Former United States President Barack Obama has reportedly described President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as “an absolute chaotic disaster”.
Obama has largely kept out of the fray even as Trump has blamed him and his Democratic administration for a variety of problems related to having sufficient supplies to battle the pandemic.
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But in his call on Friday with 3,000 members of the Obama Alumni Association, people who served in his administration, Obama reportedly urged his supporters to get behind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is trying to unseat Trump in the November election.
“This election that’s coming up on every level is so important because what we’re going to be battling is not just a particular individual or a political party. What we’re fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided and seeing others as an enemy – that has become a stronger impulse in American life. And by the way, we’re seeing that internationally as well,” Obama was cited as saying in the private call according to Yahoo News, which said it obtained a tape of the call on Friday.
“It’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anaemic and spotty. It would have been bad even with the best of governments. It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset – of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ – when that mindset is operationalised in our government.
“That’s why, I, by the way, am going to be spending as much time as necessary and campaigning as hard as I can for Joe Biden,” he said.
The United States by far leads the world in the number of coronavirus infections, at nearly 1.3 million, and deaths, with more than 78,000.
Trump has been criticised as essentially abdicating any leadership role in guiding the country through one of its worst crises in a century, leaving states on their own to grapple with the pandemic and even bid against each other to obtain critical medical equipment on the open market or abroad.
Critics say Trump, after first downplaying the threat posed by the virus, squandered precious time in February as the pathogen spread in America and his administration did little to stock up on testing kits and other medical gear or to develop a cohesive national strategy.
With an eye to re-election, the president has also been blasted as putting his own political interests before human life by aggressively pushing states to reopen their devastated economies without a clear blueprint for how to do it safely.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Trump’s response to the coronavirus “has been unprecedented” and has saved American lives.
Warning on rule of law
Obama also warned during the call that the “rule of law is at risk” in the US after the justice department said it would drop the legal case against Michael Flynn, a former White House national security adviser.
Flynn, a key target in the investigation into alleged Russian meddling the 2016 US election, pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to the FBI in relation to conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Attorney General William Barr’s declaration that there were never grounds to pursue Flynn and the FBI abused its powers drew fierce criticism from legal experts and civil society groups.
While President Donald Trump fired Flynn for lying to Vice President Mike Pence, Trump frequently tweeted about the former general’s case, which became a rallying cry for his supporters in attacking the FBI investigation. Trump recently declared Flynn “exonerated”.
“The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed – about the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn,” Obama reportedly said.
“And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic – not just institutional norms – but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places,” he said, misstating the charges against Flynn.
Joe Biden-Ukraine leaked audio goes viral
WASHINGTON — The leaked recordings were hardly a political bombshell: The apparent phone conversations between Joe Biden and Ukraine’s then-president largely confirm Biden’s account of his dealings in Ukraine. But the choppy audio, disclosed by a Ukrainian lawmaker whom U.S. officials described Thursday as an “active Russian agent” who has sought to spread online misinformation…
WASHINGTON — The leaked recordings were hardly a political bombshell: The apparent phone conversations between Joe Biden and Ukraine’s then-president largely confirm Biden’s account of his dealings in Ukraine.
But the choppy audio, disclosed by a Ukrainian lawmaker whom U.S. officials described Thursday as an “active Russian agent” who has sought to spread online misinformation about Biden, was nonetheless seized on by President Donald Trump as well as his supporters to promote conspiracy theories about the Democratic nominee. Social media posts and videos about the recordings have been viewed millions of times, according to an Associated Press analysis, even though Trump’s own administration says they rely on “false and unsubstantiated narratives.”
The audio’s proliferation on social media shows how foreign operations aimed at influencing the U.S. election are still easily reaching Americans, despite efforts by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to rein in such meddling.
Since there’s no evidence the heavily edited recordings have been stolen or were entirely fabricated, they’ve been able to flourish online, skirting new policies social media companies rolled out to prevent foreign interference in this year’s elections. And unlike in 2016, when Russia used bogus social media accounts or bots to wage a misinformation campaign, this time they’re being spread by legitimate American social media users.
“It’s certainly an influence campaign,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, said of the recordings. “It’s misleading to an audience that doesn’t have the full picture.”
Recordings of Biden’s 2016 calls with Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, were released during a May press conference by Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Derkach, a graduate of a Moscow spy academy who met last year with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to push baseless corruption allegations against Biden, and his son, Hunter.
The audio was swiftly spread by conservative figures, including Trump’s oldest son, and conservative news outlets across social media to fuel online conspiracy theories, speculation and misinformation about Biden’s role in the firing of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor when Biden was vice president.
U.S. intelligence officials singled out Derkach in a statement last month that accused him of helping Russian efforts to undermine Biden’s candidacy. On Thursday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach, identifying him as an “active Russian agent” for over a decade and blaming him for spreading “unsubstantiated allegations” to American voters and trying to influence the election.
Concerns about Derkach haven’t stopped Trump from pushing the recordings, retweeting an excerpt of the audio and later a tweet from One America News Network that promoted “Biden’s bribe tapes.”
Social media companies are less likely to ban material that is shared by legitimate and authentic internet sites and users.
“The adjudication process becomes just way more complicated if it’s an actual known outlet or a real American user or real user in general,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington think tank.
The gist of the claims advanced by Trump and his supporters are that Biden demanded the firing of top Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to protect Burisma, the natural gas company where Hunter Biden held a board seat, from a criminal investigation.
In one edited phone call now circulating online, Biden tells Poroshenko he will commit $1 billion to the country once Shokin is fired.
But the corruption theories have been discredited because Shokin did not have an active investigation into Hunter Biden’s work and because Joe Biden, in seeking Shokin’s firing, was representing the official position of the Obama administration, Western allies and many in Ukraine who perceived the prosecutor as soft on corruption. At the time, Shokin was facing widespread criticism for failing to prosecute snipers who opened fire on Kyiv protesters.
The Biden campaign says it regards the calls as heavily edited. Biden and Poroshenko’s phone calls have not been publicly released, but the Obama administration provided summaries of the conversations in 2016, which included U.S. requests for a new prosecutor general. Shokin was ousted in March of that year.
The edited recordings spreading online have been assembled together, raising the likelihood the audio could be missing words and conversations or the timing has been altered, said Stephan Moore, a sound artist and Northwestern University lecturer who reviewed the clips circulating on YouTube for the AP.
“Anyone who works in audio knows that voice recordings can be drastically altered (even by someone without much skill) in ways that completely change their meaning,” Moore said in an email.
Still, the audio quickly spread on social media, picked up by conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee and news programs like “Fox & Friends.”
The recordings have been played more than 1.5 million times total in a collection of videos on YouTube, tweeted out by Donald Trump Jr. to his more than 5 million followers and listened to more than 4 million times in a video on popular conservative Ben Shapiro’s Facebook page.
There have been more than 117,000 mentions of Biden and the audio on Twitter since May, according to analysis by Zignal Labs, a social media monitoring firm.
The origins of the audio are murky. Derkach has said they came from investigative journalists, though it’s possible they had been stolen by a foreign intelligence service. Still, that’s not enough to violate the tech giants’ new bans on hacked information, like the stolen Democratic emails of 2016.
While heavily edited, the recordings do not appear to be entirely fabricated – White House records confirm, for instance, that Biden and Poroshenko spoke on the same day of the recording that Trump retweeted last month – even though they’re being actively used by prominent social media figures to fuel election-related misinformation.
YouTube, for example, said the audio recordings don’t violate policy because the tech company has been unable to confirm they were obtained through hacking. The Biden campaign petitioned YouTube to remove the recordings on the grounds they had been manipulated to mislead viewers, but the company refused, according to a person familiar with the request who insisted on anonymity to discuss it.
Twitter also said the audio does not violate its policies because it’s unclear if the tapes were illegally obtained. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
That’s a loophole foreign and domestic troublemakers are inclined to continue exploiting before Election Day, Jankowicz said.
“If you get a piece of information in the hands of the right American, it can absolutely spin out of control and make the national news in a couple of days,” she said.
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