Here are the main events that occurred in Politics this week:
1. Russian Woman Indicted for Attempting to Interfere in the 2018 Midterm Elections
A Russian woman who allegedly worked on funding online propaganda efforts to manipulate voters in the 2016 and 2018 elections was charged with a federal crime on October 19 as part of a broader conspiracy to hurt American democracy. Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, Russia, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States for managing the financing of the social media troll operation that included the Internet Research Agency, which special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators charged with crimes earlier this year. Prosecutors who unsealed the complaint Friday say she aided the Russian effort to “inflame passions” online related to immigration, gun control, and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March and the NFL National Anthem debate from December 2016 until May of 2018. The social media efforts specifically focused on the shootings of church members in Charleston, South Carolina, and concert attendees in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, which left one counter-protester dead, and police shootings of African-American men, the complaint says.
NEW: Elena Khusyaynova, a Russian woman who works for an oligarch close to Putin has been charged with attempting to meddle in the 2018 midterm election. 2018, not 2016. Be woke people! https://t.co/Efc8Es84hp
— Amy Siskind (@Amy_Siskind) October 19, 2018
The criminal charge says the Russians’ online manipulation effort focused on multiple political viewpoints and candidates but frequently zeroed in on the Republican Party’s most well-known leaders. In one effort to spread an online news article about the late Senator John McCain’s position on a border wall to stop illegal immigration, an alleged conspirator directed others to “brand McCain as an old geezer.” They also attempted to paint House Speaker Paul Ryan as “a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness” and as a “two-faced loudmouth.” They aimed other efforts at stories about Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pushed to “fully support” Donald Trump, and called Mueller “a puppet of the establishment,” according to the complaint.
The effort had an operating budget of $35 million, prosecutors say, and was allegedly funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and his companies. Prigozhin has not responded to a criminal charge he faces from Mueller for funding the scheme before the 2016 election. “The conspiracy has a strategic goal, which continues to this day, to sow division and discord in the US political system, including by creating social and political polarization, undermining faith in democratic institutions, and influencing US elections, including the upcoming 2018 midterm election,” said the criminal complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia. The online scheme directed its proponents to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population,” prosecutors quoted one member of the effort saying. Khusyaynova also worked with Concord Management and Catering, another defendant in the Mueller probe, to take in funds. Concord is represented by lawyers in the US and is the only Russian defendant to plead not guilty so far. Khusyaynova had not been previously charged with a crime.
Federal authorities issued a warrant for her arrest on September 28. But it had been kept secret for the three weeks since then so it would not derail “other government efforts to disrupt foreign influence efforts,” a court filing released Friday said. Prosecutors did not elaborate. Prosecutors say Khusyaynova oversaw those financing, budgeting and expense payments of the corporatized propaganda effort, called “Project Lakhta.” The money came in from Concord, which received some of its funding from the Russian government to feed school children and the military, prosecutors allege. The millions of dollars allowed the Russians to buy social media analytic services, secure server space and domain names, and plant online advertisements and to stage political rallies and protests in the US. Sometimes, the Russians would use fake Americanized names like “Bertha Malone” or “Helen Christopherson” on Facebook, or handles like “@TrumpWithUSA” “@swampdrainer659” or “@UsaUsafortrump” on Twitter. One Twitter account the group ran, @wokeluisa, amassed 55,000 followers in one year, tweeting about Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis and encouraging voters to register in the 2018 midterm elections.
The new case marks the 27th time a Russian has been charged with a crime related to 2016 election interference or by Robert Mueller, whose mandate is to investigate those crimes. In another open case, the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign and spreading those documents online to influence the election. A 26th Russian national was indicted in June alongside now-convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for alleged witness tampering. Typically, criminal cases against Russian nationals hang in the court system with no progress after the initial charge, because the European nation does not extradite its citizens to the US when people are charged. The cases in effect allow the US to “name and shame” defendants, as court-watchers call the practice. The defendants are unlikely to ever appear in US court.
Overall, the revelation of these indictments shows that the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin have continued to engage in an elaborate campaign of “information warfare” to interfere with the Midterm elections next month and increase the chances that candidates favorable to the policies of US President Donald Trump will be elected. Thus far, President Trump has not reacted forcefully to the allegations, claiming that the charges against the Russian government are little more than a “partisan witch hunt” and that his administration will do nothing to implement measure meant to secure the integrity of the American electoral system during a pivotal time in the country’s history.
2. President Donald Trump Announced Intention to Withdraw from a 1987 Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia
On October 19, President Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from a 31-year-old treaty with Russia that eliminated a class of nuclear weapons after he accused Russia of violating the agreement. “We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement, and we’ve honored the agreement, but Russia has not unfortunately honored the agreement,” Trump told reporters in Nevada, “so we’re going to terminate the agreement, we’re going to pull out.” Signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in their landmark 1987 summit meeting, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) banned the US and Soviet Union from having “ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” and required the destruction of the missiles, launchers and “associated support structures and support equipment,” according to the State Department. The two countries eliminated 2,692 missiles after the treaty’s “entry-into-force” in 1988, the State Department said in a report on the effects of the treaty.
President Trump said that he will withdraw from a landmark arms control agreement the U.S. signed with the Soviet Union, accusing Russia of violating the pact. https://t.co/PMD1e9y8cR
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) October 21, 2018
Despite the fact that most international observers lauded the agreement as a positive step towards denuclearization and global peace, US officials in recent years have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of violating the agreement, as well as seeking to start a renewed nuclear arms race (despite the fact that the Russian government has reduced their own defense spending steadily since 2016). In testimony before Congress in 2017, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva said that military officials “believe that the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent” of the treaty. The Obama administration said Russia violated the INF treaty in 2014 by testing a ground-launched cruise missile. But the Obama administration “chose not to leave the agreement because of objections from the Europeans (particularly Germany) and out of concern that it would rekindle an arms race,” The New York Times noted.
Overall, the reaction to President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw from the INF treaty has been mixed. National Security Adviser John Bolton applauded the decision, stating that “the treaty was outmoded, being violated and being ignored by other countries. So under that view, exactly one country was constrained by the INF Treaty: the United States.” On the other hand, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Tass News agency that withdrawal from the treaty “would be a very dangerous step, which, I’m sure, won’t be just understood by the international community, but arouse serious condemnation of all members of the world community, who are committed to security and stability and are ready to work on strengthening the current regimes in arms control.” The end of the INF treaty could also weaken the New START Treaty, as NPR’s David Welna noted of the significant remaining arms reduction agreement with Russia, which was signed in 2010. New START includes a limit to 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles for each country.
3. Trump Administration Faces Internal Division Regarding Immigration Policy
The Trump administration has not settled on a plan for what to do if a migrant caravan arrives at the Southern border, despite threats by President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency or rescind aid from the countries whose people are journeying north. Top immigration officials and close Trump advisers are still evaluating the options in closed-door meetings that have gotten increasingly heated in the past week, including one that turned into a shouting match as the caravan of about 7,000 people pushes North, according to administration officials and others with knowledge of the issue. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the topic. The caravan, at least 1,000 miles away, comes on the heels of a surge in apprehensions of families at the border, which has riled President Trump but has also given him a fresh talking point to rally his rabid, far-right base ahead of the midterm elections just two weeks away. In a Twitter post, President Trump stated that the Mexican government is solely to blame for the caravan heading to the US border, and falsely claimed that individuals of Middle Eastern descent also make up a sizable percentage of the participants in the caravan.
Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2018
Despite President Donald Trump taking up the issue on the campaign trail, many individuals in the President’s inner circle are grappling with the same problems that have plagued them for months, absent any law change by Congress. Some in Trump’s administration, like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, advocate for a diplomatic approach using relationships with Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador and the United Nations to stop the flow of migrants arriving in the US. “We fully support the efforts of Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico as they seek to address this critical situation and ensure a safer and more secure region,” Nielsen said in statement earlier this week that noted her department was closely monitoring the possibility of gangs or other criminals that prey on those in “irregular migration.” On the other hand, others in the Trump administration such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have called for a more forceful approach, including declaring a state of emergency (which would give the administration broader authority over how to manage people at the border), rescinding aid, or giving parents who arrive to the US a choice between being detained months or years with their children while pursuing asylum, or releasing their children to a government shelter while a relative or guardian seeks custody.
The ongoing tensions in the Trump Administration over the issue reached their peak last Thursday when Secretary Nielsen suggested going to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in a meeting with White House chief of staff John Kelly. National security adviser John Bolton, a longtime critic of the UN, exploded over the idea, the officials and people said. Nielsen responded that Bolton, not a frequent attendant of the immigration meetings, was no expert on the topic, they said. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said in a statement: “While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another. However, we are furious at the failure of Congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis.”
Overall, events such as the migrant caravan illustrate the fact that President Donald Trump’s policy regarding the immigration crisis is a failure. The President’s hardline rhetoric towards immigrants who solely want to come to the US to seek a better life has contributed to the intense partisan rhetoric regarding US immigration policy and has made politicians in both parties even less likely to come up with a lasting solution to the issue. Additionally, President Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has done little more than to play into his far-right base and has encouraged the spread of xenophobic ideas in a rapidly-changing society.
4. Landmark Affirmative Action Case Goes to Trial This Week, Potentially Putting the Doctrine at Stake
A lawsuit against Harvard brought on behalf of Asian-American students who failed to gain admission went to trial on October 16 in one of the most significant race-based cases in decades, with affirmative action policies across the country at stake. The lawsuit was crafted by conservative advocates who have long fought racial admissions practices that traditionally benefited African-American and Hispanic students. Their ultimate goal is to reverse Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, a landmark 1978 Supreme Court case that upheld admissions policies that consider the race of students for campus diversity.
The plaintiffs in the case are led by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has devised a series of claims against racial policies, including an earlier affirmative action lawsuit on behalf of Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas and several challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the critical vote in 2016 when the court last endorsed race-based admissions in the University of Texas case, was replaced by Judge Brett Kavanaugh earlier this month. Gorsuch succeeded the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who had opposed all affirmative action and criticized the University of Texas program, but died before that case was heard before the Supreme Court. The Students for Fair Admissions group Blum founded when he filed the Harvard case in November 2014 contends the university engages in unlawful “racial balancing” as it boosts the chances of admissions for African-Americans and Hispanics and lowers the chances for Asian Americans.
Harvard’s practices, said Edward Blum, are “the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants during the 1920s and 1930s.” That assertion has deeply resonated with some Asian Americans who fear they are held to a higher standard than other applicants to prestigious universities. Yet Asian-American advocates, representing a wide swath of backgrounds and educational experiences, have come in on both sides of the case. Some who back the lawsuit are seeking to end all consideration of race in admissions, while others, siding with Harvard, argue that universities should be able to consider race for campus diversity and that some Asian Americans, particularly those with ties to Southeast Asian countries, may have had fewer educational opportunities before applying to college.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a brief on behalf of 25 Harvard student and alumni organizations comprising blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and whites. The Legal Defense Fund calls the lawsuit an effort “to sow racial division” and emphasizes the Supreme Court’s repeated endorsement of the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Those subsequent rulings, however, turned on a single vote, either that of Kennedy or Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired in 2006. The Trump administration, which is separately scrutinizing race-based admissions practices at Harvard through its Education and Justice departments based on a complaint from more than 60 Asian American groups, has backed Students for Fair Admissions.
Harvard, the country’s oldest institution of higher education, denies that it engages in racial balancing or limits Asian-American admissions. It defends its longstanding efforts for racial diversity as part of the educational mission and says admissions officers undertake a “whole-person evaluation” that includes academics, extracurricular activities, talents, and personal qualities, as well as socioeconomic background and race. Since the case was filed, both sides have mined similar statistical evidence and testimony but with sharply contrasting conclusions — all of which will now be presented before US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs, a 2014 Obama appointee. “Each party relies on expert reports to show the presence or absence of a negative effect of being Asian American on the likelihood of admission … and claims that there is substantial — or zero — documentary and testimonial evidence of discriminatory intent,” Burroughs said in an order last month rejecting requests from both sides to rule for each, respectively, before trial.