This week in the Russia investigations: Facebook hits Washington with a P.R. blitz, the imbroglio sucks in more tech giants and the White House weighs how nicely — or rudely — to treat Robert Mueller.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is a billionaire titan of Big Tech who looks down on the world from the peak of empire — but she tried to sound as contrite as she could this week in Washington.
Sandberg visited with members of Congress; did a public Q&A with the insider's insider, Axios reporter Mike Allen; and, according to Politico, met with leaders of African-American, Latino and Muslim-American rights groups all to make clear that Facebook gets it: The social giant played a role in Russia's attack on last year's presidential election, she abhors that role, and that the company will do better down the line.
"Things happened on our platform that shouldn't have happened," Sandberg told Allen.
But each of her visits appears to have been a little rocky, in its own way. Allen asked, for example, whether any Americans were involved with targeting the ads Facebook sold to Russian influence-mongers. What "overlap" has she found between Facebook and people who might have worked for President Trump's campaign?
Sandberg did her utmost not to answer.
And what about the racially focused, racially divisive ads traced back to Russian accounts? Sandberg's comments to lawmakers went unrecorded but the members of Congress themselves spoke out.
"The manipulation of Facebook by foreign actors to interfere with our elections and fan the flames of racial hatred is an existential threat to our democracy," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. "We cannot allow Facebook and other social media platforms to be used as kerosene, spreading fake news throughout our country designed to misinform and divide the American electorate."
The content of the ads could appear in public before Nov. 1 hearings scheduled before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, although Facebook and members of Congress appear to be wrangling about who'll release them and how. In the interim, look for Big Tech to continue trying to set itself up for the softest landing it can manage on Capitol Hill.
Russia's overt influence campaign against the U.S. last year — in addition to its much-discussed covert campaign of spy stuff and cyberattacks — turns out to have been bigger than anyone knew. Not only did it involve Facebook and Twitter, but Google has discovered that it sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of ads, the company has acknowledged.
And remember, this is the Internet we're talking about — everybody posts stuff everywhere. So, as the Washington Post reported, even if Russian influence-mongers didn't surface material in some places, other users spread it on their own. One key example: Pinterest, which as the Post says is better known as "the place where people go to get ideas about home decor, fashion and recipes."
Internet users last year also were taking posts linked to the Russian influence campaign from, say, Facebook, and copying them to their Pinterest boards. There, they took on lives of their own within that separate ecosystem. Likewise on YouTube, which is owned by Google, and on Thursday CNN reported that influence-mongers even operated inside the mobile phone game Pokemon Go.
What has vexed congressional and tech investigators, however, is that for as much evidence as they're uncovering about this campaign, there are gaps in what they can confirm.
Some of that is because the Russian agents involved here are professionals at disguising their conduct. Some of that is because the data from last year don't exist anymore. About the only thing that is clear to everyone, as one source told NPR this week, is that nobody knows how deep this rabbit hole goes.
How should the White House staff deal with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller? According to reports this week, there are two schools of thought (as Mueller's team continues its investigation including a daylong interview Friday with Reince Priebus): One says be nice. The other says to give him the stiff arm.
Team Nice Guys made their case via The New York Times:
"White House officials once debated a scorched-earth strategy of publicly criticizing and undercutting ... Mueller .... Now, President Trump's lawyers are pursuing a different course: cooperating with the special counsel in the hope that Mr. Mueller will declare in the coming months that Mr. Trump is not a target of the Russia inquiry."
But Team Hard Case fired back soon after via the Associated Press:
"Trump supporters and associates inside and outside the White House see the conciliatory path as risky to the maverick president's tenure. Instead, they want the street-fighting tweeter to criticize Mueller with abandon.
The struggle between supporters of the legal team's steady, cooperative approach, and the band of Trump loyalists who yearn for a fight, comes as the Mueller probe begins lapping at the door of the Oval Office. Mueller, who is investigating the firing of former FBI director James Comey and other key actions of the Trump administration, has signaled that his team intends to interview multiple current and former White House officials in the coming weeks and has requested large batches of documents from the executive branch."
What will be the difference-maker? No one can know but the president. Trump might not decide on any single strategy, or he might not even consider the issue until it flares up again on cable TV news coverage. The way the networks present and frame issues has a huge effect on Trump, reports Politico's Josh Dawsey, and cable news remains one of the most important ways he perceives which things are real and urgent or otherwise.
"Sometimes, advisers and people who know him well deliberately engage the media. [Tennessee Sen. Bob] Corker has told others on Capitol Hill that Trump doesn't listen unless he hears the criticism on TV or reads it in the paper.
Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said on television in June that he thought Trump might fire special counsel Bob Mueller on TV, creating a firestorm — a calculated attempt to pre-empt what he feared could be a politically fatal move by the president."
In short, what could help decide this inside the White House may be the decisions of TV producers and executives in New York or Atlanta. The next big milestone for them — barring unexpected news beforehand — could be the hearing scheduled for Oct. 25 in which Trump's longtime attorney Michael Cohen is set to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
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