Trump prepared to sit out Mississippi special election (for now)

Top aides to President Donald Trump told Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant in a phone call this week that the president would be sitting out the state’s special election, an administration official told CNN Wednesday.

The official initially said the conversation was between Trump and Bryant, but later clarified that it was actually top Trump aides who conveyed the message to the Mississippi Republican.

That means Trump does not plan to endorse or campaign for either Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith or Chris McDaniel in what is shaping up to be a hotly contested race. The official said that could change and that the White House would continue to monitor the contest.

Bryant on Wednesday tapped Hyde-Smith, the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, who is retiring. McDaniel is a Mississippi State senator and conservative activist who is challenging Hyde-Smith for the reliably Republican seat.

There won’t be a party primary for the special election in Mississippi, and the election will be non-partisan, with no party identification for the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff will be held.

The White House message to Bryant was that the president was not prepared to endorse anyone in the primary at this time, but noted that the decision was subject to change.

Aides spoke to Trump about the Mississippi race on Tuesday, the official said, and the president “expressed his desire to not weigh into the race at this time.”

The official added that Trump doesn’t have an issue with Hyde-Smith, but aides told the governor that the president didn’t want to get involved in what will likely be a race between the two Republicans.

Trump’s decision to wade into the special election in Alabama last year looms over this decision. Trump endorsed Luther Strange in 2017, only to have the establishment-backed lawmaker lose in the primary to Republican Roy Moore. Then Trump endorsed Moore, who eventually lost to Democrat Doug Jones after women came forward to allege that Moore sexually abused them as teenagers.

Republicans, including Trump, urged Bryant to appoint himself to the seat vacated by Cochran’s retirement, but the governor said no and opted to nominated Hyde-Smith, who was a Democrat as recently as 2010 when she served in the state Senate.

McDaniel, signaling how he will attack Hyde-Smith in the primary, went after her history as a Democrat on Wednesday.

“Before Commissioner Hyde-Smith was elected to lead the Department of Agriculture, her only legislative experience was that of a Democrat. She ran as a Democrat. She served as a Democrat. She voted like a Democrat,” McDaniel said. “Although her reputation in Jackson was that of a moderate Democrat, the last thing the state of Mississippi needs in Washington is another moderate Democrat.”

Hyde-Smith, preparing for a fight against McDaniel, highlighted her conservatism on Wednesday.

“I’ve been conservative all of my life and that’s demonstrated by my conservative voting record as a three-term state senator and my conservative accomplishments as Agriculture Commissioner,” she said.

Her campaign later sent out a list of two dozen endorsements Hyde-Smith has received from an array of Republican lawmakers, including one from Bryant referring to her as a “rock-solid conservative.”

White House officials declined to officially comment about Trump’s view of the Mississippi race.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that a source clarified to CNN that it was top aides to Trump who spoke to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, not Trump himself, as the source originally indicated.

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Republican Rick Saccone concedes 8 days after Pennsylvania special election

Democrat Conor Lamb announced Wednesday that his Republican opponent, Rick Saccone, has conceded in the close special election last week for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. “Just got off the phone with my opponent, @RickSaccone4PA, who cong…

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What you need to know about Facebook’s data debacle

What happens to the data you post on Facebook? And who’s responsible for how those personal details are used?

Facebook is under intense pressure to answer these questions — and more — after it admitted that a company linked to President Donald Trump’s campaign had accessed and improperly stored a huge trove of its user data.

The controversy erupted as UK media and The New York Times reported that data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica tried to influence how Americans voted using information gleaned from millions of Facebook profiles.

Here’s what you need to know.

What happened?

Facebook said it gave permission to University of Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan to harvest information from users who downloaded his app — “thisisyourdigitallife.”

The app offered a personality test. But Facebook users who downloaded the app also gave the professor permission to collect data on their location, their friends and content they had “liked.”

That was allowed under Facebook’s rules at the time.

The New York Times, however, reported that Kogan provided that data — which included information from over 50 million profiles — to Cambridge Analytica, breaching Facebook’s rules.

Cambridge Analytica was working to develop techniques that could be used to influence voters.

Facebook said it asked Cambridge Analytica to delete the data in 2015, but learned several days ago from “reports” that not all of it had been purged.

Cambridge Analytica said that the data set revealed by The New York Times was not used “as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.”

The reports in The Times and other media were based in part on interviews with former Cambridge Analytica contractor and self-styled whistle-blower Christopher Wylie.

Why does this matter?

Facebook has been unable to shake off questions over its role in the 2016 presidential election.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially expressed skepticism that Facebook could have been used to influence voters, but a series of revelations over Russian meddling have caused the company to make big changes in recent months.

It has sought to crack down on fake news, undermine the business model used by trolls and make political advertising more transparent.

Zuckerberg now has a whole new set of questions to address: Was Facebook transparent enough with users about how their information would be used? Should it have done more to keep tabs on how third parties were using data?

There could be major implications for the company’s business model, which is based on selling user data to app developers and advertisers.

Lawmakers and regulators have already seized on the controversy.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said Saturday that her office is opening an investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office is also investigating, as is the European Union parliament.

“This is a big deal. … The privacy violations there are significant,” Republican Senator Jeff Flake told CNN. “The question is, who knew it? When did they know it? How long did this go on?”

What happens next?

Lawmakers have called on Zuckerberg to explain his company’s actions.

Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Saturday that “Zuckerberg needs to testify.”

“This is a major breach that must be investigated,” she said on Twitter. “It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves.”

The revelations are likely to fuel calls for more regulation of tech companies. The industry is already scrambling to prepare for tough new data privacy rules in Europe, and similar measures could be considered elsewhere.

Facebook has promised to conduct a “comprehensive internal and external review.” For now, it can’t say for sure what happened to your data.

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Facebook is again having to account for its role in 2016 election

Facebook’s first black eye was from “fake news.”

The social network’s secretive algorithm enabled hoaxes and lies to reach millions of people during the US presidential campaign in 2016.

Analysts were taken aback by the scope of the problem. Facebook vowed to make changes.

Then investigators found a pipeline of Russian propaganda. A so-called troll farm hijacked Facebook’s platform to sow chaos and, eventually, to try to tip the scale in Donald Trump’s direction.

Lawmakers were outraged. Facebook vowed to make changes.

Now the company is facing another embarrassing discovery. A joint investigation by The New York Times and the UK’s Observer newspaper found possible violations of Facebook policies by Cambridge Analytica, one of the Trump campaign’s data firms.

The violations relate to Facebook user data that was harvested by a professor’s research project and handed over to Cambridge.

On Friday night, after “downplaying” the papers’ findings, according to The Times, Facebook announced that Cambridge Analytica has been suspended from the site.

Facebook said it asked that Cambridge Analytica destroy the data in 2015.

Once again, Facebook is vowing to do better.

But the latest round of stories may embolden politicians and other critics who want to see the company subjected to stricter regulation.

To date most of those calls have come from Democrats, not from the Republicans who wield the most power in Washington.

Robby Mook, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, tweeted on Saturday, “Facebook should own up to how they created a serious strategic imbalance — and, for the sake of both parties and all candidates, make sure this won’t happen again.”

It’s unclear how much political energy is really centered on these issues, however.

James Fallows of The Atlantic wrote on Saturday, “In a normal political environment” Cambridge Analytica and Facebook “would be called in for public questioning.” He added: “Of course, in normal environment, this wouldn’t have occurred.”

For its part, Cambridge Analytica said in a statement that the data set revealed by The Times was not used “as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.”

But some experts have doubts about that. The new investigation reiterates how much happens in Facebook’s dark corners.

The bottom line: It’s 2018, and we’re still talking about how the sprawling social network was used and abused during the 2016 election.

Facebook and its rivals are pledging to be responsible players in the 2018 midterms and future elections both in the United States and around the world.

Facebook, for instance, says it applied lessons from the US election to combat misinformation during campaigns in Europe in 2017.

The company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, addressed the issue Saturday in a series of tweets.

“There are a lot of big problems that the big tech companies need to be better at fixing. We have collectively been too optimistic about what we build and our impact on the world. Believe it or not, a lot of the people at these companies, from the interns to the CEOs, agree,” he said.

But the challenges are incredibly complex. New kinds of misinformation emerge all the time, and new ways to manipulate the algorithm are a constant threat. It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole with worldwide consequences.

Facebook executives are trying to be more proactive — perhaps in an effort to fend off regulation. The company’s representatives have been speaking at conferences and pledging to clean up some of the pollution on the site.

Some of the changes are visible: Facebook is working with third-party fact-checkers to rebut hoaxes and trying to stamp out bad actors like Russian propagandists.

But Alex Hardiman, Facebook’s head of news products, acknowledged at a SXSW event last week that “we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

And that was before the data revelations that involve an entirely different side of the social network.

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Pennsylvania GOP asks for investigation into special election

Pennsylvania’s Republican Party is asking for an investigation into Tuesday’s special election.

The party has asked the Pennsylvania secretary of state to look into “a number of irregularities” it says occurred during voting in the House race between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb.

Lamb has claimed victory in the race over Saccone, and holds a narrow lead of fewer than 700 votes. CNN has not projected a winner in the race.

In a letter, Pennsylvania GOP general counsel Joel Frank said there had been complaints of voting machines not being calibrated, voters not appearing on voter rolls, questions over website information on polling places, and notice of overseas and military voting.

A letter addressed to the US Department of Justice from Frank also requests the appointment of federal observers “to monitor” the May 15 primary “for practices that may infringe on the ability of all duly qualified Pennsylvania voters to cast their votes in accordance with the voting protections afforded under federal laws.”

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Republican Jeff Flake: ‘My party might not deserve to lead’

As Republicans face a potential Democratic wave in this year’s midterm elections, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake argued Thursday that his party “might not deserve to lead” given its support for President Donald Trump.

“If we are going to cloister ourselves in the alternative truth of an erratic leader, if we are going to refuse to live in a world that everyone else lives in … then my party might not deserve to lead,” the Arizona senator said in a speech at the National Press Club.

Flake argued that “as we are discovering … there is no damage like the damage that a president can do.” He repeated a call he’s been making for months to restore civility to politics during the Trump era, using lofty rhetoric to describe what he hopes will one day be a reckoning for American politics.

“If one voice can do such profound damage to our values and to our civic life,” he said, “then one voice can also repair the damage, one voice can call us to a higher idea of America, one voice can act as a beacon to help us find ourselves once again after this terrible fever breaks — and it will break.”

Flake, who was facing a tough re-election bid and decided not to run for a second term in the Senate, has become a fiercely outspoken critic of the President. He’s delivered major speeches on the Senate floor targeting Trump and wrote a book blasting his own party for enabling Trump’s success.

“Never has a party abandoned, fled its principles and deeply held beliefs so quickly as my party did in the face of the nativist juggernaut,” he said Thursday. “We have become strangers to ourselves.”

His biggest complaints against Trump involve the President’s attacks on the media, his track record of telling falsehoods and what Flake describes as dysfunctional leadership from the White House.

His stunning rebuke of a president from his own party has many speculating that Flake may launch a GOP primary challenge against Trump in 2020 — an idea further fueled by the fact that Flake will stop in New Hampshire on Friday. Flake has repeatedly said he’s not ruling out the idea of a presidential run, though it’s not in his current plans.

“Those who vote in Republican primaries are overwhelmingly supportive of the President,” he said Thursday. “I think that could turn and will turn and must turn. But that is the case right now. It would be a tough challenge for anyone to take, and I just hope someone does it.”

Trump has previously returned the fire. He told a small group of Republicans he was prepared to spend $10 million on defeating Flake in the primary, and he publicly offered support on Twitter for one of Flake’s GOP challengers last year when it appeared Flake would run for re-election. He’s also referred to the senator and former US congressman as “Flake(y)” and “unelectable” on Twitter.

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