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Mueller's Focus on Social Media is Red Hot

Special counsel Robert Mueller's marching orders are to see if Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. Everything else is derived from that. One area that is now red hot, according to NBC, is Mueller's focus on social media. Mueller wants to know if Russia was able to manipulate public opinion—and thus indirectly, the election results—by using social media. This includes posting fake news, buying ads on various social media Websites, using botnets to post thousands of tweets favorable to Trump, and probably much more.

Buying a botnet army to send out thousands of tweets is cheap—really cheap. A Daily Beast investigation showed that a Russian company, Buy Accs, offers 1,000 Twitter accounts for $45. The company claims that all the accounts are legal. Setting up an account requires passing a CAPTCHA test to prove you are a human. Fortunately, there are humans around the globe who will solve 1,000 CAPTCHA puzzles for $2, so setting up 1,000 accounts isn't hard for Buy Accs. If you want vintage accounts from 2008 to 2013, so Twitter is less likely to flag them as fake, they are naturally more expensive, just as aged wine is more expensive than this year's harvest. Buying 1,000 vintage accounts will set you back $150. Other inexpensive software easily purchased can post tweets, follow other users, and more. One Russian company is offering 25,000 to 45,000 proxies spread around the world for $100/week. In short, manipulating social media big time is amazingly easy and cheap, and you don't need any serious computer skills to become a botmaster. If it is this easy for rank amateurs, just imagine what serious professionals could do.

Facebook has admitted that it recently found $100,000 in ad spending from fake accounts probably owed by the Russians. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former telecommunications company executive, said that the $100,000 is just the tip of the iceberg. It appears he's right, since late in the day on Wednesday, news broke that the Russians were apparently using Facebook to organize anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rallies in Texas and Idaho, among other places.

Richard Ledgett, the former deputy director of the National Security Agency, said that Facebook and the other social media companies were probably unaware that they were "useful idiots" because the NSA itself wasn't even aware of it. The NSA knew that Russia might try to meddle, but it was looking abroad for the meddling, not inside the U.S. He also said that the problem might be hard to fix due to constitutional concerns. Also, he noted that a concerted effort to stop future meddling requires clear direction from the top, and that is not likely to be forthcoming from the Trump administration, since the president himself has gone on record many times saying there was no meddling. (V)

The Flynns Are Pretty Hot, Too

When Robert Mueller's team isn't busy scouring Facebook these days, they are pursuing plenty of other leads, including putting the screws to Michael G. Flynn, son of former Trump NSA Michael T. Flynn, who once worked for his father's lobbying firm. This news comes on the same day that Congressional Democrats advised Mueller of their belief that Flynn Sr. tried to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Russia, which—if true—was not only undisclosed, but was also being negotiated while Flynn was a member of the Trump administration.

Given his past history, we can only assume that Mueller's game is to get one Flynn or the other to flip on the president. Actually, the likeliest reading of things is that Mueller believes Flynn Sr. might sacrifice himself for Trump, but not his son. If the special counsel can plausibly threaten that both men will go to prison, that might pry whatever information Flynn Sr. has out of him. This rather aggressive interpretation is supported by Congressional Republicans who, off the record, say they believe that Mueller is "going for the kill" on Trump, and in particular is zeroing in on an obstruction of justice charge. The Donald has had many enemies in his life, but certainly has never faced anyone with this kind of skill, this level of persistence, and this kind of imperviousness to any and all threats. In the past, Trump solved his biggest problems with a combination of lawsuits and settlements. Not going to work this time. (Z)

Conservatives Now Worry about Chuck & Nancy & Steve & Gary

Conservatives weren't the slight bit happy when Donald Trump cut a deal with Chuck (Schumer) and Nancy (Pelosi). Now they are worried about a couple more Democrats: Chairman of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, who is a registered Democrat, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who is a registered Republican but who has contributed to Democratic candidates in the past. What they are deeply worried about is that these two will craft a tax reform plan that isn't what the House Freedom Caucus wants. Worse yet, if the Freedom Caucus shoots down Plan A, the fear is that these two will work with Donald Trump's new best friends, Chuck and Nancy, to craft a Plan B that the Democrats like. Such a plan is likely to cut the taxes of middle-class taxpayers and pay for it by eliminating loopholes the rich use. Their deepest fear is that if a bill passes both chambers of Congress with all the Democrats and a handful of pants-wetting Republicans voting for it, Donald Trump will sign it, because all he cares about is "winning." (V)

Trump, Democrats Reach DACA Deal...Or Not

It would appear that GOP fears of continued Trump-Democratic cooperation were well-founded, because the administration and the Democratic leadership appear to have reached a deal to preserve DACA. According to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), they have traded increased border security, but no wall, in exchange for legal protection for the dreamers. The White House, for its part, acknowledges that a deal has been reached, but said that the "no wall" part was not included in the deal. All of this came to light late Wednesday night, so presumably on Thursday it will become clear if there is actually an agreement, or if everything is going to fall apart.

With that said, nobody involved is disputing that some sort of deal was made, and that the President is willing to personally take steps to save DACA. This, of course, leaves us with yet another Trump conundrum (conuntrump?): Why would he kill DACA in one week, and then save it the next? We can only guess, so let's hazard a few:

Could be any or all of the above, though we certainly favor the last theory. In any event, we should know a little more by the end of the day today. (Z)

Mnuchin, Sanders Both Step in It

In a world where terms like "obstruction of justice" and "abuse of power" and "impeachment" are thrown around on a regular basis, lower-level offenses barely seem to register. But a lot of those are happening too, as became clear on Wednesday. To start, news leaked that when Steve Mnuchin went on his honeymoon, he tried to wangle the use of a government jet. His official reason was so that he would have a secure communications channel available in the event of a crisis. Because, of course, what would America do if there was a nuclear strike incoming and the Treasury Secretary couldn't be reached? Given that this is the second time in a month that Mnuchin has been caught with his hand in the government-airplane cookie jar, the explanation doesn't seem particularly believable.

Mnuchin wasn't the only one to get into a little hot water this week. On Tuesday, ESPN personality Jemele Hill wrote a series of scathing tweets about Donald Trump. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders decided to comment on the matter, and suggested that Hill should be fired from her job. The problem here is that it is illegal for federal employees to try to influence the employment decisions of private entities "solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation." Sanders probably did break the law, though she's in a gray area, and in any case, the current DoJ is not likely to go after her.

Again, these are relatively minor breaches, and nothing that is likely to lead to three years doing macramé at a minimum-security federal prison. But missteps add up, and sometimes small mistakes turn into big ones. It's not enough to be "careful" if an official wants to avoid trouble in modern politics; it's necessary to be hyper-vigilant. Borderline paranoid, even. But the cues on this issue come from above and, as we all well know, ethics is not something that Donald Trump particularly cares about. The problem is that, even if he somehow escapes Russiagate unscathed, his administration might end up being brought down by what the Chinese call lingchi, aka "death by a thousand cuts." This, in essence, is what happened to George W. Bush. (Z)

Flake Is in Deep Trouble

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the two most endangered Republican senators in 2018, has to deal with a double whammy. First, a new poll by GBA Strategies shows that he has a 25% favorability rating among Republican primary voters. Among all voters, 34% approve of the job he is doing and 59% do not. More specifically, against primary opponent Kelli Ward, Ward is leading Flake 58% to 31%. Although GBA Strategies is a left-leaning firm, it wouldn't make up such lopsided numbers because it would lose all credibility if the next three neutral polls showed Flake ahead. And this is before Donald Trump starts campaigning for Ward and Steve Bannon throws in a few million of Robert Mercer's dollars on her behalf.

Even if Flake can somehow recover and get to the general election, he's not out of the woods by any means. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is leading him in the general election by a margin of 47% to 40%.

The situation for Flake is even worse than the numbers indicate because to gain ground in the primary, he will have to stop bashing Trump and kowtow to him. But tying himself to Trump will make the general election numbers worse. His best hope to cozy up to Trump in the primary, then if he wins, say: "I was just kidding. I hate Trump" and hope the voters go for it. This is a tried-and-true approach, often called the Etch A Sketch strategy. (V)

Federal Government Will Stop Using Russian Security Software

Here's a question for our more technical readers:

Having U.S. government computers using security software made by a Russian firm with ties to the Kremlin that was started by a graduate of the KGB's elite cryptography school is:

The correct answer is (c). Unless you are the Russian government, of course. Getting U.S. federal agencies to put Russian security software on their computers eliminates the need to hack the computers. The government-installed software can just conveniently upload any useful data it finds on the government computers to the company's Moscow headquarters without the need for finding any bugs to exploit. And the best part is that the U.S. government pays the Russians a lot of money for the software. Talk about a win-win situation (for the Russians).

Yesterday, the Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke decided that running Russian security software on government computers maybe isn't such a great idea and ordered all federal agencies to get rid of the Kaspersky Lab software. While Kaspersky said that there were no back doors in the software that allowed it to access U.S. government computers, surely it would say that even if there were back doors. But even if the company started out as a legitimate business, if the GRU (Russian military intelligence) or FSB (new name for the old KGB) requested that they spy on the U.S. government using their software, they would be legally obligated to comply.

American politicians think short term: only until the next election. Russian politicians, especially Vladimir Putin, think long term. Training a Russian computer expert in cryptography and security, having him apprentice in Russian military intelligence for a couple of years, and then helping him set up a company with the goal of getting its software onto computers worldwide might not have any payoff for 10 years or more. But then the payoff could be enormous. How about meddling in the U.S. presidential election, for starters? Did this happen? Neither company founder Eugene Kaspersky nor Putin is talking, but the idea has to be taken seriously now.

The ban covers only federal agencies. State and local ones can continue to use Kaspersky software. Also, the federal, state, and local governments are all free to use Chinese hardware and software, which also may contain intentional security holes. Maybe the government should adopt a "Buy American" policy for critical hardware and software, but that would probably be asking too much. (V)

Clinton Hits a Dozen People in Her Book

In her new book, What Happened, Hillary Clinton goes after a dozen people who helped her lose the election or carped about her after it was over. The dirty dozen:

It's a long list, but she should have known that politics ain't beanbag. (V)

Spicer Gives First Interview, to Jimmy Kimmel

Former press secretary Sean Spicer gave an interview to late-night host Jimmy Kimmel on Wednesday, his first since leaving the White House. Anyone hoping for some juice on the President will be sorely disappointed, as Spicey remained in full press secretary mode. He said he continues to be pro-Trump, and still supports the President's agenda. Spicer wasn't even willing to acknowledge that Trump's inauguration crowd was not "record breaking," and said he'd never "knowingly" said something false while serving as press secretary. Kimmel was pretty flabbergasted by that one, while Spicer was likely thanking his lucky stars that his nose didn't start growing. Reportedly, he still hopes to one day be a real boy.

A lot of Trumpophobes would have enjoyed the schadenfreude of Spicer dishing some real dirt on The Donald, but that was unlikely to happen in this context. That will either wait for (1) the book, and/or (2) whenever Robert Mueller gets Spicer under oath. In short, tales are almost certainly going to be told, eventually. (Z)

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