Damage Control at Facebook: 6 Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation

In fall 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was publicly declaring it a “crazy idea” that his company had played a role in deciding the election. But security experts at the company already knew otherwise.

They found signs as early as spring 2016 that Russian hackers were poking around the Facebook accounts of people linked to American presidential campaigns. Months later, they saw Russian-controlled accounts sharing information from hacked Democratic emails with reporters. Facebook accumulated evidence of Russian activity for over a year before executives opted to share what they knew with the public — and even their own board of directors.

In 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump called for a ban of Muslim immigrants, Facebook employees and outside critics called on the company to punish Mr. Trump. Mr. Zuckerberg considered it — asking subordinates whether Mr. Trump had violated the company’s rules and whether his account should be suspended or the post removed.

But while Mr. Zuckerberg was personally offended, he deferred to subordinates who warned that penalizing Mr. Trump would set off a damaging backlash among Republicans.

Mr. Trump’s post remained up.

As criticism grew over Facebook’s belated admissions of Russian influence, the company launched a lobbying campaign — overseen by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer — to combat critics and shift anger toward rival tech firms.

Facebook hired Senator Mark Warner’s former chief of staff to lobby him; Ms. Sandberg personally called Senator Amy Klobuchar to complain about her criticism. The company also deployed a public relations firm to push negative stories about its political critics and cast blame on companies like Google.

Those efforts included depicting the billionaire liberal donor George Soros as the force behind a broad anti-Facebook movement, and publishing stories praising Facebook and criticizing Google and Apple on a conservative news site.

Facebook faced worldwide outrage in March after The Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian published a joint investigation into how user data had been appropriated by Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. But inside Facebook, executives thought they could contain the damage. The company installed a new chief of American lobbying to help quell the bipartisan anger in Congress, and it quietly shelved an internal communications campaign, called “We Get It,” meant to assure employees that the company was committed to getting back on track in 2018.

Sensing Facebook’s vulnerability, some rival tech firms in Silicon Valley sought to use the outcry to promote their own brands. After Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, quipped in an interview that his company did not traffic in personal data, Mr. Zuckerberg ordered his management team to use only Android phones. After all, he reasoned, the operating system had far more users than Apple’s.

Washington’s senior Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, raised more money from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress during the 2016 election cycle — and he was there when the company needed him.

This past summer, as Facebook’s troubles mounted, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, who by then had emerged as Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress. Back off, Mr. Schumer told Mr. Warner, and look for ways to work with Facebook, not vilify it. Lobbyists for Facebook — which also employs Mr. Schumer’s daughter — were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts.

 

Related:

What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide (28 min audio)

The Minority Leader’s Only Job

House Republicans are about to discover the pain of irrelevance.

Mr. McCarthy is no policy wonk, preferring to focus on the electoral details of winning seats. That’s more important than policy when you’re in the minority since the media won’t report what the GOP proposes in any case. House Republicans can play important roles in defending Trump Administration officials, when warranted, against Democratic excess.

But the first—the only—job of a House minority is to become a majority. Their best chance will be 2020 when freshman Democrats are most vulnerable as they run for re-election the first time. Defeat enough of them and Mr. McCarthy could be Mr. Speaker.

Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage

None of Trump’s extremist policy ideas has received public support. The public opposed last year’s

  1. Republican-backed corporate tax cut, Trump’s
  2. effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), his
  3. proposed border wall with Mexico, the decision to
  4. withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the
  5. imposition of tariff increases on China, Europe, and others.
  6. At the same time, contrary to Trump’s relentless promotion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), the public favors investments in renewable energy and remaining in the Paris climate agreement.

.. Trump has tried to implement his radical agenda using three approaches.

1) The first has been to rely on the Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress to pass legislation in the face of strong popular opposition. That approach succeeded once, with the 2017 corporate tax cut, because big Republican donors insisted on the measure, but it failed with Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare, as three Republican senators balked.

.. 2)  The second approach has been to use executive orders to circumvent Congress. Here the courts have repeatedly intervened, most recently within days of the election, when a federal district court halted work on the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project strongly opposed by environmentalists, on the grounds that the Trump administration had failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for its actions. Trump repeatedly and dangerously oversteps his authority, and the courts keep pushing back.

.. 3) Trump’s third tactic has been to rally public opinion to his side. Yet, despite his frequent rallies, or perhaps because of them and their incendiary vulgarity, Trump’s disapproval rating has exceeded his approval rating since the earliest days of his administration. His current overall disapproval rating is 54%, versus 40% approval, with strong approval from around 25% of the public. There has been no sustained move in Trump’s direction.

.. In the midterm elections, which Trump himself described as a referendum on his presidency, the Democratic candidates for both the House and Senate vastly outpolled their Republican opponents. In the House races, Democrats received 53,314,159 votes nationally, compared with 48,439,810 for Republicans. In the Senate races, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 47,537,699 votes to 34,280,990.

.. Summing up votes by party for the three recent election cycles (2014, 2016, and 2018), Democratic Senate candidates outpolled Republican candidates by roughly 120 million to 100 million. Nonetheless, the Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate, where each state is represented by two senators, regardless of the size of its population, because they tend to win their seats in less populous states, whereas Democrats prevail in the major coastal and Midwestern states.

Wyoming, for example, elects two Republican senators to represent its nearly 580,000 residents, while California’s more than 39 million residents elect two Democratic senators. 

Without control of the House, however, Trump will no longer be able to enact any unpopular legislation. Only policies with bipartisan support will have a chance of passing both chambers.

.. On the economic front, Trump’s trade policies will become even less popular in the months ahead as the American economy cools from the “sugar high” of the corporate tax cut, as growing uncertainty about global trade policy hamstrings business investment, and as both the budget deficit and interest rates rise. Trump’s phony national-security justifications for raising tariffs will also be challenged politically and perhaps in the courts.

.. True, Trump will be able to continue appointing conservative federal judges and most likely win their confirmation in the Republican-majority Senate. And on issues of war and peace, Trump will operate with terrifyingly little oversight by Congress or the public, an affliction of the US political system since World War II. Trump, like his recent predecessors, will most likely keep America mired in wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite the lack of significant public understanding or support.

.. Nonetheless, there are three further reasons to believe that Trump’s hold on power will weaken significantly in the coming months. First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller may very well document serious malfeasance by Trump, his family members, and/or his close advisers. 

.. Second, the House Democrats will begin to investigate Trump’s taxes and personal business dealings, including through congressional subpoenas. There are strong reasons to believe that Trump has committed serious tax evasion (as the New York Times recently outlined) and has illegally enriched his family as president (a lawsuit that the courts have allowed to proceed alleges violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution). Trump is likely to ignore or fight the subpoenas, setting the stage for a major political crisis.

.. Third, and most important, Trump is not merely an extremist politician. He suffers from what author Ian Hughes has recently called “a disordered mind,” filled with

  • hate,
  • paranoia, and
  • narcissism.

According to two close observers of Trump, the president’s grip on reality “will likely continue to diminish” in the face of growing political obstacles, investigations into his taxes and business dealings, Mueller’s findings, and an energized political opposition. We may already be seeing that in Trump’s erratic and aggressive behavior since the election.

.. The coming months may be especially dangerous for America and the world. As Trump’s political position weakens and the obstacles facing him grow, his mental instability will pose an ever-greater danger. He could explode in rage, fire Mueller, and perhaps try to launch a war or claim emergency powers in order to restore his authority. We have not yet seen Trump in full fury, but may do so soon, as his room for maneuver continues to narrow. In that case, much will depend on the performance of America’s constitutional order.