Maine Sen. Angus King found himself ensnared this week by a bonafide scandal of his own making.
For those who haven’t kept up with the news: Mr. King’s 2018 campaign was exposed by independent journalist Matt Taibbi as having conspired with social media giants Facebook and Twitter to suppress and censor the supporters of his political opponents, State Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) and socialist Zak Ringelstein. King popped up to address the controversy midweek, but he’s since disappeared from social media and our television sets.
Documents show Mr. King’s campaign created an “enemies list” of social media users and sent it to the Internet companies for further action. Maine’s other Members of Congress say they never took similar drastic action against online critics. Mr. King stands in the company of California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff and Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, two pols who also abused their offices’ power to censor dissidents. But Mr. King’s the only sitting senator we know of — so far — who abused his power in order to help win an election.
Since Mr. King’s underhanded tactics were exposed, his Senate office has issued confused statements that contradict the facts as revealed by Taibbi. Mr. King’s communications guy Matthew Felling claims censorship was not the “express” purpose of the list. However, one of the lists shows operatives tracked whether the flagged accounts had been banned. Hundreds of the accounts were, in fact. If censorship wasn’t the goal, then what exactly was? Felling has only said they wanted to “monitor” the accounts. Claiming this wasn’t about censorship doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Bluntly, Mr. King’s taxpayer funded aides are either confused or they aren’t being honest with the people of Maine.
Mr. King’s other rationale for the enemies list — that it was an effort to combat misinformation — is itself misinformation.
The video which the Mr. King people claim started all of this is a video of Mr. King comparing 2016 Russian hacking to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. It’s a claim Mr. King made multiple times. You can clearly see and hear him saying it on the video. The video is edited, as are all videos, but it is not “doctored,” as Mr. King’s operatives have falsely said. CNN tweeted about him saying that very thing on a different occasion, too.
Was CNN’s video and tweet, or TheHill.com’s coverage, “doctored”? Just how elaborate is this grand conspiracy to “doctor” reality against Mr. King? The truth is that only when Brakey made an issue of the comment did Mr. King decide it was misinformation. Indeed, Mr. King’s position at the time was that America needed a 9/11 Commission-style report on Russian hacking, so this was a well-developed analogy in his brain. Falsely calling the video “doctored” was an attempt to “game the refs,” the refs being Maine’s journalists, and the tactic is working as well in 2023 as it did in 2018.
But even mentioning the video is to miss the forest for the trees. The more important point is that Mr. King’s justification for conspiring with Twitter and Facebook to censor his critics, many of them voters in Maine, was his earlier attempt to censor his Republican opponent. You read that right. Accused of censorship, Mr. King copped to yet more censorship. And then he admitted to still more censorship. Felling’s spin approached the absurd when he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “This isn’t really a big deal because we had a list of liberal supporters, too.”
Two problems with that:
First, it’s probably not true that there was a second list. Felling later admitted to a newspaper reporter he couldn’t produce the other list. And the list we do have contains both liberals and conservatives, which suggests the King operatives were either poor list makers, are now confused, or are obfuscating.
Second, Mr. King stands accused of using corporate and political power to censor critics. How exactly does it help the situation to claim that the censorship targeted more people than Taibbi originally reported? When it comes to his comms shop, we’re either dealing with people who have trouble thinking things through, or we’re dealing with political operatives who think they can keep shoveling rubbish down reporters throats, and eventually the crisis will abate. None of Felling’s explanations stand up to basic scrutiny, but I guess that’s just how you learn to talk down to us country bumpkin Mainers when you spend enough time fondling your precious security clearance and sipping $17 Manhattans at some bar in Dupont Circle.
Fortunately for we plebeians, Mr. King clarified and simplified the entire situation Wednesday morning when he came out and totally owned the enemies list (in a video now seen by half a million people thanks to independent media…)
Mr. King told Newscenter Maine, paraphrasing again, “Yes, I did this and that’s just how politics goes.”
Mr. King owning this scandal, rather than feigning ignorance, is a step towards the truth. But it took Elon Musk buying Twitter and spilling its secrets to discover that King was manipulating social media for his benefit, a privilege not available to mere mortals like Brakey or Ringelstein. Absent Musk’s whistleblowing, he’d never have admitted to it, and Maine voters would be none the wiser.
We still don’t know whether Mr. King leaned on other companies, like Google and YouTube, to create an unfair electoral advantage. If he did, he’s not saying. The Maine Wire filed a Freedom of Information Act request with King’s Senate office this week seeking records that might help Maine voters understand the junior senator’s relationship with Big Tech. That request was promptly denied. Perhaps a complaint with the Federal Election Commission will ferret out the whole truth.
The information leaked this week about King is easily the biggest scandal of King’s career and the biggest news story of the year in Maine politics so far, and it’s only getting bigger. Maine’s journalist class, roused from their slumber over the weekend, deigned to cover the shocking developments, albeit belatedly. But they’ve settled back to their usual torpor when it comes to scandals enveloping establishment left-wing pols. Consider, for example, that Maine journalists have still published more stories on N.Y. Rep. George Santos than Mr. King’s travails. If you’re only reading the newspapers or listening to public radio, you might not know that King has essentially embraced Kremlin-style Internet censorship by powerful politicians as a legitimate campaign tactic.
Why does that matter?
The 78-year-old Virginian hasn’t ruled out running for Maine’s Senate seat again in 2024. Given his statements this week, Maine voters should expect Mr. King would use similar tactics in the future, perhaps even more aggressively. We have no reason to believe that King wouldn’t use his position on the Intelligence Committee, once again, to silence his critics and unfairly tilt the election in his favor.
Keep in mind, the extraordinary, undemocratic measures King took in 2018 happened during a race King was expected to win by a very large margin.
Imagine what underhanded strategies and tactics he’d deploy if the next race was close?
Simply put, there can be no free and fair election so long as King refuses to renounce the Big Tech censorship tactics he used in 2018. And even if he does come clean and promise not cheat again, voters will always have to wonder whether King is running a fair an honest campaign, or whether he has, once again, abused the authority of his office to unfairly rig the game.