Why the Russian/Trump collusion probes matter

INDIANAPOLIS — In the eyes of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the emerging scandal of Russian collusion with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the sprawling investigations peeling off in its wake are as much of a wakeup call as, perhaps, the Russian Revolution that transpired a century ago.

“If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” Clapper testified before Congress on May 8.

In President Trump’s view, the probes are “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Trump’s outrage at the Russia probe, which challenges the legitimacy of his stunning upset last November, prompted him to impulsively fire FBI Director James Comey last week. Trump told NBC: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

On Wednesday, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose memo was used by Trump and Vice President Pence as the rationale for dismissing Comey over his investigation of the Clinton emails. The embarrassed Rosenstein may have resuscitated his stellar reputation by installing Mueller to lead a no-nonsense investigation that could rock the White House.

Conventional wisdom has been that Trump would have won the presidential election despite Russia’s attempt to influence the election. The nagging statistic is that a swing of about 180,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would have given Democrat Hillary Clinton the victory most assumed she would have, despite running a very poor campaign.

TIME magazine’s cover story this week sends some chilling doubt into that conventional wisdom. While the United States won the Cold War, the Russians are dominating the social media wars to the point that it may have changed the outcome of an American presidential election. President Putin blamed then Secretary of State Clinton for using social media to stir up protests in 70 Russian cities during 2011 that challenged his authoritarian control.

Social media is having a significant impact in the political arena. It played a key role in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that overthrew the Mubarak regime. In 2012, the campaign of Democratic superintendent candidate Glenda Ritz used the Tahrir Square model to forge a social media link to the vast Indiana education network in her shocking upset over Republican Supt. Tony Bennett.

TIME reports: Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces.

“Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., told TIME. He ran a Pentagon research program on social media propaganda threats.

While President Trump calls media outlets like the one you’re holding or reading “fake news,” the 2016 presidential race was teeming with real fake news (gotta love that phrase). TIME notes that on Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral when Mrs. Clinton fainted on Sept. 11. There were Facebook planted stores that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and another surfacing just prior to the election that Clinton and her team operated a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza joint.

This came on top of the WikiLeaks fueled by the exposed Clinton campaign emails, with Trump allies like Roger Stone and Rudy Giuliani predicting in early October that Clinton will be “done,” using the reference of the hashtag “#Wikileaks.”

TIME reported there is evidence that key swing voters were being drawn to fake news stories and anti-Clinton stories online. Google searches for the fake pedophilia story circulating under the hashtag #pizzagate, for example, were disproportionately higher in swing districts and not in districts likely to vote for Trump.

This goes beyond the political realm. TIME reports that Russian malware has been sent in “expertly tailored messages” about the Oscars or sports to 10,000 Department of Defense twitter users. “When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer and Twitter account,” the article details. The nightmare scenario emerging is that in a national calamity like Sept. 11, bots and algorithms could take over and spread misinformation. Experts posed this question: “What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States?”

I am disturbed by all the loose “impeachment” talk these days. Rebuking the 62 million Americans who voted for Trump would be a wrenching development. But whether you’re a Trump supporter or not, the emerging Russian collusion probes will explore the exploitations of the very foundations of American democracy and the institutions that have kept it viable for more than two centuries.

James Clapper is correct: This goes to the very core of our system.

Brian Howey is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at (317) 506-0883 or at howeypolitics.com.

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