Russian breach of 39 states threatens future U.S. elections

Bloomberg reports: Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system before Donald Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, including incursions into voter databases and software systems in almost twice as many states as previously reported.

In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said.

The scope and sophistication so concerned Obama administration officials that they took an unprecedented step — complaining directly to Moscow over a modern-day “red phone.” In October, two of the people said, the White House contacted the Kremlin on the back channel to offer detailed documents of what it said was Russia’s role in election meddling and to warn that the attacks risked setting off a broader conflict.

The new details, buttressed by a classified National Security Agency document recently disclosed by the Intercept, show the scope of alleged hacking that federal investigators are scrutinizing as they look into whether Trump campaign officials may have colluded in the efforts. But they also paint a worrisome picture for future elections: The newest portrayal of potentially deep vulnerabilities in the U.S.’s patchwork of voting technologies comes less than a week after former FBI Director James Comey warned Congress that Moscow isn’t done meddling.

“They’re coming after America,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the election. “They will be back.” [Continue reading…]

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D.C. and Maryland to sue Trump, alleging breach of constitutional oath

The Washington Post reports: Attorneys general for the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland say they will sue President Trump on Monday, alleging that he has violated anti-corruption clauses in the Constitution by accepting millions in payments and benefits from foreign governments since moving into the White House.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind brought by government entities, centers on the fact that Trump chose to retain ownership of his company when he became president. Trump said in January that he was shifting his business assets into a trust managed by his sons to eliminate potential conflicts of interests.

But D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) say Trump has broken many promises to keep separate his public duties and private business interests. For one, his son Eric Trump has said the president would continue to receive regular updates about his company’s financial health.

The lawsuit, a signed copy of which Racine and Frosh provided to The Washington Post on Sunday night, alleges “unprecedented constitutional violations” by Trump. The suit says Trump’s continued ownership of a global business empire has rendered the president “deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors” and has undermined the integrity of the U.S. political system. [Continue reading…]

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Supreme Court has opportunity to make sure people’s votes have equal value

The Washington Post reports: With newly elected Scott Walker in the governor’s office and a firm grip on the legislature, Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 had a unique opportunity to redraw the state’s electoral maps and fortify their party’s future.

Aides were dispatched to a private law firm to keep their work out of public view. They employed the most precise technology available to dissect new U.S. Census data and convert it into reliably Republican districts even if the party’s fortunes soured. Democrats were kept in the dark, and even GOP incumbents had to sign confidentiality agreements before their revamped districts were revealed to them. Only a handful of people saw the entire map until it was unveiled and quickly approved.

In the following year’s elections, when Republicans got just 48.6 percent of the statewide vote, they still captured a 60-39 seat advantage in the General Assembly.

Now, the Supreme Court is being asked to uphold a lower court’s finding that the Wisconsin redistricting effort was more than just extraordinary — it was unconstitutional.

Such a conclusion would mark a watershed moment for the way American elections are conducted.

The Supreme Court has regularly — and increasingly — tossed out state electoral maps because they have been gerrymandered to reduce the influence of racial minorities by depressing the impact of their votes.

But the justices have never found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering — when a majority party draws the state’s electoral districts to give such an advantage to its candidates that it dilutes the votes of those supporting the other party.

A divided panel of three judges in Wisconsin, though, decided just that in November. It became the first federal court in three decades to find that a redistricting plan violated the Constitution’s First Amendment and equal rights protections because of partisan gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court could announce as soon as Monday that it is either affirming or reversing the lower court’s decision, or, more likely, accepting the case for full briefing and arguments in the term that begins in the fall.

The case comes at a time when the dusty subject of reapportionment has taken on new significance, with many blaming the drawing of safely partisan seats for a polarized and gridlocked Congress. Barack Obama has said one of his post-presidency projects will be to combat partisan gerrymanders after the 2020 Census.

In Wisconsin, it already has become a hot topic.

“If there’s one word that defines the last year or year and a half in this country, it’s ‘rigged,’ ” said Dale Schulz, a Republican and former Wisconsin legislator who has joined with a Democratic counterpart to urge an end to the way the state handles redistricting. “People have come to realize their votes aren’t as important as they once were. And that’s really what this whole case is about: It’s about making sure people’s votes have equal value.” [Continue reading…]

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To Eric Trump, Democrats are ‘not even people’

So Eric Trump, devoted to his father, says his father’s critics are “not even people.”

I wonder where this young man would pick up a phrase and a dehumanizing put-down like that?

And what does this say about the Trump family’s views on democracy and their conception of “the people”?

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Angela Merkel hopes to forge an international alliance against Trump

Der Spiegel reports: Many had thought that Trump could be controlled once he entered the White House, that the office of the presidency would bring him to reason. Berlin had placed its hopes in the moderating influence of his advisers and that there would be a sharp learning curve. Now that Trump has actually lived up to his threat to leave the climate deal, it is clear that if such a learning curve exists, it points downward.

The chancellor was long reluctant to make the rift visible. For Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, the alliance with the U.S. was always more than political calculation, it reflected her deepest political convictions. Now, she has — to a certain extent, at least — terminated the trans-Atlantic friendship with Trump’s America.

In doing so, the German chancellor has become Trump’s adversary on the international stage. And Merkel has accepted the challenge when it comes to trade policy and the quarrel over NATO finances. Now, she has done so as well on an issue that is near and dear to her heart: combating climate change.

Merkel’s aim is that of creating an alliance against Trump. If she can’t convince the U.S. president, her approach will be that of trying to isolate him. In Taormina, it was six countries against one. Should Trump not reverse course, she is hoping that the G-20 in Hamburg in July will end 19:1. Whether she will be successful is unclear.

Trump has identified Germany as his primary adversary. Since his inauguration in January, he has criticized no country — with the exception of North Korea and Iran — as vehemently as he has Germany. The country is “bad, very bad,” he said in Brussels last week. Behind closed doors at the NATO summit, Trump went after Germany, saying there were large and prosperous countries that were not living up to their alliance obligations.

And he wants to break Germany’s economic power. The trade deficit with Germany, he recently tweeted, is “very bad for U.S. This will change.”

Merkel’s verdict following Trump’s visit to Europe could hardly be worse. There has never been an open break with America since the end of World War II; the alienation between Germany and the U.S. has never been so large as it is today. When Merkel’s predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, refused to provide German backing for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, his rebuff was limited to just one single issue. It was an extreme test of the trans-Atlantic relationship, to be sure, but in contrast to today, it was not a quarrel that called into question commonly held values like free trade, minority rights, press freedoms, the rule of law — and climate policies. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t underestimate the destructive potential of Donald Trump’s stupidity

Masha Gessen writes: Can an autocrat be ridiculous? Can a democracy be destroyed by someone who has only the barest idea of what the word “democracy” means? Can pure incompetence plunge the world into a catastrophic war? We don’t like to think so.

We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.

But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world. [Continue reading…]

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The murderous consequences of xenophobia

Decca Aitkenhead writes: Every night, for almost a year, Brendan Cox and his wife sat up discussing the rise of the far right. He was conducting a major study of populist extremism across the western world and, once the children were in bed, the pair would talk through its implications and analyse the threat.

The contrast between the couple and the darkly angry ideology could scarcely have been more acute. His wife was a young, smiley, idealistic new Labour MP whom he had met when they both worked for Oxfam. They loved camping and mountain climbing, lived on a houseboat on the Thames and spent weekends at their cottage on the Welsh border, without electricity or water, where they’d celebrate the summer solstice each year with a party for 100 friends. Their son, Cuillin, now six, was named after a mountain range on the Isle of Skye; their four-year-old daughter, Lejla, after friends Cox had made while volunteering for a children’s charity in Bosnia. Liberal and internationalist, they worried about xenophobic hate – but their concern was political, not personal.

Brendan Cox spent the morning of 16 June 2016 working on the research project as normal, for an international campaign organisation called Purpose, and was on his way to lunch with his colleague when his phone rang. It was his wife’s parliamentary assistant. “Jo has been attacked. Get to Leeds as fast as you can.” Racing to the station, he called her constituency office and was told she’d been shot and stabbed. He was alone on a train, hurtling north, when the call came from Jo’s sister: “I’m so sorry, Brendan. She’s not made it.”

“Do you mean Jo’s died?”

“I don’t know what to say … but yes.”

As Cox broke down in tears, a man sitting across the aisle fetched him tissues and water. “If there’s anything I can do …” he offered kindly. Cox wiped his eyes, thanked the man and thought: “Is this what you are meant to do when your wife has just been murdered?”

The horror awaiting him in Yorkshire defied all comprehension. Thomas Mair, a 52-year-old Nazi sympathiser incensed by Jo’s support for refugees, had calmly approached the MP outside her constituency surgery in the Yorkshire village of Birstall, shot her with a sawn-off shotgun, pulled her to the ground and stabbed her repeatedly with a dagger. A 77-year-old pensioner who tried to stop him was stabbed. Cox’s last words were to her two assistants were: “Get away, let him hurt me, don’t let him hurt you!” Mair’s last words, after shooting her twice more, were: “Britain first. Britain will always come first.” [Continue reading…]

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‘Prejudice has no hold in this Republic.’ How long before that can be said in America?

Forget about Donald Trump’s uncountable failings as a human being, what he represents more than anything else is the past — his support derives almost wholly from those who desperately cling to the past, unwilling to accept and embrace the world in which we do indeed now all live.

America would do well to see in Ireland a representation of the future this country will enjoy once it musters courage to advance all the way to the present.

Scott Simon: Ireland’s center-right Fine Gael Party has elected Leo Varadkar as its leader and therefore next prime minister. He’ll be Ireland’s youngest leader at 38. He’s the son of an Irish nurse and a doctor from Mumbai. He told the party conference, when my father traveled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed his son would grow up to be its leader.

Mr. Varadkar is also gay. He was a doctor like his father before entering politics and was elected to Parliament, then minister of health. Leo Varadkar is considered a free market economic conservative who says, I want to dedicate ourselves to building a republic of opportunity. The next prime minister of Ireland is a 38-year-old Indian gay conservative. Only in America – oh, wait.

 

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Trump’s reneging on Paris climate deal turns the U.S. into a rogue state

Joseph Stiglitz writes: Donald Trump has thrown a hand grenade into the global economic architecture that was so painstakingly constructed in the years after the end of the second world war. The attempted destruction of this rules-based system of global governance – now manifested in Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – is just the latest aspect of the US president’s assault on our basic system of values and institutions.

The world is only slowly coming fully to terms with the malevolence of the Trump administration’s agenda. He and his cronies have attacked the US press – a vital institution for preserving Americans’ freedoms, rights and democracy – as an “enemy of the people”. They have attempted to undermine the foundations of our knowledge and beliefs – our epistemology – by labelling as “fake” anything that challenges their aims and arguments, even rejecting science itself. Trump’s sham justifications for spurning the Paris climate agreement is only the most recent evidence of this.

For millennia before the middle of the 18th century, standards of living stagnated. It was the Enlightenment, with its embrace of reasoned discourse and scientific inquiry, that underpinned the enormous increases in standards of living in the subsequent two and a half centuries.

With the Enlightenment also came a commitment to discover and address our prejudices. As the idea of human equality – and its corollary, basic individual rights for all – quickly spread, societies began struggling to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and, eventually, other aspects of human identity, including disability and sexual orientation.

Trump seeks to reverse all of that. His rejection of science, in particular climate science, threatens technological progress. And his bigotry toward women, Hispanics, and Muslims (except those, like the rulers of Gulf oil sheikhdoms, from whom he and his family can profit), threatens the functioning of American society and its economy, by undermining people’s trust that the system is fair to all.

As a populist, Trump has exploited the justifiable economic discontent that has become so widespread in recent years, as many Americans have become downwardly mobile amid soaring inequality. But his true objective – to enrich himself and other gilded rent-seekers at the expense of those who supported him – is revealed by his tax and health-care plans. [Continue reading…]

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Trump praised Philippine president’s campaign of extrajudicial killings against drug suspects

The New York Times reports: President Trump praised President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines in a phone call last month for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in the island nation where the government has sanctioned gunning down suspects in the streets. Mr. Trump also boasted that the United States has “two nuclear submarines” off the coast of North Korea but said he does not want to use them.

The comments were part of a Philippine transcript of the April 29 call that was circulated on Tuesday, under a “confidential” cover sheet, by the Americas division of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. In Washington, a senior administration official confirmed that the transcript was an accurate representation of the call between the two iconoclastic leaders. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the call and confirmed it on the condition of anonymity.

The White House also keeps transcripts of such calls, but they are routinely kept secret. The Philippine rendering of the call offers a rare insight into how Mr. Trump talks to fellow leaders: He sounds much the way he sounds in public, casing issues in largely black-and-white terms, often praising authoritarian leaders, largely unconcerned about human rights violations and genuinely uncertain about the nature of his adversary in North Korea.

Mr. Trump placed the call and began it by congratulating Mr. Duterte for the government-sanctioned attacks on drug suspects. The program has been widely condemned by human rights groups around the world because extrajudicial killings have taken thousands of lives without arrest or trial. In March, the program was criticized in the State Department’s annual human rights report, which referred to “apparent governmental disregard for human rights and due process.”

Mr. Trump had no such reservations. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” he said. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” [Continue reading…]

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The patient resilience of Iran’s reformers

Laura Secor writes: While President Trump basked in the flattery of Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy on Friday, about 75 percent of Iranian voters turned out to repudiate an authoritarian populist and re-elect their moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. Mr. Rouhani ran against extremism and on the promise of human rights, civil liberties, rational economic management and engagement with the world — a platform that won him 57 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 38.5 percent.

It wasn’t the first time Iranian voters expressed their preference for these values. They have done so repeatedly, overcoming every obstacle a repressive state can thrust in their way. The fact that such demands may not be met — and may even result in significant sacrifice for those who make them most vociferously — does not make them less meaningful, but more so.

It’s true that the Iranian system offers limited choice and the president has limited power. The regime has policed its boundaries and eliminated true challenges to the entrenched interests of its security apparatus and clerical elite. But that is precisely why Iranian voter behavior deserves attention. Because the vehicles that carry the popular will to the highest echelons of the Iranian regime are imperfect, the electorate and the politicians seeking its favor have learned, over the course of decades, to play a long game, wedging the system open with the force of their numbers and refusing to acquiesce silently in their exclusion. The patience and persistence of Iranian civic culture is the longer story of Iran’s revolution, and one of the longest stories in the Middle East, having outlived many uprisings and protest movements. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s commerce secretary finds the effects of political oppression in Saudi Arabia very appealing

Business Insider reports: The Saudi government banned all forms of protest in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring.

“Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins, as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society,” a Saudi interior ministry statement said at the time.

A counterterrorism law enacted in 2014 reinforced the ban on dissent, characterizing any act that “undermines” the Saudi state or society as an act of terrorism.

Both laws were enacted under King Abdullah, who died in January 2015. But dissidents and activists continue to be jailed and publicly tortured through 2017, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Trump’s speech in Riyadh on Sunday did not mention Saudi Arabia’s human-rights violations, which include public floggings, coerced confessions, and death sentences for crimes such as nonviolent drug offenses. Most executions are carried out by beheading, according to Amnesty International. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s fraudulent voter-fraud commission

In an editorial, the New York Times says: President Trump’s repeated claim that “millions” of noncitizens voted illegally in the 2016 election has always been transparently self-serving — a desperate attempt to soothe his damaged ego and explain how he could have lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost three million votes.

It also lined up nicely with a yearslong crusade by Republican officials to convince Americans that “voter fraud” is an actual problem. As Mr. Trump’s own lawyers have pointed out, it’s not. But that hasn’t stopped the president from trying, as he so often does, to commandeer the machinery of the federal government to justify his own falsehoods. The most recent example was his creation last week of an advisory commission whose ostensible goal is to “enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes,” with an emphasis on weeding out “improper” or “fraudulent” registration and voting.

To state the obvious, this isn’t a commission. It’s a self-driving vehicle preprogrammed to arrive at only one destination: that strange, fact-free land in which, according to Mr. Trump and many conservatives, hordes of foreigners and people without valid photo identification flood the polls, threatening the nation’s electoral integrity. The right-wing politicians and anti-voter activists who appear to believe this never trouble themselves with the actual data.

So here it is: Voting fraud is extremely rare, and in-person fraud — the only kind that would be caught by voter ID laws — is essentially nonexistent, as study after study has shown. And as for those foreigners, a new survey of local election officials in 42 jurisdictions turned up a total of about 30 cases of suspected noncitizen voting last November — out of more than 23 million votes. [Continue reading…]

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Trump threatens the rule of law

Yascha Mounk writes: After the days of mayhem that followed the firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, the biggest question now seems to be whom Donald Trump will pick as his successor. Will he nominate someone with a reputation as a consummate professional like Andrew McCabe, Comey’s erstwhile deputy? Or will he give the nod to a political loyalist like John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas?

If Trump nominates a political hack to replace Comey, the warning bells that political scientists have long been sounding about Trump would amp up to deafening levels. As Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller explains in What Is Populism?, the first move taken by authoritarian populists who have successfully weakened democracy in countries like Poland and Hungary in recent years has been “to colonize or ‘occupy’ the state” by appointing their own cronies to head independent institutions: They have created new institutions they control. They have changed the rules governing existing institutions to bring them under the sway of the government. They have lowered the mandatory retirement age for civil servants to create vacancies. And, yes, were they could, they have fired politically inconvenient bureaucrats for spurious reasons.

If Trump hand-picks a docile FBI director who is likely to derail investigations against him, this would constitute a clear sign that he is starting to follow in their footsteps. At that point, anybody who votes for the nominee would rightly be remembered as a traitor to the republic for as long (or short) as the Constitution shall endure.

But while it would be outrageous if Trump nominates an obvious crony to head the FBI, I am not sure that the alternative is nearly as reassuring as many commentators seem to believe. Given the circumstances of Comey’s dismissal and the process governing his replacement, no successor picked by Trump can be trusted to oversee an investigation into Trump. That is why the only way to limit the immense damage that Comey’s firing has already done to basic democratic norms is to appoint an independent committee or special prosecutor with robust powers and a wide ambit. [Continue reading…]

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James Clapper: Democratic institutions are ‘under assault’ by Trump

The Guardian reports: Former director of national intelligence James Clapper has accused Donald Trump of placing American democratic institutions “under assault” following the sacking of James Comey and cautioned that the former FBI director’s removal is “another victory” for Russia.

The forceful criticism comes as the justice department began screening candidates for Comey’s replacement and Democrats renewed calls for a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

“I think in many ways our institutions are under assault,” Clapper told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “Both externally, and that’s the big news here, is Russian interference in our election system. And I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.”

When asked to clarify if the internal assault came from the president directly, the former spy chief added: “Exactly.” [Continue reading…]

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The rise of tyranny: Every time we think this is just Trump being Trump, we are giving away our freedom


Timothy Snyder, professor of history, Yale University.

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