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AlterNet 2020

Trump campaign invents a foreign policy debate and then whines when it doesn't happen

Donald Trump really doesn't want to talk about his regime's catastrophic mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. He is desperate to shift the conversation to #HunterBidenghazi, and has always run against the press with as much zeal as he does against his political opponents.

So on Monday, campaign manager Bill Stepien--Trump's fifth, and the second to not be arrested--sent a scathing letter to the non-partisan Presidential Debate Commission accusing them of bias and expressing outrage that the affair would not focus on foreign policy. "We write with great concern over the announced topics for what was always billed as 'The Foreign Policy Debate' in the series of events agreed to by [the campaigns] many months ago," he wrote.

If you don't recall reading anything about the third debate focusing on foreign policy before yesterday, you are not alone. As The New York Times reports, "in some campaign years, the third presidential debate has focused on foreign policy. But the debate organizers did not announce such a plan in 2020, saying that the third debate would mirror the format of the first, with six subjects selected by the moderator."

This isn't a matter of Stepien making an assumption based on past election cycles. Every detail of these debates were exhaustively negotiated by the campaigns months ago. But in this world of post-truth politics, the campaign did not hesitate to baldly lie in order to advance their grievance-based campaign.

And while it's clichéd to draw comparisons to Orwell, the conservative media ran with the narrative and millions of Trump supporters are now convinced that the debate was always supposed to be centered on foreign policy and that the Presidential Debate Commission changed it up at the last moment in order to help Joe Biden.

Here's the simple truth about the fake Hunter Biden scandal Team Trump wishes was a 'smoking gun'

Donald Trump is trying hard to recreate the perfect storm that landed him in the White House in 2016 despite being the most unpopular candidate in the modern polling era. That year, the Clinton campaign's hacked emails were dribbled out over the final six weeks of the race. There wasn't much to them, but internal campaign communications tend to be frank and are easily mined for scandalettes. Having established the storyline that Clinton was as corrupt as Trump, they provided a steady stream of stories with "emails reveal" in the headlines which served to reinforce the right's narrative.

We can expect a similar stream of stories of ostensible "smoking guns" stemming from Hunter Biden's emails (whether hacked or fabricated) to come our way in the final weeks of this race. And some people who want to see themselves as fair will inadvertently amplify the right's preferred narratives by assuming that there must be something there.

So it's very important to keep in mind that the "scandal" is supposed to be that then-Vice President Joe Biden pushed for the removal of Ukraine's top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to stave off an investigation into Burisma Holdings--the Ukrainian gas company whose Board Hunter sat on--in order to protect his son. It is supposed to be a story about conflict of interest--of the elder Biden using the office of the Vice Presidency to help his son.

There is not a shred of truth to those claims. The effort to get Shokin fired "was prompted by a push for anti-corruption reforms developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund," The Washington Post reported. And according to CNN, a bipartisan "letter from 2016 shows that Republican senators pushed for reforms to Ukraine's prosecutor general's office and judiciary, echoing calls then-Vice President Joe Biden made at the time."

Shokin was corrupt, and that was a problem. Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy of Shokin's who resigned over his boss's habit of stymieing corruption probes, told Bloomberg that Shokin was not investigating Burisma during the period in question. "There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against" the firm or its owner. "It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015," Kasko said. And Daria Kaleniuk, a prominent Ukrainian anti-corruption crusader, told The Washington Post that "Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation."

Without some impropriety on Joe Biden's part, Hunter Biden's business ventures aren't a story. He isn't running for office. Like many, if not most children of the powerful, the younger Biden leveraged both his family name and the connections he'd made at Yale to land various business deal and secure a cushy, high-paying position on a corporate board. Both Hunter and Joe Biden have acknowledged that associating himself with a shady Ukrainian gas company--as opposed to, say, a reputable American or Western European firm--was an error of judgment, but it was neither illegal nor unethical. This isn't a meritocracy, and this is one way that wealth and power are reproduced from one generation to the next. It's distasteful and unfair, but that's a class issue, not a scandal. Hunter isn't running for office and his judgment, or lack thereof, isn't a matter of public concern.

Joe Biden spent years in the Senate, and year after year he ranked among the least wealthy members of that body. We know how he came into his wealth--mostly through a multi-million dollar book advance and speaking gigs after leaving office. Biden may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no evidence that he's corrupt.

'Vulnerable to prosecution': Here are possible areas of legal exposure for Trump if he loses the election

The number of allies or former allies of President Donald Trump who have faced criminal prosecutions is staggering: it's a list that ranges from Trump's 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to veteran GOP operative Roger Stone to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. If he loses to former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday, November 3, Trump himself could become the target of both federal and state prosecutors — and journalist Jon Schwarz examines some of Trump's possible legal exposure in an in-depth piece published by The Intercept on October 18.

Schwarz opens his article by acknowledging that even if Biden wins, it's "hard to imagine" that Trump will "ever be convicted of any crime, much less serve time in prison."

"No former U.S. president has ever seen the inside of a cell — and not because all presidents have faithfully followed the law," Schwarz explains. "Presidents accumulate huge favors owed, favors that they cash in, figuratively and literally, when they become former presidents."

Nonetheless, Schwarz goes on to say that "Trump is more vulnerable to prosecution than other presidents because he's engaged in so many potential nontraditional presidential crimes." And he describes some things that Trump, possibly, could be investigated for if he loses the election — from "tax fraud" to "bank and insurance fraud" to "campaign finance violations" to "bribery" and "negligent homicide."

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., Schwarz notes, has been investigating Trump for what his office has described as "possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization."

"Beyond Trump's taxes, Vance appears to be probing whether Trump provided insurers and banks with false statements about his financial position in order to receive lower premiums and interest rates on loans," Schwarz observes. "In certain circumstances, this would be illegal."

Another possibly area of concern for Trump, according to Schwarz, is "obstruction of justice." Former special counsel Robert Mueller, following the Russia investigation, noted that the U.S. Department of Justice has a policy against indicting a sitting president but stressed that a president "does not have immunity after he leaves office."

Of all the possible prosecutions that Schwarz describes — many of them for tax and financial matters — the most hotly debated in legal circles might be one for "negligent homicide." Schwarz notes that Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor, has argued that Trump could be prosecuted for negligent homicide because of his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. But other legal experts have disagreed with Kirschner, saying that a negligent homicide case against Trump — if it came about in the first place — would be very difficult to prove.

"This would be controversial, to say the least," Schwarz explains. "But Kirschner is a serious person who served in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia for 24 years, eventually becoming chief of the homicide section."

To combat disinformation, we should treat Facebook like Big Tobacco

Political disinformation and misinformation spreading rapidly on social media sites has become a major problem over the past four years. While it affects people on both sides of the aisle, it's primarily been a force for radicalizing conservatives. From the alt-right in 2016 to QAnon in 2020, a lack of trust in our democratic institutions, Americans' lack of media literacy and the failures of the platforms themselves have caused countless conservatives around the country to adopt more extremist and conspiratorial views.

Facebook recently banned QAnon groups from its platform, but as many have noted, these kinds of bans are only so effective. Users often simply become better at camouflaging what they're doing. If we're going to seriously take on the political disinformation problem, we cannot rely on platforms like Facebook to self-police. We're going to need a solution from Washington rather than Silicon Valley.

Algorithms and consumer protection

David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design and one of the subjects of the documentary on Cambridge Analytica called The Great Hack, tells AlterNet that we need to stop focusing so much on cleaning up disinformation and start focusing on how it's become so powerful.

"There's no strategic or systemic attempt to get at the root of the radicalizing effect of personal data feeding into algorithms, feeding into a business model and juicing engagement at all costs," Carroll says. "Facebook banning QAnon is part of its reckoning. It was a thing on the chan board fringe that was mainstreamed on Facebook through the recommendation engine—algorithms and group recommending—so I think making the companies accountable to product safety and deceptive practices is probably a better strategy."

Any solution to this problem must avoid trampling on free speech. Even when Facebook and Twitter recently took action to avoid the spread of a New York Post article on Hunter Biden's emails that contained personal email addresses and phone numbers—and which many have called Russian disinformation--Republicans claimed the platforms were censoring content to help Joe Biden win the election. There are ways we can address this issue without people worrying about tech companies intervening in the free flow of ideas.

Carroll says the goal should be keeping people from being radicalized in the first place and making sure social media companies can be held accountable when their platforms are causing harm to society. If Biden wins in November, the new administration and administration and Congress should come together and pass legislation that will force companies like Facebook to reveal to the public how their algorithms work and what personal data are being fed into them.

"Once you give people rights to their data and protection of their data, that creates the basis to then make algorithms more accountable, which then makes companies more accountable for products that they have liability for. Then they have more incentive to make them safe or take them off of the market if they're unsafe," Carroll says.

As things stand, the algorithms and recommendation engines that power social media platforms like Facebook operate in the shadows. That makes it difficult to identify exactly how Facebook's rabbit holes lead people to conspiracism and extremism. If these companies were forced to be more transparent and allow users to understand how they're being influenced, that could have a major effect on the spread of disinformation and allow us to more specifically point out ways Facebook is failing the public.

"I think it comes down to mandating explainability—meaning you have to be able to explain how the algorithm is working so that accusations of radicalization can be authoritatively sussed out, which will force companies to design the product so they can't be accused of radicalizing," Carroll says. "Right now, there's no mechanism to hold the company accountable."

Carroll believes that when people know why they're being pushed in a certain direction politically, such as why they're receiving the Facebook group recommendations they're receiving, then they'll be less likely to be sucked into a toxic spiral. Recent reporting from Britain's Channel 4 found that black voters who were shown that they were being targeted by the Trump campaign in 2016 and pushed not to vote wanted to vote even more. Even Trump supporters were disturbed by how they had been targeted.

Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of Snopes and the current managing editor of Truth or Fiction, tells AlterNet that she would get rid of the algorithm entirely.

"That's not organic spread," she says. "They are still invisibly manipulating the conversation—or at least trying to."

Treating Facebook like Big Tobacco

Carroll says we need to start thinking about companies like Facebook the way we think about Big Tobacco, alcohol companies or car companies. He says there are limits to how those industries can market their product and what products they can sell. Car companies adhere to strict safety rules and regulations that have dramatically reduced highway fatalities and pedestrian fatalities, but those companies are still able to "innovate and thrive," he says.

"There are plenty of examples where we have succeeded at that—letting industries thrive while also regulating them for safety," Carroll says. "Algorithms are just the next frontier of that."

To take the Big Tobacco analogy further, both Carroll and Binkowski believe Facebook should be held responsible for educating the public in the way cigarette companies were forced to educate the public about the dangers of smoking after the Master Settlement Agreement.

"The ad tech industry eroded the profitability of local news, local journalism. Local newspapers have become an endangered species, which harms local communities," Carroll says. "This contributes to the decline in trust in media, so I see these as systemic problems, and systemic solutions need to be considered."

Binkowski says she thinks lawmakers should force Facebook to dedicate funding to newsrooms "in perpetuity." She says this funding should be distributed transparently and overseen by a board of journalists and academics.

"That funding program should be global, not national. They need to be compelled to return to the world what they took from it," Binkowski says. "They need to pay journalists our fair share. They sucked up all the funds from what we made, what we created, the content that we risk our lives regularly putting together, generally for a salary that would shock non-journalists if they knew it."

Carroll says there's no "silver bullet" for fixing the disinformation problem, but creating a system that has more transparency, accountability and enforcement is key. It's also important to force these companies to repair the damage they've done, which may include forcing them to fund newsrooms. Disinformation will always find its place on the internet, as it's very difficult to combat effectively, but if we can get to the root of the problem and make it less potent, then we can start moving in the right direction and create a less chaotic and harmful information ecosystem.

Mitch McConnell waited too long to distance himself from Trump — and now it will cost him: report

According to a report from USA Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and fellow Republican senators waited too long to put some distance between themselves and unpopular President Donald Trump and that will likely cost McConnell his power and GOP control of the Senate.

With the election a little more than two weeks away and Trump appearing to be heading to defeat, members of the Republican Party have begun to openly suggest they are facing a "bloodbath" on November 3rd. According to the USA Today report, conservatives lawmakers have only themselves to blame for the coming debacle.

According to Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, "It just shows that these senators are pulled in two different directions. They can't irritate the very conservative Trump base but they also need independents to win the general election. It's a no-win situation for them in many regards."

The report notes that McConnell is pushing through the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett and scheduling a vote of COVID-19 relief this coming week in an effort to give GOP candidates something to brag about while avoiding mention of the president.

"McConnell, known for bringing home the political bacon to Kentucky, looked to give GOP colleagues a way out when he announced the Senate's schedule was shifting," the report stated.

"As a general rule, presidential candidates have coattails that help down-ballot candidates of their own party because they help expand the participation of like-minded voters. But that wasn't the case in 2016 with Trump," the report continued. "Four years ago, a number of senators publicly disavowed Trump, many of them breaking with him over the Hollywood Access tape in which the then-reality show star Trump was caught on a hot mic bragging about groping women."

This go-around it appears that Republican Senators from North Carolina, Maine, Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona and Georgia could be out of a job after election day because they failed to disavow the president — thereby handing control of the Senate to the Democrats.

You can read more here.

Donald Trump is gaming the Census--can Dems repair the damage if they win?

The Census, as newspapers are at always at pains to remind us, is sneakily important. It helps drive how much power each political party holds in Congress for the next decade, and where trillions of dollars in government funding go. It determines where we draw congressional district lines inside our states and guides how we understand and improve the condition of our people.

And it is in trouble.

There have been two sets of problems. The first, brewing since as far back as 2017, was a mix of mismanagement, mistakes, and bad luck, including "budget woes, potential cyber-security weaknesses, hiring shortfalls, testing cutbacks, [and] a bankrupt printing company." All of which was followed of course by the massive disruption of the pandemic. While efforts have been mixed, the Census Bureau has at least tried to work through these issues.

The second, however, was deeper and more insidious: a series of engineered crises intended to manipulate the count. The most notorious was the Trump administration's plan to include a question on citizenship status, ostensibly to improve the estimate of how many people could vote but actually intended to "allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats." This is not an assertion by Democrats, it is a documented fact (verified, improbably, through an estranged daughter's discovery of a hard drive belonging to a deceased Republican operative).

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts slapped down that plan as a transparently audacious ploy with a paper thin alibi, but there have been other attempts to skew the results that were almost as brazen. Trump issued an Executive Order directing the Census to use other federal data to identify and remove undocumented immigrants from the count (despite the fact that likely no such data set exists and the constitution directs that all persons be counted regardless of immigration status; Trump has requested expedited Supreme Court review of his order).

And the Census Bureau decided to stop its count early – a plan subsequently halted and then reinstated by the Supreme Court – leading to what Government Accountability Office (GAO) managing director for strategic issues Chris Mihm called a likely "drastic undercount" of nonwhite communities, as well as other potential gaps and distortions.

The count is now battered, with unknown consequences. "We essentially are in unchartered territory in modern Census history, first because of the unprecedented scope of the disruption to Census operations, and then because of the unprecedented political interference in Census implementation, which clearly could result in unacceptably flawed Census data," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a nationally-recognized expert on the Census.

So the big question– with the Trump administration clearly hellbent on manipulating the process for the remainder of its time in office – is whether there is anything that Democrats can do to save it if they take control of the presidency, and especially if they add a Democratic Senate.

The answer seems to be possibly, if the problems are clear, and if Congress gets in gear quickly.

According to Justin Levitt – a professor of constitutional law who has written about the legal ramifications of the Census debacle – the first step in a rescue would be to use congressional oversight and executive control of the agency to open the books. "Transparency and communication have been so sharply curtailed in recent months that nobody really knows what's going on under the hood there," he said. "The problems may amount to paper cuts or they could be cuts to the jugular, but to fix them we would have to understand them better. It's sort of the old G.I Joe refrain – knowing is half the battle."

If there are gaps, or if the count has been manipulated to remove respondents based on purported immigration status using other federal data sets, Levitt says that Congress could potentially move quickly to enact a new law resetting the deadlines for finalizing the results: "Census has been asking all year for more time to do the analysis and data cleanup right, and it hasn't happened. So if there's a change of control, you'd likely quickly see a move to pass a new statute allowing more time to do the post-count processing to get the data as accurate as they can be."

But a critical element in getting that done, especially quickly – let alone enacting any other further policy direction on how to handle a repair – could be the GAO report that comes out with the Census Bureau results and details any issues with accuracy or undercounts. If there are gaps that mostly affect Democratic constituencies or blue states, Republicans are likely to be unmoved – indeed, any Democratic-led moves that could affect the numbers, and therefore tilt the apportionment of House seats in the 2020s, is going to create a DEFCON 1 level of alarm for Senate Republicans. Even in the fraught scenario where Democrats have removed the filibuster, Republicans can still slow the process, and there remains a high likelihood of lawsuits in response to any Democratic legislation that lacks bipartisan support (there's probably going to be litigation even with such support).

However, a GAO report produced under the current Republican administration that corroborates undercounts – and especially that shows them occurring in rural, Republican-leaning areas in Republican or mixed representation states with multiple House seats (think Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.) – could garner Republican Senate support. The 2010 version of that report showed some significant undercounts even absent all of the considerable problems of recent years, and there are early indications that some gaps are indeed occurring in Republican-leaning areas, with some of the lowest self-response rates falling in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alaska.

If Congress does manage to push back the timeframe for finalizing the count early in 2021, further steps could get even trickier. For one thing, some of the mess may be hard to clean up or even identify – "it's not like their data files are going to have numbers crossed off in bold red lines that you can just undelete," notes Levitt. Agency executives and congressional investigators are going to have to dig through reams of data and a lot of weedy statistics to make sure they understand the contours of where and how problems occurred.

Another challenge is that if gaps are found (mostly in the form of undercounted areas, but also overcounted areas which can also skew the numbers), there are limits at present on how much the raw numbers can then be adjusted to bring them closer in line with reality through modeling and statistical methods. Under current law, these methods are allowed and can even be mandatory for drawing district lines and calculating funding formulas, but not for the all-important apportionment of congressional districts among states – which is the area of greatest interest to the two parties since it affects control of the House of Representatives.

That is an issue that a newly-Democratic Congress could also fix, since it's the legislative branch that ultimately sets the policy on how the numbers are calculated. "Congress, which has constitutional responsibility for the Census, must look long and hard at whether 2020 Census data can and should be used for purposes fundamental to a representative democracy and in ways that allow Congress to carry out its constitutional role as a prudent steward of federal dollars," said Lowenthal.

However, with a fast-ticking clock, lags in passing new bills, legal challenges, and the partisan pitfalls of developing legislative guidance on how to repair the count (through modeling, unwinding Trump directives on undocumented immigrants, or cross-referencing numbers with other data to verify accuracy), nothing is going to be straightforward.

No matter what Democrats do, the Census is sure to be controversial and hard-fought. Given the stakes, it will need to be early and high on the to-do list.

Amy Coney Barrett's extreme religious views should be vetted

This is reprinted from The Editorial Board.

The Senate Democrats avoided Monday the subject of religion. During the first day of Appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings, they focused on health care and how Donald Trump's third nominee might rule after the US Supreme Court hears oral arguments next month on the Affordable Care Act. Avoiding religion was probably wise given the Republicans' level of fake outrage over fake "religious bigotry." The rest of us, however, don't need to play along. Barrett's Catholicism is fair game.

Yes, I know. Highly influential liberal pundits, and some liberal pundits striving mightily to become influential, argue that religion should be off limits. First, they say, because a person of sincerely held religious beliefs can adjudicate impartially. Second, there's enough to talk about without bringing up Barrett's faith. While I presume these liberals mean well (to be clear, in presuming this, I'm being generous), they're wrong.

They assume, for one thing, that religion and politics can be disentangled. Sometimes they can be. Sometimes they can't be. For another, these liberals behave as if politics is somehow taking religion hostage. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote last night: "When politicians use faith as an excuse to pass and uphold laws that seize control of people's bodies but not guarantee them healthcare, feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or welcome the stranger, you have to wonder if it's really about faith at all."

No, you don't have to wonder. It's about their faith, full stop. Millions in this country—white evangelical Protestants and conservative white Catholics chief among them—root their genuinely held religious beliefs in opposition to modernity, which is to say, in politics. There is, therefore, no appreciable difference between them. The more our society moves in the direction of greater freedom, equity and justice for all people, the more these revanchists believe their faith is under siege; and the more they feel their faith is under siege, the more prepared they are to go to war over "religious freedom."

I don't know if Barrett intends to help reverse Roe any more than you do. I do know—and you know—that that's why Donald Trump picked her. That's why she accepted his illegitimate nomination. Overturning Roe, or at least gutting it in order to permit the states to outlaw abortion, has been the goal for decades. The Republicans are so close to the prize, they're willing to sacrifice the presidency, the Senate and the court's credibility. The more our society moves in the direction of greater freedom, equity and justice for all people—the more American women enjoy a monopoly over their own bodies—the more the revanchists demand an minoritarian veto. They are demanding, and getting, an autocratic usurpation of the majority's will in the name of religion.

Not just any religion. A very specific strain of authoritarian and white Christianity. This strain believes that one person has a right to use another person, without her consent, in order to stay alive. The person being used by another person to stay alive has a moral obligation to forfeit the monopoly over her body, such that her body isn't private property so much as public property jointly owned by members of their shared faith. Importantly, if the person being used by another person to stay alive refuses, she is subject to various punishments, including, if the court overturns Roe, legal ones. There's a reason Republicans want to make Barrett's religion off limits. They don't want a majority to see outlawing abortion as the establishment of a state religion.

You can't see violations of the First Amendment if you insist that religion is off limits. What's more, you can't see the treasonous bad faith of the revanchists. They don't care about babies. If they did, they'd be up in arms over news of the president's treatment for Covid-19. He was injected with an "antibody cocktail" tested on stem cells derived from a baby aborted nearly half a century ago. White evangelical Protestants and white conservative Catholics usually say "fetal tissue," even in life-saving drug treatments, is a grave offense to God, but not this time. According to Business Insider, anti-abortion groups said it's OK, because the president wasn't involved in the original abortion.

That's bullshit, but at least they're dropping the charade. What they want to say but fear saying—because saying it out loud for everyone to hear would be too gothic and horrifying for mainstream America—is what they really mean. What they really mean is that it's OK for one person to use another person's body without his or her consent. The president, using remnants of the body of an aborted baby, didn't do anything wrong. He was exercising the God-given right that babies (men) have to access another person's body (a woman's). This right isn't just political. It's political and religious. Ignoring that means ignoring the parasitic ramifications of the anti-Roe project.

So don't ignore religion. It is central. None of this makes sense when it's not.

It's been one faceplant after another as Trump and the GOP try to recreate 2016's perfect storm

Donald Trump is very, very bad at politics. In 2016, he lost the popular vote in both the GOP primaries and the general election. His net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) in FiveThirtyEight's average went underwater on his 15th day in office, and has remained right around -10 ever since. He's hemorrhaged support among women, college-educated whites and even white Evangelicals. And he's trailed Biden--and, during the Democratic primaries, all of Biden's rivals--for the entirety of the race. He's currently by a historic margin for an incumbent.

In 2016, he got very, very lucky. With 45 percent of the GOP primary vote, he beat a fractured, hapless field of establishment candidates who never figured out how to deal with him. Democrats nominated a woman whom the right had spent 30 years softening up and was widely distrusted by the left flank of the Democratic Party. A credulous media that thought he had no chance of winning harped on every baseless Clinton controversy his campaign stirred up. Wikileaks dribbled out his opponents' hacked emails for the final six weeks of the campaign. And then, 11 days before voters headed to the polls, then-FBI Director James Comey delivered the coup de grâce by violating FBI protocols and announcing that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton's emails, which proved decisive in the Rustbelt. It was a perfect storm.

Now, as he seeks re-election amid a historic plague and after losing more jobs than any president on record, Trump and his party are clearly overwhelmed. They can't run on their record--at least not without departing from reality-- so they've been trying desperately to get the old band back together and recreate the conditions that snuck them into the White House the last time.

It's not going well.

Trump and his supporters had pinned their hopes on reprising Comey's role in 2016 on an investigation into the roots of the Russia probe by US Attorney John Durham yielding arrests before the election. Last week, Trump was reportedly apoplectic when Attorney General Bill Barr announced that Durham would not wrap up his work before November 3. And he wasn't alone. "This is the nightmare scenario," a GOP congressional aide told Axios. "Essentially, the year and a half of arguably the number one issue for the Republican base is virtually meaningless if this doesn't happen before the election."

Then on Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post tried to get the kind of traction former Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer enjoyed with his 2016 book, Clinton Cash, which spawned the now-thoroughly-debunked Uranium One "controversy." This story, which alleges that emails prove Hunter Biden leveraged his father's connections for something or another--something Burisma-related--comes complete with an email server, or at least a hard-drive.

But while The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN all laundered and added credibility to Uranium One, this one's landed with a thud. The Times' Maggie Haberman earned so much scorn on social media for credulously tweeting about the story that she later tried to redeem herself by noting some of its obvious flaws and Facebook limit its reach on their platform.


This followed a similarly high-profile faceplant by Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley when they tried to weaponize Hunter Biden's work with Burisma and ended up on the defensive after taking fire for disseminating Russian disinformation.

Also on Wednesday, an investigation into Obama officials "unmasking" the identities of Americans caught in foreign surveillance operations that the right has long promised would blow the lid on their silly "Obamagate" conspiracy theory ended with a fizzle when John Bash, the US attorney William Barr tapped to oversee the probe (who left the DOJ last week), not only failed to bring charges against anyone but didn't issue a report.

That was an unhappy end for a line of attack that the GOP has been developing for years, most famously with Rep. Devin Nunes' infamous "memo" that was chock full of nonsense and widely greeted with appropriate derision.

The big difference in how these contrived scandals played out is that in 2016, they were treated like legitimate controversies while in 2020, the regime's clumsy attempts to drop contrived opposition research into the race, some of it originating with adversarial foreign actors, has become a persistent storyline in itself.

And of course, all of this follows Trump's impeachment for attempting to coerce the Ukrainian government to lend weight to a line of attack that has gone nowhere. That's a big difference from 2016, when he asked Russia to produce Clinton's emails, they obliged and he won the Electoral College.

The efforts by Trump and his allies to recreate the conditions that allowed him to sneak into the White House despite winning almost 3 million fewer votes than Clinton were always doomed to fail. Voting for Trump in 2016 was an experiment. Many believed he'd take the job seriously, and be constrained by his staff and Republican lawmakers. Some bought his promises on trade and immigration.

This time, he is a known quantity. Even before the pandemic, voters had seen what Trump's style of governance looked like and most of them don't like it. Now, with the death toll resulting from his bungling of Covid-19 approaching a quarter-million, nobody who wasn't already supporting him could even care about investigations stemming from the last election or Joe Biden's son acting like a typical child of DC's power elite.

Trump needed to reach beyond his base this year, and he's way behind in this race because it turns out that he doesn't have a different set to play and is just recycling his old hits.

‘Trump's messaging has backfired’: President continues to ‘hemorrhage support’ among suburban women

During a MAGA rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump declared, "Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?" Trump, in many tweets, has referenced "suburban housewives" and insisted that former Vice President Joe Biden will ruin the quality of life in suburbia if he wins the presidential election on November 3. But journalist Tim Alberta, this week in an article for Politico, emphasizes that Trump continues to struggle with suburban women and points to Michigan as a prime example.

Alberta reports that in three Rust Belt states Trump "improbably won" in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Biden has the advantage among female voters in suburbia. In Michigan, Alberta explains, "The simplest explanation for the president's trouble…. is that he's continuing to hemorrhage support from white, college-educated women in the suburbs of Detroit."

Alberta cites Jessica Morschakov, a voter in Brighton, Michigan (a Detroit suburb) as a prime example of how badly Trump's reelection campaign is suffering among suburban women.

"Honestly, all the moms I know — we are really nervous about our kids, what kind of future they're going to have," Morschakov told Politico. "And Trump is the one making us nervous. He's just so angry all the time. I really believe that he brings out the worst in people, the worst in situations."

Trumpism, according to Alberta, is hurting GOP candidates even in suburban areas of Michigan that have leaned Republican — and he notes that Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who flipped a GOP-held seat in Michigan in 2018, is "cruising toward reelection."

"According to her campaign's most recent internal poll, (Slotkin is) an eye-popping 35 points above water, in terms of net favorability, with college-educated white women," Alberta observes. "This came as a shock to Slotkin, a veteran national security official, who was worried that Trump's law-and-order message was going to scare women away from voting for Democrats this fall. But what her polling revealed — consistent with surveys done elsewhere in the state — is that Trump's messaging has backfired."

Although Alberta's article is mainly about Michigan, his points are certainly applicable in other states. And the Politico reporter stresses that Morschakov is not an anomaly: she is typical of all the suburban women who don't want to see Trump reelected.

"As white suburban women go, so goes (Michigan's) 16 electoral votes," Alberta explains. "And with the clock ticking down toward Election Day — not to mention, many thousands of votes being cast absentee already — it's gotten harder and harder to see how Trump stops the bleeding with this one vital voting bloc."

Cal Cunningham’s sex scandal isn’t moving the needle in North Carolina Senate race: polls

Republicans have been hoping that the news of Democrat Cal Cunningham sending romantic text messages to a woman other than his wife would hurt him in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race. But Politico's James Arkin is reporting that so far, the scandal hasn't hurt him in the polls: Cunningham still has mostly single digit leads over incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.

Arkin, in an article published on October 13, notes, "A trio of public polls in the past two days showed Cunningham ahead…. including a 48%-44% lead in (a) Monmouth survey. They corroborate what Democrats have said: voters are well aware of the issue but aren't budging from Cunningham."

In addition to the Monmouth poll showing Cunningham with a 4% lead over Tillis, Cunningham is ahead by 6% in a Morning Consult poll and 10% in a SurveyUSA poll. These three polls, according to Arkin, indicate that so far, the scandal "hasn't made a dent."

A Reuters/Ipsos poll, released October 13, found Cunningham ahead by 4%. And a Susquehanna poll released the following day showed Cunningham leading by 2%.

"North Carolina is one of the most important Senate races on the map," Arkin notes. "Spending in the contest is already close to $200 million, and it's on track to be the most expensive Senate election in history. Republicans have seized on Cunningham's affair with TV ads bashing him as a hypocrite and unfit for office."

Cunningham has had plenty of attack ads of his own, often slamming Tillis for hoping to see the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. Obamacare, overturned during a deadly pandemic.

Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, argues that North Carolina voters are more interested in where Cunningham stands on the issues than his personal life. Goodwin told Politico, "He has apologized. He knows that he has disappointed his family and friends and supporters. But everyone agrees, and that poll further verifies, that the election to the United States Senate and which party has the majority in the United States Senate, rests not on one individual, but where individuals stand on key issues such as health care."

In the 2020 election, Democrats are not only hoping that former Vice President Joe Biden will win the presidential election, but also, that they will obtain a majority in the U.S. Senate. Tillis is among the incumbent GOP senators who is considered vulnerable, along with Maine's Susan Collins, Arizona's Martha McSally, Iowa's Joni Ernst and Colorado's Cory Gardner. Hands down, the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic U.S. senator is Alabama's Doug Jones, who was trailing Republican Tommy Tuberville by 12% in an Auburn University at Montgomery poll released on October 5. But even if Jones loses, Democrats will obtain a Senate majority if Tillis, Collins, Ernst, Gardner and McSally all lose.

According to Arkin, Republicans "face a challenge in moving the needle" in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race.

"Voters already have high awareness of the affair," Arkin observes. "In the Monmouth survey, 80% of voters had heard about Cunningham's texts with a woman who is not his wife. But only 14% said it disqualified him from office; 32% said it called his character into question but did not disqualify him; and 51% said it's an issue for only him and his family."

Trump destroyed the legitimacy of the judiciary by trying to entrench far-right minority rule

Late Monday night, after the first day of Amy Coney Barrett's nomination hearings had wrapped up in Washington, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court and gave a green light to Texas Governor Greg Abbott's order limiting the number of drop-boxes for absentee ballots in the Lone Star State to one per county. The result is that big, urban counties where Democrats are competitive--Harris County (Houston), Dallas County, Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio) and Travis County (Austin)--will each have a single drop-box for between one and five million residents just like the 87 rural counties in Texas that have fewer than 10,000 residents.

The judges who issued the 3-0 ruling were all appointed by Donald Trump. Their average age is 49.7. One of them, James Ho, was profiled by NPR in a piece titled, "Legal Opinions Or Political Commentary? A New Judge Exemplifies The Trump Era." The panel found that Abbott's order had actually increased voters' access to the ballot box. Up is down in this packed federal judiciary.

As a result of Republicans' unprecedented blockade of Barack Obama's nominees, he was only able to appoint three judges to the 5th Circuit during his 8 years in office. Trump has appointed six in under four years. When Trump won the Electoral College, he tapped Ho--along with the other members of the panel that ruled on Monday night, Don Willett and Kyle Duncan--to fill three of the 116 vacancies on the federal bench that Mitch McConnell and his caucus had held open for the final years of Obama term in office.

With Barrett's confirmation barreling along, it's likely that the last guardrails will be removed from the nation's highest court. Chief Justice John Roberts' concern for the legitimacy of the institution will no longer be an effective constraint on a majority that includes Justices Barrett, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Those justices are now poised to relitigate broad swaths of what had been long-settled law.

The last shreds of the Court's legitimacy as a politically neutral body will soon be torn apart. It will be the culmination of the GOP's long campaign to counter demographic headwinds by insulating itself from democratic accountability--through extreme gerrymandering, voter ID laws and other means of suppressing minority votes and turning the federal judiciary into a third political branch dominated by Republican appointees.

The result will be intolerable in a democratic republic, and if Democrats win the White House and Senate, the most pressing question they'll face is how a legitimate, democratically-elected government should handle a judicial branch packed with young, activist jurists with lifetime appointments to the bench and a clear hostility to every aspect of the Democrats' agenda. Something must break.

Joe Biden says he is "not a fan of court-packing," but a campaign is underway, Barrett hasn't yet been confirmed and if she is, it won't only be the left flank of the Democratic Party advocating for structural reform of the federal courts. There would be an intra-coalition debate if Dems find themselves with unified control next year, and with the Republicans' relentless destruction of the norms surrounding judicial appointments, ideas that used to be considered radical--like expanding the Court, or rotating justices back and forth from the appellate courts--are fast becoming mainstream, liberal propositions.

I favor expanding the Court in keeping with Republicans' philosophy that a party can and should do anything within the bounds of the Constitution to advance its agenda--or to create a deterrent against that kind of thinking. But that shouldn't be the end of the conversation. Last year, I wrote about a number of different potential reforms that would not only rebalance the courts over the near-term, but also lower the temperature of nominations in the future and in some cases, limit the judicial branch's power to veto laws enacted by the elected branches.

All of them carry some risk. But the danger of living in a country with entrenched rule by a far-right minority party is much greater.