At Roger Stone’s sentencing, following his conviction by a jury in Washington, DC, that was led by an irretrievably politically biased foreperson, the presiding federal judge, Amy Berman Jackson, announced to her captive audience how fortunate we as a nation are that defendants like Roger Stone are sentenced by completely neutral judges like her.
Similarly, when Jackson denied Roger Stone’s request last week to extend his date to surrender to prison by 60 days based on his life-threatening medical conditions if exposed to the COVID-19 virus in the confines of a federal prison where it currently is running rampant, Judge Jackson assured the public that her “guiding principle” was that Mr. Stone should be given no more, nor less consideration than any other similarly situated defendant.
Both of these remarks were as disingenous and as far removed from reality as one ever could imagine. Her bias and her total lack of even-handedness are by now undeniable and, indeed, we as a nation suffer when our criminal justice system is blatantly politicized by even a single judge.
Judge Jackson’s politically motivated comments at Mr. Stone’s sentencing are legendary and reflected anything but neutrality. She went through the motions of listening to Stone’s sentencing presentation, left the courtroom, and came back minutes later with pages of notes obviously written well in advance, that she simply read out loud, making a mockery of the idea that she was in any way a neutral arbiter actually considering facts and arguments made before her.
The jury and American public were told at the start of the prosecution against Roger Stone that the case was about his interference with an investigation into Russian collusion. You can imagine the surprise of many then, when Judge Jackson read from her notes at sentencing that the case against Roger Stone had nothing whatsoever to do with Russia. Instead, she read, it was about Stone’s efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails from Wikileaks as part of an opposition research move. Opposition research like what we now know the Clinton campaign and the DNC paid for to use against the Trump campaign.
No matter to this judge that Hillary Clinton was a client of Mr. Mueller’s law firm or even that the lead prosecutor in the Stone case was Ms. Clinton’s personal lawyer from that law firm in Clinton’s own email scandal.
But Judge Jackson went further at Stone’s sentencing in demonstrating her purported neutrality and her commitment to avoid politicizing the proceedings. She declared that Roger Stone’s actual motivation was to cover up for President Trump. Nevermind that this was never charged in the case and there was no such evidence; this was her day to read from her notes and there was no stopping her.
Her anti-Trump diatribe went on for a while; but then she got back to her made up view of the case at hand and she showed off her additional expertise in the area of foreign relations and intelligence. She told her captive audience that Congressman Nunes’s Committee investigating Russian collusion had made a mistake in its findings and that Roger Stone’s actions were responsible for these wrong conclusions.
Except, the very next day after the Stone sentencing, Congressman Nunes’s office issued a statement unequivocally repudiating what Judge Jackson had said in sentencing Mr. Stone and correctly noting that Mr. Stone had no impact whatsoever on the Nunes Committee’s investigation or its findings and was barely even mentioned in the Committee report.
There is much more to say about the judge’s sense of neutrality that her prepared statement at sentencing revealed. Suffice it to say that perhaps the jury foreperson who we know now felt comfortable posting social media attacks on President Trump and his associates did not have to look far to believe that such conduct would be licensed by Judge Jackson when it finally came to light.
As for Judge Jackson’s claim that her “guiding principle” in denying Mr. Stone’s medically indicated motion for a 60 day extension of time to report to prison was to make sure that he was treated the same as all others similarly situated, it was honored only in the breach, and likely with life-threatening consequences, according to the medical experts. In actuality, she made no pretense of following any such guiding principle at all. She not only denied the motion, she discounted or totally ignored undisputed specific medical evidence of the risk of death Stone faces and then punished Stone for making the motion.
In fact, by denying Mr. Stone’s recent motion to extend his surrender date for medical reasons, Jackson actually treated Mr. Stone more harshly than any other defendant in any federal court in the country on this issue and did so, despite being alerted to a uniform policy from the Justice Department agreeing to extend surrender dates in every case. In fact, as Jackson well knows, in denying this medically supported request, unopposed even by the prosecutors in the case, who have demonstrated their own hatred toward Mr. Stone and the President on more than enough occasions, she is sending Mr. Stone to a prison from which inmates are being released before serving their full sentences, specifically because of the health risks they face there.
Jackson not only ignored every decision from other judges on her own court uniformly granting surrender date extension motions under the current COVID-19 pandemic, she ignored every other decision granting the same relief to every other requesting defendant in every reported case in the country. So much for insisting on even-handed treatment for Mr. Stone.
But it is even worse than that. The judge purported to base her decision in part on the fact that there are no reported cases of inmates testing positive at the prison in Georgia to which Mr. Stone is being sent. Well, as another judge opined in ordering the release of an inmate from that prison, this only means no “confirmed” cases. Only 30 or fewer inmates out of over 1400 inmates at the facility have ever been tested, and at least one study has shown that 70% of inmates who get tested test positive. The only inmates tested at the prison in question are those who have been quarantined for 14 days prior to their release from the prison.
Even more alarming, just 10 days before Judge Jackson denied Mr. Stone’s request to delay his date to report to the prison, another federal judge ordered the release of a convicted sex offender and child pornographer from that same prison, based on undisputed, front line, first-hand evidence of the dramatic risks of exposure to the COVID-19 virus at that very prison. The evidence is that even the most fundamental protections, like wearing masks and social distancing are nowhere in evidence and the prison’s staff comes and goes from outside the prison each day, in a state with record-number reported cases of COVID-19 spiking each day.
The only “guiding principle” Judge Jackson has demonstrated through her words and actions in the Roger Stone case is her determination to use the case as a vehicle to rail against Donald Trump and punish, to the extent of her ability, on every possible occasion, everyone and everything associated with him.
It was readily apparent from the beginning of the case, it was unabashedly on center stage at Stone’s sentencing, and now it is the driving force behind Judge Jackson’s tortured and indefensible denial of Stone’s unopposed request to delay by 60 days the date he must report to prison, while his conviction is on appeal – a request Stone had to make because of the undisputed, medically documented risk of death he faces in the prison under the widely reported current COVID-19 pandemic situation in our prison system. And a request that has been granted for every other defendant, in every other court in the country, and that is supported by a uniform DOJ policy to consent to the same for every defendant under the current COVID-10 pandemic.
To Judge Jackson’s historic discredit, she has demonstrated that she is committed to her political agenda even literally at the risk of Mr. Stone’s life and even if it means stripping our criminal justice system of its integrity.
It is time for the President to step in, expose the conduct of this judge for what it has been, send the correct message once and for all that the Mueller team was rotten to the core and did irreparable harm to our country, and take the necessary and appropriate steps to save Roger Stone’s life and the integrity of our criminal justice system before it is too late.
This column is a special to SaraACarter.com. David Schoen is a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer, who is now representing Roger Stone for the appeal of his conviction and sentence.
It’s been odd watching the national political conversation march forward as if the 2016 election had never happened. While the world’s changed dramatically in four years, much of 2020’s poll numbers are strikingly similar to those of 2016.
The most recent WashingtonPost/ABC News poll, for instance, gives Biden a 53–43 percent lead among registered voters nationally. On June 26, 2016, a WashingtonPost/ABC News poll — noting that Trump’s support had “plunged” — put Hillary up over the Republican 51–39 among registered voters nationwide in a head-to-head contest.
The survey finds broad objections to Trump’s candidacy — from his incendiary rhetoric and values to his handling of both terrorism and his own business — foreshadowing that the November election could be a referendum on Trump more than anything else.
In the first week of July 2016, Reuters/Ipsos had Clinton up 44–33 (in November of that year, the pollster gave Hillary a 90 percent chance of winning.) The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll has Biden up 48–35. The latestNew York Times/Siena poll that has Biden up 14 points nationally over Trump. In the last poll conducted by Siena before the 2016 election (I don’t see any from June–July), Clinton carried a 17-point lead over Trump. In June of 2016, Fox News had Hillary with a 49–39 lead, and now it shows Biden with a 50–38 lead. In May 2016, USA Today/Suffolk poll had Hillary’s leading 50–39 percent. In June 2020, USA Today/Suffolk poll finds Biden leading 53–41 percent.
It’s difficult to conjure up a more precarious political environment for a national candidate than the one Trump finds himself in — due to both self-inflicted troubles and events out of his control — and yet the RCP average right now has Biden up over nine points. In July of 2016, a CNN/ORC poll had Trump down 52–43. In August of 2016, Quinnipiac had him down 51–41, and McClatchy/Marist had him down 48–33.
Plenty of polls, it’s true, showed a closer race, but even some of those had obvious problems. An NBC News/Wall Street Journalpoll in late June 2016 had Clinton up 46–41 percent, with the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and Green Party’s Jill Stein winning 16 percent of the vote combined. They ended up with around 4 percent in a contest in which both major candidates were personally unpopular.
It’s also true that national polls are about as useful as the “popular vote.” State polls, however, were hardly better — and quite similar in 2016 to 2020.
RCP average of Pennsylvania in July of 2016 found Hillary up by over a seven-point spread. Right now, Biden is up seven points. The last poll CBS News/YouGov conducted in the state had Hillary winning 48–40; the lastNew York Times/Siena poll, 46–39; the lastBloomberg poll 48–39; and the last NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, 49–37.
In the final Wisconsin RCP average spread, which remained consistent throughout the election, had Hillary ended up over six points. Biden is up over six points right now in the RCP average.
In Michigan, polls show Hillary at around 6.2 average in July of 2016. The number spiked in the fall — Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, and Detroit Fox, all had Hillary with a double-digit lead in October — before the race tightened. Biden’s spread is over seven points.
None of the above is scientific, and I certainly don’t claim any special expertise on the matter. If polls tell me Donald Trump is in trouble in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, I’m inclined to believe them, because the events I’m witnessing tend to confirm it. Trump hit a low in the national average today, and that’s a trend that should concern Republicans. On the other hand, lots of media and liberals seem awfully confident they’re going to run away with the election. It seems to me a little more skepticism about the polling might be in order. Especially considering recent history.
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This feels only slightly less shocking and transgressive than watching the state turn blue on election night would.
Which, at the rate we’re going, is a possibility. That’s part of why Greg Abbott went all-in on masks, I assume. If the outbreak continues to spiral in Texas, with the ruling party eventually blamed for not doing everything it could to stem the tide, there’ll be political consequences, not just human consequences. As one Twitter pal put it, “Abbott’s fascinating because he’s as red-meat conservative as anyone but has to govern a large, complex state that’s rapidly becoming less Republican.”
Still, a mask mandate in the beating heart of red-state America? In Alamo country?
You can imagine Abbott’s response. “The virus is about to breach the walls. You know how the Alamo ended, right?”
The order requires Texans living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while inside a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking and people who are exercising outdoors.
Abbott’s order specifies at least one group of people is not excepted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance…
First-time offenders of the order will receive a written or verbal warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is punishable also by a fine of up to $250. The order specifics that no one can get jail time for a violation.
Tantrums are already being thrown on social media in reaction to this very slight, potentially life-saving inconvenience. To give you a sense of how dramatic Abbott’s change of heart is, though, read the last sentence of this paragraph:
That’s from his executive order in late April. He banned local governments from imposing mask mandates. Now he’s imposing one of his own. There’s no jail time for violations, as the excerpt above notes, but it’s a testament to how worrisome Texas’s outbreak has become that he’d be willing to reverse himself quite this starkly:
Abbott frames his decision in the clip below in a smart way. It’s not that we’re mandating masks just to hold down the spread, he says, as that argument won’t appeal to a certain segment of the population that doesn’t seem to care how many infections there are. Rather, we’re mandating masks so that the economy can stay open. That’s how Trump should have formulated this issue months ago: Practice good pandemic hygiene, which means masks and diligent social distancing, and we don’t need to lock down. As it is, Republicans from Abbott to Mitch McConnell to even Fox News are trying to play catch-up, now pushing mask-wearing as a “break glass in case of emergency” option as the recent spread pushes southern states and California to the brink of having to issue new economy-killing stay-at-home orders. Hopefully it works, but we’re putting a lot of faith in the possibility. Assuming Texans really do comply with this order en masse (or that police really do aggressively enforce), how dramatic a reversal can we expect from widespread mask-wearing? And how soon? There’s a lot riding on the outcome of this social experiment: Lives, hospital capacity, the economic recovery, and maybe the presidential election.
WASHINGTON — When Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week on Fox News that Americans needed to wear face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus, anchor Sandra Smith did not challenge him on the science. Or the policy. She did not accuse him of fearmongering, or working to undermine President Trump.
“For the most part, we do see a lot of people that are willing to engage in that good behavior,” Smith said instead during the notably vitriol-free Thursday afternoon interview.
The interview followed an op-ed that the Obama-era public health expert published on the Fox News website. “The more we fight among ourselves, the more the virus divides and conquers us,” Frieden wrote, alluding to the political and cultural battles that have shadowed the medical one, against a deadly pathogen. “The more people wear masks when near others, the less opportunity the virus has to spread.”
Summer has unfortunately done no such thing: More than 50,000 new infections were recorded across the country on July 1, meaning that neither the heat nor the humidity of recent weeks has managed to fend off a pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.
“COVID-19 is not the flu,” the accompanying article warned, dispelling another assertion made by Fox News hosts and contributors in the early stages of the pandemic.
It was a remarkable turn for a news organization whose most prominent personalities have been among Trump’s most trusted advisers. However haltingly and incompletely, the president’s favorite news outlet has started to acknowledge, across various programs and its news site, that the coronavirus is a far graver threat than even Trump himself will acknowledge.
That has sometimes put Fox News at odds with the man many say it helped install in the White House. In the more than three years of the Trump presidency, the network has been routinely accused of standing blindly by him on issues ranging from foreign arms sales to Confederate statues.
The network’s coverage of the coronavirus had already been evolving, as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, but over the last several days something appears to have changed. The shift may have to do with the fact that the coronavirus has shown a ferocious resurgence in recent weeks, after a stretch during which it appeared to be in abeyance.
The recent outbreaks have been confined primarily to the Sun Belt and the Midwest, where both Trump and Fox News tend to be popular (there is also, however, a coronavirus spike now taking place in California, a solidly Democratic state). A recent Harvard study found that “conservative media exposure correlates with higher levels of misinformation” about the coronavirus.
That does not mean that primetime stars like Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson are going to open their shows in N95 respirator masks. But with even Republican leadership increasingly masked, and even Trump musing about how a mask might turn him into a Lone Ranger look-alike, the culture war over masks increasingly seems like one that is not worth fighting.
The changing messaging on masks from Fox News is just one sign that the most influential conservative outlet in the nation appears to be acutely aware of the dangers of politicizing a pandemic that is likely to remain a feature of American public life for months to come.
“For some reason, over the last couple of weeks, a month, masks have become political,” said Steve Doocy, co-host of the president’s favored “Fox & Friends” morning program on Thursday.
This came on the heels of close Trump adviser Sean Hannity making much the same point earlier in the week. “I went to my grocery store every week. Guess what? They wore masks. Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus. I think they work,” Hannity said on Monday’s program, of which Trump is said to be an avid viewer.
Fox News remains staunchly pro-Trump in its coronavirus coverage. Earlier this week, Ingraham accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of “undermining Trump’s agenda” with his dire warnings about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 130,000 Americans. She then said Fauci may as well be Joe Biden’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.
Carlson recently blasted a mask decree by the mayor of Los Angeles, charging that it had been issued with “no scientific evidence whatsoever.”
But even as some hosts continue to rail against masks, Fox News has quietly told its own employees to follow the counsel of public health professionals and released a guidance in June mandating that newsroom employees “don a face covering in Fox News Media shared spaces, particularly when you’re not at a socially distanced workstation.”
In other ways, too, the network appears to be backing away from certain controversial coronavirus positions.
On May 12, for example, an article on its website announced that Alex Berenson, an independent journalist and former New York Times reporter who has garnered significant attention for his skeptical views on the threat of the coronavirus, would be hosting an internet-based program called “COVID Contrarian,” in which he would presumably dispute conventional wisdom on the pandemic.
Berenson’s profile photograph on Twitter shows a face mask defiantly pulled down over his chin.
Just how many episodes of “COVID Contrarian” were supposed to run remains unclear, though both the May 12 article and an on-air introduction from Carlson made it seem like the program would be a regular feature on a streaming platform called Fox Nation. The landing page for the program, however, has been scrubbed and shows only an error message: “Looks like you found a page with nothing on it.”
Fox News now says the intention was always for Berenson — who has continued to appear on Carlson’s show, though not as frequently as he did throughout the spring — to host a two-part broadcast on its streaming platform. Those episodes remain available online.
Berenson declined to speak to Yahoo News on the record.
“He was never paid by Fox News,” a network spokesperson told Yahoo News of Berenson.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear arguments this fall in a case that pits the Trump administration against the House Judiciary Committee and its efforts to see redacted portions of report on Russian interference prepared by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The decision is a significant blow to House Democrats’ efforts to see the material before the November election.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had previously ruled that the House Judiciary Committee was entitled to see usually secret grand jury material that was redacted by the Trump Justice department from the Mueller report when it was handed over to the committee.
At the request of the Justice Department, the high court temporarily blocked the lower court order from going into effect. And now the court has agreed to hear the case this fall, with a decision almost certain to come after the election.
The House went to court a year ago to get the grand jury material before the formal beginning of impeachment proceedings. More recently, House lawyer Douglas Letter told the justices that the inquiry did not end with the president’s impeachment by the House and his acquittal by the Senate in February. The Trump administration, however, maintains that the investigation ended with the acquittal and that the House thus has no need for the material.
In a statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court’s decision to allow President Trump and Attorney General William Barr to “run out the clock on all accountability.”
“In every administration before this one,” Nadler observed, the Department of Justice “has cooperated with the Judiciary Committee’s requests for grand jury materials relating to investigations of impeachable offenses.” Trump and Barr, he said, “broke from that practice.”
“While I am confident their legal arguments will fail,” he concluded, “it is now all the more important for the American people to hold the president accountable at the ballot box in November.”
Other Controversial Cases
The court’s action was one of several on Thursday that essentially kick the can down the road in cases involving controversial subjects.
Just days after striking down a Louisiana abortion law, the court declined to take up an Indiana law, signed by then Gov. Mike Pence, that imposes a variety of restrictions on abortion, including requiring an ultrasound test and an 18-hour waiting period before an abortion.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the restrictions from going into effect, but the justices ordered the lower court judges to reconsider their decision in light of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision earlier this week. The court could have simply turned aside the Indiana case, so the order suggests that Chief Justice John Roberts, who this week cast the decisive fifth vote to invalidate a Louisiana abortion law, may well be prepared to accept other kinds of restrictions, as he seemed to suggest in his solo opinion on Monday.
Lastly, on Thursday, the Supreme Court refused to expedite a petition that would have allowed the justices to hear arguments and rule prior to the November election on a petition from the Texas Democratic Party and Texas voters who want all registered voters in the state to be able to vote by mail. A Federal District Court judge in Texas had ordered the state to allow the mail-in ballots for all eligible voters, but that judgment was overruled by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The justices’ refusal to consider speeding up their review process means that even if they decide to review the Fifth Circuit ruling in the fall, it almost certainly won’t be in time for the 2020 election cycle.
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How the vote went down: The committee approved a revamped version of the EARN IT Act by a 22-0 vote. The panel also approved an amendment by Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that could defuse attempts to portray the bill as an attack on encryption.
Under the bill’s original version, digital companies that wanted to keep their legal protections for a broad swath of user-generated content would have had to prove to a newly crafted commission that they are doing enough to curb child abuse material. But Graham amendment’s would narrow that legal shield, simply removing all protections from federal and state civil lawsuits for hosting child porn. Under the revamped framework, the commission would still craft voluntary guidelines for companies to follow.
Tech industry officials and some advocacy groups opposed the original measure, which they feared could empower regulators on the proposed commission, including Attorney General William Barr, to force companies to open up users’ encrypted communications to law enforcement. Barr has condemned the availability of virtually unbreakable encryption on products like Apple’s iPhones, accusing them of impeding investigations into crimes like terrorism and human trafficking. But some lawmakers have defended encryption as essential to protecting personal privacy.
Graham said Thursday that the encryption debate is “a separate issue,” adding, “My goal is not to outlaw encryption.”
The committee also unanimously approved an amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) intended to “exclude encryption” as something that could lead to “increased liability” for companies.
Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) unveiled separate amendments for the legislation on Wednesday, but said at Thursday’s session they were pulling them from consideration for the time being. Lee said he reserved the right to seek to “amend the language on the floor.”
A major threat for tech: The measure poses the biggest threat to the tech industry’s legal liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, since passage of the landmark 2018 sex trafficking law known as FOSTA-SESTA. It’s the first bipartisan bill seeking to pare back those protections to advance out of a congressional committee since that law.
The bill is far less sweeping than the changes demanded by President Donald Trump, who has urged Congress to revoke Section 230 entirely while ordering his regulators to look for ways to restrict its protections. But its bipartisan support indicates that the bill stands a significant chance of becoming law.
Section 230 protects online sites from suits over material their users post, a safeguard that has made it easier for tech giants like Facebook and Google, plus smaller players like Yelp, Tripadvisor and Pinterest, to profit by hosting ordinary people’s posts, photos, videos, product reviews and other content. But what was once seen as an essential safe harbor for a fledgling internet industry is facing scrutiny like never before.
Blumenthal said at Thursday’s hearing that it’s past time to revisit those protections. “There is no reason for these platforms to have blanket immunity, a shield against any accountability that is not enjoyed by any other industry in the same way,” he said in his opening remarks.
“Stripping liability to make sure they do a better job of protecting children from sexual exploitation and the scourge of child pornography is a giant step forward in change,” Graham told POLITICO on Thursday after the session.
What’s next: Blumenthal said after the markup session that the unanimous committee vote on the bill is a “strong sign of momentum and support,” and both he and Graham said they hope to see the legislation taken up by the full chamber this year.
“We’ll be talking to the majority leader about scheduling a vote,” Blumenthal told POLITICO during an interview on Capitol Hill.
“I think I’ll be doing that this afternoon,” Graham said of speaking to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about getting a vote on EARN IT scheduled.
But Parler has also seen a sudden uptick in impostor accounts over the past few weeks, with 11 GOP congressional offices telling POLITICO there are new pages on the site wrongly purporting to be their official accounts, including for Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
The phony @RealSenGraham introduces himself with a post, which the site calls a “parley,” saying: “Well kiss my grits and call me Lindsey. I’m on Parler.” The senator is not, in fact, on Parler, but at least another four fake Grahams are, some more polished than others.
Many of the fake Parler accounts present themselves like any typical congressional social media page, posting advisories about upcoming events, putting out statements on timely issues and sharing notable articles with constituents — making them nearly indistinguishable from an official forum. Others are more flagrantly false, with one phony account for a Democratic lawmaker sharing links from a far-right blog known for spreading hoaxes.
The trend highlights Parler’s challenge to gain credibility as a platform striving to be an alternative to Facebook, Twitter, Google-owned YouTube and Reddit, even as it becomes the talk of conservative circles. Parler already had a reputation as a conservative echo chamber where some fringe characters banned from Facebook and Twitter found a home. Now, users have to figure out if the conservative voices they’re hearing are genuine.
Impostor accounts are nothing new to social media — the industry’s biggest companies routinely purge their platforms of scores of phony accounts impersonating public figures. But those firms have tightened their verification protocols over the years in an effort to ensure users aren’t fooled by accounts pretending to be political leaders.
That’s a challenge Parler is now running into at full speed, as officials in the highest ranks of the Republican Party join the site in rapid succession. While the site has been widely seen as freewheeling, Parler does have rules about content and user conduct, including community guidelines that prohibit impersonation of a public official.
The GOP movement onto Parler was at first slow, then suddenly swift. Paul, the libertarian Kentucky senator, was among the first lawmakers to publicly announce they had joined in August.
But dozens more Republican lawmakers have signed up over the past several weeks, according to a review of the platform and statements from congressional offices provided to POLITICO. The findings mark the most detailed look to date at how widespread use of the platform has become among GOP officials on Capitol Hill.
That comes as Parler is experiencing a boost in users overall, according to its CEO. Parler chief John Matze told CNBC its user base has grown from 1 million to 1.5 million in just a week — a growing figure that still pales in comparison to the over 2 billion users on Facebook. The stat highlights the massive uphill climb smaller platforms like Parler and others face in competing with the tech giants, who dwarf them in size and resources.
Parler is trying to seize a moment. President Donald Trump and his allies ratcheted up their attacks against Silicon Valley after Twitter began adding warning and fact-checking labels to some of the president’s tweets in late May. Trump has since ordered federal regulators to look at whether to narrow social media companies’ liability protections over user content, a move that could deal a major blow to the online industry.
The site has also attracted other high-profile conservative figures including Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and Fox News host Sean Hannity. And its CEO says they’re looking to convert that momentum into revenue by building an online advertising platform, a plan that arrives as Facebook faces a major advertising boycott over its handling of Trump’s posts. (Matze told Forbes the company got off the ground with some early investors, including friends.)
While some of those figures now on the platform, including the president’s children, have had their accounts verified by Parler and been labeled as such, others haven’t completed that process yet. Parler shows that public figures’ accounts are genuine with a gold badge.
“We are still going through the Parler verification process,” said Brigid Nealon, a spokesperson for Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), who joined the site last week.
That could complicate efforts to make out who is and isn’t who they say they are from Parler’s new pool of recruits in Washington. Of the impostor accounts for lawmakers confirmed by POLITICO, several featured identical handles and visuals as the officials’ profiles on other platforms. That included a page impersonating Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), which has the same profile picture and background image as his profile on Twitter and goes by the same handle.
The account was shifted to “private” status on Wednesday, limiting its visibility, after POLITICO reached out to Parler and Kennedy’s office regarding the page.
“It appears that someone created a fake account in the senator’s name, and that the misleading account is no longer active,” said Jess Andrews, a Kennedy spokesperson.
At least one phony user even posted about wanting to get their page credentialed. “How do I become verified? #parler” posted an account under the handle @SenJohnThune. A Thune spokesperson confirmed the lawmaker is not on the platform.
Democratic officials have — unsurprisingly — been less eager to join the site. But a casual observer might think they have at least a limited presence. Impostor accounts exist purporting to be Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden. None of them have accounts on the platform, spokespeople confirmed.
One fake Schiff account posted a link to an article about Biden from Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog known for promoting conspiracy theories.
But such accounts are also less likely to dupe users aware that the platform has been less attractive to those on the left. Matze told CNBC he wants more liberals to sign up, and he’s even offering a “progressive bounty” of $20,000 for a prominent left-wing pundit to start a Parler account.
Several congressional offices said they planned to ask Parler to take down the impostor accounts after POLITICO sought comment on them. A Schiff spokesperson said his office is aware of fake pages masquerading as the House Intelligence chair and that they encourage Parler to take action. Schiff does not have an account on the platform, they said.
Parler did not return multiple requests for comment on the impostor accounts or its verification process.
Despite GOP lawmakers flocking to Parler, there’s been little to no indication any of them plan to quit the major social media platforms. Many announced that they had joined Parler in posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and have continued to post to those sites since.
Some lawmakers’ offices who created accounts say they are still weighing whether to actively use the platform. And other offices, including McCarthy’s, said they wanted to secure accounts on the platform, where common handles for the lawmakers are quickly getting snatched up by other users. It’s unclear whether Parler would accommodate potential requests from lawmakers to make handles available to them that have already been claimed by other users.
“We reserved them to make sure they weren’t taken—but we have yet to decide if we’re going to follow through with using the platform,” said Sarah Selip, a spokesperson for Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga), who created an account last week.
But there’s already signs more may follow.
Kevin Bishop, a spokesperson for Graham, said the senator doesn’t “have a Parler account … yet.”
Trump then turned and exited the briefing room, yielding the lectern to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow as reporters shouted various lines of inquiry at the departing president.
His decision to skirt those queries comes at a particularly perilous moment in the nation’s battle against a resurgent public health crisis, as well as a tumultuous time for Trump’s reelection campaign.
The United States has reported a record number of new Covid-19 infections, surpassing 50,000 cases for the first time Wednesday while the president again claimed in an interview with Fox Business that the highly contagious disease is “at some point … going to sort of just disappear.”
The precipitous climbs in caseloads have been accelerated by community spread of Covid-19, increased rates of infection among young people and an abandonment by many Americans of personal mitigation measures such as mask-wearing — a preventative practice Trump had been loath to embrace until Wednesday, when he acknowledged “masks are good.”
Spikes in coronavirus cases across the South and West in states including Arizona, California, Florida and Texas have also forced some governors to halt or reverse their reopening plans, potentially denying Trump the explosive economic rebound he had hoped to preside over as the country emerged from stay-at-home orders.
Even the jobs report Trump touted Thursday likely painted a far rosier picture of the U.S. economy than exists in reality. The Labor Department’s June survey was conducted mid-month, before the latest wave of shutdowns. Americans filed 1.4 million new applications for unemployment benefits last week, the department reported.
The president remains similarly under siege on issues unrelated to the pandemic, facing continued questions from congressional lawmakers and the media regarding his knowledge of reported Russian bounties paid to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. troops. The White House has struggled this week to clarify the extent of Trump’s briefing on the matter.
And in the political realm, almost all public polling shows Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in surveys of voters nationwide, with Biden also expanding his advantages in the battleground states Trump captured in 2016 to win office.