IANAL but I’m reading the Mueller Report: Part 1, Active Measures

I am a layperson trying to make sense of the Mueller Report. Read along with me!
Part 1: Active Measures.

In this post I read Volume 1, Section II, which deals with the Russian Active Measures social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 election.

The entire report is here. Read along with me as I call out interesting details.

Both Watergate and the Trump-Russia scandal—some call it Stupid Watergate—started with a purloining of Democratic materials. This investigation started in mid-2016 when the DNC announced that “Russian hackers had compromised its computer network.”

With Trump’s daily cries of “Witch Hunt” and “No Collusion”, we often forget that this particular break-in to the Democratic networks was Mueller’s main focus, not to “get” Trump. The break-in investigation widened into an understanding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election in “sweeping and systematic fashion” in order to help Donald Trump’s campaign and hurt Hillary Clinton’s. When an Australian diplomat informed the FBI that George Papadopoulous knew ahead of time that the Russians would be anonymously releasing documents to hurt the Clinton Campaign, the investigation grew to include any ties that the Trump campaign might have had with Russia.

Mueller divided up his investigation into the following parts: Russia’s social media campaign; their hacks into various Democratic/Clinton campaign networks; the dumping of those stolen emails; and the multiple arms of outreach to Trump associates.

Executive Summary to Volume I:

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After two years of “collusion” talk, Mueller reveals that he was not looking into “collusion” at all, because that is not a legal term. He was concerned with criminal conspiracy.

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A note on the topics that are consistently redacted: we know that Roger Stone’s trial is coming up in November 2019 and his name is always blacked out as “Harm to Ongoing Matter” (henceforth HOM). In this para, he is the one known to have informed others in the campaign that Wikileaks would be dropping docs in the future.
Another topic redacted for HOM relates to Trump’s public call to Russia: “Russia, if you’re listening…” in July 2016.
What could be ongoing on that front?

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I’m struck by how much the free press has interleaved with and even helped this investigation. If not for public reporting on the Intelligence Community conclusion that Russia was behind the DNC hacks, the Australian diplomat who Papadopoulous drunkenly confessed to that he knew the Russians had stolen emails would not have gone to the FBI. This tip from the Australian diplomat is how the entire investigation started.

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Although Mueller says he didn’t concern himself with “collusion”, if we are to use the common parlance, here we certainly have an instance of collusion. For months, campaign chairman Manafort had been sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik, an ex-GRU operative who the FBI considers to still be a GRU agent. Meanwhile Kilimnik discussed a plan for Russia to annex Eastern Ukraine, using the euphemism “peace plan”. So can we say…YES COLLUSION??!

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The famous Seychelles meeting between Erik Prince (Trump associate) and Kirill Dmitriev (Russian businessman authorized to speak for Putin) is not the sort of thing that is inherently illegal. Why then did they lie and lie about it? Including to Congress? Mueller does not address that mystery here.

We always suspected that the choice of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was looked upon favorably by Putin. Here, we see the upshot: a Kushner friend, not in any official capacity on the Campaign, was used as a backchannel to deliver a plan from Putin to Tillerson.

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Although Mueller indicted Concord Management, Internet Research Agency, and others for their social media campaign back in 2018, it appears that there are still ongoing investigations in this area. The HOM redactions are perhaps justified because the Concord Management trial is ongoing. But it is curious to see a Personal Privacy redaction. It must be an American whose privacy is being protected, but we have no clue who that might be.

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A clear summation of the particular crimes Mueller was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

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Mueller throws cold water on some of the theories that catapulted Seth Abramson into a Twitter rock star. The Mayflower meeting, the Sessions-Kisliyak chat, the RNC platform change. It’s as though Mueller was reading Seth’s feed and made a mental note to challenge it all in one para.

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This is might be the most disappointing paragraph in the entire report. It is Mueller saying the investigation was thwarted in various ways: by lies, people deleting texts/emails, using encryption, pleading the 5th, etc. Is it that easy to get away with crimes involving national security?

Mueller also hints that further investigation is warranted. (Is it perhaps ongoing in other offices?) Why did Mueller feel the need to shut down his investigation when he did, so soon after Barr got appointed AG—leaving all these loose ends? Why did he not run these leads to earth? Other SCO investigations have gone on for 5,6 years.

I wonder if he was shut down. I wonder if we will ever know.

I. The Special Counsel’s Investigation

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Mueller’s investigation resulted in some counterintelligence info that went to FBI and is not included in this report. This report is centered around prosecutions they chose to take on or decline to take on.

II. Russian “Active Measures” Social Media Campaign

Sections A-C: Internet Research Agency

We are not permitted to know very much at all about the Internet Research Agency. It is heavily redacted as HOM. For instance, all we are allowed to know about the internal structure is of the company is: it grew, and thus had to be reorganized:

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All three sections are replete with entire blacked out sections. And yet, the basic narrative is clear.

I’ll never cease to find it amazing that there was an entire company, occupying an entire building, whose job it was to impersonate and spoof regular people in a country half a world away. It’s like the world’s worst episode of Impractical Jokers. On the way, they created Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and Tumblr accounts, with fake names like “Jess Abrams” and “Pamela Moore”, fake bios, fake hot-and-heavy fandom of Donald Trump, fake activism, and a fake rage against Hillary Clinton.

Starting in 2014, the Internet Research Agency, funded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin (often known as Putin’s chef), started a campaign of Active Measures, which is a sort of information warfare, to sow discord in the US. By early 2016 their thrust was to support Donald Trump and disparage other candidates, particularly Clinton.

They tried to inflame every divisive issue they could discern: the Black Lives Matter movement on both sides, the Confederacy, the anger of the Bernie supporters against Clinton and the DNC, anti-immigrant fervor, and so on.

Their social media accounts reached millions of unsuspecting people in the US and found engagement with prominent Trump supporters: for example, their fake Twitter account pretending to be the Tennessee GOP (@TEN_GOP) was often retweeted by the Trump’s large adult sons, Hannity, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn Jr. They used their social media following to organize rallies in the US. Occasionally the IRA sent employees to the US on intelligence gathering missions, using fraudulent reasons for their visas.

Mueller indicted the IRA, Prigozhin, his firm Concord Management, and others, in February 2018; however, Concord Management is still fighting it in court. That might explain why so much text regarding the IRA is redacted. For all we know IRA’s activities continue in the present day; so it also must be the case that this is an active area for FBI’s counterintelligence work.

What we can learn despite the redactions, however, is bad enough.

Follow me at @TheOddPantry.

(Featured image source: Tom Williams—Newscom via ZUMA Press)

Howard Schultz: this is your brain on platitudes

Schultz has shown himself to be militantly banal and uninterested in these details

Howard Schultz on Velshi and Ruhle | MSNBC | 4/5/2019

I’ve sat through speeches by CEOs with my brain melting from the unceasing assault of platitudes. We all have. The future looks bright, every graph is rising, every employee is dedicated, every manager is a leader, we have one mission and our ideas will shake up the business.

What I didn’t know is that apparently some CEOs get drunk on applause and come to believe their nonsense.

Many people noticed the Ali Velshi/Stephanie Ruhle interview with Starbucks founder and currently unaligned Presidential candidate for 2020, Howard Schultz. It was trenchant.

Schultz is in a quest to gain his rightful position as the Leader of us all. Only he can fix it, his brain tells him. Only he has the Venti-sized leadership needed to knock a few partisan heads together and get them to be fiscally responsible. Passing fiscally conscious legislation is a matter of leadership, nothing more. Since we have rising income inequality, and since the government is run by Democrats and Republicans, it must mean by definition that it is the Democrats and Republicans who have kept Leaders such as himself from emerging.

Now this is some banal bullshit. Velshi and Ruhle weren’t having it. Velshi politely noted that his theory of the case, such as it is, is clearly inadequate when you consider that income inequality is a problem in many countries around the world where Democrats and Republicans do not exist.

Velshi is correct and this was an obvious counterpoint. But I want you to note the utter surprise in Schultz’s face when his platitudes don’t take. Start watching at around 5:30 minutes in.

“How can you disagree with that!” he says, dumbfounded, at minute 6:20 in the video. They’re platitudes, after all! No one can disagree with them and they ruffle no feathers and everyone claps!

In fact Schultz appears to be under the common misconception known as the Green Lantern theory of the Presidency. A term coined by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, it describes the fallacy that blames all legislative failures in government on the President’s lack of will. It admits to no other constraints, even though legislation is passed by Congress, and each member of Congress might have a mix of good and bad motivations on whether to cast a particular vote—and no amount of Presidential will is going to override their self-interest.

It goes on from there. At minute 7:30, he slings another platitude at Velshi and Ruhle expecting to instantly win the point. It’s a platitude, after all. Tried and tested in thousands of town halls and politicians’ speeches.

“Let me ask you this,” he says, “should we be spending more than we’re taking in?”

“It’s complicated,” Velshi says (I’m paraphrasing), to Schultz’s consternation.

But of course it is complicated! You would know that with a moment’s thought. Even in the smaller scale of a household, you decide if it is a time for big outlay, a remodel, a house purchase, etc.—when you take on debt deliberately, as long as you can borrow money cheaply. But in a national economy, sometimes deficit spending makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, just as Velshi attempted to explain. Soundbites don’t make good policy.

Schultz is running for President on the strength of his accomplishments in business, which is supposed to mean that you understand the boring stuff. The nitty-gritty, the mechanics and the arithmetic, the incentives of the various players, their points-of-view, the whole boring clockwork that makes things happen. But Schultz has shown himself to be militantly banal and uninterested in these details.

This is worrying because he is so trapped in his airborne point-of-view, concerned with selling the cloudy ‘leadership’ he is going to bring, that he seems not to have understood that if he runs, he is almost guaranteed—arithmetically guaranteed, as Brian Beutler explains—to play the role of a spoiler and ensure the victory of Donald Trump, who he decries.

But arithmetic and logic are boring. Why focus on them when you have speeches to give, applause to gain?

Should the filibuster die?

Do the arguments against killing the filibuster hold up?


Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the National Action Network convention in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Last week Elizabeth Warren threw down the gauntlet by arguing for killing the Senate filibuster as the only means of accomplishing the agenda that 2020 Democrats have set out for themselves. Without it, given that any decent-sized legislation needs 60 votes to pass, and accepting the impossibility of getting even one or two Republican votes, any progressive agenda is dead in the water.

So the argument in favor of nuking the filibuster is clear and obvious. As Harry Reid said back in 2013 when he invoked the nuclear option to kill the filibuster for most nominees, the Senate must evolve beyond Parliamentary roadblocks.

But generally, the idea of losing the security blanket of 60 votes is not pleasant for the times when one’s party is in the minority; so it isn’t surprising that this idea has not caught on. Senators as diverse as Corey Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand have shown reluctance to go there, without really admitting that this makes most of their plans moot. But I understand. The possibility of terrible Republican legislation has most of us in a defensive crouch.

So rather than make the positive case in favor of dropping the filibuster, I want to examine the main arguments in favor of keeping it, to see if they hold up. Will the end of the filibuster bring about apocalypse, or be the means of un-jamming a jammed up government?

Argument #1: Bipartisanship.

This argument states that with the 60-vote threshold, anything that passes the Senate would have to be bipartisan, and thus have more legitimacy. And that the filibuster forces Senators from both parties to work together, and thus the legislation they craft is acceptable to both sides.

This is true, of course. However, the only premise that makes this work is that both parties are working in good faith, wrestling over legislation that best represents their states, and saying yea or nay based on the interests of their voters.

The argument quickly falls apart when you look at how the filibuster has actually been weaponized since the Obama Presidency. Rather than wrestling over policies, they wrestled over ‘wins’—which meant, in effect, that even bills that had strong bipartisan support were blocked because it would mean a win for the other side. As Norm Ornstein tells it, during the Obama presidency Republicans began filibustering even uncontroversial legislation, that had in some cases been crafted by Senators from both parties, just in order to avoid passing something that might look like a win for Obama.

While it remains the media’s habit to construe any legislation as a win or loss for the President, regardless of the Congressional work that went into it, and while the country remains as polarized as it is today, it is hard to see the Senate returning to norms and saving the filibuster only for particularly objectionable bills.

Argument #2: Keeping the filibuster AVOIDS VOLATILITY

If 51 votes in the Senate are enough to pass bills, this argument goes, then you would see legislation reversing every few years as each party gains control of the Senate has their way; causing volatility in the system and not permitting laws to settle in. This objection imagines legislation that is passed on an entirely partisan basis, such as the Affordable Care Act; the constant back-and-forth would not allow the industry to acclimatize.

But that’s not strictly true: a party would need not just the Senate, but also a majority in the House and the Presidency. This is a higher bar than merely having a majority in the Senate. That kind of a hat trick does not happen often, though once in a while, it does. So it would not be as volatile as it first appears.

Besides which, it isn’t just the having of a majority that determines whether a party is able to pass partisan legislation: any reasonably popular law develops a constituency, and Senators are loath to take benefits away from their voters. There’s a reason why although Republicans fought against the ACA for 8 straight years, when they finally achieved a clean sweep of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency in 2017, they didn’t want to actually repeal it. The ACA had developed a base by then. Taking away benefits is hard. They had to come up with the fig-leaf of a replacement for the law, which was so poorly conceived that it could not pass the Senate.

Even the “skinny repeal”, as it was known, a bare-bones paring down of the individual mandate, could not get 51 votes in a Republican Senate; it would also have run into difficulties in a Republican House.

Maybe not be as volatile as it first appears.

Worse, the volatility that does exist today is asymmetrical—and so much more damaging. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass any reasonable complex progressive set of benefits. But because budgetary bills are exempt from the 60 vote threshold, defunding such a legislation takes only 51—a majority.

Consider also that a highly compromised, imperfect law such as the ACA—forced to be so, because it had to clear the threshold of pleasing 60 Senators rather than just 51, could not be easily repealed at the zenith of Republican sway over the government. But given a 51 vote threshold, the law might not have been such a compromise, and would have gained an even stronger constituency. For instance, it would have certainly included the public option: this part was ditched just in order to gain Joe Lieberman’s vote.

But stepping back, the 60-vote hurdle has given us a system that is ossified and cannot accomplish many of the goals of the voters who send Senators to DC. Perhaps a bit of volatility—where changes are actually made that Senators would be accountable for—might be a good thing.

ARGUMENT #3: PROTECTS US WHEN WE’RE IN THE MINORITY

Of all objections to dropping the filibuster, this one may be most truly a mirage. A scary one, no doubt. One imagines a Republican majority in the Senate able to defund Planned Parenthood or ban abortion or lower taxes for the wealthy.

But the fact is, the power to pass legislation with 51 votes has always been in the power of the majority. It just needs to be a two-step process—first remove the obstacle, the filibuster, by changing the rules around ending debate on a bill, and then pass the bill on a simple majority.

If they want a legislation badly enough and have a majority for it, Republicans will kill the filibuster in order to do it. Just last week Senate Majority Leader McConnell changed Senate rules to cut debate time from 20 hours to 2 in order to speed through Trump’s appointees. Republicans have shown they do not need the Democrats’ permission in order to break norms and rules.

The truth is, the 60-vote threshold is often used as a way for Senators to blame the other party for not passing bills that their base wants, but that they can’t even produce a simple majority for. This is why Senators of both parties have held on to the filibuster thus far—it is a heat shield for them, but it does not serve the public that wants their government to actually accomplish things.

If you count up all the red states in the country, you get to 21. Grant them two Republican Senators each, and you get to 42. That’s not enough to make a majority—even a simple one. By necessity then, aside from those, any other Republican Senators in office will be appealing to a purple or blue voting public. This is our real protection against hard-right, purely partisan legislation becoming law.

Argument #4: Killing the Filibuster Violates norms

Sure, this argument goes, McConnell and the Republicans might violate norms left and right, but does that mean we have to stoop to their level?

No—the answer is No. We do not. And by removing the obstructive tactic of the filibuster, we would not be breaking norms. We would merely be returning to norms broken by Republicans in recent decades; we would be defusing a weapon that had lain fallow since the early nineteenth century, picked up and used in earnest by the McConnell Senate since the Obama years.

We would be returning to the norm of a mostly majoritarian Senate envisioned by the Founders. From the Wikipedia article, the filibuster has been available as an option to obstruct legislation by the majority since 1806. However, it was rarely used except to block legislation that was particularly noxious to the minority. Making it so de rigueur that by now, one just assumes that most legislation needs 60 votes to pass, is the real broken norm; and it was broken by McConnell.

Besides which, the word “norm” usually means a desirable social contract that is maintained, not by rules and laws, but rather by voluntary compliance. However, the filibuster is no such thing. As Sarah Binder explains, the filibuster was the result of an accidental rule change in the Senate, not planned into being by the Founders, nor by the people who made the rule change; and in fact, not even really understood until decades after.

Argument #5: The Real Problem is something else

Strangely, whenever the topic of killing the filibuster as a means to make our government functional comes up, I hear people arguing against this by claiming that it’s not the filibuster, the real problem is something else. That something else might be the electoral college, or corporatist Democrats, or money in politics, or Senate apportionment, something else entirely.

But I don’t understand the structure of this argument; in fact I think it is illogical. We do not have just one “real” problem. The presence or absence of one real problem does not have any bearing on the presence or absence of another.

In fact, usually, the filibuster is implicated in even trying to solve your favorite problem, no matter what it might be. If, for instance, you think that merely bringing about campaign finance reform would solve our problems without needing to touch the filibuster—well, good luck getting to 60 votes in order to accomplish that. Most of the time, it is a Catch-22 where none of one’s favorite problems can be solved without first getting rid of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

Ultimately, I think this is an emotional argument. One doesn’t want to spend emotional energy on solving a process problem, pragmatic though that might be. One wants to throw down thunderbolts against the evil money-lords that have wrecked our system, and see them go down to an ignominious end; tweaking a cloture rule is hardly the stuff of novels.

However, I think it just might work.