Biden, Trump, Ukraine and Southwest Florida’s congressmen –Updated

President Donald Trump shares a laugh with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the United States, in the Oval Office on May 10, 2017. (Photo: TASS)

Feb. 21, 2022 by David Silverberg

–Updated Feb. 23 with new Donald Trump comments and additional images

As this is written, the world is on the brink of war. Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment.

But for all that, it’s worth standing back for a minute to compare the American response of President Joe Biden to the actions of former President Donald Trump.

Above all, the steps taken by the Biden administration to date have been rational, reasonable and sensible. The president has rallied and unified the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of the consequences of going to war against Ukraine and put in place the mechanisms to impose those consequences should war begin. He has exposed Russian plans for “false flag” operations and provocations aimed at sparking an invasion. His administration puts American concerns before the world in the United Nations. At the same time he has reached out to Putin and maintained a steady diplomatic dialogue to resolve differences peacefully while standing firm on core democratic and allied principles. He has kept the American public and the world informed of the state of play in a credible, truthful way. Most of all he has carefully and loyally advanced and defended the interests of the United States.

Contrast this to the irrationality, the unpredictability and the emotionality of Donald Trump. This was a man who divided and denigrated the NATO alliance. He was deferential to Putin to the point of subservience and hostile to longstanding allies. He was dismissive of the United Nations and world opinion. When it came to Ukraine, he saw it, not as a sovereign nation, but as little more than a source of dirt to attack his then-potential political rival. His interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were so improper and illegal he was impeached. He lied so constantly and repeatedly that nothing he said could be believed no matter how great the crisis. Worst of all he advanced Putin’s interests, he advanced his own interests, but he never substantively advanced or defended United States interests.

“All roads with you lead to Putin,” House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) memorably put it directly to Trump in a meeting in 2019.  

“All roads with you lead to Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells President Donald Trump on Oct. 16, 2019.

“You couldn’t get a sharper contrast,” between the presidents, Fiona Hill, the steely national security expert who testified against Trump during his impeachment hearings, told CNN in an interview. “There’s no Team America for Trump. Not once did I see him do anything to put America first. Not once. Not for a single second.”

But perhaps the best take on the Trump-Putin relationship was satirical when, on Saturday Night Live in 2017, cast member Beck Bennett, playing Vladimir Putin, addressed Americans: “I promise we will take care of America,” he said, smiling wickedly at the camera. “It’s the most expensive thing we ever bought.” It was meant for laughs but spoke truer than anyone knew.

Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin on Saturday Night Live on Jan. 22, 2017. (Image: SNL)

Under Trump, Russia was able to modernize and enlarge its armed forces from the woeful mess that fought in Chechnya to the powerful force that now stands arrayed on Ukraine’s borders. It’s not as though the United States and the West wasn’t warned. (For a particularly insightful and prescient look, see the 2019 study by the RAND Corp., Trends in Russia’s Armed Forces.) However, all this was done with the knowledge and abetment of Trump and his administration.

As though to confirm all this, yesterday, Feb. 22, Trump expressed his admiration for Putin on the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton radio show in an interview from Mar-a-Lago.

The exchange merits quotation in full:

Buck Sexton: Mr. President, in the last 24 hours we know Russia has said that they are recognizing two breakaway regions of Ukraine, and now this White House is stating that this is an “invasion.” That’s a strong word. What went wrong here? What has the current occupant of the Oval Office done that he could have done differently?

Donald Trump: Well, what went wrong was a rigged election and what went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s doing. I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, “This is genius.” Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.

So, Putin is now saying, “It’s independent,” a large section of Ukraine. I said, “How smart is that?” And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force… We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well. By the way, this never would have happened with us. Had I been in office, not even thinkable. This would never have happened. But here’s a guy that says, you know, “I’m gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent,” he used the word “independent,” “and we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.” You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response. They didn’t have one for that. No, it’s very sad. Very sad.”

With Trump, for all his bluster and bombast, the core of American policy toward Russia was weak; Biden may not be loud or pompous but the essence of his policy is solid and substantial.

SWFL’s take

Predictably, Southwest Florida’s Republican members of Congress have been critical of Biden’s responses, although less so of Putin.

In a Feb. 19 interview on Fox News, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who does not live in his district, said the United States was “late to the game” and accused Biden of weakness.

“This is almost like Afghanistan re-done where some of the data elements have been there for some months but where has the administration been? What have they done? And then the tough talk comes late. But by that point things are already in motion. That looks like what’s coming in Ukraine right now.”

He called for a show of strength and criticized Biden for not going to the Munich meeting of European leaders and sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead.

However, when asked what the United States should be doing, he recommended exactly the actions the administration is taking.

“…We have to be very serious about Nord Stream 2,” he said. “That pipeline cannot go into existence at all. The other thing is that we have to have serious conversations with the rest of our allies in NATO about what are the defensive military components they’re going to need to make sure we stop a more aggressive Russia”—which is precisely what Biden has been doing, in contrast to Trump’s past attacks on NATO.

(Nord Stream 2 is an undersea natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that has been completed but is not yet operational. It has been subject to repeated sanctions from the United States. The Biden administration waived sanctions early in 2021 for geo-political reasons but, along with Germany, has stated the pipeline will be closed if Russia invades Ukraine.)

As a third measure, Donalds veered off into a call for support of Taiwan.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) similarly attacked Biden for weakness in a Feb. 9 interview on Newsmax, complaining that Biden had lifted sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline but is now threatening to reimpose them. He also called for imposition of sanctions but stopped short of calling for use of US troops.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has not issued any public statements on Ukraine.

What is most striking about the Donalds and Steube statements is that they are calling for strength now while the groundwork for Russian actions were laid during the Trump administration, when both were ardent defenders and admirers of Trump. Although Donalds’ time in office only overlapped Trump’s by 17 days he has continued to be a devotee and was rewarded with a Trump endorsement on Dec. 13 of last year.

Understanding Putin

As the world proceeds into this crisis caused by Putin’s ambitions, it’s worth remembering Trump’s truly significant role in preparing this tragedy. If Ukraine is conquered it will join his betrayal of the Kurds in infamy.

While Republicans point fingers, it’s also worth remembering the person who really had Putin’s number and understood him better than anyone else—Hillary Clinton. The opening paragraph of her chapter on Russia in the book Hard Choices is as true today as when it was written:

“Hard men present hard choices—none more so than Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. Putin’s worldview is shaped by his admiration for the powerful czars of Russian history, Russia’s long-standing interest in controlling the nations on its borders, and his personal determination that his country never again appear weak or at the mercy of the West as he believes it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wants to reassert Russia’s power by dominating its neighbors and controlling their access to energy. He also wants to play a larger role in the Middle East to increase Moscow’s influence in that region and reduce the threat from restive Muslims within and beyond Russia’s southern borders. To achieve these goals, he seeks to reduce the influence of the United States in Central and Eastern Europe and other areas that he considers part of Russia’s sphere, and to counter or at least mute our efforts in the countries roiled by the Arab Spring.”

At least now we have a president who understands what Putin is about and is determined to prevent him from succeeding—no matter how softly that president speaks.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

What starts in Ukraine may not stay in Ukraine: How war could affect Southwest Florida

Ukrainian soldiers train at US Marine Corps Camp Lejeune in 1998. The US-Ukrainian military relationship stretches back decades. (Photo: US DoD)

Jan. 26, 2022 by David Silverberg

In Southwest Florida, the crisis over the Ukraine may seem like a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

That’s the way British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the dispute between a democratic Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany in 1938.

The Czechoslovak government was pressured to give up parts of its territory to appease Adolf Hitler and once he had those pieces he swallowed the rest of the country whole. A full-scale world war eventually followed.

Today Vladimir Putin is endangering Ukraine, threatening war to get his demands met. It seems like a very close replay of Hitler’s moves on Czechoslovakia.

Two of the most knowledgeable Ukraine-Russia analysts have put forward their evaluations of the situation.

Alexander Vindman, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, was director for European Affairs at the National Security Council when in 2019 he blew the whistle on President Donald Trump’s improper political demands on the Ukrainian government. He offered his take on the current situation on Jan. 21 in the magazine Foreign Affairs: “The Day After Russia Attacks: What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond.”

Fiona Hill was an intelligence officer on Russian and Eurasian affairs for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and served on the National Security Council under Trump. In a clinical and steely performance, she too testified against Trump’s improper use of his office during his first impeachment hearings. Her article appeared on Jan. 24 in The New York Times under the headline: “Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It.”

Both call for a strong, robust American response and in particular urge the United States to take the initiative and not just react to Putin’s moves. Hill believes Putin has a much larger goal: to kick the United States out of Europe altogether, allowing Russia to dominate the continent. Both warnings are scary, insightful and deserve heeding.

But why should anyone in Southwest Florida care? It’s not as though Naples is on the front lines or Russian tanks will be rolling into Fort Myers. No matter what happens on the frosty plains of Ukraine, Southwest Florida will still have its sun and beaches.

As World War II demonstrated 80 years ago, conflicts in faraway lands have a way of impacting even places very remote from them, especially in today’s interconnected world. What is more, shooting wars have a nasty tendency to spread their effects in unexpected and uncontrolled ways, especially the longer they go on.

Southwest Florida has already seen how a large, overarching crisis can affect daily life in countless everyday ways. The COVID pandemic emptied store shelves, disrupted travel, upended the supply chain and sowed deep and passionate political divisions over health precautions and vaccinations.

COVID is an assault by an impersonal force of nature; a war in Ukraine that expanded into a US-Russian conflict—presuming that it remained non-nuclear—would be the result of human decisions but would be no less and in some ways, even more impactful.

So how could a hot war in Ukraine immediately affect residents, retirees and tourists in Florida’s Paradise Coast?

Gas prices

United States officials are already negotiating with oil producers to make up for shortfalls in oil supply should Russian oil exports be shut off, either by the Russians or Western blockades.

While Southwest Florida doesn’t get its gasoline from Russia, a global tightening of supply would send prices at the local pumps higher—potentially much higher.

Indeed, gasoline supplies could be so straitened that Floridians—and all Americans—could see the return of gas lines reminiscent of the oil embargoes of the 1970s.

If the scarcity persists, US oil companies could again start eyeing oil drilling and exploitation in eastern Gulf of Mexico or under the Everglades and this time there would be little political will to stop them, even if it would take years for Florida oil to make a difference.

Cyber disruption

The Russians have mastered the art of the cyberattack as a weapon of war. Prior to what the military calls “kinetic” assaults they have launched major electronic onslaughts. They’ve done this in Estonia, Georgia and they just did it in Ukraine, one reason that the alert level of an imminent invasion went up so urgently.

As the Internet has broken down national boundaries, so it has dissolved protective barriers. Cape Coral, Fla., is as vulnerable to cyber-attack as Kyiv. It is not as likely to be a deliberate target since it holds no strategic interest or assets. Nonetheless, should war break out, it might experience collateral damage along with the rest of the United States.

Just how interconnected the electronic world is, was brought home to this author during the 2018 congressional campaign of Democrat David Holden in Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Staff discovered that the campaign website was being monitored from Moscow—and not just from Moscow but by someone in the Arsenal building, a very secure and secret spot in the very heart of the Kremlin complex. The campaign contacted US authorities. The incident proved that even a place as obscure, remote and strategically insignificant as Southwest Florida could find itself under a watchful Russian eye.

If war breaks out, every time there is an interruption in digital service, whether of the Internet, wi-fi, cable television or telephone, Southwest Floridians may be left wondering whether it’s the result of a technical glitch, a random accident or a deliberate attack. They will not know how long it will last. It will make the web of connectivity that binds us together unstable and affect virtually every human activity. It will make commerce, communications and control extremely difficult and in many cases impossible.

A key cyber vulnerability will be in the banking and financial system. If this system is disrupted, credit card transactions might not go through due to downed networks. Access to bank accounts may be blocked. Electronic payments and income may become erratic and undependable.

Stock market crash

Collier County, Fla., tops the country’s midsize markets in numbers of people who get passive income from stocks, bonds and investment, with Lee County a close second, according to a report from the US Chamber of Commerce. That passive income is dependent on a healthy and robust stock market.

Over the past weeks, the New York Stock Exchange has experienced precipitous plunges as a result of war jitters. If war actually breaks out it might crash on the scale of 1929. We might see halts in trading as circuit breakers kick in to stop free-falls. There could be massive losses of wealth that could have a very direct effect on Southwest Florida residents.

Inflation, already high but expected to decline later this year, could climb higher, eroding everyone’s purchasing power.

Supply chain disruption

The world is already dealing with supply chain disruptions caused by COVID. Shoppers in local stores are seeing empty shelves where once items like cream cheese or paper products or frozen vegetables were once plentiful. During the early days of the pandemic the rush was on for face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Depending on the scale and scope of a Ukrainian war, supply chains might be disrupted around the world.

Russian attacks on cyber infrastructure combined with extremely high military demand for key elements like steel or silicon could result in scarcity in a wide variety of goods at the retail level, including here in Southwest Florida. However, it’s impossible to predict with any precision which goods might be affected or where scarcity might emerge.

Travel disruption

Anyone who has traveled, especially by air, has experienced travel delays due to weather or other unexpected obstacles. The COVID Omicron surge was a major disruptor, felling flight crews and introducing unpredictability into airline schedules and flights.

A US-Russian conflict could compound that with deliberate Russian efforts to disrupt air corridors, interfere with commercial aviation or confuse navigation systems on the ground or in the air.

Social media disinformation

As the Mueller Report detailed, Russian operatives substantially interfered in the 2016 election (especially in Florida), helping to put Donald Trump in office. They are now practiced and proficient in the use of American social media to achieve political and strategic aims. After all, the word “disinformation” is originally a Russian word (дезинформация).

A US-Russian conflict would likely see a tsunami of Russian-aided social media and Internet propaganda and disinformation aimed at confusing, misleading and dividing Americans.

A unique local aspect of this is the Florida presence of two major American pro-Russian sympathizers, Donald Trump and Michael Flynn. On Jan. 24, Flynn penned an op-ed in the conservative Western Journal that was characterized by Forbes magazine as voicing support for a Russian invasion. It presented the Russian viewpoint on Ukraine.

It will likely be impossible for Americans to wall themselves off from these efforts but with public discernment, skepticism and the efforts of social media platforms to responsibly weed out false and misleading disinformation, perhaps the impact can be kept to a minimum.

Avoiding the inevitable

Nothing in human affairs is inevitable except death and taxes. Even the most seemingly unstoppable force can be stopped if it’s controlled by human decisionmaking. War is one of these kinds of events.

A diplomatic solution in Ukraine is entirely possible although the alignment of forces doesn’t favor it at the moment. Putin simply doesn’t regard Ukraine as an independent country. He attempted to dominate it through subterfuge, first by putting his own candidate in the Ukrainian presidency, then by backing breakaway areas and competing regional governments. He put his own candidate in the American presidency to aid and abet these efforts but that puppet is now gone from power. His efforts to date have not yielded the desired result.

Now he’s left with either threatening physical force or using it on a massive scale.

The United States and its NATO allies recognize Ukraine as a separate, independent state and treat it that way. This irreconcilable difference is what is fueling the current crisis.

Though seemingly mild-mannered and quiet, President Joe Biden long recognized the Russian threat. In particular he had an early awareness of the danger presented by Russian corruption, bribery and subversion as a state tool to buy agents and defeat obstacles to its ambitions. The US government is taking action to thwart those efforts.

Obviously, a win-win-win (Ukraine-Russia-US) diplomatic solution would be the most desirable for all parties. However, if conflict breaks out, there exists the very real possibility that a Russian invasion could be thwarted, that Russian cyberattacks could be stopped and a successful counteroffensive launched. Americans could unite in defense of their country. Russia could suffer cyber damage as great or worse than any inflicted on the United States. Its economy could be shattered. Ukraine, the United States and NATO could emerge victorious—but at a cost in lives and treasure and all this amidst an ongoing pandemic.

There is no telling at this point how the Ukraine crisis will resolve itself. But only 80 years ago history provided an example: appeasement of Hitler did not work.

Appeasement of Putin will not work now. There come times when the forces of law and democracy must stand firm to survive. That’s true in international affairs and it’s true in domestic affairs.

Like an earthquake or a tsunami, the aftershocks from a Ukraine conflict will reach Southwest Florida in one form or another. This is not a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

In this time and place that “faraway country” is right next door. And those “people of whom we know nothing” are our neighbors.

*  *  *

For further reading about post-Soviet Russia and the rise of Vladimir Putin (both available in the Collier and Lee county public libraries), see:

Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West by Catherine Belton.

From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia by Michael McFaul.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

Баттлграунд Флорида

06-14-19 Florida postcard

June 14, 2019 by David Silverberg

Welcome to Battleground Florida, or, as the Russians would put it: Баттлграунд Флорида.

Florida won’t just be a battleground state in the 2020 election—it will be the battleground state that wins or loses the election.

The Republican Party knows this. The Russians know this. Donald Trump certainly knows this. Indeed, he knows it to such a degree that he’s chosen Florida to announce his re-election run at a rally in Orlando on Tuesday, June 18.

And Democrats? They sorta seem to know it. But can they act on it?

Florida’s importance lies beyond the fact that it provides a presidential candidate with 29 electoral votes, over one-tenth of the total needed to get to the presidency. Its criticality also lies in the fact that in Florida presidential elections have been squeakers in the past, devolving down to hanging chads in 2000 and going to Donald Trump with 49 percent of the vote in 2016.

“We can’t win the White House without winning Florida. Period,” Joe Gruters, chairman of the Florida Republican Party told Politico’s Marc Caputo in early May.

Republicans won the governorship and a Senate seat in a squeaker in 2018 and it’s clear that despite those victories they want no repeat of that near-death experience in 2020. Their discipline and determination since then has been impressive.

  • The Trump campaign is treating Florida as its own region, giving it the resources and organization that it will otherwise dedicate to broad regions like the Midwest or Northeast, according to Politico.
  • The campaign is organizing early, Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, told the Broward Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale on May 23, according to the Sun Sentinel. It’s going to be “bigger, better and badder” than 2016. For 2020, the Trump campaign intends to have 40 to 60 million telephone and e-mail contacts by Election Day—in contrast to 2016, when it only had 9 million. Attendees at Trump rallies will be asked to provide information for five of their contacts and rewarded with hats or souvenirs when they provide them. The goal is to vastly increase the contacts coming out of rallies, in contrast to 2016 when they only numbered 20,000 to 30,000.
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis’ massive pilgrimage to Israel at the end of May was designed to win over crucial Jewish donors and voters who, while losing the voting numbers they’ve wielded in the state in the past nonetheless remain an influential community, especially financially. DeSantis’ pilgrimage also attracted the likes of Sheldon Adelson, the conservative pro-Israel mega-donor based in Las Vegas.
  • While the Florida panhandle continues to suffer as a result of last year’s Hurricane Michael, Trump nonetheless went there to hold a rally that was infamous for his encouragement of shooting migrants. Trump’s solicitousness of panhandle voters was particularly cruel and ironic in that individual Republican members of Congress repeatedly held up a $19.1 billion aid package aimed at alleviating panhandle suffering—no doubt at Trump’s behest—in his quest to get border wall funding that was not included in the bill. Trump has learned that sometimes it’s better to let someone else take the heat for unpopular actions. (And it should be noted that Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) voted against it when it came up for a floor vote on June 3.)
  • In South and Southwest Florida, after first shortchanging Everglades needs in his initial budget request, Trump acceded to the demands of the Florida delegation and brought his supplemental funding request up to $200 million—which was simply what the federal government was contractually obligated to provide in the first place but which was praised for its generosity to the region.
  • The administration’s rhetorically tough stands against Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro and its reversal of President Barack Obama’s overtures to Cuba are designed to win over the state’s Hispanic voters. Republican politicians like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio are making the most of it.
  • While getting out their own base, Republicans have actively worked to suppress any non-Republican voters. After passing Amendment 4 to give felons the right to vote, the Florida legislature began putting restrictions on the newly-enfranchised voters, passing House Bill 7089 (this on the presumption that the enfranchised voters would vote liberal, a questionable assumption). As another example close to home, in Bonita Springs, city council members voted to change the date of the city elections from the scheduled March 17 (primary day) to Nov. 3 (general election day), giving themselves another eight months in office beyond their mandated four-year terms because they feared only Democrats would turn out in March.
  • And, of course, the money will be pouring into the Florida re-election effort. Last year’s Senate race is estimated to have cost at least $200 million, with winner Rick Scott spending $82 million. That may be nothing compared to what the Trumpist re-election effort may spend in the state in 2020.

The Russian vote

On June 12, President Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous that if offered negative information on an opponent or party from a foreign government, he’d listen to it: “It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI—if I thought there was something wrong,” said Trump.

As detailed in Robert Mueller’s report, Russians made a particular effort in Florida in 2016, covertly organizing rallies and attempting to hack into every Florida county’s election operation.

In 2018, Russians verifiably monitored Florida election developments.

Старший брат (Big Brother) is watching

This author has personal experience with Russian monitoring. In the 2018 congressional campaign in the 19th Congressional District I served as communications director for Democrat David Holden. In August, our campaign manager, Chris Raleigh noticed a Russian visitor to the campaign website. Using an application that provided the latitude and longitude of the visitor, Raleigh discovered that the origin of the visit was in Moscow—in the Kremlin.

And not just in the Kremlin—in the Arsenal building in the Kremlin complex, a closed, secure, top secret military facility.

We alerted the FBI, which sent two agents down from Tampa to investigate.

To the best of our ability to determine, the Russians didn’t hack or alter the site or our data. But the incident proved to us that they were monitoring even as local a campaign as ours in a place as obscure as Southwest Florida. One can only imagine what they’re doing—or planning to do—in a race as vital and prominent as the presidential contest and one that hinges on the state of Florida.

To see some local coverage of the incident, see: Congressional candidate says that Russia is monitoring his campaign.

At the same time that the threat of Russian interference rises for 2020, the Trump administration has systematically reduced or diluted American cyber defenses, for example, eliminating the top cybersecurity position in the White House.

Russian meddling, interference, hacking and manipulation around the nation but especially in Florida can be expected to be exponentially higher in 2020 than in 2016, with active encouragement from the president and his supporters. It amounts to a whole other voting bloc in Florida that has to be taken into account by political analysts and experts but one that is covert and unpredictable—and illegal.

The Democratic response

While the president and his supporters have a single focus and purpose, the Democrats are contending with the largest field of presidential candidates they have ever faced.

While on the one hand this is democracy in action, on the other hand, it means that Democrats will not know their nominee until well into next year and they can’t organize and prepare the ground as effectively as the Trumpists.

But even if they knew the nominee, the state of the Florida Democratic Party is not encouraging.

From June 7 to 9, Democrats held their big conclave in Orlando, called Leadership Blue. None of the presidential candidates showed up, some opting to send their spouses, other spouses checking in by video. Their main focus was in Iowa.

But the Florida Democratic Party is plagued by more than just the absence of a single presidential candidate or message. It remains fractured and splintered, full of recrimination for 2018’s defeats, which it has yet to fully and officially analyze, since its official commission on the election hasn’t released its findings.

Even the media largely ignored this gathering, with the hometown Orlando Sentinel not bothering to send a reporter to its own backyard. A week after the conclave the Party itself had yet to issue a press release or statement on the gathering’s conclusions or proceedings.

Still, there are some signs of life:

  • The Party has created an Organizing Corps of 90 paid organizers who will be mobilizing communities across the state. The effort is centered on minority and ethnic communities, crucial Democratic blocs.
  • The Party is launching a weekly radio show in Spanish in an effort to connect with Hispanic voters, investing $80,000 to reach perhaps 6,000 voters in the Miami area.
  • A national super PAC (political action committee) called For Our Future is starting an early effort aimed at seven swing states including Florida (the others are Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin). With a spending target of $80 million to $90 million, the super PAC plans to have 4,000 paid staff turning out “sporadic voters” especially in minority and ethnic communities. Founded six months before the election in 2016 and supported by labor unions and billionaire activist Tom Steyer, the PAC has hired Ashley Walker, who served as President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign chair, to direct its efforts.
  • The Party created a Voter Protection Program headed by lawyer Brandon Peters to fight voter suppression and irregularity.

These are laudable efforts but seen against a determined Republican juggernaut, they seem puny and paltry. It’s going to take a lot more effort and money to build a credible Democratic campaign capable of winning the state.

Down to the wire

It’s interesting to contrast two perceptions of the race ahead.

“People ask me, ‘Is Florida still a swing state? Almost not. Pretty soon, this is going to be solid Republican,” boasted Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, to Broward County Republicans. “Florida is becoming Trump country.” Then he decided to be more definitive: “This is Trump country.”

Some of that may be political bragging—after all, Parscale is channeling the most boastful man in America, if not the world. But the intensity of the Trumpist effort in Florida and its focus gives his words a ring of authority—or at least, plausibility.

Democrats are unlikely to really unite until they have their nominee and he or she may not be known before Super Tuesday on March 3. Florida doesn’t hold its primary until two weeks later, on March 17. Given the current contest, that counts as very late in the election cycle.

But even with all the Democratic fragmentation and factionalism, the Florida general election results may be so close that a recount is called, lawyer Brandon Peters told Leadership Blue in Orlando, according to the Associated Press.

Teams of volunteers are being readied to monitor canvassing boards for electoral problems in the event of a recount and Peters hopes to have 15,000 lawyers and volunteers ready to confront any difficulties.

“We’re going to be prepared,” Peters told the gathering of Democratic activists.

Once again Florida is the state that could decide the future of the nation—and this time, whether or not the United States of America remains a constitutional, democratic republic, independent of foreign domination.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

SWFL spared Russian election hacking in 2016

05-15-19 RussiaElection-TA

(Illustration: Wired)

May 15, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated 12:18 pm with Lee County comment

Lee and Collier counties were spared Russian election hacking in 2016, according to their election supervisors.

Yesterday,  May 14, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced at a Tallahassee press conference that two Florida counties had been hacked by the Russians in the 2016–but he did not reveal which counties.

DeSantis made the announcement following a briefing from agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regarding 2016 election hacking. The hacking was first made public in the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which stated that Russian agents sent spearphishing e-mails to 120 Florida counties. The e-mails had an attached Word document containing code that allowed the Russians to get into voting systems.

The Mueller Report stated that one Florida county was hacked but did not name the county. Yesterday DeSantis revealed that the Russians hacked two counties but would not reveal which ones.

“I’m not allowed to name the counties,” DeSantis said at his press conference. “I signed a [non]disclosure agreement. I would be willing to name it for you guys, but they asked me [not] to do that, so I’m going to respect their wishes.”

The hacking did not affect the counts of the 2016 results, according to DeSantis. “There was no manipulation or anything” although the hackers accessed voter data. “That voter data, I think, was public anyway. Nevertheless, those were intrusions. It did not affect voting or anything like that,” said DeSantis.

“…As Collier goes, we did receive one of the spearfishing emails, but it was identified as suspicious and was immediately quarantined and then removed. None of our partners at [Department of Homeland Security] or the FBI have disclosed information leading us to believe that Collier is of the two counties affected,” stated Trish Robertson, public relations officer of the Collier County Supervisor of Elections, in an e-mail to The Paradise Progressive.

“The Lee County Supervisor of Elections has never been made aware of any intrusion into our voter registration database in 2016,” Vicki Collins, public information officer for the Lee County Supervisor of Elections also stated in an e-mail to The Paradise Progressive.


Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Trump, Florida, Russia: Tracking the Sunshine State in the Mueller Report

Trump t-shirt seller at Germain Arena rally 9-19-16

A seller peddles a t-shirt at a Trump campaign rally at Germain Arena, Estero, Fla., Sept. 19, 2016. The Mueller Report has revealed that Russians organized rallies for Trump in August 2016.     (Photo by author)

April 19, 2019 by David Silverberg

Russian election interference efforts in Florida were numerous and extensive during the 2016 presidential election campaign, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report (technically, Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election).

The big initial news in Florida was that a Russian hacker tried to penetrate at least one Florida county’s election system. The scramble is now on to identify the county.

However, there are references to Florida events, people and places throughout the 448-page document.

Here, in the order they appear, are summaries of those references.

Aug. 20, 2016: Florida rallies

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian organization chiefly responsible for covertly interfering in the US election through social media, organized rallies for Trump throughout the country using front organizations. The report describes their modus operandi:

“The IRA organized and promoted political rallies inside the United States while posing as U.S. grassroots activists. First, the IRA used one of its preexisting social media personas (Facebook groups and Twitter accounts, for example) to announce and promote the event. The IRA then sent a large number of direct messages to followers of its social media account asking them to attend the event. From those who responded with interest in attending, the IRA then sought a U.S. person to serve as the event’s coordinator. In most cases, the IRA account operator would tell the U.S. person that they personally could not attend the event due to some preexisting conflict or because they were somewhere else in the United States. The IRA then further promoted the event by contacting U.S. media about the event and directing them to speak with the coordinator. After the event, the IRA posted videos and photographs of the event to the IRA’s social media accounts.”

Three of these rallies were in New York, a series were held in Pennsylvania and a series were held in Florida. “The Florida rallies drew the attention of the Trump Campaign, which posted about the Miami rally on candidate Trump’s Facebook account,” states the report. The IRA-organized Florida rallies occurred on Aug. 20, 2016 and were called “Florida Goes Trump!” and were billed “a patriotic flash mob.” At least 17 rallies were attempted.

(During the campaign, Trump held two rallies in Southwest Florida, one at the then-Germain Arena in Estero on Sept. 19, 2016 and the other at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 25, 2016.)

Nov. 2, 2016: Disseminating Russian disinformation

As the report states:

“Among the U.S. ‘leaders of public opinion’ targeted by the IRA were various members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign. In total, Trump Campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA. Posts from the IRA-controlled Twitter account @TEN_ GOP were cited or retweeted by multiple Trump Campaign officials and surrogates, including Donald J. Trump Jr.”

One of these Trump Jr. retweets was an allegation that Democrats were committing voter fraud in Florida: “RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING: #VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida.”

June 15, 2016: Releasing hacked e-mails

On June 14, the Democratic National Committee publicly announced that its e-mail server had been hacked. Apparently in response, the following day the Russian unit (Unit 74455) of its military intelligence service, the GRU, began releasing the stolen e-mails under the persona Guccifer 2.0. Releases were grouped around specific themes such as key states—like Pennsylvania and Florida.

The report also states: “On August 22, 2016, the Guccifer 2.0 persona transferred approximately 2.5 gigabytes of Florida-related data stolen from the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] to a U.S. blogger covering Florida politics.” The blogger’s name is not mentioned in the report.

November 2016: The attempted hack of Florida election officials

In November 2016 GRU officers sent over 120 e-mails to Florida election officials in a spearphishing effort—specifically targeting the officials with false e-mails that would open their systems to exploitation. “The spearphishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer,” states the report.

It was through this technique that at least one Florida county’s election system was hacked. Since release of the report, the media and Florida officials have been seeking the name of the county.

Spring, 2016, Henry Oknyansky/Henry Greenberg

In the spring of 2016 a Florida-based Russian approached the Trump campaign and political activist and provocateur Roger Stone with an offer to sell damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

As stated in the Report:

“In the spring of 2016, Trump Campaign advisor Michael Caputo learned through a Florida-based Russian business partner that another Florida-based Russian, Henry Oknyansky (who also went by the name Henry Greenberg), claimed to have information pertaining to Hillary Clinton. Caputo notified Roger Stone and brokered communication between Stone and Oknyansky. Oknyansky and Stone set up a May 2016 in-person meeting.

“Oknyansky was accompanied to the meeting by Alexei Rasin, a Ukrainian associate involved in Florida real estate. At the meeting, Rasin offered to sell Stone derogatory information on Clinton that Rasin claimed to have obtained while working for Clinton. Rasin claimed to possess financial statements demonstrating Clinton’s involvement in money laundering with Rasin’s companies. According to Oknyansky, Stone asked if the amounts in question totaled millions of dollars but was told it was closer to hundreds of thousands. Stone refused the offer, stating that Trump would not pay for opposition research.”

According to the Report, Rasin was trying to make money by peddling the information and getting a cut if the information was sold. Despite his statements that he had worked for Clinton, there’s no evidence he ever did, according to the Report.

Despite being a director or registered agent for a number of Florida companies and having a Florida driver’s license, the Special Counsel’s office was unable to locate Rasin.

The Rasin-Oknyansky effort may have been separate from official Russian interference efforts, according to the Report.

July 27, 2016, Trump’s Doral, Fla., press conference.

It was at this Doral, Fla., press conference that President Donald Trump made his infamous remark: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” There are repeated references to this press conference throughout the report, starting on page 18. As the Report notes: “Within five hours of Trump’s remark, a Russian intelligence service began targeting email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton for possible hacks.”

Mar-a-lago, Palm Beach, Fla.

President Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort figures several times in the Report.

It was here in the Spring of 2016 that Paul Manafort was hired as campaign manager, initially without pay.

It was also at Mar-a-lago that on Dec. 29, 2016 the Trump team first learned of President Barack Obama’s imposition of sanctions on Russia for election interference and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats.

Numerous members of the Presidential Transition Team, including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and K.T. McFarland, who was slated to become deputy national security adviser, were at the resort.

There was an exchange of e-mails about the impact of the sanctions. National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn was in the Dominican Republic and spoke by phone with McFarland. Flynn told McFarland that he would be speaking to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. He did so that evening and urged the ambassador not to allow the situation to escalate by retaliating. The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced there would be no retaliation.

Conclusion: Russian efforts past and future

It remains to be seen if the Florida county where Russian spearfishing succeeded will be revealed. But what the Mueller Report really brings out was the depth and breadth of the Russian election interference effort. With Florida a key battleground state and the home of Mar-a-lago, there was considerable Russian effort expended here.

Most importantly, the Mueller Report is a critical warning for the 2020 election: Florida is in the crosshairs. The Russians will be back.

Liberty lives in light
© 2019 David Silverberg