I’ve been advised by a follower of these notes that the page citations appearing in today’s post as initially published (which are to the Mueller Report’s actual page numbers) don’t necessarily align with the page numbers appearing in electronic versions of the Report. To provide better guideposts, I’ve edited today’s entry, adding references to pertinent section titles.
Having now read Volume I of the Mueller Report (there will be a brief comment on Volume II in Part II of this note), I would most strongly urge every American to read pages 14 (page citations are those of the actual Report, with pertinent text beginning with, “II Russian ‘Active Measures’ Social Media Campaign”) through 51 (ending at, “D. Trump Campaign and the Dissemination of Hacked Materials”). In these sections, the Report’s references to the Trump Campaign are mostly tangential. I would submit that Republicans are so busy defending the President and the Democrats so intent on savaging him that they are paying too little heed to what I consider the main import of the Report, best captured in those 37 pages: the Russians’ comprehensive and sophisticated activities to undermine our system of government. These early sections set forth in detail – in a form not dissimilar to a spy novel, but terrifying because what is related is real – what former Vice President Dick Cheney declared in March, 2017, “[Would] in some quarters … be considered an act of war.”
A bit of the content follows; its weight is best absorbed from these Report pages themselves. These first sections describe how the Russians set up two different organizations whose mission was to disrupt our electoral processes. The first, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, LLC (the “IRA”), was tasked with social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences “with the goal of sowing discord in the U. S. political system.” The IRA’s efforts ultimately resulted in the formation of social media presences (with specialists focusing on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) and of operational divisions dedicated to areas such as social presences, analytics, graphics, and IT. The IRA reached as many as 126 million persons through its Facebook accounts. Acting through fake U.S. identities, it also recruited unknowing U.S. citizens to post social media entries and to host dozens of political rallies furthering its aims. Like a direct response business, the IRA monitored which of its presences and unwitting recruits were most effective.
Russia tasked the second organization, its Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (the “GRU”), to conduct cyber hacking and information dumping operations. The GRU carried out computer intrusions into the Clinton Campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Report states that one GRU department developed specialized malware while another “conducted large-scale spearphishing campaigns.” It further indicates, to me the most ominously, that one GRU unit “… hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections [my emphasis].” The GRU released the material it stole through two fictitious online personas it created (DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0), and later through WikiLeaks to undermine then-Candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Although it is hard after reading these Mueller Report sections not to wonder whether the Russians’ efforts against Sec. Clinton were sufficient to affect the outcomes of the close 2016 races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, I would suggest that at this point … it doesn’t matter. What matters is what we do now. The Republicans are so focused on defending Mr. Trump’s election that they appear to have completely lost sight of a point FL Sen. Marco Rubio made soon after the extent of Russian interference in our election had become apparent: next time, the Russians could target a Republican. I would pose this to my Republican friends: if Mr. Trump dropped out of the race tomorrow (say, for sudden health reasons) and Mitt Romney – who, presciently, called Russia our “Number One Geopolitical Foe” during the 2012 campaign – was running for President in 2020 against almost anyone in the Democratic field, upon which candidate do you think the Russians would aim their assault?
It seems likely that during his youth in Russia, Mr. Putin learned how to split wood. One quickly learns when splitting wood that it is best to let the sawn segments of the felled tree cure – dry out – for a year before attempting to split them; but even then, to split successfully, after the log is placed on the chopping block, the splitter must accurately aim the maul at the log’s seams that resulted from its curing. If the splitter misses the seam, nothing happens; the log sits there in defiance. If s/he hits the seam, the log splits. I would suggest that lacking an existential enemy since the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1989, we as a people have been curing – quarreling among ourselves, our bonds weakening in partisan rancor – due to a growing divergence of interest, culture, and financial means. Mr. Putin and his agents have identified our fissures and, using technology and the Russian espionage apparatus as their splitting maul, have and will again strike at our seams … to split us apart. Hopefully, we retain the sense and courage to defend ourselves.
In an effort to keep these posts to at least a somewhat manageable length, what remains of this note will appear in Part II.
Since the last post, I’ve seen references to a recent Fox News poll indicating that former Vice President Joe Biden currently holds a commanding lead over President Trump (49% – 38%) among all voters, while the President has a consistent 41% level of support against all of the other currently-foremost Democratic presidential candidates (whom the poll reflects as leading or trailing the President by varying degrees). While I consider both national polls and polls taken this far from the election to be meaningless, I confess that I find one aspect of these results suggestive: the 3% reduction in the President’s support if Mr. Biden is the Democratic nominee. If in a general election, Mr. Biden is able to peel away 3% of the President’s support – at a guess, in union households – that could arguably be the measure of victory in states with continuing union strength — such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
A second, unrelated thought: although Mr. Trump apparently fails to recognize it, we pay our Presidents to think ahead. If Mr. Biden is as suited to the presidency as I think he is, I would expect that without any written documentation that could be leaked or hacked, he has already verbally asked his few most trusted aides to start considering whom he should pick as his running mate if he wins the nomination. While it is way too early for any but the vaguest impressions — and the Democratic candidates’ respective debate performances and ultimate primary vote totals could understandably have a significant impact upon the decision — my current reaction would be that the running mate should (1) come from or be expected to have a positive impact on the voters of one or more swing states and/or (2) be in a pivotal demographic group where Mr. Biden finds he has relatively less support. Today, top prospects might be: MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, if Mr. Biden felt he needed help in securing the Midwest; South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg or former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke (depending upon which had fared better during the primary season) to energize young voters; or former U.S. HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who might bolster the ticket’s Hispanic support, perhaps tip Arizona, and make the President divert time and resources to hold Texas. (I admit that the only one of these that I’m now confident is prepared for the presidency is Ms. Klobuchar, but I haven’t done a thorough review of Mr. Castro.)
What will presumably be a critical backdrop to the selection is the way that it is accepted within the party; given Mr. Biden’s age, whomever Mr. Biden picks will seemingly immediately be the frontrunner for the Democrats’ 2024 nomination if he wins.
Enough. Although political handicapping is addictive, these pages are overdue for a note on a substantive policy issue …
At what I think is the current count, the field of Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 Presidential nomination now exceeds 20. We are all exhausted. As those that are interested are already aware, a minority of the declared candidates are seemingly starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack by dint of campaign contributions and relatively more favorable poll numbers; some may, realistically, be running for the party’s Vice Presidential nomination; some may be running for President in 2024 or 2028; many are apparently running because their egos, spouses or mothers have told them that they’d make a good President.
I would offer that one stands apart from the rest: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Several months ago, I listed the measures I consider most germane to assessing a candidate’s strength and suitability for the presidency: the requisite knowledge and experience; the ability to look strong on the stage against the President; not an “identity” candidate; not a shiny new toy; not an overtly progressive candidate; likeability; and possessed of credible plans to address the needs of a large segment of our economically desperate people. In reviewing them, one might surmise that I had Mr. Biden in mind when I developed them. I didn’t, specifically; but he best fits them.
First, as to substance. I would suggest that among the announced candidates (for these purposes, including President Trump), Mr. Biden is the only one unquestionably qualified to conduct the presidency. He has a deep knowledge of both domestic and foreign policy. He has the standing to assure our allies, give our adversaries pause, and reinfuse some vigor to the world’s liberal democratic order. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t fully embraced progressive positions such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and Free Public College; as such, I would submit that his sentiments are more in tune with the preferences of the majority of our people than those of the zealots on either the left or right. He is obviously conversant with the levers of power in Congress, and he would seem to be as adept as any candidate will be in achieving progress in our hyper-partisan environment. He is likeable and upbeat, and Americans have consistently shown themselves willing to follow a President that casts a sunny vision.
From a handicapping standpoint, Mr. Biden has the gravitas to hold the stage against the President; facing the President, his advanced age won’t be a drawback; he has a sufficiently-established public identity that Mr. Trump and his cohort won’t be able to define him; he maintains a broad reservoir of good feeling among a wide swath of our people combined with a low antipathy quotient – i.e., few of our people actively dislike him; he has appeal amongst Mr. Trump’s working class constituency; and he’s not an identity candidate, but will undoubtedly receive the full support of identity-focused Democrats in a race against Mr. Trump. If, as I have put forth in other posts, the 2020 candidate that wins Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin will win the presidency, Mr. Biden – from Scranton, PA, and a former Delaware Senator, will almost certainly claim Pennsylvania, has deep long-standing union support that will help him in Michigan, and is the kind of decent, centrist candidate with whom (speaking as a Wisconsinite) Wisconsin citizens are comfortable. At the same time, he is obviously the antithesis of the shiny new toy, and he and his long record are susceptible to attack under progressive shibboleths such as crime (too harsh), Iraq (supported the invasion), the environment (not idealistic enough; too practical) and his propensity to “invade” others’ personal space.
In a note a while back, I indicated my strong affinity for the candidacy of MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and on the merits, I still see much to recommend her. That said: she is currently polling under 2% nationally and, most chilling for her prospects, at 3.3% in her neighbor state of Iowa, where I believe she must do very well to have a realistic chance at the nomination. In a bit of a lament, I would suggest that unless she rallies significantly in the next 7 months, she’ll be done by March 1.
As the race has shaped up, I’ve been a bit surprised that some of our more avidly progressive friends, while having great aspirations for our nation and the world, appear unaware that some of their positions are as far from mainstream American sentiment – the sentiment that generally elects Presidents — as are the views of our staunchly conservative friends that abhor business regulation, oppose all abortion on moral grounds, and favor a largely unfettered right to assault weapons on constitutional principle. If the Democratic Party nominates a candidate generally perceived as being too far to the left, progressives need to recognize that a certain number of centrists may well choose to retain Mr. Trump.
In a passage I’ve recorded once before in these pages [and pledge to try to restrain myself from repeating too many times in the coming months :)], David Halberstam wrote this in The Best and The Brightest about then-MA Sen. John F. Kennedy’s assessment of his chances for winning the Democratic Party nomination in 1960:
“[The liberal intellectual wing of the party was] not only dubious of [Kennedy] but staunchly loyal to Adlai Stevenson after those two gallant and exhilarating defeats. That very exhilaration had left the Kennedys, particularly Robert Kennedy, with a vague suspicion that liberals would rather lose gallantly than win pragmatically ….”
Hopefully, the majority of Democrats will keep in mind that this election, and our world’s situation, are too important to indulge in ideological fratricide that could result in the President’s reelection. For reasons of substance and politics – and subject to a seemingly unlikely campaign resurrection by Sen. Klobuchar — I’m for Joe …
Set forth below is a link to an article forwarded to me not long ago by a very close friend: “The Catastrophic Performance of Bill Barr,” by Benjamin Wittes, the Editor of Lawfare, published in The Atlantic on May 2. Mr. Wittes describes more eloquently than I did [and surprisingly, given the length of this site’s posts, at greater length than I did 😉 ] a number of concerns related to Mr. Barr’s handling of and public statements regarding the Mueller Report.
To pose the title of this post is to answer the question: Polls mean very little. If nothing else, President Trump’s victory in 2016 proved that even on the eve of Election Day, they are of limited value, and this far removed from Election Day, they simply provide fodder for talking heads – liberal or conservative, depending upon whose cause seems positively reflected in them. That said, I am a bit nettled to hear pundits starting to talk about Mr. Trump’s poor standing in the national polls. Under our Electoral College system, any polls that include the preferences of the citizens of about 35 of our states are irrelevant. The sentiments of the respective majorities of those states’ citizens are so firmly cast that it seems clear which Presidential candidate will receive those states’ Electoral College votes — whether the election is held next week or in November, 2020. Put another way: while indications of the President’s national unpopularity might provide an emotional salve to Democratic stalwarts, polls that capture Californians’ or New Yorkers’ intentions are pretty much a waste of time. Not only did Sec. Clinton lead in the national polling to Election Day, 2016, she … won the popular total. Didn’t do her a lot of good.
Although the relative current merits of the Electoral College in our federal system is worth and will likely receive a decent amount of discussion in the upcoming campaign, for the 2020 presidential election, the system remains what we’ve traditionally had. Without need of a lot of research, I found different pieces that collectively identified the following 14 states that arguably either the President or the Democratic nominee could win in 2020 (followed by their Electoral College total and who won them in 2016): AZ (11; DJT); CO (9; HRC); FL (29; DJT); GA (16; DJT); IA (6; DJT); MI (16; DJT); MN (10; HRC); NC (15; DJT); NH (4; HRC); NV (6; HRC); OH (18; DJT); PA (20; DJT); VA (13; HRC); and WI (10; DJT).
The candidates’ relative support in these states may be worth watching as the election draws closer. Below is a link to a Morning Consult website that sets forth Mr. Trump’s relative popularity throughout his presidency on a state by state basis. While polling results describing Mr. Trump’s standing seemingly have limited value until the Democrats settle on a candidate, this website’s findings (there are undoubtedly others that report similar statewide polling data) indicate that in March, 2019, the President was viewed more unfavorably than favorably in all of the listed states, except one – Georgia. In Michigan and Wisconsin, states that, along with Pennsylvania, put him over the top in the Electoral College, his unfavorable rating exceeds 10 points. Of the states won by Ms. Clinton, his unfavorable rating is 10 points or greater in all but Virginia (a worthy prize of 13 Electoral College votes, enough to offset a potential Wisconsin loss), where his unfavorable rating is but 4 points and he might reasonably surmise that Ms. Clinton’s 2016 victory was attributable to her running mate, VA Sen. Tim Kaine.
For those that enjoy watching poll numbers despite recognizing their limited value, a potential bookmark ;).
As part of a note posted February 7, 2019, addressing the Senate’s confirmation process for then- Attorney General Nominee William Barr, I stated:
“Partisans on both sides are currently all too-ready to impute ulterior motives to those with whom they disagree. If solid evidence that senior members of the Trump Campaign illegally colluded with Russia is presented to Mr. Barr by a universally-respected investigator, I suggest that one need assume either that he will bring the information to the Congress, or that he is a partisan – indeed, traitorous – blackguard. I am willing to believe, unless and until I have evidence to the contrary, that Mr. Barr will do what is necessary to protect the United States while conducting his duty.”
While my caution regarding Mr. Barr specifically related to the prospect of his being presented with evidence of “illegal collusion” – technically, criminal conspiracy – for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team finally found insufficient basis to bring charges against Trump Campaign Principals, and the Attorney General has ultimately made the majority of the Special Counsel’s Report public, it has nonetheless now become obvious through both the contents of the Report itself and the letters sent to the Attorney General by the Special Counsel following Mr. Barr’s issuance of his Summary of the Special Counsel’s Report that for a period of weeks, Mr. Barr misleadingly characterized the overall thrust of the Special Counsel’s Report and unnecessarily delayed in releasing sections of the Report which would have made its tenor plain.
A link to Mr. Mueller’s March 27, 2019, letter to Mr. Barr is set forth below. A bit over one page in length, it is worth reading in its entirety. You will find that Mr. Mueller indicated to Mr. Barr, a scant three days after Mr. Barr issued his Summary of the Report’s findings: “[Mr. Barr’s] summary … did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine … full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations. [My emphasis].”
It is sadly clear that my belief in Mr. Barr was … undeserved.