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Character seems to be the Key Issue in Waning Days of US Election Campaign

Polls show many voters question whether Clinton is trustworthy. An even greater number, though, fear that Trump lacks the temperament to be president

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FILE - Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs at a Memorial Day parade in Chappaqua, N.Y., May 30, 2016. VOA

Washington, November 5, 2016: Americans will elect a new president on November 8, and while issues like the economy and foreign policy will be important, polls indicate many voters are likely to make their decision based on how they feel about the personal attributes of the two major candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Character issues have dominated the 2016 campaign from the beginning, and there seems to be no let-up in the final days as Clinton and Trump remain focused primarily on each other’s perceived flaws.

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The renewed FBI probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state has pushed the issue of her trustworthiness once again front and center. And Trump wasted little time in highlighting the development in his campaign rallies, including one in Phoenix, Arizona.

“This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate, and it’s everybody’s deepest hope that justice, at last, will be beautifully delivered,” said Trump.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign event in Miami, Florida, Nov. 2, 2016. VOA
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign event in Miami, Florida, Nov. 2, 2016. VOA

FBI probe

While Clinton now finds herself on the defensive over the email controversy, she also has shown a willingness to continue to lash out at what she believes are Trump’s character flaws in the final days of the campaign, including a recent get-out-the vote event in Miami.

“Donald Trump is out there stoking fear, disgracing our democracy and insulting one group of Americans after another,” said Clinton.

Presidential campaigns often center on issues like the economy, foreign policy and immigration. But this year is clearly different, said George Washington University political scientist Matt Dallek.

“This race has primarily become about character and about personality,” said Dallek. “I think this issue of character is going to remain front and center. I don’t think it is going away and I think to an unusual degree, issues and policies are not really as central as they typically are.”

Polls show many voters question whether Clinton is trustworthy. An even greater number, though, fear that Trump lacks the temperament to be president.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greets voters outside of an early voting site in Lauderhill, Florida, November 2, 2016. VOA
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greets voters outside of an early voting site in Lauderhill, Florida, November 2, 2016. VOA

Trust vs. temperament

Clinton’s challenge was clear in a recent CBS News poll that found only 36 percent of those surveyed said they found Clinton “honest and trustworthy,” compared to 60 percent who did not.

Trump has an uphill battle, however, on the issue of temperament. In that same CBS poll, 65 percent of those surveyed said Trump did not have “the right kind of temperament and personality” to be president, compared with 59 percent who thought Clinton did.

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The perceived flaws of the two candidates have dominated the campaign to an unusual extent, said West Virginia University political scientist Patrick Hickey.

“I think that is a very odd American presidential election in that both candidates are viewed unfavorably by the majority of the American people,” Hickey told VOA on the WVA campus in Morgantown recently. “Usually that might happen to one candidate, but not both.”

This combination of pictures created on October 09, 2016 shows Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. VOA
This combination of pictures created on October 09, 2016 shows Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. VOA

Debate confrontations

The questions about character have been center-stage in the campaign and came into sharp relief during the three presidential debates. Trump went after Clinton over the email issue in the second presidential debate and took the unprecedented step of promising an investigation if elected.

“If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception,” said Trump.

Clinton also seized opportunities to question Trump’s character. In the third debate, it was Clinton who went on the offensive over a series of controversial Trump comments about women.

“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” said Clinton.

For much of the campaign, when one candidate or the other has been focus, that person has generally suffered in the polls. And that’s why the cycle of repeated attacks on each other continues, said American University analyst Austin Hart.

“I think they are happy right now focusing on the candidates themselves, and less about the issues. But that could change, and if it does then something like the economy, like immigration, could matter more,” said Hart.

APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Clinton. VOA
APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Clinton. VOA

Tighter race

That seems less likely now in the wake of the FBI announcement that brought Clinton’s email troubles back into focus. There has been some tightening in the polls since the FBI announcement as Clinton’s advantage over Trump has slipped bit.

Some analysts believe Trump’s long list of controversial comments and perceived insults, however, have made it tougher for him to make up much ground.

“He’s viewed as less knowledgeable, obviously less experienced, less empathy, doesn’t have the right temperament to be president,” said Charles Prysby, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “So he is being hurt a lot on character traits, more than anything else.”

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With all the attacks and focus on the character of the candidates this year, West Virginia’s Patrick Hickey said the election outcome likely will depend on which supporters are more motivated to vote.

“And this is a kind of anti-election, as opposed to a pro-election, which I think means that on Election Day, turnout is really going to be what matters, which side can turn out voters to actually get to the polls,” said Hickey.

Given all the focus on character and the multitude of negative attacks, voters seem as eager for the end of the campaign as they are to know the outcome on November 8. One of the longest and most divisive U.S. election campaigns will come to a close next Tuesday, and for many voters, the end can’t come soon enough. (VOA)

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Mueller Report Confirms Intelligence Findings About Russia’s Interference in 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections

"President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial," Trump said at a joint news conference."President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be."

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Mueller's Report
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin are seen during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina Nov. 30, 2018. VOA

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference is providing current and former U.S. intelligence officials with a sense of vindication, affirming many of the conclusions they drew following the 2016 election.

At the same time, however, some suggest the report released on Thursday by the Justice Department should serve as a warning that Moscow’s efforts to degrade and undermine American democracy, already extraordinarily successful, continue unabated.

Specifically, these former intelligence and national security officials warn the evidence in the special counsel report shows Russia was able to find and exploit U.S. citizens who were willing to go along with Moscow’s means, described as “sweeping and systematic,” to achieve their desired results.

“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the Mueller report said, adding that President Donald Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

The January 2017 unclassified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, issued in the aftermath of the presidential election, concluded Russia aimed to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”

“We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the intelligence agencies wrote at the time, adding, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”

The assessment, though, has been attacked repeatedly by Trump.

FILE - In this May 8, 2017, file photo, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.
In this May 8, 2017, file photo, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. VOA

In November 2017, Trump slammed former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Former CIA Director John Brennan as “political hacks,” while deferring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”

Trump again deferred to Putin following their July 2018 summit in Helsinki.

“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial,” Trump said at a joint news conference.”President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Already, the U.S. has taken action, indicting members of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based “troll farm” with ties to the Kremlin, as well as charges against 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking into Democratic Party computers.

Some former officials worry nonetheless that without a more forceful U.S. response, Russia or other adversaries will seek to get away with such behavior again.

“Those in America who cheered foreign intelligence attacks on our democratic processes, particularly for their own gain, should pay a price,” Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, told VOA.

But if they do, it will not be in a U.S. court of law. The Mueller report concluded despite numerous contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, and evidence that campaign members “deleted relevant communications,” the evidence, “was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government.”

As frustrating as that may be for some former officials, experts like Frederic Lemieux, a professor of applied intelligence at Georgetown University, warn it was to be expected.

“The report is a traditional criminal investigation,” Lemieux said. “We’re certainly not seeing the counterintelligence investigation.”

“I am mostly certain that there are several intercepts that exist that have been made on Russian targets and those Russian targets were talking about Trump and his associates,” he said. “You don’t see anything what they were reporting back to Russia when we know those individuals are important enough to be under surveillance 24-7.”

Hints of that type of information, which could reveal sources or methods, or harm ongoing intelligence operations, may be contained in parts of the report that have been redacted. But Lemieux said it is just as likely they were not included at all, as many counterintelligence investigations rarely produce the type of “damning evidence” needed for a criminal conviction.

“It’s probably there [in the counterintelligence investigation] that maybe not collusion but maybe a sense of being compromised might emerge,” he said.

Other factors, as well, have complicated U.S. efforts to hold individuals accountable for working with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Among them, according to intelligence officials, has been the quality of the Kremlin’s spycraft, which left many Americans in the dark.

“Some IRA employees, posing as US persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated electronically with individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the Mueller report said. “The investigation did not identify evidence that any US persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”

U.S. media outlets and numerous “high-profile” individuals were also taken in by the IRA.

t other times, Russia seemed to proactively play-off of the Trump campaign, such as in July 2017 when then-candidate Trump said he sarcastically challenged Russia to find tens of thousands of missing emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes remarks at a Pennsylvania Democrats Pittsburgh Organizing Event at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Nov. 4, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes remarks at a Pennsylvania Democrats Pittsburgh Organizing Event at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Nov. 4, 2016. VOA

“Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” the Mueller report said.

Despite such findings, some former officials say the Mueller report shows the U.S. intelligence community is not blameless.

“One of the lessons should be, we were pretty sloppy with our counterintelligence and our ability to counter stuff that was going on over the internet,” said Steve Bucci, an assistant to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group in Washington.

“We need to be more sophisticated about that aspect of it, at least more cognizant of it, and at least gin up our counterintelligence efforts a little bit around people that are involved in campaigns to make sure they don’t get caught up in this sort of thing and, regardless of their intent, that they don’t get tricked into doing stuff that’s counter to the general interests of the United States of America as far as us having fair and free elections,” he said.

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That opportunity likely will be coming.

Intelligence and Homeland Security officials have warned that Russia tried to meddle again in the recent 2018 midterm elections, with at least one Russian national connected to the IRA charged as a result.

And some analysts suggest Moscow is saving its best and newest tricks for the next U.S. presidential election in 2020.

Large swaths of redacted information in the Mueller report’s accounts of Russia’s IRAand “Project Lakhta,” would seem to back that up. (VOA)