TikTok Logo

Forensic News Roundup: Misinformation enters presidential race

September 7, 2020 6:55 am Adrienne Cobb

The misinformation playbook

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in July withheld an intelligence bulletin warning of a Russian plot to spread misinformation regarding Joe Biden’s mental health. The bulletin, titled “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of U.S. Candidates to Influence 2020 Election,” was blocked by the office of acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf on July 9.

  • The bulletin states that analysts had “high confidence” in their conclusion. However, a DHS spokesperson tried to defend the “delay” in issuing the document by saying it did not meet the agency’s standards. This is curious because just a week later, on July 16, DHS circulated a bulletin on anarchists in Portland that officers admitted they had “low confidence” in. Why was the Russia memo held back but the Portland one released?
  • Trump has been pushing the same line of attack against Biden for months – yet another instance of Russia and Trump operating from the same playbook. For instance, in March Trump said there was “something going on” with Biden; in June Trump ran selectively edited ads asserting that Biden is “unfit to serve as Commander in Chief”; last month Trump ran a digital ad portraying Biden as perpetually confused and mentally unstable. Most recently, Trump said questions about his own health are only in the news because “they want to try and get me to be on Biden’s physical level.”

DHS is just the latest agency in the Trump administration to erode election security, following actions by the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) last month. DNI John Ratcliffe announced he was ending in-person congressional briefings on election security ahead of November and AG Bill Barr removed a leading career official at the Justice Department’s national security division, replacing him with an inexperienced political appointee.

The ODNI’s decision to halt congressional election briefs may have been influenced by top White House officials. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, among others, have repeatedly discussed in meetings with staff and with Trump “how to restrict and control the flow of information on such sensitive topics to Capitol Hill.”

One White House official told The Daily Beast that Meadows has for months been wary of the type of briefings on Capitol Hill that Democratic sources can potentially use to try to make Trump look bad through surreptitious leaks to media outlets.

Meanwhile, interim Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Marco Rubio (R-FL) said last week that his committee will be granted an exception to the ODNI’s new policy and continue to receive in-person briefings from top U.S. intelligence officials about election-security issues. This essentially means that only Democrat-led committees have been cut out of the process ensuring election security.

House Democrats wrote to Ratcliffe insinuating if his office does not provide the previously scheduled briefings this month they will issue subpoenas and/or defund the ODNI in the appropriations bill due by the end of the month. Read the letter here.

In addition to attacks on Biden’s health, DHS has determined that Russia is seeking to “amplify” concerns over the integrity of U.S. elections by promoting allegations that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud. Intelligence analysts say this strategy has been underway since at least March, coinciding with Trump’s own assaults on mail-in voting.

  • For instance, in March Trump said if he agreed to funding vote-by-mail expansions in the first coronavirus stimulus bill, the U.S. would see “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” (clip). Fact check: Neither party has historically benefited. On April 7, at the White House press briefing, Trump claimed: “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters… They’re fraudulent in many cases” (clip). Fact check: There is no evidence that mail ballots are dangerous or fraudulent.
  • Note that conservatives have also amplified Russian disinformation about protests in America – for instance, Don Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz helped spread a story by a Kremlin-backed news agency about Bible burnings at Portland protests.

At a White House press briefing on Friday, Trump denied there is any proof that Russia poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Instead of backing the German government’s analysis of Nalvany’s illness, Trump then redirected the criticism from Russia to China (clip).

“I don’t know exactly what happened. I think it’s tragic. It’s terrible; it shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet, but I will take a look. It is interesting that everybody is always mentioning Russia – and I don’t mind you mentioning Russia – but I think probably China, at this point, is a nation that you should be talking about much more so than Russia. Because the things that China’s doing are far worse.”

Trump then went on to say he’s “taken stronger action against Russia than any other country in the world,” but added “I do get along with President Putin” (clip).

  • RELATED: Leaked notes obtained by the Telegraph say that when Theresa May asked for Trump to take a strong stand after Russia poisoned Sergei Skripal, Trump replied “I’d rather follow than lead.” He pushed May to “put together a coalition” first.

The Trump administration plans to deport a Russian national living in America, a move experts say is in response to a politically motivated request by Russia. Gregory Duralev was persecuted by the Russian state for exposing corruption. He fled to America and applied for asylum in 2015. While waiting for a decision on his application, he was arrested by ICE and jailed for nearly 18 months. His case is now in court.

“DHS has acted no better than the Russian authorities,” Duralev said. “They simply fabricated charges against me for violations I never committed — and if DHS can trump up charges against immigrants with impunity, nobody can guarantee they won’t start doing it” to regular Americans. “So that’s the main message I now hope to send.”


Michael Cohen & Peter Strzok

Former FBI agent Peter Strzok has a book coming out called “Compromised.” In it, he alleges that FBI investigators came to believe it was “conceivable, if unlikely” that Russia was secretly controlling President Trump after he took office:

“We certainly had evidence that this was the case: that Trump, while gleefully wreaking havoc on America’s political institutions and norms, was pulling his punches when it came to our historic adversary, Russia,” Strzok writes. “Given what we knew or had cause to suspect about Trump’s compromising behavior in the weeks, months, and years leading up to the election, moreover, it also seemed conceivable, if unlikely, that Moscow had indeed pulled off the most stunning intelligence achievement in human history: secretly controlling the president of the United States — a Manchurian candidate elected.”

He now says he doesn’t believe that Trump is literally a Russian spy: “I don’t think that Trump, when he meets with Putin, receives a task list for the next quarter,” Strzok said, referencing the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. “But I do think the president is compromised, that he is unable to put the interests of our nation first, that he acts from hidden motives, because there is leverage over him, held specifically by the Russians but potentially others as well.”

In an interview with Politico, Strzok confirms that he and then-deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, opened a counterintelligence case on the president, but that it likely was never pursued. Two weeks ago, NYT reported that Rosenstein secretly closed it.

As if there weren’t enough political books coming out this summer/fall, Michael Cohen is releasing his, called “Disloyal: A Memoir.” The following a couple of quick takeaways:

Cohen says that he, Trump, Aras Agalarov, Emin Agalarov, and others, watched a strip show in Las Vegas where one performer simulated peeing on another performer, who pretended to drink it. Trump reportedly reacted with “delight.” Aras Agalarov, a Russian real estate mogul, is a trusted associate of Putin and reportedly served as a liaison between Trump and the Russian president during Trump’s trip to Moscow.

WaPo:

On Russia, Cohen writes that the cause behind Trump’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin is simpler than many of his critics assume. Above all, he writes, Trump loves money — and he wrongly identified Putin as “the richest man in the world by a multiple.” Trump loved Putin, Cohen wrote, because the Russian leader had the ability “to take over an entire nation and run it like it was his personal company — like the Trump Organization, in fact.”

…According to Cohen, Trump’s sycophantic praise of the Russian leader during the 2016 campaign began as a way to suck up and ensure access to the oligarch’s money after he lost the election. But he claims Trump came to understand that Putin’s hatred of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, dating to her support for the 2011 protest movement in Russia, could also help Trump amass more power in the United States.


USPS & mail voting

According to a Washington Post report yesterday, Postmaster Louis DeJoy engaged in campaign money laundering, also called a straw-donor scheme, at his former logistics business. Five of his former employees told WaPo that they were “urged” to donate to politicians in North Carolina and would be paid back through bonuses from DeJoy. Such a plan would allow DeJoy to illegally circumvent campaign donation limits.

“Louis was a national fundraiser for the Republican Party. He asked employees for money. We gave him the money, and then he reciprocated by giving us big bonuses,” said David Young, DeJoy’s longtime director of human resources, who had access to payroll records at New Breed from the late 1990s to 2013 and is now retired.

“He would ask employees to make contributions at the same time that he would say, ‘I’ll get it back to you down the road,’ ” said [another] former employee.

…A Washington Post analysis of federal and state campaign finance records found a pattern of extensive donations by New Breed employees to Republican candidates, with the same amount often given by multiple people on the same day. Between 2000 and 2014, 124 individuals who worked for the company together gave more than $1 million to federal and state GOP candidates. Many had not previously made political donations, and have not made any since leaving the company, public records show.

More than one million mail-in ballots were sent late to voters during the 2020 primary elections, an audit by the USPS IG’s office determined. Most of the ballots were late, the USPS says, because local election boards sent the ballots to voters at the last minute. Official press release.

[The audit] found the problems during primaries had been most pronounced in Kentucky and New York, where a combined 628,000 ballots were sent out late. In 17 states, the audit found, more than 589,000 ballots were sent from election boards to voters after the state’s ballot mailing deadline. In 11 states, more than 44,000 ballots were sent from election boards to voters the day of or the day before the state’s primary election.

One particularly troubling situation, auditors found, unfolded in Pennsylvania, where 500 ballots were sent to voters the day after the election.

Furthermore, only 13% of the ballots were mailed with the recommended bar code tracking technology.

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) was blocked from attending two scheduled tours of USPS facilities last week. Local Postal Service officials informed her and union leaders waiting to accompany her into the building that national USPS leadership had directed them to bar the group from the building. A Postal Service spokeswoman said they simply needed more notice for a tour.

Many states, including important battleground states, are not legally permitted to process mail-in/absentee ballots until Election Day, leading to concern that results will be delayed by days or weeks. For instance, in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan election officials cannot even begin processing ballots until Election Day. Processing involves opening envelopes, flattening ballots to run through the scanning machine, and prepping for the scanning.

“When voters have to wait so long for results, it erodes trust in the process and leaves room for partisan bad actors to dispute the will of the people,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit organization.

AG Bill Barr made three stunning false claims about mail voting during an interview with Wolf Blitzer last week. First, Barr wouldn’t even acknowledge that voting twice is a crime – because just hours earlier, Trump encouraged his North Carolina supporters to vote twice to “test” the state’s mail-in voting system (clip).

BLITZER: It sounds like he’s encouraging people to break the law and try to vote twice.

BARR: It seems to me what he’s saying is, he’s trying to make the point that the ability to monitor this system is not good. And it was so good, if you tried to vote a second time you would be caught if you voted in person.

BLITZER: That would be illegal if they did that. If somebody mailed in a ballot and then actually showed up to vote in person, that would be illegal.

BARR: “I don’t know what the law in the particular state says.”

BLITZER: You can’t vote twice.

BARR: “I don’t know what the law in the particular state says.”

Then, Barr tried to assert that foreign countries could fake ballots, but when challenged he admitted he had no evidence (clip).

BLITZER: You’ve said you were worried that a foreign country could send thousands of fake ballots, thousands of fake ballots to people that it might be impossible to detect. What are you basing that on?

BARR: I’m basing — as I’ve said repeatedly, I’m basing that on logic.

BLITZER: Pardon?

BARR: Logic.

Finally, Barr cited a supposed incident of mail-in voting fraud in Texas. Too bad it doesn’t exist.


The payroll

Charles Rettig, the Trump-appointed IRS Commissioner who has refused to release President Trump’s tax returns, has made hundreds of thousands of dollars renting out Trump properties while in office. Rettig makes $100,000 – $200,000 a year from two units at Trump International Waikiki. When first nominated, Rettig failed to disclose his financial ties to Trump Waikiki. When questioned by Congress, he did not directly answer concerns about the properties.

CREW: With Trump’s name removed from some buildings as it began to hurt property values, we can only imagine how toxic it would become if a bombshell in his tax returns were released. Which means the IRS Commissioner has a vested interest in the success of the Trump brand—and of preventing anything that could damage it.

Voice of America staffers say Trump appointee Michael Pack is threatening to wash away legal protections intended to insulate their news reports from political meddling. Since arriving, Pack has fired the network’s leaders, pushed out agency executives, refused to approve allotted budgets, and refused to renew visas for foreign employees.

  • Further reading: “Deleted Biden video sets off a crisis at Voice of America,” Politico.

Pack suggested the staff he fired and foreign journalists he essentially kicked out may have been foreign spies, without offering any evidence to support his claim. A group of 14 senior VOA journalists are openly disputing his explanation:

“Mr. Pack has made a thin excuse that his actions are meant to protect national security, but just as was the case with the McCarthy ‘Red Scare,’ which targeted VOA and other government organizations in the mid-1950s, there has not been a single demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA — as the USAGM CEO puts it — ‘posing as a spy,’ ” they wrote.

The White House is searching for a replacement for Federal Trade Commission Chair Joe Simons, a Republican who has publicly resisted President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on social media companies. Simons, a veteran antitrust lawyer, cannot legally be removed by the president except in cases of gross negligence. But the White House has already interviewed at least one candidate for the post.

  • RELATED: The Justice Department plans to bring an antitrust case against Google as soon as this month, after Attorney General William P. Barr overruled career lawyers who said they needed more time to build a strong case.

Richard Grenell, formerly the highest-ranking out gay official in the Trump administration, has joined a law firm founded by Pat Robertson that has a history of opposing LGBTQ+ rights. Grenell also recently joined the Republican National Committee to do outreach to LGBTQ+ voters.

The Trump administration has quietly named a new acting State Department inspector general. Matthew Klimow, the U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan since mid-2019, is the third acting IG since Trump and Pompeo ousted Senate-confirmed IG Steve Linick in May.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s current special envoy to Northern Ireland, former Chief of Staff, and former acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is starting a hedge fund focused on financial services regulation. Ethics experts say Mulvaney explicitly using his knowledge of CFPB to place bets for and against companies gives him an unfair and perhaps illegal advantage.


Court and DOJ matters

Court cases

The Trump administration must, for now, stop winding down in-person counting efforts for the 2020 census, a federal judge in California ordered.

The three-judge panel hearing a challenge to Trump’s new anti-immigrant census policy seemed hostile to the government’s arguments in a hearing last week.

A federal judge has stopped the Trump administration from enforcing a rule change that would let health care providers deny medical services to LGBTQ patients on the grounds of religion.

Justice Department

Federal prosecutors are preparing to charge longtime GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy in connection with efforts to influence the U.S. government on behalf of foreign interests. Broidy helped raise millions for Donald Trump’s election and the Republican Party.

Barr ordered another round of changes to FISA rules, tightening the use of government surveillance on political candidates or their staffers — a move conservatives will likely cheer, as they have long criticized how the FBI investigated the Trump campaign in 2016.

Before conducting physical searches or wiretaps of a federal election official, members of the official’s staff, candidates for federal office, or their staff or advisers, the FBI must now consider giving them a “defensive briefing,” to tell them that they could be the target of foreign influence.



Forensic News

Forensic News is entirely reader-funded. Consider supporting paywall-free news.

Choose an amount
$