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Archive for the ‘Election’ Category

Jonathan Chait has an interesting thought: Paul Manafort Keeps Lying About Russia Collusion. Is It to Protect Donald Trump?

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

Last night, a federal judge ruled that Paul Manafort violated his plea agreement by lying repeatedly to federal prosecutors about the Russia investigation. Some of Manafort’s lies go “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” a prosecutor told the court. In particular, Manafort deceived prosecutors about a meeting he had with his former partner and active Russian agent, Konstantin Kilimnik. At this meeting, the two discussed a peace plan to resolve Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the top Russian foreign policy priority. Manafort passed on polling data to Kilimnik, data that was “very detailed” and “very focused,” not just some topline numbers. And according to prosecutors, Manafort did all this in hopes of getting a pardon from President Trump.

Here we have, in this case alone, every single element one would need to establish collusion. There was a meeting between Trump’s campaign manager and a Russian operative; the discussion of something Russia would gain from a Trump victory (a favorable Ukraine settlement); the exchange of information that would assist Russian campaign intervention (polling data that would allow Russia to target its social-media attacks). Also, they left the meeting place via separate entrances. This isn’t merely suspicious. It’s a scene from The Americans.

And perhaps most curious of all, you have the interest of the president. If Manafort was just running a side hustle behind Trump’s back, Trump would have little reason to care about him getting caught. Prosecutors have already charged that Manafort maintained secret contacts with the White House as recently as 2018. Howard Fineman reported last year that, according to “friends and aides” of the president, Trump believes Manafort “isn’t going to ‘flip’ and sell him out.”

The revelations about Manafort have dribbled out slowly enough that it’s easy to lose track of how far along they have come. The prosecution of Manafort began by nabbing him for the most easily detected crimes. This is exactly what you’d expect in the prosecution of a massive conspiracy: The prosecution works its way from the bottom up and the outside in, finding crimes by key figures to force them to testify against higher-ups. Instead, conservatives have treated every step in the prosecution as evidence that Manafort did nothing wrong with Russia.

When the first Manafort indictment came down in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reassured its readers that Trump was guilty of nothing more than “poor judgement” in hiring a “notorious Beltway operator,” as it called the man who had been directing Russian overseas political operations in Ukraine. “One popular theory is that Mr. Mueller is throwing the book at Mr. Manafort so he will cop a plea and tell what he knows about Russian-Trump campaign chicanery,” reasoned an editorial. “But that assumes he knows something that to date no Congressional investigation has found.”

The next year, a gimmick filing by Manafort’s attorneys seized on the fact that prosecutors had not charged him with colluding with Russia yet to present him as innocent. Mollie Hemingway breathlessly wrote it up in the Federalist. Manafort’s “legal team also reveals the government has provided no evidence of any contact between Manafort and Russian officials,” she declared. Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, impressed by this “evidence,” declared, “If Manafort did not illegally collide [sic] with Russia, it’s hard to imagine anyone who did.”

Last summer, Byron York was still proclaiming, “There’s no collusion in the case against Manafort.”

This defense has been smashed to pieces. There’s a ton of collusion in the case against Manafort. Of course we haven’t even seen the full extent of the charges, much of which is still hidden in the procession of indictments beneath tantalizing black lines. What we already know is  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 February 2019 at 5:14 pm

A Dead-Simple Algorithm Reveals the True Toll of Voter ID Laws

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Issie Lapowski writes in Wired:

AFTER ANNOUNCING THE closure of his short-lived commission to end voter fraud, President Trump made it clear Thursday that he wants more states to require identification at the ballot box to prevent what he believes is rampant—but still unproven—election rigging.

Ever since the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, laws requiring voters to show identification when they vote have speckled the nation, popping up in states from Rhode Island to Arizona. Almost as quickly, voting rights advocates have taken states like Texas and Alabama to court, arguing that these laws intentionally discriminate against minority voters. Just last summer, a federal judge tossed out Texas’s voter ID law, in a case that’s now being revisited by an appeals court. But proving exactly how discriminatory these laws are requires far more complexity than it might seem.

Sure, there are endless anecdotes of well-meaning, well-prepared citizens being turned away on election day, but anecdotes are not data. There are ample surveys asking voters whether these laws came between them and the ballot box, but people can always misrepresent themselves on surveys, and courts tend to dismiss them, anyway. Seven states include Social Security numbers in voter files and driver’s license records, but across the rest of the country, determining whether a single individual voter is also listed in any number of identification databases has become a complex and nettlesome problem for voting access advocates and statistics researchers alike.

Recently, however, researchers at Tufts University and Harvard University demonstrated that it’s possible to match individuals across government databases with nearly perfect accuracy, using just a few basic identifiers like a person’s name, date of birth, and address. They developed the algorithm while working as expert witnesses in the Department of Justice’s case against Texas. Now, in a newly published paper, researchers Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard and Eitan Hersh of Tufts have explained the underlying methodology. Their goal, according to Hersh, is to create a system courts can easily understand, which can not only be used in future voter ID law cases, but can also help dispel some myths about who those laws do and don’t hurt.

“The more we can agree on methods that are easy to explain, the better off we are,” says Hersh.

A Better Model

If all data were clean and complete, it wouldn’t be so hard to figure out if a voter named, say, John Smith, was the same John Smith listed in the federal driver’s license database. According to Hersh and Ansolabehere’s research, only 1 in 2.7 billion individuals have the same zip code, gender, date of birth, and last name, making those four details combined a fairly spot-on indicator of a person’s identity. But often, government records contain typos, incomplete fields, nicknames, or outdated addresses. To link databases, researchers often need to make do with less information.

They also need to be able to show their work in a way that lawyers and judges can understand. So many algorithms that purport to match people across databases run up against the so-called black box problem. They may be able to make statistically sound decisions, but they can’t easily explain how they made them. In a recent Supreme Court hearing over partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed research-backed methods to measure gerrymandering as “sociological gobbledygook.” Hersh and Ansolabehere wanted to develop a tool that could be easily understood.

So, working with the Department of Justice, the researchers set out to determine whether they could match voters on the voter roll with their corresponding records in ID databases using just a few basic details. To do that, they developed an algorithm that scanned the state of Texas’s voter rolls and compared it to the federal list of driver licenses, state IDs, and concealed handgun permits, among other forms of acceptable identification. It scanned each record by address, date of birth, gender, and name, to see if, for instance, a combination of address, gender, and name would be as accurate a predictor as a combination of date of birth, gender, and name.

To check their results, the researchers relied on a subset of the voter data that contained Social Security numbers. Those records effectively served as the algorithm’s answer key. They ultimately found that 98 percent of the records that could be matched using Social Security numbers could also be matched using any three of the four key identifiers—address, date of birth, gender, and name.

“This combination is as good as a Social Security number,” Hersh says.

That high accuracy rate is essential in court, says Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has served as an expert witness in a case against South Carolina’s voter ID law. Most database-matching algorithms are used in low-risk scenarios, he explains, like advertising, where companies want to target customers across a range of platforms. If they target the wrong customer, at worst, they’ve lost a marginal amount of money. In court, it could mean losing the case altogether. “There is really no room for error,” Stewart says, citing the risk of having to demonstrate an algorithm’s chops before the bench. “If the judge doesn’t get matched properly, for instance, you might as well have not done anything.”

Deep Impact

Once Hersh and Ansolabehere were confident they had properly matched registered voters to their ID records, they used a commercial tool called Catalist to predict each voter’s race. That tool analyzes names to determine how likely a given name is to be associated with one race or another. It also accounts for the demographics of the Census block where a given voter lives. Using this tool, the researchers confirmed what voting rights advocates already know to be true—that black voters are more likely to lack adequate identification under voter ID laws. According to the study, 3.6 percent of registered white voters had no match in any state or federal ID database. By contrast, 7.5 percent of black registered voters were missing from those databases.

The algorithm shows a clear and disturbing racial disparity on voting rights. But Hersh says that it also shows that voter ID laws affect a relatively small percentage of the population. Across all registered voters in Texas, the researchers found 4.5 percent lack proper identification. For registered voters who actually showed up at the polls in 2012, it’s 1.5 percent.

“You’re down to a small percentage of the population that doesn’t have an ID,” says Hersh. That’s one reason why, despite Alabama’s restrictive voter ID law, black turnout in the recent Senate election still exceeded expectations. Still, while the percentages may sound small, that 4.5 percent still represents 608,470 Texas citizens who could potentially be disenfranchised.

Hersh says he agrees the public ought to be outraged by racially motivated attempts to suppress the vote, and that courts ought to crack down on the practice. But he cautions against Democrats artificially inflating the impact of voter ID laws in their messaging. Shortly after the 2016 election, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin attributed the entire dropoff in voter turnout in Wisconsin to the state’s new voter ID law. Hersh points to plenty of other reasons why voter turnout may have been down in Wisconsin in 2016, including the simple fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Wisconsin.

“It … can be dangerous to sow doubt in the integrity of the election system with these big claims,” Hersh says. Besides, the raw data is bad enough. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 February 2019 at 11:21 am

‘Mark Is an Authoritarian’: A Facebook Investor Sounds the Alarm About the Company He Helped Build

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Benjamin Hart writes in New York:

Like many people, Roger McNamee has recently come to believe that Facebook is, in his words, “terrible for America.” Unlike many people, he played an integral role in helping the 15-year-old juggernaut wield so much power in the first place. A longtime venture capitalist, McNamee made a key early investment in the company, and served as a mentor to a young Mark Zuckerberg, who was then agonizing about whether to sell his creation or keep running it himself. McNamee also fatefully helped persuade Sheryl Sandberg to meet with Zuckerberg; she became Facebook’s COO in 2008.

But since 2016, McNamee — who had by then ceased involvement with Facebook — has grown into a full-time skeptic of the company he once championed, joining a chorus of onetime tech evangelists who have reevaluated tech’s role in society. His new book Zucked is a cri de coeur against a corporation and a chief executive who he thinks have badly lost their way. Intelligencer spoke with him about the dangers of Facebook’s unchecked power, whether he thinks the company is salvageable, and why Mark Zuckerberg just needs some sleep.

You said that you first started to really have misgivings about Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election, when you noticed a series of suspicious-looking memes that were denigrating Hillary Clinton — at which point you realized that outside groups were manipulating the platform.
It was “Bay Area for Bernie” and “whatever for Bernie” type groups. Things that seemed legit, that seemed associated with the Sanders campaign. But the viral spread of them, where one day one of my friends was in that group, the next day four of my friends, the day after that, eight of my friends … there was something about it that said to me: in all probability, somebody was spending money to draw people into these groups. And then they were sharing stuff. These memes were so nasty, and so obviously not real in terms of information content, that I just couldn’t imagine even the Sanders campaign doing something like that. You know, they had a reputation, the Bernie bros.

But it just seemed too intense. I had no idea what it meant, but it got stuck in my head, and so, when a month later we had the report about that group that used Facebook advertising tools to gather data on people expressing an interest in Black Lives Matter, and then they were selling those names to police departments? That was obviously evil. The first thing was just a suspicion, the second thing was like, “Oh my God.” Facebook did the right thing, mind you. They expelled the group. But obviously the damage had been done, the data was sold to police departments, and harassment could take place. And that just struck me as completely not fitting my perception of what Facebook was all about, which was puppies and babies.

So you warned Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. 
Yes, but keep in mind that wasn’t ’til October. Brexit happens in June, and then I think, Oh my god, what if it’s possible that in a campaign setting, the candidate that has the more inflammatory message gets a structural advantage from Facebook? And then in August, we hear about Manafort, so we need to introduce the Russians into the equation. And then in October, we hear about Facebook using its ad tools to enable people in the housing market to discriminate in violation of the Fair Housing Act. At that point I write an op-ed for Recodeand instead of publishing it, I share it with Mark and Sheryl because I’m trying to warn them. I’m going, “Guys, there is something really wrong here” — the only logical explanation is there is something about the algorithm and the business model that enable bad actors to harm innocent people using Facebook.

I didn’t expect them to throw up their arms and promise to change everything, but I hoped that they would investigate and take it seriously. Of course, nine days later, you have the election, at which point I’m going, “Okay, guys, we cannot screw around, this is a disaster. Your brand is at stake, you’re a trust business. You must engage. You must treat this the way Johnson & Johnson treated the poisoning of Tylenol. You gotta protect the people who use your product.” And I tried that for three months, but with no luck. And so after that, I became an activist.

We’re now more than two years out from that experience, and obviously the controversies have not gone away — they’ve actually multiplied. Do you think Zuckerberg and Sandberg have made any progress on the stuff you warned about? 
I want to avoid absolutes, but I think it’s safe to say that the business model is the source of the problem, and that it’s the same business model as before. And to the extent that they made progress, it’s in going after different moles in the Whack-a-Mole game. From the point of view of the audience, Facebook is as threatening as ever.

You’ve said it’s the ad-based business model that creates, in your opinion, damaging incentives that sort of reward the basest human emotions: fear, anger …
Can I take a moment to describe how it works?

Because if you think about the ad model — in a traditional ad model, you collect data in order to improve your product or service, with respect to the customers that you have. At Facebook and Google, they collect data in order to essentially create new products that take advantage of the weakness of the audience. It’s a fundamentally different thing. So if, in a traditional ad product, the consumer is the product, not the customer — in Facebook and Google they’re the fuel. They aren’t even the product. And here’s why it’s a problem: They need your attention. To get your attention, they appeal to low-level emotions like outrage and fear, and they tickle you with rewards, things like notifications. And those things are really habit-forming. And for many people, when you’re checking Facebook or Google two or three times a day for periods of years, habits become addictions. And when you’re addicted, you are vulnerable to manipulation.

Is this ad-based business model, which is the foundation of so many of these important internet companies, fundamentally flawed, in your view? Is there a more benevolent way of doing it?
To be clear, I think there was always a much more benevolent way of doing this, and I wish they had gone there. When I first met Mark in 2006, the company had $9 million in revenues, and he had solved what I thought was the fundamental issue for the social network, which was that anonymity basically allowed bullies to take over chat rooms, comment boards, and any kind of social thing. And Mark realized that he could provide authenticated identity, and in the early days, that, I felt, was the most exciting thing. He also gave people genuine privacy control. And I bet he could’ve gone to 100 million, maybe 200 million users, mostly in the English-speaking world, without any problems and a really reasonable ad business. But as they started to grow, they found a business model that really did require this surveillance, and they realized that there were no limits at all. The more friction they could get rid of, the faster they would grow. And so what they did was they basically said, “You know what, we’re not gonna enforce this identity thing. And we’re not going to enforce the privacy protections.”

The next thing you know, they’re growing like a bat out of hell, and the bad actors start coming in. To me, the miracle is that they got all the way to 2 billion active users before any problems showed up. And it’s a real tribute to how smart they were that it took that long. If they had a more traditional advertising business, I think everything would be fine. But now they’re at a scale where I don’t see how they can get back to that. You know what I would do? I think the best way to solve this problem from a policy point of view is to do what we did with the chemical industry, which is to say — there are all these externalities that come from your success, all this damage that right now society is paying? From now on, it’s on you. You have to pay all of that. And that would change the incentives pretty quickly.

But it’s pretty hard to measure what, exactly, the cost of the harm is. It gets very nebulous. 
Well, yes and no. Because remember, some of the harm shows up at the individual level, so if everybody has the ability to sue for what they think the cost to them was …

Well that would be …
No, I’m not joking about this, right? I mean, a lot of this is letting litigation take its course. And, you’re right: I suspect that estimating the value of a Rohingya life in Myanmar would wind up producing the same kind of horrible outcome you got in Bhopal. But right now there’s no consequence at all, right? And so it would be better to make them do something. But I agree with you, I don’t think this is easy. And that’s the reason why we’re having this conversation, right? I mean, I didn’t write this book because I had all the answers, I wrote this book because I think I know what the questions are, and I’m trying to get the whole world to get engaged.

And I don’t really think people understand the issue that well, either …Dude, I’ve spent an entire life doing this and don’t understand it! I’m serious! Thirty-four years as a professional tech investor, studying this stuff day and night, being at these companies as they created these models in the early days. Not so much in recent years, so I really missed the model that they’re running now until I became an activist. But I’ve spent 30 years doing nothing but! So when somebody comes up to me and says, “Roger, this is really complicated,” I go, “I’m with you. You’re absolutely correct.” But it turns out that the parts that matter aren’t that complicated. These people were never elected, they are not accountable, and yet they have the most important voice in our politics. Every candidate is running his or her campaign on Instagram. You don’t think that gives these guys an enormous amount of power? Of course it does. We think that that’s inevitable, right? Collectively, we learned how to trust tech in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. And we don’t realize that we should be not only very skeptical right now, we should actively be suspicious of the biggest companies on the internet.

You were in close contact with Zuckerberg years ago, but you haven’t been in close contact with him for a while. Do you think that Facebook can develop into the kind of company you want it to be with him in charge? 
I think that Mark is one good night’s sleep from understanding this. The problem is …

Do you really?
No, hang on. I’m saying from understanding it, right?  Now doing it is another whole animal. And the doing requires a dramatic change to the business model.

There’s been such a now-familiar cycle of these breaches of trust every two weeks …
No, no, no, no, no. I get it. We’re talking about two different things. You asked me, “Is he capable of making this change?” And I’m saying to you I think it’s not crazy for him to wake up one day the way I did and say, “You know what? This thing that I believed in so much is deeply flawed, and I owe everybody. I do need to fix it.” I believe Mark Zuckerberg is totally capable of that moment of illumination. Now, there is zero evidence that he has had it, or that he is going to have it, but I think he’s capable of it.

And the trick is, let’s assume he has it. Then you have to actually effect the change. And that would be difficult, but like I said, I think he has the gravitas inside the company to persuade people: “You know what guys, what we’ve been doing here’s wrong, we’ve gotta do it differently.” But I don’t want you to come out of this call thinking I’m optimistic that that’s how things are going to go down.

That’s not what I took from it. 
I’m saying to you I’m really, really, really afraid of what these companies could do. And I’m afraid in no small measure because there are hundreds of millions of people — really, billions of people — affected by their actions. And you can fit every single person in the world who understands the problem I’m talking about at the level I’m talking about it, you know, in a basketball arena or something much smaller. And, you know, we still have a huge awareness-building campaign to complete, and we have to get the people in power up to speed. And they’re getting there very rapidly. Like the rest of us, they had every reason to trust these guys for 50, 60 years and, you know, it didn’t look like they needed any regulation, so why would anybody become a pro?

But we just elected 40 freshmen members of Congress where the average age is like, 40, right? And we retired a whole bunch of the people who understood it the least well, and the intersection of those two things is very positive. And here’s the good news: I think there are members on both sides who get how important it is to do something here. And they may not agree on what the path is, but at least if you understand that we need to find common ground, that’s good. And the other piece that’s really important is that we, the people formerly known as “users” — we have more power than we realize. We have the power to withdraw some or all of our attention from these guys, and they need that attention to make this model work. Facebook has seen a really significant decline in hours of use per month per user in North America in the last year. And there’s a reason they don’t report it anymore, because it’s not a good number — fortunately Nielsen keeps track of it. And it’s not exact, but it shows like a 20 percent decline, and that’s a big number. And that gives you some hope.

Again and again, Zuckerberg has said over the last 15 years that his whole mission with Facebook — and he always uses this kind of platitude-heavy language — is that it’s about “connecting the world” and “bringing people together,” etc., etc. And I think people have a difficulty reconciling that with the strange figure he cuts in public. Did you ever feel like you got a handle on what’s driving him, or what he believes in? . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2019 at 3:44 pm

Maria Butina, the spy who wasn’t

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James Bamford writes in the New Republic:

On a steamy Sunday last July, at about half-past noon, a caravan of unmarked SUVs exited the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office, an eight-story concrete building that exudes all the charm of a supermax prison. The cars moved swiftly across the city; speed was critical. There were indications that the target, who had canceled the lease on her apartment and packed her belongings, was about to take flight.

Just before one o’clock, the SUVs turned off Wisconsin Avenue and into a parking lot at 3617 38th Street NW, a low, red-brick apartment building near American University. Armed agents in bulletproof vests filled a narrow corridor outside apartment 208. Inside, Maria Butina was watching the Wimbledon men’s final on TV and preparing for a long drive in a U-Haul truck to South Dakota. Having just graduated from American University with a master’s degree in international affairs, she was about to start working as a consultant in the cryptocurrency industry. Her boyfriend of five years, a 57-year-old Republican activist named Paul Erickson, would be traveling with her to his home in Sioux Falls.

“Everything was boxed up,” Erickson told me. “The last thing to do was to pack the electronics, to unplug the TV and the internet. And then pound! Pound! Pound! I answered the door, and there was a team of six agents in the hallway.” Three of the agents surrounded Erickson while the other three went after Butina. “The team went in, dragged her out, spun her around, cuffed her in the hallway, and announced her arrest,” Erickson said.

According to federal prosecutors, Butina’s graduate studies, and her relationship with Erickson, were just a cover; in reality she was a clandestine Russian agent sent to the United States to use sex and seduction to infiltrate conservative political circles and influence the White House’s policies toward Russia. Denied bail out of fear she might run to the Russian Embassy, or jump into an embassy car, she was charged with violating Section 951 of the U.S. Code: acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, as well as with a conspiracy charge associated with it. She is the only Russian arrested to date in the government’s ongoing investigation into the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Slim and stylish, with long red hair flowing halfway down her back, Butina seemed to fit the stereotype of a Russian spy popularized by figures like Anna Chapman, the Russian sleeper agent arrested in New York in 2010, as well as the fictional spy-seductress played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie Red Sparrow and the Soviet operative played by Keri Russell in the TV series The Americans. “Real-life ‘Red Sparrow’? Court Filings Allege Russian Agent Offered Sex for Access,” blared an ABC News headline. “Maria Butina, Suspected Secret Agent, Used Sex in Covert Plan, Prosecutors Say,” declared The New York Times.

Since August 17, Butina has been housed at the Alexandria Detention Center, the same fortresslike building that holds Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. On November 10, she spent her 30th birthday in solitary confinement, in cell 2F02, a seven-by-ten-foot room with a steel door, cement bed, and two narrow windows, each three inches wide. She has been allowed outside for a total of 45 minutes. On December 13, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation. She faces a possible five-year sentence in federal prison.

With anti-Russia fervor in the United States approaching levels directed at Muslims following the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was easy for prosecutors to sell the story of Butina as a spy to the public and the press. But is she really? Last February, Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia probe, indicted 13 Russian spies for interfering with the 2016 election. And in July, two days before Butina was arrested, Mueller charged twelve more Russians with hacking into email accounts and computer networks belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It is not inconceivable that Butina is among their ranks.

Yet a close examination of Butina’s case suggests that it is not so. Butina is simply an idealistic young Russian, born in the last days of the Soviet Union, raised in the new world of capitalism, and hoping to contribute to a better understanding between two countries while pursuing a career in international relations. Fluent in English and interested in expanding gun rights in Russia, she met with Americans in Moscow and on frequent trips to the United States, forging ties with members of the National Rifle Association, important figures within the conservative movement, and aspiring politicians. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to do what I could, as an unpaid private citizen, not a government employee, to help bring our two countries together,” she told me.

The government’s case against Butina is extremely flimsy and appears to have been driven largely by a desire for publicity. In fact, federal prosecutors were forced to retract the most attention-grabbing allegation in the case—that Butina used sex to gain access and influence. That Butina’s prosecution was launched by the National Security Section of the District of Columbia federal prosecutor’s office, led by Gregg Maisel, is telling in itself: According to a source close to the Mueller investigation, the special counsel’s office had declined to pursue the case, even though it would have clearly fit under its mandate.

Despite the lack of evidence against Butina, however, prosecutors—abetted by an uncritical media willing to buy into the idea of a Russian agent infiltrating conservative political circles—were intent on getting a win. In the context of the Mueller investigation, and in the environment that arose after Trump’s election, an idealistic young Russian meeting with influential American political figures sounded enough like a spy to move forward.

Butina told me her story over a number of long lunches starting last March at a private club in downtown Washington, D.C. She was always early, except on April 25, when she didn’t show up.

She later apologized; a dozen FBI agents had raided her apartment. “They knocked on the door, and that knock I will never forget,” she told me. “They pushed me inside, told me to sit down. I was completely in shock, but what could I do?” The agents searched her apartment for approximately seven hours, apparently looking for hidden transmitters or other evidence of spy-craft. “It was a horrible day in my life,” Butina said. The FBI found nothing, however. There was no mention of spy gear in her indictment, and there were no charges of espionage.

This was the second time the U.S. government had sifted through Butina’s personal life. Nine days earlier, in response to a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee, she voluntarily turned over more than 8,000 documents and electronic messages and testified in a closed hearing for eight hours. But they also uncovered nothing incriminating.

“Look, I imagined I could be in prison in Russia. I could never imagine I could go to jail in the United States. Because of politics?” Butina told me over the phone a few weeks after she was taken into federal custody. It was one of a series of exclusive interviews I conducted with Butina, Erickson, and other prominent figures involved in the case, none of whom have spoken previously to the media. “I didn’t know it became a crime to have good relations with Russia—now it’s a crime,” she told me earlier. “They hate me in Russia, because they think I’m an American spy. And here they think I’m a Russian spy.”

“If I’m a spy,” she added, “I’m the worst spy you could imagine.”

Butina was born on November 10, 1988, in the remote Siberian city of Barnaul. Part of the first post-Communism generation, she developed a passion for politics and international relations. In 2010, she graduated from Altai State University in Barnaul with master’s degrees in political science and education. After running unsuccessfully for a position in the local government, she opened a small chain of furniture stores. Hoping to expand her business, she moved to Moscow in August 2011, at the age of 22, but quickly realized that the commercial competition in the capital was too great for her to succeed. Instead, she turned back to political activism and the issue of gun rights.
 . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 February 2019 at 10:13 am

Grandma Goes to Jail in Illegal Voting Sweep

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The GOP is a party of bad faith. Kevin Drum notes:

We are finally bringing the scourge of illegal noncitizen voting under control:

A 66-year-old woman from North Carolina was sentenced to two months in prison this week for encouraging her boyfriend to vote and helping him fill out his voter registration form, even though he was not eligible.

….On the voter registration card she helped him fill out, they left a question about citizenship unanswered, the release said. Paige told investigators that she then submitted the form to the Board of Elections for processing. But later on in the process, another person erroneously checked the citizenship question “Yes,” so Espinosa-Pena was registered to vote, Higdon’s office says.

So the form was actually filled out correctly, but then someone working for the Board of Elections ticked “Yes” in the citizenship box? But grandma is going to jail for two months anyway?

And in case you’re wondering: Yes, this case was brought by a U.S. Attorney, Robert Higdon Jr., who was appointed by Donald Trump. It never went to trial because Higdon apparently made it plain that if Paige fought the charges she faced a potential sentence of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. We really have our priorities straight, don’t we?

Written by LeisureGuy

10 February 2019 at 7:55 am

Confidential Memo: Company of Trump Inaugural Chair Sought to Profit From Connections to Administration, Foreigners

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It’s starting to break.  Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Ilya Marritz, WNYC, report in ProPublica:

The investment firm founded by the chairman of Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, Tom Barrack, developed a plan to profit off its connections to the incoming administration and foreign dignitaries, according to a confidential memo obtained by WNYC and ProPublica.

“The key is to strategically cultivate domestic and international relations while avoiding any appearance of lobbying,” the memo says. Colony, which primarily invests in real estate, sought to capitalize on its access to the White House to get an early lead on infrastructure investments and to attract assets from potential investors.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan on Monday subpoenaed documents from the nonprofit 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee, including anything related to foreign donations. Such donations to presidential inaugural committees are barred by law. Investigators are probing whether foreigners gave money in exchange for influence with the incoming Trump administration, NBC News reported.

The memo, from Barrack’s investment firm, then called Colony NorthStar, is dated February 2017, just a month after the inaugural festivities organized by Barrack, who is a longtime Trump friend.

The Colony memo shows how the company was positioning itself to take advantage of Barrack’s relationship with Trump and foreign officials immediately after the president was sworn in. Barrack hosted a chairman’s dinner during inaugural week, with his own invite list, which included businesspeople and foreign dignitaries.

“‘Contact’ — ‘Cultivation’ — ‘Conversion’ should be the mantra and objective of Colony NorthStar’s international program in DC and internationally,” the memo said. No other firms “can currently match the relationships or resources that we possess,” it added.

The memo outlines a “strategic plan” for Colony, which now has $44 billion under management, to ramp up its operations in Washington and open an office there. It envisions “setting up roundtables between Ambassadors and members of the Administration to cultivate relationships” in areas including infrastructure and plans to “tie into international bilateral meetings already occurring with key members of the Trump Administration. This would include taking a leadership role in forming the events, the participants, and the agenda.”

Barrack’s company should do all this while keeping a low profile, seeking to build a “subtle brand,” the memo says.

A Colony spokesman said in a statement: “This memo was simply an outline of a proposed potential business plan which was never acted upon or implemented. Colony at no time has maintained a DC office.”

A person familiar with the creation of the memo said it was written by Rick Gates, who was deputy chairman of the inaugural committee and was then hired by Barrack as a Colony consultant. The memo is on Colony letterhead. Gates, who was fired by Colony after he was indicted in Robert Mueller’s Russian interference investigation in October 2017, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Gates has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and he is cooperating with law enforcement.

While Colony says . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2019 at 6:10 pm

Other lies: Time and time again, hyped claims of rampant illegal voting turn out to be untrue

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Phillip Bump writes in the Washington Post:

It took just over a day for an announcement from the office of the Texas secretary of state hinting that thousands of noncitizens might have voted to make it into President Trump’s Twitter feed.

“58,000 non-citizens voted in Texas, with 95,000 non-citizens registered to vote,” Trump wrote, apparently lifting the data from an episode of “Fox & Friends.” “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped. Strong voter ID!”

A bit later, he retweeted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who hyped the same numbers with an all-caps intro: “VOTER FRAUD ALERT.”

Paxton’s presentation of the argument was at least nuanced in a way that Trump’s wasn’t. He pointed out that the 95,000 noncitizens had been identified as such by the Department of Public Safety. In fact, as the world quickly learned, it was even less firm than that.

The name matches were weak (as the notice to counties indicated in an all-caps warning of its own), and in short order the state and individual counties started clearing names from the list as people’s statuses were confirmed. As our fact-checkers noted, it’s also more than possible that people on the list obtained citizenship since the time they first presented documentation to the state about their status. In 2016, more than 110,000 people in Texas were granted citizenship. Over the decade from 2007 to 2016, nearly a million people became citizens in the state.

This wasn’t a mystery at the time of Trump’s tweet. The Texas Tribune had already written an entire thread on Twitter urging caution after the state’s initial announcement.

“You might be seeing headlines or tweets tonight that claim Texas says 58,000 non-citizens have voted in Texas,” the paper wrote on Jan. 25. “That is not true. That is not what the state has said.” Two days later, watching “Fox & Friends,” that’s what the president tweeted anyway.

Trump and the Tribune are not in the same business. The latter is interested in sharing accurate information about what’s happening in Texas; the former is interested in sharing information, regardless of provenance, that advances his political goals. Often, during his time in politics, that has meant hyping misunderstood, misrepresented or completely untrue claims about voter fraud. Most infamously, Trump championed an apparently entirely fabricated claim of millions of fraudulent votes cast in the 2016 election with zero evidence — his goal being to cast doubt on the popular vote margin that year, in which he placed second. (That, too, is why he isolated California as being another example of alleged fraud: Hillary Clinton’s wide margin of victory there alone gave her more total votes than Trump.)

By now, Americans should be conditioned to applying a wait-and-see approach to claims of rampant in-person voter fraud. Beyond the fact that such claims have been repeatedly investigated without turning up examples of significant fraud, there have been repeated announcements from authority figures (generally agencies led by Republicans) about thousands of questionable votes or voters — assertions that, in short order, fritter away into dust.

There was a similar push in Florida a few years ago, which gained newfound attention with the state’s contested Senate and gubernatorial races last year. Initial news reports suggested that perhaps 200,000 voters in the state might not be citizens; the actual number was 207, one one-thousandth of that number. There, too, an initial list was quickly whittled down to 1 percent of its initial size, and further investigation determined that only a tenth of that group were ineligible.

A lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania last year claimed that perhaps as many as 100,000 voters in that state were noncitizens ineligible to vote. The state determined that there was actually a pool of only about 11,200 voters about whom there might be questions, a group then narrowed further to about 8,700 before being sent to counties for evaluation. Results of those evaluations do not appear to have been finalized.

Trump’s narrow loss in New Hampshire in 2016 prompted him to claim that voter fraud had blocked his victory, a claim seemingly bolstered when the state discovered more than 6,000 voters who’d registered with out-of-state driver’s licenses. An investigation found that only 66 of those individuals (many of whom were believed to be college students) didn’t have their identities verified — and only four people were found to have voted illegally, mostly out of confusion about where to vote.

Last year, Georgia’s then-secretary of state, Brian Kemp, flagged 53,000 voter registrations that failed the state’s strict “exact match” verification system. Kemp at the time was facing off against Democrat Stacey Abrams for governor. That system was thrown out by a judge shortly before the election. Four years earlier, Kemp had flagged for additional scrutiny 85,000 applications submitted by a voter-registration organization founded by Abrams. Of that total, about 50 were identified as fraudulent.

The most recognizable advocate for cracking down on voter registrations was Kansas’s former secretary of state, Kris Kobach. At one point, he claimed that changes to registration laws that he had championed might have prevented as many as 18,000 people from voting illegally — though after a fervent effort on his part to uproot illegal voting during his tenure, his office could document only 127 ineligible individuals who voted or tried to vote. By the end of 2017, he had obtained nine convictions for voting illegally. One of those convicted was a noncitizen.

Kobach also ran for governor last year but, unlike Kemp, was unsuccessful. In the wake of his departure from the capitol, the state appears to be winding down his more aggressive anti-fraud efforts.

It’s the specter of rampant voter fraud that is important from a political perspective. Much of the national political debate is centered on unseen and uncountable threats: fraudulent voters, people being smuggled across the border with Mexico for human trafficking, terrorists swarming into the United States. It seems, at first glance, possible that thousands of people might have voted illegally in Texas, especially for those inclined to take Trump’s warnings about fraud at face value.

Time and again, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 February 2019 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Election, GOP, Government

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