Microsoft executive says three 2018 campaigns have been targeted by phishing attacks

ASPEN, Colo. — The campaigns of three candidates in the midterm elections were targeted in a phishing attack similar to the ones targeting the Clinton campaign in 2016, a top Microsoft executive said Thursday.

Microsoft could not identify the campaigns targeted and said no individuals were infected by the attack. The tactics were similar to those outlined in the indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller against Russian GRU operatives.

“They were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint as well as an election disruption standpoint,” Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust, said during a panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum focused on election security issues.

The attempted hackers registered fake Microsoft web domains to serve as a landing page for phishing attacks. Similar tactics were used in 2016 during the Republican and Democratic conventions, though the company did not identify them as being orchestrated by the Russian government, Burt said.

Microsoft has made it a priority to identify such phishing attempts and used a novel legal strategy to prevent them from being successful, quickly seeking court orders to transfer the fake domains to what Burt called a “Microsoft-controlled sinkhole.” He said Microsoft has been working with other large technology firms to share intelligence about such threats.

In the same panel, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Jeanette Manfra, whose portfolio includes election security issues, said that while there has been a “concerning increase” in attempts by foreign states to infiltrate critical U.S. infrastructure, there were no indications that it included elections infrastructure.  

“While we see Russians continuing to attempt to influence and undermine our democracy, we’re not seeing the targeting of the actual state and local elections systems that we saw in 2016 right now,” Manfra said.

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Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Moving past the Mueller report?

WASHINGTON — Now that the Mueller report is in the hands of Attorney General William Barr, and now that Barr himself said there's "not sufficient" evidence to prosecute President Trump for obstruction, Democratic presidential candidates are all singing in unison: We want to see the full report.

California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris addressed the report during a speech in Atlanta, arguing "the American public deserves a public accounting and the Mueller report must be made public for a full accounting of what happened."

And most of the field sang a similar tune — including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and more.

With so many questions yet to be answered, it's unclear how the bombshell will affect 2020.

But Democratic presidential campaigns have been focusing on other issues while out on the campaign trail and they're arguing that they'll have enough other ammunition to use against him in 2020. 

Read on for more stories you may have missed from the 2020 trail. 

  • New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took aim at Trump in her official announcement speech delivered in front of the president's New York hotel. But unfortunately for her, that speech got buried by the release of Barr's letter just hours later. 
  • Vice President Mike Pence spoke Monday morning at the American Israel Political Action Committee's annual conference in Washington D.C., where he blasted Democratic presidential candidates for not attending the event. "As I stand before you today, eight Democratic candidates for president are actually boycotting this conference," he said. "So let me be clear on this point: Anyone who aspires to the highest office in the land should not be afraid to stand with the strongest supporters of Israel in America."
  • Fox News just dropped its latest poll, which includes Democratic primary numbers. There aren't many big surprises, but it's good news for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Inslee has now hit at least 1 percent in three polls being recognized by the Democratic National Committee's debate criteria, which means he should make the party's first debate unless more than 20 people qualify. 
Ben Kamisar

New Mexico's Udall won't run for re-election

WASHINGTON — New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall is stepping aside from the Senate after 2020, making him the first Democratic senator to announce plans not to seek reelection this cycle. 

Udall framed the decision as far from his swan song in public life, arguing that he could be more effective without the constraints of having to run for reelection and adding he will "find new ways to serve New Mexico and our country after I finish this term."

"The worst thing anyone in public office can do is believe the office belongs to them, rather than to the people they represent.  That’s why I’m announcing today that I won’t be seeking re-election next year," he said in a statement. 

"I see these next two years as an incredible opportunity. Without the distraction of another campaign, I can get so much  more done to help reverse the damage done to our planet, end the scourge of war, and to stop this president’s assault on our democracy and our communities."

Udall is the third senator to announce he's leaving the body after the 2020 election—Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, both Republicans, are retiring too. 

The New Mexico lawmaker comes from a storied family in New Mexico and has been serving in Congress since 1999, first in the House before he was elected to the Senate in 2008. Udall's cousin, Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, served with him in both the House and Senate as well before his defeat in 2014. 

In his statement, Udall says he made the decision despite feeling "confident" he'd be able to run a strong race for a third term. Even without an incumbent, Democrats appear to be favored to retain the seat in 2020.

President Trump lost New Mexico in 2016 by 8 points, Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich won his 2018 reelection by 23 points, and Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham cruised to victory in the open 2018 governor's race, winning by 14 points. 

Ben Kamisar

Bipartisan condemnation for Trump's McCain criticism on "Meet the Press"

WASHINGTON — Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio joined other former elected officials on Sunday's "Meet the Press" to question President Trump's recent criticism of the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

Rubio told "Meet the Press" that he doesn't understand the president's repeated roadsides against McCain, noting McCain is "not here to defend himself" and defending McCain's record.

"I didn't agree with John McCain on everything, you know—so what? I honored and I respected the service to our country and his time in the Senate," he said.

"I always felt he did things that he felt passionate about and worked hard on behalf of those things. Whether you agree with him or not, I knew why he was doing it. It wasn't for some nefarious purpose. He was a man who was deeply influenced by his experience and by the things he went through

McCain has long been a target of Trump's ire, but the president hasn't stopped criticizing the senator since his death last year. 

Those criticisms surfaced once again in recent days, with Trump repeatedly accusing McCain of trying to sink his presidency and failing Republicans by voting against the party's health care plan. The president also took issue with the response to his role in McCain's funeral—Trump lowered White House flags to half staff to honor McCain (after receiving criticism for not doing so faster) and allowed McCain's body to be flown to Washington on a government plane. 

On "Meet the Press," panelists who had served in Congress with McCain echoed Rubio's criticism. 

"I don't know what's wrong with this guy — how do you punch down to someone who was a POW and is dead?"  former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill asked

"I think it's beyond weird and I think it shows some mental problems with this president that he feels the need to go after someone who is dead. 

Carlos Curbelo, the former Florida Republican congressman, agreed with the criticism and lamented that a portion of the Republican base is "politically intoxicated."

"Republicans need to be stronger in saying — this is wrong. At some point you have to lead and not worry about whether or not you are going to get a primary challenge."

Ben Kamisar

Rubio on North Korean sanctions confusion: 'I've never seen that before'

WASHINGTON — Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio expressed confusion about the White House's handling of recent sanctions with North Korea, reiterating he's "skeptical" that America can strike a deal to convince the dictatorship to abandon its nuclear quest. 

On Friday, when President Trump announced the withdrawal of new "large scale" sanctions on North Korea on Twitter, it appeared he was referencing sanctions on shipping that had just been announced the day before.  But hours later, both a U.S. official and a person familiar with the situation told NBC News that Trump's tweets were referring to new sanctions yet to be announced

During an interview on Sunday's "Meet the Press," Rubio raised some concern about the muddled message. 

"I've never seen that before from this or any administration," he said. 

"Something happened between the time it was announced and the time that the president put out that statement. I don't know the answer, to be honest. I don't know why he would do that or why it happened the way it did. It's unusual. It's never happened before."

Rubio went on to argue that while he would "love for Kim Jong Un to give up his weapons" and that he doesn't fault Trump for trying to get North Korea to denuclearize, that he's "skeptical."

"This is a young dictator who has to figure out how to hold onto power," he said.

"So, I'm not skeptical because I want it to fail. I'm skeptical because I believe it will fail."

Nearly 6-in-10 Republicans say a majority-minority population will weaken American values

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that more than half of the population in America will be non-white by 2050.

According to a new poll, a majority of Republicans — and about one in five Democrats — say that demographic milestone will weaken the country’s customs and values.

The new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that, overall, about 30 percent of Americans say that having a majority of the population made up of black, Hispanics, Asians and other racial minorities would strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric, while 38 percent say it would weaken it.

But those who view the expected majority-minority population in a negative light include 59 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, while just 13 percent say that demographic change will strengthen the country. Another 27 percent say the change will have little impact.

That data point comes as the GOP becomes more and more identified with a Republican president who has referred to immigration at the southern border as an “invasion,” supported a ban on Muslims entering the United States during his campaign and reportedly used slurs to describe immigration from Haiti and some African countries. According to exit polls, only 13 percent of Trump’s voters in 2016 were non-white.

Negative views of a more heavily non-white American population weren’t limited to Republicans. A smaller but significant 22 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said that a majority-minority would weaken American culture. Forty-two percent of Democrats said the change will strengthen the country, while another third say it will not have much of an impact.

Race is also a factor. The Pew poll found that nearly half of whites — 46 percent — viewed a majority-minority in a negative light, while only 18 percent of black respondents and 25 percent of Hispanics agreed.

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Sanders makes big promise on carbon emissions

WASHINGTON — Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sander is putting his money where his mouth is on climate change, announcing Thursday that his campaign is "offsetting all carbon emissions produced from campaign travel activities."

That's a notable ask for a campaign that has to crisscross the country, often by plane. His 2018 reelection campaign spent almost $300,000 on private jet travel, with his campaign spokeswoman telling VT Digger those flights were to help campaign for Democrats and that it spent almost $5,000 to purchase carbon offsets in response to that flight. Sanders also invested in carbon offsets to help balance out his 2016 travel too. 

This is yet another example of what NBC's Benjy Sarlin and Alex Seitz-Wald pointed out yesterday—Democratic candidates are trying to live their campaign values this cycle through how they run their own campaigns. 

Click here to read more from Sarlin and Seitz-Wald, and read on for more stories you may have missed from the 2020 beat. 

  • Former Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper drew some headlines from his CNN town hall last night, but perhaps not one he was intending to garner.
  • Axios is reporting that former Vice President Joe Biden's advisers are debating whether to announce Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams as his vice presidential pick early on in the process. It would be a move meant to shore up many of his potential weaknesses, as Benjy Sarlin writes in new NBC anaylsis. But it's not one without some big risks too, as it could also look like an acknowledgement he needs a crutch to run. 
  • Seitz-Wald also broke some news this morning about Democratic super PAC American Bridge's plans to chip away at President Trump's base with a $50 million effort. 
  • Politico reports that there's going to be a Texas-sized showdown in the Lone Star State's Democratic primary, with California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris making moves to challenge Texans Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro.

No Democratic presidential candidates committed to AIPAC conference as liberal group calls for boycott

WASHINGTON — With some Democrats advocating a re-evaluation of the U.S relationship with Israel, the progressive political advocacy group MoveOn is calling on 2020 candidates to boycott this year’s conference of prominent pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

It’s not clear yet which 2020 Democratic candidates — if any — were planning to attend this year. But in the past three presidential cycles, the eventual nominees for both parties spoke at the conference the year of the election.

Iram Ali, MoveOn’s campaign director, told NBC News that the boycott only applies to this year’s conference. That could leave the door open for candidates to attend next year, when the Democratic presidential primary will be in full swing. But she described alignment with AIPAC as anti-progressive.

“It’s important that the next Democratic nominee has progressive values, not only in their domestic policies, but also in their foreign policies,” Ali said. “You cannot be a progressive and support AIPAC because of the policies that they’ve supported.”

Josh Orton, the policy director for Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, told NBC News that “Sen. Sanders has no plans to attend the AIPAC conference. He’s concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.”

Sanders didn't attend the 2016 conference while he was running in the Democratic primary, but addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at length during a speech around the conference. 

Four announced 2020 Democratic candidates have spoken at AIPAC before: Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar have all spoken at the policy conference. Former Vice President Joe Biden has also addressed AIPAC before.

While there’s no confirmation that any candidates will attend this year’s conference, Rep. John Delaney’s communication’s director Will McDonald said he plans to attend in the future.

“John is very disappointed that he can't attend this year, he has attended every year since he has been in Congress and he very much looks forward to being back next year,” McDonald said.

No other 2020 Democratic campaigns have committed to attending or avoiding the conference in the future.

Ali said MoveOn won’t use speaking at AIPAC as a litmus test, but that it will be one of several benchmarks used to endorse a 2020 candidate.

“We will be setting various benchmarks over the next year and a half. This is not the only benchmark that we’re measuring candidates against,” Ali said. “We will be looking holistically at candidates going into the primaries.” 

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Pete Buttigieg gets personal about his faith

WASHINGTON — South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday sat down for an interview with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" where he spoke at length about his own connection to religion and how it plays into his political perspective

Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, emphasized his strong feelings in support of the separation of church and state but argued that there should be more of an embrace of how faith informs politicians on the left too. 

"I think anybody in this process needs to demonstrate how they will represent people of any faith, people of no faith, but I also think the time has come to reclaim faith as a theme," he said.

"The idea that the only way a religious person could enter politics is through the prism of the religious right, I just don't think that makes sense."

Hear more from Buttigieg's interview by clicking here, and read on for more stories from the 2020 trail below.

  • Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke filled in some of the blanks on his massive first-day donation haul—he raised an average of $48 from 128,000 individual donors.
  • NBC News' Benjy Sarlin and Alex Seitz-Wald just published a smart dive into how presidential campaigns are looking to send a message in how they run the nuts and bolts of their campaign. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports  former Vice President Joe Biden has started telling supporters he's running for president and is lining up donors in the hopes of making a big splash. 
  • CNN reports that only four Democratic presidential campaigns were using a fundamental form of email security as of a March study, despite rampant concerns about phishing and hacking after the 2016 election.
Ben Kamisar

Mike Gravel explains his viral moment

WASHINGTON — No, he's not writing the snarky tweets lambasting both President Trump and the 2020 Democratic field. 

And he doesn't expect to win the White House.

But former Alaska Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel says he hasn't closed the door on a presidential bid in 2020 amid his new viral moment. 

Questions about a possible Gravel candidacy surfaced late Tuesday night, when founding documents for the "Mike Gravel for President Exploratory Committee" were posted to the Federal Election Commission's website and a Twitter account in Gravel's name began tweeting. 

Reached by NBC News, Gravel explained that a small group of students had recently reached out to him in the hopes of convincing him to run for president because they felt his platform deserved wider attention.

"When they called me, I said: Do you realize how old I am?" Gravel, who turns 89 years old this spring, recounted to NBC. 

(Politico's Zach Montellaro first reported the arrangement between Gravel and the students).  

During Gravel's 2008 presidential bid, he issued a broad condemnation of the Iraq war and promoted his idea that Americans should be allowed to vote directly on potential new laws. And his opposition to the Vietnam War and interventionist foreign policy in general were central pillars of his political career. 

Neither Gravel nor the students (who are running his eponymous Twitter account) expect Gravel to win, he said. But they are interested in amplifying Gravel's policy platform either through the media or by a longshot effort to make the debate stage.  

Gravel, who is finishing up a book on direct democracy, didn't rule out a presidential bid to NBC, and said he's looking forward to meeting the students next month when they travel to California to pitch him on a plan. And in the perspective of a politician who raised eyebrows with some of the more unusual campaign ads in American presidential history, the viral moment could help get his message out. 

"I'm not closing the door, my wife needs to be persuaded," he said.

"I would go along — a group of millennials really want to advance the ideas that I had, primarily the idea of direct democracy, which I've spent the past 30 years of my life on."

Ben Kamisar

New Democratic digital ads: 'Working people gotta fight back' against Trump

WASHINGTON — Priorities USA, the major Democratic super PAC expecting to spend heavily in the 2020 race, is launching its opening salvo of digital ads across Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The new spots, part of a six-figure digital buy, contrast President Trump's campaign promise to prioritize Americans over special interests with criticism that his policies on trade, taxes and health care are jeopardizing the well-being of average Americans.  

One new spot uses a profane blurb, saying Trump's promise to average Americans is "b*******."

"Trump's trade war is costing me;" one person featured in the ad says.  "The president has put my kids one medical emergency away from bankruptcy," another claims. 

"All Trump cares about is the people at the top," says a third. "Working people have to fight back." 

The ad's style, direct-to-camera criticism from people who are supposed to be average Americans, harkens back to President Obama's re-election ad strategy when he ran against Republican Mitt Romney. 

The digital buys are part of Priorites' already announced $100 million investment across those four swing states, an investment it announced earlier this year. The group also plans to spend heavily in other swing states too throughout this year and next year. 

Watch one example of the ad here