Friday News Analysis — August 24, 2018 Glenn Nye on John McCain; Nobody Here Said “Impeachment”; Microsoft Goes After the Phishers; and other stories you may have missed
Happy Friday from our nation’s capital. Usually the end of August is a news graveyard, when policy wonks like ourselves would need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find stories that would stay fresh long enough for us to analyze. Let’s just say that this was not a normal week in late August. This project is still a work in progress and we welcome your feedback and suggestions. We can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Statement from CSPC President Glenn Nye on Senator John McCain
John McCain is a titan of the American political system and everyone in the CSPC family feels a profound sadness that his condition has deteriorated to the point that he has elected to suspend medical treatment. Senator McCain’s long career of dedicated public service and lifelong commitment to our highest ideals transcends the boxes into which we try to place political figures. That he has now come to the end of his battle with cancer should force all Americans to take pause and reflect on what this man and his leadership have meant to our nation.
When CSPC launched our Commission on Civility and Effective Governance we sought to find ways to stop the advance of ever-greater partisanship, zero-sum governance and tribal gridlock in Congress. Senator McCain is the archetype of a legislator who would not fall into this trap and we can only hope that the future provides room for men and women to follow in his footsteps and fight tirelessly out of love of country.
Before he embarked on his more than three decades in Congress, John McCain began his life in the Navy, and I would like to bid him farewell with an old Navy blessing:
Senator McCain, we wish you fair winds and following seas. We have the watch.
Who’s Afraid of the I-Word?
“In coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office…”
With those thirteen words in the plea of Michael Cohen, a link has been made between President Trump and the illegal payments to keep stories about then-Candidate Trump’s extramarital affairs out of the 2016 presidential campaign. In an administration already clouded by a range of scandals and crises, Tuesday was indeed a dark day, as courtroom drama in Alexandria and New York respectively made the President’s 2016 campaign manager and his personal attorney convicted felons. In The Atlantic, Ben Wittes best summed up the legal impact to President Trump:
The most damaging thing that happened yesterday to Trump was not that his former lawyer alleged under oath that Trump had directed him in the commission of crimes. It was that the United States Department of Justice allowed him to enter a guilty plea whose factual basis was that Trump had directed him in the commission of a crime.
President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but it is now clear that he brought his own swamps to town — his personal behavior, his business ties, and the campaign’s increasingly less-nebulous ties to Russia. For President Trump’s supporters, “a sitting President cannot be indicted” is not advantageous ground to be fighting upon. With models suggesting a likely-Democratic majority in the House, impeachment talk is growing.
Should the Democrats take the House, whether or not to pursue impeachment will be the biggest question of political strategy they’ll face. The Senate will likely be at-or-near a 50–50 split, far short of the 67 votes needed for an impeached President to be removed from office. It would likely freeze both sides of the aisle into stalemate, and set the stage for a two-year back-and-forth leading up to the 2020 election. Thus, an impeachment move by the House would be the political equivalent of a World War I charge — loud, costly, and futile.
That said, with Democrats in control of the House, there are a range of oversight powers, subpoena powers, etc. that can be employed to investigate a range of aspects of the Trump Administration. From the President’s personal tax returns to the decision-making at Cabinet-level agencies, a Democratically-led House could use a wide range of tools to stymie the Trump Administration’s agenda. Even with a potentially GOP-held Senate and President Trump in the White House, Democrats could bury administration officials in oversight hearings, force them to hire expensive outside counsel, and publicize a range of controversial administration actions that have occurred in the background as most public and media attention has been focused on the more salacious scandals — e.g. immigration and family separations; Cabinet members’ financial conflicts, relaxed EPA rules; trade policy, etc.
Facing the limitations of divided government, this would still allow Democrats to bog down the White House and, potentially, change the political calculus heading into 2020 by unveiling further Trump scandals and allowing for the bandwidth to develop a vision for Democratic policy alternatives. This would be the political equivalent of guerilla warfare — a stark contrast to trench warfare of impeachment.
This all assumes that there aren’t developments in the ongoing investigations that replace the clouds surrounding the administration with a smoking gun related to other illegal activities or foreign interference. This strategy also places an emphasis on removing President Trump at the 2020 election, not through impeachment or resignation. For Democrats, and those Republicans who seek to retake their party from “Trumpism,” this may be the most enduring strategy they can approach. The political Götterdämmerung needed to truly address Trumpism can only come from the ballot box.
Microsoft Busts Up Russian Phishing Expedition
On Tuesday, Microsoft announced that they had disrupted phony versions of six websites set up by Russian intelligence to conduct phishing campaigns linked to the midterm elections. The six website domains were allegedly owned by “Fancy Bear,” also known as APT28, a front for the Russian military intelligence (GRU) service that was involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign. The groups targeted by this Russian operation include two conservative think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, which investigated Russian-linked kleptocracy and supported democracy and human rights. The other phony websites are designed to look like they are connected to the United States Senate and Microsoft product-support sites.
The Russian government is clearly still using cyber means and intelligence operations to influence the public discourse in the United States. This announcement also highlights the important role played by American technology firms in these operations. Adversary intelligence services use Facebook and Twitter to reach into the lives of Americans and directly target them with false or misleading information because of the growing role those companies play in our mindspaces. When the GRU wanted to steal John Podesta’s login credentials, Fancy Bear impersonated Google in order to take advantage of Gmail’s massive user penetration. Microsoft continues to be a critical part of the networking and computing infrastructure for both corporations and individuals and so it is also used as a vector for attacks.
Microsoft has taken a very proactive stance against Russian-linked phishing operations in recent months. In 2016, the company sued Fancy Bear for infringing on its trademarks by creating phony versions of Microsoft websites. Believe it or not, the shadowy hacker group that is tied to the clandestine intelligence service of a foreign power did not appear in court to answer Microsoft’s suit. The Daily Beast reports that Microsoft serves Fancy Bear with legal papers on the disposable accounts used to register fake websites, after which they take control of parts the cyber infrastructure that the GRU uses to direct traffic to its fake sites and disable them.
Microsoft is also more vocal in attributing the creation of these fake sites to a particular actor than many other cyber firms. Attribution is often very difficult, but Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit works closely with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence services to monitor malicious web traffic and undermine phishing attempts. In the future, it might be possible for the U.S. government to cooperate with American technology firms to mold norms for a cyber rules of the road, like the way that the centrality of the Wall Street enables the international sanctions regimes that target terrorists, rogue states, and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.
Other Stories You May Have Missed
Verizon throttled fire department’s ‘unlimited’ plan during California wildfire
*interesting about the tangential net neutrality factor, as well as the buildout of cellular based public safety comms
Scott Morrison is new Australian PM as Malcolm Turnbull ousted
Australia is doing its best to be Italy of the antipodes, but the divides in their Liberal Party increasingly resemble the tumult of the GOP
Israeli questioning of US Jews at border exposes deeper rift
Actions by Israeli border agents to question Jewish activists raise questions about divide between increasingly liberal US Jewish community and the increasingly conservative nature of Israel
The Senate postponed a bipartisan bill to create election cyber safeguards
State officials expressed concerns that it would be an underfunded mandate and the White House argued that it would nationalize election rules. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) agreed to put the bill on hold once it became clear that GOP support was slipping from the once-bipartisan bill.