Letters From an American

Two Big Stories: Unemployed Stranded and Putin Is Meddling Again

Two Big Stories: Unemployed Stranded and Putin Is Meddling Again

BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 19: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery on October 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, known as the Normandy Four, met in Berlin to discuss implementation of the peace plan known as the Minsk Protocol, a roadmap for resolving the conflict in Ukraine after Russian forces invaded in 2014 and annexed the peninsula of Crimea. The United States has threatened renewed sanctions on Russia if the country did not either implement the plan in the coming months or arrive at a plan on how to do so. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

There are two big stories today.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted today that Senate Republicans and the White House will not come up with a plan to shore up the economy for “a few weeks.” This is a huge problem, because enhanced unemployment benefits end in the next few days. At the same time, a four-month federal moratorium on rent collection and evictions is expiring.

The coronavirus bill that Congress passed in March attached an extra $600 weekly federal payment to state unemployment benefits. Those state benefits usually cover only about 45% of a worker’s wage. The extra federal money was designed to make up some of the difference between state unemployment benefits and people’s actual needs in the short term (the money is taxable, so some of it will have to be given back next April). There are different plans for extending this boost, but some Republicans worry that the extra money is more than people can make working, and it will discourage them from seeking work, although the coronavirus is making work hard to find. With mounting closures after the new spike in coronavirus cases, there were 1.4 million new unemployment claims last week.

Republicans in the Senate rejected the Democrats’ stimulus bill, passed by the House of Representatives in May, but in two months have not been able to agree on a way forward. Now McConnell says he hopes they’ll have a deal in a few weeks.

This timing is strikingly poor. The end to federal unemployment support hits just as the moratorium on evictions, also passed in March, ends. That moratorium meant renters could not be evicted for inability to pay their rent, but the rent continued to accumulate. Now, the moratorium is ending. There are 110 million Americans living in rented apartments, and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project estimates that between 19 and 23 million of them risk eviction before September.

The most vulnerable households are low-income and people of color, and eviction will, of course, cause extraordinary hardship. But there is another brutal calculation in this catastrophic timing: evicted adults will be far less likely to vote.

The upcoming election—100 days away — was in another story more directly today, too. William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, issued a statement warning that foreign countries are trying to hack US political campaigns, candidates and other political targets, as well as to “compromise our election infrastructure.”

Evanina also warned that “foreign nations continue to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway US voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift US policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process.” He said that the DNI is “primarily concerned with China, Russia, and Iran.”

This prompted an outraged response from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-VA). These four are the Democrats on the Gang of Eight, the eight congressional leaders who must be briefed on classified intelligence. They claimed Evanina’s statement falsely placed China, Iran, and Russia on the same level, while in fact Russia remains by far our biggest threat.

There is a recent backstory to today’s fight. On Monday, July 20, the four Democrats released a letter they had written to FBI Director Chris Wray on July 13, asking him to deliver a briefing to all of Congress, not just to the Gang of Eight, on “specific” intelligence about a foreign operation. “We are gravely concerned, in particular, that Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November,” the letter read.

They were apparently referring to investigations led by Ron Johnson (R-WI) chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. One investigation is digging into Hunter Biden’s connections to the Ukrainian company Burisma. (Ukrainian prosecutors have cleared Biden of any wrongdoing in his connections with the company.) The other is looking into how the Obama administration handled the investigation of Trump advisor Michael Flynn in 2016-2017. (Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about lifting sanctions during that time.)

These, of course, are investigations Trump has desperately wanted. Indeed, he pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Biden and Burisma by withholding money Ukraine badly needed to fight off Russian incursions. After the impeachment trial over that scandal, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled around Ukraine digging up “witnesses” willing to testify to Biden’s alleged misdeeds, witnesses now informing the Senate committee.

These investigations are not intended to uncover wrongdoing—the evidence is overwhelming there was none—they are about manipulating our political narrative. They are designed to plant the idea among voters that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is corrupt—a scheme that worked brilliantly in 2016, as repeated investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails undercut her campaign. But, as Russia expert Fiona Hill warned in her testimony before Congress this spring, the “evidence” in these investigations is disinformation coming directly from Russian intelligence agents who want to destabilize the US.

The Gang of Eight is sworn to secrecy, so Pelosi, Schumer, Schiff, and Warner cannot say exactly what they have learned from intelligence reports. But they said enough:

“Almost exactly four years ago, we first observed the Russians engaging in covert actions designed to influence the presidential race in favor of Donald Trump and to sow discord in the United States. Now, the Russians are once again trying to influence the election and divide Americans, and these efforts must be deterred, disrupted and exposed.”

“The statement just released by NCSC Director William Evanina does not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process. The statement gives a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together. The statement, moreover, fails to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity to influence our election, information the American people must have as we go into November.”

The Democrats want the full Congress briefed, they say, “But a far more concrete and specific statement needs to be made to the American people, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods. We can trust the American people with knowing what to do with the information they receive and making those decisions for themselves. But they cannot do so if they are kept in the dark about what our adversaries are doing, and how they are doing it.”

Amen. But I’m not holding my breath. The Director of National Intelligence overseeing all this is John Ratcliffe, a key Trump ally, formerly a congressman from Texas. He has been in the job only since May 26, and before he became DNI, he made it clear he does not believe that Russia is attacking our electoral system.

Johnson is promising to release his reports at the end of the summer, just in time for the election.

We are pleased to be presenting daily posts from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” email newsletter. You can sign up to receive it in your inbox here

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.