It was not surprising that Trump would try to exploit Harris’ background for personal gain given that he is running the most racially-charged presidential campaign that America has seen since the 1968 run of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
After all, he elevated his own stature from the realm of a New York gadfly to the mainstream of American politics by trafficking lies about the eligibility of President Barack Obama, who was the nation’s first Black president.
But it was a sickening spectacle to watch the President of the United States use a podium at the White House to question whether the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee — who was born in Oakland, California, and is the first Black and South Asian American woman on a major party ticket — might somehow be ineligible for the post. It was a clear attempt by Trump to stir controversy and divert attention from his inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the more than 168,000 American deaths.
After Trump first dangled the theory Thursday in response to a reporter’s question, during what was billed as a press briefing, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Marc Short, the chief of staff to the vice president, stirred more aspersions about Harris’ background on Friday in two different interviews.
When asked whether he believes Harris is a qualified candidate for the vice presidency, Kushner said, “I personally have no reason to believe she’s not,” but said the theory was “out there.”
The question about Harris’ eligibility was raised by Chapman University professor John Eastman in an opinion piece in Newsweek. (Eastman, a Republican, ran for California Attorney General in 2010 but was defeated in the Republican primary; Harris won the Democratic primary and ultimately won the race.)
Kushner, who is both a White House and a campaign aide to Trump, pointed out that the President said “he had no idea whether that’s right or wrong” — a technique Trump often uses when he’s trying to shirk responsibility for spreading disinformation.
“I don’t see that as promoting it. But at the end of the day, it’s something that’s out there,” Kushner said in a morning interview with CBS News.
In a different interview Friday, Short then suggested that Harris has “imported” socialist policies “from overseas.”
“I think that we can celebrate the fact that a daughter of two immigrants has had such a celebrated political career, to be elected statewide and now be the nominee for the Democratic Party,” Short said during an appearance on Fox Business. “I think what’s more concerning is some of the socialist ideas she seems to have imported from overseas as well.”
Even before Trump’s comments about Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian parents, he had centered his campaign on his efforts to create fears of “otherness” in the hearts of White Americans.
He cast peaceful demonstrators in the streets after George Floyd’s death as “THUGS” and criminals. He has repeatedly made appeals to suburban White voters, specifically women he describes as “Suburban Housewives,” warning that polices created by the Obama-Biden administration to dismantle segregation in housing will destroy their neighborhoods.
He told Wisconsin voters during a recent tele-town hall that those housing rules would bring “who knows into your suburbs.” And he has described the toppling of statues of Confederate generals and slave-owning figures from America’s history as an attack on the nation’s heritage and founding principles.
It’s a similar playbook to the one that he used as a candidate in 2016 when he tried to portray immigrants as criminals, and again in 2018 as he tried to protect the GOP’s congressional majority, claiming that dangerous caravans were headed across the US border with Mexico to terrorize Americans. (They never arrived).
The GOP responds with silence
It’s unclear why Trump and some of his allies believe that dragging Americans back into another baseless “birther” controversy about Harris will help his chances of staying in the White House.
While it’s true that many voters are firmly entrenched in their pro and anti-Trump camps, female voters in swing districts have told CNN in countless interviews over the past three years that they are exhausted by Trump’s divisive tactics — from his vilification of Latinx and Black Americans to his sexist remarks about women he does not like. (In a Fox News Poll released Thursday, Biden led Trump among women 51% to 39%).
Since Floyd’s death, growing majorities of Americans have also said they disapprove of Trump’s handling of racial issues — with two-thirds of Americans stating that Trump has increased racial tensions in a June NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.
Former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told CNN’s Kate Bolduan Friday night it made “absolutely no sense” why Trump and his allies would want another smear attached to the Republican Party as they try to maintain control of the Senate and win back the House.
“This will further alienate many voters, Republicans, particularly in the suburbs, suburban women, college-educated voters and any voter who can read, because this charge is easily disproven because she was in fact born in California,” Dent said on “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
“So, I don’t understand what they’re thinking, how this helps. But it is maybe a dog whistle to the nativist element, maybe to try to drive them out.”
Harris’ Republican colleagues in the Senate mostly remained silent following Trump’s comments in the White House briefing room where he said he had “heard” that “she doesn’t meet the requirements” and then said, “I have no idea if that’s right. I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally whose reelection may be more competitive than expected, was the only GOP senator to tweet about the false ineligibility theory: “There is no issue as to whether or not she is an American citizen,” Graham wrote. “She was born in the United States in 1964 to parents who were legally present. Under the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, she is unequivocally an American citizen.”
Biden campaign’s approach
So far the Biden campaign’s approach has been to call out Trump’s new “birther” comments as a distraction, a line echoed by numerous Biden campaign allies and surrogates over the past few days.
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that Trump “has sought to fuel racism and tear our nation apart on every single day of his presidency.”
“So it’s unsurprising, but no less abhorrent, that as Trump makes a fool of himself straining to distract the American people from the horrific toll of his failed coronavirus response that his campaign and their allies would resort to wretched, demonstrably false lies in their pathetic desperation,” Bates said.
Harris did not engage during a Friday appearance in Delaware to sign ballot-related documents when she was asked what she thought of the attacks from Trump and his allies since Biden announced her as his running mate.
“I’m signing this because I am in this race to win and with that guy right there,” she replied, gesturing at Biden. “And we’re going to get it done.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, dismissed the President’s comments during a gaggle with reporters on Capitol Hill on Friday. “Why would you even talk about that? He is just taking attention away from the fact that he’s been a total failure in addressing the coronavirus challenge in our country,” she said.
“He can’t handle the fact that a woman of color has risen to this place and will soon be the vice president of the United States,” Pelosi said. “He’s intimidated by strong women, we know that. And for him to say what he said, and for you all to report it, is like the biggest waste of time.”
The country’s most outspoken critic of voting by mail has requested his vote-by-mail ballot.
The Palm Beach County elections department in Florida has prepared mail ballots for this Tuesday’s primary election for President Trump and Melania Trump, the first lady, according to local registration records.
The Trumps changed their primary residence last year from Manhattan, which has been less than welcoming to the president since his election, to Mr. Trump’s members-only Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, which had long been their winter home.
How and where a president votes is typically a footnoted formality. But Mr. Trump has broadly questioned the legitimacy of voting by mail, without evidence of significant voter fraud, and made statements suggesting that he views expansion of mail voting as a threat to the Republican Party.
Those moves have raised concerns among Democrats and voting rights groups that he is seeking to undermine the mail-balloting system and lay the groundwork for casting doubt on the November election should he lose.
Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, a Democrat who recently signed a universal mail-in ballot law, has said Mr. Trump’s fraud claims are unfounded. “We have never had any problems,” he told CNN last week.
Mr. Trump has supported mail-in voting in some states where he says it is secure, including Florida, which he suggested last week could handle mail voting successfully because it had “a great Republican governor” in Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally.
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said on Thursday, “The president supports absentee voting, not universal mail-in voting, which contain several safeguards that prevent fraud and abuse.”
Mr. Trump suggested Thursday that he was using the funding as a negotiating chip with congressional Democrats on a larger stimulus package. “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money,” he said. “That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”
The Trumps’ ballot request was first reported by The Palm Beach Post. They have until 7 p.m. on Tuesday to return their ballots for the upcoming elections, which include primaries for county commission, state legislature and federal offices.
With President Trump and congressional Democrats fighting over funding the Postal Service, many states — and politicians up for re-election this fall — are grappling with the uncertainty around the expansion of mail-in balloting prompted by the pandemic.
Some key developments in the last 24 hours:
A federal judge in Pittsburgh ordered the Trump campaign to produce proof of voter fraud claims. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan on Thursday ordered Republicans who have challenged Pennsylvania’s expansion of mail-in voting to turn over evidence by the end of today that the system has led to ballot irregularities or face the possible dismissal of their suit.
The state Democratic Party and the Sierra Club, which intervened in the case, had requested that the plaintiffs — the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and Pennsylvania’s Republican Party — turn over specific evidence of fraud, after the Republicans claimed the changes provided “fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting” and other manipulations.
“Plaintiffs shall produce such evidence in their possession, and if they have none, state as much,” wrote Mr. Ranjan, a Trump appointee.
Postal Service warns Pennsylvania on deadlines. In a separate Pennsylvania lawsuit, the Postal Service’s general counsel sent a stark warning to state officials late last month over their last-minute attempt expand voting by mail.
Thomas J. Marshall, the counsel, wrote to Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, whose department oversees elections, that some mail ballots might not be delivered on time because the state’s pre-existing deadlines for sending out ballots were too tight for its “delivery standards,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
All New Jersey voters will get mail-in ballots. Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced Friday that every registered voter in the state would be mailed a ballot and could choose whether to vote by mail or in person. “We’re going to have a hybrid model in November,” Mr. Murphy told CNN.
New Jersey, which conducted its July primaries almost entirely by mail, would become the ninth state in the country to automatically send voters mail-in ballots if Mr. Murphy takes the actions he outlined.
The House minority leader signaled Republican support for a post office funding deal. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and close Trump ally, told CNBC Friday that his members were open to including new cash for mail-in voting in the stalled coronavirus relief package. “The Postal Service will have the funding that it needs,” he said.
President Obama said Mr. Trump was trying to “kneecap” the post office. The former president, speaking on a podcast released Friday, joined the chorus of Democrats accusing his successor of attempted voter suppression.
“What we’ve never seen before is a president say, ‘I’m going to try to actively kneecap the Postal Service to encourage voting, and I will be explicit about the reason I’m doing it,’” Mr. Obama told David Plouffe.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine broke with Trump on Postal Service funding. Ms. Collins, a Republican facing the toughest re-election campaign of her career, said Thursday that she opposed cuts for the post office and believed that her state’s no-questions-asked mail-in voting system was safe and secure.
Ms. Collins said the concerns Mr. Trump has raised about the voting by mail were “no reason not to support assistance” for the Postal Service, according to The Bangor Daily News.
In a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday, Ms. Collins expressed concern about delays and other service problems reported by constituents, many of whom rely on mail delivery for prescriptions.
“If people cannot depend on the Postal Service for prompt delivery of mail or packages, it will only further hurt the Postal Service’s financial situation,” Ms. Collins said.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. has raised more than $50 million since he named Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, an enormous outpouring of donations that could allow the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to expand the electoral playing field in the final 80-plus days until the election.
On a Biden staff call on Thursday evening, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the campaign manager, told fellow aides to Mr. Biden that the campaign had raised $48 million in the first 48 hours since Ms. Harris was named to the ticket. The campaign has twice broken its own record for its busiest hour collecting money online: the first time immediately after Ms. Harris was named and the second during her first public speech on Wednesday.
Other Biden officials confirmed the campaign had surpassed the $50 million mark later on Thursday.
To put that sum in perspective, it is more than Ms. Harris raised in her own 2020 presidential bid last year and nearly as much as the $60.8 million that Mr. Biden raised in all of 2019.
And there was not similar financial momentum behind beating Donald J. Trump four years ago: Hillary Clinton raised $89 million combined with the Democratic Party in the entire month of July, the month that she named Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate and held the party’s convention.
One small indicator of the energy for the Biden-Harris ticket: The campaign said it had sold more than $1.2 million in yard signs by the end of Wednesday evening.
On Friday, Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden held a photo op in Delaware to sign documents required to formally receive the nomination at the convention next week. Ms. Harris was asked about being the target of attacks by Mr. Trump and his allies.
“I’m signing this because I am in this race to win,” she said, “and with that guy right there, and we’re going to get it done.” Mr. Biden was also scheduled to attend a virtual fund-raiser on Friday.
The infusion of cash could allow the Biden campaign to invest more heavily in large and expensive states, such as Ohio and Texas, that are not considered as crucial to winning the Electoral College.
Through July, the Biden campaign had advertised almost exclusively in six states that Mr. Trump won in 2016 — Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona — and that are seen as bellwether battlegrounds for 2020.
Even the most unpredictable presidential campaign has three Big Moments. The first is now behind us, with Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s selection of Kamala Harris for vice president.
The next two are coming up: the conventions — the Democratic event next week, and the Republican one the week after — followed by the debates between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
The who-won, who-lost interpretation of debates is often established before any candidate steps onto a stage. And with Ms. Harris in place, that appears to be happening already — to the benefit of Republicans in the vice-presidential debate, and to the benefit of Democrats in the presidential debate.
The coverage of Ms. Harris has focused on her considerable debating skills, on display in the Democratic primary and in her tough questioning in the Senate of, among others, Attorney General William P. Barr.
“Mike Pence is going to have a very, very difficult time in the vice-presidential debate,” Steve Schmidt, a former Republican consultant who is a leader of the Lincoln Project, a group trying to unseat Mr. Trump, said on MSNBC.
So Mr. Pence may be able to credibly claim victory if he merely holds his own.
By contrast, Mr. Trump has — presumably not by design — been lowering expectations for his opponent with his put-downs of Mr. Biden’s mental competence. In truth, while Mr. Biden was not the strongest debater during the Democratic primaries, he did not come across as the doddering 77-year-old that the president has portrayed.
Mr. Trump has set a pretty low bar for Mr. Biden.
“Biden has to just not make a mistake,” said Susan Estrich, who managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, a Democrat. “He’s a former two-term vice president. Nothing he says is scary. Trump can’t win the debate. He has to force Biden to somehow lose it. Literally all Biden has to do is not lose it.”
A Pew Research Center poll on the presidential race offers insights into the partisan divide over voting by mail during the pandemic that has fueled President Trump’s campaign against the practice and, in turn, his opposition to new funding for the Postal Service.
Eighty percent of registered voters who support Mr. Trump or lean toward supporting him said they would rather vote in person — with 60 percent saying they would do so on Election Day and 20 percent saying they planned to vote early.
Only 17 percent of Trump voters or leaners cited voting by mail as a preference.
By contrast, a majority of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s backers — 58 percent — said they preferred voting by mail, according to the poll, which was conducted in late July and early August and released on Thursday.
Those percentages closely track other political metrics associated with the pandemic, particularly support for government mask mandates, which are widely supported by Democrats and moderate independents but opposed by many Republicans.
Pew also found stark illustration of the core demographics behind the limited but bedrock-solid support Mr. Trump enjoys from his base.
Whites without college degrees prefer Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden, 64 percent to 34 percent.
For the rest of the electorate, the ratio flips, to 68 percent for Mr. Biden and 30 percent for Mr. Trump.
The overall result, the poll found, is that Mr. Biden leads Mr. Trump 53 percent to 45 percent, a finding consistent with many recent national polls.
President Trump on Friday was expected to travel to Manhattan to visit Robert S. Trump, hisbrother, who was hospitalized at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and is said to be gravely ill.
Robert Trump, two years younger than the president at age 72, has been ailing for months and was also hospitalized in June.
Robert Trump, who worked in the family real-estate empire, told The New York Times last month that President Trump was “selfless” — “much more so than anyone would ever realize.”
The president is also expected to speak to a New York City police union Friday evening from his private club in Bedminster, N.J.
President Trump on Thursday encouraged a racist conspiracy theory that is rampant among some of his followers: that Senator Kamala Harris is not eligible for the vice presidency or presidency because her parents were immigrants.
That assertion is false; Ms. Harris was born in California and is eligible to serve.
Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters on Thursday, nevertheless pushed the attack. “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Mr. Trump said.
“I have no idea if that’s right,” he added. “I would have thought, I would have assumed, that the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, declined to forcefully disavow the president’s comment, which echoes the “birther” lie, though when pressed said he had no reason to question Ms. Harris’s eligibility.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and an informal adviser to Mr. Trump, shot down the claim soon after, writing on Twitter that Ms. Harris was “unequivocally an American citizen.”
Mr. Trump, in his Thursday remarks, appeared to be referring to a widely discredited op-ed article published in Newsweek on Wednesday by John C. Eastman, a conservative lawyer who has long argued that the Constitution does not grant birthright citizenship. Ms. Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, was born in 1964 in Oakland, Calif., several years after her parents arrived in the United States.
Mr. Eastman’s column tries to raise questions about the citizenship of Ms. Harris’s parents at the time of her birth, and argues that she may have “owed her allegiance to a foreign power or powers” if her parents were “temporary visitors” and not residents.
Constitutional law scholars say the argument against her parents is irrelevant and irresponsible because Ms. Harris was born in California.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office said on Friday that President Trump was not entitled to learn more about the scope of its criminal investigation into his business dealings, rejecting Mr. Trump’s latest effort to block a subpoena for his tax returns.
The office of the district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., wrote in a pair of new court filings that Mr. Trump should be treated like any other recipient of a subpoena, who is typically unable to access details of secret grand jury proceedings.
The filings came in response to Mr. Trump’s renewed efforts this month to stop Mr. Vance’s prosecutors from accessing eight years of his personal and corporate tax returns.
During Ms. Harris’s delicate audition to become Mr. Biden’s running mate, she faced daunting obstacles, including an array of strong competitors, unease about her within the Biden family and bitter feuds from California and the 2020 primary season that exploded anew.
Though Ms. Harris was seen from the start as a front-runner, Mr. Biden did not begin the process with a favorite in mind. Interviews with more than three dozen people involved in the vice-presidential search — including advisers to Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris, allies of other prospects and Democratic leaders — showed that he settled on her only after an exhaustive review that forged new political alliances, deepened existing rivalries and further elevated a cohort of women as leaders in their party.
Ms. Harris was one of four finalists for the job, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Susan E. Rice, the former national security adviser. But in the eyes of Mr. Biden and his advisers, Ms. Harris alone covered every one of their essential political needs.
Other candidates rose and faded in the process: Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois powerfully impressed Mr. Biden’s search team, but his lawyers feared she would face challenges to her eligibility because of the circumstances of her birth overseas. Representative Karen Bass of California emerged as a favorite among elected officials and progressives — Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke glowingly of her to Mr. Biden — but the relationship-focused Mr. Biden barely knew her.
In the end, Mr. Biden embraced Ms. Harris as a partner for reasons that were both pragmatic and personal — a sign of how the former vice president, who is oriented toward seeking consensus and building broad coalitions, might be expected to govern. Indeed, Mr. Biden has already told allies he hopes a number of the other vice-presidential contenders will join his administration in other roles.
Mr. Trump said in an interview Thursday that he planned to deliver his renomination speech for the Republican National Convention from the South Lawn at the White House, a move that raises legal questions about using federal property for campaign purposes.
“I’ll probably be giving my speech at the White House because it is a great place. It’s a place that makes me feel good, it makes the country feel good,” Mr. Trump told The New York Post. “We’d do it possibly outside on one of the lawns, we have various lawns, so we could have it outside in terms of the China virus,” he said, using a term widely criticized as xenophobic to refer to the coronavirus pandemic.
Melania Trump, the first lady, is expected to deliver her speech from the White House residence, according to a person familiar with the plans. And Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, is expected to have a prime-time speaking slot on the same night as her father, and also deliver her speech from the White House, the person said. Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, is set to deliver his convention speech from the Fort McHenry monument in Baltimore.
Fort McHenry is also federal property run by the National Park Service, and ethics experts have raised questions about public servants using federal property for political purposes.
Mr. Trump had previously said he was still deciding between giving the speech at the White House or at the Gettysburg battlefield, after plans for a convention in Charlotte, N.C., and then in Jacksonville, Fla., had both been scrapped because of health concerns about bringing a large group of people together in the middle of a pandemic.
But using the White House as the backdrop for one of the peak political moments of the fall campaign raises questions about whether it would be a breach of the Hatch Act, a Depression-era law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on the job. Mr. Trump himself is not subject to the act. But everyone who works for him, and who would be involved in setting up the event, would be.
In his interview with The New York Post, Mr. Trump did not address the legal issues. Instead, he appeared to be more concerned with ensuring that he would deliver the address in front of a crowd of supporters. “We could have quite a group of people. It’s very big, a very big lawn. We could have a big group of people,” he said.
During a discussion about the Justice Department’s probe into the Russia investigation, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo asked the President whether FBI director Christopher Wray should step down.
“We know that the FBI lied to the Senate in February of 2018. Christopher Wray was running the FBI. Mr. President, is Christopher Wray hiding all of this stuff and protecting the FBI? Should he step down?” Bartiromo asked.
Bartiromo appeared to be referring to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s claims that a declassified document he released Sunday shows that the FBI had misled the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2018 about a “primary sub -source” of information in the infamous Steele dossier. The opposition research dossier, compiled by ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele on Trump and Russia in 2016, played no role in the opening of the FBI investigation, according to an inspector general report.
Trump railed against Wray, who he said should provide more documents to John Durham, who was tapped by Barr to lead the review into the origins of the Russia investigation.
“So Christopher Wray was put there. We have an election coming up. I wish he was more forthcoming, he certainly hasn’t been. There are documents that they want to get, and we have said we want to get. We’re going to find out if he’s going to give those documents. But certainly he’s been very, very protective,” the President said on Fox Business.
CNN has reached out to the FBI and the Justice Department.
Trump told Fox Business that Wray “was put there for a good reason, he was chosen by a certain person, and I said, go ahead, put whoever you want. I’m so honest that I said you could put anybody you want. Let’s see how Wray turns out. He’s either going to turn out one way or the other.”
He continued, “Bill Barr has a chance to be the greatest of all time. But if he wants to be politically correct, he’ll be just another guy.”
Barr said in an interview aired on Wednesday that he is aiming to release some conclusions from Durham’s investigation ahead of the November election, putting a finer point on a timeline that has shifted in recent weeks and also opening up the possibility that the review could extend into the winter.
“We’re all aware of the calendar and we’re not going to do anything for the purposes of affecting an election, but we are trying to get some things accomplished before the election,” Barr told conservative commentator Buck Sexton.
Trump has previously blamed Wray’s hiring on former deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But the President was the one to nominate Wray to lead the bureau in 2017, after firing James Comey. Comey had accused Trump of asking him to pledge his loyalty, which Trump has denied.
Trump has been unhappy with Wray for a variety of perceived faults, mostly related to conservative complaints that the FBI has not cooperated with efforts to review the 2016-2017 Russia investigation.
Fox News hosts and conservative media have attacked Wray over the issue, even though there’s no evidence the FBI and Wray have been uncooperative.
The FBI has said that under Wray, the bureau has cooperated with multiple investigations into the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe. Wray has assigned agents to some of Barr’s efforts to reinvestigate aspects of the Russia probe.
Barr has also come to Wray’s defense, saying that the FBI director has cooperated with multiple examinations Barr has ordered into the FBI’s handling of sensitive matters.
The President has long sought to discredit the Russia probe and special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings, doubting whether the FBI even had reason to open a full investigation into his campaign. He lashed out at Wray last year after the FBI backed an inspector general report that found the investigation into Russian election interference was properly launched.
CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi and David Shortell contributed to this report.
It’s the summer of 2020, and everyone seems to hate Big Tech.
Over the last three months, President Donald Trump has issued orders targeting not only Twitter, the highly politicized social media platform he uses incessantly, but TikTok, a Chinese-owned service known mainly as a place to share teen dance memes. Democrats used a high-profile congressional hearing in July to bash Google and Amazon, two of America’s most successful companies, for allegedly anti-competitive practices. And members of both political parties repeatedly went after Facebook for restricting too much speech—and for not restricting enough. Big Tech just can’t win.
In one sense, none of this is new. For the better part of the last decade, Silicon Valley has been on the outs. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have targeted it. Mainstream media has become increasingly critical. Ordinary people have begun to treat the internet, and the opportunities it has created, as a nuisance. Even as their products have transformed nearly every aspect of everyday life, large tech companies have been subject to increasingly negative public perception and attendant political attacks.
Yet for a brief moment this spring, as the U.S. shut down and stayed home in response to the coronavirus, it looked like American tech companies might be making a reputational comeback. With everyone trapped at home and indoors, Big Tech provided a lifeline, connecting Americans to food, entertainment, work, and each other. But America’s temporary truce with Big Tech wasn’t to last. Nearly five months into the pandemic, it appears any newfound goodwill earned by Silicon Valley has already been burned.
“There was a small window of time where everyone was grateful that technology was allowing us to continue to function as a society despite our inability to gather in physical spaces,” Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman tells Reason. “And yet that gratitude wore off so quickly. Everyone just went right back to hating on internet companies and forgetting all the great things we’re benefiting from today.”
Why the sudden reversal? Perhaps because the political battle against Big Tech—and attempts to make it a populist cause—has been based on a loose constellation of personal grievances, culture war opportunism, crime panic, and corporate rivalry—all of which were on display in a recent congressional hearing in which the top executives of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon were grilled, often inartfully, by members of Congress.
In theory, that hearing was focused on antitrust concerns. But members of both parties repeatedly brought up frustrations with how social media platforms and search engines were handling user content—a reminder that the future of Big Tech is inevitably bound up with the future of free speech. That same impulse was on display days later when Trump issued his executive order on the “threat posed by TikTok.” Somehow, the app had been caught in the middle of the culture war, the trade war, fears of a foreign power, and panic over social media speech and user privacy, all at once.
In the COVID-19 era, federal tech policy has become a vehicle for conspiratorial and authoritarian impulses of all kinds. Politicians attacking Big Tech have invoked Silicon Valley elites, Russian bots, Chinese spies, Middle Eastern terrorists, domestic sex predators, gun violence, revenge porn, internet addiction, “hate speech,” human trafficking, and the fate of democracy as reasons for action. Whatever works to distract people from their attempts to interfere in American freedom of expression, commerce, and privacy. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter—even platforms as seemingly superficial and politics-free as TikTok—have all been swept up into a wide-ranging political war on the foundations of online life and culture.
It might be working. Even as Big Tech has benefited ordinary people in countless ways, political backlash to the size and power of America’s largest technology companies—what some insiders call “techlash”—is coming stronger than ever. And it could make addressing everything from the pandemic to election integrity, cancel culture, criminal activity, police reform, racial justice, and state surveillance of our digital lives so much worse.
The Story of Section 230
So how did we get here? In many ways, the story starts in 1996, when the World Wide Web was relatively new and full of radical possibilities—and also potential for harm.
In response, Congress passed a law, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), that attempted to regulate online content and was mostly declared an unconstitutional, unenforceable mess. But the courts let one part be: Section 230. This short statute stipulates that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” That’s the first bit, and it’s vitally important for freedom of expression online because it gives tech companies less motivation to censor speech.
The second part, meanwhile, is more about protecting users from harmful content by assuring these companies that they won’t be penalized for “good faith” actions “to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected,” nor would providing “the technical means to restrict access to material” they find objectionable. The so-called “Good Samaritan” provision lets tech companies moderate and block some content without becoming targets for criminal charges or lawsuits.
Overall, it gave tech entities a way to protect their users’ (and their own) First Amendment rights without requiring a prolonged court battle for every single piece of disputed content. And for a long time, very few people, politicians, or interest groups thought this was a bad thing (to the extent that they had ever heard of this wonky internet law at all).
A decade later, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other web 2.0 technologies had shifted the balance of power on the internet to favor the masses over the gatekeepers. Time magazine declared “you”—the user of these digital services—the person of the year. In the Middle East and other conflicted areas, populist rebellions against autocratic leaders were spread internally and globally through Twitter. Meanwhile, in the U.S., social media has given rise to underrepresented voices and political ideas often ignored by establishment powers. Its ability to document and share police abuses against black Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond made it integral in launching a new civil rights and social justice movement. The internet was a force for individual empowerment, and thus for good.
But all that freedom—to speak, to share, to joke, to communicate, to connect—was messy. It allowed people to speak truth to power, and also to spread misinformation. It created new ways to shine light on injustice, and new means to perpetuate it. It gave politicians a more direct-to-the-people megaphone—and vice versa. It spread sociability and solidarity while simultaneously enabling identity trickery, scammers, saboteurs, scandals, and pile-ons. It gave a platform to vital information, ideas, and images as well as vile expressions of violence and hate. And, as the 2016 election approached, it became mired in increasingly angry partisan political disputes.
Within a few years, Republicans and Democrats in Congress could hardly agree about anything when it came to diagnosing issues with online life. But they coalesced around similar solutions: more federal regulations and criminal investigations. Using antitrust laws against sites and services that have gotten too popular. Suddenly, high-profile pundits and politicians—from former Vice President Joe Biden to a range of Republican senators to Fox News host Tucker Carlson to left-leaning newspaper columns—started calling for Section 230 to go. Big Tech was a threat, and it had to be contained.
Big Tech vs. Big Virus
Which brings us to the present, and COVID-19.
In the early days of the pandemic, Amazon deliveries seemed to be single-handedly keeping at least half of America stocked with groceries, hand sanitizer, and household supplies. Meanwhile, Zoom became the standout service for staying in touch.
During the worst days of personal protective gear shortages, Italian hospital horror stories, and general mass panic, Silicon Valley’s leading lights donated money and much-needed supplies. By the end of March, for example, Apple had announced it would donate some 2 million masks to medical workers, while Facebook and Tesla immediately offered hundreds of thousands of masks they’d had on hand for wildfires. Tesla also donated 1,200 ventilators when those were in short supply. Google gave away hundreds of millions in free ad space to groups working to combat COVID-19’s impact.
Meanwhile, social media allowed people to talk through new research and share ideas, as widespread videoconferencing—once the province of science fiction—allowed people to gather, exercise, hold business meetings, have happy hours, celebrate special occasions, and console distant loved ones from within their own homes.
And as businesses shuttered and economic turmoil spread, tech tools from peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo and Cash App to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, document sharing services like Google Docs, and myriad others allowed people to organize mutual aid funds, spread the word about volunteer initiatives, ask for help, give directly to those in need, and share specialized community resources.
Of course, COVID-19 also meant that people were—and are—more reliant on tech-mediated reality than ever before. Those excluded from or marginalized in certain digital arenas had more reason to grow resentful. Politicians had more reasons to want to grab control. All of us had more opportunities to muck things up by speaking too hastily or picking the wrong side of what seemed like a billion new battles a week.
In a pandemic, the internet’s freedoms were messier than ever. And that messiness fueled a new wave of tech-skeptical politics.
Coronavirus and the Crisis of Truth
Almost immediately, lawmakers began publicly bashing tech providers and calling for investigations. Amazon faced accusations of price gouging during the pandemic. Zoom was targeted as a threat to user privacy. In June, Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), a longtime critic of Google and Facebook, introduced legislation to curtail Section 230. Meanwhile, the country was erupting in protests and upheaval following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“We’re back to politicians spending time talking about Section 230 and breaking up platforms,” TechFreedom’s Ashkhen Kazaryan said in June, “while the country is still being torn apart by both racial injustice and the pandemic.”
Some of this renewed animosity was probably unavoidable, simply because so much contentious discourse is mediated through social media. Yvette Butler, an assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, thinks the pandemic has brought a heightened sense that social media platforms have a moral responsibility “to fact-check and promote the truth.”
Some of it has been spurred by tech leaders getting too political, or at least taking actions that are perceived that way.
“It’s both the fact that the political discourse has been very charged in the past few weeks and a lot of it has happened on these platforms, and the fact that by default the tech leaders are participating in the political dialogue,” says Kazaryan.
She thinks “the pressure point—the point of no return for this—was the protests for reopening America,” when Facebook angered a lot of people by banning pages for some anti-lockdown events. Then, Twitter and Snapchat actions against Trump’s accounts followed suit.
Michael Solana, vice president of the San Francisco–based Founders Fund, a venture capital firm that counts Peter Thiel and an array of other Silicon Valley heavyweights among its partners, suggests that gripes about social media are creating more than just a media-driven backlash this time. “The left now generally believes Facebook is why Trump won. The right believes they’re being censored by like five white Communists who went to the same school and now live in multi-million dollar homes in Atherton [California] and San Francisco,” he says. “Both sides seem to want blood.”
A day earlier, Twitter had affixed blue exclamation-point icons and links saying “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” beneath two Trump tweets about mail-in voting, in which the president had said “there is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent” and made false claims about California’s vote-by-mail process.
Trump’s subsequent order suggests that Twitter’s fact-check “clearly reflects political bias” and therefore somehow amounts to illegal censorship.
A private company cannot censor the president of the United States, at least not in the sense that they’d be violating the First Amendment, which protects private speech from government restrictions. But Trump’s order attempts to reposition free speech as forcing private companies to follow government-set content standards and forbidding them from countering false claims made by him and his administration.
The president’s order also completely mangles descriptions of Section 230 in the course of calling for it to be amended.
“When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators,” states the order.
In this passage and throughout the decree, Trump argues that companies cross a legal threshold by exercising judgment about user content and forfeit the right to be treated as legally separate from their users. Trump portrays all of this as the mandate laid out in Section 230.
But the idea that these companies must be some sort of neutral conduits of user speech (or else cross an imaginary legal line between being a “publisher” or “forum” or “platform”) is not just pure fiction but also the exact opposite of both the intent and the function of Section 230. The whole point of the law is to protect the editorial discretion and content moderation of tech companies.
“Section 230 was never meant to require neutrality,” said former Sen. Christopher Cox (R–Calif.), who co-authored Section 230 along with Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) some 25 years ago, at a July 28 hearing held by the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. “To the contrary, the idea is that every website should be free to come up with its own approach” to content moderation, Cox said.
Nonetheless, Trump’s order directs the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review ways that Twitter and other tech companies might be exhibiting bias and how this might be used to say Section 230 doesn’t apply to them. And, in July, the Department of Commerce formally asked the FCC to follow through.
The good news is that the FCC can do little to reinterpret a law whose statute is so clear, and at least several commissioners appear to have little interest in looking for interpretive wiggle room.
“The FCC shouldn’t take this bait,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a July 27 statement. “While social media can be frustrating, turning this agency into the President’s speech police is not the answer.”
“We’re an independent agency,” Commissioner Geoffrey Starks pointed out during a July 17 panel hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, adding that the “debate [about Section 230] belongs to Congress.”
It’s “so cartoonish that you would think people on his side would distance themselves from it,” says Goldman. Yet the order, “for all its cartoonishness, seems to be getting people in line instead of pushing them away.”
For Republicans, animosity toward Section 230 turns largely on alleged fears about anti-conservative bias from social media companies. “That [idea] has penetrated pretty deeply among the activist and politician class” on the right,” says Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network.
Though Graves thinks Trump’s executive order on social media is pure “political theater” and “won’t get anywhere by itself,” he notes that “there are a lot of other grievances” besides the alleged anti-conservative attitudes.
In early June, the American Principles Project—a newly launched think tank dedicated to promoting nationalist and Trump-friendly public policy—released a plan for altering Section 230 aimed at “protecting children from pornography and other harmful content” in “the digital public square.” Mike Masnick, executive editor of Techdirt, described the proposal as an attempt “to bring back the rest of the Communications Decency Act”—that is, the parts aside from Section 230, all of which were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy rights nonprofit, called the PACT Act “a serious effort to tackle a serious problem: that a handful of large online platforms dominate users’ ability to speak online.” But it opposes the bill because of well-founded fears of unintended consequences, including “more illegitimate censorship of user content” by dominant tech companies; its threat to “small platforms and would-be competitors to the current dominant players”; and the “First Amendment problems” it presents.
Democratic Senator and vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris has targeted Section 230 as part of her crusade against “revenge porn.”
And in response to Facebook refusing to remove an ad featuring false information about Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate said in January that “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately … for Zuckerberg and other platforms.”
People on both the right and the left “want to erode [Section 230] in order to put an affirmative pressure on platforms to be cops for various kinds of harms or illegal activities,” says Graves, “and there are people who think liability is the tool to do that.” The Overton window on the issue has been moved, he adds.
“It used to be a kind of sacred cow that people couldn’t touch” but now there are coalitions with well over 60 votes in the U.S. Senate to take action on Section 230 and even to revoke it, Graves says. “But it probably won’t be wholesale, it will be chipping away based on a feel-good cause.”
That’s exactly the point of the EARN IT Act. Proposed in March by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), the bill—which got a hearing in March and was placed on the Senate calendar in July—targets Section 230 under the guise of stopping the “online sexual exploitation of children.” It has a roster of prominent bipartisan co-sponsors, including Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.), Ted Cruz (R–Texas), Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.), and Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa).
The legislation that began this trend—the 2018 law, FOSTA—was also alleged to target online sexual exploitation and also enjoyed extremely bipartisan support. FOSTA was sold as a bill to target child sex traffickers, but really took aim at consensual adult prostitution and sex work more broadly, as well as online speech about these issues. (Prominent Democrats including Sens. Ro Khanna, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders have since backed legislation aimed at studying FOSTA’s impact and perhaps working toward its repeal, but it has yet to gain hardly any traction.)
The fight to abolish or severely restrict Section 230 shows “how tempting censorship is to all sides,” says Goldman. “Turns out that censorship is a bipartisan objective.”
Perhaps that explains why—with so many life-or-death matters on American minds right now and an election on the close horizon—authorities are still paying so much attention to relatively obscure tech policy laws and the content moderation moods of private companies.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging on, police brutality and racial justice issues under a microscope, and urgency around concerns like voter suppression, “you would think Section 230 would drop down the list” of things politicians spend time talking about, says Goldman. “But you know, censorship is like catnip to regulators.”
It’s anyone’s guess whether political focus on social media rules and internet regulation will persist as the 2020 election season really gets underway. “A lot depends on Trump,” says Goldman. “If he wants to keep banging this drum, that’s going to keep ratcheting up the pressure on Section 230.”
But even if backlash against Section 230 quiets down, there are no shortage of election-friendly issues for politicians and parties to wield against tech companies.
The latter was purportedly a probe into possible violations of federal antitrust law, but turned into a long, weird airing of grievances against tech companies that had little to do with anti-competitive business practices and often saw Democrats and Republicans proposing diametrically opposed solutions for these companies to adopt. At times, lawmakers from both parties went back and forth between demands for more content and users to be suppressed, and less.
The hearing hopped seemingly at random from topic to topic: Lawmakers asked about, among other things, social media content moderation, election integrity, fake news, privacy issues, data collection transparency, counterfeit products in online marketplaces, ideological diversity among tech company staff, court-ordered takedowns of speech, general support for “American values,” contracts with foreign governments, working with police and turning over user data without warrants, how search engines work, how Apple chooses what apps and podcasts to allow in its stores, and even how Gmail content gets marked as spam.
More than a few times, their questions made clear they had no idea what they were talking about. (One Republican asked Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, why the platform had taken down a post by Donald Trump, Jr., but the takedown had actually occurred on Twitter.) Their demands were often contradictory. The only clear implication of the hearing was this: There was no way for tech companies to win.
‘We Will Lose a Little Bit of Freedom’
Looked at one way, the techlash makes little sense since it comes at a time when Americans are relying more than ever on technology to mediate their lives. But that may be exactly why the industry has come under fire.
When it comes to the pandemic, “I do think there’s going to be a [tech policy] reaction,” says Arthur Rizer, “and I think that reaction is going to be that we will lose a little bit of freedom through technology for the sake of safety, as it historically has always been.” As one example, he points to the use of facial recognition technology by police departments who said it would only be used for solving certain serious crimes but recently admitted to “using it to find who was out and about during quarantine.”
“Every time this country faces an emergency,” Rizer says, “we kind of act poorly when it comes to our civil liberties.”
Kazaryan notes that a new California “privacy” law places serious burdens of time and money on any businesses that interact online—something that could prove tough right now, especially for small businesses, as people struggle to come back from the pandemic and lockdowns. Yet its requirements and effects have received little attention amid all the chaos right now.
Pressure from outside-government groups to ramp up regulation on digital media and tech companies could also grow if economic pressure gets worse.
Graves sees techlash partly as a normal response to “the growth in power and pervasiveness of the companies,” with them simply facing the same sort of interference and resistance that any mega-corporation gets from regulators and activists.
“Part of it is fears and anxieties” about the power they have. But another part of the push for new tech regulation is “opportunistic,” he adds, pointing to hotel industry lobbying against Section 230 because it benefits home-sharing companies like Airbnb, or newspapers lobbying against it because it helps their digital competitors.
“A lot of what’s driving the techlash is these sort of inter-industry fights,” not because “it’s the issue that people are thinking about when they’re going to the polling booth,” Graves says. And right now, with “a collapse in the advertising market [and] a lot more consolidation in some industries,” this sort of competition—and attempts to use government regulation to one side’s advantage—only stands to get worse.
In the case of TikTok, Chinese parent company ByteDance seems to have gotten caught up in two different political fights. The first is the Trump administration’s international power struggle with the Chinese government and associated worries that the Chinese government could order companies to turn over data about U.S. users. The second involves the president’s personal grievances with the app, after TikTok teens were rumored to have signed up for tickets to a Trump campaign rally and then not used them, leaving the president planning for heavy rally attendance that didn’t pan out.
In addition to political threats and competitive pressure, large tech companies—particularly Facebook—are facing demands from progressive activists and identity-based interest groups to crack down on more speech. Earlier this summer, groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP “helped push hundreds of companies, such as Unilever and Best Buy, to pause their advertising on Facebook to protest its handling of toxic speech and misinformation,” as The New York Times reported. Misinformation fears and activism around them seems only likely to increase as the election heats up and the pandemic wears on. And that means pressure to crack down is likely to increase.
Techlash Could Make Coping With COVID-19 and Documenting Police Abuse More Difficult
If and when that happens, it will be our loss.
Not only does the political obsession with regulating and punishing Big Tech distract from more pressing issues, from police abuse to the economic downturn due to pandemic-related lockdowns, it also makes it more likely that we will struggle to address those problems.
Think about all the ways digital tools and tech companies have ensured access to up-to-date and diverse information during the pandemic. Think about all the online streaming services, interactive video games, e-book purveyors, podcast makers, and apps that have been keeping us entertained. The many kinds of free chat services letting us keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues. The online educational tools helping to make homeschooling at least somewhat tenable. All the crowdfunding donation platforms, people-powered marketplaces like Etsy and eBay, and gig economy apps from Uber to Patreon that are helping people make ends meet.
It’s fair to say this is far from ideal. But without today’s technology, it would be so much worse.
Now think about the recent pushback against law enforcement being able to hurt and kill people—especially black Americans—with impunity. Think about the way we’ve seen police and federal agents react in recent weeks to protesters and the press covering them.
Think about how much of that would still have happened without not just smartphones and digital video but also quick, accessible, and gatekeeper-free ways to share and spread that video.
Without social media, “there are so many important conversations that would have never happened,” says Kazaryan, referring to recent protests and activism around police racism and brutality. In addition, she points out, “tech companies have been creating jobs and providing tools for people to do their jobs” while we deal with the coronavirus.
A more immediate consequence of anti-Section 230 efforts will be forcing social media companies—and the rest of the internet along with them—to crack down on content from users and ratchet up content and account removals.
By seriously raising the legal hoops that these entities must jump through to defend their First Amendment rights, and the potential legal liabilities if they can’t, the government will leave online speech platforms with little choice but to severely curtail the amount and types of speech allowed—thereby increasing the social media “censorship” problems that Trump and company say they’re out to fix. The only other sound strategy for these companies is to give up on content moderation entirely to avoid any way of “knowing” about bad content—thereby increasing the amount of obscene, violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content which anti-Section 230 laws claim to thwart.
So what looked like a moment of redemption might turn out, instead, to be a tipping point in the other direction. “I think that the fundamental forces driving the techlash are going to be made worse, not better, by COVID,” says Graves.
“Whatever goodwill that [tech companies] have picked up is either gone or [has] been spent,” Rizer says.
Civil rights attorney Leo Terrell blasted presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris as “not qualified” and called her an “affirmative action” choice during a Tuesday night segment of Fox News’ “Hannity.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection of the California senator, announced Tuesday, was praised by Democrats and celebrities, criticized by President Donald Trump, and even respected as “formidable” by Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, but Terrell told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he long ago promised to vote for Trump if Harris became the choice.
“Listen, for the next 84 days, I’m not sleeping,” Terrell said. “Before I endorsed President Trump, I said if Kamala Harris is selected, I’m voting Republican. And she got selected. I want to be very clear to the American public. Kamala Harris was selected for two reasons. Because she’s a woman and because of her race. That’s called affirmative action. She’s not qualified to be a vice president. She’s not qualified to be one heartbeat away from the highest office in the land.”
“This woman has gone so far left,” he continued. “If you like your health care, she wants to take it away. She believes in socialized medicine. She has no principles or no scruples. And also – what is important – the only thing she’s truthful about is one thing. She called Joe Biden a racist. That is what she’s correct about.”
While Harris did say she did “not believe” that Biden was “a racist” during a Democratic presidential debate last June, she did criticize the former vice president’s opposition to forced busing as well as his positive references to pro-segregationist senators while he was a senator in the 1970’s.
Documents recently released by the Senate Intelligence Committee indicate that there were strong doubts about the reliability of the Steele Dossier as early as December 2016. As the FBI and CIA worked together to create an Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) to present to President Barack Obama, those in the CIA camp, according to the now-declassified interviews conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee, worried that the FBI was playing up the Steele Dossier too much.
Sen. Lindsey Graham released a statement on the Senate Judiciary Committee website in which he addressed the newly declassified documents:
“This document clearly shows that the FBI was continuing to mislead regarding the reliability of the Steele dossier. The FBI did to the Senate Intelligence Committee what the Department of Justice and FBI had previously done to the FISA Court: mischaracterize, mislead and lie. The characterizations regarding the dossier were completely out of touch with reality in terms of what the Russian sub-source actually said to the FBI.
“What does this mean? That Congress, as well as the FISA Court, was lied to about the reliability of the Russian sub-source. I will be asking FBI Director Wray to provide me all the details possible about how the briefing was arranged and who provided it.
“Inspector General Horowitz’s team found this briefing document. Inspector General Horowitz and his team deserve great credit for uncovering systematic fraud at the Department of Justice surrounding the Carter Page FISA warrant. I’m also very appreciative of the Department of Justice’s release of the FBI document used to brief the Senate Intelligence Committee.”
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson says he has subpoenaed the FBI to produce documents to his committee related to the Trump-Russia investigation
ERIC TUCKER Associated Press
August 10, 2020, 7:22 PM
4 min read
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said Monday that he has subpoenaed the FBI to produce documents to his committee related to the Trump-Russia investigation.
The Wisconsin senator also defended a separate investigation he is leading into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Ukraine, even as Democrats say the probe has the effect of amplifying Russian propaganda and as U.S. intelligence officials say they have assessed that Russia is working to denigrate Biden ahead of the November election.
Johnson’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is one of multiple Republican-led Senate panels scrutinizing the FBI’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Another, the Judiciary Committee, has released a series of documents in recent weeks aimed at discrediting the probe, including material on Sunday that the chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, said raised questions about whether the FBI had misled Congress about the accuracy of information it received during the investigation.
The subpoena demands that the FBI produce by Aug. 20 the records that it gave to the Justice Department inspector general’s office, which concluded in a report last December that the Russia investigation had been opened for a valid reason but that the FBI had made significant errors during its surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser.
The FBI said in a statement that it had received the subpoena and that the bureau had already been producing documents and information for Johnson’s committee. ”As always, the FBI will continue to cooperate with the Committee’s requests, consistent with our law enforcement and national security obligations,” the statement said.
In a separate statement on Sunday, the FBI said it was continuing to cooperate with the Judiciary Committee’s investigation.
The FBI also said it had “surged resources” to be able to continue producing documents to the committee on a rolling basis.
Johnson publicized the subpoena along with a more than 5,000-word open letter in which he sought to explain the basis for his scrutiny of the Russia investigation and to defend his Biden probe against allegations that he was amplifying Russian disinformation.
“I felt it was important to provide this explanation of my investigations because of the concerted and coordinated attacks on my efforts that I have interpreted as a ‘brush back pitch’ to deter my actions and preemptively marginalize my committee’s findings,” Johnson wrote in an email sent to reporters.
He said he was concerned that the media was preparing to taint his committee’s findings as an extension of Russian propaganda. Democrats in recent weeks have expressed alarm about the probe, and a statement Friday by William Evanina, the U.S. government’s chief counterintelligence official, called out by name a pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker who has spread leaked recordings about Biden meant to undermine the Democrat’s campaign.
Johnson denied Monday receiving information from that lawmaker, Andrii Derkach, or being part of any Russian disinformation effort.
“As always, almost all of the documents we are seeking and will make public are from U.S. sources,” Johnson wrote in the letter.
The Biden-Ukraine issue is a politically freighted one, particularly after President Donald Trump urged his Ukraine counterpart in a July 2019 phone call to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who was a paid board member of a Ukraine gas company called Burisma Holdings. That phone call formed the basis of Trump’s impeachment by the House in December. He was acquitted by the Senate in February.
Hunter Biden has denied using his influence with his father to aid Burisma, and Biden has denied speaking with his son about his overseas business dealings.
Trump and his allies have raised questions about Biden’s move as vice president in 2016 to pressure the Ukrainian government to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who had previously led an investigation into Burisma’s owner.
Biden was representing the official position of the U.S. government, a position that was also supported by other Western governments.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP
Newly declassified documents show that the FBI misled Congress regarding the reliability of the Steele dossier, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Sunday.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham chairs, is currently conducting an investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane probe, whose stated aim was to uncover alleged collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
One document released by the committee on Sunday is an FBI draft of talking points for a February 2018 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russia investigation. The talking points, uncovered by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, seek to give the impression that the Steele dossier’s “Primary Sub-Source” for intelligence was reliable.
The Primary Sub-Source “did not cite any significant concerns with the way his reporting was characterized in the dossier to the extent he could identify it,” according to the talking points.
However, the FBI knew in early 2017 that the Primary Sub-Source had cast doubt on the dossier’s claims that Trump-campaign officials and Russian operatives were working together. The Primary Sub-Source in fact told FBI agents in 2017 that there was “zero” corroboration for some of the allegations in the dossier.
The 2018 memo “clearly shows that the FBI was continuing to mislead regarding the reliability of the Steele dossier. The FBI did to the Senate Intelligence Committee what the Department of Justice and FBI had previously done to the FISA Court: mischaracterize, mislead and lie,” Graham said in a press release. “What does this mean? That Congress as well as the FISA Court was lied to about the reliability of the Russian sub-source. I will be asking FBI Director Wray to provide me all the details possible about how the briefing was arranged and who provided it.”
IG Horowitz’s report on the FBI’s attempts to obtain FISA warrants for former Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page revealed “at least 17 significant errors or omissions” in those applications.
Democrats immediately panned the executive actions. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, appearing Sunday morning on ABC News’ “This Week,” called them “paltry.”
“Unfortunately, the president’s executive orders, described in one word, could be paltry; in three words, unworkable, weak and far too narrow,” the New York Democrat said. “The event at the country club is just what Trump does, a big show, but it doesn’t do anything.”
A White House official on Saturday saidthe president had the “upper hand” by moving forward with actions and showing how little the Democrats were willing to actually negotiate.
“It just shows Trump is willing to get things done and work on the weekends, unlike Chuck and Nancy,” said Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser, referring to the minority leader and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But throughout negotiations the president himself was largely missing, although he said he was updated regularly by his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. And while the country has been rocked by the pandemic, the president has not spoken to Pelosi since last year, and suggested he wouldn’t anytime soon.
“We’ll see what happens, but right now they’re not ready,” Trump said, referring to Democratic lawmakers. “And they’re not ready because, frankly, I don’t think they care about people.”
The president was happy with how the news conferences went, according to aides, especially in the company of members from his club. Some came straight from happy hour holding glasses of wine.
Ahead of the first news conference, according to CNN, the president was heard on a microphone telling members: “You’ll get to meet the fake news tonight. You’ll get to see what I have to go through. Who’s there? Oh, all my killers are there, wow. So you’ll get to see some of the people that we deal with every day.”
People in the room booed and hissed when a reporter asked why members at his club appeared to be flaunting New Jersey guidelines by crowding into the room. Trump called it a “peaceful protest” at his country club.
“You know, you have an exclusion in the law. It says peaceful protest or political activity, right?” Trump said. “I call it a peaceful protest because they heard you were coming up and they know the news is fake, they know it better than anybody.”
The weekend was meant to help Trump reset. On Friday, the president met with his top campaign advisers, including Bill Stepien and Jason Miller, at Bedminster, and spent time Friday and Saturday with one of his closest allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). On Saturday morning, Trump and Graham called into a South Carolina Republican Party meeting, according to a person familiar. First lady Melania Trump and their son Barron spent the weekend at Bedminster, too.
The weekend away was also part of a big fundraising push by the Republican National Committee. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel traveled with the president on Marine One and accompanied him at exclusive fundraisers on Thursday in Ohio, and then over the weekend in the Hamptons and New Jersey. On Saturday, Trump got a boost from hobnobbing with friends at fundraisers at the ritzy homes of the Wall Street billionaire John Paulson and Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., in the Hamptons that raised $15 million for Trump Victory.
His Sunday fundraiser took place on the shore of New Jersey in Long Branch, where people acted as if there was no pandemic. Supporters, not socially distanced and without masks, crowded along the side of the road to see the president.
But even though the pandemic seemed far away for some of the public in New Jersey, the president had a gut-wrenching reminder of the virus’s toll when he visited. His final fundraiser of the weekend was held at the home of Stanley Chera, an old friend of the president’s and a fellow real estate tycoon who died of the coronavirus this spring.
“A great person, and a very early supporter,” Trump said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.”
President Trump signs executive actions regarding coronavirus economic relief during a news conference in Bedminster, N.J., on Saturday. A number of lawmakers are criticizing the measures’ substance and constitutionality.
Jim Watson /AFP via Getty Images
Jim Watson /AFP via Getty Images
President Trump signs executive actions regarding coronavirus economic relief during a news conference in Bedminster, N.J., on Saturday. A number of lawmakers are criticizing the measures’ substance and constitutionality.
Jim Watson /AFP via Getty Images
Democrats on Sunday slammed President Trump’s executive actions aimed at providing economic relief during the coronavirus pandemic, saying the measures are both ineffective and unconstitutional.
Trump signed three memoranda and one executive order at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort on Saturday amid stalled negotiations with Congress over a new COVID-19 relief package.
The measures would extend some federal unemployment benefits, continue the suspension of student loan repayment, defer payroll tax collection for many workers, and task federal officials with reviewing “resources that may be used to prevent evictions and foreclosures.”
Some lawmakers and experts are voicing concerns about the president’s moves to control federal spending, which is a power reserved for Congress.
Andrew Rudalevige, chair of the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College, told NPR on Saturday that the unemployment benefits measure is particularly controversial because it is “really using appropriated funds by Congress in ways that Congress might not have intended.”
Trump calls for using billions of unused dollars from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund for the unemployment payments.
Rudalevige added that he expects legal challenges to move “fairly rapidly,” citing the specific measures regarding unemployment appropriations and the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare.
“The president can defer the payroll tax, but he can’t forgive it,” Rudalevige said. “He talked about terminating the tax [if he wins reelection], but that would certainly require a law to do that. So I think you will see pushback here.”
Pushback from lawmakers was swift, and mounted over the weekend. Mostly it came from Democrats, but from some conservatives too.
“Our Constitution doesn’t authorize the president to act as king whenever Congress doesn’t legislate,” said Libertarian-leaning Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party last year to become an independent.
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote in a statement that Trump does not have the power to “unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law.”
“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” he said.
But several members of the Trump administration defended the president’s actions on Sunday.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow responded to Sasse’s comments about the payroll tax deferral on ABC’s This Week. “I appreciate those things, maybe we’re going to go to court on them,” Kudlow said. “We’re going to go ahead with our actions anyway. Our counsel’s office, the Treasury Department believes it has the authority to temporarily suspend tax collections, so we’re banking on that.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said all of the actions cleared the administration’s Office of Legal Counsel. He warned against potential challengers.
“If Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hard-working Americans that are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday.
Rudalevige told NPR that it is “conceivable” that Congress itself could have standing to sue over the question of unemployment appropriations, and noted that the House sued then-President Barack Obama over spending on the Affordable Care Act.
In an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump’s executive actions unconstitutional but sidestepped a question about whether she would sue to block them.
“My constitutional advisers tell me they’re absurdly unconstitutional, and that’s a parallel thing,” Pelosi said. “Right now the focus, the priority, has to be on … meeting the needs of the American people.”
In response to a question about whether a future stimulus package would make the executive actions null and void, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told NBC’s Meet the Press that there would be no need for the president to act if Congress could come to an agreement.
“The Lord and the Founding Fathers created executive orders because of partisan bickering and divided government,” he said.
Several GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, praised the president for taking action but said they would prefer a congressional agreement, with Alexander calling on Democrats to “stop blocking commonsense proposals.”
Democratic leaders also called for a return to negotiations, saying the president’s measures fall short.
In a joint statement issued Saturday evening, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the executive actions “unworkable, weak and narrow.”
They said the measures will cut families’ unemployment benefits from the recently expired $600-a-week benefits, exacerbate states’ budget crises, and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare. And they said Trump’s actions ignore important issues like increasing testing, reopening schools and safeguarding elections.
The leaders urged Republicans to “return to the table, meet us halfway and work together to deliver immediate relief to the American people.”
Talks on Capitol Hill to reach a new COVID-19 relief bill have stalled, with Republicans and Democrats still trillions of dollars apart after weeks of negotiations.
Schumer said on ABC’s This Week that Democrats had been willing to compromise on their $3.4 trillion bill, with Pelosi suggesting to White House negotiators that Democrats go down $1 trillion and Republicans go up $1 trillion.
“They said absolutely not,” Schumer said. “I said to them, ‘This means it’s your way or the highway?’ And they basically said yes. That is not the way to create a deal.”
Both Schumer and Pelosi reiterated on Sunday that they hope talks will resume.
Mnuchin told Fox that Democrats refuse to negotiate on state and local aid and enhanced unemployment benefits, but that on almost every other issue “we’ve come to an agreement.”