Trump, McConnell, Putin, and the triumph of the will to power

Jonathan Chait writes: Of the many things that resulted in Donald Trump’s election, from Hillary Clinton’s own errors to James Comey’s extraordinary insinuations against her in the contest’s final stages, Russian hacking played a meaningful enough role to tilt a razor-tight contest. Russia successfully riled up Bernie Sanders die-hards against the Democratic Party by leaking minor intrigue that fueled their suspicions, aggravating a Clinton liability with young voters that never healed. They also dribbled out enough emails in the succeeding months to keep stories using the word “emails” in the lead of Hillary Clinton news, adding more smoke to the haze of scandal that permeated coverage of her campaign.

We now know with near-certainty that Russia did this with the goal of electing Trump president. During the campaign, this reality was not quite certain enough to be reported as fact. Trump, of course, insisted there was no evidence Russia even had a hand in the attacks, let alone with the goal of helping him. (It “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”) Elements of the left decried suspicions of Russia’s role as “neo-McCarthyism.” The Nation editorialized, “ liberal-media elites have joined with the Clinton campaign in promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack.” Others on the left insisted that the substance of the stolen emails command far more importance than their provenance, which in any case was disputed and unknowable. On October 31, the New York Times reported that the attack was probably “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump. The CIA’s analysis is obviously not infallible, but it fits with a wide array of other evidence. Russia had a clear motive: chilly relations with the Democratic administration that had orchestrated sanctions against it, close ties with Donald Trump and several of his advisers, and a series of pro-Russian positions from Trump on such issues as Crimea, NATO, and Vladimir Putin’s human rights abuses. Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee but declined to release any of the contents. The disruption was intentionally one-sided. The CIA’s conclusion merely lends incrementally more confidence to a deduction that was already fairly obvious.

What is more interesting in the Post story is the response of various officials to the revelations. The Obama administration declined to publicize, wary of being seen as intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Instead, it devised a fallback plan. Concerned that Russia might attempt to hack into electronic voting machines, it gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to hear the CIA’s report, in the hopes that they would present a united front warning Russia not to disrupt the election. According to the Post, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” Other Republicans refused to join the effort for reasons that can only be understood as a desire to protect the Republican ticket from any insinuation, however well-founded, that Russia was helping it.

Even the most cynical observer of McConnell — a cynical man to his bones — would have been shocked at his raw partisanship. Presented with an attack on the sanctity of his own country’s democracy by a hostile foreign power, his overriding concern was party over country. Obama’s fear of seeming partisan held him back from making a unilateral statement without partisan cover. No such fear restrained McConnell. This imbalance in will to power extended to the security agencies. The CIA could have leaked its conclusion before November, but held off. The FBI should have held off on leaking its October surprise, but plunged ahead. [Continue reading…]

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Trump, mocking claim that Russia hacked election, at odds with GOP

The New York Times reports: An extraordinary breach has emerged between President-elect Donald J. Trump and the national security establishment, with Mr. Trump mocking American intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the election on his behalf, and top Republicans vowing investigations into Kremlin activities.

Mr. Trump, in a statement issued by his transition team on Friday evening, expressed complete disbelief in the intelligence agencies’ assessments.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Trump’s team said, adding that the election was over and that it was time to “move on.”

Though Mr. Trump has wasted no time in antagonizing the agencies, he will have to rely on them for the sort of espionage activities and analysis that they spend more than $70 billion a year to perform.

At this point in a transition, a president-elect is usually delving into intelligence he has never before seen and learning about C.I.A. and National Security Agency abilities. But Mr. Trump, who has taken intelligence briefings only sporadically, is questioning not only analytic conclusions, but also their underlying facts. [Continue reading…]

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The Senate torture report must be saved

Senators Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller write: In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase. [Continue reading…]

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Russia hacked Republican National Committee but kept data, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump, according to senior administration officials.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.

Republicans have a different explanation for why no documents from their networks were ever released. Over the past several months, officials from the Republican committee have consistently said that their networks were not compromised, asserting that only the accounts of individual Republicans were attacked. On Friday, a senior committee official said he had no comment. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump takes aim at U.S. Intelligence

CNN reports: President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team slammed the CIA Friday, following reports the agency has concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help him win.

In a stunning response to widening claims of a Russian espionage operation targeting the presidential race, Trump’s camp risked an early feud with the Intelligence community on which he will rely for top secret assessments of the greatest threats facing the United States.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the transition said in a terse, unsigned statement.

“The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'” [Continue reading…]

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Russia intervened in election to help Donald Trump win, CIA has concluded

The Washington Post reports: The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The Obama administration has been debating for months how to respond to the alleged Russian intrusions, with White House officials concerned about escalating tensions with Moscow and being accused of trying to boost Clinton’s campaign. [Continue reading…]

Aaron Blake writes: The report highlights and exacerbates the increasingly fraught situation in which congressional Republicans find themselves with regard to Russia and Trump. By acknowledging and digging into the increasing evidence that Russia helped — or at least attempted to help — tip the scales in Trump’s favor, they risk raising questions about whether Trump would have won without Russian intervention.

Trump, after all, won by a margin of about 80,000 votes cast across three states, winning each of the decisive states by less than one percentage point. So even a slight influence could have plausibly made the difference, though we’ll never be able to prove it one way or another.

While saying that Russia clearly tried to help Trump doesn’t inherently call into question the legitimacy of Trump’s win —earlier Friday, the White House made sure to emphasize that it’s not making that case — it’s not hard to connect the dots. And Trump and his party know it. [Continue reading…]

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Republicans ready to launch wide-ranging probe of Russia, despite Trump’s stance; Obama orders intel review

The Washington Post reports: Leading Senate Republicans are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military, digging deep into what they view as corrosive interference in the nation’s institutions.

Such an aggressive approach puts them on a direct collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who downplays the possibility Russia had any role in the November elections — arguing that a hack of the Democratic National Committee emails may have been perpetrated by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” The fracture could become more prominent after Trump is inaugurated and begins setting foreign policy. He has already indicated that the country should “get along” with Russia since the two nations have many common strategic goals.

But some of Trump’s would-be Republican allies on Capitol Hill disagree. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is readying a probe of possible Russian cyber-incursions into U.S. weapons systems, and he said he has been discussing the issue with Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), with whom he will be “working closely” to investigate Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections and cyberthreats to the military and other institutions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been apprised of the discussions. Burr did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said he intends to hold hearings next year into alleged Russian hacking. Corker is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state, according to the Trump transition team.

Trump transition officials could not be reached for comment.

The loudest GOP calls for a Russia probe are coming from McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both have taken a hard line on Russia and have been highly critical of Trump, particularly his praise of President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.

“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Obama wants the report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Monaco said. [Continue reading…]

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What the U.S. government really thought of Israel’s apparent 1979 nuclear test

Avner Cohen and William Burr write: On the dawn of September 22, 1979, a U.S. Vela satellite used to detect nuclear explosions spotted a double flash somewhere in the South Atlantic. Normally characteristic of nuclear detonations, the double flash quickly set off a panic within the U.S. national security apparatus: Had a nation really detonated a nuclear weapon, possibly in violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty? And if so, who had done it? Or was it simply a technical malfunction, or even a reflection of a natural cosmic phenomenon?

Over the months that followed, U.S. scientists and intelligence experts launched a series of investigations to determine what happened, but the results were never conclusive. While White House science advisers officially maintained that the double flash was a result of a technical malfunction, others in the government believed that it was a nuclear test, possibly by South Africa or more likely Israel. Today, U.S. government officials appear more interested in preserving secrecy about the incident than shedding light on what it might have known at the time.

What the Vela 6911 satellite actually detected on September 22 is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the nuclear age, and probably will remain so as long as significant intelligence reports on the Vela flash remain classified. But thanks to a new trove of declassified documents at the National Archives (from the files of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, President Jimmy Carter’s special representative for non-proliferation matters) and a few items from the Carter Presidential Library — all published today for the first time by the National Security Archive — we are able to discover more about what really happened that morning, how the Carter administration reacted and why many in the intelligence community never accepted the official White House narrative. [Continue reading…]

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Scott Pruitt, Trump’s climate-denying EPA pick, is worse than you think

Jay Michaelson writes: Every scientist not on the corporate dole is upset about Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Like Betsy DeVos, who wants to destroy public education, and Jeff Sessions, who wants to destroy the Voting Rights Act, Pruitt is against the very laws he will soon be in charge of enforcing.

And the more you know about environmental law, the more you know that the Oklahoma attorney general and his minions could be way, way, way worse at the EPA than pundits and scientists have said. Yes, he’s a climate denier. Yes, he’s sued the EPA five times to prevent regulations (and lost every time). And yes, he has openly defied court orders on same-sex marriage and abortion, investigated the Humane Society for daring to back an animal welfare law, and opined that public schools should distribute religious materials to children. But he’s about to enjoy free rein to gut environmental regulations, without Congress or the courts to stop him.

That’s because environmental laws are deliberately broad, delegating massive authority to the EPA, which then has broad discretion to determine how to implement them. If you think about it, this makes sense. Congress isn’t populated by scientists but by politicians. So they set policy goals — clean air, clean water, toxin-free environments — and leave it up to the experts to determine how to meet them.

Most of the nuts and bolts of environmental law have thus been created not by Congress but by generations of EPA regulations and implementations. Clean air standards for factories, thresholds for pesticides in fuels or toxic chemicals in detergents and fuels, pollution levels for rivers — all of these, and many more, exist in regulations contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Usually, it’s conservatives who have complained about this. First, of course, they tend not to like anything that restricts unfettered capitalism, and environmental law certainly does that. Second, they tend not to like big government and unaccountable bureaucracy, and reams of agency-generated regulations are exactly that. And they tend to be wary of executive power in general.
Thus, for the last 40 years, corporations, industry groups, conservative think tanks, and Republican lawmakers have sued the bejeezus out of the EPA (and other agencies), challenging just about every regulation the agency puts out.

And usually, they have lost. Over several decades, the Supreme Court has tended to side more with the EPA than with its challengers. There have been exceptions — one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s last opinions required the EPA to limit mercury emissions only when it is cost-effective for corporations to do so. But in general, the court has observed that the “enabling statutes” passed by Congress deliberately cede authority to the EPA. Without congressional authority, the EPA couldn’t make up regulations and decide how to enforce them. But with it, the agency can.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Now it’s arch-conservatives who will be controlling the EPA, with exactly the same level of authority as the environmentalists who preceded them. [Continue reading…]

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Obama under mounting pressure to disclose Russia’s role in U.S. election

The Guardian reports: Barack Obama is facing growing pressure from congressional Democrats in both houses demanding further disclosures regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 US elections.

The White House has not responded to a week-old letter signed by every Democrat and aligned member of the Senate intelligence committee seeking declassification of “additional information concerning the Russian government and the US election”.

Now a group of senior House Democrats has also written to the president, seeking a classified briefing for colleagues on “Russian entities’ hacking of American political organizations; hacking and strategic release of emails from campaign officials; the WikiLeaks disclosures; fake news stories produced and distributed with the intent to mislead American voters; and any other Russian or Russian-related interference or involvement in our recent election.”

The letter was signed by Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, as well as the top Democrats on the House judiciary, intelligence, armed services, foreign affairs and oversight committees. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s threat to the Constitution

Evan McMullin writes: On July 7, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, met privately with House Republicans near the Capitol. I was present as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference. Mr. Trump’s purpose was to persuade the representatives to unite around him, a pitch he delivered in a subdued version of his stream-of-consciousness style. A congresswoman asked him about his plans to protect Article I of the Constitution, which assigns all federal lawmaking power to Congress.

Mr. Trump interrupted her to declare his commitment to the Constitution — even to parts of it that do not exist, such as “Article XII.” Shock swept through the room as Mr. Trump confirmed one of our chief concerns about him: He lacked a basic knowledge of the Constitution.

There is still deeper cause for concern. Mr. Trump’s erroneous proclamation also suggested that he lacked even an interest in the Constitution. Worse, his campaign rhetoric had demonstrated authoritarian tendencies.

He had questioned judicial independence, threatened the freedom of the press, called for violating Muslims’ equal protection under the law, promised the use of torture and attacked Americans based on their gender, race and religion. He had also undermined critical democratic norms including peaceful debate and transitions of power, commitment to truth, freedom from foreign interference and abstention from the use of executive power for political retribution. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey hosts new round of peace talks between Russia and Syrian rebels — it looks like the U.S. wasn’t invited

Business Insider reports: The US was shut out of a new round of negotiations between Russia and Syrian rebel factions hosted by Turkish officials in Ankara, a source within the Syrian opposition told Business Insider on Monday.

The opposition source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations, said American officials were not invited to take part in the talks because of recent tensions between Turkey and the US.

“The US is totally out of these talks,” this person said. “And they’re pretty angry about it.” [Continue reading…]

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