Russian outlet sought to reach American voters on Twitter

Foreign Policy reports: Before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had even wrapped up their respective bids to secure the nomination for president, Kremlin-funded media outlet RT was plotting to promote its election coverage in the United States, Foreign Policy has learned.

RT hoped to take over at least two Twitter accounts or handles for its media coverage: @NotHillary and @NotTrump. Their goal, RT told Twitter’s advertising department, was to use the accounts to push their 2016 election coverage, but neither handle or username has any identifying information tracing the owner back to the Russian government-funded media organization.

Twitter denied the request. The company declined to comment on the record on the specific accounts “for privacy and security reasons.” [Continue reading…]

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