Friday, May 26, 2017

TRUMPCARE - How the GOP is Selling Its Unpopular Health Plan

"Three Strategies to Defend GOP Health Bill: Euphemisms, False Statements and Deleted Comments" by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica 5/25/2017

Since the passage of the American Health Care Act, Republican members of Congress have tried to swing public opinion to their side.  ProPublica has been tracking what they're saying.

This story was co-published with Stat and Kaiser Health News.

Earlier this month, a day after the House of Representatives passed a bill to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, Ashleigh Morley visited her congressman's Facebook page to voice her dismay.

“Your vote yesterday was unthinkably irresponsible and does not begin to account for the thousands of constituents in your district who rely upon many of the services and provisions provided for them by the ACA,” Morley wrote on the page affiliated with the campaign of Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.  “You never had my vote and this confirms why.”

The next day, Morley said, her comment was deleted and she was blocked from commenting on or reacting to King's posts.  The same thing has happened to others critical of King's positions on health care and other matters.  King has deleted negative feedback and blocked critics from his Facebook page, several of his constituents say, sharing screenshots of comments that are no longer there.

“Having my voice and opinions shut down by the person who represents me — especially when my voice and opinion wasn't vulgar and obscene — is frustrating, it's disheartening, and I think it points to perhaps a larger problem with our representatives and maybe their priorities,” Morley said in an interview.

King's office did not respond to requests for comment.

As Republican members of Congress seek to roll back the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, and replace it with the American Health Care Act, they have adopted various strategies to influence and cope with public opinion, which polls show mostly opposes their planProPublica, with our partners at Kaiser Health News, Stat and Vox, has been fact-checking members of Congress in this debate and we've found misstatements on both sides, though more by Republicans than Democrats.  The Washington Post's Fact Checker has similarly found misstatements by both sides.

Today, we're back with more examples of how legislators are interacting with constituents about repealing Obamacare, whether online or in traditional correspondence.  Their more controversial tactics seem to fall into three main categories: providing incorrect information, using euphemisms for the impact of their actions, and deleting comments critical of them.  (Share your correspondence with members of Congress with us.)

Incorrect Information

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., sent a note to constituents this month explaining her vote in favor of the Republican bill.  First, she outlined why she believes the ACA is not sustainable — namely, higher premiums and few choices.  Then she said it was important to have a smooth transition from one system to another.

“This is why I supported the AHCA to follow through on our promise to have an immediate replacement ready to go should the ACA be repealed,” she wrote.  “The AHCA keeps the ACA for the next three years then phases in a new approach to give people, states, and insurance markets plenty of time to make adjustments.”

Except that's not true.

“There are quite a number of changes in the AHCA that take effect within the next three years,” wrote ACA expert Timothy Jost, an emeritus professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, in an email to ProPublica.

The current law's penalties on individuals who do not purchase insurance and on employers who do not offer it would be repealed retroactively to 2016, which could remove the incentive for some employers to offer coverage to their workers.  Moreover, beginning in 2018, older people could be charged premiums up to five times more than younger people — up from three times under current law.  The way in which premium tax credits would be calculated would change as well, benefiting younger people at the expense of older ones, Jost said.

“It is certainly not correct to say that everything stays the same for the next three years,” he wrote.

In an email, Hartzler spokesman Casey Harper replied, “I can see how this sentence in the letter could be misconstrued.  It's very important to the Congresswoman that we give clear, accurate information to her constituents.  Thanks for pointing that out.”

Other lawmakers have similarly shared incorrect information after voting to repeal the ACA.  Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., wrote in a May 19 email to a constituent that “in 16 of our counties, there are no plans available at all.  This system is crumbling before our eyes and we cannot wait another year to act.”

Black was referring to the possibility that, in 16 Tennessee counties around Knoxville, there might not have been any insurance options in the ACA marketplace next year.  However, 10 days earlier, before she sent her email, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced that it was willing to provide coverage in those counties and would work with the state Department of Commerce and Insurance “to set the right conditions that would allow our return.”

“We stand by our statement of the facts, and Congressman Black is working hard to repeal and replace Obamacare with a system that actually works for Tennessee families and individuals,” her deputy chief of staff Dean Thompson said in an email.

On the Democratic side, the Washington Post Fact Checker has called out representatives for saying the AHCA would consider rape or sexual assault as pre-existing conditions.  The bill would not do that, although critics counter that any resulting mental health issues or sexually transmitted diseases could be considered existing illnesses.

Euphemisms

A number of lawmakers have posted information taken from talking points put out by the House Republican Conference that try to frame the changes in the Republican bill as kinder and gentler than most experts expect them to be.

An answer to one frequently asked question pushes back against criticism that the Republican bill would gut Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, and appears on the websites of Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., and others.

“Our plan responsibly unwinds Obamacare's Medicaid expansion,” the answer says.  “We freeze enrollment and allow natural turnover in the Medicaid program as beneficiaries see their life circumstances change.  This strategy is both fiscally responsible and fair, ensuring we don't pull the rug out on anyone while also ending the Obamacare expansion that unfairly prioritizes able-bodied working adults over the most vulnerable.”

That is highly misleading, experts say.

The Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand Medicaid eligibility to anyone who earned less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, with the federal government picking up almost the entire tab.  Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia opted to do so.  As a result, the program now covers more than 74 million beneficiaries, nearly 17 million more than it did at the end of 2013.

The GOP health care bill would pare that back.  Beginning in 2020, it would reduce the share the federal government pays for new enrollees in the Medicaid expansion to the rate it pays for other enrollees in the state, which is considerably less.  Also in 2020, the legislation would cap the spending growth rate per Medicaid beneficiary.  As a result, a Congressional Budget Office review released Wednesday estimates that millions of Americans would become uninsured.

Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said the GOP's characterization of its Medicaid plan is wrong on many levels.  People naturally cycle on and off Medicaid, she said, often because of temporary events, not changing life circumstances — seasonal workers, for instance, may see their wages rise in summer months before falling back.

“A terrible blow to millions of poor people is recast as an easing off of benefits that really aren't all that important, in a humane way,” she said.

Moreover, the GOP bill actually would speed up the “natural turnover” in the Medicaid program, said Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care think tank.  Under the ACA, states were only permitted to recheck enrollees' eligibility for Medicaid once a year because cumbersome paperwork requirements have been shown to cause people to lose their coverage.  The American Health Care Act would require these checks every six months — and even give states more money to conduct them.

Rowland also took issue with the GOP talking point that the expansion “unfairly prioritizes able-bodied working adults over the most vulnerable.”  At a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing earlier this year, GOP representatives maintained that the Medicaid expansion may be creating longer waits for home- and community-based programs for sick and disabled Medicaid patients needing long-term care, “putting care for some of the most vulnerable Americans at risk.”

Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, however, showed that there was no relationship between waiting lists and states that expanded Medicaid.  Such waiting lists pre-dated the expansion and they were worse in states that did not expand Medicaid than in states that did.

“This is a complete misrepresentation of the facts,” Rosenbaum said.

Graves' office said the information on his site came from the House Republican Conference.  Emails to the conference's press office were not returned.

The GOP talking points also play up a new Patient and State Stability Fund included in the AHCA, which is intended to defray the costs of covering people with expensive health conditions.  “All told, $130 billion dollars would be made available to states to finance innovative programs to address their unique patient populations,” the information says.  “This new stability fund ensures these programs have the necessary funding to protect patients while also giving states the ability to design insurance markets that will lower costs and increase choice.”

The fund was modeled after a program in Maine, called an invisible high-risk pool, which advocates say has kept premiums in check in the state.  But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, says the House bill's stability fund wasn't allocated enough money to keep premiums stable.

“In order to do the Maine model — which I've heard many House people say that is what they're aiming for — it would take $15 billion in the first year and that is not in the House bill,” Collins told Politico.  “There is actually $3 billion specifically designated for high-risk pools in the first year.”

Deleting Comments

Morley, 28, a branded content editor who lives in Seaford, New York, said she moved into Rep. King's Long Island district shortly before the 2016 election.  She said she did not vote for him and, like many others across the country, said the election results galvanized her into becoming more politically active.

Earlier this year, Morley found an online conversation among King's constituents who said their critical comments were being deleted from his Facebook page.  Because she doesn't agree with King's stances, she said she wanted to reserve her comment for an issue she felt strongly about.

A day after the House voted to repeal the ACA, Morley posted her thoughts.  “I kind of felt that was when I wanted to use my one comment, my one strike as it would be,” she said.

By noon the next day, it had been deleted and she had been blocked.

“I even wrote in my comment that you can block me but I'm still going to call your office,” Morley said in an interview.

Some negative comments about King remain on his Facebook page.  But King's critics say his deletions fit a broader pattern.  He has declined to hold an in-person town hall meeting this year, saying, “to me all they do is just turn into a screaming session," according to CNN.  He held a telephonic town hall meeting but only answered a small fraction of the questions submitted.  And he met with Liuba Grechen Shirley, the founder of a local Democratic group in his district, but only after her group held a protest in front of his office that drew around 400 people.

He's not losing his health care,” Grechen Shirley said.  “It doesn't affect him.  It's a death sentence for many and he doesn't even care enough to meet with his constituents.”

King's deleted comments even caught the eye of Andy Slavitt, who until January was the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  Slavitt has been traveling the country pushing back against attempts to gut the ACA.



Since the election, other activists across the country who oppose the President's agenda have posted online that they have been blocked from following their elected officials on Twitter or commenting on their Facebook pages because of critical statements they've made about the AHCA and other issues.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

REPUBLICAN AGENDA - Anti-Science and Anti-Regulation


From the Alternate Universe

"Trump Administration Says It Isn't Anti-Science As It Seeks to Slash EPA Science Office" by Lisa Song, ProPublica 5/24/2017

The Office of Research and Development has been at frontlines of virtually every environmental crisis.  Trump wants to cut its funding in half.

When the city of Toledo temporarily lost access to clean drinking water several years ago after a bloom of toxic algae, the Environmental Protection Agency sent scientists from its Office of Research and Development to study health effects and formulate solutions.

The same office was on the front lines of the Flint water crisis and was a critical presence in handling medical waste from the U.S. Ebola cases in 2014.

Thomas Burke, who directed ORD during the last two years of the Obama administration and was the agency's science adviser, calls the office the nation's “scientific backstop in emergencies.”

President Trump's 2018 budget would slash ORD's funding in half as part of an overall goal to cut the EPA's budget by 31 percent.

A statement from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt did not directly address the cuts to ORD, but offered broad defense of the proposed agency budget, saying it “respects the American taxpayer” and “supports EPA's highest priorities with federal funding for priority work in infrastructure, air and water quality, and ensuring the safety of chemicals in the marketplace.”

ORD has no regulatory authority, but it conducts the bulk of the research that underlies EPA policies.  ORD scientists are involved in “virtually every major environmental challenge the nation has,” Burke said.  Diminishing the role and input of the office, he said, risked leaving the country “uninformed about risks and public health.”

“In time, you're flying blind,” he said.  “Everything becomes a mystery.”

Trump's budget, released Tuesday, reflects the president's wish list.  The numbers likely will change by the time it goes through the congressional appropriations process, but the proposed cuts are consistent with the administration's push against environmental regulation and scientific funding.  Many of the cuts fall on agencies involved with climate change research, including the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters in a Tuesday briefing that the budget reduces climate science funding without eliminating it.

“Do we target it?  Sure,” Mulvaney said in response to a reporter's question.  “Do a lot of the EPA reductions aim at reducing the focus on climate science?  Yes.  Does it mean that we are anti-science?  Absolutely not  (WTF! my comment).  We're simply trying to get things back in order to where we can look at the folks who pay the taxes, and say, look, yeah, we want to do some climate science, but we're not going to do some of the crazy stuff the previous administration did.”

Much of the EPA's climate research takes place in the Office of Air and Radiation, which is separate from ORD.  But ORD studies the strategic, long-term effects of climate change, including the effects on agriculture and the oceans, Burke said.

Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA administrator who worked for George W. Bush from 2001 to June 2003, said the proposed ORD cuts are more drastic than anything she can remember.

Whitman said she expects Congress will restore much of the funding, but she worries about the message behind the budget.

“A budget to me was always a policy document,” she said.  Regardless of what Congress does, this administration's policy “indicates to me [that] they'll be looking for other ways to … stifle the research and slow it down,” she said.

OMB and the EPA did not return requests for comment about the ORD cuts.

ORD is one of several EPA programs listed under a section of the budget called “2018 major savings and reforms.”  The others include EPA enforcement (24 percent cut); Superfund, which cleans up toxic waste sites (30 percent); categorical state grants (45 percent); and funding for watershed protection, energy efficiency and voluntary climate programs, which would be eliminated.

The budget states the ORD reductions would allow the EPA to “focus on core Agency responsibilities … At lower funding levels for the Office of Research and Development, the Agency would prioritize intramural research activities that are either related to statutory requirements or that support basic and early stage research and development activities in the environmental and human health sciences.”

Whitman and Burke said ORD already does that — and halving the budget would make it virtually impossible to meet EPA's regulatory mandate.

ORD is “the backbone of the scientific research that goes on,” Whitman said.  “Every regulation promulgated by EPA is based in science.”

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he worries Congress will use the budget to justify serious but less drastic cuts to the agency.  This administration's philosophy seems to be “if you don't measure it, you don't have to be held accountable for it.

ORD also helps regional EPA offices.  Michael Mikulka, president of AFGE Local 704, a union representing scientists, engineers and attorneys at EPA's Region 5 office (in the Great Lakes area), said he relies on ORD's Cincinnati lab for advice on toxic waste cleanup.  “If their staff is cut significantly, there would be less people to advise us.”

Burke said ORD was always going to be a target.  The office came under fire from environmentalists in 2015 when it released a draft study that said hydraulic fracturing had no “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water.  After considering comments from the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board, the report authors reversed their findings, concluding there was insufficient evidence to support their previous statement.  This time, the report was widely criticized by the oil and gas industry.

ORD is also home to the IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) program that sets exposure guidelines for chemicals.  The program has been criticized for dragging its feet and bowing to the interests of the chemical industry.

“I'm very concerned the IRIS program will be zeroed out,” Burke said.  “There's an endless challenge by polluters to delay the science.”

But aside from a few high-profile issues, much of ORD's work takes place under the radar.  The office has laboratories all over the country, working on air pollution, ocean acidification and vehicle emissions.

One of ORD's lesser-known responsibilities is dealing with homeland security.  “God forbid, if we have to clean up a water supply after a terrorist activity, it [would be] in this office,” Burke said.

Whitman said the EPA was tasked with cleaning up the Hart Senate Office Building in 2001 after then-Sen.  Tom Daschle received an envelope containing anthrax powder.  Whitman remembers asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a safe standard of anthrax exposure.  The CDC didn't know, she said, so ORD did the research and set it at zero.

“These are the kinds of things you lose” when you de-fund the “national nerve center of the science challenges facing not just the EPA, but all the states and all the communities,” Burke said.

Monday, May 22, 2017

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 5/19/2017

"Shields and Brooks on the barrage of Trump revelations" PBS NewsHour 5/19/2017

IMHO:  Trump Administration; 'dead man walking,' a pariah for any positions that still need to be filled.

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to the discuss the week's news, including the appointment of a Special Counsel to lead the Russia probe at the Justice Department, reports that President Trump shared sensitive intelligence from another country with Russian diplomats and how all of it affects the running of the government.

NEWSHOUR'S IMHO - Writing Memoirs

"To Richard Ford, writing a memoir is to utter what must not be erased" PBS NewsHour 5/19/2017

COMMENT:  My brotherinlaw was born in Europe during WWII, and he and his mother spent time in a concentration camp.  He was very, very reluctant to talk to his children about what happened.  Several years after his children were born he gave me hand-written notes and asked me to write his memoir using my word processor, and printing 2 copies to give is son and daughter the following Christmas.  His memoir was an eye opener for me and very much appreciate by his children who had asked for his story.

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Richard Ford's parents were ordinary people, "all but un-noticeable to the world's disinterested eye."  But the acclaimed writer still decided to write a memoir of their lives because, to him, being their son felt like a privilege.  And more simply, he missed them.  Ford offers his humble opinion on the power of memoir to make us remember what's most vital to us.

THE CONFEDERACY - The Monuments

"Why Confederate monuments are coming down" PBS NewsHour 5/19/2017

IMHO:  Because the South LOST!

Also, "political correctness" has become a cuss phrase of late, because the people who have this view don't understand that it only means; 'to show respect or to be polite.'

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  New Orleans is the latest city to start taking down historical but controversial monuments that many say celebrate slavery and the Confederacy.  Angry opponents see the move as suppressing or rewriting history in the service of political correctness.  William Brangham talks to Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute and Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.

TEACHERS - Men Teaching in Elementary School

"Why aren't 'manly' men taking 'girly' jobs?" by Paul Solman, PBS NewsHour 5/18/2017

Excerpt

Editor's Note:  Over the past 20 years, female-dominated industries like health care and education services have grown immensely, while male-dominated industries like manufacturing have lost millions of jobs.  The economy is shifting, and it seems like men are on the losing side.  But it doesn't have to be that way, says economist Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.  In a column for Bloomberg, she's blunt:  Manly men need to do more girly jobs.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down with Stevenson to discuss the growth in female-dominated sectors and how stigma might be holding men back from taking jobs seen as “women's work.”  Tune in to tonight's Making Sen$e report on one man who breaks down the stereotype as an elementary school teacher and football coach, and watch last week's report on how stigma holds more men back from becoming teachers.

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor



SUMMARY: 

"How this man found his calling as an early elementary teacher" PBS NewsHour 5/18/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Men are a rarity in early education, a fact of which second grade teacher Harold Johnson has taken full advantage: In a job traditionally held by women, Johnson's gender has been an asset.  Economics correspondent Paul Soloman talks to him about why he became an elementary school teacher despite the cultural stigma.

BRIEF BUT SPECTACULAR - The Word 'Race'

"Why white Americans don't see themselves when they hear the word 'race'" PBS NewsHour 5/18/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  “Can we challenge the forces of unconscious white privilege and implicit bias, to come out of the closet and be held accountable?”  Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson says asking that question is his job.  Dyson gives his Brief but Spectacular take on white privilege and the American amnesia over race.

TRUMP DIPLOMACY - First Overseas Trip

"The possible wins and potential pitfalls of Trump's first overseas trip" PBS NewsHour 5/18/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Trump leaves Friday for his first overseas trip, with visits planned for Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, the Vatican for an audience with the pope, and to Sicily for a G7 Summit.  Judy Woodruff gets perspectives from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley a former National Security Advisor, on how the President plans to tackle policy on the world stage.




"Trump signs Saudi arms deal on first foreign trip" PBS NewsHour 5/20/2017

aka 'The Bribe'

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia Saturday on his first stop abroad as commander-in-chief.  During the visit, he signed several deals with Saudi King Salman, including a military sales worth billions and a commitment to cooperate on defense.  Ben Hubbard, Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, joins Alison Stewart from Riyadh to discuss the trip.




"Trump calls on Arab world to unite against extremism" PBS NewsHour 5/21/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Trump on Sunday called on the Arab world to show unity and partner with the U.S. to combat extremism and terrorism.  The speech was held in Saudi Arabia to a summit of leaders from 50 Arab and Muslim-majority countries.  Gary Sick a senior researcher scholar at Columbia University, and Farah Pandith a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, join Alison Stewart with more.



Full Trump Speech (33:39)

TRUMP AGENDA - Our World Dictator on Women's Health

"Trump administration expands limits on foreign aid over abortion services" PBS NewsHour 5/15/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Trump majorly expanded the so-called "Mexico City policy" -- or as critics call it, the "gag rule" -- in a new executive order Monday.  The rule has blocked international assistance to any programs that mention or provide abortions.  In the past, the policy has affected about $600 million in funding; today's expansion will affect $9 billion.  Reuters' Yeganeh Torbati joins William Brangham.

CYBER SECURITY - The Global Cyber Attack, Update

"Microsoft’s president says global cyberattack is a ‘wakeup call’" PBS NewsHour 5/15/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  A global ransomware attack has hit more than 200,000 victims, such as hospitals and schools, in more than 150 countries since Friday.  The virus takes advantage of a security flaw in Microsoft's Windows operating system, which the company patched in March, though many users ignored the fix or refused to pay for it.  William Brangham reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Microsoft President Brad Smith.




"When should the government reveal cyber flaws to tech companies?" PBS NewsHour 5/15/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  If the government can detect that there is a hole in a company's software that makes it vulnerable to attack, do they have an obligation to tell that company, even if it gives away the government's tool for conducting surveillance?  William Brangham speaks with Eric Geller of POLITICO about that tension and what consumers need to know when it comes to cybersecurity and how to protect themselves.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

NATIONAL SECURITY - Trump Properties Vulnerable

QUESTION:  Where is Homeland Security and the Secret Service in all this?  Are they not protecting a President against this?!

"Any Half-Decent Hacker Could Break Into Mar-a-Lago" by Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin (ProPublica) and Surya Mattu, (Gizmodo), ProPublica 5/18/2017

We tested internet security at four Trump properties.  It's not good.

This story was co-published with Gizmodo.

Two weeks ago, on a sparkling spring morning, we went trawling along Florida's coastal waterway.  But not for fish.

We parked a 17-foot motor boat in a lagoon about 800 feet from the back lawn of The Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach and pointed a 2-foot wireless antenna that resembled a potato gun toward the club.  Within a minute, we spotted three weakly encrypted WiFi networks.  We could have hacked them in less than five minutes, but we refrained.

A few days later, we drove through the grounds of the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, with the same antenna and aimed it at the clubhouse.  We identified two open WiFi networks that anyone could join without a password.  We resisted the temptation.

We have also visited two of President Donald Trump's other family-run retreats, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a golf club in Sterling, Virginia.  Our inspections found weak and open WiFi networks, wireless printers without passwords, servers with outdated and vulnerable software, and unencrypted login pages to back-end databases containing sensitive information.

The risks posed by the lax security, experts say, go well beyond simple digital snooping.  Sophisticated attackers could take advantage of vulnerabilities in the WiFi networks to take over devices like computers or smart phones and use them to record conversations involving anyone on the premises.

“Those networks all have to be crawling with foreign intruders, not just ProPublica,” said Dave Aitel, chief executive officer of Immunity, Inc., a digital security company, when we told him what we found.

Security lapses are not uncommon in the hospitality industry, which — like most industries and government agencies — is under increasing attack from hackers.  But they are more worrisome in places where the President of the United States, heads of state and public officials regularly visit.

U.S. leaders can ill afford such vulnerabilities.  As both the U.S. and French presidential campaigns showed, hackers increasingly exploit weaknesses in internet security systems in an effort to influence elections and policy.  Last week, cyberattacks using software stolen from the National Security Agency paralyzed operations in at least a dozen countries, from Britain's National Health Service to Russia's Interior Ministry.

Since the election, Trump has hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British politician Nigel Farage at his properties.  The cybersecurity issues we discovered could have allowed those diplomatic discussions — and other sensitive conversations at the properties — to be monitored by hackers.

The Trump Organization follows “cybersecurity best practices,” said spokeswoman Amanda Miller.  “Like virtually every other company these days, we are routinely targeted by cyberterrorists whose only focus is to inflict harm on great American businesses.  While we will not comment on specific security measures, we are confident in the steps we have taken to protect our business and safeguard our information.  Our teams work diligently to deploy best-in-class firewall and anti-vulnerability platforms with constant 24/7 monitoring.”

The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Trump properties have been hacked before.  Last year, the Trump hotel chain paid $50,000 to settle charges brought by the New York attorney general that it had not properly disclosed the loss of more than 70,000 credit card numbers and 302 Social Security numbers.  Prosecutors alleged that hotel credit card systems were “the target of a cyber-attack” due to poor security.  The company agreed to beef up its security; it's not clear if the vulnerabilities we found violate that agreement.  A spokesman for the New York attorney general declined comment.

Our experience also indicates that it's easy to gain physical access to Trump properties, at least when the President is not there.  As Politico has previously reported, Trump hotels and clubs are poorly guarded.  We drove a car past the front of Mar-a-Lago and parked a boat near its lawn.  We drove through the grounds of the Bedminster golf course and into the parking lot of the golf course in Sterling, Virginia.  No one questioned us.

Both President Obama and President Bush often vacationed at the more traditional presidential retreat, the military-run Camp David.  The computers and networks there and at the White House are run by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

In 2016, the military spent $64 million on maintaining the networks at the White House and Camp David, and more than $2 million on “defense solutions, personnel, techniques, and best practices to defend, detect, and mitigate cyber-based threats” from hacking those networks.

Even after spending millions of dollars on security, the White House admitted in 2015 that it was hacked by Russians.  After the hack, the White House replaced all its computer systems, according to a person familiar with the matter.  All staffers who work at the White House are told that “there are people who are actively watching what you are doing,” said Mikey Dickerson, who ran the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama administration.

By comparison, Mar-a-Lago budgeted $442,931 for security in 2016 — slightly more than double the $200,000 initiation fee for one new member.  The Trump Organization declined to say how much Mar-a-Lago spends specifically on digital security.  The club, last reported to have almost 500 members paying annual dues of $14,000 apiece, allotted $1,703,163 for all administration last year, according to documents filed in a lawsuit Trump brought against Palm Beach County in an effort to halt commercial flights from flying over Mar-a-Lago.  The lawsuit was dropped, but the FAA now restricts flights over the club when the President is there.

It is not clear whether Trump connects to the insecure networks while at his family's properties.  When he travels, the President is provided with portable secure communications equipment.  Trump tracked the military strike on a Syrian air base last month from a closed-door situation room at Mar-a-Lago with secure video equipment.

However, Trump has held sensitive meetings in public spaces at his properties.  Most famously, in February, he and the Japanese prime minister discussed a North Korean missile test on the Mar-a-Lago patio.  Over the course of that weekend in February, the President's Twitter account posted 21 tweets from an Android phone.  An analysis by an Android-focused website showed that Trump had used the same make of phone since 2015.  That phone is an older model that isn't approved by the NSA for classified use.

Photos of Trump and Abe taken by diners on that occasion prompted four Democratic senators to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether electronic communications were secure at Mar-a-Lago.

In March, the GAO agreed to open an investigation.  Chuck Young, a spokesman for the office, said in an interview that the work was in “the early stages,” and did not offer an estimate for when the report would be completed.

So, we decided to test the cybersecurity of Trump's favorite hangouts ourselves.

Our first stop was Mar-a-Lago, a Trump country club in Palm Beach, Florida, where the President has spent most weekends since taking office.  Driving past the club, we picked up the signal for a WiFi-enabled combination printer and scanner that has been accessible since at least February 2016, according to a public WiFi database.

An open printer may sound innocuous, but it can be used by hackers for everything from capturing all the documents sent to the device to trying to infiltrate the entire network.

To prevent such attacks, the Defense Information Systems Agency, which secures the White House and other military networks, forbids installing printers that anyone can connect to from outside networks.  It also warns against using printers that do more than printing, such as faxing.  “If an attacker gains network access to one of these devices, a wide range of exploits may be possible,” the agency warns in its security guide.

We also were able to detect a misconfigured and unencrypted router, which could potentially provide a gateway for hackers.

To get a better line of sight, we rented a boat and piloted it to within sight of the club.  There, we picked up signals from the club's wireless networks, three of which were protected with a weak and outmoded form of encryption known as WEP.  In 2005, an FBI agent publicly broke this type of encryption in minutes.

By comparison, the military limits the signal strength of networks at places such as Camp David and the White House so that they are not reachable from a car driving by.  It also requires wireless networks to use the strongest available form of encryption.

From our desks in New York, we were also able to determine that the club's website hosts a database with an insecure login page that is not protected by standard internet encryption.  Login forms like this are considered a severe security risk, according to the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Without encryption, spies could eavesdrop on the network until a club employee logs in, and then steal his or her username and password.  They then could download a database that appears to include sensitive information on the club's members and their families, according to videos posted by the club's software provider.

This is “bad, very bad,” said Jeremiah Grossman, chief of Security Strategy for cybersecurity firm SentinelOne, when we described Mar-a-Lago's systems.  “I'd assume the data is already stolen and systems compromised.”

A few days later, we took our equipment to another Trump club in Bedminster, New Jersey.  During the transition, Trump had interviewed candidates for top administration positions there, including James Mattis, now secretary of defense.

We drove on a dirt access road through the middle of the golf course and spotted two open WiFi networks, TrumpMembers and WelcomeToTrumpNationalGolfClub, that did not require a password to join.

Such open networks allow anyone within range to scoop up all unencrypted internet activity taking place there, which could, on insecure sites, include usernames, passwords and emails.

Robert Graham, an Atlanta, Georgia, cybersecurity expert, said that hackers could use the open WiFi to remotely turn on the microphones and cameras of devices connected to the network.  “What you're describing is typical hotel security,” he said, but “it's pretty concerning” that an attacker could listen to sensitive national security conversations.

Two days after we visited the Bedminster club, Trump arrived for a weekend stay.

Then we visited the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., where Trump often dines with his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose responsibilities range from Middle East diplomacy to revamping the federal bureaucracy.  We surveyed the networks from a Starbucks in the hotel basement.

From there, we could tell there were two WiFi networks at the hotel protected with what's known as a captive portal.  These login screens are often used at airports and hotels to ensure that only paying customers can access the network.

However, we gained access to both networks just by typing “457” into the room number field.  Because we provided a room number, the system assumed we were guests.  We looked up the hotel's public IP address before logging off.

From our desks in New York, we could also tell that the hotel is using a server that is accessible from the public internet.  This server is running software that was released almost 13 years ago.

Finally, we visited the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, where the President sometimes plays golf.  From the parking lot, we recognized three encrypted wireless networks, an encrypted wireless phone and two printers with open WiFi access.

The Trump club websites are hosted by an Ohio-based company called Clubessential.  It offers everything from back-office management and member communications to tee time and room reservations.

In a 2014 presentation, a company sales director warned that the club industry as a whole is “too lax” in managing and protecting passwords.  There has been a “rising number of attacks on club websites over the last two years,” according to the presentation.  Clubessential “performed [an] audit of security in the club industry” and “found thousands of sensitive documents from clubs exposed on [the] Internet,” such as “lists of members and staff, and their contact info; board minutes, financial statements, etc.”

Still, the club software company has set up a backend server accessible on the internet, and configured its encryption incorrectly.  Anyone who reaches the login page is greeted with a warning that the encryption is broken.  In its documentation, the company advises club administrators to ignore these warnings and log in regardless.  That means that anybody snooping on the unprotected connection could intercept the administrators' passwords and gain access to the entire system.

The company also publishes online, without a password, many of the default settings and usernames for its software — essentially providing a roadmap for intruders.

Clubessential declined comment.

Aitel, the CEO of Immunity, said the problems at Trump properties would be difficult to fix: “Once you are at a low level of security it is hard to develop a secure network system.  You basically have to start over.”

Monday, May 15, 2017

CYBER WARS - Impact of Worldwide Attack

"Analyzing the impact of the worldwide cyber attack" PBS NewsHour 5/13/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Nearly 100 countries around the world worked to restore services after a massive cyber attack on Friday.  The ransomware attack appeared to exploit a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows, which was identified by the U.S. National Security Agency and later leaked to the internet.  Former Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin joins Hari Sreenivasan for more on the attack.

OPINION - Shields and Ponnuru 5/12/2017

"Shields and Ponnuru on James Comey firing fallout" PBS NewsHour 5/12/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Syndicated Columnist Mark Shields and the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's news, including the stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey and what that means for the stability of the Trump administration and the independence of the Russia investigations, plus the political risks facing Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  And now back to the dominant story of the week, the FBI director's firing and the fallout from it, with the analysis of Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru.  That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru.  David Brooks is away.

And welcome, gentlemen.  Welcome to both of you.

So, Mark, any question that the president was within his authority to fire James Comey?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:  No.  It was within his authority, Judy.

But this wasn't amateur hour.  This was an incomprehensibly incompetent, inept amateur week, beginning and ending with the President.  Other people came out with eggs of all sorts on their faces.  Everybody associated with them is diminished, sullied, stained in some way.

But this was Donald Trump's total miscalculation.  The man who made a national reputation by saying “You're fired” didn't have the decency to call the FBI director in person, and publicly humiliated him and embarrassed him by severing him, announcing it on cable television as he was speaking to FBI colleagues in Los Angeles.

And he has thus insured that this will be, with this Russian investigation, is now a permanent part of our political landscape.  It will affect and influence and be an outline of the 2018 election, and perhaps even beyond.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Total miscalculation, Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU, National Review:  The administration combined two of its hallmarks, reacting to these events with disorganized dishonesty.

They began by saying that the firing was a response to the FBI director's handling of the Clinton e-mail story and the analysis of that handling by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.  But, by the end of the week, President Trump himself was saying it really wasn't about those things.  He had made his decision before the memo, and the decision was really motivated by the fact that Comey wasn't shutting down the Russia investigation, the investigation into the administration and the campaign's ties to Russia, and thus exploded everything that people had been saying in the administration's defense earlier in the week.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And so, Mark, they have given several different explanations over the course of a few days.  What do you believe was behind this?

MARK SHIELDS:  Donald Trump.

Judy, think about this.  Robert Mueller was the predecessor at the FBI before James Comey.  He was there from 2001 to 2013 under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.  I don't know how often they had dinner or how often they met privately.

But can you imagine Robert Mueller being asked by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, not once, not twice, but three times, am I the subject of a criminal investigation by your department, by your agency?  It's unthinkable.

And this is — obviously, he wants this to go away.  He, the President, wants this whole investigation to go away.  And he has guaranteed — he has guaranteed the following.  James Comey was enormously popular among the FBI workers.  He was somebody who was thoughtful and supportive of his employees and colleagues.

And they liked him.  And he was would take one for a team.  He was willing to take criticism for the FBI, and in spite of the decision he made on Hillary Clinton and the handling of that, which a lot of people disagreed it.

He's guaranteed, Donald Trump has, that everybody associated with the FBI is going to make one more call, follow up on one more lead, and work one hour harder every day on the pursuit of this case.  It's not going to go away.  He has guaranteed that it's going to be more pursued even more arduously, intently, passionately, and professionally by the bureau.

MAKING SEN$E - Jobs In Education and Health, But a Shortage of Men

"These industries are growing.  Why are men staying away?" PBS NewsHour 5/11/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Millions of jobs in industry, held mostly by men, have disappeared in the last two decades.  But at the same time, the economy has gained 9 million jobs in education and health services, which are more frequently associated with women.  So why don't more men get into those professions?  Is it limited economic prospects?  Cultural or gender stigma?  Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

TRUMP WHITE HOUSE - Time Magazine Reports

"TIME magazine offers portrait of Trump facing realities of the White House" PBS NewsHour 5/11/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  As questions swirl around President Trump's decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey, earlier this week TIME Magazine was given unusual access behind the scenes at the White House.  Judy Woodruff talks to Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine about what he learned about the President's perspective from their meeting.



CUBA - Hope From Havana

"This Cuban lung cancer drug is giving some U.S. patients hope" PBS NewsHour 5/9/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  A promising lung cancer treatment from Cuba is getting attention from U.S. patients, some of whom are already traveling there to try the drug in hopes of stopping their cancer from growing.  American doctors can't prescribe CIMAvax because the Food and Drug Administration won't approve it until U.S. clinical trials can prove its effectiveness.  Special correspondent Amy Guttman reports.

TRUMP AGENDA - Hurricane Comey

The question, has Trump started the long march to a Nixon ending?

"White House claims Comey's firing was due to handling of Clinton email case" PBS NewsHour 5/9/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  In an abrupt and stunning development, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday, after receiving recommendations from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  Judy Woodruff explores what we know so far with John Yang and gets reaction from John Dean, former White House counsel for President Nixon.




"Rep. Swalwell: Comey firing amid Russia probe 'disturbing for our democracy'" PBS NewsHour 5/9/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif), joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his concerns about the Trump administration's firing of FBI James Comey and its potential consequences for the investigations into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian efforts to influence the U.S. election.




"Comey's firing 'perhaps inevitable' after Clinton email controversy, says Sen. Collins" PBS NewsHour 5/9/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what may have led to the firing of FBI Director James Comey, plus how the Senate will proceed on health care reform in the wake of the House passing a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare and the senator's own concerns about the current bill.




"How does the Comey sacking affect work at the FBI?" PBS NewsHour 5/9/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Before the firing of FBI Director James Comey, morale among agents had already taken a beating.  How does this surprise turn affect the bureau and its work going forward?  Judy Woodruff learns more from Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times about reports that Comey wanted more resources to expand the Russia investigation and more.




"Kaine: Comey firing 'clear attempt' to block Russia probe" PBS NewsHour 5/10/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va), has called the firing of James Comey outrageous.  He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his reaction and what he sees as a thread running back to the investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia and its role in the election.




"Does the White House's rationale for firing Comey add up?" PBS NewsHour 5/10/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Judy Woodruff gets two perspectives on President Trump's firing of James Comey and what it means for his relationship with the FBI from Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution and former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger.




"Comey firing unleashes firestorm from Capitol Hill" PBS NewsHour 5/10/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Trump's stunning move to fire FBI Director James Comey has left a wake of questions and condemnations from across the political spectrum.  William Brangham recaps the reactions and the events leading up to the firing, then John Yang and Lisa Desjardins join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest from Capitol Hill and the White House.




"How the White House's explanation of Comey firing has changed" PBS NewsHour 5/11/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  As President Trump lambasted in an interview the man he had fired two days ago, the acting FBI director at a Senate hearing painted a very different picture of James Comey.  Meanwhile, the President's explanation seemed to contradict what White House officials have been saying.  William Brangham recaps the conflicting statements and Judy Woodruff gets an update from Lisa Desjardins and John Yang.




"Panetta: Comey firing undermines investigation credibility" PBS NewsHour 5/11/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Former CIA Director Leon Panetta joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what President Trump's decision to fire former Director James Comey means for the investigation into Russian election meddling, and the White House's challenge of dealing with contradictory explanations.




"Trump keeps Comey battle alive by warning him not to talk" PBS NewsHour 5/12/2017

aka "Trump Shoots Himself in the Foot"

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  The firing of former FBI Director James Comey continues to spark controversy and questions.  President Trump tweeted Friday that “Comey had better hope there are no tapes of our conversations,” and Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to answer press questions about whether there are recording devices in the White House.  Lisa Desjardins reports and John Yang joins Judy Woodruff.


TRUMP AGENDA - Travel Ban vs Appeals Courts

"Explaining Trump's travel ban appeals court arguments" PBS NewsHour 5/8/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  President Trump's travel ban got its first federal appeals court review today, marking the biggest test yet for the revised executive order to suspend travel to the U.S. for people from six majority-Muslim countries.  Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins William Brangham to review the arguments.

POLITICS - The Flynn Debacle

"Yates: I warned White House that Flynn could be blackmailed" by Eric Tucker, Eileen Sullivan, and AP; PBS NewsHour 5/8/2017

Excerpt

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, speaking publicly for the first time about concerns she brought to the Trump White House on Russia, told Congress on Monday she warned that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn “essentially could be blackmailed” because he apparently had lied to his bosses about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

The statements from Yates, an Obama administration holdover, offered by far the most detailed account of the chain of events that led to Flynn's ouster from government in the first weeks of the Trump administration.

Yates, appearing before a Senate panel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, described discussions with Trump White House Counsel Don McGahn in late January in which she warned that Flynn apparently had misled the administration about his communications with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.

White House officials had insisted that Flynn had not discussed U.S.-imposed sanctions with Kislyak during the presidential transition period, but asked Flynn to resign after news reports indicated he had misled them about the nature of the calls.

“We felt like it was critical that we get this information to the White House, in part because the Vice President was making false statements to the public and because we believed that Gen. Flynn was possibly compromised,” Yates said.

“We knew that was not a good situation, which is why we wanted to let the White House know about it.”

The highly anticipated hearing — it is Yates's first appearance on Capitol Hill since her firing in January — filled in details in the chain of events that led to the ouster of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's first National Security Adviser, in the early weeks of the administration.

The Jan. 26 conversation took place two days after the FBI interviewed Flynn about those contacts.  McGahn asked Yates how Flynn did in the interview, but Yates said she could not answer.

She was fired four days later by the Trump administration.  James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence under President Barack Obama, testified as well.  He retired when Trump took office.

The hearing came hours after former Obama administration officials revealed that Obama had warned Trump against hiring Flynn as National Security Adviser during an Oval Office meeting after the 2016 election.

The highly anticipated hearing — it was Yates' first appearance on Capitol Hill since her firing — before a Senate panel investigating Russian interference in the presidential election was expected to fill in basic details in the chain of events that led to Flynn's ouster.  Word that Obama directly warned Trump suggests that concern over Flynn's possible appointment spread to the highest level of government months before Flynn's departure.

The Obama-Trump discussion was first reported Monday by NBC-TV.

Flynn's forced February resignation followed media reports that he had discussed U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia with Ambassador Kislyak, which was contrary to the public representations of the Trump White House.

Earlier Monday, former officials said Obama had raised general concerns about Flynn with Trump and told the incoming president there were better people for the national security post.  Trump's White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in response Monday that if Obama “was seriously concerned” about Flynn's connections to Russia or other foreign countries, he should have withheld Flynn's security clearance.  Flynn served under Obama as defense intelligence chief before Obama dismissed him from that post.

Trump moved to distance himself from his former adviser's troubles Monday, tweeting that it was the Obama administration that gave Flynn “the highest security clearance” when he worked at the Pentagon.  Trump made no mention of the fact that Flynn had been fired by the Obama administration in 2014.

In a second tweet, Trump said Yates should be asked under oath “if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers” soon after she raised concerns about Flynn with McGahn.

She said Monday she did not — and that she had revealed no classified information herself.

Trump has said he has no ties to Russia and isn't aware of any involvement by his aides in Moscow's interference in the election.  He's dismissed FBI and congressional investigations into his campaign's possible ties to the election meddling as a “hoax” driven by Democrats bitter over losing the White House.

The Associated Press meanwhile reported last week that one sign taken as a warning by Obama administration officials about Flynn's contacts with Kislyak was a request by a member of Trump's own transition team made to national security officials in the Obama White House for the classified CIA profile of Kislyak.  The revelation came after interviews with a host of former U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive national security information.

Marshall Billingslea, a former Pentagon and NATO official, wanted the information for Flynn, his boss.  Billingslea knew Flynn would be speaking to Kislyak, according to two former Obama administration officials, and seemed concerned Flynn did not fully understand he was dealing with a man rumored to have ties to Russian intelligence agencies.  When reached by the AP last week, Billingslea refused to comment.  Last month, Trump announced his intention to nominate Billingslea to serve as Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing at the Treasury Department.

Yates' warning about Flynn in January capped weeks of building concern among top Obama officials, former officials told the APPresident Obama himself that month told one of his closest advisers that the FBI, which by then had been investigating Trump associates' possible ties to Russia for about six months, seemed particularly focused on Flynn.

Yates, a longtime federal prosecutor and Obama administration holdover, was fired Jan. 30 by Trump after refusing to defend the administration's travel ban.  She had been scheduled to appear in March before the House Intelligence Committee, but that hearing was canceled.

The subcommittee meeting Monday is one of three congressional probes into the Russia interference, along with House and Senate intelligence panels.  All the committees are led by Republicans.

White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.



"Yates' Senate testimony on 'compromised' Flynn returns Russia probe to the spotlight" PBS NewsHour 5/8/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Two high-profile witnesses -- former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates -- addressed a Senate hearing Monday on the investigation into the Trump administration's relationship with Russia, and the warnings the White House received about Gen. Michael Flynn.  Judy Woodruff speaks with Lisa Desjardins and Julie Pace of Associated Press.




"Former DOJ official explains why the Michael Flynn controversy is 'incredibly unusual'" PBS NewsHour 5/8/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Former Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss congressional testimonies by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and the ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in November's presidential election.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

THE RESISTANCE - Sally Yates is an American Hero


The Resistance
with Keith Olbermann

JOURNALISM - In the Age of Trump

"How We're Learning To Do Journalism Differently in the Age of Trump" by Eric Umansky, ProPublica 5/8/2017

This story was co-published with IRE Journal.

It's a great time to be an investigative journalist.  Sure, no President has done more to demonize media than President Trump.  But nor has anybody done more to boost our standing than Trump.

Millions of Americans have put their faith in us.  A few weeks after the election, a friend of mine, pondering the reality of one-party government in Washington, looked at me soberly and summed up her sentiment:  “You are our Congress now.”

What she meant, of course, was that we need to keep doing our job, to ferret out facts and expose wrongdoing.  It seemed straightforward enough.

But as my friend was talking, one thought kept running over and over in my mind: How the hell are we going to do this?

At ProPublica, our stories often take months, and occasionally longer than that.  How could we cover something as fast moving as a new administration?  We also tend to stay away from areas other reporters are already covering.  If lots of reporters are already digging into something, why would we want to as well?  One of our advantages is that we don't have to be comprehensive.  We can and should skip stories where we're unlikely to distinguish ourselves.

We could have made the decision to stick with those inclinations ­— to veer away from the pack and focus on areas where others were now even less likely to be.

But we didn't do that.

Instead, on Inauguration Day, we announced what we would be covering ­— many, many areas related to the new administration.  The same day, we reported Trump hadn't fulfilled his promise to hand over control of his businesses.  Two weeks later, we reported that Trump's daughter Ivanka had failed to do the same.

And our stories kept coming: about how Trump was hiring lobbyists to work at agencies they once lobbied, about the hundreds of officials Trump had quietly installed across the government, and about a Trump trust document that states the president can pull money from his businesses any time he wants.  (It's that last story that got the White House riled up and led Sean Spicer, to blessedly, label us a “left-wing blog.”)

We're still in flux.  We definitely don't have all the answers.  Like many newsrooms, we're still grappling with how to handle coverage of the new administration.  But we have found a few principles to be helpful.

Worry Less About Zigging When Others Zag

Rather than tacking away from important topics that already have the country's attention, sometimes it makes sense to look for opportunities within them.

Take the work last year of the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold, who, of course, could serve as an example in any number of these tips.  Countless journalists were covering Trump's campaign.  The size of the scrum covering his candidacy probably set a record.  But how many reporters were really digging into Trump's charity?  It turned out none, until Fahrenthold.

That's obviously not an easy example to replicate.  In fact, Fahrenthold has written about how he didn't know what he was launching himself into.

That doesn't mean you should chase the week's news, or worry about matching what other outlets are doing.  What it means is deciding you're going to go after the most important and vital topics, and then giving yourself the task of producing revelatory coverage within them.

A hypothetical I've occasionally invoked: Imagine you had been a reporter during the civil rights era and were looking back at your career decades later.  What would you have hoped to cover?  (I've heard BuzzFeed's Ben Smith tell his staff something quite similar: Write now what you think you'll be proud of at the end of your career.)

Stop Hoarding and Start Sharing

ProPublica has been collaborating with other newsrooms since we started nine years ago.  But over the past few months, we've landed on new ways of working with others.

On a Friday night in late March, the White House announced it was making many staffers' financial disclosure forms “available.”  But it didn't post them online or even disclose which staffers had filed the forms.

To get the documents, reporters first had to guess who had filed the disclosures.  Then, they had to fill out a form on the White House's website for each person.  It was like dealing with the world's worst customer service department ­— only we were trying to wrangle purportedly public information.

Then, one of our editors, Tracy Weber, had an idea: Why not call our friends at other outlets and coordinate.  Within minutes, The New York Times and Associated Press had agreed to work with us and post all the documents we gathered.

In another instance, we talked with the Times' Eric Lipton about our joint interest in documenting the legion of lobbyists joining the administration.  The chat led to a very simple and quick collaboration: We shared data on administration hires with the Times, which used it to publish a hard-hitting story that cited our contribution.

It was just one example of many where even the simple act of comparing notes has paid off.  That's clearly not the proper approach all the time.  But it can be plenty of the time.

Do It Out In the Open

For years, we've reached out to readers to fuel our journalism.  But we've been much more aggressive about it recently.

One thing has been to simply say what we're working on — even if it's just broadly.  On Inauguration Day, we not only laid out our areas of coverage, but we also gave contact information for each of our reporters.  And at the bottom of many of our stories now is a reporter's contact info, and, crucially, an explanation of what information they're seeking.

Do you have information about the Trump administration's beachhead teams and their role at federal agencies?  Contact Justin at justin@ProPublica.org or via Signal at 774-826-6240.  Here is a guide for how to leak to ProPublica.

It's not fancy, but it's effective.

Sometimes readers don't have insider tips, but they can still contribute.  In February, a reader wrote us about a letter she received from Missouri Sen.  Roy Blunt criticizing Obamacare.  The letter was filled with misleading formation.  We wondered if that was true of other congressional letters, so Charles Ornstein and Terry Parris Jr.  asked readers to share any similar letters they'd gotten.  Again, we coordinated to get the word out with other outlets: Vox, Kaiser Health News and STAT News.  Readers sent in hundreds of letters.  The result: We were able to lay out how legislators were sending their constituents correspondence “full of lies and misinformation.”

Others are also embracing the approach, and getting results: Last month, the Trump administration disclosed donors who funded the president's $100 million inauguration committee.  The administration posted them as super-unhelpful, non-searchable PDFs.  So reporters got together to fix that, turning the documents into data.  Then, the Huffington Post's Christina Wilkie invited readers to dig in and background the donors.  It turns out, some of the names were straight-up fake.

You Won't Be Able to Neatly Plan and Package Your Stories — and That's Okay

Just about the only certainty with this administration is that nobody knows what will happen.  That means if you're going to cover one of the most consequential stories of our time, you're probably not going to be able to, say, carefully plot out a year's worth of stories in advance.

But that doesn't mean just writing what's in front of you, either.  In fact, it's more crucial than ever to think carefully about which waters to swim in.  You just may need to be at peace with the uncertainty about where exactly your coverage is heading.  You may even have some false starts.  And there's no guarantee it will work at all.

Success will require the typical alchemy needed for great journalism ­— doggedness, imagination, and luck.  It will also require a leap of faith.  Making that leap seems only fair given the faith that readers have put in us.

Monday, May 08, 2017

OPINION - Shields and Gerson 5/5/2017

"Shields and Gerson on GOP health care bill fallout, Trump's order on religion" PBS NewsHour 5/5/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Syndicated Columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week's news, including the House of Representatives' passage of a GOP health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the coming political consequences and an executive order by President Trump easing political restrictions on religious groups.

FRANCE - Presidential Election

IMHO:  A choice of openness vs shaking in fear, crippling nationalism vs European Union.

"How French voters see their presidential choices" PBS NewsHour 5/5/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  French voters head to the polls Sunday in the second-round runoff between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.  Macron has been buoyed this week by an endorsement by former President Obama and a solid debate performance.  But Le Pen's anti-immigrant party continues to press its case.  Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.




"In presidential election, French youth confront 'two visions of France'" PBS NewsHour 5/6/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Two candidates facing off this weekend in the French presidential election runoff offer starkly different visions for the country.  Centrist Emmanuel Macron supports immigration and the European Union, while the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen wants to curb immigration and pull France out of the EU.  Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from France.




"Macron declares 'new page of our history' in France" PBS NewsHour 5/7/2017

Sanity wins!

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  One of the most divisive political campaigns in French history that had much of Europe on edge came to an end during Sunday's runoff election.  Centrist Emmanuel Macron defeated his controversial opponent, the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen.  NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Malcolm Brabant joins Hari Sreenivasan from Macron's campaign headquarters in Paris.

MAKING SEN$E - Janesville, Wisconsin

"It's a slow, painful recovery for this former manufacturing town" PBS NewsHour 5/4/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  Once a proud industrial town, Janesville, Wisconsin, was knocked for a loop in 2008 when General Motors idled its assembly plant, the area's long-time largest employer.  Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to Amy Goldstein, author of "Janesville: An American Story," about the complicated picture of how the town and its people have tried to recover and adapt.

AT THE MOVIES - Summer 2017

"Why summer is the season of movie sequels, reboots and spin-offs" PBS NewsHour 5/4/2017

Excerpt

SUMMARY:  The summer movie season is about to kick into high gear, even though it's barely May.  This year will see at least 15 blockbuster sequels, reboots or spin-offs, like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and from older franchises like "Spiderman," "Planet of the Apes," and "Pirates of the Caribbean."  Jeffrey Brown talks to Alonso Duralde of TheWrap and Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post.