Et Tu, Paul Manafort?

On Friday, September 14, 2018, the moment special counsel Robert Mueller had been waiting for so long had finally happened. That day, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort appeared in a Washington DC court and pleaded guilty to a reduced set of charges. As part of his plea deal with Mueller’s team, Manafort agreed to cooperate with the investigation. The new deal will stave off a second trial for Manafort in a DC court which was supposed to begin this month as well as dismissing 10 mistrial counts from his trial in Virginia from August. Much of Manafort’s money and property will also be subject to forfeiture. In advance to Manafort’s fateful court appearance, Mueller’s team filed a new document that drops some charges and lays out what Manafort will admit to. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States (related to his foreign lobbying work in Ukraine and his finances), and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice (related to attempted witness tampering early this year).

Paul Manfort’s flip is enormously important for the Russia investigation since this deal marks the end of one phase in the Mueller investigation. Since his appointment in the summer of 2017, Robert Mueller has focused more on his office’s activity on Manafort than any other individual and was its most visible activity so far. He indicted the former Trump campaign chair on 25 charges in 3 separate batches and across 2 venues. In the first trial stemming from his probe, Mueller’s team got Manafort convicted on 8 counts and facing a years-long prison sentence. While investigating Russian interference with the 2016 campaign is Mueller’s main task with the Russia probe, the charges were mainly about Manafort’s past unregistered foreign lobbying work and his finances. Mueller hasn’t publicly explained his strategy. But many have long speculated that the special counsel’s main aim with charging Manafort with financial and lobbying crimes was to pressure him to “flip” so he’d agree to provide information related to their true concern of whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election.

Robert Mueller’s team initially indicted Paul Manafort in October 2017 alongside his longtime right-hand man Rick Gates on conspiracy, undeclared foreign lobbying, financial, and other crimes. Though we know Mueller had investigated Manafort’s involvement in Russian interference with the 2016 campaign, the indictment was about years’ worth of lobbying work the pair did for Ukranian politicians and government leaders prior to the campaign and what they did with their money afterward. At first, both pleaded not guilty. Then in February 2018, Mueller filed a new set of charges against the pair, again related to the Ukranian money. This spurred the younger and less wealthy Gates to strike a deal agreeing to cooperate against Manafort and pleading guilty to a reduced set of charges. But Manafort held out. 4 months later, Mueller’s team added a new allegation against him that he and a Russian associate named Konstatin Kilimnik encouraged a likely witness in his upcoming trial to stick to a false story. The new charges led Judge Amy Berman Jackson fining that Manafort had violated his conditions of release and ordering him jailed (as he has been since). During the Virginia trial, Gates testified against his former boss along with an array of other witnesses. And while Manafort’s team managed to get one holdout juror to vote against conviction of 10 charges, Mueller won a unanimous conviction on 8 others. Now with a conviction in the books and Manafort set to face a likely prison sentence, he was still facing another trial in Washington and potentially a second if Mueller retried the Virginia mistrial counts, Manafort eventually came to the table and agreed to cooperate.

Now that Paul Manafort has flipped, what does he know about the collusion or conspiracy between the Trump team and the Russian government during the 2016 campaign? Previously, Manafort has said nothing, stating that no collusion happened so he’d naturally have no information to provide. But given his intense focus on the former Trump campaign chair, Robert Mueller has long believed otherwise. And there are 2 suspicious circumstances during the 2016 campaign that we know Manafort was involved in.

The Trump Tower Meeting: Remember the infamous Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. set up in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer and other Russia-tied figures? Well, the 3 Trump figures in attendance were Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. Until Manafort’s flip, no attendee has become a cooperator for Mueller. Perhaps the special counsel thinks more remains to be learned about the meeting and hopes Manafort will tell them about it.

As far as we know, Paul Manafort is the first person who attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting in July 2016 who’s agreed to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s probe. We all know it arose after British publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. to say that the Russian government had dirt on Hillary Clinton and that he could arrange a meeting to discuss its transfer with the Trump campaign. Trump Jr. infamously replied, “If it’s what you I say I love it.” Aside from Trump Jr., Manafort, and Jared Kushner, other attendees included a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya, real estate developer Ike Kaveladze, and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, all of whom have Kremlin ties to varying degrees. Given that Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager at the time while Kushner was a significant Trump campaign figure sat in, it’s suggested the meeting was a high-level thing.

So far all of the attendees who’ve publicly spoken about it have insisted that nothing of note happened at the meeting. However, while there isn’t enough information one way or another, Goldstone’s emails setting up the meeting suggest collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign is possible. And that the Trump campaign was at least open to the idea.

Robert Mueller is keenly interested in the Trump Tower meeting since his team has requested documents about it and quizzed witnesses on what actually happened. Now he has access to someone who has no incentive to stick to the party line. Since Paul Manafort has agreed to fully cooperate, he could officially tell us whether the official story about the meeting is true. Or whether it’s a cover for a much more significant interaction that might prove that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia after all. Another question Manafort could help answer is who knew about the meeting such as Donald Trump and the Russia government. Manafort knows what went on at the meeting and what it was for as well as possibly the cover-up afterward.

Oleg Deripaska and Konstantin Kilimnik: Even more suspicious are Paul Manafort’s surreptitious contacts with 2 Russian nationals during the campaign. One is his former client Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch to whom Manafort was heavily indebted. The other is Manafort’s longtime business associate Konstantin Kilmnik, who Mueller’s team has said is tied to Russian intelligence. Just weeks after joining the Trump campaign, Manafort appeared to see an opportunity. In early April, he emailed Kilimnik about his newly high media profile, writing “How do we use to get whole,” and “Has OVD operation seen?” (OVD is Deripaska’s initials). In July 2016, Manafort and Kilimnik exchanged emails about Deripaska again. Kilimnik wrote, “I am carefully optimistic on the issue of our biggest interest. He will be most likely looking for ways to reach out to you pretty soon.” Manafort replied that if Deripaska, “needs private briefings we can accommodate.” As the summer wore on, the pair’s emails on the topic grew vaguer. In late July, Kilimnik wrote to Manafort, “I met today with the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar several years ago. We spent about 5 hours talking about his story, and I have several important messages from him to you.” Again, this is believed to be about Deripaska with “caviar” meaning money. Kilimnik and Manafort arranged to meet in New York City on August 2 for Kilimnik had “long caviar story” to tell and “several important messages.” Days after the meeting, Deripaska took a yacht trip with Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko who’s focused on foreign policy. All this occurred while Manafort chaired the Trump campaign before his mid-August 2016 firing. Since he’s based in Moscow, Kilimnik is unlikely to face charges.

Nonetheless, we still don’t know what happened between Manafort, Kilimnik, and Deripaska during the campaign. Maybe this is where the Trump/Russia collusion happened. Maybe Manafort was just freelancing and trying to get himself paid and it doesn’t involve Donald Trump personally. Yet, it’s one of the biggest loose ends about what happened in 2016. But whatever the case, Manafort has committed to tell Mueller the truth.

Paul Manafort’s guilty plea doesn’t say anything about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia military intelligence officials who’ve allegedly attacked the 2016 election for Donald Trump’s benefit. But the plea agreement’s implications point to many ways Manafort’s decision could legal and politically damage Trump. Trump’s constant assertion that the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt” has only sought to bring down “innocent” men keeps weakening when each “innocent” man confesses to federal felonies. While Trump claims the investigation is a money pit, Manafort’s asset surrender of accounts and properties worth millions of dollars shows that the Mueller probe has basically paid for itself. Furthermore, Manafort’s guilty plea virtually blocks any avenue Trump can obstruct the investigation by pardoning him. Now that Manafort has agreed to cooperate with Mueller and Trump has no apparent way to learn what his former campaign chair has told prosecutors or a grand jury, there’s no way Trump can benefit with a pardon attempt. Finally, after months of painting Manafort as a “good guy” who’s been treated “unfairly,” Trump’s spin doctors will have to reverse course on a potential witness against their guy. Rudy Giuliani seemed confused about this fact, releasing a statement saying, “the president did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth,” before retracting the part about Manafort.

Furthermore, what Paul Manafort knows is important for several threads of the Russia investigation like the hack on the DNC, any communication between the Trump campaign and Russian interests, and most importantly, the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Before striking the plea deal with the former campaign chair, prosecutors sat down with Manafort for a proffer session where a defendant answers from investigators, including details about their own case and other criminal activity they might’ve witnessed. Ultimately, prosecutors will only agree to a cooperation deal with a defendant if the latter gives them information that other witnesses and documents can verify. So Mueller’s team feels that what Manafort knows is really critical evidence about that Trump Tower meeting, who knew about it and when, and what other contacts took place between the campaign and people around Donald Trump.

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A Strike Behind Bars

Amid the press coverage of Donald Trump, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on Catholic Church sexual abuse, John McCain’s funeral, the 2018 midterms, football season, back to school, and whatever else is going on with the world, there are plenty of news stories that fall through the cracks. One of these is a 3 week nationwide strike behind bars of which most will never see. Demonstrations began on Tuesday, August 21, 2018 and are scheduled to last until September 9, which marks the anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. During this time, inmates in 17 states have taken part in sit-ins, hunger strikes, and work strikes in an attempt to draw attention to poor prison conditions and what many view as exploitative labor in American correctional facilities. In addition, they’re calling for boycotts against agencies and companies benefitting from prisons and prison labor. As protest spokesperson Amani Sawari told Vox, “The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body. If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”

The demonstrations come 2 years after what was then viewed as the largest prison strike in United States history with protests breaking out in 12 states in 2016. While the 2016 protests were largely planned on September 9, they ended up taking part over weeks or months as prison officials tried tamping down on prison demonstrations and mitigate the protests’ effects. These current demonstrations can be even larger than those previous protests since they’re spread over 3 weeks to make it more difficult for prison officials to crack down. The inmates have outlined 10 national demands. These include “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” and “an immediate end to prison slavery.” They also target federal laws that boosted mass incarceration and have made it harder for inmates to sue officials for potential rights violations. In addition, they call for an end to racial disparities in the criminal justice system and an increase to rehabilitation prison programs. These demands are on top of specific local and regional requests the prisoners are making. I will get to more of these list items later, explaining what these mean.

These prison strikes are a part response to the prison riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution in April, which state officials described as a “mass casualty” event. According to the Associated Press, 7 inmates were killed while at least 17 were seriously injured. An inmate told the AP that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other,” claiming that prison guards did little to stop the violence between inmates. Most of the fatal injuries appeared to be due slashing and stabbing, although some inmates may have been beaten to death. No prison guards were hurt. The riot was the worst in a US prison in a quarter-century.

Based on reports following the riot, it seems some of the major causes besides personal and potentially gang-related disputes, were poor prison conditions and understaffing. So there weren’t enough guards to stop the fighting. This is part of a growing problem. According to an investigation by South Carolina’s The State, the number of inmates killed in the state’s prisons, “more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.” And it wasn’t the first time Lee experienced violence that year either. Three weeks before the riot, inmates overpowered a guard, held him hostage, and took control of part of a dorm for an hour and a half before releasing him unharmed. In February one inmate fatally stabbed another. Nor is its problems with violent unique. For in Columbia’s Kirkland Correctional Institution, 4 inmates were strangled in 2017.
Obviously, violence is generally a huge problem in US prisons. According to a 2009 study, during a 6-month period, about 21% of male prison inmates are physically assaulted while 2-5% are sexually assaulted. But the problem seems particularly acute in South Carolina’s correctional facilities in recent years. One reason is understaffing for South Carolina prisons have struggled to find enough workers, making it difficult to keep these places under control. Another cause is poor prison conditions like underfunding, overcrowding, and lack of rehabilitative interventions. A strike spokesperson told Vox, “Prisoners were placed in some really aggravated conditions. They were placed on lockdown all day. They weren’t allowed to eat or use the bathroom. They were placed in units with rival gang members. And then their lockers were taken away, so they didn’t have any safe place to put their personal belongings, which really aggravated and caused tensions among prisoners — to the point where fights broke out, inevitably.”
However, for prisons, fixing the problem these demonstrations raise will require money, which cash-strapped state governments may not want to put up. This raises real questions on whether the inmates’ demands can or will be heard. Hiring more guards and paying them more money to make the job attractive to more people costs money. So does improving prison conditions in general. All of that cash could be spent elsewhere.
Nonetheless, I should give you all a rundown on the demands the prisoners have made in the strike.

1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.– in the United States, there’s a tendency for society to throw people behind bars, completely dehumanize them, and forget about them. As history shows, we tend to forget that convicts are human beings with rights and some say over their lives. Being behind bars doesn’t throw all that away. As a Jailhouse Lawyers Speak statement read, “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn. Prisons in America are a war zone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us, it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.– this is a major issue and affects you more than you think. If there is an issue you should care about and what unites prisoners, it’s prison labor. In many states, prisoners are forced to work for cents an hour or even for free. Though according to The Marshall Project, the average prisoner pay is 20 cents an hour. This was permitted after the 13th Amendment’s passage which banned slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Across the US, hundreds of thousands of inmates have jobs. While California inmates have been recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires for $1 an hour and $2 per day, American prisoners also do more typical jobs like kitchen work, cleaning, and GED tutoring. Sometimes the jobs take inmates outside of prison, although more often they mimic real-world jobs or involve menial chores that need done around the prison. They also make a vast array of consumer goods like lingerie, blue jeans, toys, military equipment, and car parts. They’ve harvest Florida oranges and shoveled snow in Boston after a blizzard. Like the protestors in the 2016 prison strike, the 2018 demonstrators characterize this practice as modern slavery. And since black people are disproportionately likely to become incarcerated, there are racial disparities in this often forced, low-wage labor. In addition, companies also take advantage of prison labor. which generates over $1 billion a year for the private sector. Now both prison officials and advocates agree that prison labor helps inmates gain much-needed real-world working experience. But even if it does, that doesn’t justify paying pennies or nothing at all. In fact, if prison work programs are beneficial, spending on them should be increased so everyone can participate and get more pay for their work. Furthermore, these inmates are still often the primary breadwinners for their families and are expected to meet some financial obligations even before their release. As Sawari told Vox, “Prisoners do like having the opportunity to earn, because they do have to support themselves financially in a lot of ways. Prisoners have to provide for their health care, their dental care. They have to buy food if they want to eat outside the three times a day most prisons serve. … They have to buy clothes like jackets and boots, hygiene products, cosmetics, books, study materials, paper, tape, scissors. Any little thing they need, they have to buy that. So they want to be able to.” At the same time, they’re often subject to exorbitant markups on personal products at prison commissaries and often grossly overcharges on the ability to communicate by phone or internet with family and friends on the outside.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.– called the PLRA, this law makes it much harder for prisoners to file and win civil rights lawsuits in federal court. To file a lawsuit, inmates must exhaust all administrative grievance processes available to them within the correctional facility before taking their case to court. Working through these avenues can be complicated, have difficult deadlines, and often be fruitless. While suits about physical injury are allowed, those alleging mental or emotional harm are restricted. Courts can no longer waive court fees for incarcerated people but require installment payments instead. While an incarcerated plaintiff who’s had 3 lawsuits dismissed will have to pay in advance. Should a lawsuit succeed, there are limits to litigation costs the court can order the prison to pay to the prisoner’s attorney. This reduces the number of lawyers willing to take good winnable cases on behalf of incarcerated people with only 5% of prisoner civil rights cases having legal representation in 2012. In addition, the law limits the courts’ ability to change prison policy.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human
shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.- in the United States, Truth in Sentencing refers to policies and legislation aiming to abolish or curb parole so that convicts serve out the period to which they’ve been sentenced. In some cases, truth in sentencing is linked to movements like mandatory sentencing (in which particular crimes yield automatic sentences regardless of extenuating circumstances) and habitual offender or “three strikes” laws in which state law requires courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to those convicted of a criminal offense on multiple occasions. The US has the Violent Offender and Incarceration and Truth in Sentencing Program which awards grants to states so long as they pass laws requiring Part 1 violent offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentence to qualify for parole eligibility. As of 2008, the District of Columbia and 35 states qualify for this additional funding. As part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the Sentencing Reform Act is a US statute in federal intended to increase consistency in federal sentencing. In addition to establishing the US Sentencing Commission, it abolished federal parole save for those convicted of federal crimes before 1987, those convicted under DC law, those who violated military law held in federal civilian prisons, “transfer treaty” inmates, and defendants in state cases and in witness protection. Nonetheless, both policies have contributed to mass incarceration and prison overcrowding. Many also believe that the death penalty is a stupid idea while life without parole offers no chance of a release.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.– this refers to the racial disparities in sentencing practices which is rampant across the United States. Nonwhite inmates are subject to harsher charges, longer sentences, and more parole denials than their white counterparts. This especially goes when the victim is white.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.– another addressing racial disparities in law enforcement which pertain to gangs. Gang enhancements are measures to ensure that anyone who commits a felony for a gang’s benefit, which results in a mandatory prison sentence in addition and consecutive to the penalty they receive for the underlying crime.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.-the film Birdman of Alcatraz offers a compelling case for this argument since Robert Stroud was indeed a violent offender. Though the real Stroud wasn’t a particularly nice guy.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.– in the United States, funding rehabilitation services for prisoners isn’t a high priority. Yet, the lack of rehabilitation programs for prisoners has contributed to high recidivism rates and prison overcrowding. Many released prisoners find themselves unable to adjust to outside life. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8% of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years.

9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.– in most of the US, prisoners are denied the same opportunities and ways to get ahead and secure a job, which often leads to recidivism. And it doesn’t help that many of these inmates come from poverty either. For inmates seeking a college education which helps reduce their chance of recidivism, many are denied the grants and aid most college students on the outside enjoy. Nonetheless, if the drug gang members in The Wire had access to the same opportunities from the inside or out, most of them would not be selling crack on the street.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.– in most of the United States, convicts and ex-felons are frequently denied the right the vote. Felony disenfranchisement laws depend on each state. In Pennsylvania and 13 other states, felony disenfranchisement only lasts as long as the convict is behind bars and are restored upon release. But other states are much harsher. In 4 states including New York, felony disenfranchisement ends only after parole. In 19 states, felony disenfranchisement ends not only after incarceration or parole, but also after probation. In 7 states, restoration of voting rights after sentence completion and depending on circumstances of the crime. While 4 states like Florida require restoration to voting rights to convicts after all offenses through individual petition. In Florida, this petition must be made 5-7 years after completion of incarceration, parole, and probation. It’s said that Florida’s felony disenfranchisement laws are so harsh that in 2014 more than 1 in 10 Florida residents and 1 in 4 African Americans in the state were shut out of the polls. Nonetheless, while proponents often argue that loss of suffrage is only fair to deny political decision making to known criminals, felony disenfranchisement can create dangerous political incentives to skew criminal law in favor of disproportionally targeting groups who politically oppose those who hold power. And many of these felony disenfranchisement laws were made during segregation to keep African Americans from voting and continue to keep many blacks from the polls in several southern states. Not to mention, many states have often used prisoners’ disenfranchised status to exercise prison gerrymandering.

Despite the strike’s limited scope and difficulty corroborating the organizers’ claims, national and local media have covered the strike in earnest, some calling it, “the largest national prison strike in US history.” On the strike’s first day, news of the strike and goals have been reported on NPR, Washington Post, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Vox, Al Jazeera, BBC World News, Mother Jones, and other many other outlets. However, history shows that political actions by prisoners often have mixed results. Some prison reform advocates say that fear of reprisals coupled with the difficulty communicating between prisons makes widespread action unlikely. But some media attention is a small victory in that it has brought the issue of inhumane prison conditions to a wider audience in a way that Stephen King hasn’t. Yet, the number of prisoners striking is unknown and won’t be confirmed. So there’s no hint that the strike will be larger and more robust than past efforts. Some outlets reposted unchecked information put out by outside strike organizers, including details on how many prisons are participating. Others balanced the organizers’ accounts with official statements by state corrections departments. Nevertheless, generating media attention is the strike’s main goal since it’s very difficult to get any. Mostly because it’s hard enough to know what’s going on in prisons across the country since there’s little information available. Hopefully, this 2018 prison strike could mark turning point in meaningful criminal justice reform in the future.

The Consigliere Folds

On Tuesday, August 20, 2018, Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to 8 federal charges, including 5 counts of tax evasion involving $4 million, one count of lying to a financial institution, and one count of willful cause of unlawful corporate contributions from June – October 2016 along with one excessive campaign contribution on October 27, 2016. The last charge is related to the $130,000 hush money payment Cohen arranged to porn actress Stormy Daniels to keep her silent about an affair she had with Trump in 2006. Yet, more importantly, Cohen admitted that he did so at Trump’s direction and with the goal of influencing the election.

Since April 9, 2018 when the FBI raided and seized several electronic devices at his residence, office, and hotel room, Michael Cohen has been in deep legal trouble. Several months ago, New York federal investigators convened a grand jury to investigate him for “criminal conduct that largely centers on his personal business dealings” and “finances,” according to a court filing. They also obtained search warrants on several of his email accounts. This led to the April 9 raids with prosecutors looking for information on Cohen’s hush money payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels on Donald Trump’s behalf, hush money payments to other women like the $150,000 to former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, efforts to suppress negative information about Trump during the 2016 campaign, and information about taxi medallions that Cohen owns. The penalties Cohen faces carry a sentence up to 65 years in prison, which he’s unlikely to face thanks to his plea deal with prosecutors. His sentencing is scheduled for December 12 and has been released on $500,000 bond.

Though Michael Cohen’s conduct was examined by special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference with the 2016 election, this indictment has nothing to do with it. But now has reached a deal with prosecutor, it’s not quite clear what this might mean for Donald Trump as one of his closest associates for decades may be facing serious legal consequences. While Cohen once said he’d take a bullet for Trump, recent events suggests otherwise since he’s soured on his old boss. This summer, he gave several public signals that he may be willing to cooperate with prosecutors, including releasing a secret recording of himself with Trump discussing a payoff to Karen McDougal. A CNN report also suggested Cohen had considered telling Mueller that Trump had advance knowledge of the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russians offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, which Trump has repeatedly denied. However, Cohen’s plea agreement doesn’t call for cooperation with prosecutors, including anyone on Mueller’s team. Yet, Cohen’s revelations deal a blow to Trump with the latter clearly listed as “Individual 1” in the charging documents. While there’s no allegation of wrongdoing against Trump in the government’s charges against Cohen, he’s the latest member of his inner circle charged with federal crimes.

Born on Long Island, New York, Michael Cohen initially found financial success in the 1990s as a personal injury lawyer and through various business investments tied to a New York City community of Ukranian immigrants. Later, he began investing in real estate, including Trump properties, which is how he entered Donald Trump’s orbit. In the early 2000s, Cohen intervened on the mogul’s side for condo board control of Trump World Tower in New York. Trump was impressed and offered Cohen a job in 2007 as executive vice president and special counsel for the Trump Organization. The job duties varied,, which earned him a perfect designation as a “fixer.” In his first few years, Cohen was involved in matters ranging from a New Jersey development project to MMA live events. By 2011, he took a leading role in advising Trump on his growing political ambitions, launching a website called “Should Trump Run?” and flying to Iowa to meet with Republican operatives. However, Trump ultimately ended up not running for president in 2012.

For a time, things went well for Michael Cohen. He took an even larger role in the Trump Organization helping to explore potential development projects in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Kazakhstan. He made high-dollar, eyebrow-raising real estate purchases. After Donald Trump officially launched his 2016 presidential campaign in July 2015, Cohen was quite busy behind the scenes. Some highlights include:

  • Threatening a reporter- In July 2015, Michael Cohen tried to stop the Daily Beast from running a story about an old deposition Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana Trump made alleging that Trump raped her. Cohen did this by making profane threats to reporter Tim Mak in phone calls he recorded such as, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.”
  • Asking for cash for the Trump Foundation- In August 2015, Ukranian steel billionaire Victor Pinchuk reached out through an intermediary and asked Donald Trump to speak at conference he was hosting in Kiev. Trump accepted. But the next day, Michael Cohen sent word back that Trump would require a $150,000 donation to the Trump Foundation as a speaking fee while the payment was made.
  • Working on the Moscow Trump Tower project- In October 2015, the Trump Organization signed a letter of intent to build this tower. Russia-born developer Felix Sater emailed Michael Cohen, “I will get [Russian President Vladimir] Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected… Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” In January 2016, Cohen emailed Putin’s spokesperson Dimitry Peskov asking for help on the project but reportedly never got a response. The company abandoned the project soon afterwards.
  • Arranging hush money payments- Most famously, Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Donald Trump just weeks before the 2016 election. Yet, he was also in a loop for a similar payment to the National Enquirer’s parent company American Media, Inc., which paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal for rights to her story of her 2006-2007 alleged affair with Donald Trump in August 2016. However, the deal wasn’t for the tabloid to publish her story, but to hush it up in exchange that it would publish some of her fitness columns. In July 2018, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis released a tape stating it was from September 2016 that included a recording between Trump and Cohen apparently discussing setting up a shell company to pay back AMI for hushing up McDougal’s story. The FBI reportedly seized the tape on Cohen’s property.

After Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Michael Cohen announced he’d leave the Trump Organization but would continue work as his personal attorney, in what many observers see as an effort to hold on to his attorney-client privilege with his boss. Cohen also took on 2 new clients. One was Republican National Committee fundraiser Elliot Broidy who paid hush money to a Playboy Playmate he knocked up. The other was Fox News host and prominent conspiracy theorist, Sean Hannity, for services Hannity claims, “dealt almost exclusively about real estate.”

Michael Cohen’s legal troubles kicked into high gear on January 12, 2018 when the Wall Street Journal reported that he paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money near the end of the presidential campaign. As Election Day drew near, Daniels threatened to come forward with her story alleging her 2006 sexual encounter with Donald Trump. Since Cohen wanted to keep her quiet, he created the shell company called Essential Consultants LLC and wired the $130,000 to Daniels’ lawyers. The next day, Daniels and Cohen signed a nondisclosure agreement with its validity now subject to a lawsuit. Daniels complied. When the FBI raided Cohen’s office, residence, and hotel room and seized potential evidence, they were reportedly looking for anything related to the Daniels payment, among other things.

Nonetheless, what’s important is that Michael Cohen stated in court that he made hush money payments “in coordination with and at the direction of a federal candidate for office” who is certainly Donald Trump “for the purpose of influencing” the 2016 election. His admissions directly implicate Trump listed as “Individual 1” in the charging documents. While the consequences of are yet unclear, this makes Trump an unindicted co-conspirator to a federal crime. But the big question is what sort of legal jeopardy does this put him, if at all? And perhaps, more importantly, what does this mean for Robert Mueller’s Russia probe? While legal experts may agree that Trump is undoubtedly guilty, they are uncertain of what happens next. Some say that Cohen is likely to cooperate with the Mueller probe as per lawyer’s recommendation since he knows where the bodies are buried in the Trump Organization along with its finances going many years. Some think that Trump is in deep shit and it’s only a matter of time that Trump will face legal jeopardy. Others don’t think he’ll face any legal consequences at this point since it’s unclear whether a sitting president can be indicted and Republicans in Congress have no interest to impeach him or hold him accountable.

Meanwhile, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was found guilty by a jury on 8 counts that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team charged him with in Virginia. These charges comprised of 5 counts of subscribing to false income tax returns, one count of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts (FBAR), and 2 counts of bank fraud. But thanks to one rogue Trump supporting juror, the other 10 counts ended in mistrial such as 3 FBAR charges, 2 bank fraud charges, and 5 bank fraud conspiracy charges. Though Mueller’s team can retry these charges against Manafort if they want to. On September 17, 2018, Manafort faces 7 more charges in a trial that will take place in Washington DC which will focus on much of his actual work in Ukraine than his finances, which are:

  • 2 counts on conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to launder money- These 2 broad counts sum up what the government alleges was Paul Manafort’s overall “scheme” to violet US law with his unregistered foreign lobbying and undeclares finances.
  • 3 counts on being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements- These relate to Paul Manafort’s initial lack of registration as a foreign lobbyist regarding his Ukranian work and later lying to the government about it.
  • 2 counts on obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice- The Mueller team added against Paul Manafort in June, after the government alleged that Manafort and his associate Konstantin Kilimnik had contacted witnesses this year and urged them to lie about their Ukranian lobbying. Kilimnik has also been charged with these 2 counts by the way.

There’s no doubt that Paul Manafort’s keeping quiet since he’s holding out for a Donald Trump pardon. Yet, it’s possible that Trump won’t go ahead if his association with his former campaign manager reflects badly on him. Nevertheless, as the Virginia jury convened, Manafort’s lawyers reportedly talked with Mueller’s team about a potential plea deal for the charges against him in Washington. Many have speculated that Mueller’s true goal is pressuring Manafort to “flip” against Trump, leading him to share information and become a cooperating witness to the probe into Russia campaign interference. And it’s at least possible that Manafort’s newfound conviction has changed his calculous and made him more likely to cooperate.

However, 2 important details in the Wall Street Journal’s report cast doubt on whether such a bombshell flip was truly on the agenda. First off, it’s said the Mueller talks’ goal was to forestall Paul Manfort’s next trial in Washington. Second, the talks fell apart due to unspecified “issues” Mueller raised. Apparently, Mueller didn’t seem impressed on what Manafort has to offer. Indeed, it’s unclear whether Manafort even offered any cooperation at all seeing how he’s clearly holding out for a Trump pardon. He might’ve just offered to plead guilty to avoid another expensive trial while the government can avoid an uncertain outcome. Furthermore, Trump has hinted he’s open to a pardon, which a plea deal with Mueller could totally ruin Manafort’s pardon prospects which are now more important now he’s convicted and facing prison time. Yet, a pardon may not be in Trump’s best interests since such gesture may make him seem complicit in Russian interference in 2016 or at least approving of Manafort’s actions. Then again, Helsinki summit with Putin already accomplished that so it’s a toss up. At any rate, it’s easy to see why Mueller would focus on Manafort in regards to Russia probe. He has connections with Russian oligarchs and pro-Russian leaders. He was Trump’s campaign manager during a critical moment in the 2016 election and was present at the infamous Trump Tower meeting that year. And he was already in trouble with the US government over his time in Ukraine that he was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after the conventions wrapped up, which made him very easy to indict. Furthermore, his right-hand man Rick Gates has already flipped on him.

Adding to Donald Trump’s troubles, National Enquirer publisher and CEO of American Media Inc. David Pecker has was granted immunity. In August 2016, the tabloid arranged a “catch and kill” deal with former Playboy model Karen McDougal in which she’d sell the rights to her story for $150,000 in exchange that she won’t publicly talk about it and get a few fitness articles published. Pecker’s involvement with McDougal’s payoff is well-documented, yet prosecutors revealed he was also surprisingly involved in paying off porn actress Stormy Daniels as well. So he knows a lot more about what behind the scenes with these hush money payments than we realized. Pecker’s cooperation could give prosecutors more evidence about Trump’s knowledge of the deals and whether he coordinated and directed those hush money payments. Pecker will not face criminal charges but he will be compelled to testify even if that means against his old friend Trump.

However, the Trump associate who we should watch for is Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg who’s also been granted immunity in exchange for giving prosecutors information. Though he’s not as visible in Trumpworld as Michael Cohen, he may be more important since he’s worked for Donald Trump and his family since the 1970s and has signed off on the company’s significant deals. If anyone knows anything about the Trump Organization’s finances and Trump’s decades long trail of high financial crimes, it’s him. For Trump rarely trusts anyone with his money. Granted he was subpoenaed into the investigation into Cohen, but it’s not confirmed whether he’s appeared in front of a grand jury. While Weisselberg has met with prosecutors, we’re not sure what information he provided, including whether Trump knew about the hush money payments. While the Cohen raid is seen as the biggest legal threat to Trump, Weisselberg’s willingness to talk may be an even bigger problem.

The Legal Woes of Paul Manafort

On Tuesday, July 31, 2018, the first trial of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation commenced as former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort faces a litany of charges relating to financial crimes and money laundering in Virginia. The financial crimes in question are quite spectacular and could result in sending Manafort to prison for the rest of his life. Yet, it’s merely a sideshow to Mueller’s larger investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.

Paul Manafort’s trial is about an enormous amount of money he made during his years working Ukraine’s government and political leaders as well as the hefty loans he received from US banks. Mueller has alleged a years-long scheme of astonishing scope. According to him, Manafort first laundered $30 million from a web of undeclared offshore accounts into the US without paying taxes on it. After the Ukranian money stopped rolling in, he defrauded several US banks to get $20 million in loans. Manafort has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

However, many others think it’s really about Mueller trying to put pressure on Manafort so he’ll flip on Donald Trump and provide information about Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Though the special counsel hasn’t confirmed such strategy, he has admitted to investigating Manafort regarding collusion and that his past work for a pro-Russian Ukranian political faction and other Russian ties seems obviously relevant.

In his political career, Manafort is somewhat of a legend within Republican circles who rose to fame with his work for Ford’s 1976 and Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaigns. After Reagan’s victory, Manafort decided to cash in by starting a lobbying, consulting, and PR firm alongside campaign colleague Roger Stone. The firm became infamous for representing controversial authoritarian regimes or opposition leaders abroad who served as proxies for the Reagan administration’s anticommunist foreign policy. With his media mastery, Manafort helped sanitize crooks like Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe hoarding wife, Imelda, despite the number of people killed during their regime. Along with Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, and Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi, these thuggish dictators should never have been respectable figures in Washington. But Manafort reinvented them as allies in the cause of democracy and successfully lobbied for them to receive arms and aid from the US government. Yet, he’d also occasionally jump back into US politics such as manage the 1996 Republican National Convention.

As communism fell, the former Soviet Union became the scene of one of the biggest historic swindles. In Russia, the KGB steered billions of dollars into offshore bank accounts during the USSR’s dying days. These funds became the basis for some of the fortunes of the characters now appearing in the Russiagate scandal. During this time, it’s said that now Russian President Vladimir Putin amassed wealth totaling more than $40 billion. Russians who invested in Donald Trump over the years had many motives. Yet, the nature of kleptocracy suggests they were likely attempting to relocate their money to a place where it would both disappear from public view and have protections coming with the American rule of law.

By around 2004, Paul Manafort pursued bigger payoffs abroad through advising fantastically rich oligarchs in the former Soviet Union on how to master tumultuous democratic politics. He advised Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. But eventually his efforts focused on Ukraine, landing a lucrative contract to advise its pro-Russian Party of Regions and its leader Viktor Yanukovych. When Manafort got the gig, the political party was unpopular and in opposition. Yet, over the next few years, he’d orchestrate the party’s return to power and Yanukovych’s 2010 election as president. Once Yanukovych was in office, Manafort became enormously influential in the regime. According to the Atlantic, Manafort had “walk-in” privileges and billed “outrageous amounts,” while advising on domestic politics and lobbying in the US. During these years, Mueller claims that Manafort earned over $60 million. But in 2014, it all fell apart when demonstrators forced Yanukovych out of power and he fled to Russia. Meanwhile, Manafort and Deripaska had a falling-out with the latter suing the former over cheating him of millions. Nonetheless, during Manafort’s years in Ukraine, the country hemorrhage more than $118 billion in illicit financial flows. This theft came at the expense of its development as a market economy, sucked funds away from public investment, as well as eroded faith in democracy and Western institutions.

In 2015, Paul Manafort saw another opportunity in Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. As an outsider candidate, Trump needed someone with expertise on party and convention rules who could lock down delegates for him. Since two longtime Manafort associates had Trump’s ear like Roger Stone and wealthy real estate investor Tom Barrack had pitched him for the job. After Trump hired Manafort in March 2016, his primary job was primarily leading a delegate-wrangling operation. But his portfolio gradually expanded until he was running the campaign. After then chairman Corey Lewandowski was drummed out for assaulting a Breitbart reporter in May, Manafort was officially named campaign chair and chief strategist. He then ran the effort through the last few primaries and the Republican National Convention for free. However, by mid-August, Trump had sunk in the polls while Manafort was dogged by damaging news reports questioning the legality of his Ukranian payments. So Trump forced him out and brought Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon to take over. As 2017 progressed with the Mueller’s Russia investigation, Manafort came under increased scrutiny resulting in his October indictment with new charges added this year.

Though Mueller originally indicted Paul Manafort in Washington, he wasn’t ready to bring the tax and bank fraud charges against him. This was either due to bureaucratic holdup or due to his team still assembling evidence there. But by February 2018, Mueller was ready to file them. But the catch was that the law required some of the counts charged in Alexandria, Virginia where Manafort actually lives. Unless Manafort specifically gave Mueller permission to charge him in DC, which wasn’t going to happen. This posed an interesting dilemma for him. On one hand, it’s easier and less expensive to just prepare for one trial than 2. Also, 2 separate trials give the prosecution 2 separate opportunities, before 2 different judges and different juries to convict him. This makes it a lucky break to get him off the hook entirely less likely to happen. On the other hand, Washington DC’s population is far more liberal and nonwhite than that of Virginia’s Eastern District. Manafort likely thought he had a better acquittal chance in the latter venue. Moreover, the specific charges that would be brought against him in Virginia likely played into his thinking. Compared to the DC charges, there are more of them and are generally viewed tougher to beat as well as mean a longer prison sentence. However, Manafort’s team hoped the Washington trial would be first since the charges were filed much earlier. But Virginia is known as a “rocket docket” for its speed in bringing cases to trial.

Paul Manafort’s trial in Virginia is about his money, particularly how he made it as he faces 18 counts. It’s expected to last 2-3 weeks. The government’s evidence exhibit list and witness list are both public, giving us a fairly good idea of the prosecution’s plans. Mueller’s team is presenting an assortment of financial documents, emails, photos, and other evidence to record Manafort’s spending from offshore accounts and alleged false bank loan submissions. As for witnesses, Mueller’s team is expected to potentially call up to 35 people to testify. Since this is a money case, they’re generally not big names. More likely, the witnesses are mostly accountants, financial institution employees, and little-known employees at Manafort’s firm.

However, there are 2 exceptions. First there’s iTad Devine, a Democratic consultant most famous for advising Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. But before that, he worked alongside Manafort in Ukraine. But the government’s star witness is Rick Gates, Manafort’s right-hand man who worked with him in Ukraine and the Trump campaign. In October 2017, Gates was charged alongside his boss in Mueller’s probe, but struck a plea deal in February 2018. Since he was Manafort’s closest business associate during this period, his testimony about what his boss said or thought could be important. On Monday, August 6, 2018, Gates took the stand against his old boss. Gates testified that he and Paul Manafort knowingly committed several crimes. At his boss’ direction, Gates didn’t report 15 foreign financial they controlled to the US government, even though they knew it was illegal. He also testified that Manafort directed him to send millions in foreign cash as phony “loans” to his US companies in order to avoid paying taxes on them. But even more damning, Gates admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from those accounts without Manafort’s knowledge, which the defense team has signaled they’d seize upon in an attempt to discredit him.

Beyond publicly claiming his innocence and hiring some expensive lawyers who’d take him, Paul Manafort’s defense strategy is basically trying to pin as many allegations against him as they can on Rick Gates instead. In fact, defense lawyer Thomas Zehnle has focused much of his opening statement attacking Gates, claiming that Manafort had merely, “placed his trust in the wrong person,” accusing Gates of embezzling, and calling Gates the “foundation of the special counsel’s case.” Obviously, this is a longshot strategy since Mueller’s team has already called 30 other witnesses and has plenty of documentary evidence to make the case that Manafort knew what he was doing. So they’re not just relying on Gates’ word alone. Nonetheless, given the sheer volume of evidence, going after Gates is the defense’s best bet. Should Gates come off as credible to the jury, Manafort is sunk. But should the defense’s attack on Gates succeed in planting doubt in jurors about the prosecution as a whole, that could be Manafort’s best chance of avoiding a guilty verdict.

The first set of charges, which Mueller refers to as “the tax scheme,” relate to Manafort’s flush years when the Ukranian money poured into his coffers by the tens of millions in US dollars. According to Mueller, Manafort set up a complex web of offshore shell companies before spending $30 million of that cash in the US between 2008 and 2014. About $12 million of that offshore money was spent on personal items for Manafort and his family spread across over 200 transactions. This includes about $5.4 million to a home improvement company in the Hamptons, $1.3 million tied to a Virginia antique rug store, $849,000 or so to a New York men’s clothing store, $819,000 on landscaping, and several payments for several Range Rovers and a Mercedes Benz. Another $6.4 million in offshore cash was wired for 3 real estate payments: $1.5 for a New York City condo, $3 million for a Brooklyn brownstone, and $1.9 million for a Virginia house. On top of that, Manafort allegedly sent another $13 million as “loans” to US companies he controlled. Yet, the government call these “shams” designed to fraudulently reduce his taxable income. According to Mueller, all this violated the law in 2 ways:

  • False income tax returns (5 counts): Manafort didn’t report any of this money on his income tax returns or taxes paid on it. He also lied on those tax returns that he had no authority over any financial accounts in foreign countries. He faces one count for each tax year from 2010-2014.
  • Failure to report foreign bank or financial assets (4 counts): Manafort also didn’t report any of his foreign accounts to the Treasury Department by filing a legally required disclosure called a FBAR form. He faces one count for each year from 2011-2014.

Then there’s the second set of charges which Mueller refers to as “the financial institution scheme.” According to him, after Yanukovych was deposed and the Ukranian money dried up, Paul Manafort was desperate for cash and made a series of fraudulent to banks in an effort to get hefty mortgage loans or “to have the benefits of liquid income without paying taxes on it.” All the charges here are either bank fraud (4 counts) or bank fraud conspiracy (5 counts) relating to several different loans from 2015-2017, which are:

  • To get $3.4 million on a New York City condo, Manafort falsely told a lender that the property was a second home when it was a rental. But he failed to disclose previous mortgage debt, and falsely claimed it was forgiven after the lender discovered that debt.
  • Searching for another loan, Manafort submitted a doctored profit and loss form to a different potential lender overstating his consultant firm’s income by more than $4 million.
  • To get a $5.5 million loan on a Brooklyn brownstone, Manafort didn’t disclose that he already had a loan on that property and got an associate to submit a form overstating his firm’s income by $2 million.
  • To get loans of $9.5 million and $6.5 million on 2 properties, Manafort again submitted doctored profit and loss forms overstating his family’s income by millions. He also falsely claimed he had $300,000 debt on his American Express card only because he lent it to his former aide Rick Gates.

Though sprawling as it seems, Paul Manafort’s Virginia trial is just the start of his legal woes since Mueller has also indicted him on a set of 7 charges in Washington DC for a trial scheduled in September. Generally, this DC trial will focus more on Manafort’s actual work in Ukraine, rather than his money. The charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States and making false Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) statements. Additionally, in June, Mueller brought 2 new charges related to attempted witness tampering. According to the special counsel, Manafort and a Russian associate contacted witnesses and urged them to give a false story. After these new charges, DC Judge Amy Berman Jackson sent Manafort to jail to await trial, arguing he’d “abuse the trust” placed in him by the court system.

While the many, many charges against Paul Manafort are egregious, they have nothing to do with Russia interfering in the 2016 presidential election. But he has been a central figure in the Mueller probe’s aspect for the very obvious reasons he spent years working for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and was in debt to a Russian oligarch. Then there are 2 curious incidents during the Trump campaign Manafort was tied to. First, in June 2016, he attended Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer and other Russia-tied figures. Though attendees claimed that despite the meeting was set up with the promise on Hillary Clinton dirt, nothing of consequence happened.
Second and more importantly, there’s a set of suspicious contacts Manafort had with 2 Russian nationals. One was the aforementioned Russian oligarch he’s indebted to, Oleg Deripaska. The other is his former employee from Ukraine Konstantin Kilimnik, who Mueller says has ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik was also indicted in June alongside Manafort for alleged witness tampering but it’s unlikely he’ll face trial in Russia.

Anyway, during the 2016 campaign, Manafort and Kilimnik exchanged a series of cryptic emails about Deripaska and apparently, money. In April 2016, Manafort asked, “How do we use to get whole. Has OVD operation seen?” Kilimnik wrote that July, “He will be most likely looking for ways to reach out to you pretty soon.” Manafort answered, “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate.” At the end of the month, Kilmnik wrote that he had met with, “the guy who gave you your biggest black caviar jar” and that “I have several important messages from him to you.” Investigators believe that “black caviar” refers to money. We’re not yet sure what was going on here. It could be where Trump-Russia collusion occurred. Yet, it’s just as likely that Manafort was going rogue trying to get paid since he was desperate for cash at the time. Nonetheless, while Mueller continues investigating Manafort for collusion-related crimes, no charges have yet resulted from that part and its current status remains unclear.

Publicly, more of Robert Mueller’s activity has been focused on Paul Manafort than on any single person involved in the Russia investigation despite that none of the 25 charges against him so far have anything to do with election interference. The most common proposed explanation is that Mueller believes Manafort has important information for the collusion probe. And that he’s brought so many other charges against him as pressure in hopes he’ll “flip” and spill what he knows. Given how the special counsel charged Rick Gates with past Ukraine-related crimes and withdrew nearly all counts as soon as he agreed to cooperate, it seems very likely. Though it’s also possible that Mueller is sending Manafort to prison for what he sees as repeated violations and doesn’t really care whether he flips or not.

Still, if Mueller is trying to get Paul Manafort to flip, it hasn‘t worked. As of now, he faces 25 charges that could easily put him in jail for the rest of his life and the evidence of many if not most of these counts appear quite strong. But Manafort has pleaded not guilty to everything and has given no public indication he’s considered flipping. Why? Perhaps he has nothing to flip with. Either Manafort wasn’t involved in the collusion or has nothing on Donald Trump or anyone else Mueller cares about. But it’s more likely that Manafort is just holding out hope that he can beat the charges. A darker possibility is that, given an apparent series of Russian-linked assassinations in the West, Manafort fears violent reprisals against himself or his family should he give information implicating Russians. However, given that Gates worked alongside him for Russia-connected clients and still flipped, the idea doesn’t hold water. Unless Gates is an insanely brave man. But criminal associates usually flip to avoid something whether it be a long prison sentence or worse. And that Gates most likely flipped since he’s much younger on Manfort and has young children.

Nonetheless, the most likely reason that Manafort keeps mum is that he’s holding out for a Donald Trump presidential pardon. After all, last year, The New York Times reported that Trump’s then-lawyer John Dowd discussed a possible presidential pardon with Manafort’s lawyer. Rudy Giuliani has recently floated the idea as well. Yet even a pardon may not be a get-out-of-jail-free card. There’s a host of complications involved ranging from potential state charges against him which Trump can’t pardon away to the prospect that Manafort would no longer be able to avoid testimony by pleading the Fifth on certain matters. Besides, given to what befell Michael Cohen, Trump is unlikely to pardon anyone unless the outcome is beneficial to him. Say what you want about Joe Arpaio and the Hammonds, but their pardons at least appeal to the Republican base. Given that Manafort is somewhat a legendary figure among Republicans, holding out for a pardon might work in his favor. However, the fact he’s gained notoriety as a man who worked for pro-Russian oligarchs and dictators for cash to buy an ostrich coat, we shouldn’t bet on it.

Lordy, There Are Tapes

On Thursday, July 26, 2018, federal authorities seized more than 100 tape recordings made by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, including the bombshell tape CNN published 2 days earlier appearing to feature Donald Trump discussing a payoff to former Playboy model Karen MacDougal. Yet, while Trump only makes a cameo in some of the fragments, the tape released is only one featuring a substantive conversation between the two men. Though a number of tapes reportedly capture conversations Cohen had with journalists asking about his former boss. While others may have included talk sometimes touching on Trump and his unethical business practices.

In the tape released on CNN, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen can be heard discussing a payment to Karen MacDougal, who received $150,000 in exchange for selling her story about her Trump affair to the National Inquirer. The American Media, Inc. publication bought her tale specifically to keep her quiet. Yet, this recording confirms that Trump knew about Cohen’s involvement in the MacDougal payoff. Nevertheless, Cohen’s MacDougal tape release seemed to suggest that his once steadfast allegiance to Trump had truly begun to waver.

According to Cohen’s attorney and longtime Clinton ally, Lanny Davis, Michael Cohen would occasionally secretly record conversations with clients in lieu of taking notes. As he told the Washington Post, “Michael Cohen had the habit of using his phone to record conversations instead of taking notes. He never intended to make use of the recordings and certainly didn’t intend to be deceptive.” Still, these revelations around this new tape trove are only the latest developments hinting that Trump’s self-described “fix-it guy” might’ve been considering to flip.

On Friday, July 27, 2018, Michael Cohen has become willing to tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Donald Trump had advance knowledge of the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which Russians offered campaign aides Hillary Clinton dirt. In case you don’t know, on June 9,2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer and 4 others with Russian ties. An email to Trump Jr. Setting up the meeting claimed the Russian government had incriminating information on Clinton to offer. Yet, though all parties present nothing of significance came out of it, it has played a major role in Mueller’s investigation whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 campaign. According to CNN, “Cohen alleges that he was present, along with several others, when Trump was informed of the Russians’ offer by Trump Jr. By Cohen’s account, Trump approved going ahead with the meeting with the Russians, according to sources.” While Cohen didn’t have a tape recording on him at the time nor evidence to corroborate this claim, his revelation comes as a surprise to no one.

Robert Mueller reportedly wants to ask Donald Trump when he learned about the Trump Tower meeting. He’s also investigated the false statement claiming adoptions, Trump helped his son draft last July in response to the meeting’s early reports. But while there’s been a lot of talk about Michael Cohen potentially flipping on Trump, there’s not yet word of him in talks with prosecutors about a plea deal. If Cohen eventually turns on his former client, this investigation might not be the only one where he’ll face questions.

So why would make the longstanding loyal Michael Cohen decide to flip? Mostly because while Donald Trump may expect unwavering loyalty from his subordinates, he usually doesn’t return the favor the associate in trouble starts becoming a liability. Cohen is no different since he’s currently under federal criminal investigation on his business dealings and payments he made covering up Trump’s alleged extramarital affairs. And there’s an open question around whether some of these payoffs were campaign finance violations since they were made in during the 2016 presidential campaign. As the pressure grew on him in recent months following a government office raid, Cohen reportedly felt Trump abandoned him with much of his recent reaction apparently fueled by a sense of betrayal. A Cohen associate characterized Trump’s treatment of his former attorney as akin to “leaving him out in the wilderness.”

Adding to Michael Cohen’s troubles, federal investigators from New York’s Southern District have subpoenaed Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg to testify in front of a grand jury since he was named-dropped in the September 2016 tape as well as linked to the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. In the latter, he set up a $35,000 retainer for Cohen from Trump’s personal trust as a repayment to the $130,000 hush money Cohen arranged for Daniels. Though it’s unclear if Weisselberg knew of the retainer’s purpose as a reimbursement for Daniels’ payoff. However, his mention hints at the possibility that the Trump Organization was directly involved in discussions to reimburse National Inquirer publisher AMI for MacDougal’s hush money payment. Weisselberg’s subpoena is a huge deal since he’s worked for the Trump Organization for decades as well as Trump’s father Fred in the 1970s. Since Trump became president, Weisselberg has co-managed the Trump Organization with his boss’ elder sons and is crucial to the business. He’s also listed as treasurer of the Trump Foundation, which the New York Attorney General’s Office sued for violating state and federal laws as well as did Trump’s personal tax returns for at least some years. So if there’s anything shady in Trump or his company’s finances, Weisselberg would know about it. As TrumpNation author Timothy L. O’Brien wrote in Bloomberg:

“Weisselberg isn’t a bit player in Trumplandia and his emergence on the Cohen-Trump recording — as someone possibly facilitating a scheme apparently meant to disguise a payoff — should worry the president. Weisselberg has detailed information about the Trump Organization’s operations, business deals and finances. If he winds up in investigators’ crosshairs for secreting payoffs, he could potentially provide much more damaging information to prosecutors than Cohen ever could about the president’s dealmaking.”

A former Trump Organization employee told NBC’s Katy Tur that “Alan [sic] knows where all financial bodies are buried within the Trump organization. He knows Trump’s net worth. He knows any and every expenditure out of Trump Org was approved by Alan [sic].” While Cohen might flip, he’s not the only one to know about Donald Trump’s financial secrets, particularly his Russian ties and his tax returns. After all, O’Brien writes that Weisselberg, “knows more about the Trump Organization’s history and finances than nearly anyone.” And if he admits to anything, it’ll be only a matter of time that he’ll be in hot water as Trump leaves him to the dogs.

But whether Michael Cohen flips or not, Donald Trump has slammed his taping of their discussion as “inconceivable” as if he framed his longtime amoral stooge as a villain and seeking to cast doubt on any negative ramifications this conversation might have for him. “Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things?” he tweeted. Trump attorney and sycophant Rudy Giuliani has acknowledged the tape’s existence but denied that his client did anything wrong. “Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance,” he told The New York Times. Then in a moment of idiocy, he added that Trump even passed for using a check to ensure proper documentation if any payment should transpire. Still, given that Cohen is facing serious legal jeopardy with charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, and potential campaign violations and Trump is unlikely to help him, we may one day see the fixer flip indeed.

Nonetheless, Michael Cohen’s tapes of Donald Trump and testimony about the Trump Tower meeting puts Trump’s duplicity on full display. Or at least confirm many people’s suspicions. Prosecutors may love tapes but so do juries that will eventually convict. Thus, even if the tapes don’t prove anything, the evidence is damning.

A Disgrace to the Nation, a Disgrace to the Presidency

I have not been shy about my fierce antagonism to Donald Trump. But his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin culminated in a show stopping trainwreck that should’ve shocked nobody but generated bipartisan outrage across the United States. On Monday, July 16, 2018, Trump held a friendly rendezvous with Putin who sabotaged an American election on his behalf. And he has been rewarded by seeing an American foreign policy turn in a pro-Russian direction.

When Donald Trump issued a plea on a podium in Doral, Florida on July 27, 2016, he stated, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” We all know he was referring to the emails Hillary Clinton had deleted as irrelevant to her work as Secretary of State. But for those who don’t understand, Trump was publicly asking for Russian agents to break into her computer systems, steal documents she had erased, and release them to the public. And according to recently released indictments Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed a few days before, that same day, for the first time, Russian hackers attempted to hack into, “email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office.” They also, “targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton campaign.” Now Russia’s campaign to interfere in the election had been an ongoing campaign as early as March that year. What Trump’s request seems to have done was focus efforts on Clinton’s inbox. There are plenty of plausible explanations of wat happened here. Maybe the Russians heard Trump’s call and heeded it. Perhaps Trump’s invitation was attached to a private plea to Russian contacts like one sent by either Paul Manafort or Roger Stone. It’s possible the whole thing was just coincidental. But we should resist the tendency to speculate since it’ll just distract us from what we do know. And it’s damning.

Nonetheless, it should be glaringly apparent that Vladimir Putin is not our friend. He does not share our values nor does he care for democracy. In fact, he rules Russia as a kleptocratic dictator with a repressive iron fist. For God’s sake, the guy had his critics and political opponents murdered, including journalists and ex-spies like Alexander Litvanenko in Great Britain. It’s obvious that Russia couldn’t have meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign by hacking into the DCCC, DNC, and Hillary Clinton’s team without his orders. And we know they orchestrated this massive information theft on the Dems and used it to help Donald Trump win. Not to mention, Russia’s efforts to help Trump win included social media campaigns to inflame racial divisions on his behalf with armies of bots meant to elevate stories boosting him and hurting Clinton along with efforts to compromise state voting machines. None of this is in doubt.

Even before Donald Trump decided to run for president, the Russian ties were there. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. said of the Trump Organization, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” And in 2014, Eric Trump added, “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” From 2003-2017, “buyers connected to Russia or former Soviet republics made 86 all-cash sales — totaling nearly $109 million — at 10 Trump-branded properties in South Florida and New York City.” Trump’s onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort had ties to the Kremlin and was deeply in debt to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, closely connected to Vladimir Putin. And he was keeping in touch with this guy’s team during the election as well as asked of his powerful position in the Trump campaign, “How do we use [it] to get whole?”

Yet, we also know that Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin even at considerable political cost after asking Russia to hack into Clinton’s emails, which it did. We know that Trump associates like Roger Stone seem to have advanced warning of the hacked emails’ release. We know that the willingness to cooperate with the Russians wasn’t one of Trump’s idiosyncratic musings. It was suffused in the Trump campaign’s top ranks since members of his inner circle like Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort eagerly accepted a meeting with Russian operatives promising Hillary Clinton dirt. And that Trump dictated the statement lying about the infamous Trump Tower meeting’s purpose. Additionally, we know the Trump campaign interfered in the Republican National Committee’s platform drafting to softening the language on Russia and Ukraine. We know that Jared Kushner sought a secret communications channel with the Russians so the US government couldn’t hear their negotiations.

The Russia strokefest even carry on to Donald Trump’s presidency for there has never been a single issue haunting his administration as long or as much as his Russian ties. Since his election, he’s bucked his party, his administration, and decades of foreign policy in attempts to shield Russia from sanctions for electoral interference, pull American support back from NATO and the European Union, and forge a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin. Then there’s Trump’s own testimony about firing FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation into Russia’s role into the 2016 election. In addition, he wanted to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for failing to protect him from the investigation. An it’s no wonder the Trump administration has moved from arguing that Trump didn’t obstruct justice to arguing that by definition, the president can’t obstruct justice. All of this leads to Trump insisting on the Helsinki meeting with Putin over his staff’s objections and despite the absence of any clear agenda.

Indeed, Donald Trump addressed the election hacking during his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin. “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” he said. Well, you think? Because of course he’d deny that he’d have anything to do with election hacking despite all evidence to the contrary. Trump then added, “And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer.” Uh, no it’s not. If anything, that’s like having Al Capone offering to help the cops with the investigation over the guys involved in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. You know that things won’t turn well. If anything, Putin isn’t interested with working with the Mueller investigation. More likely he’d offer to help with respect to draw people from the Mueller team into Russia to kill them.

Donald Trump then attacked US intelligence services and again mused how much better it might’ve been if Russia cracked into Hillary Clinton’s server and gotten her documents. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he demanded as if anyone cared about her emails 2 years after the 2016 election. “33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.” Even his allies were dumbstruck, with former Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher tweeting: “I continue to believe there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But when Trump so easily and naively accepts Putin’s line about not being involved, I can understand why Ds think Putin must have the goods on him.” Asked if Russia had compromising material on Trump, Putin replied, “it’s difficult to imagine utter nonsense on a bigger scale than this. Please disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.” Though you can imagine him privately laughing maniacally with fellow Russian officials. When asked about whether he holds Russia accountable for their actions contributing to the deterioration in the US-Russia relationship, he replied in an answer reeking of treason:

“Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think the United States has been foolish. I think we have all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time, frankly, before I got to office. I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward along with Russia. We’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it’s nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping, we have to do it — ultimately, that’s probably the most important thing that we can be working on.

“I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart. It’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. People are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually, none of it related to the campaign. They will have to try really hard to find something that did relate to the campaign.

“That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily and, frankly, we beat her. And I’m not even saying from the standpoint — we won that race. It’s a shame there could be a cloud over it. People know that. People understand it. The main thing — and we discussed this also — is zero collusion. It has had a negative impact upon the relationship of the two largest nuclear powers in the world. We have 90 percent of nuclear power between the two countries. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous what’s going on with the probe.”
He’s basically saying that the US is no better than Russia. And that he won a clean campaign so all what the Mueller probe is doing is hurting our relationship with Russia.

Despite that 12 Russian agents hacked into Democratic emails on Putin’s orders and for Trump’s benefit. And the Trump team was eager to let it all happen. Later, when asked specifically about Russia-backed hackers stealing Americans’ private correspondence, Donald Trump replied: “My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others, and said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties.” Uh, Coats and his team didn’t think it’s Russia. They said it was Russia. But anyways, as president of the United States, Trump stated that he has equal confidence in Vladimir Putin and the American intelligence community the same way he believes that both the white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” Such remarks are politically baffling since such remarks only undermine his position. The simplest explanation for why a president who happily outsources his domestic policy to Paul Ryan and his judicial nominations to the Federalist Society insists on freelancing around Russia is that there’s a genuine meeting of minds between Trump and Putin on a wide range of issues.

Take the matter of the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 Germany plans to build which Russia hawks in the US and Europe have long been concerned about. Such pipeline would give Russian fossil fuels more access to the European market. Donald Trump often likes to criticize Germany but rarely likes to bash Russia. But somehow, he surprised many observers by criticizing this pipeline at the NATO Conference in Brussels. On the surface, it appears that Trump had tried to ingratiate his passion for making trouble with German Chancellor Angela Merkel with something resembling routine American foreign policy. But the Helsinki summit quickly dashed those hopes. Asked by a Russian journalist about the pipeline and how he’d characterize the US-Russia relationship, Trump made it clear his pipeline concern isn’t that it would give Russia undue political leverage over Germany, but simply that would be bad for fossil fuel interests:

“I called him a competitor, and a good competitor he is. I think the word competitor is a compliment. I think that we will be competing when you talk about the pipeline. I’m not sure necessarily that it’s in the best interests of Germany or not. That was a decision that they made. We will be competing. As you know, the United States is now, or soon will be, but I think it is right now the largest in the oil and gas world. So we’re going to be selling LNG. We’ll have to be competing with the pipeline. I think we will compete successfully. Although there is a little advantage locationally. I wish them luck.

“I discussed with Angela Merkel in pretty strong tones. But I also know where they’re coming from. They have a very close source. We will see how that all works out. But we have lots of sources now. The United States is much different than it was a number of years ago when we weren’t able to extract what we can extract today. So today, we’re number one in the world at that. I think we will be out there competing very strongly. Thank you very much.”

Essentially, Donald Trump’s view on the relationship with NATO to Nord Stream 2 make absolutely no sense. But it’s consistent with his overall worldview. While a normal US leader may worry that Russo-German energy ties might undermine Germany’s ability to lead an independent Europe at a political level, Trump’s objection is backward. He doesn’t think it’s worth America’s while to contribute to Europe’s defense through NATO if Europe turns around and buys Russian gas. He defines Russia as a “competitor” to the United States exclusively in the commercial sphere rather than a geopolitical one. That’s why he called the EU a “foe” in much stronger terms in regards to competition levels in export markets. If you view world affairs through a mercantile like Trump does, then America’s closest allies who are mostly rich democracies are our biggest enemies and deterring Russian expansionism is a waste of cash. Nonetheless, it’s time to accept that this is what Trump really thinks and that’s how he’s governing accordingly.

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait published a speculative idea that Donald Trump had been a compromised Russian agent since the 1980s, which though chilling borders more on conspiracy theory than anything else. It’s more likely that Trump is more concerned on how the Russian election meddling for his behalf may render his electoral victory illegitimate. Though he doesn’t care much about how to win since he’s employed dubious means in the past. In fact, he’s more worried about getting caught. Nevertheless, like much of the debate, Chait’s piece reflects the view we’re still largely in the dark about the Trump Organization’s true nature of its relationship with Russia. Except we’re not. In fact, we know a vast amount about Trump’s Russia connections, Russia’s role in the 2016 election, the Trump Organization’s efforts to conceal Russian contacts, Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation into the matter, and about his treatment of Russia, Putin, and NATO since his election. As former NSA official and executive editor of Lawfare Susan Hennessy told Vox, “Every single time we’ve heard of that the Russians reached out to offer something — dirt on Hillary Clinton, access to another trove of emails, secret meetings, back channels — the common theme of every single individual in Trump’s orbit was, ‘Yes. Help us out.’ That is the really astounding picture that has emerged.”

While there is much left to find out, learning the truth is important for its own sake. Yet, the obsessive focus on what we still don’t know reflects a hope among Donald Trump’s opponents that Mueller will find something, reveal something, or bait Trump into doing something that will trigger consequences of some kind. However, there’s nothing so automatic in the system. And there’s no reason to believe further revelations would call forth that kind of response. At this point, the big issue isn’t what we don’t know. It’s what to do with what we do know.

Thanks to politics, the 2018 and 2020 elections can’t and won’t act as a clear way for accountability on Donald Trump and Russia. From issues such as Supreme Court justices, tax policy, Obamacare’s future, civil rights, workers’ rights, and environmental regulations, there is too much at stake at any given election these days and there are too few choices available for voters for them to answer a problem as complex and unusual as this one. This is especially true since Republicans control both houses of Congress and many in the House have went out of his way to protect him. Because they know their future is tied to Trump’s survival. Anything that weakens his administration weakens their 2018 reelection prospects, their ability to fill judgeships, and their ability to pass tax cuts. Thus, their political lives depend on Trump’s political strength.

It’s hard to remember now that Donald Trump entered the White House with an unexpectedly low level of support from his own party. Vulnerable Republican senators and House members refused to admit voting for him while Speaker Paul Ryan stated he’d no longer defend him. As a candidate, Trump was personally hostile to a number of established GOP figures like US Senator Ted Cruz and expressed heterodox views on a wide range of policy issues. Theoretically, it could’ve led to an unusual dynamic where congressional Republicans subjected Trump to an uncommonly stringent level of oversight for a same-party president, and Trump engaged in an uncommonly high level of policymaking cutting across established party lines. In practice, Trump and the GOP reached a Faustian compromise. Republicans would give no restraint whatsoever on Trump’s personal corruption or financial conflicts of interests. While Trump won’t attempt to pursue heterodox agendas on infrastructure, healthcare, anti-trust, etc. that he promised on the campaign trail, which was easy enough since he made them to give socially conservative white working-class voters no incentive to vote with their economic interests. And he doesn’t care much about those supporters anyway and had no plans on fulfilling what he promised them. The deal has worked well on domestic issues, culminating in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court.

But it’s begun falling apart on foreign affairs after a successful 2017. Coats, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and others with conventional conservative Republican views hold key advisor jobs in the Trump administration. However, Trump had no interest taking their advice since he thinks that advice is wrong. And now he’s acting to unravel America’s global trading relationships, doing what he can to undermine NATO and the EU, trying to find excuses to get out of defense obligations to South Korea, and otherwise implement a mercantilist vision he’s articulated over and over again. Thus, it’s time for congressional Republicans to stop issuing gutless statements denouncing him and start taking this seriously as his policy agenda. But since Republicans place a higher value on party unity than the foreign policy issues they claim to stand for, they will do whatever they can to stay in Trump’s good graces and avoid angering his base before the upcoming midterm elections. Because they don’t want to jeopardize their legislative agenda, they’ll let their Snowflake King take a sledge hammer on decades of US foreign policy on Russia and other issues. At the same time, the mainstream GOP tries desperately to at least pretend they can be anti-Putin and pro-Trump. However, the Trump-Putin presser makes it clear that it’s impossible.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats don’t have the power to do anything right now and are more focused taking back Congress back in 2018. But even if they do win the election, their priority will be retaking the presidency in 2020. So they’ll more likely focus on healthcare and Social Security, not Russia and the 2016 campaign. Thus, it’s best we don’t expect impeachment down the line in the foreseeable future. Since while the Democrats can successfully impeach him and remove him from office quite easily once they’re in power, that might mean President Mike Pence. And no one in the Democratic Party wants that.

As for the rest of the legal system, well, there’s nothing necessarily illegal about Donald Trump publicly asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Just as there’s nothing illegal about him pursuing a stunningly pro-Putin foreign policy after receiving Russia’s aid. The actual hacking was illegal, no doubt. But who’s going to hold Russia accountable for that? It won’t be the Trump administration who asked for and benefitted from their help. For when asked by a Reuters journalist “Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular” that has contributed to the decline in the US-Russia bilateral relationship, Trump delivered the defining answer of his foreign policy that he doesn’t. Nor did he object to Vladimir Putin’s oppression, Russia’s 2008 effort to dismember the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Russia-backed forces shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 and killing hundreds of civilians, Russia’s invasion of Crimea, its subsequent invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s apparent use of a deadly nerve agent in the UK, or of course, the computer hacking associated with the 2016 election.

Though Mueller’s indictments were announced just before the infamous Trump and Putin summit, it first led to talk of whether Trump might cancel it meeting (which he didn’t) and then speculation over whether and how he’d confront Putin over Russia’s actions. But everyone knows that Trump’s actual response to Russia’s intervention on his behalf has always been of gratitude and solicitousness. So what other response is there to a world power doing exactly what you asked of them in a time of political need?

Nevertheless, after a massive bipartisan condemnation of Donald Trump’s disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki where he questioned Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Trump held a surprise press conference the next day to walk back on his comments. Sitting at a table with members of Congress, he read clearly prepared statement asserting he had “accepted” US intelligence’s findings that Russia was behind cyberattacks leading up to the 2016 election. He claimed he had misspoken about the press conference when he questioned the idea of Russian interference which might be plausible in theory. But take his statement in the context of what Trump actually said, it makes no sense. And it’s very clear he’s still expressing skepticism about Russia’s guilt as he states:

“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others; they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. … I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails.

“So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people [Russian agents indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for election interference]. I think that’s an incredible offer.”

What he’s saying is that there’s a conflict between US intelligence and Russia claims, that he’s not sure who’s right, and that he’d appreciate Russian intelligence’s help in clearing up what happened. Despite the fact that the 12 newly indicted Russians were intelligence agents so we’re in no position to trust Russian intelligence on such matters whatsoever. What’s more he still reiterated his skepticism when he said, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” following it up with, “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.” He still doesn’t believe Russia is involved and he’s trying to convinced us that he didn’t mean what he said. Let’s not kid ourselves that Trump’s trying to gaslight the entire world and assert something he didn’t by sheer force of confidence. He’s brazenly lying to us and we shouldn’t let him get away with it. Russia meddled with the 2016 presidential campaign of which can there be no doubt. We shouldn’t believe otherwise.

Yes, Virginia, There Was a Manchurian Candidate and Now He’s President

While Donald Trump was out of the country acting like a complete disgrace toward our closest ally, Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed an indictment against 12 Russian officers for crimes related to hacking and publicly releasing the Democrats’ emails as part of an effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential campaign. As long suspected, Mueller alleges it was Russian intelligence officers behind the high-profile hackings of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and various Hillary Clinton campaign staff emails, including those of her campaign manager John Podesta. Many of these were posted by 3 separate entities. Two of those, “Guccifer 2.0” and “the DCL Leaks website” were created and controlled by GRU officers from Russia’s intelligence agency. The third, Wikileaks, got the stolen DNC emails from these officials (and eventually, the Podesta emails), but referred as “Organization 1” it’s not yet charged with anything.

The indictment presents significant technical evidence on precisely how these Russians pulled off the hack, including electronic communications and transfers of information between the various figures involved. However, there’s no allegation that any Americans or any Trump campaign member were criminally or knowingly involved in the hackings or leaks. Or at least not yet. But nonetheless, this new slew of indictments brings the entire total in the Mueller probe to 32 individuals and 3 companies.

The new indictments released on Friday, July 13, 2018, provide concrete evidence that the release of the hacked DNC emails was timed for maximum political impact. And they suggest Russian intelligence agents and Wikileaks planned to engineer discord between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. According to the latest Mueller statement, a conversation between Russian intelligence and Wikileaks on July 6, 2016 had the latter correspond with GRU officers with “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.” After the Russians responded with, “ok … i see,” Wikileaks explained their motives for wanting information that would reveal tension between the Sanders and Hillary camps. They replied with, “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary … so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.” Of course, tensions between Sanders and Clinton existed long before the hacked emails were released since it was why the DNC was such a splash. But Russia and Wikileaks knew that releasing the information at the opportune time would have ripple effects. The Democratic National Convention was meant to be a coming together moment to focus on defeating Donald Trump and the Republicans after a long and bitter primary between Clinton and Sanders. In fact, Sanders actively encouraged his fans to vote for Clinton in his convention speech. Yet, with the leaked emails as backdrop, he was booed at every turn and some Berniecrats didn’t heed his call to vote at all in 2016. Though there is a lot of speculation about how the trove of leaked DNC documents spurred discord between the two groups, the indictments suggest that this is exactly what the Russians wanted.

Mueller’s indictments also detailed a Russian hack into a state board of elections website (believed to be Illinois) in July 2016. According to him, Kremlin-linked hackers, “stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers.” In addition, Russian spies penetrated a US vender that supplied voter-registration verification software and, in November 2016, sent over 1,000 spearfishing emails to “organizations and personnel involved in administering elections in numerous Florida counties.” They even visited election websites in Georgia, Florida, and Iowa in an attempt to find vulnerabilities. The incursions into the US voting infrastructure have been widely reported. But Mueller’s indictment present clear evidence that Russian intelligence probed into the systems. Though there’s no proof that these hacks altered the vote count or election outcome. Yet, Russia wasn’t poking around for kicks since spies were likely gathering information and searching out vulnerabilities.

But these 12 new indictments of Russian intelligence officers are a powerful reminder of the 2 hard core truths of the Trump-Russia story that often go missing amid the political controversy and amateur detective work. First, whether the anyone in Trump campaign was knowingly involved or not, real crimes were committed in 2016 with real victims. Second, since announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 2015, Donald Trump has gone out of his way to shield those who committed these crimes from exposure or accountability. But whether that’s because his campaign colluded with Russia or that he merely benefited from these crimes remains to be seen. Yet, these points are worth dwelling over because they cut against 2 commonplace narratives about the case. One renders the entire issue as a question of mystery and spycraft, leading ultimately to things like Jonathan Chait’s maximalist speculation that perhaps Trump had been a KGB asset since the 1980s or anything comparable to the stuff of Cold War fiction like The Manchurian Candidate. The other renders it as a narrowly political question where passionate Hillary Clinton fans should feel robbed of an election win. Though her critics across the political spectrum can smugly feel self-assured there were other reasons she lost.

Obviously, illegal hacking and invasion of privacy is a bad thing on its own terms regardless of election outcome. When Russian hackers pilfered John Podesta’s Gmail inbox, they didn’t exclusively obtain material highly relevant to Hillary Clinton’s career and political prospects. In fact, the vast majority was simply the personal correspondence of a man involved with Democratic Party politics. Wikileaks then laundered through his emails to disguise their origins and posted their entirety online with no regard to privacy or newsworthiness. The contents include a risotto recipe, an email birth announcement by a friend, a performance evaluation on a previous job, and hundreds upon hundreds of examples that had nothing to do with Clinton or American politics. But once the emails were out, there were few visible alternatives but to cover them. It’s understandable why Republicans chose to opportunistically take advantage of the crimes by gleefully citing them as a damning indictment on Clinton. However, fundamentally, all Americans using email have a genuine interest not seeing this form of privacy invasion not to become a routine aspect in our lives. It’s illegal for a reason, and it would be good for people committing this kind of crime to be caught and punished.

But Donald Trump has consistently acted to prevent any form of accountability. In fact, during the 2016 campaign, he publicly lauded the criminals on TV. Of course, he shouldn’t have done this since it was in poor form. But the fact he did this probably deserved to be a bigger point of emphasis in the coverage at the time. Yet, what’s really remarkable is that Trump has kept operating as a kind of de facto accessory after the fact of the crimes. He’s repeatedly denied the existence of a Russian hacking campaign by over and over again suggesting that Mueller and the federal investigators looking into the crime are nothing but a partisan political ploy. However, at best, it’s Trump rather than Mueller who’s exclusively viewing the whole thing through a partisan lens. But a less generous interpretation of Trump can be that he’s deliberately trying to stymie the investigation because he’s aware that he’s personally guilty of serious crimes. And he fears a thorough investigation will expose them.

Even if that’s not the case and Donald Trump is merely reacting to the partisan interest in the Trump-Russia investigation with his own partisan antics, the misconduct involved is serious. A president has obligations to the country and to its citizens, including those who didn’t vote for him. Donald Trump’s inability to even feign anger or outrage at the real crimes committed against real American citizens is remarkably relative to the context of what’s ordinarily considered acceptable presidential behavior. That it seems banal from Trump itself is perhaps not surprising given how flagrantly and consistently he reminds us that he doesn’t care about anyone outside his narrow circle of support. Yet, that’s merely a measure of how far we’ve fallen as a society in the Trump era. But it’s not a real reason to ignore it.

Still, you have to wonder about Donald Trump’s conduct over the whole Russia investigation. On July 27, 2016, in front of TV cameras in front of the whole world, he said he hoped Russia would, “find the 30,000 emails that are missing … I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Apparently, Russian intelligence officers were happy to oblige since they launched a new attack to hack and publicly Democratic emails, according to Mueller’s latest indictments. To be clear, the DNC emails had been hacked and leaked by then while Podesta’s inbox was already compromised. In fact, the Russian email phishing expeditions against the Democrats were well underway by March 2016 when the Podesta emails were infiltrated. In May, George Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged about Russians having dirt on Hillary Clinton to an Australian diplomat. The infamous Trump Tower meeting involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort took place in June. Thus, Trump’s comments can’t be claimed as the start of Russia’s digital attacks against American political parties and figures. But the timing is nevertheless uncanny. Because the same day he called for Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails, the hackers went after Clinton’s personal email within hours. As the indictment states:

“The conspirators spearphished individuals affiliated with the Clinton campaign through the summer of 2016. For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton campaign.”

Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s brazen comment urging a foreign power to hack his opponent has always been difficult to decipher. Was it a typical Trump bluster, at a time when hacked emails and Clinton’s email server were huge news stories? Or was there something more sinister going on. The new Mueller indictment doesn’t answer that. But it sure looks like when Trump asked Russia to find Hillary’s emails, Russia heard him.

In addition, the White House’s reaction to Mueller’s new indictments included zero condemnation of Russia for interfering in a US presidential election. But instead focused on bolstering Donald Trump’s longtime assertions that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia and that interference didn’t change the 2016 election’s outcome. Apparently, calling out Russia for launching a malicious attack against American democracy wasn’t a Trump White House priority. Since it was a glaring omission people noticed immediately as one guy tweeted: “The White House statement on today’s indictment includes no condemnation of Russia. It also refers to “alleged hacking.” The fact that hacking happened is not an allegation.” Except that Russia intelligence was behind the high-profile DNC and DCCC hacking breaches during the 2016 campaign. And while the indictment doesn’t allege any American or Trump campaign involvement yet (at least knowingly), it seems that was the message the White House wanted us to take away.

Despite that the new indictments don’t prove that the Trump campaign was entirely innocent either. In fact, far from it. During the 2016 campaign, it was apparent enough that Donald Trump was unusually friendly to Russia and that the Russian interventions seemed aimed at trying to help his electoral chances at Hillary Clinton’s expense. After the election, more and more attention became devoted whether any Trump’s associates and Putin’s government coordinated to intervene in the campaign in some way. Though there’s no smoking gun yet, it’s not mere idle speculation either. As of July 2018, there are at least 6 instances in which Trump associates tried to get Russian dirt communicated with hacking and leaking figures. The FBI investigation kicked off when George Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged to an Australian diplomat about getting Russian dirt against Hillary Clinton. Then there’s the infamous Trump Tower meeting that June involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort meeting with Russians to discuss “adoption” through Next, we have Cambridge Analytica, Roger Stone, and Donald Trump Jr.’s contacts with Wikileaks. In addition, Roger Stone corresponded with Guccifer 2.0 while remaining in Trump’s orbit as an impromptu adviser. Last, there’s the matter of Republican operative Peter Smith trying to find the missing Hillary Clinton emails who claimed he was in contact with Michael Flynn and other Trump staff.

Nonetheless, the 12 new indictments of Russian intelligence officers come at a very bad time for Donald Trump who’s supposed to meet face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin within three days at the time. It’s more likely Mueller announced the indictments on July 13 because that’s when they were ready since they reflect months and months of work by him and his team. While the Putin meeting only materialized just weeks ago. According to Assistant Attorney General Rob Rosenstein, the timing of the release “is a function of the collection of the facts, the evidence, and the law and a determination that it was sufficient to present the indictment at this time.” But even if that wasn’t intentional, it’s extremely awkward for Trump since he’s about to meet Putin for a high-stakes diplomatic meeting in Helsinki, which they’re expected to discuss Russia’s election hanky panky among other things. While that’ll be contentious, Putin will again deny Russia interfere at all while Trump will say he believes him as a matter of course. Yet, thanks to the Mueller indictments proving that Russian spies were behind the Democratic hacking breach, Trump will find it a lot harder to say he believes Putin without looking like a complete fool in the process at best or complicit a worst. In fact, Trump will at least find it harder to avoid the topic altogether.

For in Vladimir Putin’s tightly controlled Russia, it’s nearly impossible to believe all these people operated for months to sway the US election without their boss’s green light, as 3 US intelligence concluded in January 2017. At the minimum, it stretches credulity to think Putin at least didn’t know about the efforts. Yet, with all the evidence piling up, there’s a miniscule chance Donald Trump will challenge Putin’s denial when they meet. Hell, he might even stop praising Putin and Russia as he has over the past few days despite knowing the imminent indictments days ago. If any of this happens, it’d be a huge shift in his approach toward the Russian dictator and the Mueller investigation. But don’t bet on that because admitting that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to get Trump elected will likely tarnish his victory which he likes bragging about. He could heed Democratic calls to cancel the meeting entirely.

On Saturday, July 14, 2018, Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets with, “The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration. Why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?….Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t the FBI take possession of it? Deep State?” Indeed, Barack Obama was president during that time. But the hacks at the DNC, DCCC, and the Hillary Clinton campaign were meant to hurt her and help Trump, which the US intelligence community has repeatedly asserted. Furthermore, why Obama didn’t act sooner is complicated but he did send Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, CIA Director John Brennan, and other administration members to look into it as soon as he knew about it. But he didn’t make a show of it due to squabbles among Democratic and Republican leaders. Vice President Joe Biden even said that during an event or the Council of Foreign Relations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to sign a bipartisan condemning Russia’s 2016 activities. And that the Obama administration worried that without a bipartisan front, it would look like they were trying to sway the election, which he didn’t want. As Biden told Politico, “Can you imagine if the president called a press conference in October, with this fella, [Trump campaign CEO Steve] Bannon, and company, and said, ‘Tell you what: Russians are trying to interfere in our elections and we have to do something about it.’ What do you think would have happened? Would things have gotten better, or would it further look like we were trying to delegitimize the electoral process, because of our opponent?” Though the Obama administration formally accused the Russian government that October, it came just a half-hour before the infamous Access Hollywood tape leaked. And we all know which story got more publicity.

In the meantime, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned of the intensifying threat of cyberattacks against US digital infrastructure, calling Russia “the most aggressive foreign” in attempts to disrupt and divide America. He told the audience at the Hudson Institute, “These actions are persistent, they’re pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not. The warning signs are there. The system is blinking. And it is why I believe we are at a critical point.” Coats has been one of the more vocal voices in the Trump administration about the very real threat of Russia incursions into US digital infrastructure and its meddling to sow discord and division. He has previously warned that the 2018 midterms could be a Russian hacking target and according to the New York Times, he indicated that the federal government was working with state and local jurisdictions to secure their infrastructure. Yet, Russia isn’t the only offender for North Korea, China, and Iran are also waging cyberattacks at all fronts: federal, state, and local governments along with private entities. However, Coats stated that so far analysts haven’t seen, “electoral interference in specific states and in voter databases that we experienced. However, we realize we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.” So it pays to remain vigilant of future Russian hacks.