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Misinformation Efforts Over Kentucky Vote Could Be Playbook for 2020

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Misinformation Efforts Over Kentucky Vote Could Be Playbook for 2020

KENTUCKY (ProPublica) — A right-wing radio personality took to Twitter not long after the polls had closed and it seemed the Democtratic candidate had prevailed in the excruciatingly close race for governor of Kentucky.

“Today #ELECTIONFRAUD and what is going on in #kentucky is REAL,” the host of “Tore Says,” streamed on the Red State Talk Radio website, tweeted on Nov. 8. “How do I know? I am actually have EVIDENCE because me and my family are VICTIMS of it.”

The personality, whose real name is Terpsichore Lindeman, alleged that somehow she and her husband had wound up as registered Democrats in Kentucky, which she saw as a sure sign that Andy Beshear, the Democratic attorney general ultimately declared the winner of the race for governor, had been manipulating the voter rolls.

Lindeman said that she is not a Democrat, and that she had her name removed from the rolls when she and her husband left the state years ago. Indeed, she said her husband is not a U.S. citizen and should not have been on any voting roll.

The claims gained no small degree of exposure. Lindeman’s dozens of tweets on the matter were retweeted hundreds of times. InfoWars, the conspiracy theory website, repeated her claims in multiple articles over a series of days.

The website of the far-right activist Laura Loomer featured the story prominently. The Kentucky State Board of Elections received calls from alarmed voters, all while incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin — who’d lost the election — talked darkly, but without specifics, about “irregularities” on Election Day.

ProPublica decided to check out Lindeman’s claims, and none add up, falling apart in the face of routine checks of public records. Still, experts say the disinformation spread by Lindeman in Kentucky and the virality and confusion that ensued is a peek into what could befall voters in 2020, when similar techniques are expected to be part of the arsenal of both the right and the left.

Amy Cohen, the executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors, said that the spread of misinformation and disinformation are “serious concerns going into 2020 because they undermine confidence in the election process.”

Her organization, which represents elections directors from across the country, works closely with Twitter and other social media platforms to report similar issues.

Debunking Lindeman’s claims starts with her and her husband’s voter registration information, which are public records. Their Kentucky registration forms show that both checked the box for Democrat when they registered to vote in Fayette County in 2008.

Her husband, who Lindeman claims is not a citizen, also signed the form in 2008, which requires signers to attest they are a U.S. citizen. Lying on the form carries a penalty of fines or jail time of up to 12 months.

The couple, records show, have never removed themselves from the rolls or changed their registration status until Nov. 8 of this year, which is when she began tweeting.

Neither Lindeman nor her husband appears to have voted in the last five years. Records also show that Lindeman was a registered Democrat in Florida, where her registration status is currently inactive.

Lindeman did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Her husband also did not respond to an emailed request.

Of her husband, Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins said: “If he’s really a noncitizen, he should be concerned. It’s a crime to register if you are a noncitizen; it says so right there above his signature.”

The claims by Lindeman were only one aspect of efforts to raise questions about the integrity of the vote in Kentucky this month.

Online, someone who routinely retweeted posts from the Democratic Socialists of America claimed to have shredded hundreds of ballots filed by mail by Republicans. State officials say there is no evidence that this took place.

Twitter terminated the person’s account, but screenshots of the tweet went viral and became a talking point for conservative commentators.

In an emailed exchange with Jared Dearing, the executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections, and Cohen, Twitter declined to take down the screenshots. The company claimed they did not violate Twitter’s rules against misleading information.

Dearing said that Kentucky is ready to combat misinformation and disinformation. “We remain hopeful social media platforms will also take a responsible stance in taking these posts down as they are identified, and do so in a timely and meaningful manner,” he said.

Gideon Blocq, the co-founder and CEO of VineSight, a company that monitors the spread of misinformation online, said he watched as the tweet spread through thousands of bots.

“This says something about what’s to come in the near future,” he said, saying that while Bevin did not specifically repeat the information in this tweet in any of his announcements or press conferences, the “similarity of the two storylines made this a more effective campaign.”

In the days after the election, Citizens for Election Integrity, a right-wing organization, held a news conference alleging mischief on the part of Democrats. Bevin publicly encouraged people and news organizations to attend.

At the news conference, Erika Calihan and Kristen Stuebs — both Bevin supporters — alleged, among other things, that a Louisville-area man had someone forge his signature and vote in his name at his precinct.

The man was away at college at the time of the election, and his mother saw the signature and had filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office. The pair played a video of the man complaining about the situation.

“We’re just two moms,” the pair told the local media, saying they had no expertise and were only concerned citizens offering “breadcrumbs” for reporters to follow up on.

The local media did follow up, but the crumbs led nowhere. The alleged forger was actually a legally registered voter with an identical name registered in the same district.

A person who works closely with the Republican Party said Bevin had been “on his own” when he alleged unspecified misconduct in the vote. The party, however, did nothing publicly to dispel the claims. A party spokesperson did not return calls for comment.

University of Kentucky election law professor Joshua Douglas wasn’t satisfied with that response, saying he’d called for the Republican Party to disavow Bevin’s statements.

“The way in which we handle these sorts of allegations from a losing candidate in 2019 will tell us if our democratic norms can sustain the same thing in 2020,” he said. “Not enough people were speaking out about this rhetoric.”

Update: After publication of this story, Terpsichore Lindeman tweeted a denial that she and her husband had registered as Democrats in Kentucky, accusing the clerks of checking the boxes on the registration forms. “WE NEVER TICKED ANY BOXES EVER,” she tweeted.

Don Blevins, the clerk in Fayette County, where the pair registered in 2008, said that clerks would not have ticked boxes related to party registration, as they are not required to complete the form.

In a direct message on Twitter, Lindeman also said her husband had filled out the form in order to update his driver’s license address. In Fayette County, Blevins said, these are two separate forms. The form filled out by her husband states “FOR U.S. CITIZENS ONLY” along the top.

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Politics

White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins

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White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins

WASHINGTON, DC (TMZ) — The White House Gift Shop is hawking some odd memorabilia … a coronavirus commemorative coin no one asked for.

The COVID-19 coin features the names of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence … and it depicts an empty presidential podium on one side, and a graphic of the novel coronavirus above the world on the other side.

The coin also shouts out the rest of the COVID-19 task force … with smaller printed names for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome AdamsDr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The collector’s item is emblazoned with tons of slogans … including “Together We FOUGHT The UNSEEN Enemy,” “Everday HEROES Suited Up,” and “Everyday CITIZENS Did Their Part.”

The White House Gift Shop is already taking pre-orders for the coin … and the price is slashed from $125 down to $100. The store, which is privately run and only loosely related to the actual White House, claims proceeds will be donated to hospitals.

The COVID-19 coin is the 11th in the gift shop’s “Historic Moments” collection, which also commemorates Trump’s meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So, at least the coronavirus coin is in … good company.

Trump's Coin Collection

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Politics

Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are ‘Very Good People’

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Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are 'Very Good People'

MICHIGAN (TMZ) — President Trump has found another group of “very good people” … the gun-toting right-wing extremists who stormed the Michigan statehouse to protest coronavirus restrictions.

Trump is strongly supporting the heavily-armed protesters … he says they are very good, very angry people who deserve a seat at the table with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Mind you, Michigan does not meet the very same federal guidelines for reopening that the President and his coronavirus task force announced last month.

Trump tweeted out his support of the rifle-clad protesters and tried to shift the onus on Whitmer, saying … “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.”

POTUS added … “They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”

The protesters are up in arms over the fact Gov. Whitmer extended the state’s emergency stay-at-home order until the end of May.

Of course, Trump started the battle cry for the “liberation” of several states — including Michigan — just hours after he laid out the federal guidelines. He, at least, said reopening should be done slowly and smartly … based on data.

That’s apparently out the window.

It has to be said … Trump’s comments about the Michigan protesters are reminiscent of the Charlottesville rioters, who he called very fine people.

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Health

Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO. Then He Turned Against It.

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Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO to Fight Coronavirus. Then He Turned Against It.

As President Donald Trump publicly bashed the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic last week, American aid officials tried to delicately sidestep the political tensions, internal documents shared with ProPublica show.

And Trump’s campaign upended weeks of partnership between his own administration and the WHO, which provides advice and support for health officials in developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development had chosen to funnel much of its pandemic response through the WHO.

Even as they dealt with the fallout of Trump’s decision to cut off WHO funding, his administration leaned on it for expert advice.

“Given the political dynamics, I do not recommend reference to WHO here or below,” wrote one U.S. Agency for International Development career official in a comment on a draft report about how emergency funding would be spent. “Recommend deleting.”

The April 10 comment on the document prompted a rebuttal a few days later from another career official, one of many who argued that the WHO’s role in the health crisis should not be caught up in a political spat.

“It’s actually important to reference WHO standards during this type of emergency pandemic response – even with current political dynamics,” wrote the official, who argued for leaving in the mention of the WHO. It’s unclear which wording made it into the final version of the document.

A redacted image of comments left on a USAID draft document suggesting omitting a reference to the WHO.

The exchange was just one example of the angst that spread throughout USAID as it became clear that Trump would follow through with his April 10 threat to cut off WHO funding, and it was indicative of efforts by officials to downplay the role of an important public health partner. Just a few days later, on Tuesday, Trump paused all U.S. funding for the WHO, upending crucial plans for containing the virus in developing countries and bolstering China’s narrative that it is stepping into the traditional U.S. role of global leader.

Interviews with current and former U.S. officials and the internal documents and communications show that despite Trump’s recent disparagement of the WHO, his administration was for weeks relying heavily on its expertise and global reach to fight the pandemic. And in a public relations battle between China and the U.S. over global leadership, American diplomats and aid officials have cited robust U.S. funding of the WHO as a key supporting argument.

The WHO’s expertise is a critical resource for developing countries that lack their own strong public health sectors, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official during the Obama administration. Cutting the WHO out of funding means the U.S. is eliminating its own ability to control the pandemic in those countries, he said.

“If you want to try and fight a public health crisis in a developing country without the WHO, you are lost from the outset,” Konyndyk said.

Particularly in conflict zones where the U.S. has limited or no reach, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, working with the WHO is crucial, one U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity.

Just one day after Trump’s announcement, on Wednesday, WHO staff held a presentation for USAID’s Global Health Bureau on health care in conflict settings, according to a description of the meeting seen by ProPublica.

USAID, the State Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. The WHO referred ProPublica to comments on Wednesday by its director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying that his organization hopes the U.S. will continue to be a “generous friend” and that his agency “works to improve the health of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

The State Department and USAID turned to the WHO soon after the agencies received nearly $1.3 billion in new funding from Congress to address the pandemic in March. That funding had few strings attached, meaning officials could disburse it largely as they saw fit and did not have to channel it through the WHO or any other specific entity.

In a March memo outlining the administration’s global pandemic response, obtained by ProPublica, officials wrote that the U.S. would work “in close coordination with” the WHO. Several strategy elements mentioned the WHO.

In a March 31 public statement, the State Department highlighted U.S. assistance to the WHO, boasting that the agency’s “broad-based effort would not be possible without U.S. support.” The statement made repeated swipes at China, comparing U.S. funding of multilateral organizations to China’s much lower contributions.

That view was also reflected in an internal document dated April 13 and titled “Countering People’s Republic of China (PRC) Propaganda on Health and Humanitarian Aid.” It cited “critical support” from the U.S. to “the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program and dozens of other organizations.”

Internal State Department guidance sent in early April, with diplomatic talking points about U.S. assistance, encouraged “Ministries of Health to reach out to the local WHO representative and other local partners to inquire about laboratory test kits, reagents, and supplies, laboratory supplies, and test kit availability in your region.”

The guidance also served as an endorsement of the WHO’s unique capabilities. “WHO uses existing agreements and its vast network of procurement mechanisms to purchase tests on behalf of countries that cannot afford them,” it said.

The U.S. quickly funneled nearly $700,000 each to Morocco and Iraq via the WHO last month. In response to a White House query this week, USAID officials compiled information on several grants they had made to the WHO that were supporting coronavirus relief and detection efforts in South Africa, India, Angola and elsewhere, according to a spreadsheet seen by ProPublica.

U.S. officials working on the response said they now worry about how they can help countries if they can’t channel the assistance via the WHO.

“For several countries, the WHO is the only way we can help them,” one official said. “We know nothing about anyone else who’s operating there.”

The significant U.S. reliance on the WHO in the Middle East prompted officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to write a memo to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning of the consequences of a funding halt. The memo, a draft version of which was seen by ProPublica, warned of undermining the global response to the pandemic, threatening American lives, and ceding ground to China.

Indeed, Trump officials have been preoccupied with the idea that China is winning the global PR battle. On Thursday morning, White House, State Department, USAID and Pentagon officials held a conference call to discuss the issue, focusing on the Middle East. Several diplomats in the region said that talking points against China gain little traction in their countries, according to someone with knowledge of the call.

Privately, USAID officials acknowledge that China is well ahead of the U.S. in pushing the narrative that it is the leading humanitarian actor responding to the pandemic, according to meeting notes and emails seen by ProPublica.

One U.S. embassy in North Africa reported to officials in Washington this week that the Chinese had until recently avoided bashing the U.S. in favor of boosting their own donations of medical equipment. There was one exception, they noted: The Chinese took the opportunity to highlight the U.S. decision to halt funding to the WHO.

Do you have access to information about the U.S. government response to the coronavirus that should be public? Email yeganeh.torbati@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. Follow on Twitter at @ProPublica 

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