August 14, 2020
Today’s big story was the administration’s assault on the United States Postal Service. Yesterday, the president said outright that he opposed relief funding for the cash-strapped institution because he wanted to stop mail-in voting, even though he and his wife Melania have both applied for mail-in ballots. Slowing down or stopping the mail will create chaos around the election, and will likely mean ballots will not be counted. It will also funnel voters back to polling places, although the pandemic means there are far fewer of them than usual.
Once at polling places, many voters will cast their ballots on voting machines that are vulnerable to hacking. New machines, rolled out after 2016 and designed to keep cyberhackers at bay, proved “extremely unsafe, especially in close elections,” according to Alex Halderman, a computer scientist from the University of Michigan who, along with six colleagues, studied them. At least 18% of the country’s districts will vote on the new machines, including districts in Pennsylvania, which Trump needs to win but where Biden is up by double digits.
“There are strong security reasons to prefer hand-marked paper ballots,” Halderman told Joseph Marks of the Washington Post.
A bipartisan organization of state secretaries of state — the people in charge of elections — wrote to Trump’s new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on August 7 to ask for a meeting to discuss his recent changes to the USPS and to explore how those changes would affect the election. In a delay that observers say is “unusual,” he has declined to answer. The USPS recently sent letters to 46 states and Washington, D.C. to say that it cannot guarantee that it will be able to deliver mail-in ballots on time. The letters were prepared before DeJoy took office, suggesting that he knew the USPS should be ramping up its capacity, not decreasing it.
News broke today that DeJoy was named to the finance team of the Republican National Committee in 2017 (along with Elliott Broidy, Michael Cohen, and Gordon Sondland, if anyone can remember back to the days of impeachment), suggesting his partisanship makes him a poor fit for what is supposed to be a nonpartisan office.
In June, USPS officials told union officials that management was getting rid of 671 sorting machines, about 10% of the machines in the country. The sorters were the kind that handled letters and postcards, not magazines and large envelopes. The argument for getting rid of them is that people write fewer letters these days, but of course we are all expecting a huge influx of mail-in ballots that those machines would handle. Many of the removed sorters were in states that are political battlegrounds: Ohio lost 24 sorters, Detroit lost 11, Florida lost 11, Wisconsin lost 9, Philadelphia lost 8 and Arizona lost 5.
Similarly, the USPS removed letter boxes today in what it said were routine reassignments. The outcry was great enough that it has announced it will not remove any more until after the election. The removal of the boxes may indeed be routine, but David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research told Washington Post reporter Jacob Bogage, “Given the other things that are going on, it’s okay to ask questions…. The high-speed sorters that are getting deactivated, the loss of overtime, the delays in mail we’re seeing right now, all of this should cause some concern and warrants questions.”
Today, Inspector General for the USPS Tammy L. Whitcomb announced that, at the request of Democrats, she is opening an investigation into “all recent staffing and policy changes put in place” by DeJoy. She will also be looking into DeJoy’s compliance with ethics rules, related to his huge financial stake in private competitors to the USPS.
The other big story is that the Government Accountability Office, the main audit institution in the federal government, concluded today that the two top officials at the Department of Homeland Security are not legally in their positions.
The acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, and his top deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, were never confirmed for their positions, although those positions require Senate confirmation. Instead, they were moved into their jobs through the lines of succession in the department, but those lines were altered by the previous DHS secretary, Kevin McAleenen, who himself was placed into position improperly. According to the GAO, McAleenen did not have authority to move Wolf, who had Senate confirmation for a different position, into the directorship. Cuccinelli, who currently holds the title “Senior Official Performing the Duties of Deputy Secretary,” has never been confirmed for anything.
Democrats called for Wolf and Cuccinelli to step down, but DHS spokesman Nathaniel Madden said “We wholeheartedly disagree with the GAO’s baseless report and plan to issue a formal response to this shortly.”
Trump’s handling of DHS is problematic. DHS is a new agency, established after 9-11, and it is staffed with political appointees who report to the president. Trump has increasingly refused to go through normal nominations processes, aware that at least some of his appointees could not make it through even this Republican Senate. Moreover, leaving his appointees in limbo gives Trump more control over them. “I like ‘acting,’” he told reporters last year. “It gives you great, great flexibility.”
Trump has made little effort to fill positions at DHS with qualified people. Within DHS are the agencies that oversee immigration: US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). None of them has a leader that has been confirmed by the Senate. Trump’s sway over DHS means the agency is currently operating, as DHS’s first secretary Tom Ridge said, like “the president’s personal militia.” It was Wolf, of course, who oversaw the recent deployment of federal officers to Portland, Oregon.
In legal news, a case stemming from US Attorney John Durham’s investigation of the FBI investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, a former FBI lawyer intends to plead guilty to falsifying a document. Kevin Clinesmith was the root of the most serious mishandling of the wiretapping of former Trump advisor Carter Page. When it was time for the FBI to apply for a renewal of the request to surveil Page, Clinesmith was asked to find out if Page had ever been an informant for the CIA. When asked, a CIA colleague appears to have identified Page’s role with the agency as something other than a “source,” but wrote an email about it that simply sent Clinesmith to documents to check. Clinesmith altered his CIA colleague’s email with the words “not a ‘source.’” The FBI relied on his representation to write the application renewal to wiretap Page.
Clinesmith resigned over the issue last year. He maintains that he changed the wording to reflect what he understood to be true, and other evidence suggested he never tried to hide the original email from his colleagues. Still, he altered a document, and Page’s relationship with the CIA was not accurately represented to the judges who approved the wiretapping. The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, called out this issue in his report on the FBI handling of the Russia investigation, although he concluded that the FBI opened the investigation properly and without political bias.
In another case stemming from 2016 that got a lot of traction when it was announced, a federal appeals court today ruled that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not have to give another deposition about her emails. Judicial Watch, a rightwing organization founded in 1994 that has frequently targeted the Clintons with lawsuits which are usually thrown out of court, wanted to depose Clinton on the subject. She argued they were harassing her. The court noted that the email issue had already been thoroughly investigated by Congress, the FBI, the State Department Inspector General, and another lawsuit and concluded she did not have to testify again. Last year, the State Department concluded that “there was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.”
Finally, in all the political craziness, the devastating storm that hit the middle of the country on Monday has gotten less attention than it should have. The storm was a “derecho,” and brought wind over 100 miles an hour. Iowa appears to have lost 43% of its corn and soybean crops; 15 tornadoes in Illinois left 800,000 people without power. In Iowa, four days later, 250,000 are still without power, and roads remained blocked.