Wisconsinites should peruse the Mueller report with special interest — even if Attorney General William Barr’s redactions make it a choppy read.
Barr's efforts to protect the president who is his current political benefactor were absurdly aggressive. But the attorney general could not avoid the fundamental revelation. “As the special counsel’s report makes clear," he acknowledged, "the Russian government sought to interfere in our election.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators determined that this interference took many forms. And this is where Wisconsin comes into the picture — in a section of the report that recounts discussions during the course of the campaign between Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, longtime Manafort associate and Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian/Ukrainian political strategist who court documents allege maintained close ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
According to the report: “Manafort briefed Kilimnik on the state of the Trump campaign and Manafort's plan to win the election. That briefing encompassed the campaign's messaging and its internal polling data. According to Gates, it also included discussion of ‘battleground’ states, which Manafort identified as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.”
No matter where people come down on the question of whether Trump was personally engaged with, or aware of, Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election campaign on his behalf, the fact that the Trump campaign was focusing the attention of foreign figures on Wisconsin is a serious matter. And the prospect that the campaign's managers may have been looking for ways to influence or undermine voter participation is a big deal.
Donald Trump lost the national popular vote by almost 3 million in the 2016 presidential election, yet narrow victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania gave him an Electoral College win. How narrow? Trump won Wisconsin by 0.7 points (22,748 votes), Michigan by 0.2 points (10,704 votes) and Pennsylvania by 0.7 points (44,292 votes). These 77,744 votes put him in the White House. The headline from the conservative Weekly Standard read: “The Election Came Down to 77,744 Votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.” The Washington Post announced: “Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states.” A year after the election, Democrat Hillary Clinton — the winner of the popular vote — devoted a section of her book on the campaign to addressing “what happened” in these three states of the “industrial Midwest.”
A fourth state was also in play: Minnesota. Trump campaigned in the state at the very end of the 2016 race and almost won it. Out of almost 3 million votes cast, he lost by less than 45,000 votes.
What this means is that tiny shifts in the electorate — a modest shift of rural voters away from traditional Democratic voting patterns and toward the Republican, an increase in casual voting for a third-party contender, a decline in turnout in heavily Democratic cities such as Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia or Milwaukee — had the potential to hand the presidency to Trump.
We know from a Department of Homeland Security survey that Wisconsin was one of 21 states where election systems were targeted without notable success by Russian-affiliated hackers before the 2016 election. We also know, from a University of Wisconsin-Madison study headed by journalism professor Young Mie Kim, Wisconsin was the scene of Russian measures in 2016 that utilized social media and also probed the websites of government agencies.
Wisconsin and other battleground states were also targeted by “a sophisticated social media campaign” that, according to a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report, “tapped into divisive issues like race, gun control and gay and transgender rights. A Twitter account titled @MilwaukeeVoice and styled as a local news outlet was one of 2,752 now-deactivated Twitter bots and trolls — automated or human online fake personas — connected to Russia.”
But there is still a lot that we do not know, and this is why Wisconsin’s congressional representatives should be demanding the release of the full Mueller report, with as few redactions as possible, and with all available documentary, supporting and corroborating evidence. They should, as well, be echoing Congressman Mark Pocan’s demand that the people who produced the report appear before Congress. As Pocan said, “It’s imperative that Robert Mueller publicly testify so the American people can have their faith restored from this highly partisan incident.”
This is about much more than a Republican desire to protect Trump or a Democratic desire to prosecute or impeach the president.
No matter what our political persuasions, we should be extremely interested in learning how our elections can be manipulated. Whether the people who are doing the manipulating are from Washington or Moscow, whether they are meddling to benefit foreign governments or domestic billionaires, we need to know a lot more about the vulnerabilities of Wisconsin’s election machinery, processes and campaign communications.
There are many reasons why Congresswoman Gwen Moore is right when she says: “The full report, along with all the accompanying documents, must be released.” While a general focus on what is said about Trump must be maintained, it is vital for Moore, Pocan and their colleagues to follow every lead regarding attempts to meddle with Wisconsin’s elections.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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