TPM News

Our big story this morning looks at two new websites that produce a pernicious breed of fake news. Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) reelection campaign began funding one, “The California Republican,” last year. Strong evidence ties the Maine Republican Party to another, “The Maine Examiner,” which may have helped swing a mayoral election from a progressive Democrat to a Republican last year.

Last Nov. 7, Democrat Ben Chin won a five-way race to become the next mayor of Lewiston, Maine, with 42 percent of the vote. Republican Shane Bouchard came in second, with 29 percent of the vote. The race moved to a runoff.

Just days before the Dec. 12 runoff election, The Maine Examiner used an out-of-context quote by Chin to suggest he called the city’s entire electorate a “bunch of racists.” For the record, Chin did not characterize his town that way — he used the quote in an email to campaign staffers to describe a few individuals he met while out campaigning.

But The Maine Examiner’s article went viral, as did a botched a story about Chin getting his car towed for unpaid parking tickets. Metadata for the site suggests it was published by the Maine GOP’s executive director, Jason Savage.

In the end, Chin lost the election to Bouchard by a razor-thin margin: 145 votes.

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Democrats won another hotly contested statehouse seat on Tuesday night, capturing a district on Florida’s Gulf Coast for their 36th state legislative seat flip of the Trump era.

Democrat Margaret Good defeated James Buchanan, the son of wealthy Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), by a seven-point margin in a suburban Sarasota-based district President Trump carried by almost five points.

The win is the latest for Democrats, who’ve captured Trump-leaning territory across the country, from Wisconsin to New Hampshire to Missouri to Virginia to Washington. And the 12-point shift towards Democrats in this contest is right in line with the average shift that’s occurred in statehouse races across the country towards Democrats since the 2016 elections.

Democrats took another victory lap.

“Representative-elect Margaret Good’s campaign was dedicated to the people of Sarasota County who are tired of Florida Republicans peddling a Trump agenda counter to their values,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee head Jessica Good said in a statement.

These wins show how committed Democrats are to turning out against Trump right now across the country, a factor that’s unlikely to change before this November’s midterm elections and a sign that at least one of the factors for a large wave election is firmly in place. And while this suburban seat isn’t as deep red as some others — a Democrat won it in 2006 and President Obama nearly won the county in 2008 — it’s a sign that Democrats can expand the map to areas they haven’t been able to compete in since those wave elections.

This race was highly targeted by both parties, with heavy spending on both sides, an endorsement from Vice President Biden and a visit from former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in the election’s closing days.

Special elections make it easier for the more fired-up party to pull off huge upsets, and more Republican voters are likely to turn up for this fall’s midterms, making these races an imperfect stand-in of what the future will look like. But most real elections from the past year — as well as big gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey and Democrats’ shocking win in an Alabama Senate race — suggest Democrats are set up to win big next fall.

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FORT MEADE, Maryland (AP) — Police responded to a shooting Wednesday outside the National Security Agency campus at Fort Meade, where authorities surrounded a handcuffed man after a black SUV ran into a barrier.

Fort Meade garrison spokeswoman Cheryl Phillips confirmed by phone that one person was injured in the shooting outside the base and was taken to hospital.

“NSA police and local law enforcement are addressing an incident that took place this morning at one of NSA’s security vehicle entry gates. The situation is under control and there’s no ongoing security or safety threat,” an NSA statement said.

President Donald Trump has been “briefed on the shooting at Ft. Meade,” and the White House offers thoughts and prayers with those who have been affected, spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said.

The FBI said it was sending people to the scene.

An image taken from a WRC-TV helicopter shows the police and fire department response outside one of the facility’s secure vehicle entry gates. WRC said bullet holes could be seen in the vehicle’s front window, and several air bags were deployed. Blood-stained material could be seen on the ground.

Despite prominent highway signs, drivers occasionally take the wrong exit and end up at the tightly secured gates. Most motorists then carefully follow the orders of heavily armed federal officers and turn around without getting into more trouble.

But in early 2015, two people were shot at by NSA police when they disobeyed orders outside the heavily secured campus. One driver died at the scene after NSA police opened fire on a stolen sports utility vehicle. Authorities later said they had stolen a car from a man who picked them up for a party at a motel.

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White House Counsel Don McGahn suggested to Rob Porter in November that he resign from his position as staff secretary after Porter’s ex-girlfriend contacted McGahn about Porter’s behavior, the New York Times reported Tuesday night, citing people familiar with the discussion.

McGahn did not follow up on his suggestion to the since-ousted staff secretary, according to the New York Times.

Following the revelations last week that Porter’s ex-wives had accused him of domestic abuse in their interviews with the FBI for its background check process, the Trump administration’s handling of Porter’s case has come under scrutiny. FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday that the FBI sent reports on Porter’s background check to the White House in March, July, and November of last year, and that the bureau completed its review of Porter in January. It’s not clear just how much top officials knew about the allegations, but reports have indicated that both McGahn and chief of staff John Kelly were aware of the domestic abuse allegations before Porter was fired.

According to previous reporting, McGahn learned in September that Porter’s security clearance had been delayed due to accusations of domestic violence, though it’s not clear how McGahn learned that and how much detail he had at that time. Porter’s ex-girlfriend then called McGahn in November. According to a previous Washington Post report, she told McGahn about the abuse allegations from Porter’s ex-wives. According to the Tuesday New York Times report, she told McGahn that Porter had cheated on her and that he had anger problems.

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The White House put in place a ban on new interim security clearances in November, but allowed those who had already received interim clearances to continue working with them, Politico reported Tuesday night.

A November 7 email obtained by Politico did not spell out the reasoning behind the new ban on interim security clearances.

The security clearance process in the White House has come under intense scrutiny recently following the revelation that staff secretary Rob Porter remained in a high-level position, even as the background check process turned up domestic abuse accusations from his ex-wives.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday that the FBI completed Porter’s background check in January, however, the White House security office had not yet completed its determination on Porter’s security clearance, according to the New York Times.

Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, has also reportedly been working on an interim security clearance for a year, along with several others.

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Michael Cohen, the longtime lawyer for President Donald Trump, said on Tuesday that he paid $130,000 to porn star Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, out of his own pocket.

Clifford once claimed that she had an affair with Trump, though she denies it now.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported in January that Cohen paid Clifford $130,000 as part of an agreement to keep her quiet on her affair with Trump. Cohen’s Tuesday statement is the first time he acknowledged making the payment, but he did not say why he made the payment to Clifford.

“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen said in a statement first obtained by the New York Times. “The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”

Cohen made the statement in response to a complaint from the group Common Cause that the payment was an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign.

“The complaint alleges that I somehow violated campaign finance laws by facilitating an excess, in-kind contribution,” he said in the statement. “The allegations in the complaint are factually unsupported and without legal merit, and my counsel has submitted a response to the F.E.C.”

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With the first primaries of the 2018 elections less than a month away, you might expect federal officials to be wrapping up efforts to safeguard the vote against expected Russian interference.

You’d be wrong.

Federal efforts to help states button down elections systems have crawled, hamstrung in part by wariness of federal meddling. Just 14 states and three local election agencies have so far asked for detailed vulnerability assessments offered by the Department of Homeland Security — and only five of the two-week examinations are complete.

Illinois, for instance —one of two states where voter registration databases were breached in 2016 — requested an assessment in January and is still waiting. Primary voters go to the polls there March 20; state officials can’t say whether the assessment will happen beforehand. DHS says the assessments should be finished by mid-April.

Meantime, fewer than half of the estimated 50 senior state elections officials who requested federal security clearances have received them, DHS says. That can hinder information sharing designed to help states deal with election disruptions.

And Congress is still sitting on three bipartisan bills that address election integrity issues, including funding to upgrade antiquated equipment.

Overall, experts say far too little has been done to shore up a vulnerable mishmash of 10,000 U.S. voting jurisdictions that mostly run on obsolete and imperfectly secured technology. Russian agents targeted election systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 general election, DHS says, and separately launched a social media blitz aimed at inflaming social tensions and sowing confusion.

The CIA director and two other top U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Tuesday they’ve seen indications Russian agents are preparing a new round of election subterfuge. The secretary of state has said the same. Texas will hold the first primary of 2018 on March 6; Illinois follows two weeks later.

That makes local election officials “the front lines of the information age,” said Eric Rosenbach, co-director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and a former Defense Department chief of staff in the Obama administration. “After what the Russians did, every other bad guy is going to come after our democracy now.”

Since last July, a bipartisan team at Harvard — including former U.S. Marine and Army cyberwarriors, national security eggheads and Google engineers — has been trying to shore up that local line. The group, which calls itself the Defending Digital Democracy initiative, has just drafted its latest protect-the-vote election “playbooks” intended to prepare state and local officials for the worst.

“It’s not a question of whether somebody is going to try to breach the system,” said Robby Mook, manager of the 2016 Clinton campaign, which was stung by multiple email thefts later traced to Russian agents. “The question is: ‘How resilient are we and what are we doing to protect ourselves?'”

Mook helps run the effort with Matt Rhoades, who managed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run. Over six months, the authors visited 34 state and county offices and ran simulations to help local officials improve their “threat awareness.”

The team’s findings highlight resource-strapped election systems that can’t secure their own operations, vulnerable voting-equipment vendors and the threat posed by insiders and people looking for political advantage.

There’s no evidence that any hack in the November 2016 election affected election results. But there are also cases — such as in Georgia, where a key election-staging server was exposed on the open internet for months then wiped clean without a forensic exam — that haven’t been independently investigated.

And federal delays are legion. In the last election, DHS took nearly a year to inform the affected states of hacking attempts, blaming it in part on a lack of security clearances. But it hasn’t made up enough lost ground to satisfy critics on Capitol Hill.

In Illinois, for instance, the executive director of the state elections board submitted his application in August and has yet to receive his clearance, according to agency spokesman Matt Dietrich.

As a stopgap, DHS is providing one-day “read-ins” on secret information this week in Washington to about 100 senior state officials — secretaries of state and elections directors — gathered there for a meeting. “That’s a way to deal with the fact that the process hasn’t worked as quickly as we’d hoped,” Bob Kolasky, deputy assistant secretary at DHS for infrastructure protection, said in an interview.

The Harvard team recommends a variety of election safeguards, such as background checks for everyone with access to sensitive election systems, universal use of voting machines that produce a paper trail, and routine, rigorous audits of election results — currently standard only in Colorado and Rhode Island.

The team also urges local officials to quickly acknowledge any election threats and immediately explain to the public what they are doing about them — two things that don’t come naturally to them.

Elections officials “made us all a little nervous” in their handling of disinformation scenarios during tabletop exercises — such as bogus online reports of two-mile-long lines certain polling stations, said Rosenbach.

“They do not want to talk to the press, much less communicate at all,” he said. A hack is just one element of a modern election attack — “the more potent part is often info ops.”

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Online: https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/state-and-local-election-cybersecurity-playbook

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Read a reporter’s notebook (Prime access) on this article »

Last month, a site called the Maine Examiner reported that Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, was the state’s only member of Congress to vote to shut down the government. The site illustrated its story with a picture of Pingree next to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), though Lewis wasn’t mentioned in the story.

Two weeks ago, another site, the California Republican, shared an article promising to explain “the process behind #ReleaseTheMemo,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) push to release a document that he has said shows anti-Trump bias at the FBI.

Both sites look like news outlets. But neither have staff writers, editorial guidelines, or physical offices. Instead, the Maine Examiner appears to be linked to the state’s Republican Party. And the California Republican is a project of Nunes’ reelection campaign.

The sites certainly aren’t the first political mouthpieces to disguise themselves as journalism. Mike Pence planned to create a state-run news service during his tenure as Indiana governor, before pulling the plug in the face of fierce criticism. The Republican Governors Association set up a partisan news site last summer that didn’t disclose who was behind it until reporters made inquiries.

Nor are the sites likely generating huge traffic, based on their social media numbers.

But for the political interests behind them, the sites represent a useful way to spread their message to supporters while falsely conveying the authority of independent journalism. Such fake “news” is particularly troubling at a time when online content can spread virally without consumers knowing who’s behind it, and the 2016 election saw hundreds of thousands of Americans were unwittingly duped by news articles, ads and social media posts produced by Russian “troll farms” and Macedonian teenagers.

“There’s a general lack of transparency here,” Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center told TPM. “When you have these ongoing accusations of fake news and attacks on the legitimate news media, and then partisan candidates creating what are actually fake news sites to help muddy the waters and push their message, it helps weaken trust in journalism and the media as an institution.”

The California Republican briefly went offline after Politico reported on it on Sunday. The site said that was due to “heavy traffic and an attack on our servers.” It was back up as of Tuesday. 

Nunes’ campaign and congressional office did not immediately respond to TPM’s requests for comment.

The Maine Republican Party has staunchly denied any involvement in the Maine site, but according to a local news report, metadata indicates that a username linked to the group’s executive director, Jason Savage, registered the site’s web hosting account and downloaded the design template.

Neither Savage nor Maine GOP communications director Garrett Murch responded to TPM’s request for comment.

The Maine Democratic Party last month filed a complaint with the state ethics commission requesting an investigation into the GOP’s ties to the site and whether campaign finance laws were violated. The commission confirmed to TPM that the complaint will be reviewed at a meeting next week.

Both the Nunes campaign and the Maine site appear designed to mimic the conventions of legitimate news sites. They feature a mix of local and national news articles largely excerpted from other mostly conservative publications and framed with a conservative slant, as well as sports and human interest stories unrelated to politics. (The Nunes site promises “the best of US, California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis.”) On Facebook, they’re catalogued as “media/news” companies.

And neither site gives much indication to a casual news reader that they’re political propaganda. The California Republican has no “About” page explaining its purpose. At the very bottom of each page, in seven-point type, appears the line: “Paid for by the Devin Nunes campaign committee.” The Maine Examiner offers even less information, telling readers on an About page that it’s the work of a “small group of Mainers.”

The Republican Governors Association’s site set up last year, the Free Telegraph, still doesn’t include a disclosure on its social media feeds.

“It’s very clear on the Free Telegraph site that it is connected to the RGA,” RGA communications director Jon Thompson told TPM in an email, saying the site was “just another outlet” to tout the successes of GOP governors. “On every article post, at the bottom, it notes that the RGA has sponsored the article/site.”

Thompson also said a Google search would make clear the Free Telegraph is a project of the RGA—though few news consumers would likely have any reason to run one.

The FEC requires a “clear and conspicuous” disclaimer on all communications by a campaign committeeStephen Spaulding, a former FEC lawyer now at Common Cause, said the sites’ meager or non-existent disclosures raise particular issues in an era when consumers often encounter news on social media rather than on the website of the news provider. 

“The way that news is shared now, things kind of spread organically and it’s just not always clear who is behind it,” said Spaulding, who called the use of news-style sites “dangerous for democracy.” 

A series of academic studies done in the wake of the 2016 campaign suggest a low level of news literacy among consumers. A Stanford University study of some 7,800 students found that news consumers a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their inability to evaluate the credibility of information they consumed online. Another report by a trio of political scientists found that “almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets.”

As a result, campaign sites without transparent disclosures can become just another part of the morass of legitimate news, sponsored content, political gossip and pure hogwash available online.

As Alex Howard, deputy director of the government transparency advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation, put it, these site disclosures are the only way that “the public, when they’re staring at the same glowing box, has at least a prayer of being able to understand who paid for it, what that entity is and what its goals are.”

Correction: This story initially said that Alex Howard was the Sunlight Foundation’s executive director, rather than deputy director.

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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Tuesday that the first class and military flights he takes at taxpayer expense come as a result of the “level of threat” he faces on planes.

“Unfortunately, … we’ve had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April timeframe,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader in an interview Tuesday, during a visit to the state.

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” he continued, adding: “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

The paper said Pruitt confirmed he’d flown first class from Washington, D.C. to Boston for the trip. CBS News’ Julianna Goldman ‏reported later Tuesday that the outlet had learned Pruitt took an expensive Emirates business class flight — the ticket was at least $7,000, Goldman said — from Milan to Washington last June, part of $43,000 spent on travel for the trip.

That dispatch adds to one from the Washington Post, which reported Sunday that Pruitt had taken at least $90,000 worth of flights in part of June of last year, including $1,641.43 for a single first class seat to New York, from Washington D.C.

Pruitt told the Union Leader he wasn’t “involved in any of those decisions,” and that “[t]hose are all made by the (security) detail, the security assessment in addition to the chief of staff.”

The Post and CBS News had already reported on Pruitt’s expensive travel habits in September of last year.

And he’s not alone among senior Trump administration officials: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price have received similar scrutiny for luxury, taxpayer-funded travel. Price lost his job as a result, the rest remain in their positions.

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A federal judge’s order Tuesday temporarily blocking the Trump administration from winding down the DACA program featured what has become something of a trend over the last year: A reference to a Tweet from the President’s own account the appeared to undercut whatever Trump’s Justice Department’s position was in the case.

In this instance, Brooklyn-based U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis was remarking on how it “is not clear how the President would ‘revisit’ the decision to rescind the DACA program if the DACA program were, as the Attorney General has stated, ‘an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.'”

A federal judge in San Francisco, who also halted Trump’s DACA termination last month, cited the same tweet to make a similar point.

And it’s not just DACA. Trump’s tweets have also popped up in the litigation around his travel ban over and over again.

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