Internet giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter—worth more than a trillion dollars combined—have now joined the ever-expanding cast of the Trump Tower scandal. Portrayed in the press as the witless enablers to the Russian meddlers of Campaign 2016, the tech firms have been invited to take their public beatings before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The House Intelligence Committee plans similar humiliations.
On the day Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives his congressional testimony, we can expect him to play the naïf, a role that fits the contour of his personality as tightly as his usual T-shirt. Visualize, if you can, Zuckerberg going wide-eyed and then gulping out this opening statement:
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Senator Burr, Ranking Member Warner, Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to discuss the 3,000-plus politically divisive ads we sold to Russian customers for $150,000. I’d love to gossip about all the wild noises sounding from the upstairs cathouse at Facebook, but heck, I just play the piano in the parlor.
I don’t know nothing was the tune Zuckerberg sang back in November when first confronted with the argument that Facebook had helped Trump win. “The idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said. This week, sculling water like an Olympic oarsman, Zuck rowed that comment back. “Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it,” he wrote in a post. He now concedes that during the campaign Russian viral disinformation chewed its way though Facebook like conquering termites. Zuck has bowed to both Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, handing over copies of the ads the Russians bought as well as providing the companion billing information. Do you supposed they used a Kremlin-issued affinity card from Visa?
The Washington Post reports that as early as June 2016, Zuckerberg was warned by President Barack Obama about the peril fake news and political disinformation presented on his platform. In his row-back post this week, the tiny billionaire attempted to fend off President Donald Trump’s tweet that accused Facebook of being “anti-Trump” and of colluding against him with other media outlets. Sounding like a convicted felon begging for leniency from the judge, he begged for the company to be judged in the context of its “broader impact.” Facebook helped get out the vote, he whined, ran millions of legitimate political ads, gave candidates a chance to communicate directly with voters via their Facebook page, and so on.
If Zuckerberg grovels like this when he runs the Capitol Hill gauntlet, they’ll slice him into strips and barbeque him. What sort of ads did Russians place on Facebook? Ads referencing Black Lives Matter and targeting Ferguson and Baltimore; ads impersonating an American Muslim organization; and ads backing Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, for starters. Conspicuously there were none for Hillary Clinton. The Congressional Black Caucus, calling Facebook a “Trojan horse through which America’s vulnerabilities are exploited,” demanded to know more about the Russian Facebook pages that promoted “incendiary anti-immigrant rallies” and planted ads “designed to inflame and exploit racial, political and economic rifts in the U.S.”
The operatives behind the Facebook ads also ran 201 Twitter accounts, reports the Washington Post, which the company has since canceled. Last year, Twitter collected $274,100 for ads from RT, the Russia-controlled broadcaster, and Russian Twitter-bots amplified the Putin message throughout the Web. Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., gave Twitter a full-rotisserie scalding this week after its director of public policy and philanthropy Carlos Monje gave a what he thought was a limp briefing behind closed-doors before the Senate and House intelligence committees. Twitter’s response to the Russian intrusion was “inadequate,” Warner said. “I don’t think we have more than scratched the surface of our understanding of how the Russians may have used that platform,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said. Google insisted in a statement at the beginning of the month that it had “seen no evidence” of Russian propaganda ads on its platforms. That’s not counting RT, though, which is the most popular news channel on Google’s YouTube. Google promises to nose deeper for the Russian scent, and will likely sniff out more Russian mischief.
What to make of all of this congressional dudgeon? Members of Congress love to bang on the billionaire class to please the viewers in the cheap seats who live to see blame affixed. Your standard-issue congressional investigation rarely traces a direct path to genuine wrong-doing. Or are the Warners and Schifffs onto something bigger than discovering a few hundred thousand dollars worth of Russian propaganda ads sloshing around in a digital advertising market of $83 billion? If congressional investigations were magazine feature assignments, most of them would get the spike.
Provocateur and dandy Roger Stone put on his shiniest suit for his performance this week. Before going behind the House Intelligence Committee’s closed doors, he issued a 3,000-plus word prepared statement about his place in the Trump Tower scandal—I’m clean of any involvement would be the short version. Channeling Gore Vidal, Stone tweeted the day before the session, “Never pass up a chance to have sex, be on television or testify before a House Congressional Committee.”
As Richard Nixon’s most famous dirty trickster, Stone lives to mess with Democrats. He called Representative Schiff “Schiffhead,” for example. But how smart is it to wise-crack and insult the power in a scandal where he has potential legal exposure? Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti addressed this question in a column, concluding that Stone’s goal is to “distract from problematic activities he engaged in throughout the election.” For instance, Stone “resents” allegations, he does not deny them. He posits that the Nation magazine’s analysis of the email hacking—the Russians are innocent—is better than the intelligence community’s report that the Russians did it. Stone denies having colluded with the Russian state but is silent about having colluded with Russian individuals. He plays dumb about having any knowledge about the purported Russian hacks and airbrushes his relationship with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. Given a chance to play it straight in his statement, Stone almost always zigzags.
Stone isn’t the only Trump camper loaded to the gunnels with bad judgment. Over the summer, the Wall Street Journal reports, Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner took so many meetings that White House counsel Don McGahn fretted that investigators might interpret the sessions as efforts to coordinate their stories. McGahn got so steamed about the frequency of the meetings he threated to resign but didn’t after Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, who have resigned, leaned on him to reconsider. Elsewhere in the madhouse that is the White House, where characters enter and exit like a French bedroom farce, members of the Trump gang stand accused of practicing poor communications hygiene. Just after the inauguration, the NSA warned White House staffers not to use private email or private mobile phones because they could be hacked and turned into surveillance devices. Washington teems with snooping, hacking foreign powers, and private devices are easier to hack than NSA-hardened communications. So what did at least five top White House aides including Jared Kushner (who leads China, Syria, Middle East, and Afghanistan policy), do? They used private accounts, Politico reports. Richard Clarke, cybersecurity advisor to three presidents told Politico of Kushner, “It’s a pretty safe bet that his personal devices have been compromised by foreign intelligence services. And therefore there is some risk that meetings he attends are compromised too.”
Instead of lamenting the possible national security breaches, perhaps we should look on the brighter side of Kushner and his team getting hacked by Russian, Iranian, and Chinese spies. Warner and Schiff can get the spooks to clear up the Trump Tower mysteries by inviting them to testify before Congress.
Allow me to install malware on your device. Just click on any attachment sent from Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts flirted with a .ru email account a couple of years ago in hopes of winning a Russian bride. My Twitter feed was an IRC account in its youth. My RSS feed can’t be compromised because it uses a Windows Phone and no hacker can be bothered.