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Politics

Trump Lawyer Rudy Giuliani Worked With an “Active Russian Agent” to Discredit Joe Biden

Rudy Giuliani and President Donald Trump on Aug. 14 at an event at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.Susan Walsh/AP

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A Ukrainian parliamentarian who has supplied Rudy Giuliani with information intended to smear Joe Biden has been “an active Russian agent for over a decade,” according to the US Treasury Department. On Thursday, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control placed the official, Andriy Derkach, on a list of “Russia-linked election interference actors” and slapped him with financial sanctions.

“Derkach, a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” the department said in an announcement. “Derkach has directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 US presidential election.”

Treasury did not say where its information on Derkach comes from, but it is likely based on US intelligence findings. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently told Congress that Derkach is “spreading claims about corruption” as part of a Russian effort to undermine Biden’s campaign.

“Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in statement Thursday.

Along with Derkach, Treasury sanctioned three Russians it says are employed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll-factory that took part in interference in the 2016 presidential election. The department says the IRA remains engaged in “malign influence operations around the world.”

Late last year—shortly before the House impeached Trump over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to help smear Biden—Giuliani traveled to Ukraine. During that trip, Giuliani met with Derkach and other Ukrainians who pushed baseless allegations that Biden had acted improperly in 2016 when, as vice president, he had joined an international push for the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was suspected of corruption.

Derkach held press conferences attacking former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whose May 2019 ouster Giuliani helped to engineer. Beginning in May 2020, Derkach also held press conferences in Kiev during which he played a series of secretly recorded tapes of Biden speaking by phone with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The tapes did not reveal wrongdoing by Biden, but Derkach asserted that they bolstered Trump’s and Giuliani’s allegations about Biden.

Ukrainians critical of Russia have theorized that the tapes were made by Russian intelligence. Derkach—who is the son of a former KGB officer and who attended a college in Moscow known for training spies—has denied this.

Giuliani told the Washington Post this summer that he remained in touch with Derkach after his December trip, calling the Ukrainian “very helpful.” Giuliani acknowledged that he and Derkach have spoken about Ukraine many times, according to the Post. Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

In a statement Thursday to BuzzFeed News, Derkach claimed Treasury sanctioned him as “revenge” by Biden’s “deep state associates” and to preempt a new press conference he says he plans to hold early next week to reveal supposed corruption by Democrats.

The New York Times and Politico have reported that Democrats, in a classified portion of a July letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, alleged that Derkach is part of an effort to launder Russian disinformation through a US Senate investigation overseen by Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) into Biden and Ukraine. Derkach has also reportedly sent information related to Biden to other congressional Republicans including Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Johnson and Grassley have said they did not receive material from Derkach.

“Foreign election meddling in all of its forms from any corner of the globe cannot be tolerated,” Johnson and Grassley said in a joint statement Thursday. “We commend the Trump Administration for holding accountable perpetrators of foreign interference, and hope our Democratic colleagues in Congress will finally stop relying on disinformation from the likes of Andriy Derkach to smear their political rivals.”

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Politics

Why Is the DOJ Intervening in E. Jean Carroll’s Suit Against Trump? A Former US Attorney Explains.

Drew Angerer/Getty

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Yesterday, in what the New York Times dubbed a “highly unusual legal move,” the Department of Justice moved to take over the defense of President Donald Trump in the defamation lawsuit filed against him by E. Jean Carroll, a writer and advice columnist, who alleges Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s.

Carroll sued Trump for defamation in New York state court last November, months after New York Magazine first published a story containing her allegations. Her lawsuit claims that the president defamed her when, in the hours and days after the story was published that June, Trump denied it at least three times, saying that her story was fabricated, that he had never met Carroll (despite a 1987 photograph showing them together at a party), and that he would not have assaulted Carroll because she was “not [his] type.” “The rape of a woman is a violent crime; compounding that crime with acts of malicious libel is abhorrent,” her lawsuit states.

Earlier this summer, Trump tried and failed to have the lawsuit put on hold, arguing that under the Constitution, a sitting president was immune from civil lawsuits in state court. A judge rejected that theory last month; then yesterday, on the last day for Trump to appeal that ruling, the Department of Justice moved to get involved, theorizing that because Trump was acting as a government employee when he denied Carroll’s claims, the “United States” is the proper defendant. If a federal judge permits the move, it would allow government lawyers, paid with taxpayer money, to defend the president—and would likely result in Carroll’s case being dismissed.

I chatted with Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, to break down what the remarkable motion could mean for Carroll’s quest to hold Trump accountable. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Yesterday, the Department of Justice filed a motion to move the case to federal court and substitute the United States in as a defendant for Donald Trump in E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit. What does that mean?

This is a fairly routine thing that the government does from time to time: Somebody who is a government employee gets sued and they take it to the boss and say, “Look, I got sued for this. What do we do?” The boss takes it, it works its way to DOJ, and DOJ says, “We got this. We’ll take care of it.”

The Department of Justice routinely will [send] a case from state to federal court, and substitute the United States for the individual defendant, if the tort allegedly occurred within the scope of the [person’s] employment. A typical case might be a mail carrier who’s involved in a car accident with a postal truck. It was within the scope of her duties, and so the United States will substitute itself for the defendant, and will defend that case [with] Department of Justice lawyers instead of private attorneys. Taxpayers will pay the legal defense bills. If the plaintiff should prevail and there is some sort of money judgment, it’s the taxpayers who would pay those damages.

That is what DOJ has endeavored to do with Donald Trump. The question, the legal question, is whether his remarks occurred within the scope of his employment as president of the United States. I think there will be some legal analysis, and perhaps disagreement, about that view.

Is there a general understanding of what it means to be acting within the scope of one’s office?

During your job shift would be one thing. For a letter carrier, if they’re driving their mail truck after they’ve punched in for the morning, that’s a pretty easy case to say they’re within the scope of their duties. If the postal employee was driving his personal vehicle on the weekend and was involved in a car accident, I think we could quite clearly say he was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time. But whether you’re acting in your personal or official capacity, when it comes to the president, can be a little more gray. The presidency is kind of a 24/7 job. So it’s difficult to say you were off duty when this occurred.

So if you’re a politician, and you use an official press conference to say that a woman accusing you of rape is “not your type,” the DOJ is saying that that sort of blatant misogyny is within the scope of your office? Is that really the argument being made here?

I don’t think they look at the content of the statement. That issue will be litigated. The question is, when he uttered the words—regardless what those words are—did he do so in the scope of his employment?

I see three separate statements that Jean Carroll alleges were defamatory. Two of them occurred in response to questions by members of the press. I think one could argue that those are within the scope of his employment, because it is part of his duties to be a spokesperson for the White House. If he’s asked questions, question one is about China, question two is about the coronavirus, and question three is about these allegations, and he denies them, I think one could argue that occurred within the scope of his employment. But I think the one that will fail to survive scrutiny is [when] he issued a written statement denying the allegations and saying it was fabricated. I don’t think one could make a reasonable argument that that was issued in the scope of his official duties.

So the law looks not at what he said, at least at this point in the case, but at the context the statement was made in.

Right.

If this motion succeeds—if the federal judge decides, yes, this is within the scope of Trump’s employment and the United States is the proper defendant—you have said that the case will likely be dismissed. Can you explain why?

There’s a concept called sovereign immunity, which says the government cannot be sued unless Congress has created an exception to that [with] legislation. There are some circumstances where Congress says, “It is ok to sue the United States.” One of those things is for negligence—so in the case of the postal worker involved in an accident, that suit could proceed. But the United States has not consented to be sued for defamation. So if the DOJ is successful in substituting in the United States for Donald Trump, then its next step will very likely be a motion to dismiss for sovereign immunity. I think if they get that far, that argument is likely to win. That would result in dismissal of the entire case.

That’s the whole game, then.

Yep. It all comes down to scope of employment.

I’m definitely not an expert, but this argument seems…bonkers. How normal is this?

Very common in routine cases. Involving the president? I’ve never heard of one.

Carroll reacted to the filing yesterday by writing on Twitter that Trump has sicced the DOJ on her just at the moment he was required to produce documents, DNA, and discovery. What’s the significance of the timing here?

It’s odd that this case has been litigated, and lots of activity has occurred in the state court, and only now, 10 months later, has DOJ said, “Oh, wait, this case belongs in federal court and United States is the real party here.” It seems to me that they were playing a strategic game: “Let’s see if we can win in state court first, and drag this out for a while.”

The next step would be discovery, things like turning over DNA samples, sitting for a deposition, and turning over documents. No doubt those are things that President Trump would like to avoid leading up to an election. Even if he ultimately loses this argument about scope of employment, by delaying, he has probably won what he really wants to win, which is keeping this languishing past the election.

How much further past the election could this development push things?

First, this [federal] court has to make a decision, which may occur sometime in the next month or so. If [it denies the motion and] Trump’s lawyers appeal that decision, it could take a year to get that decision back. He could then appeal that to the Supreme Court, which could take another year. So now we’re in, you know, 2022 or somewhere like that, before the case actually gets remanded back to court. Then it’s back to square one. So I think he could delay it by a couple of years if he wants to.

What does this all mean for Carroll’s attempts to get a DNA sample from Trump?

It certainly delays things. Ultimately, she may get the sample that she demands, but I think not for a while.

There are lots of creative ways of using DNA in legal cases that have been invented in the last few years—I’m thinking about genetic genealogy, the technique used to identify the Golden State Killer through DNA from his distant relatives. Does anything preclude, say, Mary Trump [Trump’s niece who recently wrote a damning book about her uncle] from spitting in a tube and giving it to Roberta Kaplan, Carroll’s lawyer?

She could do it voluntarily. That’s a really interesting theory. I don’t think there’s anything that would preclude her because she has control of her own DNA, even if it might match. 

What would happen if Carroll was able to prove that there was a DNA match to Trump while the case was being stalled in this way?

Well, she wouldn’t be able to use it in court. She might be able to use it in the court of public opinion to entice Trump to settle the case. She would share that, as very powerful evidence that she’s likely to prevail at the end of the day. So it might be an incentive for him to resolve the case. In the meantime, it can’t be used.

Categories
Technology

Daily Crunch: Facebook launches a college-only network

Facebook returns to its college roots, Alexa gets a printing feature and we take a deep dive into Unity’s business. This is your Daily Crunch for September 10, 2020.

The big story: Facebook launches a college-only network

If you’re old and decrepit like me, you remember when Facebook was only for college students and required a college email address to join. Well, it seems everything old is new again, because the company is piloting a new feature called Facebook Campus … which is only for college students and requires a college email address to join.

Facebook’s Charmaine Hung argued that the product is particularly relevant now: “With COVID-19, we see that many students aren’t returning to campus in the fall. Now, classes are being held online and students are trying to react to this new normal of what it’s like to connect to clubs and organizations that you care about, when you’re not together.”

Of course, this could also be a way for Facebook to try to stay relevant to a younger demographic, before they move on to other apps.

The tech giants

Amazon launches Alexa Print, a way to print lists, recipes, games and educational content using your voice — The feature works with any second-generation Echo device or newer, as well as a range of printers.

Google says it’s eliminating Autocomplete suggestions that target candidates or voting — The company says that it will now remove any Autocomplete predictions that seem to endorse or oppose a candidate or a political party, or that make a claim about voting or the electoral process.

Microsoft Surface Duo review — Brian Heater calls it a beautiful, expensive work in progress.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Orchard real estate platform raises $69 million Series C led by Revolution Growth — Orchard (formerly Perch) launched in 2017 with a mission to digitize the entire experience of buying and selling a home.

How Unity built a gaming engine for the future — Eric Peckham offers an in-depth look at the company’s financials as it prepares to go public.

India’s Zomato raises $100M from Tiger Global, says it is planning to file for IPO next year — In an email to employees, CEO Deepinder Goyal said the food delivery startup has about $250 million cash in the bank, with several more “big name” investors preparing to join the current round.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Use ‘productive paranoia’ to build cybersecurity culture at your startup — We asked Casey Ellis, founder, chairman and chief technology officer at Bugcrowd, to share his ideas for how startups can improve their security posture.

What’s driving API-powered startups forward in 2020? — It’s not hard to find startups with API-based delivery models that are doing well this year.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Announcing the Startup Battlefield companies at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 — This is our most competitive batch to date.

$3 million Breakthrough Prize goes to scientist designing molecules to fight COVID-19 — David Baker’s work over the last 20 years has helped validate the idea that computers can help us understand and create complex molecules like proteins.

Recorded music revenue is up on streaming growth, as physical sales plummet — With vastly more people stuck inside seeking novel methods of entertainment, paid subscriptions are up 24% year-over-year.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Categories
Technology

Microsoft Surface Duo review

In the early days, Microsoft had misgivings about calling the Surface Duo a phone. Asked to define it as such, the company has had the tendency to deflect with comments like, “Surface Duo does much more than make phone calls.” Which, to be fair, it does. And to also be fair, so do most phones. Heck, maybe the company is worried that the idea of a Microsoft Phone still leaves a bitter taste in some mouths.

The Duo is an ambitious device that is very much about Microsoft’s own ambitions with the Surface line. The company doesn’t simply want to be a hardware manufacturer — there are plenty of those in the world. It wants to be at the vanguard of how we use our devices, going forward. It’s a worthy pursuit in some respects.

After all, for all of the innovations we’ve seen in mobile in the past decade, the category feels static. Sure there’s 5G. Next-gen wireless was supposed to give the industry a temporary kick in the pants. That it hasn’t yet has more to do with external forces (the pandemic caught practically everyone off guard), but even so, it hardly represents some radical departure for mobile hardware.

What many manufacturers do seem to agree on is that the next breakthrough in mobile devices will be the ability to fit more screen real estate into one’s pocket. Mobile devices are currently brushing up against the upper threshold of hardware footprint, in terms of what we’re capable of holding in our hands and willing to carrying around in our pockets. Breakthroughs in recent years also appear to have gotten us close to a saturation point in terms of screen-to-body ratio.

Foldable screens are a compelling way forward. After years of promise, the technology finally arrived as screens appeared to be hitting an upper limit. Of course, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold stumbled out of the gate, leaving other devices like the Huawei Mate X scrambling. That product finally launched in China, but seemed to disappear from the conversation in the process. Motorola’s first foldable, meanwhile, was a flat-out dud.

Announced at a Surface event last year, the Duo takes an entirely different approach to the screen problem — one that has strengths and weaknesses when pitted against the current crop of foldables. The solution is a more robust one. The true pain point of foldables has always been the screen itself. Microsoft sidesteps this by simply connecting two screens. That introduces other problems, however, including a sizable gap and bezel combination that puts a decided damper on watching full-screen video.

Microsoft is far from the first company to take a dual-screen approach, of course. ZTE’s Axon M springs to mind. In that case — as with others — the device very much felt like two smartphones stuck together. Launched at the height of ZTE’s experimental phase, it felt like, at best, a shot in the dark. Microsoft, on the other hand, immediately sets its efforts apart with some really solid design. It’s clear that, unlike the ZTE product, the Duo was created from the ground up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The last time I wrote about the Duo, it was a “hands-on” that only focused on the device’s hardware. That was due, in part, to the fact that the software wasn’t quite ready at the time of writing. Microsoft was, however, excited to show off the hardware — and for good reason. This really looks and feels nice. Aesthetically, at least, this thing is terrific. It’s no wonder that this is the first device I’ve seen in a while that legitimately had the TechCrunch staff excited.

While the Surface Duo is, indeed, a phone, it’s one that represents exciting potential for the category. And equally importantly, it demonstrates that there is a way to do so without backing into the trappings of the first generation of foldables. In early briefings with the device, Surface lead Panos Panay devoted a LOT of time to breaking down the intricacies of the design decisions made here. To be fair, that’s partially because that’s pretty much his main deal, but I do honestly believe that the company had to engineer some breakthroughs here in order to get hardware that works exactly right, down to a fluid and solid hinge that maintains wired connections between the two displays.

There are, of course, trade-offs. The aforementioned gap between screens is probably the largest. This is primarily a problem when opening a single app across displays (a trick accomplished by dragging and dropping a window onto both screens in a single, fluid movement). This is likely part of the reason the company is positioning this is as far more of a productivity app than an entertainment one — in addition to all of the obvious trappings of a piece of Microsoft hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company took great pains to ensure that two separate apps can open on each of the screens. And honestly, the gap is actually kind of a plus when multitasking with two apps open, creating a clear delineation between the two sides. And certain productivity apps make good use of the dual screens when spanning both. Take Gmail, which offers a full inbox on one side and the open selected message on the other. Ditto for using the Amazon app to read a book. Like the abandoned Courier project before it, this is really the perfect form factor for e-book reading — albeit still a bit small for more weary eyes.

There are other pragmatic considerations with the design choices here. The book design means there’s no screen on the exterior. The glass and mirror Windows logo looks lovely, but there’s no easy way to preview notifications. Keep in mind the new Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr invested a fair amount in the front screen experience on their second-generation devices. Some will no doubt prefer to have a device that’s offline while closed, and I suppose you could always just keep the screens facing outward, if you so chose.

You’ll probably also want to keep the screens facing out if you’re someone who needs your device at the ready to snap a quick photo. Picture taking is really one of the biggest pain points here. There’s no rear camera. Instead, I’m convinced that the company sees most picture taking on the device as secondary to webcam functionality for things like teleconferencing. I do like that experience of having the device standing up and being able to speak into it handsfree (assuming your able to get it to appropriate eye level).

But when it came to walking around, snapping shots to test the camera, I really found myself fumbling around a lot here. You always feels like you’re between three and five steps away from taking a quick shot. And the fact of the matter is the shots aren’t great. The on-board camera also isn’t really up to the standards of a $1,400 device. Honestly, the whole thing feels like an afterthought. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled after using the Note 20’s camera for the last several weeks, but hopefully Microsoft will prioritize the camera a bit more the next go-round.

Another hardware disappointment for me is the size of the bezels. Microsoft says they’re essentially the minimal viable size so as to not make people accidentally trigger the touchscreen. Which, fair enough. But while it’s not a huge deal aesthetically, it makes the promise of two-hand typing when the device is in laptop mode close to impossible.

That was honestly one of the things I was excited for here. Instead, you’re stuck thumb-typing as you would on any standard smartphone. I have to admit, the Duo was significantly smaller in person than I imagined it would be, for better and worse. Those seeking a fuller typing experience will have to wait for the Neo.

The decision not to include 5G is a curious one. This seems to have been made, in part, over concerns around thinness and form factor. And while 5G isn’t exactly mainstream at this point in 2020, it’s important to attempt to future proof a $1,400 device as much as possible. This isn’t the kind of upgrade most of us make every year or so. By the time the cycle comes back around, LTE is going to feel pretty dated.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Battery life is pretty solid, owing to the inclusion of two separate batteries, each located beneath a screen. I was able to get about a day and a half of life — that’s also one of the advantages of not having 5G on board, I suppose. Performance also seemed solid for the most part, while working with multiple apps front and center. For whatever reason, however, the Bluetooth connection was lacking. I had all sorts of issues keeping both the Surface Buds and Pixel Buds connected, which can get extremely annoying when attempting to listen to a podcast.

These are the sorts of questions a second-generation device will seek to answer. Ditto for some of the experiential software stuff. There was some bugginess with some of the apps early on. A software update has gone a ways toward addressing much of that, but work needs to be done to offer a seamless dual-screen experience. Some apps like Spotify don’t do a great job spanning screens. Spacing gets weird, things require a bit of finessing on the part of the user. If the Duo proves a more popular form factor, third party developers will hopefully be more eager to fine tune things.

There were other issues, including the occasional blacked out screen on opening, though generally be resolved by closing and reopening the device. Also, Microsoft has opted to only allow one screen to be active at a time when they’re both positioned outward so as to avoid accidentally triggering the back of the touch screen. Switching between displays requires doubling tapping the inactive one.

But Microsoft has added a number of neat tricks like App Groups, which are a quick shortcut to fire up two apps at once. As for why Microsoft went with Android, rather than their own Windows 10, which is designed to be adaptable to a number of different form factors, the answer is refreshingly pragmatic and straightforward. Windows 10 just doesn’t have enough mobile apps. Microsoft clearly wants the Duo to serve as a proof of concept for this new form factor, though one questions whether the company will be able to sufficiently monetize the copycats.

For now, however, that means a lot more selection for the end user, including a ton of Google productivity apps. That’s an important plus given how few of us are tied exclusively to Microsoft productivity apps these days.

As with other experimental form factors, the first generation involves a fair bit of trial and error. Sure, Microsoft no doubt dogfooded the product in-house for a while, but you won’t get a really good idea of how most consumers interact with this manner of device — or precisely what they’re looking for. Six months from now, Microsoft will have a much better picture, and all of those ideas will go into refining the next generation product.

That said, the hardware does feels quite good for a first generation device — even if certain key sacrifices were made in the process. The software will almost certainly continue to be refined over the course of the next year as well. I’d wait a bit on picking it up for that reason alone. The question, ultimately becomes what the cost of early adoption is.

In the grand scheme of foldable devices, maybe $1,400 isn’t that much, perhaps. But compared to the vast majority of smartphone and tablet flagships out there, it’s a lot. Especially for something that still feels like a first generation work in progress. For now, it feels like a significant chunk of the price is invested in novelty and being an early adopter for a promising device.