The phalanx of intelligence chiefs who testified on Capitol Hill delivered a chilling message: Not only did Russia interfere in the 2016 election, it is already meddling in the 2018 election by using a digital strategy to exacerbate the country’s political and social divisions.
No one knows more about the threats to the United States than these six officials, so when they all agree, it would be derelict to ignore their concerns. Yet President Donald Trump continues to refuse to even acknowledge the malevolent Russian role.
It’s particularly striking that four of the men who gave this warning to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday — the CIA director, Mike Pompeo; the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats; the FBI director, Christopher Wray; and the Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley — were all appointed by Trump.
They testified that the president had never asked them to take measures to combat Russian interference and protect democratic processes.
Trump isn’t completely oblivious about Russia, of course. He fired Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, to derail the FBI’s investigation of possible Trump campaign involvement with the election hacking and reportedly asked Coats and Pompeo to help end the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Flynn’s contacts with Russians.
With the midterm elections only nine months away, the federal government is taking some defensive measures. It is trying to get at least one election official in each state a security clearance to make them aware of threats and is providing states with enhanced online security to ensure that Americans’ votes will not be manipulated.
Nevertheless, absent Trump’s commitment, there can be no robust mobilization to take all measures needed to confront an insidious problem that strikes at the heart of the democratic system. These would include a comprehensive and well-funded plan for protecting critical infrastructure, countering cyberattacks and mitigating propaganda.
The president should not only be strengthening electoral defenses but also be pushing back against Russia, instead of ignoring a law Congress adopted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions for election meddling and aggression against Ukraine. The list of potential activities meriting sanctions covers weapons deals, human rights abuses and Russian cyberattacks against the United States and other democracies.
Although Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin assured Congress on Wednesday that sanctions “are coming,” there’s little reason to believe him. The State Department recently argued that it didn’t impose sanctions against companies doing weapons deals with Russia because the threat of sanctions was enough to deter some of those deals. But there is no excuse for not acting against Russia for cyberattacks — Trump’s own intelligence chiefs say such activity has increased, not diminished.
So why is Trump still ignoring such conclusions? Some have said he is giving Russia a green light to tamper with the 2018 elections. That would have once been an absurd suggestion. It can no longer be dismissed out of hand.
Among the numerous harebrained ideas in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal this week, one stands out as especially pernicious: a scheme that would slash an essential anti-poverty program and put fresh food further out of reach for 46 million low-income people, or 1 in 7 Americans.
The Trump administration wants to cut the budget of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly known as food stamps, by nearly 30 percent over a decade. It plans to accomplish this, in large part, by giving low-income families boxes of pasta, cereal and other nonperishable foods, rather than giving them the full amount of their benefit on electronic cards, as the SNAP program works today. Those cards can be used at about 260,000 retail stores and farmers markets nationwide to buy a wide range of fresh and packaged food, allowing recipients to shop with their families’ preferences and dietary needs in mind.
The administration argues that its proposal, which also would make it harder for adults living without children or other dependents to benefit from the program if they aren’t employed, is “designed to improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them, while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money.”
If Trump and his aides actually cared about improving nutrition and the lives of low-income Americans, they would be trying to put more money into SNAP, not less. The program has done a heroic job of reducing poverty and improving the lives of millions of people. Studies have found that the program’s beneficiaries are less likely to report not having enough to eat. They are also less likely to take sick days and are shown to spend less on health care compared with similar people who do not benefit from the program. Further, children who grow up in families enrolled in SNAP are more likely to graduate from high school and be economically self-sufficient as adults.
Right-wing ideologues in the Trump administration seem to consider SNAP a wasteful welfare program that needs to be brought to heel. In reality, the program is a relative bargain that provides fairly modest benefits to some of the poorest people in the country. The government spent about $70 billion on SNAP in 2017, less than 2 percent of the $4 trillion federal budget. The average beneficiary gets $126 a month. The people who are helped by the program tend to have very low incomes, are retired or have disabilities. A family of three generally has to earn less than $26,600 a year to qualify.
Anybody who has spent time in grocery stores knows that $126 does not go a long way, and advocates for low-income families note that many people run out of their benefits before the month is out. It is no surprise, then, that one study published in the journal Health Affairs in 2014 found that the risk of hospital admissions for low blood sugar levels among low-income people in California jumped sharply in the last week of the month. There was no comparable spike among high-income people.
Conversely, experts have found that increasing the value of food stamps and making them available to more people can do good things. When Congress temporarily bolstered the program as a part of the 2009 economic stimulus bill, low-income people bought more food and were less likely to report not having enough to eat, according to a report by the Department of Agriculture.
Trump’s proposal for slashing SNAP and introducing food boxes comes just as Congress is working on a new farm bill, which lawmakers have to pass before the end of September, when authorizations for food stamps and other agricultural programs are scheduled to end. Several Republican lawmakers have said they are unlikely to get on board with the administration’s retrograde ideas. That’s good. But given how far members of Congress have gone to do Trump’s bidding in the past year, it won’t be a complete relief until lawmakers vote to keep the program going without cuts.
Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a bleak view of civic life in New York and the nation Tuesday night. If put to canvas, his State of the City speech setting forth an agenda for his second term might well be colored in 50 shades of charcoal gray. He spoke about “the decline of democracy,” about a country at risk of becoming “a pseudo-democracy,” about how “we are so far from what the norm should be of an active and inclusive democracy,” about how “I have never felt our democracy as imperiled as I do today.” The grim litany was almost enough to make one reach for the bottle.
We’re in sync with him on the perils of social and economic inequality and on the need for vigilance in the face of this White House’s routine flouting of democratic norms. But it’s hard to escape the sense that de Blasio is an imperfect messenger for some of the reforms he advocated to “redemocratize a society that is losing its way.”
His call for broader public financing of local elections and “getting big money out of politics” sounded good. But it might have resonated more had it come from someone who did not rely on big money in his campaigns and was criticized by federal prosecutors for blurring pay-to-play ethics — and has no doubt run his last race for local office.
The mayor pledged to create a commission to revise city charter provisions on campaign financing. Every New York mayor in the past quarter-century has favored this sort of panel to achieve a specific goal, usually stocking it with loyalists. Why bother with a process that may well run a tortuous course? Nothing stops de Blasio from immediately drafting legislation to get the same result and persuading the City Council to pass it.
Like his sparring partner, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the mayor urged that the state free itself from stifling election procedures, in particular constraints that make it one of only 13 states without early voting. It remains unclear if the state Legislature, notably the Republican-controlled Senate, will go along with the idea. But Cuomo at least gave it a helpful lift this week when he heeded a call here to show he means business by adding necessary money — $7 million in his proposed budget — to make early voting happen.
De Blasio also said he wanted to register 1.5 million city voters over the next four years. Roughly 4.6 million are on the rolls now. Sounds like a plan. Only it’s unclear how expanding the electorate will solve what he called “the problem of shrinking voter participation.”
Turnout in the city is abysmal. It was less than 25 percent in November’s general election and 14 percent in the September primaries. A dearth of engaging races has led to widespread apathy. A strong system of public financing might encourage more candidates, hopefully well qualified, to run. Absent that, increasing the voter rolls may simply mean listing more people who stay home on Election Day.
To deal with this issue, the mayor said he would appoint a “chief democracy officer.” Who knew that democracy needed an officer in charge of it, let alone a chief?
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