Is Russia Behind the ‘Angry Bernie Bro’ Narrative?

It’s complicated.

The Democratic debate on Wednesday was rife with conflict—Mike Bloomberg faced tough questions both about his stop-and-frisk policy and sexual harassment lawsuits, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg were at each other's throats all night, and Elizabeth Warren excoriated her opponents’ health care plans as inadequate. Amid the fireworks, one significant exchange seems to have been lost in the shuffle. 

NBC News debate moderator Hallie Jackson asked Elizabeth Warren if—because of online bullying and harassment—Bernie Sanders and his supporters were “making it harder for Democrats to unify in November.”

After Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union released a scorecard criticizing Sanders’ Medicare-for-All health care plan, union leadership faced a barrage of venom from supporters of the Vermont senator. Union spokeswoman Bethany Khan told the Nevada Independent they have been on the receiving end of dozens of angry phone calls, hundreds of emails, and thousands of tweets.“We will find you corrupt mother f***ers of that you can be sure and we will make sure you wallow in poverty and suffering,” one read.

“We are all responsible for our supporters,” Warren said. “And we need to step up.”

Asked to respond, Bernie gave a perfunctory disavowal of those spreading hatred on his behalf and pointed out that members of his own campaign have been subject to online vitriol as well.

“We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love. And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.

“But let me also say what I hope my friends up here will agree with is that if you look at the wild west of the internet, talk to some of the African-American women on my campaign. Talk to Senator Nina Turner. Talk to others and find the vicious, racist, sexist attacks that are coming their way, as well.”

But when pressed by Buttigieg on why his supporters tend to be more antagonistic than most, Sanders presented a new defense. “All of us remember 2016,” he said. “What we remember is efforts by Russians and others to try to interfere in our election and divide us up. I'm not saying that's happening, but it would not shock me.”

His “I’m not saying that’s happening” hedge did little to mitigate the water-muddying allegation against Russia—one that would present a serious dilemma for our democracy were it true. 

So is it?

Initially, Sanders’ suggestion was met with skepticism. Of course Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, but Sanders was plainly hinting that Russia may be responsible for some of the divisive rhetoric ascribed to his supporters.

Then, the Washington Post reported on Friday that Sanders had been briefed by U.S. officials on Russia’s attempts to help his presidential campaign, though the report says “it is not clear what form that Russian assistance has taken.”

Sanders told reporters the briefing took place about a month ago, and made clear to Russian president Vladimir Putin he didn’t want his support. “Here is the message to Russia: Stay out of American elections.”

If Russia is indeed attempting to boost Sanders as the Post reports, that support could manifest itself in many forms. But experts haven’t yet seen proof that the social media bitterness of segments of Sanders’ online support stems from the Kremlin.

“We know that the Russian operation in 2016 and the follow-on operation that was taken down in October 2019 included accounts that posed as Sanders supporters, among other things,” Ben Nimmo, an expert on Russian disinformation campaigns, told The Dispatch. “But I've not seen any evidence that the recent Twitter traffic around internal splits in the Democratic Party was caused or driven by Russian operations.”

Nimmo told us the #MayorCheat hashtag targeting Buttigieg after the Iowa caucuses, for example, was launched domestically and spread primarily by American users. “The political conversation in the U.S. is so polarized right now that you don't need Russian trolls to inflame it: It's Americans doing it to each other.”

The social media platforms involved—which have beefed up their disinformation policing significantly since 2016—agree. A spokeswoman for Facebook told The Dispatch that the company hasn’t seen any evidence of such Sanders-related activity. A Twitter spokeswoman told us the company “proactively monitor[s] Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them.” 

“If we have reasonable evidence of state-backed information operations, we’ll disclose them following our thorough investigation to our public archive.”

Renee DiResta—research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory who investigates disinformation campaigns on social media—explained that Russia’s previous intervention efforts often capitalized on existing divisions rather than sowing new ones.

“A lot of the perception of the activity in 2016 is that Russia created it all itself. A lot of the activity that Russia was executing in 2016 was the amplification of real people. There were a lot of retweets in there,” she told The Dispatch in a phone interview. “They did create their own content. They did create their own pages. They did masquerade using personas as various facets of the kind of American political tribes of the 2016 election. But there was also that amplification as a piece even then.”

With regards to Sanders in particular, DiResta wasn’t sure his debate comments told the whole story. “Conceptually, there's a lot of opportunities for outsiders to amplify or create division or discord on Twitter still today,” she said. “But a lot of the activity that we have seen related to online dynamics that the senator was being asked to account for is actually being driven by real people, real supporters—and particularly blue-check influencer, high-profile supporters as well. And that, I think, is where there is a challenge with that comment. So is it true that there is a potential for outside agitation to be a part of the conversation? Yes. Is it also true that what we are seeing is demonstrably domestic at this point? Yes.”

Members of the Sanders campaign—which did not respond to a request for comment—have certainly, as the senator said on Wednesday, been victim to online harassment as well. A quick Twitter search reveals that prominent Bernie surrogate and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, for example, has been called “the stupidest person in politics” and much, much worse.

But as DiResta pointed out, one needn’t look to Moscow for examples of aggressive online behavior from Sanders supporters. 

“Lets make #MayorCheat stick for the rest of this mother***er's political career,” Shuja Haider tweeted after the Iowa caucuses. 

“It's very important for us to create a black list of every operative who works on the Bloomberg campaign,” prominent Bernie supporter Matt Bruenig recently shared with his 157,000 Twitter followers, deleting the tweet a few days later. 

When a Twitter user disagreed with David Klion’s assertion that “you have to support Medicare For All or else you’re a bad person,” the well-known Bernie advocate simply replied, “go f*** yourself.”

These are all verified, Sanders backers living in the United States. As the Post reported, Russia may very well be interfering in Sanders’ campaign and attempting to propagate division within the United States like it did in 2016. But to pin all the hostility from Sanders supporters on a foreign adversary misses significant parts of the story.

“The risk of pointing to Russia,” DiResta said, “is that it, in a sense, is a bit of an abdication of responsibility for the very real thing that we are seeing.”

Photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Did Mitt Romney Vote to Convict President Trump Because a Former Campaign Staffer Sat on Burisma’s Board?

Evidence is lacking.

Since Sen. Mitt Romney became the only Republican to vote to remove Trump from office last week, the president and his allies have turned up the heat on the former GOP nominee.

“The wonderful people of Utah will never look at ‘grandstander’ Mitt Romney with anything but contempt & disgust,” Trump tweeted.

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro was none too happy with the Utah senator’s decision to vote to convict. “How dare he, how could he, and why would he?” she asked last Saturday. “You take non-evidence that the Democrats refused to present as the reason to convict the president, in an economy that is unparalleled, with a military whose strength is unequaled, with a population where 90 percent are happy with their lives? You really are stupid!”

Such responses are to be expected. Romney was, after all, the first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his or her own party. But in recent days, a conspiracy theory targeting Romney has bubbled to the surface. And—perhaps not surprisingly—it involves Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board.

Mitt Romney’s concern about Trump’s behavior in Ukraine, the theory goes, was actually an effort by the Utah senator to cover up his own corruption, because a former aide to Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Joseph Cofer Black, was appointed to Burisma’s board of directors in 2017. 

Individually, two of those assertions are true. Joseph Cofer Black did have a minor role on Romney’s 2012 campaign, and he is currently on the board of Burisma. But any insinuation beyond that lacks supporting evidence.

Elements of the theory originated back in September at the American Thinker, but resurfaced in the days following the impeachment trial, expanding in scope to include Romney’s vote to convict. The president himself retweeted a graphic claiming one of Romney’s sons is on the board of directors for an energy company doing business in Ukraine (there is no evidence of this), and another tweet alleging that “Romney is covering up his part in corruption in Ukraine” and that “the truth will come out.”

Some of Trump’s allies simply presented the various dots in this thread without explicitly connecting them (though the insinuation is clear). Others more explicitly hinted at corrupt intent on Romney’s part.

Presidential campaigns—particularly ones ramping up for a general election—are massive organizations with hundreds, if not thousands, of staffers, advisers, and consultants. Trump himself was faced with the implications of this earlier in his presidency, when he took heat for the actions of George Papadopoulos, who, in Trump’s own words, was just a “low level volunteer” on his campaign that “few people knew.”

But now some in Trump’s orbit are deploying the same tactics with Joseph Cofer Black to malign Romney. A spokeswoman for the Utah senator says he has not communicated with Black in nearly a decade.

“This is an absurd falsehood being pushed by online trolls,” Liz Johnson told The Dispatch. “This individual was one of hundreds of informal policy advisers to the 2012 campaign, and he has not been in touch with the senator since that time.”

David Kochel, a senior adviser on both of Romney’s presidential campaigns, told The Dispatch, “Cofer Black had no discernible role in the campaign.”

Asked if their position was that Sen. Romney’s impeachment vote was influenced by his connection to Black, two separate Trump campaign spokespeople did not comment.

Photograph of President Trump and Sen. Mitt Romney by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/ Getty Images.

What Is the Extent of Mayor Pete’s Involvement With the App That Crashed the Iowa Caucuses?

It's not what some Bernie Sanders supporters would have you believe.

Conspiracy theories thrive in environments rife with motivated reasoning and mass confusion. The chaos of the Iowa caucuses earlier this week provided both in spades.

In the hours after the first votes of the 2020 presidential election cycle were cast, the Iowa Democratic Party proved unable to report the results. Only 62 percent of the vote was released the following day, with the remaining precincts reporting their final tallies at a slow drip throughout the week. By the time 100 percent of the results were finally published on Thursday, the process had been marred by not only justifiable accusations of incompetence and serious allegations of errors and inconsistencies, but conspiracy theories that lacked supporting evidence.

Central to the dysfunction in the Hawkeye State was a mysterious app—fittingly called Shadow—backed by Acronym, a self-described “nonprofit organization committed to building power and digital infrastructure for the progressive movement.” Emily Stewart put together an excellent explainer on the pair’s relationship over at Recode.

In a press conference on Tuesday addressing what went wrong the night before, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price blamed the app for the delays. “This was a coding error in one of the pieces on the back-end,” he said.

“While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data,” an official statement from the state party read. “We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system.”

Almost immediately, rumors began to fly about ties between the campaign of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and those behind the app. Supporters of other candidates began to float theories connecting him to Shadow and suggesting he benefited from the technological breakdown.

Buttigieg—a polarizing candidate among the Democratic party’s younger, more liberal base—outperformed expectations in Iowa. The RealClearPolitics polling average in the state showed him in third with 16.8 percent of the vote going into the caucuses; he ended up edging ahead of Bernie Sanders by winning 26.2 percent of the pledged delegates.

In the early morning hours of February 4, as the chaos of the counting was unfolding, Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has endorsed Sanders, drew attention to the rumors.

A short time later, a tweet from @GotBerniesBack pointed to alleged ties between the Buttigieg campaign and individuals connected to the app, concluding, “this all reeks.” It has since been retweeted more than 1,200 times.

The next morning, Shaun King, a prominent Sanders surrogate, claimed “Pete’s team funded the company that built the failed election app in Iowa.”

It wasn’t just Bernie supporters spreading the claims. Kayleigh McEnany is the press secretary for Trump’s re-election campaign:

And Donald Trump Jr. weighed in:

Here are the facts surrounding Shadow, Acronym, and Mayor Pete.

The Buttigieg campaign paid Shadow $42,500, but they weren’t the only campaign to do so.

Pete For America made two separate payments of $21,250 to Shadow in July of 2019, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

A campaign spokesman acknowledged to The Dispatch that the Buttigieg campaign has contracted with Shadow. The relationship, however, was for “[text] messaging services to help us contact voters,” he said. “It's totally unrelated to any apps they built for the party.”

But the Buttigieg team wasn’t alone. Kristen Gillibrand’s presidential campaign, which ended in August, spent $37,400 with the company. Joe Biden, who is very much still in the race and floundered in Iowa, gave Shadow $1,225. The Nevada State Democratic Party paid Shadow $58,000 in August—but promptly cut off its relationship with the company after the role it played in the Iowa debacle. “We will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus,” a statement read.

The founder and CEO of Acronym, the organization behind Shadow, has demonstrated support for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign.

A quick scan through Tara McGowan’s Twitter feed illustrates the Acronym CEO’s backing of the former South Bend mayor.

“MAYOR PETE IS RUNNING 😍😍😍” she tweeted upon the candidate’s launch last January.

“Mayor Pete is an incredible candidate I am so, so excited to see get in this race,” she added

In November, she dreamed of a potential Democratic ticket.

McGowan’s husband, Michael Halle, describes himself on Twitter as a “strategist for @Petebuttigieg,” and McGowan’s brother-in-law, Ben Halle, was Buttigieg’s Iowa communications director.

McGowan’s views on Bernie Sanders—Buttigieg’s main competition in Iowa—have been much less enthusiastic, though she did say last month she would “proudly vote for Bernie on Election Day if he is our candidate.”

McGowan did not address these previous expressions of support in a lengthy Medium post on Wednesday, but she did write that the group’s employees support a variety of candidates.

“We are proud to count among our ranks supporters for nearly every Democratic candidate, as well as former employees who are working for nearly all the leading Democratic campaigns. This diversity of viewpoint is something I’m incredibly proud of, it’s what makes us that much stronger and better prepared to take on the fight at hand, together. ACRONYM and PACRONYM will continue to stay neutral in the primary so that we can better focus on the common threat before us. But make no mistake, we will rally around and support whomever is the eventual Democratic nominee.”

The bottom line.

Political campaigns are notorious for their nepotism and self-dealing, and there is certainly some overlap here that raises questions about conflicts of interest. But there is no evidence that the caucuses were “rigged,” or that the problems with the Shadow app had anything to do with Buttigieg’s connections to those behind it. 

Beyond that, such a conspiracy theory lacks common sense.

The Iowa caucuses take place out in the open. Citizens announce their votes by standing with others who support the same candidate—and they do so in front of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other witnesses. Journalists from around the world descend on Iowa to cover the caucuses. International observers attend them. Some of the 1,765 caucus sites are covered on television. It's simply not possible to secretly manipulate the results through an app when they're among the most public electoral contests in the world. 

There were undoubtedly problems with the app itself and errors with subsequent attempts to tally the results—that much is indisputable. But there is zero evidence that the problems with the app were orchestrated by the Buttigieg campaign or Buttigieg supporters—or anyone else, for that matter.

Did Joe Biden Abuse His Power as Vice President to Shield His Son From Legal Scrutiny?

No.

In the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses on Monday, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida is running a television ad targeting Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden in the Des Moines media market.

Introducing himself over a dramatic piano riff as “one of the jurors in the U.S. Senate,” Scott argues the “real story” of the impeachment trial is “the corruption Joe Biden got away with.”

“Vice President Biden threatened a foreign country,” Scott continues, “and forced them to fire a prosecutor who was investigating a company paying his son $83,000 a month.”

Scott is far from the only Republican to make this claim. Sen. Ted Cruz argued last month that as vice president, Biden “bragged publicly about withholding $1 billion in aid until Ukraine fired the prosecutor investigating Burisma, the company paying his son $1mm/yr.” Pam Bondi, a member of President Trump’s impeachment team, made a similar case during the trial this week. The White House itself promoted a video of Joe Biden speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event in 2018, saying the former vice president “threatened to withhold aid to Ukraine unless a prosecutor was fired.”

So is it true? Did Vice President Biden “threaten to withhold aid to Ukraine unless a prosecutor was fired?”

Yes, but not in the insidious manner Scott, Cruz, and the White House are hinting at. 

The clip these Republicans reference shows Biden recalling a time when he, at the direction of the White House, threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees from Ukraine unless then-President Petro Poroshenko would “take action” against a state prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. “I said, ‘we’re leaving in six hours,’” Biden recounted of his meeting with Poroshenko. “‘If the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well son of a bitch, he got fired! And they put in place someone who was solid.”

Because that prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was supposed to be investigating a handful of corruption cases, including one involving Burisma Holdings—a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Vice President Biden’s son Hunter sat—the aforementioned Republicans are trying to make the case that the elder Biden used his post to intervene and protect his kid from criminal exposure.

But in reality, the Obama White House, with the support of many Western nations, pressured Ukraine to remove Shokin because he was failing to investigate corruption, not because he was looking into Burisma. Vitaliy Kasko, Shokin’s former deputy, told Bloomberg News last May that any investigations into Burisma’s owner Mykola Zlochevsky were “shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015,” well before Vice President Biden put the squeeze on Poroshenko in early 2016. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” Kasko added.

Republicans in Congress didn’t make a stink about this move at the time. In fact, in February 2016, with concerns of Shokin’s own corruption growing, several Republicans signed a letter encouraging further “reforms” to the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office. “We similarly urge you to press ahead with urgent reforms to the Prosecutor General's office and judiciary,” a bipartisan letter to Poroshenko from Sens. Portman, Durbin, Shaheen, Johnson, Kirk, Blumenthal, Murphy, and Brown read.

Hunter Biden getting a cushy job on the board of Burisma—despite having little to no experience in the energy industry—is certainly an example of nepotism at its worst. But based on publicly available evidence, claims that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to shield his son from scrutiny are misleading.

Photo of Hunter Biden and Vice President Joe Biden by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA.

Did House Democrats “Choose Not To” Call High-Level Trump Administration Officials in Their Impeachment Inquiry?

It’s not that simple.

Speaking with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham argued against calling additional witnesses to testify in the upcoming Senate trial over President Trump’s impeachment. “I'm going to vote against calling the four witnesses requested by Senator Schumer,” Graham said. “They're all covered by executive privilege. They're part of the national security team of the president. They could have been called in the House. They chose not to. Apparently they don't need them to make their case.”

Graham made a similar point about Mike Pompeo, Russell Vought, Mick Mulvaney, and John Bolton earlier in the interview, saying “all of these witnesses were available to the House.”

But were they? It’s complicated.

On October 4, Reps. Adam Schiff, Eliot Engel, and the late Elijah Cummings issued a subpoena to Mick Mulvaney compelling him to turn over documents related to the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Trump’s acting chief of staff refused to comply. On November 5, Reps. Eliot Engel, Adam Schiff, and Carolyn Maloney formally requested he appear before their respective committees on November 8 to testify. Mulvaney did not show up, with his lawyers saying Mulvaney would “rely on the direction of the president … in not appearing for the relevant deposition.”

On October 25, Engel, Schiff, and Maloney subpoenaed Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, to appear at a deposition in early November. Vought had declined to voluntarily show up before the committees earlier in October, citing an October 8 letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone decrying the entire impeachment procedure. Vought defied the subpoenas as well.

The House Intelligence and Judiciary committees subpoenaed Deputy National Security Advisor Charles Kupperman to appear before them as part of the impeachment inquiry, only for the White House to invoke “constitutional immunity” in blocking him. Unsure what to do, Kupperman filed a lawsuit asking a judge to determine whether the legislative or executive branch’s desires should prevail. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton did not show up for his scheduled voluntary testimony, but signaled he would also abide by the judge’s decision in the case brought by Kupperman, who had been his deputy. Rather than face a lengthy court battle, however, House Democrats withdrew their subpoena of Kupperman and never issued one to Bolton, leading a judge to dismiss the case in late December. (A similar case involving former White House counsel Don McGahn remains ongoing.)

House Democrats never asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify in the impeachment inquiry, but they did issue a subpoena to him demanding the State Department produce materials relevant to the impeachment inquiry. Pompeo did not take too kindly to what he deemed “intimidation” and “bullying” from the legislative branch, writing back, “I will not tolerate such tactics, and I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals whom I am proud to lead and serve alongside at the Department of State.” Several State Department employees—Kurt Volker, Marie Yovanovitch, George Kent, David Holmes, William Taylor, Gordon Sondland—ended up testifying in the impeachment inquiry anyways.

Given all of this, the truthfulness of Graham’s claim—that House Democrats “chose not to” call top impeachment witnesses—varies from official to official. (We told you it was complicated.)

The senator from South Carolina would be correct in saying Democrats “chose not to” seek testimony from Mike Pompeo. But they did make an effort to hear from Mulvaney, Vought, Kupperman, and Bolton—the Trump White House invoked executive privilege and constitutional immunity to block them from testifying. (Jonah Goldberg has a piece exploring the history of executive privilege and how it pertains to impeachment here.)

That being said, House Democrats certainly could have fought harder to extract testimony from the White House. Because the 2020 election is less than a year away, Speaker Nancy Pelosi opted to prioritize the speed of the impeachment process over its thoroughness; had she been willing to wait, a federal judge very well might have determined Kupperman and Bolton were obliged to testify. 

But the White House would almost assuredly have challenged such a ruling, extending the inquiry well into the summer or beyond. So while Graham can argue the House should have slowed down and pursued additional legal channels to capture all relevant information, House Democrats can argue the Trump administration’s stonewalling, so close to an election, made that option untenable.

Photograph of Lindsey Graham by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

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