May 24

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Former CIA Director Tells House that Russia May Have Recruited Trump Campaign Aides

John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, testified before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday and said this:

I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals. And it raised questions in my mind again whether or not the Russians were able to gain cooperation of those individuals.

When a former CIA director says he has specific information about Russia trying to recruit people associated with the Trump campaign, it is hard to believe President Donald Trump's assertion that the whole "Russia thing" is just a "witch hunt." Brennan went on to say that the possibility of coordination between the Trump campaign is real and needs investigation. (V)

Did Russia Buy Ads on Facebook during the Election?

As if there weren't enough suggestions of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Ellen Weintraub, a member of the Federal Election Commission, is now asking the full commission to investigate whether Russian agents paid for Facebook ads to spread stories about Hillary Clinton with the intention of damaging her. The FEC is charged with monitoring and enforcing the Federal Election Campaign Act. Among many other things, it forbids foreign persons and entities from spending money to influence U.S. elections. If Russian agents bought Facebook ads to help Donald Trump, that would be a clear violation of U.S. law.

Weintraub didn't just dream up the idea of Russian ads all by herself. Last week, Time Magazine published a long article on Russia's social media campaign on Trump's behalf. The article revealed that U.S. intelligence officials have evidence that Russian agents did buy ads on Facebook with election-themed stories. If this lead produces anything, it will show that the Russian meddling was far more comprehensive than merely hacking and publishing the DNC and John Podesta emails. (V)

Trump Administration May Have Spilled the Beans Again

On Monday night, a terrorist detonated a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, but authorities are unpersuaded they are telling the truth.

President Trump, as he is wont to do in these situations, responded forcefully, lamenting, "So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life." The use of the term "losers" has raised some eyebrows, given that it's a Trump catchall that he has also used to describe Rosie O'Donnell, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Hillary Clinton, and several journalists. Still, some voices on the right are praising the President's verbiage. Conservative British columnist Timothy Stanley, for example, wrote:

Today, I admire Donald Trump. His remarks made in the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester captured the mood in Britain perfectly. Terrorists are not soldiers, not even murderers—they are "losers." And this tragic event validates Trump's initiative of uniting the world against terrorism. Suddenly, he feels like a serious international leader.

If Trump ever gets around to calling terrorists "big, mean poopyheads," perhaps Stanley will be ready to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In any case, the "loser" remark may be genius, and it may be silly, but either way it's fairly innocuous. The same is not true of the mistake that the administration apparently made early on Tuesday. British authorities quickly identified the bomber, who was already known to MI-5, and moved to apprehend other members of his network. They shared this information with U.S. authorities, who promptly turned around and announced it to the public while British efforts were still underway. A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May was asked if the Trump Administration had said more than they should have, and he curtly responded that he, "would not comment on leaks." At this pace, nobody is going to tell the U.S. anything any more. (Z)

Trump Tax Plan Contains $2 Trillion Error

On July 22, 1962, the Mariner I was launched after years of planning and preparation. Its mission, in the midst of the space race, was to conduct a flyby of Venus. Mariner never made it, since it exploded five minutes after takeoff. The reason? A missing dash in the mathematical coding done by NASA. It's famously known as the "$80 million punctuation error."

That $80 million is equivalent to a bit more than $650 million today. Still, if any of those scientists are still with us, they can sleep a little better, because their mistake is a drop in the bucket compared to the accounting error in Donald Trump's budget. In brief, it assumes that the cost of the President's proposed tax cuts will be canceled out by increased tax revenues. At the same time, it also assumes that the economy will grow rapidly enough that the government will be able to afford $1.3 trillion in new spending thanks to all the new tax revenue it will collect. In other words, Trump is counting on the same exact money to offset the loss of tax income and to cover the cost of new expenditures. Even if we grant all of Trump's other assumptions (which is granting a lot), correcting for the accounting error means that the President's plan will blow a $2 trillion hole in the budget. In an editorial for the Washington Post, former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers was disdainful, describing the oversight as an "elementary double count" and "a logical error of the kind that would justify failing a student in an introductory economics course." When the issue was pointed out to current Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, he said, "This is a preliminary document that will be refined." Not exactly a response that does justice to the seriousness of the problem. (Z)

Does Trump Have Brain Disease?

The STAT Website has done an analysis of Donald Trump's speech patterns over the course of decades. He has been giving interviews as far back as the 1980s, so there is plenty of material look at. The conclusion is that Trump used to be an excellent and educated public speaker, even when answering tough questions from reporters. He spoke in polished paragraphs with complex sentences and a large vocabulary, basically the kind of speech one might expect from a graduate of an Ivy League college (the University of Pennsylvania, in his case).

That is not true any more. A study of his campaign speeches last year shows that he is speaking at a level just below 6th grade—much, much lower that he had been in the past. It is possible that he has consciously and intentionally changed his speaking style and vocabulary to appeal to voters with far less than a college education, but the STAT researchers offer an alternative theory: He is suffering from cognitive decline. This could be due to his age or to a neurodegenerative disease, but the decline from his previous speaking style is unmistakable and enormous. Thanks to Taegan Goddard of Political Wire for noticing this story. (V)

CBO Will Release Its Assessment of the AHCA This Afternoon

The Congressional Budget Office will release its analysis of the AHCA this afternoon. The bill has not been scored before, but an earlier version would have taken health insurance away from 24 million Americans while reducing the federal deficit by only $150 billion over 10 years. If the new bill scores as badly—or worse—Republicans who voted for it are going to be running for the hills, and Democrats will start running ads against the more vulnerable Republicans almost immediately. A poll shows that only 21% of Americans support the bill and a negative report from the CBO is only going to drive that number down even further.

The report will also have a huge impact on the Senate, which is drafting its own bill. If the AHCA takes healthcare insurance away from 24 million people or more, the Senate will be under enormous pressure to come up with a bill that doesn't take care away from so many people. The trouble with such a bill is that it may have great difficulty passing the House. What Republicans need to hope for is a report saying the AHCA doesn't affect the number of people covered very much. We will know later in the day if their hope is realized. (V)

The Midwest Shifted Sharply toward the Republicans in 2016

Yesterday, we had a map showing how every precinct in America voted in 2016. It was mostly red because Democrats are extremely concentrated in cities. As long as we are still analyzing the 2016 election, here is another map, from Richard Eskow, showing how counties shifted between 2012 and 2016. Since Donald Trump won states Barack Obama had won 4 years earlier, clearly there are counties that were more Republican in 2016 than in 2012. This map shows exactly where they are:

Map of counties that shifted

The dark red counties moved more than 20 points in the direction of the Republicans. Clearly from the map, they were almost all in the upper Midwest and Northeast. In principle, we knew that, because Trump won five states there (Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) that Obama won in 2012, but this map shows the effect clearly and visually. In the South the shifts were minor. In the West, Utah, Arizona, and California went the other way, but not as intensely. If Democrats have any plans to win the presidency in 2020, they are probably going to have to address the issue of the Midwest. (V)

At Fox News, No Matter How Much Things Change, They Stay the Same

Following the death of Fox News' founding father Roger Ailes, Bill Clinton's paramour Monica Lewinsky penned an editorial for the New York Times entitled "Roger Ailes's Dream Was My Nightmare." Her main point is that Fox took a fairly inconsequential story and ran with it, turning a molehill into a mountain without regard for the consequences or for the truth. She writes:

My character, my looks and my life were picked apart mercilessly. Truth and fiction mixed at random in the service of higher ratings...On Fox, it seemed, no rumor was too unsubstantiated, no innuendo too vile and no accusation too abhorrent.

This pattern has played out many times on the network since Lewinskygate unfolded nearly 20 years ago. And, as chance would have it, the cycle is playing out again as we speak. In this case, the subject is Sean Rich, a DNC employee who was murdered in 2016. All signs point to a botched robbery, but some at Fox—particularly Sean Hannity—embraced a conspiracy theory that Rich had been responsible for the leaked DNC e-mails, and that he had been rubbed out in retaliation. Not only was this theory utterly unsupported by facts, but hashing it out ad infinitum was remarkably disrespectful to Rich's family, who were consistently pestered by reporters and by others as their son's death was callously used as a political football.

The good news is that, this time, Hannity & Co. took things a little too far. The public outcry, which included many Fox viewers and staffers, reached a fever pitch after Rich's parents published an editorial pleading for Fox to leave their son alone. Finally, after months of standing by the story, Fox scrubbed it from their website. Maybe this signals a culture change in the post-Ailes and post-O'Reilly era. Or, maybe not. While Hannity announced that he was dropping the story "for now," he made very clear that, "I retracted nothing," and asserted that he would continue "searching for the truth." He also made clear that he had no intention of leaving Fox News, though he might want to take note that if Bill O'Reilly can be fired, then nobody is bulletproof. (Z)

Texas Adopts New Voter ID Bill

The state of Texas has tried several times to adopt a Voter ID bill, and has been smacked down by the courts again and again. The legislators of the Lone Star state appear to be big proponents of the "If at first you don't succeed" philosophy, because they are going to try, try again. On Tuesday, the Texas House gave preliminary approval to a new Voter ID law that will make it slightly easier for people to prove their identity.

Under the various versions of the law that were struck down, the list of acceptable ID was pretty strict—essentially, Texas state drivers' licenses, military ID, and gun permits. The new law would allow people who cannot show authorized ID to use a substitute, like a utility bill. Those individuals, however, would have to sign an affidavit swearing to their identity. If the affidavit is found to be falsified, or even just erroneous, it could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The purpose of the new law is very clear: They want to make it harder for Democrats to vote while not running afoul of the courts. Assuming that the new bill becomes law, it will take a year or two to see if it passes muster. However, judges are pretty smart, and they tend to have long memories. They are going to recall, for example, the other Texas laws and are likely going to be suspicious that this one is more of the same. So, the Texas legislature shouldn't start congratulating themselves quite yet. (Z)

Maine Supreme Court Nixes "Instant Runoff" Voting

The current system of voting employed by the United States, wherein voters are forced to vote for a single candidate, has some serious downsides. Often, as with the 2016 presidential election, people are forced to hold their noses and cast their ballot for "the lesser of two evils," for fear of wasting their vote. This, in turn, makes it very difficult for outsider candidates to challenge the two entrenched parties, and so contributes to a certain inertia in favor of the status quo and against change.

There are alternatives to this way of doing things, among them "instant runoff" voting. Under this system, voters rank their candidates in order (usually 1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4-5). The votes are counted, and the person with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, with their ballots going to whoever was ranked second. The process is repeated until a candidate has a majority of the ballots. This allows voters to make a statement in favor of their candidate of choice without risking wasting their vote (for example, someone could vote Bernie Sanders 1, Hillary Clinton 2). This approach also leaves open the very real possibility that a person from something other than the two major parties could triumph.

The instant runoff system, also known as "ranked-choice voting," is in use in several countries in the world, among them Australia, India, New Zealand, and Ireland. In 2016, the state of Maine decided to give it a try, as voters approved an initiative to switch to instant runoff voting statewide. That experiment, in turn, had the potential to inspire other states to do the same. Now, however, the plan appears to be dead. The Maine Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional due to a clause in the state constitution requiring a victorious candidate to capture a plurality of the votes. The justices' view was that being awarded a second- or third-place ballot after the first-place candidate has been eliminated does not constitute "winning" the vote, and so does not count toward winning a plurality. At this point, it will likely be necessary for the state to adopt a constitutional amendment if they wish to move forward, a tall order because it would require some Republican votes, and the GOP tends to dislike the scheme. Other states may not be similarly constrained, but none are currently giving serious consideration to an instant runoff system. So while there are a few localities in America that do it this way (i.e. San Francisco), this is an idea that may not be sweeping to the U.S. anytime soon. (Z)


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