By Cecilia Kang, Nicholas Fandos and Mike Isaac

New York Times News Service

Russia probe snags Democrats, too

The indictment that alleges covert foreign lobbying by two former Trump campaign officials is casting shadows on three powerful Washington lobbying and legal firms, with Democratic as well as Republican ties, broadening the stakes of the Russia investigation and drawing in the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The Podesta Group, founded by Washington power-broker Tony Podesta, was among the three firms cited by pseudonym or other references in the indictment, though none is charged with crimes. Prosecutors are implicating all three in covert work for pro-Russian Ukrainian interests, the heart of the criminal case against former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Manafort and Gates face 12 felony counts, including money laundering, conspiracy and acting as unregistered foreign agents. As described in the indictment, they led the covert lobbying, paying the three firms for performing some of the work.

Podesta stepped down from his namesake group following the indictment. His former partners are scrambling to recreate the firm under a new name and preserve its client base. His brother, John Podesta, ran the Clinton campaign.

Trump seized on the development with the Podesta Group.

“The biggest story yesterday, the one that has the Dems in a dither, is Podesta running from his firm,” the president tweeted.

— The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared on Capitol Hill for the first time Tuesday to publicly acknowledge their role in Russia’s influence on the presidential campaign, but offered little more than promises to do better. Their reluctance frustrated lawmakers who sought stronger evidence that American elections will be protected from foreign powers.

The hearing, the first of three in two days for company executives, served as an initial public reckoning for the internet giants. They had emphasized their role as public squares for political discourse but are being forced to confront how they were used as tools for a broad Russian misinformation campaign.

Both Democrats and some Republicans on a Senate Judiciary subcommittee complained that the companies had waited nearly a year to publicly admit how many Americans were exposed to the Russian effort to spread propaganda during the 2016 campaign. Senators pushed for harsher remedies, including regulations on their advertising practices akin to rules for political advertising on television.

“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsible legislative way to address it?” asked Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

The most pointed exchanges were aimed at Facebook, which admitted Monday before the hearings that more than 126 million users potentially saw inflammatory political ads purchased by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency. Facebook has drawn particular ire from lawmakers for its early brushoff of fake news and foreign interference on its site, which its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, dismissed as a “crazy idea” just after the election.

Since then, the company has scrambled to appease lawmakers by promising to hire more than 1,000 people to manually review political ad purchases and to make the funding of those ads public.

“The foreign interference we saw was reprehensible,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, told senators.

The companies also acknowledged they were struggling to keep up with the threat of foreign interference.

“The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us — and one that we are determined to meet,” Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, said.

At the heart of the companies’ problems are business models that reward viral content — which can include misinformation — and an enormous advertising business that is automated and unable to easily spot ads purchased by foreign governments.

In a sign of the shifting political winds for tech giants, Republicans, who have been more restrained in their criticism of the companies, were more skeptical Tuesday. In one contentious exchange, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., pressed Stretch on whether Facebook could possibly police all of its advertisers.

“I’m trying to get us down from La-La Land here,” Kennedy said. “The truth of the matter is, you have 5 million advertisers that change every month. Every minute. Probably every second. You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?”

Stretch acknowledged that Facebook could not track all of those advertisers.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the crime and terrorism subcommittee that held the hearing, said the risk went beyond Russia to other U.S. adversaries. Talking to reporters afterward, he alluded to potential regulation of political advertising online.

“It’s Russia today; it could be Iran and North Korea tomorrow,” he said. “We need to do is sit down and find ways to bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.”

Facebook, Twitter and Google have not publicly opposed a bipartisan proposal to require reports on who funds political ads online, similar to rules for broadcast television. In private, their lobbyists have praised voluntary efforts to disclose political ad funding and have resisted many aspects of the bill.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the legislation was essential before the midterm elections in 2018.

“Our midterms are 370 days away, and we don’t have time to mess around with dialogue anymore,” Klobuchar said in an interview after the hearing. Klobuchar introduced the bill with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Though the companies made promises to work with government officials, Stretch stopped short of agreeing to some suggestions.

In one heated exchange, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked him to reject political ad purchases in foreign currencies.

“How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them in the personal connections with its user, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?” Franken said.

But Stretch hemmed, saying the rejection of a foreign currency to buy political ads would not solve the problem of foreign interference.

“The reason I’m hesitating on foreign currency is it’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies,” Stretch said. “So it’s a signal, but not enough.”

On Wednesday, the top lawyers for all three companies will appear before the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are conducting their own investigations into the Russian election meddling.

Tuesday’s hearing exposed a much deeper struggle for Facebook, which is trying to tread a delicate line as a technology platform while also fighting against hate speech, violence and misinformation on its site.

“I like that they are contrite, but these issues are existential — they aren’t taking any structural changes,” said Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University. “These are Band-Aids.”