Alison Greene

All roads for Biden's infrastructure plan lead through West Virginia

Moderate Republicans announced yesterday, Earth Day, a counter-offer to the Biden administration's $2 trillion-plus infrastructure proposal.

Led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the moderates put out a two-page glossy marketing blurb that significantly scales down Biden's package. It cuts critical infrastructure investment and has a price tag of $568 billion.

Some of the ways Republicans suggest going from $2 trillion to $568 billion are by cutting the investments in safe drinking water and essential repairs on public schools.

As it happens, Capito's own state of West Virginia is playing a pivotal role in hindering Biden from moving forward with his historic infrastructure package. The two senators from West Virginia—Capito and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—may be from opposing sides of the aisle, but they have each put up similar obstacles that the Biden team must navigate to get its much-needed infrastructure package through.

No Corporate Tax Increase

The common theme among the two West Virginian senators? Both senators are doing their best to ensure that wealthy corporations don't have to pay for the much-needed upgrades of the nation's infrastructure.

Their views ignore two big problems for the majority of their constituents: West Virginia desperately needs infrastructure improvements, and both senators promised constituents they were going to advocate for, not obstruct, it.

In a unique power dynamic, West Virginia's Manchin is the Democrats' major roadblock in passing Biden's plan by threatening to vote against the bill, while Capito is the GOP's point person in trying to severely trim a package that could add 2.7 million jobs.

Manchin's reasoning? He says he won't vote for the bill if the corporate tax rate is raised from the 21% rate enacted under Trump to 28%. The rate before Trump was 35%, so the Biden plan is a halfway restoration.

The GOP plan announced by Capito doesn't have any mention of corporate America paying for the plan. Instead, the GOP suggests that users of electric vehicles get taxed.

A 51-Vote Majority

The Senate parliamentarian ruled that a simple majority of 51 Democrats can pass Biden's infrastructure package and some other legislation, circumventing the Senate's arcane filibuster rule that requires 60 votes for most legislation.

But this only works so long as all 50 Democrats are unified, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie.

That Democrat Manchin won't vote for the bill if the corporate tax is increased, puts the other West Virginia senator in a unique position. Capito is standing somewhere between Biden and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) The notoriously obstructionist Senate minority leader, McConnell, vowed that no Republican will vote for Biden's proposal.

But McConnell will have an especially tough time corralling all Republicans. Many promised major infrastructure spending all throughout the Trump presidency but never delivered—not even when the party held majorities in both houses of Congress.

As far back at the Continental Congress, infrastructure spending has been the preferred bring-home-the-bacon move for representatives and senators. There are few less controversial ways to spread federal dollars on home-state projects.

Moderate Republicans

And in recent months a loose, if tight-fisted, coalition of Republican senators has emerged, showing some willingness to stray from McConnell's sternly shepherded senatorial flock. In February, seven senators voted to convict in Donald Trump's second impeachment trial. And 10 Republican senators, including Capito, proffered a Covid relief package that, like Thursday's infrastructure counteroffer, would have cost hundreds of billions less than Biden's.

Both Manchin and Capito say that they want to improve their desperately poor state's infrastructure. Twenty percent of West Virginia's bridges are deemed structurally deficient, the worst in the nation. West Virginia broadband quality and access rank 45 out of 50. And the state has the worst drinking water in the country.

Joint Efforts

In November, Manchin and Capito jointly secured a federal investment of $485,000 to improve water from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a partnership between the federal government and 13 states. Biden just nominated Joe Manchin's wife Gayle Manchin to be the co-chair of ARC.

The two senators put out a joint statement taking credit for the ARC money, and Manchin promised to keep fighting for more "good-paying jobs and ensuring our fellow West Virginians have access to basic human needs such as clean drinking water."

Biden's infrastructure plan invests $111 billion to improve water infrastructure. So why isn't Manchin advocating for West Virginia's share of this historical and unprecedented level of investment?

"Everything that's being proposed is a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed," said Stephen Smith the co-chair of a group called WV Can't Wait.

Big Campaign Donors

Overall, Smith speaks of West Virginia with pride, but he also points to frustrations after 150 years of "outside interests getting rich off of West Virginia. First timber; then coal; now natural gas, agribusiness and Big Pharma."

So it's no surprise to Smith that Manchin may hold up national legislation to protect corporate interests, "His top donors are financiers, corporate leaders—he doesn't answer to the people of West Virginia. He's made a career of doing for those at the top."

Eric Engle, of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action Group, also supports Biden's infrastructure bill. He considers the climate change component of the bill a game-changer for the Mid-Ohio region.

"This infrastructure bill is an enormous start, and we support it." He points to all of the jobs it probably would create in West Virginia: "Good jobs, union jobs, family-supporting jobs, living wage jobs and all with a focus on a sustainable green economy."

'DINO Joe'

Like Smith, Engle isn't surprised Manchin—whom he calls "DINO Joe," as in Democrat in Name Only—may block any investment:

"If you're a Democrat, why are you blocking your own party's initiatives? Why is it that the vast majority of the time you seem to be more supportive of the Republican objective?"

Arguably, since Trump overwhelmingly won in West Virginia, a Democratic senator is considered especially vulnerable in the state. Both Engle and Smith dismiss this as a media narrative not reflective of reality.

Manchin, who was governor before running for the Senate, is not up for re-election until 2024. "If he keeps holding up progress on the Democratic platform in the Senate," says Engle, "no West Virginia Democrats are going to vote to re-elect him."

Powerful Position

All this again puts Capito in an unusually strong bargaining position. Despite her own low-ball proposal, Capito is on the record saying there's plenty in the Biden plan that she likes. She expressed confidence after a February White House meeting with Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and last month she positively promoted parts of Biden's plan.

Capito is leading the infrastructure negotiations. But it remains to be seen whether she—like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who led moderate Republicans to offer a severely downsized version of the Covid bill—will, in the end, choose to vote no if Biden turns down her skinflint counterproposal.

Unlike Collins, who had no particular dog in the Covid hunt, Capito has long tied her political fortunes to winning federal dollars for West Virginia improvements. To ultimately obstruct her very own pet projects would, no doubt, leave her with a lot to explain to folks back home.

If Biden and the Democrats find themselves scrambling for 50 votes, they might still have to make a pilgrimage to West Virginia—to woo Capito rather than Manchin.

They'll just have to hope that bridge doesn't collapse as they cross it.

How Elaine Chao used her Trump cabinet post to help her family make millions

In January 2017, upon her confirmation as secretary of the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao committed to separating herself from her family's shipping interests. Looking back on the last four years, it's clear she didn't.

In an administration awash with emoluments and ethics concerns, it has mostly flown under the radar just how much Chao, who is married to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, stood to gain financially from her position as secretary of transportation and how government watchdogs failed to challenge her repeated wrongdoings.

The Chao family business is deeply entangled with Beijing. The Chao family dry bulk ship company has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from Chinese banks, all of which are partly or fully owned by the communist regime.

In 2019, Elaine Chao faced some criticism for public appearances with her family members that seemed to be elevating the profile of the family business long after she was sworn in as transportation secretary.

The report shows clearly that numerous documented Chao actions could be felonies under federal laws designed to avoid official favoritism.

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, said Elaine Chao's actions appeared to be a clear abuse of power. "This is the kind of thing you would use in a training class to teach government officials what a misuse of a position looks like," Shaub said. "This conduct falls into the category of extreme rather than gray."

Case Referred to Justice Department

What the public knew was minor, though, compared to the damning facts in a 38-page inspector general report that was hidden until after the Trump administration ended. That report revealed that in December 2020 the inspector general referred its findings about Chao's conduct to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Attorney General William Barr, whose policy was to personally review all cases involving high-level Trump appointees, declined to prosecute Chao. A spokesman for Chao said that the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute "closes the book" on the issues and exonerates Elaine Chao.

Does it?

The inspector general made extensive findings that have astonished ethics officials in Washington, some of whom say they've never seen anything like it. The report shows clearly that numerous documented Chao actions could be felonies under federal laws designed to avoid official favoritism.

Fleet Value Doubled

Significantly, during the four years Chao served as transportation secretary, her family's shipping business did exceptionally well.

Her father, James Si-Cheng Chao, fled mainland China after communists lead by Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war in 1948. Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomintang Party withdrew to Taiwan. Chao and his wife Ruth Mulan Chu Chao went first to Taiwan, where Elaine, the oldest of their six daughters, was born in 1953 in Taipei.

Chao, a ship captain in his 20s, made his way to New York. In 1964 he started acquiring dry bulk ships, when he landed his first big contract with the United States government, shipping rice to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Often referred to as "Dr. Chao," he received an honorary degree from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2018.

The family's shipping firm, Foremost Group, operates mainly between the United States, Brazil and Canada and China with more than 70% of their freight going to China. The company has done so well that it donated $40 million for a building at the Harvard Business School named for Elaine Chao's mother, a graduate of that school.

The family business grew substantially over the four years that Elaine Chao was in the Trump cabinet—by almost half a million dollars a day. Its fleet value when Chao assumed office in January 2017 was valued at half a billion dollars, but its value more than doubled to $1.18 billion by the time she left office, according to VesselsValue, a private vessel valuation service which shared its analysis with DCReport.

According to VesselsValue, the Chao family fleet in January 2017 consisted of 22 vessels. After selling off some of their older ships and ordering new vessels, the family fleet will reach 32 vessels this summer.

Chao-McConnell Net Worth Grows

Most of the wealth of Chao and McConnell have disclosed in their annual government ethics filings comes from her inheritance when her mother died in 2007. She received as much as $25 million from her mother, these forms indicate.

Elaine Chao has no stake in the family business, a point emphasized by her staff in their interviews with the inspector general. That is true but misleading.

She still had a lucrative reason to use her government position to tout her father's shipping company. It encouraged shippers to choose it rather than competitors because of her ties to Trump, and it helped the company expand because it was more attractive to mainland China and Taiwan bankers. So long as she remains in the good graces of her father, it is likely she stands to inherit a second time along with her five sisters, a contingent interest that could be worth many tens of millions of dollars.

List of Abuses

With that background, here are some telling examples of Elaine Chao using the Transportation Department as a promotional arm to build the profile and reputation of her family's Sino-American shipping empire. The report focused on 14 events the secretary attended or planned to attend with her father between 2017-2018, including the 50th anniversary of the Dept. of Transportation, among other instances of mixing family matters with her official duties:

    • Chao planned a China trip in which she would be accompanied by her father and sister, Angela Chao, CEO of Foremost Group. Draft itineraries included book signings and appearances for her father and her family joining her in official events and high-level meetings. State Department personnel at the American embassy in Beijing were alarmed at this plan, which was a breach of well-developed protocols about mixing official duties and family business. The trip was ultimately canceled because of diplomatic staff concerns. While planning that trip, a transportation department official emailed the secretary about whether her father wanted to meet with a former classmate, thought to be former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Arranging such a meeting would not be appropriate conduct for a government agency.
    • Various department staffers were charged with providing media and public affairs support to the secretary's father, even maintaining lists of his awards and creating a media strategy and public relations plan for him and Foremost Group. Chao had her staff, on taxpayer time, edit a chapter from a book on her father, and she directed department public affairs staffers to edit her father's Wikipedia page. The department's public affairs director devised and recommended a strategy "amplifying the coverage in regional [Chinese] press, a means to build Chao's profile and to share the story of his journey."
    • Repeatedly transportation public affairs staffers arranged media coverage and coordinated photo opportunities for Elaine Chao and her father. They arranged targeted in-depth interviews with the secretary and her father intended solely for the Chinese market. In one event where Elaine Chao was asked to speak, the former secretary first asked if they would be distributing 500 copies of her father's biography, Fearless Against the Wind. When Elaine Chao was invited to be the keynote speaker at a maritime event, she asked the sponsors to give her father an award, evidently as a condition of coming. Once the secretary got confirmation of an award for her father Elaine Chao agreed to attend. Arrangements for that event included placing a copy of her father's book on the chair of each attendee at the gala.
    • Elaine Chao asked transportation staff to act as personal assistants for her and her family, especially her father. They were instructed to organize repairs of his personal belongings, schedule personal appointments for him, FedEx him Christmas ornaments – and sending the secretary and Sen. McConnell a list of those ornaments – and to get Chao to autograph photos for Transportation Department files.

The inspector general's investigators interviewed transportation ethics lawyers, who revealed that "they had no record of a request to provide ethics advice" for a number of the specific events listed above. More often than not, Chao's top staff failed to bring potential conflicts to the attention of the ethics lawyers, as required by longstanding policy.

Ethics Policy Ignored

When ethics lawyers were consulted they emphasized how the secretary should minimize her connections to the Foremost Group and their transportation interests. The ethics lawyers outlined specific steps to ensure her official government position was not conflated with Foremost in a way that advantaged the reputation and prestige of the family business.

Nevertheless, Chao cultivated her and her family's image in China. The New York Times reported that the Secretary's official calendar showed at least 21 interviews or meetings with Chinese-language news organizations in her first year as transportation secretary.

Before Chao's confirmation, conflict of interest issues were raised. Her spokeswoman said no conflict existed because Elaine Chao had no "ownership stake" in Foremost. That statement ignored her contingent interest provided she remains in the good graces of her father in a business with ships valued at more than a billion dollars, a business that would prosper if shippers believed choosing Foremost Group ships would curry favor with the Trump administration.

The investigation into former Secretary Chao started in June 2019 under the direction of Acting Inspector General Mitchell Behm. In May 2020, after many on Chao's staff had been interrogated and the direction of the IG investigation had become clear inside Transportation, Trump tried to remove Behm using the limited power presidents have to fire IGs.

Watchdog Conflict

The Inspector-General Act requires that an inspector general be appointed "without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability." The act was intended to, but in this case failed to, insulate inspectors general "from political retribution," a common Trump administration theme.

Behm was one of five inspectors general whom Trump attempted to remove as their staffs were digging into corruption in his administration. Trump was unable to remove Behm but had to wait for the Senate to confirm Trump's nominee to take over.

Trump's nominee as the new inspector general at transportation was the head of its pipelines safety office. The nominee was to retain his pipeline job while also becoming inspector general, an unusual arrangement putting a subordinate in a post that is supposed to be independent.

McConnell to the Rescue

Still in his acting position, seven months after Trump had tried to remove him, Behm sent Chao's file to Justice with a referral for a criminal investigation. It was sent to the Justice Department on Dec. 16, 2020. After one justice office declined to open an investigation, the inspector general's report was sent to a different part of justice the next day.

The reaction was swift. That same day, Dec. 17, McConnell, Chao's husband, abruptly brought to the Senate floor a vote to confirm Trump's nominee to be the new Transportation inspector general.

The first vote failed but ultimately on Dec. 21, the nominee was confirmed on a party-line vote of 48 to 47. That ended Behm's acting role. Of the five inspectors general that Trump tried to fire, the only one removed was the one investigating McConnell's wife. Behm has since returned to his previous position as deputy inspector general at transportation.

On the last week Trump held office, Attorney General Barr declined to prosecute Chao. Whether the Biden administration will review that under Attorney General Merrick Garland is unknown.

Here's how Marco Rubio turned the Senate Intelligence Committee into a Trump defensive team

When Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took over Senate Intelligence last spring he politicized the committee's long-running investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election…and more.

Rubio, as acting chairman, turned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence away from dispassionately investigating myriad connections between the Kremlin and Donald Trump's campaign. Rubio created a Republican defense line between the compromised former president and the American public.

The Florida senator, who Donald Trump called "Little Marco" during the contentious 2016 GOP primary, submitted to Trump after he and a raft of contenders lost. Bold characterizations of Trump as an embarrassment and nonsensical left Rubio's vocabulary.

Aligning the Intelligence committee with the Trump administration itself, Rubio politicized intelligence, downplayed Russian interference, white-washed Trump-Kremlin contacts and purposely deflected attention from Russia to China.

Soon, Rubio publicly sparred with the committee vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), over how much to reveal before the 2020 election. The panel issued a heavily redacted fifth and final 950-page volume of its work on Aug. 18, just 77 days before Election Day.

But unlike the four previous reports issued with bipartisan agreement, the last volume was presented as a confusing they-said-they-said hodgepodge of observations and conclusions pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other.

Upon the release of the report, Rubio and Warner even issued conflicting statements, as if characterizing two different investigations. Rubio and the Republicans on the committee asserted that they "found absolutely no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election."

Warner, in marked contrast, said the investigators found "a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections."

Democrats, who claimed the Republicans redacted portions even more damaging to Trump, said: "Trump and his associates' participation in and enabling of this Russian activity, represents one of the single most grave counterintelligence threats to American national security in the modern era."

So who was right?

The facts are quite clear. Trump and his campaign worked hand-in-glove with Kremlin interests.

Just as former Attorney General William P. Barr lied about the findings of the Mueller Report and Trump's first impeachment defense team mischaracterized his infamous phone call to Ukraine's prime minister, Rubio and fellow committee Republicans lied and denied the extent of the Trump-Kremlin connections.

The lies were detrimental to our democracy but a great boon to the dictatorial regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, just last week, the U.S. intelligence community outlined Putin's efforts to influence the 2020 election—again in favor of Trump.

Lost in the News

Released amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election, the damning revelations of the Senate committee's report didn't register with many people. News accounts at the time didn't always give the full flavor of the report, relying on characterizations rather than the telling details establishing how thoroughly the Kremlin's agents and the Trump campaign coordinated.

But a simple reading of the massive report shows documented connection after connection, coordination and, yes, collusion between the Trump inner circle and Putin's associates.

  1. Trump's convicted and now-pardoned campaign manager Paul Manafort coordinated directly with Konstantin Kilimnik. The report states without equivocation that "Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer." At Manafort's direction, the campaign sent sensitive campaign strategy and polling data to Kilimnik every day. Manafort and Kilimnik hid their interactions through encryption apps, private phone numbers handled at higher priority than public lines and clandestine meetings. Campaign and polling data was sent daily to Kilimnik and then deleted, using the Facebook-owned encrypted platform WhatsApp. The FBI is seeking Kilimnik and is offering a large $250,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest.
  2. Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway, pre-emptively pardoned Steve Bannon and convicted and pardoned Gen. Michael Flynn knowingly negotiated with Russian hackers to obtain Hillary Clinton's stolen emails. They conducted a multi-pronged approach to get the hacked information. Flynn was in close contact with Barbara Ledeen, a Senate staffer working for the Senate Judiciary Committee who was tasked with obtaining Hillary Clinton's emails.
  3. WikiLeaks and Trump's campaign together weaponized the Democratic National Committee documents that Russia hacked as part of the Kremlin's strategy to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign. At the direction of "Trump and senior campaign," Roger Stone "took action to gain inside knowledge" from Wikileaks and "shared" this information with Trump. He and senior campaign officials coordinated the timing of the release of the documents with WikiLeaks through Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a Congressional investigation. Trump commuted his sentence.
  4. Wikileaks was in contact with Donald Trump Jr. directly, even providing him with a username and password to a then-private website, putintrump.org, used by journalists investigating Trump-Kremlin links. Don Jr. also coordinated the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with him, Manafort, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. She also had an entourage. Participants claimed they discussed adoption, but the report reveals that the subject line of Trump Jr.'s email invite was "FW: Russia—Clinton—private and confidential." Meeting notes from Manafort's phone included cryptic financial references to offshore accounts such as "Offshore – Cyprus/ 133m shares."
  5. Trump regularly received gifts from his Russian friends including a watch, artwork and decorative box holding a personal letter from Putin. The Putin gift was hand-delivered to Trump's Manhattan apartment after his infamous 2013 Moscow visit for Trump's Miss Universe pageant. The report indicates that in addition to gifts, messages were being transmitted. Days after the 2016 election, admitted Russian spy Maria Butina received a message that "Trump has already received a good letter from VVP [Putin]."
  6. Kushner spoke to the Russian ambassador during the transition about setting up a secret backchannel to communicate without detection directly with Putin's staff, a fact that had been known. There were various groups working to establish this backchannel for Putin. Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian oligarch who is head of the $10 billion Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF texted George Nader who was close to the Trump campaign. Dmitriev said that Putin had "emphasized that this is a great priority for us and that we need to build this communication channel to avoid bureaucracy." Nader was working with the campaign at that time and helping Dmitriev establish that channel.
  7. American Carter Page admitted to the FBI that he was "on the books" as a Russian intelligence source. Butina, the spy, sent a Twitter direct message to her Russian contacts asking about Page and saying that Page and Putin were together at a meeting in Moscow in 2015. Despite these obvious and significant security concerns, Trump put Page on his campaign's foreign policy team, and Page even obtained permission from the campaign to travel to Russia in June 2016. The campaign only distanced itself from Page after a news report that U.S. intelligence was investigating whether Page had private communications with senior Russian officials.

'No Collusion'

The list of contacts and links goes on, but the overwhelming evidence of collusion was simply ignored by Rubio and his fellow Republican committee members. They wouldn't let the facts get in the way of their party leader's story: No collusion.

While that was the Trump and the GOP line, until then it had not been the committee's narrative. That changed, however, when Rubio took over the committee chairmanship under most unusual and extraordinary circumstances.

Before Rubio, the committee ran a bi-partisan three-year investigation under its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Warner. In the nine months from July 2019 to April 2020, Burr and Warner jointly released four 100-page reports documenting the "irrefutable evidence of Russian meddling" in our elections. The reports were considered highly informative with no hint of partisanship. USA Today said the committee was "a rare symbol of unity on the divisive issue of Russia's role in the presidential race—quite a feat for a panel with members ranging from conservative Trump ally Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to liberal Trump critic Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)"

Indeed, the Intelligence committee, by design, is supposed to minimize partisanship. Established in 1976 in the post-Watergate era, the committee has a long history of serious, responsible oversight of the intelligence community and intelligence issues.

Burr Booted

But that all fell apart when FBI agents raided Chairman Burr's North Carolina home in May 2020, seeking evidence of insider stock trading based on information Burr had learned at closed-door briefings about the COVID-19 pandemic. Burr stepped down from his chairmanship. Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tapped Rubio for the job, and the fix was in.

Sidelined, Burr was told on Jan. 19, Trump's last day in office, that the trading case would be dropped. Probably not insignificantly, Burr was one of seven Republican senators voting to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Two other Intelligence committee Republicans—Susan Collins of Maine and Ben Sasse of Nebraska—also voted to convict.

Today, since the Joe Biden presidential win, Burr remains a member of the committee; Rubio sits in the vice chairman's seat; Warner is chairman.

The Virginia Democrat has said he isn't interested in looking backward but wants to look forward at rebuilding the U.S. intelligence community, especially the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He said the Office emerged "decimated" and "in shambles" from the last four years. And Warner may well have summed up the challenge he will face in leading his committee going forward saying, "We don't want to go back to that non-fact-based world."

Trump intelligence chiefs hid evidence of Russian election interference

Lost in the news on the day of Trump's Insurrection was a devastating new watchdog report to Congress on the politicizing and distorting of intelligence during Donald Trump's time in office.

The analytic ombudsman, career intelligence community veteran Barry A. Zulauf, determined that under Trump national intelligence reports had become highly politicized. Important findings were suppressed to appease Trump's refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in American elections.

Zulauf's unclassified report paints a frightening picture of just how much the Trump administration skewed intelligence to suppress knowledge of interference by Russia in our 2020 elections.

From March 2020, in the critical months leading up to the elections, Zulauf "identified a long story arc of—at the very least—perceived politicization of intelligence."

Zulauf works in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), a Cabinet-level position created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to oversee all U.S. intelligence operations. Zulauf's job within the ODNI was created by Congress to assist analysts throughout the intelligence community with complaints and concerns about politicization, biased reporting or lack of objectivity in intelligence analysis.

This is the first of a two-part series. Coming in Part 2: The intelligence community under Trump was not alone in diverting focus from Russian interference.

Zulauf determined that Trump's ODNI took "willful actions that… had the effect of politicizing intelligence, hindering objective analysis or injecting bias into the intelligence process."

While Zulauf tried to avoid specifically naming individuals responsible for much of the political heavy-handed rewriting, he repeatedly calls out actions taken by two recent Trump appointees, neither of whom had any chops as intelligence experts.

One is former an acting director, Richard Grenell. He had been a Fox News commentator and Trump-appointed ambassador to Germany, and took over the ODNI in February 2020 then relinquished the post the following May.

The second was the Texas congressman Trump appointed to replace Grenell, John Ratcliffe, best known as a fervent defender of the ex-president in his first impeachment.

In one particularly egregious example, Zulauf wrote, Ratcliffe insisted on highlighting Chinese election interference while downplaying Russian efforts.

"Ratcliffe just disagreed with the established analytic line on China, insisting 'we are missing' China's influence in the US and that Chinese actions ARE intended to affect the election," Zulauf wrote. "Ultimately the DNI insisted on putting material on China in…. As a result, the final published [assessment], analysts felt, was an outrageous misrepresentation of their analysis."

The intelligence community has procedures to make sure assessments are based on sound judgment by seasoned analysts, not rogue points of view especially when they are not supported by facts.

The Senate Intelligence Committee requested the ombudsman review possible politicization of intelligence. Interestingly, Zulauf notes, he had his own review under way when the Senate Intelligence Committee request arrived. The ombudsman started his own investigation after he was approached by ombudsmen at three other agencies within the intelligence community. They acted because intelligence agency professionals and managers perceived problems and were getting internal complaints about the politicization of intelligence.

Helsinki Betrayal

The findings come 29 months after Trump declared in Helsinki, standing next to Vladimir Putin, that he trusted the Russian leader, but not the American intelligence services.

By putting his trust in Putin, a former KGB colonel, saying that he took him at his word when he denied interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Trump reiterated his denunciations of American intelligence services.

Trump refused on most days to sit for his intelligence briefing, a closely guarded summary of worldwide threats to America and its allies. The report is prepared by experienced analysts based on reports from 17 American intelligence agencies, which feed material to Central Intelligence Agency for consideration.

The Presidential Daily Brief is tailored to each sitting president's style. Trump's brief was reduced to simplistic points, often illustrated with graphics. Russian actions against the United States were often left out or described obliquely to avoid provoking Trump.

Trump would have found even simplified daily briefings difficult to grasp given his ignorance about geopolitical affairs and history. For example, he once asked aides if Finland was part of Russia. He met with the Baltic presidents and confused their countries with the Balkans.

Mueller's Warning

While Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III was barred from investigating Trump's conduct as a counterintelligence matter, his office did look into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

On July 24, 2019, Mueller told the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees that Russia would continue interfering in our elections. "It was not a single attempt, [Russia's] doing it as we sit here," he testified. "And they expect to do it during the next campaign."

Yet eight months later, on March 10, 2020, in presenting the views of the intelligence community, Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), briefing members of Congress on election interference, said the opposite. He told lawmakers in a closed-door session for which summaries were released that there was no evidence that Russia had taken steps to help any candidate in the 2020 elections.

Analysts refer to talking points in these March statements, as well as subsequent statements in July, August and October of last year, as examples of "gross misrepresentation" of established intelligence community views.

The ombudsman's report attributes the rationale for these distortions and lies to the opposition they faced "getting their views on election interference across…in a confrontational environment."

But it does not assert that Trump directly ordered them. Several House managers noted during impeachment and Trump's better biographers have long noted, Trump gives direction the way mob bosses do, not by direct order but by relying on people to interpret a wink and a nod or even just tone of voice.

Misleading Congress

The March assessment delivered to a House and Senate all-members meeting was delivered by Evanina. Zulauf called this "the most egregious example" he uncovered of distorted intelligence.

When interviewed by the ombudsman, Evanina said he received his talking points from ODNI and National Intelligence Council (NIC) officials. He said that since they were directly from the ODNI and NIC he assumed the talking points represented the coordinated views of the intelligence community.

Zulauf could not find anyone at ODNI who wrote or contributed to the talking points Evanina used. The various individuals laid the distortions off on various excuses and reasons. Zulauf did not accuse them directly of lying and denying.

However, Zulauf said "red flags" were ignored. He took note of "widespread reluctance among intelligence professionals to deliver" assessments. "This reluctance on the part of seasoned IC [intelligence community] officers should have been a red flag but did not stop the statement from being issued."

Despite leadership's efforts to downplay any threat of Russian interference, the report was unequivocal on what U.S. intelligence analysts who specialized in Russia were seeing: "Russia analysts assessed that there was clear and credible evidence of Russian election influence activities."

Analysts expressed frustration that political appointees were suppressing the actual intelligence because it was not well received at the Trump White House. The analysts told the ombudsman that their intelligence was being suppressed and politicized as the ODNI leaders cherry-picked intelligence supporting a narrative that Trump wanted rather than presenting facts.

Mulvaney's Warning

The information contained in the report further supports reporting in April 2019 by The New York Times about what Mick Mulvaney, then-White House chief of staff, told Kirstjen Nielsen during her stint as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Mulvaney warned Nielsen not to speak with Trump about Russian attempts to interfere in future U.S. elections.

That revelation by journalists, now buttressed by Zulauf's report, illustrates how Trump's disregard for and suppression of intelligence assessments about Russian interference consistently made its way from the White House to his cabinet and the highest levels of the intelligence community where it had a clear impact of how intelligence was written up and disseminated.

Zulauf wrote that in May 2020, the acting director of National Intelligence, Grenell, delayed the release of a memo for "politically motivated editing."

The changes "buried the lead," Zulauf wrote, regarding known election security threats. Analysts found intelligence community leadership consistently "watered down conclusions" and were "boosting the threat from China."

Overstating the threat from China also minimized, and distracted from, actual threats from Russia. Instead of speaking on Russia, leaders regularly pivoted instead to China.

In an interview on Oct. 6, 2020, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who heads the House Intelligence Committee, addressed similar statements by then Attorney General William P. Barr. Schiff is one of the "Gang of Eight," the bipartisan leaders in Congress who are regularly copied into the highest levels of intelligence. The attorney general had just asserted that China posed the greatest threat to U.S. elections based on intelligence he had seen.

Barr Called a Liar

"That's just a plain false statement by the attorney general, a flat-out false statement," Schiff said. "You can tell that Bill Barr is just flat-out lying to the American people, and it's tragic but it's as simple as that."

The United Statesm spends hundreds of millions of dollars each day to monitor activities around the world, including efforts by China, Iran, Russia and other countries to probe government and business computer networks. The Russians are known to have the ability to open and close floodgates on American hydroelectric dams. That prompted us to quietly take actions against the Russian electric grids to make clear that any disruption of the dams would come with consequences.

Decades-Long Seduction

For decades,, the Russians courted Trump, one of many prominent people around the globe sought by intelligence services as potential assets. A former KGB spy who had a cover working in Washington for the Russian government-controlled news agency TASS, recently told The Guardian that Trump was cultivated as a Russian asset during 40 years.

When Trump became president, the Kremlin hit the biggest intelligence jackpot imaginable. The first known payoff came in May 2017, just weeks after Trump took his oath to defend America against foreign enemies.

Trump held an unannounced meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. In that meeting Trump revealed the most sensitive intelligence material, known as sources and methods.

Disclosing sources and methods would naturally discourage friendly governments from sharing many of their own intelligence findings since their spies and ways of uncovering information could be compromised, even ruined, with the potential that the spies would be assassinated by the Russian government.

We know this because the Russians announced what Trump had done. The same government-controlled TASS news agency released photos of a smiling Trump with the two grinning Russian officials taken by a Russian photographer who was let into the Oval.

The Russian officials, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, are, like Putin, trained spies.

President Joe Biden's announcement on Feb. 5 that he will not grant Trump the courtesy of intelligence briefings was summarized by Schiff as an important move to protect America's national security.

Schiff tweeted: "Donald Trump politicized and abused intelligence while he was in office. Donald Trump cannot be trusted with America's secrets. Not then, and certainly not now. Americans can sleep better at night knowing he will not receive classified briefings as an ex-president."

Republicans have a friend in the company that counts their votes

After initially focusing on the surprisingly lopsided results of the senatorial election in Kentucky, DCReport broadened our scope to look at the electronic vote-counting software and electronic voting systems that we rely on to tally our votes. This prompted us to raise questions about Electronic Systems & Software (ES&S), America's largest voting machine company. What we found was a revolving door between government officials and ES&S.

Voting results in three states that saw surprising majorities by vulnerable incumbent Republican senators—Maine, North Carolina and South Carolina—were almost all tabulated on ES&S machines.

Trump and his inept legal team barely have mentioned ES&S, focusing almost exclusively on Dominion Voting Systems.

Team Trump has been so vigorous in going after Dominion that it prompted us to look into how ES&S operates. What we have found so far is far from comforting.

Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell and Fox hosts have been making such bold and naked claims against the ES&S competitors, without any substance or evidence, that Fox News, NewsMax and OAN have all been threatened with litigation unless they fully retract their claims and correct a number of egregious factual errors.

Team Trump has been so vigorous in going after Dominion that it prompted us to look into how ES&S operates. What we have found so far is far from comforting.

  • Owned by a private equity firm, ES&S has been elusive about identifying the people in its ownership.
  • A number of ES&S executives and lobbyists have ties to top GOP election officials and politicians.
  • The ES&S executive in charge of the security previously worked in the Trump administration as a government executive at Health and Human Services before leaving under a cloud.
  • Forty of the 50 states use ES&S to cast and count some of their votes.
  • Of the 25 states Trump won, all but 3 either partially or fully relied on ES&S machines. The states where Trump won that didn't use ES&S machines were Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alaska.
[caption id="attachment_21864" align="aligncenter" width="620"] Counties that used ES&S equipment in the 2020 elections. (Verified Voting)[/caption]

Concerns about the reliability of vote-counting software are not new, dating back to the 1980s. Having the ability to audit votes, and making sure ballots are counted properly, has long been a major concern of computer scientists, politicians and election officials.

In December 2019, Democratic lawmakers sought answers from those top three voting machine vendors which "facilitate voting for over 90% of all eligible voters in the United States."

Three separate letters were sent to the private equity firms who reportedly own or control each of these vendors, with very limited information available in the public domain about their operations and financial performance.

Elections at Risk

In the second letter, addressed directly to the McCarthy Group, the private equity firm that owns ES&S, lawmakers wrote, "Voting machines are reportedly falling apart across the country, as vendors neglect to innovate and improve important voting systems, putting our elections at avoidable and increased risk."

In requesting details about the ownership of ES&S, the lawmakers specifically noted, "We are particularly concerned that secretive and 'trouble-plagued companies,' owned by private equity firms and responsible for manufacturing and maintaining voting machines and other election administration equipment, 'have long skimped on security in favor of convenience,' leaving voting systems across the country 'prone to security problems'."

DCReport placed numerous calls and emails to ES&S at its headquarters on John Galt Boulevard in Omaha. Only once was the phone answered. Someone who would not put us through said, "They are not going to be able to talk to you." DCReport was directed to ES&S's website. We submitted the form repeatedly but got no reply.

Understanding the Software

Our democracy now relies on private companies, which build proprietary electronic systems, to reliably count our votes. It seems reasonable, if not crucial, to understand who is behind these companies as a standard to ensure election integrity. Without such knowledge we run the risk that zealots, investors with financial stakes in who wins elections or those susceptible to bribery have an incentive to use subtle software programming techniques to deliberately miscount votes to guarantee an outcome. In close elections, software code that invalidates or miscounts a mere sliver of ballots can change the outcome.

One of our concerns is ES&S providing junkets and gratuities to election officials, as uncovered in June 2018 by McClatchy newspapers. For at least 11 years, the voting equipment and software company curried favor with election officials by paying for trips to Las Vegas, tickets to shows and gifts.

"As many as a dozen election officials" attended a meeting in Las Vegas, with a number of them accepting airfare, lodging and meals, McClatchy reported. A company spokeswoman told McClatchy the junkets were "immensely valuable in providing customer feedback. One of our key results is customer satisfaction, and this is how we achieve that."

Marci Andino, the current executive director of the South Carolina State Election Commission, received more than $19,000 worth of flights, hotels and meals from ES&S since 2009, according to South Carolina Ethics Commission disclosure forms.

Andino's influence extends beyond the Palmetto State. She is also a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's Standards Board and has testified on election issues. She is a former president of the National Association of State Election Directors. To have an election official tied to a voting company creates concerns about conflicts.

Executives with Political Ties

DCReport also looked into the careers of some key ES&S executives. What we found is concerning.

Kathy Rogers, ES&S's senior vice president for government affairs, landed at ES&S after controversy over her work as a Georgia state elections official. She opposed legislation trying to ensure vote counts could be verified.

In 2019, The New Yorker wrote about her actions in "How Voting-Machine Lobbyists Undermine the Democratic Process."

"In 2006, a bill requiring a verifiable paper record of each ballot, introduced in the Georgia legislature at the urging of election-integrity advocates, failed after the state's elections director, Kathy Rogers, opposed it," the magazine reported.

Georgia used ES&S machines in 2018 but now relies on Dominion equipment.

Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial race is noteworthy because it was overseen by Brian Kemp, who was then in charge of Georgia elections as secretary of state. That year, Kemp also ran for governor while overseeing his own election, a conflict of interest he disregarded.

Kemp won a narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams, but only after his office blocked 53,000 voter registration applications using a strict name-matching protocol comparing state records to voter registration forms.

Kemp's Conflicts

Registrations were tossed if, for example, a person used a first name, middle initial and last name, on one form, but then used all three names in full on another. This invalidated a huge number of voter registration applications.

After Kemp won, a federal judge declared Georgia had to implement a completely new voting system in time for the 2020 elections, replacing what the judge called "unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated technology." Kemp tried to keep using the ES&S equipment for future elections, prompting Peach State Democrats to assert cronyism in the Kemp administration.

In January 2019, the Georgia Democratic Party challenged the integrity of voting machines that did not create an auditable paper trial, a policy he pursued through the creation of the Secure, Accessible & Fair Election or SAFE Commission.

The Democrats demanded a delay on recommendations for a new voting system "following the discovery that a leading vendor under consideration, whose machines are currently being investigated in a lawsuit due to errors in the 2018 election, has deep connections to Brian Kemp's office." That vendor was ES&S. The deep ties were due to Kemp having hired a longtime associate who was a registered lobbyist for ES&S.

As Politico characterized it at the time: "Georgia likely to plow ahead with buying insecure voting machines." It also reported, "Critics argued that the bill appeared to be written with one vendor in mind: the voting technology giant Election Systems & Software, whose former top lobbyist, is now Kemp's deputy chief of staff."

How many other states are conducting elections on grossly outdated or otherwise unreliable ES&S technology in 2018 and in 2020? This is an issue we are still investigating.

In Georgia, it was Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who succeeded Kemp as the elections overseer, who announced Dominion Voting Systems as the new elections vendor.

A Clean Election

The most recent Georgia election seems to be the first election in recent Georgian history not marred by voting-machine controversy other than Trump's nakedly false claims of vote stealing and corruption aimed at Republican Raffensperger.

The 2020 voting took place on a new system with an auditable paper ballot system. Three recounts, including an audit requiring "roughly 5 million votes in that contest to be recounted by hand" and as Secretary of State Raffensperger stated, showed results as close as imaginable.

"We have now counted legally cast ballots three times, and the results remain unchanged," Raffensperger said. Furthermore, a judge declared Trump's legal team produced "precious little proof" in their pleadings.

ES&S's revolving door policy means its lobbyists are taking top government official positions as well as government political appointees are becoming ES&S executives.

One of these is Chris Wlaschin, who left the Trump administration in March 2018. He was the chief information security official in the Health & Human Services Department. A few weeks later he landed at ES&S as "its new vice president of systems security responsible for the company's security efforts."

HHS to ES&S

Wlaschin abruptly left the Trump administration after HHS Secretary Alex Azar received a letter from a lawyer representing two HHS executives. The letter asserted that Wlaschin improperly had removed the pair and cited an eye-popping false claim Wlaschin used to justify disciplinary action.

"Mr. Wlaschin has stated that my clients were removed from their positions in order to protect an ongoing OIG investigation," wrote lawyer I. Charles McCullough, a former inspector general for the National Security Community.

"You can, therefore, imagine the shock and surprise of my clients when they were both recently advised, unequivocally and categorically, by senior investigators from the HHS OIG, that neither of them are currently or were at any time in the past under investigation" by the inspector general's office, McCullough wrote.

The letter was dated March 12, 2018. Wlaschin's resume says he joined ES&S the next month.

The integrity of voting systems, and especially the ability to audit vote counts, has been the subject of public debate for more than four decades. But most of the recent attention has been focused on one company, Dominion Voting Systems, most recently because of frivolous lawsuits filed by Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell and others. But is that simply a distraction.

We think the issue of who counts our votes, how they are counted, and what ties the companies selling these systems have to politicians deserves more attention. Politicians who must win elections, in order to wield power, must not be able to exert influence on the companies we rely on to tally our votes. We need serious scrutiny over our elections so we can be assured that they represent the will of the people, not of the politicians themselves, and the companies they hire to process our ballots.

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