U.S. President Donald Trump holds a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials and local community leaders at the White House in Washington, February 6, 2018. MANDEL NGAN/AFP

OpinionAre Trump and Russia Already Hard at Work Swaying the U.S. 2018 Midterm Vote?

Machinery for throwing the election may be in full swing. And Trump seems to be getting help from one of his most reliable supporters - the Russian bot

The most shocking thing Donald Trump has said all year, slid right past, all but unnoticed.

The extraordinary comment, which came in the course of an interview with Reuters three weeks ago, suggests just how much of his time and attention Trump expects to budget in order to influence America's November 6 midterm elections.

“I am going to spend probably four or five days a week helping people because we need more Republicans,” Trump said. "To get the real agenda through, we need more Republicans.”

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Trump added that once Republican Congressional and Senate candidates were selected, "I will be very much involved with - beyond the primaries - with the election itself, very very much.”

He already is.

In fact, the machinery for rigging an election in favor of the Republicans may also already be in full swing. And, wouldn't you know it, the president seems to be getting help from one of his most reliable supporters - the Russian bot.

The same day that the interview appeared, a twitter-based messaging campaign under the hashtag "ReleaseTheMemo" set into motion a powerful drumbeat in support of Trump's efforts to undermine and delegitimize the Mueller Russia probe and the FBI.

An investigation by Politico found that the campaign in support of releasing what was at the time the classified and secret memo by the House Intelligence Committee's Republican Chairman Devin Nunes, was being promoted by accounts previously linked to Russian disinformation efforts.

"In the space of a few hours on January 18, #releasethememo exploded on Twitter, evolving over the next few days from being a marker for discussion on Nunes’ memo through multiple iterations of an expanding conspiracy theory about missing FBI text messages and imaginary secret societies plotting internal coups against the president," Politico reported this week.

"#releasethememo provided an organizational framework for this comprehensive conspiracy theory, which, in its underpinnings, is meant to minimize and muddle concerns about Russian interference in American politics." 

Then, last week, after the House Intelligence Committee voted along strict partisan lines to send Nunes' memo to the president for declassification and publication, Trump senior aide Kellyanne Conway was asked if Russian trolls were behind the promotion of #release the memo.

"She was offended," Politico wrote. "Russian trolls, she told a television interviewer, 'have nothing to do with releasing the memo—that was a vote of the intelligence committee.'"

But the online bot trolling technique, part of a much wider new sphere of operations called "computational propaganda," may have played a crucial part in launching the obsession/distraction that is the Nunes memo, which Trump has said - without justification - "totally vindicates" him of allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and which his son Donald, Jr., has called "sweet revenge" for him and the Trump family.

"The #releasethememo campaign came out of nowhere," wrote Politico's Molly K. McKew. "Its movement from social media to fringe/far-right media to mainstream media so swift that both the speed and the story itself became impossible to ignore. The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo, which critics say is a purposeful misrepresentation of classified intelligence meant to discredit the Russia probe and protect the president."

While Russian meddling may still be a factor, the fact that Donald Trump as president so thoroughly dominates the news cycle, has in itself skewed American politics such that Trump can effectively bend the national conversation to his will.

The impact and overwhelming pro-Trump bias of Fox News and a powerful network of radio and social media personalities have kept the right-wing base inflamed and motivated.

At this point, Trump may no longer need the help of a covert Russian operation to throw the election. He has a number of other techniques at his command. They include:

VOTER SUPPRESSION - In a number of states, many of them controlled by the Republican Party, laws ostensibly enacted to combat voter fraud have acted to depress voting by minorities, lower-income people, and other groups. In most of these states, no voter fraud was ever demonstrated. The techniques include purging of voter rolls, requirements to prove citizenship, disinformation about voting, and limitations on early voting, which has the effect of making voting more difficult for African-Americans.

LOUD EXPRESSIONS OF APPARENT DISPLEASURE BY PUTIN - The Russian leader may well seek to shore up Trump by appearing to voicing ire at Trump's policies, as he did last summer, protesting U.S. sanctions - over meddling in the '16 elections - by ordering the United States to cut its diplomatic mission to Russia by 755 staffers. The Trump administration retaliated by ordering Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco, and diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington.

But Trump is still vulnerable in this area, as he has resisted implementing Congressional legislation, passed by a bipartisan landslide majority, to institute further sanctions against Russia.

GERRYMANDERING - The GOP has fought hard to preserve the clear pro-Republican bias by which many Congressional districts were drawn, especially in Pennsylvania, where a state with a Democratic majority has 13 Republicans in Congress, versus only five Democrats.

But the Pennsylvania case is proving especially daunting for Trump, as the state Supreme Court has ruled that the districts must be redrawn. On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito rejected Pennsylvania Republicans’ last-ditch bid to keep the gerrymander intact.

A significant shift in the state's Democratic Congressional strength could prove crucial to the party's efforts to retake the House in 2018. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win a House majority, and a net total of two seats to take over the Senate.

In the end, though, Trump may have already rigged the 2018 election - against himself. His relentless crowing over the success of the stock market may well sour very quickly, not only in a faltering or stagnant Dow Jones, but also in the specter of inflation which could be engendered by the administration's tax cuts.

His hopes of bashing Democrats into submission and depressive inaction may have also backfired, with a host of strongly motivated and charismatic new Democratic candidates vying this year. At the same time, a large group of Republicans is retiring rather than face defeat, and, for good measure, the GOP seems unable to do anything about the fact that its candidate for Illinois' 3rd Congressional District is an avowed anti-Semite, Holocaust denier and former leader of the American Nazi Party.

Also likely to goad Democrats into action is Trump's Monday declaration that, because they failed to stand and applaud his State if the Union address, the entire House and Senate Democratic contingent, 243 strong, was "treasonous" and "un-American."

Here is the president's ultimate problem in the midterms: Any election involving Trump will be rigged against him by his insistence on being the president solely for the third of Americans who approve of him.

Moreover, he will be unable to sway this election in many of the ways he did in 2016. In 2016, no one was looking, no one knew what levers were being pulled behind the scenes. In 2018, the press and Democratic officials in all 50 states will be watching for any sign of irregularity. His dirty-tricks people will need to find new ones.

Then again, they may already have.

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