NDN Blog

The House Should Consider Breaking Impeachment Into Three Parallel Tracks

I have a new essay on up on GEN, a Medium affiliate, which makes the case that the House should break the Impeachment process into three parallel tracks: the crimes, the co-conspirators, a security review.  You can read it on GEN, link above, or below. 

The House Should Consider Breaking Impeachment Intro Three Parallel Tracks

Given Republicans’ stated intent to turn the Senate impeachment trial into a wildly partisan Sean Hannity-inspired circus, it is critical the House keep the inquiry into the Trump-Ukraine affair open past the trial — it must be far more challenging for the president to corruptly claim exoneration, as he did, malevolently, in the Mueller process.

The more we have come to understand about President Donald Trump’s months-long effort to illegally pressure two Ukrainian governments into doing political favors for him, the more difficult it has become for the House to move swiftly and to keep the process “narrow.”

Consider what we’ve learned: We know now the scandal involves many more people than just the president — dozens perhaps. A parallel federal criminal investigation into the scandal is currently underway. Already, two Trump associates have been arrested, implicating the president, Rep. Devin Nunes, Rudy Giuliani, and others. And once again, the scandal raises the spectacle of Russia’s influence over the president and his team — an issue so serious it cannot be wished away.

Breaking impeachment into three tracks will allow the House to make an initial set of time-sensitive criminal charges for the Senate to consider.

The Mueller investigation took almost two years. Ken Starr looked into Bill Clinton for more than four. The House has been scrutinizing Trump’s interactions with Ukraine for only a few months, and while some brave administration officials have come forward to testify, access to critical witnesses and documents has been illicitly withheld by the president. There is a real chance that a swift and narrowly focused process that ends in a few weeks with the president’s “exoneration” by the Senate will prevent the American people from seeing the complete picture of what has happened. This would allow senior government officials who have committed crimes to walk away without being held accountable.

So, to best serve the American people and fulfill its constitutional obligations, Congress should consider breaking down the impeachment process into three separate tracks: focusing on the criminal, the co-conspirators, and a national security review. Let’s look at each in turn.

Track one: Clearly establish the president’s crimes

In the coming weeks, and in preparation for an early 2020 Senate trial, the House should develop its core argument for why President Trump’s removal is required and why it should happen now, before the 2020 elections. Congress can establish that the president broke election laws in 2016 and illegally obstructed a legitimate investigation into his campaign throughout 2017 and 2018. In the Ukraine affair he has done it again — broken election laws and illegally obstructed. If he is not removed, it is reasonable to assume that he will attempt to break laws again next year. As sworn guardians of the Constitution, the House just cannot let that happen.

While the House can establish the gravity of the president bribing and extorting a foreign ally, Democrats must also bear down on the repeated election law violations and work to explain just how serious a crime “cheating” is in a system like ours. It speaks to a profound contempt for democracy, a disregard for what at the end of the day has been the central source of American greatness. It is the very definition of a “high crime” — a crime not against a person but the very idea of America itself.

In the recent press conference announcing the arrest and indictment of two of Trump’s associates in the Ukraine affair, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, law enforcement officials went out of their way to explain the gravity of election law violations. FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney declared, “These allegations aren’t about some technicality, a civil violation, or an error on a form. This investigation is about corrupt behavior and deliberate lawbreaking.”

The Justice Department has a decades-long policy of declining to prosecute a sitting president, but former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner has a compelling argument for why election law violations should be exempt from this policy. “If a president can act unlawfully to influence an election, he does not deserve the protections of his ill-gotten office,” Kirschner wrote. “This incongruity encourages lawlessness in the quest for the presidency and then rewards that lawlessness by inoculating the criminal president against prosecution. Such a construct is dangerous.” In other words, unless Congress and the Department of Justice aggressively punish election law violations, we will be creating huge incentives for Trump and future candidates to make cheating a core part of their electoral strategy.

What ethical leader has had so many around him fall under investigation, or get indicted or jailed? Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Igor Fruman, Rick Gates, Rudy Giuliani, Paul Manafort, Devin Nunes, George Papadopoulous, Lev Parnas, Richard Pinedo, Roger Stone, and Alex van der Zwaan. Or so many Cabinet officials resign due to scandal? Rampant criminal activity and lawlessness around Trump is something that will also need to be firmly established in the months ahead.

It is evident that the president is a serial criminal and should be removed from office. That he has repeatedly violated U.S. election laws and cheated and committed crimes against our democracy itself makes his removal before the 2020 general election an urgent and patriotic endeavor.

Track two: Prosecute the co-conspirators

In order to allow Congress to focus on the case against the president, the House should create a process where his co-conspirators in the crimes of bribery, extortion, election law violations, and obstruction of Congress are allowed to face the evidence against them and defend themselves in public. This should be separate from the parallel federal criminal investigation that’s currently ongoing. Perhaps Congress can focus on one conspirator per day, and at the end of each proceeding, the House Committee overseeing this process can vote on whether the evidence available and testimony warrants a criminal referral to the Department of Justice.

Fortunately, the DOJ has already established a team overseeing the criminal prosecution of those in the Ukraine affair. The House-led criminal referrals can be made directly to that established team. In theory, the whole process can be completed in a few weeks, and executed shortly after the Senate trial ends for expediency’s sake.

Among those who should be compelled to defend their actions are Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Attorney General William Barr, and others the House has reason to believe committed crimes in service of the president’s illegal scheme.

Track three: Review how the president has damaged our national security

In the Ukraine affair, the evidence suggests the president put his own interests above those of the United States; he not only betrayed the nation, but also, in the process, damaged our standing in the world and national security. Even more evidence suggests this is not the only time the president has done this, and Congress must investigate his dealings with Russia and all other nations. The awful possibility that the president has serially betrayed the nation, leaving us far weaker on the global stage, is such a grave matter that it must undergo a thorough review that is separate from the more rapid consideration of his recent lawbreaking.

At the very core of this security review should be a comprehensive assessment of the president’s repeated actions to benefit our most significant historic adversary, Russia. Wherever one looks in the world, one sees the American president taking steps to align our policies with Russia’s foreign policy aims, weakening America and elevating Vladimir Putin: the years-long refusal to condemn Putin’s repeated attacks our democracy, his decision to abandon Syria and the Kurds, his reversal in Venezuela, his efforts to undermine Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Ukraine, his embrace of Brexit and denigration of Europe and NATO, his recent easing up on Iran, and his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. Just in the past few days, new worries have emerged about his ultimate aims in Afghanistan and Lebanon. The cumulative record is astonishing.

Trump’s lawlessness and his repeated willingness to dangerously sacrifice our national interests leaves Congress no choice but to proceed.

That a week ago the president repeated a false and frankly ridiculous story, which originated in Russia about the 2016 attack on America’s democracy, adds fresh urgency to this vital task.

A security review would be the most serious of all the steps Congress could take in the coming months, and should not have any timetable associated with it. While the review could be led by the Intelligence Committee and look and feel a lot like what we’ve experienced over the past month or so, the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees should be expected to proceed with concurrent public hearings and investigations to help ensure a thorough and complete review. Efforts should be made to allow those members with significant national security experience to play leading roles in the proceedings.

In order to conduct these investigations with the kind of thoroughness that the American public would expect, Congress should work to aggressively compel the Department of Justice to turn over all materials gathered by Robert Mueller in his two-year-long look at Russia’s efforts to penetrate and influence domestic U.S. politics. That the full Mueller report has still never been turned over to Congress remains among the significant outrages of the Trump era.

There is a powerful logic for Congress to move swiftly to remove the president. He has shown a dramatic disregard for U.S. election law; that cannot stand. Breaking impeachment into three tracks will allow the House to make an initial set of time-sensitive criminal charges for the Senate to consider, keep the criminal inquiry open in case more matters arise, hold those who have been involved in the president’s vast Ukraine conspiracy accountable, and conduct a thorough review of the damage done to U.S. national security by the president’s illicit foreign dealings.

Congress was reluctant to go down this path. But the president’s lawlessness and his repeated willingness to dangerously sacrifice our national interests leaves Congress no choice but to proceed, and to do so in a way which reminds the American people and the world that this great democracy is something very much worth fighting for.

Is VP Biden In Better Shape Than Conventional Wisdom Holds Right Now?

While Mayor Pete has deservedly gotten headlines for his strong showing in the early states this week, an equally consequential shift seems to be happening in the national polling.  Using the RealClearPolitics Democratic Primary aggregate, the Vice President has gone from even with Elizabeth Warren on Oct 5th (26-26) to up 13 today (31-18).  Today's newly released YouGov national poll, which has historically been the best pollster for Warren, went from Warren up 3 last week (29-26) to Biden up 8 this week (30-22).

A review of the early state polls also finds Biden in a very competitive position in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and far ahead in the more ethnically diverse states which follow. According to RealClearPolitics, Biden is ahead of Warren for 2nd place in Iowa by 1 point and behind her for 1st place in New Hampshire by 2 points. Meanwhile, he is up 19 in South Carolina, 9 in Nevada, 10 in Texas, and 17 in North Carolina. Warren seems to have lost ground in most polls we’ve reviewed in recent weeks; and one has to wonder whether the President’s efforts to smear Biden with Ukraine is actually backfiring on the GOP, and making him into a stronger national figure. 

For more on NDN's insights into the 2020 elections, click here.

NDN Calls on Pres. Trump To Forcefully Condemn Russian Attacks on US Politicians

In response to the news that Facebook took down a sophisticated Russian-based malign influence campaign involving Democrats running for President, NDN is calling on the President and his Administration to take four immediate steps:

Denounce The Action, Implement Sanctions – The President should immediately denounce this interference in our domestic politics, ask the intelligence community to review Facebook’s findings, and if confirmed work with Congress to implement sanctions against Vladimir Putin himself, not just his government.

Work With Congress To Pass Bi-Partisan Election Protection Bills – The President should meet with Congress this week and settle on a package of bills he would sign which would improve our nation’s ability to protect itself from foreign interference.

Fill Critical Vacancies – The President should immediately appoint a permanent DHS Secretary and work with the Senate to put a fourth Commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, turning it back on. 

For more about NDN's work on protecting America's elections from foreign interference, click here.

Syria Fiasco Makes The Case For Removing Trump Far Stronger

Trump’s reckless decision to surrender Syria to Russia and Turkey has made the case for his removal far stronger.  For we now have clear evidence of the threat posed by leaving this desperate and dangerous man in office for the next 15 months – Russia strengthened, ISIS revived, and America humiliated.   Removing him to prevent further damage - and yes there is much more damage he could do to America and our interests - is now an urgent task, something that cannot wait to the election in 2020. 

That this decision also involved a country where the President has hundreds of opaque investments also gives the House’s quest for greater visibility into his finances more gravity.  As we’ve seen in recent court decisions siding with the House on access to information, and the cooperation of top Trump officials with the Intel Committee, the absurd blockade that Barr, Trump, and the White House have erected has begun to erode.  The scope of the Ukraine scandal remains extraordinary, as it involves not just Trump but Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Perry, Mulvaney, Maguire, Rudy, and dozens of staff.   And as all of this once again involves felony level election law violations, it is time for Congress to force the re-opening of the FEC which was shuttered on August 26th, the same day that the White House learned the Ukraine scandal would become public.

At the Democratic debate tonight we should expect far more attention to urgent foreign policy matters, Syria/Ukraine/Russia, giving both Biden and Buttigieg a chance to better showcase their experience and competency on security issues.  How Biden manages the President’s attacks on him and his family and their work in Ukraine could be one of the primary’s most important moments – and in my mind a huge opportunity for the Vice President.  Trump himself, and impeachment, will also now be front and center – all in all it is likely to be a very different debate in tone and substance than what we’ve seen in the first three gatherings this year.  

Trump Needs To Re-Open The FEC Right Now

This analysis was updated on the afternoon of October 9th, a few hours after it was posted. 

While it is hard to keep track of the flood of malevolence flowing from the White House these days, I want to draw folks' attention to one action from Trump world that looks increasingly sinister - the shuttering of the Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory body which enforces American election law. 

The FEC has six commissioners, with no more than three from one party. This past summer the Commission was already in a depleted state, as the White House and Senator McConnell had left the FEC with only four Commissioners, three of whom were already serving past the expiration of their term.  On August 26th, one of the two remaining Republican commissioners abruptly resigned, giving just five days notice before his departure, a highly unusual move in this process obsessed town.  This left the FEC with only three commissioners (again all serving past their terms), not enough to achieve a quorum.  More than a month later neither the White House nor Senator McConnell have announced plans to re-open nominations or bring to a vote any new nominee.  The FEC appears to have been taken off line permanently by Trump and McConnell just as the 2020 campaign ramps up. 

For some perspective, here is how the New York Times covered the departure of the 4th FEC commissioner in its August 26th edition:

The resignation of Vice Chairman Matthew S. Petersen, announced on Monday and scheduled for the end of August, will effectively freeze the F.E.C.’s governance, leaving it one person short of a quorum and thus unable to take on some of its most basic actions, including holding board meetings, starting audits, making new rules and levying fines for campaign finance violations.

“Voters should be extremely concerned,” said Ann M. Ravel, a Democrat and former F.E.C. chairwoman who stepped down in 2017 and who has not been replaced. “If you do not have the ability to do any kind of enforcement, then there isn’t any kind of respect for the law.”

It is course scandalous that the White House would allow our election watchdog agency to be taken offline given Russia's successful undermining of our elections in 2016 and judgments from all, including the new Senate Intel Committee report, that these activities haven't ceased and that our elections are in danger again this time.  But a review of new reporting and a timeline of recent events suggests something more venal and permicious about the timing of the FEC's shuttering - for the FEC was shut down on the very same day that the White House learned that credible allegations the President broke felony level election laws here in the US would become public, and just 12 days after a criminal referral of the President was made to the DOJ by the CIA's general counsel.  Let's review:

July 26 - Original whistleblower memo written, quotes US official who had been on the Trump-Zelensky call this way - "the official stated that there was already a conversation underway with White House lawyers about how to handle the discussion because, in the official's view, the President had clearly committed a criminal act by urging a foreign power to investigate a U.S. person for the purposes of advancing his own reelection bid in 2020."

Aug 12 – Ukraine whistleblower complaint filed with the Intelligence Community Inspector General.

Aug 14 – CIA General Counsel makes criminal referral to Department of Justice about the President’s actions based on the whistleblower report.  Among possible laws broken include election laws.  How the White House and DOJ became aware of the potential legal problems for the President and other senior Administration staff. One would assume significant efforts to mitigate potential damages began on this date. 

Aug 22 - In a somewhat suprising turn of events, the President announces he will force a debate at the upcoming G7 about lifting sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.  Demonstrates how front of mind Ukraine is to the President at this moment, and how extensive the explicit and implicit threats to Zelensky were during this period.  Indeed the G7 meeting which runs from Aug 24-26 features a very public and spirited debate about forgiving Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. 

Aug 26 – DNI Maguire officially notified of "credible" and "urgent" whistleblower complaint by the IC Inspector General.  Initiates process which guarentees that at some point the complaint will become public. 

Aug 26 – Also on this day, the FEC is hastily taken off line by the unanticipated resignation of Commissioner Petersen.

Sept 26 - Whistleblower complaint released, first time we learn of Attorney General Barr's direct involvement in the scandal.  DOJ admits they reviewed whether the President broke any laws, and importantly, cleared him of breaking US election law (NDN believes this argument, like so many legal arguments emenating from the WH and DOJ these days is absurd on its face, and any official public or private who pressured Ukraine for information on Biden committed felony level election law violations).

Reviewing the timeline, WH/DOJ learn on Aug 14th of potential election law violations by the President and other senior advisors, including potentially the Attorney General himself.  DOJ, after an unserious review of the charges, rules the President broke no laws.  However, in the interim, the independent regulatory body overseeing US election law is hastily taken off line in a move that can now only be understood as preventing any kind of investigation into these charges outside the control of the President's compliant DOJ. 

Calls for the re-opening of the Federal Election Commission should be very loud now.  It is bad enough Trump and McConnell have blocked several common sense bills which would have made our elections far more secure.  But it cannot be that they get away with taking the FEC offline this cycle, particularly as the issue of whether there was a huge criminal conspiracy to violate US election laws by Trump, his Administration, and his advisors has already become central to the 2020 campaign; and Russia, Iran, and other nations are likely to attack our democracy once again. 

As I wrote in this essay a few months ago, crimes which undermine our elections and our democracy more broadly are the gravest "high crimes" a President can commit while in office, and need to be understood that way. 

Our Mad King

Part of what made the investigation into Trump and Russia so challenging was its size, complexity, and significance.  The nation is about to face a prolonged look into a far bigger scandal now, one which will soon be understood to be the biggest scandal in all of our history – the Ukraine affair.   It involves not just the President and his family, but his entire government – Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Maguire, Perry, and Mulvaney – and dozens of staffers at the WH, State, and DOJ.  It of course is also directly tied to the still unresolved first big scandal, Trump and Russia, as the President throughout this Ukrainian debacle has seemed far more interested in advancing Russia’s interests than our own. 

Which brings us to what happened late last night – without warning, consultation, or deliberation, and overruling his advisers, the President decided to pull American troops out of Syria altogether, abandoning our allies the Kurds and leaving open the possibility of a resurgence of ISIS.  I will let this early thread from former US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk explain it all, but of course this new Syria policy directly benefits Russia and Putin, who’ve wanted the US out of their client state for many years now; and sends a very Russian inspired signal that the US is indeed feckless, unreliable, and weak - a spent force on the global stage.  The gravity of the moment cannot be overstated.  

The President’s recklessness here, and making big calls which do not clearly advance the interests of the United States, is why his removal from office is an urgent national priority now.  There is no version of the Founder’s vision which contemplated a Presidency like this one – it was indeed the very thing they worked so hard to prevent for our young and inspiring nation.  Additionally, the further damage he could do to the US – through ignorance and incompetence, fealty to Putin, and greed and corruption – is just far too great to leave him in office any longer. 

Finally, on the 2020 landscape.  The Dems debate next week – will be important.  Early polls on Trump’s impeachment are far worse for him than any of us could have imagined, and show what a weakened state he’s in.  Fears about Dem overreach appear completely unfounded at this point.  Trump should be removed, and the nation appears ready to see him go. 

NDN Statement On Trump's Threatened European Tariffs

In light of this week’s WTO ruling on European subsidies to Airbus and the Administration’s announcement of new tariffs on $7.5 billion of EU imports effective October 18th, NDN President Simon Rosenberg has released the following statement:

“NDN welcomes this week’s WTO ruling against illegal state aid to Airbus, and hopes that this decision can help bring an end to the decades-long Airbus/Boeing conflict. However, NDN is very concerned by the Administration’s announcement of new tariffs on the EU, and urges the Administration to drop the tariff threat before new escalation occurs between the US and the Europeans.

The US also provides illegal state aid to Boeing, a case that will be ruled upon by the WTO in coming months, and the WTO in this week’s ruling strongly hinted that they would deliver the same result to the US, stating that: “The WTO has already found that the US failed to address illegal subsidies causing harm to Airbus. This will provide the EU with ground to claim countermeasures on US products at a level that could exceed US sanctions.”

As a result, NDN hopes that the Trump administration will now forgo its announced tariffs and enter direct negotiations with the EU to reduce state subsidies to both Airbus and Boeing. Anything less can only be seen as a reckless escalation of trade tensions by President Trump that isn’t intended to solve the Airbus/Boeing conflict. With the global economy already suffering immensely from trade tensions, and US manufacturing contracting at its worst level since 2009, a new trade war between the US and EU will only cause greater economic pain both at home and abroad.

Finally, Speaker Pelosi should make clear to the President that advancing the trade pact with Mexico and Canada will be far easier if the Administration lessens trade tensions with Europe and China.  Congress cannot appear to be looking the other way when it comes to the President’s reckless trade policies.  An escalating trade war with Europe will make it much harder to sell the propriety of the President’s trade policies to the public, and to wavering Democrats.”

Questions Of Putin’s Influence Over Trump Will Soon Become Central To Ukraine Affair

In a new Twitter thread, Simon argues that any in depth investigation into the Ukraine Affair will inevitably lead to another examination of Putin’s extraordinary influence over the American President. 

Democrats Must Make The Case Against Trump Now

The President is a desperate man.  He is the most unpopular first term President in the modern era.  He lost the 2018 election badly, and is more unpopular today than he was last fall.  He trails VP Biden by double digits in the polling averages, and is way behind even in MI, PA, and WI.  The economy is slowing down, the deficit is exploding, and his economic plan did not deliver what he promised.  His experiment with protectionism is failing.  His management of the border is an historic fiasco.  His ideological fellow travelers – Bibi, Italy’s Salvini, Boris Johnson – have suffered dramatic setbacks in recent weeks. 

Desperate men do dangerous things.  And that brings us to the Ukraine affair – the President has done a series of dangerous and reckless things to weaken his most threatening domestic opponent.  He has broken a series of laws – election laws, bribery, extortion, who knows what else.  He is already breaking laws, again, by trying to cover it up.  And the inevitable disinformation campaign, one which would make Putin proud, has begun.  He is doing everything he can to make Moscow Rules the norm in US politics. 

The details matter here.  Trump put pressure on a small nation at war with Russia to do his illicit bidding, or face what – a US-backed Russian invasion of the rest of Ukraine?  Team Trump has been on the wrong side of the Ukraine issue for the past 3 years – it would not be a leap for the President to align the US with Russia’s interests here, as he has in just about every other part of the world in recent months.  The threat the President and his team, including the Vice President, delivered, from a geopolitical perspective, was an extraordinary one. 

That the President has once again sought illicit foreign help against the leading Democratic candidate and then attempted to illegally cover it up of course confirms our worst fears about what happened in 2016 and afterwards.  TrumpRussia was no hoax – it was how he won a very close election.  And if it worked then, and in his mind he got away with it, why not do it again?

The Ukraine affair is changing the political calculus on Trump for Democrats.  As Adam Schiff says in this interview from over the weekend, we have a remedy for removing a terrible President – elections.  But what we are now faced with is something far more menacing than a bad President.  Our President is a serial criminal, committing crimes in real time in front of all of us; and that he was willing to use the national security apparatus for his own partisan political advantage makes him not just a bad President but a dangerous one.  Imagine if he gets away with this one – what else could he do in his remaining 16 months in office?  And that is why Democrats can’t wait until next year’s election – Trump has made it clear he will put his interests above ours, making him incapable any longer of being trusted to act in the national interest of the United States and its people. 

So what now? I think what comes next is less about impeachment than about Democrats coming to understand that, in a year in which Trump is on the ballot, there is no safe place to go where they can talk about “kitchen table” issues and duck making the case against Trump.  Just as 2018 wasn't 2016, 2020 is no longer 2018 any more. Impeachment in my mind is a tactic, not an end in itself.  The strategy here is to use the Congress to make the case against the President, to expose his lawlessness, corruption, contempt for democracy, fealty to Russia – all that.  The case against him is a powerful one, but we need to make it.  Impeachment and potential removal will come only if we lean in and make the case, recognizing along the way that at some point reticence and restraint becomes cowardice. 

Finally, we have to stop being scared of the Trump propaganda machine.  There is a bit of the Wizard of Oz here.  The case for the ACA was always strong, and when Democrats leaned into it in 2017 it turned into a potent issue critical to the big gains of 2018.  Trump has attacked immigrants, and America is more pro-immigrant today than it has been in decades.  The President attacked the global trade system and trade is more popular than it’s been in decades.  His track record of winning arguments on the big issues just isn’t strong. 

Talking to the American people about Trump’s denigration of his office is our obligation now.  And if done with integrity and love of country, a proud patriotism not partisanship, Democrats can bring the American people along; but more importantly, it is what must be done now.  Our President has become desperate, and dangerous to the national interest.  It is time to act. 

Related Materials

Protecting America - NDN's Statement After Gilroy, El Paso, And Dayton - Simon Rosenberg - Responsible leaders of both parties need to act with great moral clarity now and spend this fall confronting three grave threats to our homeland – deadly right wing terrorism, gun violence and foreign manipulation of our elections and discourse.  

Tariffs, Trump, And Tyrants - Simon Rosenberg - More Mad King than President, Trump's refusal to honor the laws, rules, and norms which make democracies work is the greatest High Crime of all. His ill-considered, whimsical tariffs are just the latest example, and should be forcefully challenged by Congress.

Re-imagining the Parties In An Age of Hacking, Disinformation

This essay originally appeared on the website Medium. 

Two events in the past week highlight the struggle our domestic politics is having with a vastly more challenging post 2016/Russia cyber and digital landscape.

First, driven by cybersecurity concerns, the DNC took the extraordinary step of recommending the elimination of a remote voting program in two early caucus states just months before voting begins. Then, a few days later, the campaign of Beto O’Rourke raised the alarm that even a well-run, modern Presidential campaign wasn’t capable of adequately responding to a targeted and aggressive misinformation campaign which falsely tied the former Congressman to a recent mass shooter.

As someone who has worked in national politics since before the advent of the Internet, I can tell you that those on the front lines of our politics today — the national party committees, candidates, and staff — are facing unprecedented challenges. Who before has had to worry about all elements of our system — from voting machines to one’s phone — getting hacked by hostile foreign powers? Or those same hostile foreign powers, or largely anonymous actors here in the US, spreading demonstrably false information with such speed and reach? The answer is no one. No one has had to face what those in US politics are facing this election cycle.

As hard as the environment is now, it has been made far worse by the President’s refusal to allow any kind of coherent response by the government or Congress to these new challenges; and of course, by the Republican Party’s institutional embrace of these illicit tactics in their own politics. It is not an overstatement to say that the campaigns and party committees, but particularly Democrats, are essentially on their own to manage this world. From a national security policy perspective, three years after Russia successfully attacked Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, it is just unbelievable that this is where American politics finds itself. But here we are.

From a practical standpoint, this means that the Chairs of the six national party committees have become front line actors in the battle to preserve our democracy. I don’t think they, or Congressional leaders overseeing our security, or officials at DHS/FBI, have really come to terms with just how central the party committees are now to the national security of the United States. It is likely to eventually lead to the formation of the “Big Six,” a grouping of the party chairs similar to the “Gang of Eight” who oversee sensitive security and intelligence matters for Congress. If established either formally or informally, the Big Six would meet regularly with the US government and Congress to keep lines of communication open and where possible, strategies aligned.

Far-fetched one might argue. But it isn’t practical for DHS and US intelligence agencies to ever work with hundreds of campaigns directly, many of whom don’t have IT staff let alone sophisticated cyber or disinformation staff. The government is going to need the efficiency and standardization that working with just six large entities brings. And similarly, Congress must not only conduct routine oversight of what the party committees are doing to protect our democracy, but should view the party committees and their leadership as vital partners in developing successful strategies to protect our democracy in the coming years. An early example of this kind of approach is a recent bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden to help make it easier for the party committees to pay for cybersecurity tools for campaigns and state parties. Endorsed by FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, the idea for this bill came directly out of the experience some of us had working on these issues at the DCCC in 2018. It is a great example of the kind of collaboration that needs to happen to make sure what we do is effective in the years ahead, not just well intentioned.

Of course the most significant culture change or re-imagination will have to come in the party committees themselves. They will have to come to understand themselves as cogs in our national security apparatus, not just organizations designed to win elections. This means huge changes in staffing, leadership, operations, and budgets. It should involve the hiring of a high-level, cybersecurity experienced Chief Security Officer with a security clearance at all six committees who reports directly to the Chair or executive director (the DNC has brought on the very able Bob Lord in such a position). It can also involve appointing Vice Chairs for Cybersecurity and Disinformation at the committees to institutionalize greater knowledge and experience. It will require setting up significant cybersecurity and countering disinformation teams to help train and equip the campaigns and state parties with the knowledge and tools to navigate this world, and to support them when issues arise. As Beto O’Rourke’s campaign manager has repeatedly said this week, it is unreasonable to believe that even a large Presidential campaign like theirs can handle this new world on their own — and she is right. The only place that can realistically be expected to help them and other campaigns manage all this is the DNC or its House and Senate counterparts.

My back of the envelope estimate is that this is all going to cost at least $60–75 million dollars every two years. As discussed earlier, there are real issues with current campaign finance law which will have to be addressed to allow all this to happen right. Some have even suggested having the US government provide grants to the committees to cover the costs given the importance of the work. It may be that given the crush of spending for campaigns this is really the only way to guarantee the party committees are able to afford what is required of them — but I realize this is not a simple matter.

Making all of this work in the months ahead will continue to require new, innovative, out of the box thinking and risk taking. We saw that with the DNC’s hard call to cancel the remote voting programs in Iowa and Nevada. Thinking about how to counter fast moving misinformation and disinformation campaigns, can the DNC and the other committees begin to think about connecting their “War Rooms” to their databases of supporters, and ask them to become digital disinformation fighters? Do we need to reimagine the War Room concept, one I helped develop 27 years ago, from young staff in a room to millions of people wired together each day correcting the record, and advancing the party’s agenda and candidates? I’m not sure of the right course here but yes what we are talking about at its core is the re-invention of American political parties themselves in the coming years to enable them to meet the challenges of this new political era.

 

Finally, it is my hope that all six party committees heed the call of European political leaders, Vice President Biden, and the 50 state Democratic parties and agree to forgo the use of the kind of illicit tactics we saw in 2016 in our politics going forward. It just cannot be that the use of fake accounts, altered video and audio, “deepfakes,” hacking, and other things not yet imagined become commonplace in our politics. It is my belief that we must take a firm stand, draw a clear line of right and wrong here, and as Democrats commit to not use these tactics against one another or Republicans next year. Given the Trump campaign’s and RNC’s early embrace of these tactics this cycle, it may be only Democrats who make this commitment, but to me that’s okay. It is a start, new norms, a smart response to a daunting new challenge.

Whatever the long term solution is to these new post 2016 digital challenges, there are thousands of candidates and staff who have to face them in this election, right now. The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties really have no choice but to step up and do all that they can to support their candidates and allies, giving them the very best set of tools and understandings to mitigate and counter the attacks to come. They are going to have to learn now to do new things, including working cooperatively with DHS/FBI and Congress. And for the rest of us, we too have to step up and do everything we can to support them in this vital task, and work to provide them with the resources and strategic counsel required for them to succeed. The health of our democracy demands no less.

Simon Rosenberg helped oversee an operation to counter disinformation at the DCCC in the 2018 election cycle. You can learn more about this work in this NBC News article, and in this Future State podcast with Richard Clarke.

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