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Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Many mainstream media outlets fell right for the bait from Attorney General Bill Barr’s public complaint that President Donald Trump’s tweets on specific cases were making it “impossible for me to do my job.” Here, they thought, was some genuine daylight between the attorney general and the president — in the wake of Barr’s intervention to overrule the sentencing recommendations against former Trump campaign associate Roger Stone, and the resignations of four Department of Justice professionals.

But here’s the thing: Right-wing media weren’t actually fooled. (Well, maybe a laggard or two didn’t quite catch on.) Most of them understood perfectly what was going on. That’s why major right-wing activists and even far-right conspiracy theorists were so quick to leap to Barr’s defense.

Like a vaudeville or cartoon villain who can’t resist breaking the fourth wall and gloating right to the audience, these right-wing commentators tell us Barr is accomplishing two different things: Asking Trump to leave him alone so that he can actually carry out Trump’s desired objectives and psyching out the media into thinking he’s not just following Trump’s orders.

Just as the story was breaking, Fox News’ Sean Hannity immediately leapt to put Barr’s frustrations in context to listeners of his radio show, thus tamping down any instinct for his audience to be mad about the attorney general’s seeming dissension. After all, Hannity explained, Barr needs to do his job.

From the February 13, 2020, edition if iHeartRadio’s The Sean Hannity Show

SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Now this just breaking on ABC, Bill Barr is mad at the president. And I guess I kind of understand his frustration, because he’s trying to do his job, he can’t be influenced by anybody. I respect that, totally and completely.

But he wants the president to stop tweeting, because that makes it — the tweets are making it impossible for him to do his job, because people are saying he’s taking orders from the president, and he’s not.

And that night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham put it succinctly: “The media sees this sexy story of Trump versus Barr, but they missed the fact that Barr was basically telling Trump, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’”

And others noticed a second angle here: Barr is pulling a mind game with the media, to make everybody think he’s in a feud with Trump — thereby taking away a point of criticism of the attorney general.

On the Thursday evening after the story broke, Will Chamberlain of Human Events called it “some old school PR wizardry.”

“But think about it, there’s a 4-D chess play here,” Chamberlain explained. “What is the criticism of Barr — what is the criticism of him? It’s that he’s Trump’s toady, right? Like, that’s the Elizabeth Warren thing. They’re saying, ‘Oh, he’s just Trump’s hand dog.’ Well, now literally every mainstream media outlet is reporting that ‘Barr is criticizing Trump vociferously.’ Meaning that he’s just managed, by this one press conference, to create distance between himself and the president, which is sort of what is needed to defang every bit of the criticism that is going on of President Trump.”

“Everybody knows Barr is doing a lot of work, he’s doing a good job,” Chamberlain later added, mentioning that the White House had already expressed full and continued confidence in Barr. “I mean, the single most decisive intervention was Barr squashing the Mueller report. And there’s a lot that Barr has done that’s really good. He seems to be pulling back on the Flynn case, seems to, you know, pulling back on the Stone thing, you know, getting these terrible, lying Mueller prosecutors out of there.”

And on Fox News, former Secretary of Education and now Fox Nation host Bill Bennett even speculated Friday morning that seemingly “attacking” Trump would really serve to take the heat off Barr from Democrats.

From the February 14, 2020, edition of Fox News’ America’s Newsroom

BILL BENNETT (FOX NATION HOST): The president needs Bill Barr. But it turns out to be fine, and the White House supports him. You know, this is a strong guy and the president needs strong men around him — he’s a strong personality, he needs strong personalities.

But what are the Democrats going to do about Bill Barr? They were ready to impeach him, and then for a moment last night, you had to think they were saying, “Hey, wait a minute, he’s attacking Trump. Maybe we’re on his side.”

Co-anchor Sandra Smith even added that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) “didn’t waste any time taking the back of Bill Barr on that one.”

Note: This supposed maneuver to make Democrats think Barr is somehow on their side really doesn’t work — especially when Bennett gets up in public and explains the attempt at a mind game.

There were also a handful of mainstream outlets that got it. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan explained:

As we previously noted, CNN’s Chris Cuomo called the move a “ploy,” explaining the White House’s statement of continued confidence in Barr and noted of Trump: “You’ve never heard him say that about anybody who said anything close to what Barr just did. I wonder why.”

And on MSNBC’s Hardball, former CIA Director John Brennan and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler explained to Chris Matthews that Barr still has a lot of maneuvering room.

“He is just so self-centered — Donald Trump — that anybody who has the audacity to challenge him, or to criticize him, is going to be within the line of fire,” explained Brennan, a longtime Trump detractor. “And that’s why I do have questions about what happened today with William Barr, whether or not this was coordinated with the White House,” he said, adding that he thought Barr was trying to prevent “a full-scale revolt within the Department of Justice.”

Butler summed it up: “Trump needs Barr more than Barr needs Trump. So, I think Barr has some room. But again, the question is, how will he exercise his power? And from everything we know, he will continue to be the president’s Roy Cohn.”


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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template

In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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