Is Russia 'interfering' in our election?

Plus, how day 1 one the Senate trial went down.

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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

The impeachment trial begins, a question about Russian disinformation and some wild new poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now firmly in control of the impeachment trial. Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

Hillary responds.

Yesterday, after news broke that Hillary Clinton told the Hollywood reporter “nobody likes Bernie” and declined to commit to endorsing him in the 2020 election, the former secretary of state responded to the outrage with a bit of humor on Twitter:


What D.C. is talking about.

Right around 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, after a long night of debate, the Senate passed its rules of engagement for the third presidential impeachment trial in United States history. Shortly before the debate began on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell changed his proposed rules that Tangle covered yesterday. Instead of 24 hours of debate stuffed into two days, McConnell added a day of debate into the schedule. He also nixed the proposed rule that did not automatically submit evidence from the House impeachment inquiry into the Senate record. House inquiry evidence will now automatically be entered into the Senate record, as it was during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.

Throughout the night, Democrats tried repeatedly to subpoena documents related to U.S.-Ukraine relations from the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget. Remember: amendments and motions in the Senate trial can only pass with a majority vote, and 53 of the 100 senators are Republicans. So Democrats need to force defections in order to pass amendments they want. The Trump administration has repeatedly blocked documents from being turned over, citing national security concerns. Each time, amendments to subpoena documents were voted down by a party-line 53-47 vote. Eventually, the new rules were voted on and passed along the same 53-47 party-line vote. Notably, questions about whether to call for fresh witnesses or allow new evidence remained unanswered and those votes are expected in the coming days.


What the left is saying.

Initially, there was some hope. Chuck Schumer expressed relief that Mitch McConnell updated his rules to more closely match the Clinton impeachment trial. “Republican senators felt the heat and went to McConnell and said, ‘We got to change it.’ It shows that they can make other changes and that we can get documents and witnesses,” he said. But after 10 straight amendments were voted down almost entirely along party-line votes, things started to fray. Around midnight, Jerry Nadler, who is one of the House managers for impeachment, dug into the president’s team of lawyers. His ribbing of the White House and Republican senators effectively summed up much of the sentiment from the left:

“It’s embarrassing,” Nadler began. “The president is on trial in the Senate, but the Senate is on trial in the eyes of the American people. Will you vote to allow all the relevant evidence to be presented here? Or will you betray your pledge to be an impartial juror? ... Will you bring Ambassador Bolton here? Will you permit us to present you with the entire record of the president's misconduct? Or will you instead choose to be complicit in the president's coverup? So far I'm sad to say I see a lot of senators voting for a coverup, voting to deny witnesses, an absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote.”


What the right is saying.

“It was a good day,” Mitch McConnell with a smile on his way out of the Senate chamber. That about sums it up. Democrats proposed 10 amendments to subpoena documents and witnesses. Only one amendment, a vote to allow more time to respond to filings, got a single Republican vote (from Susan Collins). It still failed 52-48. Earlier in the day, Collins had reportedly pushed McConnell to change his proposed rules and make them as similar to Clinton’s impeachment as possible. Collins and a few other Republicans face tough re-election battles in 2020 and are expected to moderate Republican senators for fear of losing their seats over a partisan impeachment process. Throughout the trial, the president’s counsel was laser-focused on criticizing Adam Schiff — who led the House impeachment inquiry — and on re-framing the president’s conduct in a different light than it’s been covered in the news. The president’s team defended their decision to defy subpoenas for witnesses and documents, saying it was out of line to accuse the president of an obstruction of justice when they were simply waiting on the courts to make a ruling on the legitimacy of the subpoenas. In a direct response to Jerry Nadler, which set off the tensest exchange of the night, White House lawyer Pat Cipollone expressed disgust at the Democratic strategy:

"We've been respectful of the Senate. We've made our arguments to you. And you don't deserve, and we don't deserve, what just happened. Mr. Nadler came up here and made false allegations against our team. He made false allegations against all of you; he accused you of a cover-up. He's been making false allegations against the president. The only one who should be embarrassed, Mr. Nadler is you, for the way you've addressed the United States Senate. This is the United States Senate. You're not in charge here. ... It’s about time we bring this power trip in for a landing."


My take.

The rules improved slightly with the updates McConnell made. It would be nice if the Senate would pledge to accept new documents and witnesses, but they at least did not prohibit them outright yesterday. When I read that Susan Collins had “stepped in” to moderate McConnell, I immediately thought that it looked a lot like a political set-up. McConnell proposes extremely partisan rules, Collins objects, McConnell moderates slightly, Collins gets to claim she bucked the party (which helps her come election time) and McConnell gets to keep rules that still largely benefit the White House. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had that thought, and maybe I’m just cynical, but I thought I’d share. It’s also worth noting the president himself continues to insist he wants witnesses while Republicans simultaneously fight them. And several polls have shown a majority of Americans want new witnesses to be allowed to testify. I agree with Trump and America: there should be witnesses! It’s a trial.

Shortly after the exchange between Nadler and Cipollone, Chief Justice John Roberts, head of the Supreme Court and constitutionally appointed to oversee the trial, made his presence felt with his only real dialogue of the night.

“It is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he said. “One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.”

I appreciate Roberts’ attempt to instill some sort of decorum or sense of gravity in those handling the impeachment trial, but I have a hard time accepting his faith in the Senate. As is often the case, the people calling it the world’s greatest deliberative body are usually doing so from inside that very deliberative body. From the outside, I see a group of senators who are hellbent on preserving their election prospects that are less than a year away. I see an absolute unbreakable partisan divide on basic facts. I see a commitment from one side to prevent any witnesses from appearing in what’s meant to be a trial solely because its party’s leader said so. I see a deliberative body that has done very little deliberating, refusing to even take up hundreds of bills that have been passed in the last year by its counterpart in Congress. This may have been the greatest deliberative body in the world in the days of John Adams, but I have a hard time believing it is today.

Yesterday was a sad and embarrassing start to a partisan affair that will probably only get worse. I’m holding out hope that new evidence and witnesses will have an opportunity to be presented in the Senate, but with every passing day, it looks less and less likely that the world’s greatest deliberative body has any interest in deliberating on the facts of this impeachment inquiry.


Dems infighting continues.

Just a few hours after Bernie Sanders apologized to Joe Biden for a surrogate’s op-ed calling him corrupt, the Biden team released a new ad accusing Sanders of “launching dishonest attacks against fellow documents.” It was bizarre timing considering Biden had just publicly accepted and thanked Sanders for his apology.

Then, around 10 p.m. last night, Sanders hit back with his own ad that included audio of Joe Biden calling for social security cuts in 1995. It received one million views by midnight and was a quick punch and counterpunch that came on the same day the two had apparently tried to reconcile publicly.

They weren’t the only ones, either: the day after Hillary Clinton’s feelings about Bernie Sanders were aired for the public, Democrat and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announced a lawsuit against Clinton for defamation after Clinton referred to the “Russian asset” running in the primary during a podcast interview. Clinton never named Gabbard but it was clear who she was speaking about. All this shows fractures in the party that are increasingly on display as the 2020 election looms.


Follow up.

Last week, I told you about the dozen soldiers who were reportedly treated for traumatic head injuries after Iran’s strike on bases in Iraq that housed U.S. soldiers. The story was notable because President Trump’s administration had previously told Americans there were no injuries or casualties after the strike. It was only more than a week later that the Pentagon admitted some soldiers were so close to harm’s way they had to be airlifted to treatment. This morning, in Davos, Switzerland, a reporter asked Trump about the fact there were now 11 more soldiers being sent to hospitals for treatment.


Your questions, answered.

I’ll answer your questions in the newsletter. All you have to do to submit a question is to reply to this email, write in, and tell me where you’re writing from.

Q: I'd love to get your input on this theory surrounding Bernie's support. Russian interference is something people keep talking about yet it's almost assuredly happening still with little to no safeguards in place for Americans. Reddit, a popular echo chamber of opinion, is always sewing discord in subreddits like r/sandersforpresident saying that you can't trust what you read about the candidates and so on. I just see the same trends of misinformation spreading and sketchy propaganda tactics taking place and nothing is being done to stop it. I guess I'd like to know what you think about that situation and if it's actually that pressing?

- Gabriel, Atlanta, GA

Tangle: I don’t spend a lot of time on r/sandersforpresident, but I do have a lot of thoughts on the question of “Russian interference.” Firstly and most importantly, I want to just say that I think our country is suffering from a serious case of Russiaphobia that concerns me deeply. In 2018, I interviewed over a dozen Russian-Americans from across the country about what it was like for them to constantly turn on the news and see people screaming about how evil and cunning “Russia” was. Their responses, which were diverse in opinion and perspective (like Russians as a whole!), are worth reading. What I took from it is that our media and Americans as a whole would be wise to enlist more voices from Russia in conversations about Russia, and should also make clearer distinctions between the Russian government and Russia’s people. So for the purposes of answering your question, let me just be clear that when I say “Russia” I am referring to the Russian government which is largely at the direction of Vladimir Putin.

As for Russian interference, two things are simultaneously true: Russia is absolutely doing what it can to sow discord online and it is also not some unstoppable spying mastermind nation that has infiltrated every level of our government. Fake social media profiles and botnets that elevate certain hashtags are very much real, and they are very much being directed by actors in Russia. These social media accounts can quickly make things trend on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms and they are not meant to pick sides so much as they are meant to muddy the waters and sow confusion. These accounts were active during the 2016 election, setting up fake pro-Trump rallies and promoting videos and stories that were real examples of fake news (not the kind of “fake news” that is really just news someone doesn’t like).

At the same time, Russia — like any government — has failed and fallen flat on its face repeatedly in its efforts to “interfere” in elections here. For starters, it has been caught repeatedly in sloppily executing spying campaigns. Even the 2016 “hack” of the DNC wasn’t some advanced espionage — it was a run of the mill email phishing scheme. They did it then and they’re trying it again right now. In some cases, the point is to get noticed. In other cases, getting noticed is just a reality of the fact that Russia is not some infallible war power with tentacles all over the planet.

Should you trust what you find on r/sandersforpresident? No. I wouldn’t. I’d be reading The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Fox News and other reputable news sources with legitimate editorial standards. And I would read all of them skeptically and then come read Tangle to make sure you’re hearing both sides of a story. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t trust any memes or anything you find online that seems so shocking or bizarre you question whether it’s real when you first see it. And I would encourage you to always check the domains of websites you’re reading to make sure they aren’t fake (for instance, www.tangle.co versus www.tangle.com). All that being said, it’s absurd to propose (as some people do) that Sanders’s support is a product of Russian social media campaigns. He’s one of the longest-serving and most-liked politicians on the planet, and his populist far-left agenda is perfect for the current moment we’re in. That’s why he’s doing so well in the polls.

I do think the issue of misinformation online is very pressing, but I don’t think the answer is more scrutiny or fear-mongering about Russia. I think the answer is media and internet literacy, which our country has very little of and which makes so many people susceptible to obviously fake news articles or social media accounts that aren’t actually real people.


A story that matters.

In the greater Seattle area, a district will vote for the very first time by using a smartphone. The historic election is a glimpse into a future that has been predicted for some time. King Conservation District will use the technology for a board of supervisors’ election. They plan to accept ballots from today until February 11th. Via NPR:

"This is the most fundamentally transformative reform you can do in democracy," said Bradley Tusk, the founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit aimed at expanding mobile voting that is funding the King County pilot.

Some voting rights activists have pined for a mobile option in elections, saying it would increase voter turnout and make voting more accessible to low-income Americans who can’t afford to miss work and hit the polls. Others have raised major concerns about the vulnerability of such elections, instead pushing for election days as national holidays so people can legally take off of work to vote in person. You can read more here.


Numbers.

  • 15%. The percentage of Democratic voters in early-voting states who said they’d be casting a ballot for Tom Steyer, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

  • 12%. The percentage of Democratic voters in early-voting states who said they’d be casting a ballot for Elizabeth Warren, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

  • 27%. Sen. Bernie Sanders's share of support in a new CNN national poll, best among any Democrat.

  • 24%. Joe Biden’s share of support in a new CNN national poll, the first time since the election started that he has not led the poll.

  • 72%-26%. The percentage of Democratic voters who would feel enthusiastic or satisfied vs. dissatisfied or upset if Joe Biden won the Democratic primary.

  • 77%-23%. The percentage of Democratic voters who would feel enthusiastic or satisfied vs. dissatisfied or upset if Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary.

  • 72%-24%. The percentage of Democratic voters who would feel enthusiastic or satisfied vs. dissatisfied or upset if Elizabeth Warren won the Democratic primary.


Have a nice day.

After some 22,000 gun rights activists descended on Richmond, Virginia, this week, the group cleaned up the streets before taking off. The activists said they didn’t want a mountain of trash they left behind to dilute the message of their protest, and so they took a cue from other activists who have faced criticism for leaving an area dirty by doing the opposite. Some residents in Richmond said it was the cleanest the streets had been in some time, and the gesture was appreciated even by those who vehemently opposed the rally. After weeks of anticipation and consternation, the pro-gun rights activists came and went with no violence, no trash left behind and their message heard loud and clear. While it’s unlikely to change the way Virginia’s Democratic-controlled government votes in the coming months, it was a relieving 24 hours for Virginians who experienced violent protests in Charlottesville last year. Click.