Terror in Kenosha

On Sunday, August 23, 2020, police were called to the scene at 5:11 pm in the Wilson Heights neighborhood of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The caller’s name remains unknown. During this time, a 29-year-old black man named Jacob Blake was trying to break up a “verbal altercation” between 2 women. He was unarmed and wearing a white tank top and black shorts. In the video, Blake walks in front of a gray van coming from the passenger’s side and heading toward the driver’s side. There are four officers visible and two closely follow behind him, their guns aiming Blake’s back. Many people are heard yelling. As Blake opens the driver’s side door, one officer snatches his tank top by the end, stretching out as he tries getting in. At least seven shots are fired in Blake’s back, that will eventually paralyze him from the waist down for life. The van’s horn blares. The officer keeps holding Blake’s shirt. A woman screams and is pushed away.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the officers tried to arrest Blake and attempted deploying a taser to stop him. But the taser “was not successful at stopping Blake” before he walked around the vehicle and opened the driver’s side door. The report says the officer named Shesky fired those seven shots and no one else. But since the Kenosha Police Department doesn’t wear body cameras, we can’t be 100% sure. Yet, according to the police, Blake has received immediate aid and has been airlifted to a Milwaukee hospital. According to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Blake claimed to have a knife in his possession when the shooting occurred, which officials recovered from the floorboards of Blake’s van. But his three young sons were also inside and also witnessed the shooting. As civil rights attorney George Crump said in a statement, “We all watched the horrific video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back several times by Kenosha police. Even worse, his three sons witnessed their father collapse after being riddled with bullets. Their irresponsible, reckless, and inhumane actions nearly cost the life of a man who was simply trying to do the right thing by intervening in a domestic incident. It’s a miracle he’s still alive.”

As with the shooting of George Floyd back in May, crowds soon arrived to protest. Videos on social media showed demonstrations that included garbage trucks being set on fire, building windows near the courthouse smashed, and crowds clashing with police dressed in riot gear. Other accounts show an entire building and parking lot being burned during the night. Such activities led to county officials instituting a curfew until Monday at 7 am and the governor to deploy 125 National Guard troops to Kenosha. The scene intensified that Monday evening as organized marches outside the Kenosha County Courthouse gave way to rioting after the 8 pm curfew. According to Reuters, fires decimated much of the city’s black business district while protestors used bats to break traffic signs and signals. When the crowd reached 1,000 at a nearby park, police shot small beanbags and used “ear deafening audio” to disperse anyone refusing to move. Unrest spread to other cities including Madison, Portland, Minneapolis, New York City, and Seattle.

Unrest intensified after curfew again on Tuesday night. Protestors clashed with police officers outside the courthouse, which a metal barricade had blocked off. Tensions also rose at a nearby gas station where a group of armed men claiming to protect the property clashed with protestors. Online video footage shows people chasing after an armed 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse in an attempt to seize him and snatch his AR-15 style rifle he shouldn’t have been allowed to obtain. During the chase, Rittenhouse tripped and fell to the ground where he shoots a few of the people following him. Afterwards, he gets up, walks toward law enforcement officials, who don’t detain him, despite bystanders screaming he had just shot people. Two of the three were fatally hit while the third was admitted to the hospital with “serious, but non-life threatening injuries,” according to the Kenosha Police Department.

Rittenhouse is a self-proclaimed militia member with ties to law enforcement as a member of various law enforcement youth training programs. In January, he was front row at a Trump rally. His no longer publicly accessible Facebook profile show he’s a committed Blue Lives Matter supporter. A 2018 post on Rittenhouse’s page shows him asking to donate to the police advocacy nonprofit organization Humanizing the Badge on his birthday, writing “I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me, and I hope you’ll consider contributing as a way to celebrate with me.” Nonetheless, his affinity for the police didn’t stop him from committing any ill-advised right-wing vigilantism.

During a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Kenosha Police Chief Dan Miskinis tried shifting the blame of the shootings onto the protestors and the victims, stating that if they stayed inside, the shootings wouldn’t have taken place. “Everybody involved was out after the curfew. I’m not going to make a great deal of it, but the point is that the curfew is in place to protect. Had persons not been out in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened,” he said. Sure, trying to wrestle a gun out of someone’s hands was stupid. But blaming protestors for what happened is deeply irresponsible akin to blaming a rape victim for drinking too much or wearing provocative clothes instead of the rapist. Kenosha Sheriff David Beth responded to the concern that police didn’t arrest Rittenhouse when he walked past them. “I’ve been in a shooting before. In situations that are high-stress, you have such incredible tunnel vision. You have no idea what’s outside right here if you’re looking right here,” Beth said holding his hands up to gesture. Indeed, but this was the same department that didn’t hesitate to shoot Jacob Blake at the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing. Also, it was clear Rittenhouse shot those three people.

But Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian claimed he doesn’t want militia members to show up, saying, “I don’t need more guns on the street, in the community when we are trying to make sure we keep people safe. Law enforcement is trained. They’re the ones who are responsible. They’re the ones we have faith will do their job and make sure it gets done. That is why the curfews are there.” Compared to other Kenosha officials, he sounds rather reasonable. Unless you forget the fact that these protests are happening because at least one police officer acted the most unreasonably as shown by the bullet holes in Jacob Blake’s back. And despite a bystander yelling, “Hey, he just shot them,” law enforcement officials drove right past Rittenhouse instead of madly chasing him and arresting him.

Meanwhile, Rittenhouse left Wisconsin after the shooting and was arrested in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, which is 30 minutes away from Kenosha. To venture from your hometown to guard a gas station is highly suspicious and it’s likely he was there to shoot people. Even worse, video footage 15 minutes prior to the shootings show Rittenhouse walk up to an armored police car and chat with officers. A police officer pops out of one vehicle’s hatch and tosses bottles to Rittenhouse’s fellow militia mates, saying “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” before driving off. Since underage firearm ownership is a misdemeanor in Wisconsin, that cop didn’t even ask for ID. Unlike what you’d expect that same police officer to do when seeing a group of teenagers trying to buy booze at a liquor store.

Meanwhile, Rittenhouse left Wisconsin after the shooting and was arrested in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, which is 30 minutes away from Kenosha. To venture from your hometown to guard a gas station is highly suspicious and it’s likely he was there to shoot people. Even worse, video footage 15 minutes prior to the shootings show Rittenhouse walk up to an armored police car and chat with officers. A police officer pops out of one vehicle’s hatch and tosses bottles to Rittenhouse’s fellow militia mates, saying “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” before driving off. Since underage firearm ownership is a misdemeanor in Wisconsin, that cop didn’t even ask for ID. Unlike what you’d expect that same police officer to do when seeing a group of teenagers trying to buy booze at a liquor store.

Now these police shootings of unarmed people color like Jacob Blake are way too common occurrence in the US that I can already blurt out a whole list of victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Antwon Rose, Stephon Clark, and more. And it’s a shame that a lot of the police involved in these shootings are still patrolling their local streets to this day. It should be clear that while police departments may contain a few bad apples, these bad apples are spoiling the criminal justice system because their departments and/or unions are protecting them from receiving any form of accountability. But while the police shooting of Jacob Blake angers me as it reflects the systematic racism at work in our criminal justice system, it’s not what truly pisses me off in this case. No, it’s the Kenosha police’s leniency toward Rittenhouse whom they let go home and sleep before arresting him the next morning. Letting a guy go home after someone screaming he shot people seems highly irresponsible to law enforcement regardless of circumstance.

Look, I am not a person who has a high view of gun ownership. In fact, I loathe guns and support reasonable gun control measures like permits, registration, and banning assault weapons. But even if I don’t approve of owning a gun for protection against an armed home invasion, I think it’s well within your rights to do so. Even if I’d more likely see your gun as a security blanket. On the other hand, I don’t have those same reservations for armed militias which I liken to irresponsible vigilantism. As John Oliver said, “Let’s be clear, a 17-year-old vigilante with a rifle cannot maintain order because a 17-year-old with a rifle trying to maintain order is himself the definition of disorder.” It’s bad enough when police misbehave when they shoot unarmed black and brown people on the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing. Or crackdown on anti-police protestors, even if they act out of hand. But letting armed civilians patrol locales with guns that I wouldn’t consider street legal just seems beyond the pale, especially if that’s a 17-year-old boy who shot 3 people. Given that we don’t live in the Old West, condemning vigilante-style violence should be easy for anyone.

Nonetheless, given that most of the US police forces are heavily white, male, and politically conservative, we shouldn’t be surprised that police leaders often see armed civilians as allies, maybe even informal deputies. As University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson writes, “Police chiefs articulated a position of gun populism based on a presumption of racial respectability. Good guys with guns’ were marked off as responsible in ways that reflected white, middle-class respectability.” This helps understand why armed anti-lockdown protestors can menace the Michigan State Capitol without incident while anti-police violence demonstrators have been met with crackdowns. Indeed, police see guns as a scourge when they’re in the wrong hands, which usually tend to be black and brown ones. And unfortunately, this gun populism isn’t a new phenomenon at all given the long history of deeply racialized gun politics in America. Officers have significant discretion in how they choose to react to different situations, which is often used in a racist and violent fashion. And the way police seemingly encouraged Rittenhouse’s vigilantism is a microcosm of some of the fundamental problems in American policing and gun politics.

Unfortunately, instead of unequivocally condemning Rittenhouse’s heinous actions and other incidents of right-wing violence, Donald Trump has defended him stating, “That was an interesting situation. You saw the same tape that I saw, and he was trying to get away [from protesters], I guess, it looks like, and he fell, and then they very violently attacked him,” Trump said. “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would’ve been killed.” Except that Rittenhouse shot his first victim in the back. Yet, Trump casts the boy’s actions as justifiable self-defense, which it certainly wasn’t.

On Saturday, August 29, 2020, a pro-Trump convoy opened fire on counter-protestors in Portland, Oregon with paintball guns and pepper spray that got one pro-Trump demonstrator killed. Donald Trump tweeted a video of their behavior that all-but-openly cheered them on. Two days later, he claimed, “Paint is a defensive mechanism; paint is not bullets. These people, they protested peacefully.” While video from that scene shows Trump supporters literally shooting at people with paintball guns, macing people, and driving through crowds in a way that could’ve created the next Heather Heyer. When Laura Ingraham asked Trump whether he wants his supporters to confront protestors, he replied, “I want to leave it to law enforcement, but my supporters are wonderful, hardworking, tremendous people, and they turn on their televisions and they look at a Portland or a Kenosha … they can’t believe it.” Apparently, in Trumpworld, Trump supporters can do no wrong. And when they do, there’s always an adequate justification.

Yet, whenever the protests over police shootings initially break out, Donald Trump and his allies are quick to exploit any looting, violence, or property destruction going on there. For instance, despite Portland police stating they have no suspect, this hasn’t stopped Trump from accusing left-wing protestors who “killed a lot of people,” and announcing that Homeland Security and Justice Department are forming a joint operations center to “investigate violent left-wing civil unrest.” Besides, early arrest data shows that the looters and vandals in these demonstrations aren’t activists but people with criminal records exploiting the situation. Even left-wing groups engaging in violence aren’t Democratic Party supporters but anarchists and far-leftist with disdain for the liberal establishment. In fact, former Vice President and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden forcefully condemned the violence erupting amid largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, saying, “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness — plain and simple.”

By contrast, many far-right militia groups taking to the streets either support Donald Trump openly or share at least some of his ideas. They don’t exactly act on Trump’s orders since he’s not that overt. Nor do they directly report to Trump. Instead, there are loose coalitions of right-leaning armed groups who take Trump’s decision to dilly dally with right-wing militia violence as permission to keep it up or even escalate. This is called “generalized incitement” and it has significant potential to make things worse. As violent extremism expert J. M. Berger told Vox, “It’s not necessarily a situation where he has a very cohesive cadre of followers who will be violent in a strategic way, but his words land in a variety of communities that are primed for violence. Some who act may not necessarily be supporters of Trump per se, but may be more inclined to act in an atmosphere of chaos. Some of them will be supporters, though, and that could be very problematic depending on the numbers.”

As president, Donald Trump has the world’s biggest megaphone. And unlike the incel and white supremacist online communities on message boards and chat rooms that can lionize mass killers, his not-so-subtle support for political violence goes out to hundreds of millions. Even if a much smaller percentage of Trump’s audience has any inclination for violence, the huge numbers at work make the risks unacceptably high. In fact, since Trump took office, a lot of far-right political violence has already happened. Remember what happened in Charlottesville and how Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides?” Even after Heather Heyer got hit by that car. And as we speak, it’s said that 2/3 of terrorists in the US are connected to right-wing and white supremacist extremism. The fact Trump incites violence as president is one of the many reasons why he’s so dangerous. It is one thing to tout oneself as a law and order candidate. But if that person is an incumbent president who not so subtly encourages diehard supporters to commit violent acts against anyone disagreeing with him, then the words “law and order” are rendered meaningless.

A Nation in Crisis

One thing you can be certain about while living through the Trump years is that whenever you think this illegitimate and criminal presidential administration has hit rock bottom, rock bottom somehow has a deep basement that must now be some sleazy underground city at some point. Apparently, as the Trump crew descend further from the moral limbo stick since the 2016 presidential election, it has been one crisis after another each one being worse than before. As of June 2020, we’re in the midst of a major pandemic that has killed 100,000 Americans and without any form of capable, compassionate, or any unifying leadership.

On Thursday, May 25, 2020, a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Powderhorn community. While Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on a city street during an arrest, a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the right side of Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that time occurred after Floyd became unresponsive. Officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Keung, and Thomas K. Lane participated in Floyd’s arrest. Keung held Floyd’s back. Lane held his legs. Thao looked on and prevented an onlooker’s intervention as he stood nearby. Local police arrested Floyd, accusing him of using a fake $20 bill at a market. According to them, Floyd resisted arrest. While some media organizations stated that a nearby business security camera doesn’t show this. While the criminal complaint filed after the incident later said that body camera footage showed Floyd repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe while standing outside the police car, resisted getting in, and intentionally fell down. Several bystanders recorded the event with their smartphones with one showing Floyd repeating, “Please,” “I can’ breathe,” “Mama,” and “Don’t kill me.” Though Minnesota law allows knee-to-neck restraints under certain circumstances, law enforcement experts have criticized Chauvin’s use of the technique as excessive. The next day, all 4 officers were fired.

Two autopsies of Floyd were conducted, both ruling his death a homicide. The Hennepin County medical examiner’s autopsy report states that George Floyd had died from a cardiac arrest while under law enforcement restraint. While noting significant conditions such as, “arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease; fentanyl intoxication; and recent methamphetamine use.” Dismayed, Floyd’s family commissioned a private independent autopsy which found that the, “evidence is consistent with mechanical asphyxia as the cause” of Floyd’s death, with neck compression restricting blood and oxygen to the brain, while back compression restricted breathing. Naturally, at the Minneapolis Police Department’s request, The FBI currently conducts a federal civil rights investigation as we speak. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is looking into possible Minnesota statute violations. On May 29, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death (which I suppose was part of a compromise). Though Hennepin County district attorney, Michael O. Freeman promised to bring charges against the other 3 officers. As of June 2, 2020, there have been no indictments or charges filed against the accomplices.

Naturally after George Floyd’s death, demonstrations and protests within the Twin Cities erupted. Though initially peaceful on May 26, violence interfered as a police precinct and 2 stores were set on fire while many stores suffered looting and damage. Some demonstrators clashed with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Additional protests sprung up in over 200 throughout all 50 states as well as internationally. Such has revealed the pent-up anger over institutional racism nationwide. Given how black people have been subjected to violence by the state and white people for most of American history, this isn’t anything new. While mass demonstrations against state violence have also been a fixture in US politics all the way from the Civil Rights Movement. Scenes from Minneapolis, Atlanta, Brooklyn, and many other cities are just the latest chapter.

And to no one’s surprise, we already have political leaders and others subsuming the protestors’ perfectly legitimate grievances and questioning whether they’re appropriately registering their anger. Such is also a pattern in these moments. Demonstrations become so visible and visceral in the news coverage that they become the story. So the structural problems being protested start fading into the background. Indeed, politicians violence at the protests and for good reason. Since any bodily harm and property damage is of course, worrisome. But their concerns demonstrate the fundamental asymmetry that the protestors are pushing back against. The state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, which is often directed on black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Casile, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and the list goes on. When they die, the police officers responsible too frequently face no repercussions because the powers that be protect them. Should the men who killed George Floyd go to prison for their crimes, they’ll be exceptions to the unjust and longstanding rule.

Yet, should anger and frustration from centuries of racial oppression compels a peaceful protest to become “violent” (even if most of the reported attacks have been directed against property), that other kind of violence becomes the dominant story. So far as politicians are concerned, it’s a disruption to the natural order that must be corrected. The systematic racism that’s led to so many black lives being cut short becomes secondary. But it really shouldn’t because wanton police violence is a real problem America must grapple with. Otherwise, this will happen again.

Though we should keep in mind that many of these folks decrying the protestors for expressing their anger over police shooting unarmed black people without consequence are the same people who freaked out over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. The then backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers destroyed no property, harmed no one, and expressed his anger over these police killings peacefully and appropriately. And yet, white people still got angry at him for stupid shit like disrespecting the flag or the troops that he’s no longer playing in the NFL. On the other hand, I have seen several demonstrations involving white men carrying guns I think should be banned that have received considerably tame coverage by mainstream media outlets and heroic praises from Fox News. One of these was an act of terror regarding these guys putting an Oregon wildlife refuge under siege for roughly three weeks. Some of these protests feature people with affiliations in Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate groups. And unless something really awful happens like the violence in Charlottesville, most of them aren’t arrested, tear gassed, beat up, or subjected to rubber bullets. Nor do their guns get confiscated. Most of them usually go home to their families and their lives without consequence unless an online outing results in them being fired. But even then there are exceptions like if you work for Fox News, Brietbart, OAN, Sinclair, or the Trump administration. And if they do face criminal charges, they’ll get sympathy from the jury and likely acquittal.

Unless you live under a rock or watch a steady diet of Fox News (which you shouldn’t), it’s painfully obvious that the American criminal justice system is prejudice against black Americans who are much more likely to be subjected to state-sanctioned violence in the US compared to their white counterparts. According to recent study by Rutgers, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis, black men face 1 in 1,000 odds of being killed by police in their lifetimes. But that’s only the most extreme form of discrimination. In both ways big and small, the criminal justice system is biased against black Americans. As a 2018 Washington Post article lists:

  • Black people are about twice as likely as white people to be pulled over by law enforcement for a traffic stop
  • Black and Latino drivers are much more likely to be searched once they are pulled over by the police
  • The murders of white people are more likely to be solved than the murders of black people
  • White people make up less than half of America’s murder victims, yet 80% of the convicted murderers sentenced to death had killed a white person
  • Black Americans are much more likely to be arrested and charged for drug-related crimes, despite no significant disparity in how much those populations actually use narcotics
  • Potential jurors who are black are much more likely to be dismissed by prosecutors than potential white jurors
  • White defendants are substantially more likely than black defendants to have their most serious charge dismissed as part of a plea bargain
  • Even when black men and white men are convicted of the same crime, the black men can expect a prison sentence that is 20% longer

This can go on, but you see the point. Racial discrimination is pervasive in every facet of American society, especially in criminal justice that manifests in every step from arrest to incarceration. And sadly, George Floyd’s brutal killing is only the extreme example of how the state exerts its power over black Americans, which is why those protesting his death want to remedy.

And of course, racism doesn’t just manifest its inherent ugliness in American institutions. Some of its white people as you can see with the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Trayvon Martin in Florida. Black people deal with the kind of suspicion leading to these guys’ deaths all the time. According to a recent Pew poll, 65% of black people said that someone acted suspicious toward them because of their race, compared to just 25% of white Americans. Such figures suggest a deep level of persistent prejudice. And quantifying racist attitudes because many people don’t want to admit holding them.

A 2017 Pew Research survey provides a useful proxy: as 54% of white Americans claim that black people who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition, while only 35% correctly blame racial discrimination. Among black Americans, the numbers are flipped with 59% citing racial discrimination while 31% said people were responsible for their own problems. If you to understand the different worldviews of the protestors and the people who criticize the demonstrations for getting out of hand, that data is a good place to start. Hell, if you’re white, go to your family gathering and observe all the racist dog whistles within your relatives’ conversations. Many of my aunts and uncles voted for Trump, which I see as not just insulting but utterly disgusting, morally repugnant, and disgraceful, regardless of their rationale. Also, if you live in a white neighborhood, take note of all the Trump signs going up as the November nears, which I see as going against America, my Catholic faith, and basic human decency. Now I know you don’t have to be conservative or even a Trump supporter to be racist. After all, look at Hollywood every awards season when there’s an “Oscars so White” controversy with white mediocrity getting the statuettes and masterworks by people of color getting ignored.

As par with the criminal justice system being racist, studies found that black Americans were less likely to have their complaints against law enforcement officers compared to those of white people. This was especially when those complaints pertained to excessive force. Not to mention, there’s a long track record showing how rarely police officers are arrested, much less convicted, when they kill someone in the line of duty. From 2006-2011, only 41 police officers were arrested for murder or negligent homicide in the line of duty. Meanwhile, over the same period, police officers committed more than 2,700 “justifiable” homicides. Thus, either US law enforcement are almost always justified in the most extreme use of force or there are systematic obstacles to holding police officers accountable when they kill one of their constituents.

So given how rarely complaints about police violence are taken up and prosecuted by the same criminal justice system enabling these law enforcement officers, protests akin to what you see in Minneapolis and across the US are one of the few tools available to people wishing to register their opposition to these institutional prejudices. It’s a tradition going back years and reaching its zenith during the civil rights era. The forceful police violence displays shown through cell phone videos on and social media have energized a new era of civil action, beginning with the Ferguson protests and continuing to this day. We should note that many, if not most of these protests remain nonviolent. They operate on a philosophy pioneered by Mohandas K. Gandhi and adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. In the US: peacefully and publicly register one’s discontent with injustices and allow the state’s response, usually militant and sometimes violent, to speak for itself. However, it can be difficult to maintain nonviolence in large groups. And we shouldn’t be surprised that huge demonstrations have resulted in some bad actors getting the spotlight. But before politicians seize on those incidents as representatives of this entire anti-police violence movement, we must know the full story remains unknown.

Minnesota officials stressed that they believe many of the violent protestors caught on news cameras leading to such negative comments, aren’t actually local residents. That alone should be a warning against letting the protests overshadow the problem they’re protesting. Nonetheless, these protests will eventually end. But the problem of America’s racist past and present will remain.

However, if we must wait out the storm during 2020, we must be wary of Donald Trump. Sure, he may be an ignorant orange cartoon supervillain who’s being trounced in the polls by Joe Biden. Yes, he’s a narcissistic psychopath willing to burn our American democracy to the ground to save his own skins. And yes, he’s turned our great country into an utter disaster area. But we must not underestimate him nor take his pitfalls for granted. Trump is no political genius. Yet, he’s a master at exploiting political divisions with his race-baiting demagoguery and self-glorified theatrics. However, what makes him successful is what makes him dangerous. He knows only one thing and very well. Division is all he sees. Discord is all he knows. And all he can do is escalate. As the King Midas of strife, he turns the country he’s supposed to lead into the thing he believes we are, what he is himself.

When we mistakenly elected Donald Trump, we elected a political arsonist. Yet, as bad as things have been, his presidency’s sole consolation as the dearth of what little dry timber, out of date newspapers, oil, and gasoline we had. The economy hummed along though income inequality exacerbated. We faced few foreign crises that resulted into anything substantial. Domestic divisions mostly remained on social media. Of course, this doesn’t dismiss real disasters or excuse the Trump administration’s exceptionally cruel policies. Kids were thrown into cages. Toxins were dumped in our streams. While mismanaging Hurricane Maria proved lethal for many Puerto Ricans and created such a mess that paper towels couldn’t remedy. But it could’ve been worse. However, the pandemic that Trump fed with his administration’s erratic mismanagement has left over 100,000 Americans dead, which is more than twice as many lives we lost in Vietnam. And the count keeps rising. The economy is in freefall since stay at home orders and social distancing measures has resulted in closed businesses and 40 million Americans out of work. Our societal fabric has been cut while our culture is at war over lockdowns and facemasks as the federal government has epically failed to chart a path toward a safe future. We’re essentially a nation interrupted, aching for the normalcy we lost, unsure of the future we face. Though a lot of that normalcy might’ve led to the crisis in the first place.

Now that protests and riots have erupted over the newest round of lynchings, there’s blood on the streets, cars mowing through crowds, buildings on fire, bodies being buried, police casually firing on the very people they’re sworn to protect. While all of us are trapped at home see things we can’t unsee are forced to reckon what the country has always sought to delay. As James Baldwin noted, “There are too many things we do not wish to know ourselves.” But thanks to smartphone cameras and viral videos, we see who we truly are and we see who are leaders truly are. Yet, Congress can’t resolve small disputes, let alone fundamental fractures. While Donald Trump is eager for the storm to come since he doesn’t know how to fight the virus. He does know, however, how to fight his own countrymen.

Fortunately, few Americans like want violence in our lives. And we may still be a better country than Donald Trump thinks we are. Cable channels and social media feeds may bombard us with sensationalized violence and destruction, the nonviolent remain true to the story and are the vast majority who risk their bodies for justice, sweep up broken glass, absorb blows from batons and inhaling tear gas simply as an act of solidarity. They make America great. Yet, as our lives turn into nightmares, we are scared, hurt, mistrustful, and divided. And it’s an election year. The kindling is everywhere. The United States of America is a country on the verge of war with itself and so badly needs the leadership it doesn’t have, a empathetic president who truly wants peace.

Insane in the Ukraine

In mid-September 2019, according to The New York Times, an unidentified internal Trump administration whistleblower filed a complaint about “multiple acts” by a shitty excuse for a president Donald Trump. The whistleblower in question is part of the US intelligence community and filed this complaint back in August, which was passed to their inspector general. That inspector general determined it credible and a matter of “urgent concern” – legal standard normally requiring notifying congressional oversight committees. He then concluded the complaint, “relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.” However, Trump’s acting national intelligence director stepped in to block key congressional committee chairs from receiving the whistleblower complaint’s details, which remain murky. An act some legal analysts claim is breaking the law.

Now despite the murky details, the whistleblower’s complaint reportedly involves a broader set of events than a single phone call. But not surprisingly, the Trump administration is trying to prevent further info from coming to light. For some time, it’s been rumored Donald Trump tried pressuring Ukraine’s government into launching an investigation of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden, possibly by withholding military aid to the country unless they complied. On August 28, 2019, Politico reported that the Trump administration was, “slow-walking $250 million in military assistance to Ukraine.” According to the site, Trump had personally asked his national security team to review the program, supposedly to ensure the money was being spent on American interests, writing, “The funds for Ukraine can’t be spent while they’re under review and the money expires at the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.” Now it’s not confirmed if the whistleblower complaint has anything to with this Ukranian debacle, but both cases seem closely related.

Naturally given Donald Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladmir Putin and Russia’s war with Ukraine, critics instantly accused him of supporting Putin’s policies again. On September 5, 2019, Washington Post editorial claimed they’ve been told that Trump was trying to force the Ukranian government to investigate Joe Biden. They write:
“Some suspect Mr. Trump is once again catering to Mr. Putin, who is dedicated to undermining Ukrainian democracy and independence. But we’re reliably told that the president has a second and more venal agenda: He is attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Mr. Trump is not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign; he is using U.S. military aid the country desperately needs in an attempt to extort it.”

During a September 2 press conference in Warsaw, Associated Press’ Jill Colvin asked Vice President Mike Pence, “Can you assure Ukraine that the hold-up of that money has absolutely nothing to do with efforts, including by Rudy Giuliani, to try to dig up dirt on the Biden family?” Pence conspicuously didn’t make that kind of assurance. Instead, he replied, “as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.” However, the notion that the Trump administration has any great concern about corruption issues is basically akin to Pig Pen having any concern about personal hygiene. Because we all know that Trump and his cronies engage in corruption on a regular basis that the swamp he’s promised to drain has now become a reeking cesspit of hazardous waste. Hell, the only time the Trump administration shows any concern about corruption is when it pertains to someone they don’t like because it makes them look bad. So naturally, they’re looking for dirt.

On Friday, September 20, 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that, during a July phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Donald Trump pressured him “about eight times” to work with his sell out lawyer Rudy Giuliani on an investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter. That Thursday, Giuliani tweeted that if Trump told Ukraine to “investigate corruption that affects US” he’d just be “doing his job,” and complaining that “the Biden Family… bilked millions from Ukraine.” He even later confirmed that he himself has been trying to get Ukraine to investigate Biden. Strange Trump didn’t call the Ukrainian government to investigate his own campaign manager Paul Manafort back in 2016, because he actually bilked millions from the Ukraine and is serving prison time for it. However, if Trump did this as president, it would be a shockingly corrupt use of his foreign policy powers. Since he’s basically demanding a foreign country intervene in the 2020 election by digging up dirt on a potential opponent, or have its security put at risk.

The idea that Donald Trump’s team would try getting the Ukranian government to investigate Joe Biden’s family isn’t just theoretical. Even Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has openly admitted he’s been doing just that. As he told the New York Times in May, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do.” Ukraine-related corruption has already played an outsized role in Trump scandals. Paul Manafort’s prosecution for financial and lobbying crimes related to his work for a former Ukranian regime was a major part of the Mueller probe. And during the summer of 2016 back when Manafort was Trump’s campaign chair, he was plagued by reports that the Ukranian government was looking into his payments. So Donald Trump’s team apparently has the idea to try and cook up a similar scandal involving Joe Biden.

The details relate to Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son Hunter who joined a Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma’s board in 2014. Now the company’s owner was under investigation for corruption and money laundering. Two years later, Ukraine’s prosecutor general Viktor Shokin was fired, after pressure from Vice President Biden and other Western officials along with many Ukrainian officials and citizens. Biden just happened to have the loudest voice. Shokin has reportedly claimed he was pushed out because he was investigating Burisma’s payments to Hunter Biden. However, the New York Times writes, “there is no credible evidence that Biden sought Shokin’s removal in order to protect Hunter.” Instead, the rationale was said he wasn’t doing enough to investigate the corruption. Now, in an effort to cause political problems in Biden’s 2020 campaign, Giuliani has been pushing the new Ukrainian government to open an investigation into the Biden matter, as well as whether there was any foul play in the earlier Ukrainian Manafort investigation. Giuliani confirmed he was doing all this to the Times back in May. The effort continued through August. But Giuliani was cagey in Trump’s personal role in the scheme. He told the Times in May that Trump supports his endeavors and “he basically knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer.” In August, he told the Times he was just acting as a private citizen. Despite that State Department officials were involved in Giuliani’s communications with Ukrainian officials for some reason.

Now that Donald Trump has all but openly admitted that he pushed Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Congress must impeach him. Impeaching Trump over Robert Mueller’s findings in the Russia investigation would’ve been an attempt to address past offenses. Impeaching Trump over these calls would be an attempt to halt what surely resembles an ongoing attempt to hijack American foreign policy in service of his reelection. Democrats are obligated to stop this before it gets any further. Sure, impeachment is virtually guaranteed to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate so there’s no real chance of actually removing Trump from office. Public opinion about the Russian scandal became more set along partisan lines as time went on, making it unlikely that drawing attention to it would galvanize the public against Trump in 2020. Since that would risk distracting Democrats on which Trump is genuinely unpopular like on healthcare and climate change and jeopardize the House Democratic majority with marginal gain.

But the new Ukraine scandal challenges this logic. There is now an obvious and immediate pragmatic upside to impeachment: stopping an ongoing abuse of presidential power that could undermine the 2020 election’s integrity. Thanks to an intelligence community whistleblower, investigative journalists, and Donald Trump’s own public statements, Trump seems to have repeatedly attempted to convince the Ukranian government to open an investigation into Hunter Biden’s Ukraine business dealings and Joe Biden’s alleged involvement in protecting his son from prosecutorial attention. But there’s no evidence of illegal conduct by either Biden in the Ukraine dealings. Hunter’s partnership with a corrupt Ukranian oligarch was arguably unethical. But there’s no reason to believe his dad was involved in it. Still, even if either Biden was implicated in anything illegal, Trump’s actions would still be as impeachable. Because he’s trying to get a foreign power to investigate a potential political opponent on the pretense of turning Biden’s fake Ukraine scandal into “her emails” 2.0. Thus, he actively working to weaponize the presidency to boost his political fortunes.

Hell, it may be even worse. Donald Trump himself has linked the Biden issue to US to Ukraine aide. On Sunday, he told reporters, he “had every right” to push Ukraine about Joe Biden because “we don’t want a country that we’re giving massive aid to be corrupting our system.” If Trump threatened to condition aid to Ukraine on its Biden investigation, then he’s been nakedly twisting US foreign policy to suit his own ends. This is a grotesque and seemingly ongoing abuse of power with potential implications for an election’s integrity next year. Whereas the Russia investigation an attempt to find out exactly what happened in a prior election, the Ukraine scandal reflects Trump’s contemporary and future-looking behavior. Given that the goal is no longer retrospective accountability, this dramatically changes the logic of impeachment. Since it’s now about stopping his current behavior. The hope would be that impeachment would bring so much attention and scrutiny to Trump’s Ukraine push that he can’t get away with undermining another election.

Any impeachment proceeding would be the story in American politics, sucking up media attention and congressional investigative resources. A House majority vote to impeach would lead to a trial in the Senate, attracting more scrutiny even if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to take the proceedings seriously. The aim would be to prevent Trump from making some kind of shady, behind-the-scenes agreement with some Ukrainian authorities and make him think twice about any other similar scheme for using his powers for electoral gain. Such level of attention seems like the best available tool for preventing Donald Trump from continuing his efforts to undermine the 2020 election. Moreover, such high levels of press coverage and partisan furor would also make it harder to imagine the Ukrainian government would make any corrupt deal with Trump. Democratic posturing would serve as a counterweight to Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, signaling the country’s leadership that any cooperation with Trump’s inappropriate demands could seriously fray relations with the US in the next administration. Under this logic, it doesn’t matter if impeachment will invariably fail in the Senate. Just shining a light on Trump’s misbehavior will limit his freedom to act. Because if you have a president actively trying to abuse his power in order to invite foreign meddling in the next presidential election, you need to do what you can to stop him. Impeachment is the biggest and most powerful tool in the Democrats’ inventory. Because impeaching Trump is about signaling that his conduct is unacceptable as well trying to impose accountability on him and setting a standard for future ones.

Should impeachment be used not only to signal disapproval but actually work to head off an ongoing threat to American democracy, then the normative power of the proceedings might be reestablished. They won’t just be futile raging at American politics’ debased nature under Donald Trump, but an effective means of actually changing these politics for the better. For Trump’s impeachment to actually serve as a means of accountability to show future officeholders that misbehavior carries costs, there needs to be actual bite to them. Otherwise, they really risk sending the opposite intended signal that nothing really matters and that the president can do whatever he wants as long as at least 34 senators support him. But if impeachment can plausibly constrains Donald Trump, preventing him from engaging in abuse of power for political gain, then the Trump administration’s lesson would be that actions carry consequences, that Congress’ ultimate constitutional power can still be used to rein in a president even in a political environment seemingly defined by extreme partisanship. Furthermore, impeachment sends the strongest and most high-profile signal possible that Trump’s actions are unacceptable, both now and to future presidents.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s behavior in this Ukraine situation should worry anyone who cares about the health of American democracy. If this isn’t impeachable behavior, then I don’t know what is. Could impeachment potentially rein in Trump? I’m not sure since Trump never learns from his misconduct. But it will limit him on what he can get away with. Will a formal impeachment inquiry hurt the House Democrats’ chances to retain the House? Who knows. But seeing how the Ukraine scandal drove a painful reality home of an emboldened Trump appearing to meddle in an upcoming US election again, right before our eyes, Congress must impeach.

Can We Just Impeach the Motherf**ker Already?

During an ABC News interview on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Donald Trump told George Stephanopoulos that he’d likely accept “information” offered by a foreign government for use in his reelection campaign. He said, “I think you might want to listen. I don’t — there’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country — Norway — ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.” He then continued that if he thought there’s “something wrong” with the offer, he’d “maybe” tell the FBI. But Trump nevertheless asserted that accepting “oppo research” from a foreign government was perfectly fine, telling Stephanopoulos, “They have information, I think I’d take it.”

These recent remarks have obviously caused intense controversy and reopened wounds from the Mueller investigation and the 2016 campaign. In fact, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had just finished a 2-year investigation into this very thing. We have to recall that in mid-2016, Donald Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton allegedly from the Russian government. Mueller investigated Trump Jr.’s conduct for a potential campaign finance violation but decided not to charge him. Since word about it got out in 2017, Trump has continued defending his son’s actions, but his assertion poses legal and ethical issues. It’s also interpreted as yet another sign that Trump doesn’t seem particularly alarmed with broader Russian effort to help him win in 2016, including by hacking and leaking Democrats’ emails. Trump’s latest comments appeared to go too far for some of his allies. Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade noted on June 13, “You don’t want a foreign government or foreign entity giving you information because they will want something back. If anybody knows that, it’s the president. There is no free lunch. If someone wants information, then they’re going to want influence. I think the president’s got to clarify that.” South Carolina US Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, “I believe that it should be practice for all public officials who are contacted by a foreign government with an offer of assistance to their campaign — either directly or indirectly — to inform the FBI and reject the offer.” While Texas US Senator Jon Cornyn stated that Trump’s remarks were “dangerous territory.” Of course, in a move of classic whataboutism, those 2 backtracked with arguing how Hillary’s campaign funding the Steele Dossier was equally problematic (it’s not) so they can continually kiss Trump’s.

Back in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from an acquaintance named Rob Goldstone, a British publicist who worked with the Agarlov family, an Azeri-Russian father-son pair of wealthy real estate developers who worked with the Trumps before. Goldstone claimed that Aras Agarlov had met with the “Crown prosecutor of Russia,” who had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” He then added: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.” Trump Jr. enthusiastically responded, “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” They soon agreed to set up a meeting in Trump Tower to discuss the information. However, the meeting appears to be a dud since the Mueller report doesn’t document any information being passed or any deal being struck. Nor did Mueller find any indication that the offered information had any connection to the Russian hackings. But Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to accept dirt allegedly coming from a foreign government was viewed as scandalous. Some experts even argued it’s criminal since it’s a campaign finance law violation to accept or even solicit “thing of value” from a foreign source.

So when George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump about Donald Trump Jr.: “Should he have gone to the FBI when he got that email?” Obviously, the answer is yes. However, Trump said no, arguing that such a thing would be naïve, claiming, “Give me a break. Life doesn’t work that way.” What the fuck? Instead, he said that if something shady was going on, the correct response should be, “throw somebody out of your office,” since calling the FBI would be too much. When Stephanopoulos said that the FBI director (a guy Trump appointed, by the way) said that candidates should call them in such a situation, Trump answered: “The FBI director is wrong.” Then Stephanopoulos asked the question that would cause Trump so much trouble: “Your campaign this time around, if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on opponents, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?” Trump gives the odd answer: “I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don’t — there’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country — Norway — ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.” Note that Trump used a benign country like Norway instead of responding to the specific question about Russia and China.

Pressed by Stephanopoulos, Donald Trump distinguished between foreign, “interference” and simple “information” and “oppo research,” which he claimed was perfectly fine to accept from a foreign source. Here’s his answer:

“It’s not interference. They have information. I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research. (mockingly) ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’

“The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressmen, they all do it. They always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”

Note that Donald Trump left open the possibility that if he “thought there was something wrong,” he’d go to the FBI. And he doesn’t say it’s okay to accept hacked or stolen material from a foreign power. Still, the idea that a foreign government would offer damaging information on your opponent in an election year should be cause for suspicion, since it’s a glaring red flag it wants to interfere in your political process and want something from you in terms of policy. This is especially the case if the government in question is a known adversary like Russia. And that is why you go to the FBI.

Nonetheless, Trump probably thinks accepting dirt about a political opponent from a foreign power is totally fine even if the info material is hacked or stolen. After all, he publicly asked Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. Not to mention, he privately asked Michael Flynn to try and get a hold on those emails. Still, the whole idea seems to be: Donald Trump Jr. did nothing wrong. And if a foreign government has information that would help Trump’s reelection campaign, Trump would be happy to hear it.

Obviously, people are appalled by Donald Trump’s remarks. Some argue it’s simply unethical to accept “opposition research” from a foreign government, particularly an adversary like Russia. Federal Election Commission head Ellen Weintraub tweeted why it’s illegal for US political candidates to accept contributions from foreign governments, along with “I would not have thought I needed to say this.” She then went on to clarify: “Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept. Election intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the founding of our nation.” Others pointed to the practical problem claiming that said foreign government might expect a reward. But there’s also an underlying legal issue on which Trump seems to be giving really bad advice. In other words, Trump doesn’t think it’s a problem for a campaign to accept “opposition research” because it’s just information. However, federal election law states that campaigns can’t accept foreign money contributions or any “thing of value” from foreign sources. Given that knowledge is power and information is very valuable resource in political campaigns, is opposition research like the “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” promised to Donald Trump Jr. a thing of value? Well, Trump Jr. seemed to think so that he was willing to go through all the trouble to set up a meeting at Trump Tower for it.

The Mueller report explored this very subject, and concluded: probably. The report reads, “There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a ‘thing of value.’” After all, knowledge is power. While political campaigns do tons of opposition research on a candidate in hopes for finding dirt on their opponents. As Robert Mueller writes:

“These authorities would support the view that candidate-related opposition research given to a campaign for the purpose of influencing an election could constitute a contribution to which the foreign-source ban could apply.

“…Political campaigns frequently conduct and pay for opposition research. A foreign entity that engaged in such research and provided resulting information to a campaign could exert a greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate, than a gift of money or tangible things of value.”

But Robert Mueller doesn’t unreservedly endorse this view. Since he also expressed concerns about how this interpretation would fare in court:

“At the same time, no judicial decision has treated the voluntary provision of uncompensated opposition research or similar information as a thing of value that could amount to a contribution under campaign-finance laws. Such an interpretation could… raise First Amendment questions. These questions could be especially difficult where the information consisted simply of the recounting of historically accurate facts. It is uncertain how courts would resolve those issues.”

Nonetheless, leaving the issue aside, Robert Mueller didn’t end up bringing charges against the meeting’s participants for 2 separate reasons. First, is establishing willfulness. Did Donald Trump Jr. and the other meeting participants know they were breaking the law? As Mueller wrote, “The investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar with the foreign-contribution ban or the application of federal law to the relevant factual context.” Secondly, Mueller said that Rob Goldstone’s promised information is difficult to value at above $2,000, the threshold for a criminal violation, writing “Although damaging opposition research is surely valuable to a campaign, it appears that the information ultimately delivered in the meeting was not valuable.” Besides, when Trump Jr. agreed to take the meeting, he might’ve understood the information “as being of uncertain worth or reliability.” So Mueller most certainly didn’t say that accepting opposition research from a foreign government is very legal and very cool (quite the contrary). However, he chose not to bring charges in this particular instance. For reasons relating to specific evidence and the situation. In all, Mueller didn’t establish coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. But his report makes it clear that the Trump campaign, “expected it would benefit from information stolen and released through Russian efforts” during the 2016 campaign.

Now the United States has laws to govern how political campaigns can and can’t operate. Many of these laws are meant to limit or in some cases, just illuminate the amount if outside money trying to influence political candidates. When it comes to foreign influence, the law is clear. As Weintraub wrote: it’s “illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.” In most cases, the meaning’s quite obvious: foreign nationals can’t donate money to a presidential campaign. In addition, it’s also illegal for candidates to solicit or receive money contributions from foreign nationals. But while a “thing of value” is easy to define when it comes to money, services, or in-kind contributions, it’s a lot more complicated in the realm of information like opposition research or campaign dirt. Northwestern University law professor Michael Kang told Vox, “Campaign-relevant information from a foreign national definitely can be an illegal in-kind contribution, but it gets trickier when the information does not have obvious cash value and isn’t necessarily something that a campaign regularly needs to buy. The policy concern is that any valuable advice or tip from a foreign national could, at least in theory, become an illegal in-kind contribution.”

As part of his investigation into the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Special Counsel Robert Mueller grappled with this question, where Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign members met with a Russian national who had promised them “dirt” on Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow’s effort to support Donald Trump. Mueller concluded in his report that, “candidate-related opposition research given to a campaign for the purpose of influencing an election could constitute a contribution to which the foreign-source ban could apply.” But he added that the issue hasn’t been court-tested and could also have freedom of speech implications. Nonetheless, Mueller ultimately decided not to prosecute Trump Jr. over enigmas in regards to information value and criminal intent, making it hard to prove campaign finance violations beyond reasonable doubt. But experts are split mostly because as Loyola University law professor Jessica Levinson told Vox, “There’s a reason campaigns pay for opposition research: We literally value it. It can be much more useful and valuable than walking in with a check.”

Nevertheless, given the blowback, Donald Trump has tried to sort of walk back in a Fox & Friends interview on June 14. He told them, “You’d have to look at [the information being offered], because if you don’t look at it, you won’t know it’s bad. But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report to the attorney general or somebody like that.” While it wasn’t an unequivocal condemnation, it’s renewed questions on what’s legal and what’s not in regards to foreign nationals in US campaigns. And to ensure that it’s illegal, House Democrats have promised to roll out a bill requiring campaigns to report any foreign government offering dirt on their opponents to the FBI. He also said that he doesn’t, “think anybody would present me with anything because they know how much I love the country.” But his comments during his interview with George Stephanopoulos suggest otherwise. Also, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner also won’t say in an Axios interview the previous week whether he’d call the FBI if offered dirt again. So that refusal to be unequivocal about foreign interference undermines a thing of value for all Americans: the belief in the integrity of the vote.

Nearly 2 months after the Mueller report’s release, Congress remains at an impasse about what to do next. The special counsel didn’t end up charging any crimes related to collusion with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. He also chose not to say whether Donald Trump criminally obstructed justice. One House Democrat faction supports a beginning an impeachment inquiry against Trump, based on the conduct described in the report. Yet, the most of the caucus, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, doesn’t want to go down that road. Namely because Republicans control the US Senate and they’re all currently kissing Trump’s ass. So they’ll not only acquit him, but also frame the impeachment proceedings as a Democratic political stunt and a waste of everyone’s time.

Looming over all this is the question of what, exactly, this might mean in the 2020 election. Foreign powers could certainly interpret Donald Trump’s comments as a green light to send him whatever information he might find helpful. That said, Trump and foreign governments are all surely aware of what that might lead to: another lengthy investigation like Robert Mueller’s, which even though it didn’t end disastrously for Trump (unfortunately), surely wasn’t a pleasant experience. As Ellen Weintraub noted, America’s founders knew that when foreign governments seek to interfere in elections, it’s always to advance their interests, not ours. And that’s a bigger problem with Donald Trump’s apparent dismissal of the seriousness regarding foreigners reaching out to offer dirt to rival candidates. University of Miami law professor Frances Hill told Vox that while criminal law discussions are important, Trump’s “acting in a way that undermines national security.” As of 2019, just about the only thing Democrats and Republicans agree on the Mueller report is that Russia interfered in the 2016 Election. The intelligence community has said that Russia will certainly try again in 2020. While other countries like China and Iran will have learned 2016’s lessons and be eager to follow suit.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that even if Donald Trump’s campaign didn’t collude, he sees no problem with accepting dirt on opponents from foreign government, which should be reason enough to see Trump as a national security liability. Furthermore, the Trump campaign was willing to benefit from Russia’s election interference in 2016. Besides, not only does Trump not care that Russia’s actions in the 2016 election not only threatened American interests, sovereignty, and national security, but he’ll openly on Vladimir Putin to do it again. Still, let’s accept Trump’s “America First” nationalism for what it is: an exclusive nationalism centering on hating foreigners and difference. Or more accurately, xenophobia by another name. Any principled nationalist would see foreign efforts to interfere with a US election as an unacceptable infringement on American sovereignty and independence. Obviously, Trump isn’t principled nor does he value American independence. And if a president doesn’t have principles nor values independence should be impeached, especially if they pose a significant danger to the United States. Trump has. Furthermore, he’s personally profited off the presidency in flagrant violation of the Emoluments Clause in the US Constitution, especially since foreign dignitaries have stayed on his resorts and in his hotels on the taxpayer’s dime. So the question is not whether he should be impeached, but why he hasn’t been impeached now.

The Insidious Inauguration Committee

In previous posts about President Cheeto Fascist, I have talked about how he manages to make almost any kind of charity or fundraising into a moneymaking scheme. And I talked about how he’s much more inclined to listen to donors willing to buy access to him through staying at his resorts and joining his clubs. Anyway, on Thursday, December 13, 2018, prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced they were looking into Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, according to the Wall Street Journal. Apparently, investigators are interested in the committee’s spending and into the potential corruption involving favors for its donors. While the Journal reports that the criminal probe stems at least in part from material during the FBI’s April raid on Michael Cohen’s residence and office.

Even before this, multiple media outlets reported earlier in 2018 that special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating potential Russia-tied donations to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Yet, this news is the first confirmation of a broader probe into his inauguration and its money. After all, aside from working as Paul Manafort’s henchmen, Rick Gates also helped run it. Nonetheless, given Trump’s history involving making money off his campaign and presidency, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since there have long been glaring questions behind Trump’s inauguration and where it went. Because his inaugural committee raised a truly astonishing $106.7 million, doubling the previous record Barack Obama‘s 2009 inaugural set. But what they did with it remains unclear. Nonetheless, in a 2018 ProPublica and WNYC report, former chair of George W. Bush’s second inauguration, Greg Jenkins was dumbstruck. He told ProPublica, “They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did. So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”

After that truly unfortunate night in November when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 presidential election, he was tasked with setting up an inauguration that would be worthy of his name and “opulent” reputation, which would be a gilded trash heap. Now the federal government pays for the swearing-in ceremony and logistics. But Trump would have to pay for all the before and after parties and events like the pre-inaugural National Mall concert, dinners and events for elite supporters, and the inaugural ball. So he needed a lot of money. Of course, raising money for one’s inauguration isn’t unusual for an incoming president. Rather than fund the festivities himself, the so-called wealthiest not-my-president-elect ever, Trump decided to follow suit raising the cash from billionaires, wealthy financiers, and corporations.

So a week after his horrifying electoral victory, Donald Trump named a murderers’ row of superrich Republicans as “finance vice chairs” for the event. These included:

  • Sheldon Adelson– casino billionaire known for donating to Republican causes and had his wife receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom that she didn’t seem to deserve.
  • Steve Wynn– casino billionaire Donald Trump might’ve screwed over in Atlantic City who was later accused of sexually abusing his employees.
  • Elliot Broidy– a defense contractor and well-known Republican fundraiser who was later involved in hush money payments to a Playboy model and a client to Michael Cohen. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to paying bribes to get investments from the New York state pension fund. His felony conviction was later downgraded to a misdemeanor. He’s also come under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
  • Anthony Scaramucci– some corporate guy who was Donald Trump’s communications director for 10 days during the summer of 2017 and had to resign over an obscene interview with the New Yorker.

The committee’s treasurer Doug Ammerman was named by prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a tax shelter fraud during the early 2000s. He was also a partner at accounting firm, KPMG, which later admitted to criminal liability. A Senate investigation at the time include emails from Ammerman suggesting he was aware of the scheme. In addition, he’s currently accused in a shareholder lawsuit of dumping stock in a grilled chicken chain, El Pollo Loco, where he served on the board, ahead of a bad quarterly report.

The chair of the inaugural committee in charge of it all was Tom Barrack, a real estate billionaire investor and close friend of Donald Trump for 4 decades. Anyway, Barrack’s business interests have recently been concentrated in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. According to him, his goal was for the inauguration to have a “soft sensuality” and “poetic cadence.” Though I would more or less the event as akin to something between The Hunger Games and Titanic. To assist with planning and fundraising, Barrack turned to Manafort right-hand man, Rick Gates. After all, Barrack had known Paul Manafort since the 1970s and helped convince Trump to bring him on to the campaign. But to no one’s surprise, the choice raised eyebrows since Manafort had been ousted as Trump’s campaign chairman after the release of several scandal-laden stories about his work in for pro-Russian Ukranian politicians. And yet, Gates became instrumental in the committee’s activities as a possible “shadow” inauguration chair and Barrack’s “chief deputy.” As we know both Manafort and Gates have agreed to plea deals with Robert Mueller and promised to cooperate with government investigators. Gates kept his word. Manafort didn’t.

While Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd was nowhere near the largest in history, the inaugural fundraising certainly was. Tom Barrack, Rick Gates, and the team racked in more than $106 million, a jaw-dropping sum doubling the previous record set by Barack Obama’s team in 2009. However, the fundraising scheme went like this: the more you give, the more exclusive events you got access to. According to the Center for Public Integrity, listed perks with each donation target include:

  • $250,000 will get you a Union Station candlelight dinner with the Trumps and Pences.
  • $500,000 will get you a dinner with then Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
  • $1 million will get into the “Leadership Luncheon” at Donald Trump’s Washington DC Hotel.

OpenSecrets.org provided a donor list of those willing to fork over large sums. Among those include:

Finance Industry Big Shots (all donate $1 million each):

  • Robert Mercer– a rich eccentric billionaire who owns Brietbart and Cambridge Analytica that the New Yorker called “the reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency.”
  • Paul Singer– another hedge-fund billionaire who funds the Washington Free Beacon website which had ironically paid the opposition firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Donald Trump during the primaries. Their efforts resulted in the infamous Steele Dossier which famously alleged the pee-pee tape situation. Wonder what inspired him to change his mind about the guy.
  • Steve Cohen– a man whose hedge fund group was closed down due to insider trading allegations.

Corporate America:

  • Contributed $2 million: AT&T
  • Contributed $1 million: Bank of America, Boeing, Dow Chemical, Pfizer, and Qualcomm
  • Contributed at least $500,000: JP Morgan Chase, FedEx, Chevron, Exxon, Fidelity, Citgo, and BP America.

Secret Conservative Groups (Donated $1 million each):

  • The American Action Network– a dark money nonprofit that’s spent tens of millions on elections since 2010.
  • “BH Group LLC” – a mysterious shell company whose true source remained unknown for more than a year. Only in 2018 did journalist Robert Maguire trace that contribution to a group tied to the conservative legal movement and Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo who’s found a prominent role advising Donald Trump on judicial nominations.

But these are only samples all of the donors who contributed vast sums from their bottom lists of cash reserves so they can have input in shaping policy that benefits their bottom line. After all, they didn’t just hand over their cash for the inaugural festivities. Nonetheless, they’re not the only kinds of donors who forked over their cash to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee either. For we must not forget those donors with major ties to Russia and other foreign countries who reportedly caught Robert Mueller’s eye. ABC News reported that Mueller questioned “about millions of dollars in donations to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee” — specifically about “donors with connections to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.” As far as the Associated Press is concerned, Mueller’s investigators have interviewed inauguration chair Tom Barrack. But the AP’s sources gave conflicting accounts on what they asked him about. One claimed they only asked him about Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Another claimed questioning included, “financial matters about the campaign, the transition and Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.” In June 2017, another ABC News report stated that Mueller investigators why several billionaires with “deep ties to Russia” got access to “exclusive, invitation-only receptions” during the inauguration.

Nevertheless, beyond the many questions about the money Donald Trump’s inauguration committee collected, there have long been many questions about money going out of it. Though I highly suspect that much of it went straight to the Trump Organization. In the ProPublica and WNYC piece, several people involved in previous inaugurations were stumped over how Trump’s team could have possibly spent more than $100 million for what they got. Unfortunately, unlike in political campaigns, the inaugural committee isn’t required to disclose very much about its spending. Yet, in its nonprofit tax form, the committee does have to break down its expenses in broad categories. But they need not explain every line item.

In any case, according to the tax form, about half the money (more than $50 million) went to just 2 vendors. $25.8 million went to WIS Media Partners, an event production firm started by a now-former adviser to Melania Trump. Another $25 million went to Hargrove, Inc. for “event production.” What did these firms do with these massive sums? God only knows. But that leaves about $50 million remaining. From that, another $10 million in total went to another 3 vendors, $4.6 million was paid out in salaries, and $5 million was left over and given out as grants. Yet, where tens of millions more went remains a mystery, beyond the broadest categories given on the disclosure forms. For now, whether this was sloppy financial mismanagement or something shadier is unclear. Though given Donald Trump’s propensity for moneymaking schemes, it’s more likely the latter. Not to mention, if there’s anyone who knows where the money went, it’s Rick Gates. And whatever he knows, prosecutors know, too.

But whatever the case, the fundraising involved with Donald Trump‘s inauguration should show us that this unrespectable man is no savior to his white working class supporters. In fact, he just sees them as suckers gullible enough to buy into his fraudulent promises he never intends to keep. He is a man who can be bought and usually is. He may appreciate his supporters’ votes and constant praise they bestow on him at his ego boosting rallies. But if they really want his ear, then they will have to accumulate more wealth than most will ever be able to make in their lifetimes. Maybe even get a membership at his exclusive clubs and resorts that can cost thousands of dollars. If not, then millions. Besides, Trump has a well known history of screwing his employees just to enrich his own coffers. And he’s currently getting rich from the presidency with our taxpayer dollars.

The Mad Hatter Gets Cuffed

In the early daylight hours of Friday, January 25, 2019, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was arrested at his Florida home in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He was indicted for obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering. These charges center on Stone’s lies to the House Intelligence Committee during a 2017 hearing about his statements and efforts to get in touch with WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. The indictment conspicuously mentions that “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone” about what WikiLeaks might have on Hillary Clinton. However, the indictment doesn’t attempt to explain why Stone would lie about this or tell a definitive story about what happened between him and Wikileaks at the time. Nor has he been charged with any criminal activity during the campaign. In fact, the actual charges against Roger Stone don’t allege that he committed any crimes during the 2016 campaign. Instead, they alleged him attempting to obstruct investigations into what happened afterward.

The hacking and leaking of the Democrats’ emails has long been the centerpiece of the Mueller investigation. Already, Robert Mueller has charged several Russian intelligence officers with this. Eventually, WikiLeaks publicly posted many of these emails with the Democratic National Committee’s in July 2016 and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s 4 months later.

Roger Stone’s various statements including public ones, raised questions on whether he had some sort of inside knowledge about WikiLeaks or its plans. He’s denied knowing anything about it, claiming that anything he knew about WikiLeaks came from an intermediary, radio host Randy Credico. Now Stone has been accused of lying to the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 (on 5 counts) and trying to tamper with Credico as a witness so that he’d stick to that false story. Overall, while the indictment aptly establishes that Stone lied about WikiLeaks, it doesn’t tell the full story about what happened between Stone, WikiLeaks, and the various intermediaries in 2016.

Dressed like a super villain, Roger Stone has been a longtime GOP operative whose reputation for dirty tricks days all the way back to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. During the mid-1980s, Stone has been an on-and-off adviser to Donald Trump and co-founded a famous lobbying firm with Paul Manafort during that same decade. When Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015, Stone was a part of his original team. But he lasted only a month, departing the operation in early August after clashing with staffers. Nevertheless, he remained in Trump’s orbit, communicating with the candidate himself afterward. In fact, he helped engineer Manafort’s hiring on the campaign. As the 2016 general election neared, Stone frequently spoke about the hacks and leaks of Democratic emails and other documents. In August, he praised a Russian intelligence run online persona said to be responsible for them, “Guccifer 2.0.” In addition, he claimed that he “communicated” with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who posted the DNC emails. While he repeatedly hinted of more damaging Clinton material coming during the next 2 months. Only after the election did we learn about his private communication with both entities.

According to the new indictment, after July 22, 2016, “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Roger Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks “had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” This indicates that the Trump campaign wanted to stay updated on what WikiLeaks had about Hillary Clinton and that Stone was the guy who kept them in the know. But prosecutors don’t give away any more details about who directed that campaign official to reach out to Stone. For that reason, this tidbit implication isn’t totally clear. But prosecutors certainly included this tantalizing detail for a reason.

Around this time, Roger Stone also had a set of communications with conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, regarding getting contact from Julian Assange. On July 25, Stone emailed Corsi telling him to “get to” Assange in the “Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending” WikiLeaks “emails.” Corsi forwarded the message to an “overseas individual.” On July 31, Stone wrote to Corsi that Trump campaign adviser Ted Malloch ”should see” Assange. On August 2, Corsi emailed Stone claiming knowledge of Assange’s plans. According to him, “Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back [from a trip in Europe]. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging..” Corsi continued: “Would not hurt to start suggesting HRC old, memory bad, has stroke — neither he nor she well. I expect that much of next dump focus, setting stage for [Clinton] Foundation debacle.”

Not long afterward on August 4, Roger Stone emailed fellow ex-Trump adviser Sam Nunberg, “I dined with Julian Assange last night.” Though Stone said it was a joke when the email became public long afterwards.The day after he emailed Sam Nunberg, Stone penned a Brietbart article taking Guccifer’s story about being the lone hacker who stole the DNC emails at face value and argued that Russia probably didn’t do it (despite that they certainly did and that Guccifer was a Russian intel official). He also tweeted, “Julian Assange is a hero.” On August 8, 2016, Stone began publicly claiming to have inside information, saying “I actually have communicated with Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation but there’s no telling what the October surprise may be.”

A few days later, Roger Stone began tweeting and DMing with Guccifer 2.0 (who again, has been identified as a Russian intelligence officer). Some of these DMs later leaked, leading Stone to post what he claimed was the full exchange (it wasn’t). Not surprisingly, the posted messages were mainly friendly chitchat and not particularly substantive (which weren’t mentioned in the new indictment). On August 21, 2016, Stone tweeted an odd prediction, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” Months before the Podesta emails became public, many would point out to this and ask whether Stone had any advance knowledge of the Podesta email leak. But Stone later claimed that since this came in the midst of a scandal surrounding Paul Manafort’s Ukraine work, he merely predicted “Podesta’s business dealings would be exposed.”

In October 2016, Roger Stone took on a new role of WikiLeaks hype man. He again claimed inside knowledge saying a “friend” of his met with Julian Assange and learned “the mother lode is coming Wednesday.” He tweeted: “Wednesday @HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks.” When nothing came that Wednesday, Stone tweeted: “Libs thinking Assange will stand down are wishful thinking. Payload coming. #Lockthemup.” Assange posted the Podesta emails 2 days later. Immediately, there were questions about whether the garrulous operative have been involved. This spurred WikiLeaks to tweet that the group “has never communicated with Roger Stone.” The Atlantic reported that Stone DMed the WikiLeaks Twitter account afterward, complaining they were “attacking” him. WikiLeaks responded, “The false claims of association are being used by the democrats to undermine the impact of our publications. Don’t go there if you don’t want us to correct you.” Stone shot back, “Ha! The more you ‘correct’ me the more people think you’re lying. Your operation leaks like a sieve. You need to figure out who your friends are.”

By 2017, Roger Stone was putting forward an apparent cover story for whatever actually happened in 2016. He insisted that everything he heard about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks came from his “intermediary” talk radio host Randy Credico. When Stone went in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed session in September, he stuck to that story.

Roger Stone had also put an effort to get Randy Credico to stick to his false story, sometimes using Godfather references. When Credico repeatedly asked Stone to correct his testimony, Stone refused. When Credico was called to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017, Stone tried to convince him to lie in support to Stone’s initial testimony. According to prosecutors, Stone did this quite colorfully, telling Credico he should claim that he was his only contact to Julian Assange, that he didn’t remember what he told Stone, or what Stone referred to as pulling a “Frank Pentangeli,” recanting testimony during a hearing. In December, according to prosecutors, Credico informed the House Intelligence Committee that he’d plead the Fifth if subpoenaed to testify in part to “avoid providing evidence that would show Stone’s previous testimony to Congress was false.”

But Roger Stone and Randy Credico continued to discuss the Russian investigation. While Stone repeatedly made it clear that Credico would pay if he talked to law enforcement and contradicted his statements. He texted the radio host at one point, “‘Stonewall it. Plead the fifth. Anything to save the plan’ … Richard Nixon.” Stone later said, “If you turned over anything to the FBI you’re a fool.” Eventually, when Credico wouldn’t stick to his story, Stone got angrier, writing in April 2018, “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends.” He then threatened to steal Credico’s therapy dog before deciding he’d threaten the host’s life instead.

There’s ample documentary evidence that Roger Stone’s story about Randy Credico being his only contact with Assange is indeed, false. For the email exchanges with Jerome Corsi show that Stone talked to both men (with Stone and Credico’s correspondence telling a similar story). While there are allusions to what Stone had told top Trump campaign members about WikiLeaks’ plans. But it doesn’t read as any sort of final effort from prosecutors to sum up what happened back then. Or perhaps the Mueller crew don’t have sufficient evidence to show it.

In his book, Silent No More: How I Became a Political Prisoner of Mueller’s “Witch Hunt,” conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi goes into a lot of detail about what Robert Mueller’s prosecutors asked him and what evidence they had. Here, Corsi makes some surprising disclosures and admissions that really could shed light in the Mueller investigation. These parts of Corsi’s book are based on notes his lawyers took during the question sessions, according to him. In fact, he’s released a draft plea document Mueller put together, backing up some of them. According to his book, Corsi went in to talk with Mueller prosecutors in September 2018. At the time, he had little to offer, denying he helped Roger Stone get in touch with WikiLeaks. Instead, he claimed warning Stone that such activity that could expose him to surveillance and investigation. Mueller’s team broke off the interview with a prosecutor stating they have “demonstrable proof that what you said was false.” They suggested he review his old emails and come back for another session.

But before the next session, Jerome Corsi writes, Mueller prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky agreed to give his lawyer David Gray more details about what to expect next time. According to Corsi, Zelinsky told Gray:

  • They had evidence Corsi told multiple people that Julian Assange had John Podesta’s emails as early as August 2016, 2 months before that news became public.
  • That Corsi said that Assange had planned to release those emails in October, in a “drip-drip-drip” fashion, which proved spot on.
  • That they had evidence that Roger Stone had called Corsi shortly before the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released and urged him to get word to Assange to start dumping the Podesta emails to counteract the fallout. (This is a particular interesting claim because the first Podesta email batch was released a half an hour after the Access Hollywood tape was. There had long been speculation that the timing was connected, but there hasn’t been any evidence to support that).

In Jerome Corsi’s second round of questioning with Mueller’s team in September 2018, he admitted that all this is true. He also confessed to helping Roger Stone concoct a “cover story” to explain away the suspicious Podesta tweet. This seems to suggest that Trump associates had good advance information about the stolen (Russian-hacked) Podesta emails and that some sort of effort at coordinating their release to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign. Of course, Corsi walks back on the information he provides but what he does admit is a huge problem for Stone. Even worse, Corsi wrote that he explained on that during a conference call with the staff of the WorldNetDaily so there would be witnesses to back up this version of events, if it’s true. And perhaps those witnesses talked to Robert Mueller already.

Though most of Jerome Corsi’s book is untrustworthy conspiracy-fringe nonsense, he doesn’t appear to fabricate these emails and phone records. Since the Roger Stone indictment cited much of the email evidence Corsi cites in his book. Yet, the draft plea deal document alleges that Corsi deleted from before the Podesta release before the Mueller team found them. And he tried shifting his story in an attempt to hide what actually happened. Nonetheless, what this book seems to suggest is that Mueller had been intently interested in making some sort of case against Stone directly involving WikiLeaks and the Podesta emails. And he assembled a great deal of evidence toward that end even if investigators didn’t have enough to indict Stone on this. But the special counsel could still be pursuing that part of the probe so more charges against Stone and possibly Corsi.

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 4 – Maria Butina

On Thursday, December 13, 2018, 30-year-old Russian national and alleged spy Maria Butina admitted in federal court that she made contacts with the NRA and top Republican officials in an attempt to secretly influence US politics at Russia’s behest. A so-called “gun rights activist,” she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. In addition, she admitted to acting under the direction of Alexander Torshin, another Russian fixture and gun rights supporter. She also worked with another individual to infiltrate conservative circles, who’s identified in documents as ”US Person 1” and is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP operative with NRA connections. Also, he and Butina dated and lived together. The case against Maria Butina is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yet, her activities fit into a broader Russian effort to influence US politics.

Allegedly from Siberia, Maria Butina claimed she moved to Moscow in 2010 in hopes of starting a furniture business and then an advertising agency once she realized the former venture was too expensive. Though the exact sequence of events is unclear, we know that 2 things happened soon afterward. First, Butina founded a Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms though that may have been a front. Since Russia is known to have very strict gun laws, anyway. Second, she began working as Alexander Torshin’s special assistant. Citing a shared interest in gun rights, the two were introduced to top NRA officials, began regularly attending NRA conventions in the United States, and became NRA “life members.” They also began to reciprocate with their own invitations to NRA bigwigs to visit Moscow for Right to Bear Arms events. The first of which took place on November 2013 and featured “a concealed carry fashion show.” It is there she met GOP operative Paul Erickson whom she got very close to at some point. Eventually, they dated and lived together. By 2015, the were close enough for Butina to email Erickson her proposed plan to influence American politics.

So what was this plan to influence US politics? The Justice Department claims that around March 24, 2015, Maria Butina emailed Paul Erickson a proposal project called “Diplomacy” apparently looking for his input. The email itself had the subject line “The Second Pozner.” An FBI agent’s affidavit suggests this refers to “Vladimir Pozner, a propagandist who served in the disinformation department of the Soviet KGB and who often appeared on Western television.” The project proposal makes several assertions:

  • Republicans will likely win control of the US government in the 2016 elections.
  • The GOP is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy” toward Russia. But now can be a good time to improve relations.
  • The NRA has a “central place and influence” in the Republican Party since it helps fund political candidates and sponsors events.
  • Butina and Torshin already have NRA ties to the NRA’s leadership and she’s visited the US once.
  • Therefore, Butina requested a $125,000 budget so she could participate in “all upcoming major conferences” related to the Republican Party before the 2016 elections.

Now you’d think Paul Erickson would get suspicious here. But he soon wrote back to Maria Butina with advice on her “special project,” including a list of potential media, business, and political contacts she could meet with “off the record.” He wrote, “If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America for a time when the political situation between the U.S. and Russia will change, you could NOT do better than the list that I just emailed you. All that is needed is for your friends to provide you with the financial resources to spend the time in America to TAKE ALL OF THESE MEETINGS.”

So what we have here is a plan to influence the Republican Party to be friendlier with Russia, based on the perceptive and accurate insight that the GOP is extremely beholden to the NRA, which is why it’s almost impossible. Keep in mind this was months before Donald Trump entered the presidential race, and when most believed the Republican Party would choose a more hawkish and traditional nominee. As for who was ultimately behind it? A more recent government filing mentions that Maria Butina refers to a particular “funder” who has “deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.” This isn’t Alexander Torshin but an unidentified Russian oligarch with a $1.2 billion net worth.

But even before Maria Butina wrote this plan, she had made some inroads in conservative activist circles. In 2013, she got Trump future National Security Adviser John Bolton to record a video message on gun rights for her group. In 2014 the conservative TownHall website ran an interview with her under the headline, “Meet the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.”

Yet, when Republican presidential candidates began traveling the country to campaign in 2015, Maria Butina, too, started popping up at events and even posed for photos with candidates like Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal. Soon after Donald Trump entered the race and skyrocketed to the top of the polls, Butina attended an event with him, too. This was the Freedom Fest at Las Vegas in July 2015. In fact, Trump called on her to answer a question. Saying she was from Russia, Butina asked, “If you would be elected as the president, what would be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?” Trump answered by talking about how “the whole world hates us” under Obama, and then said, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”

In their book, Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn reported that Donald Trump’s own advisers would look back on the exchange and find it strange:

“Steve Bannon raised it with RNC chair Reince Priebus. How was it that this Russian woman happened to be in Las Vegas for that event? And how was it that Trump happened to call on her? And Trump’s response? It was odd, Bannon thought, that Trump had a fully developed answer.

“Priebus agreed there was something strange about Butina. Whenever there were events held by conservative groups, she was always around, he told Bannon.”

Maria Butina’s work continued in late 2015 and early 2016, as she went back and forth between the US and Russia:

  • She talked with Alexander Torshin about his plans to meet California Representative Dana Rohrbacher, the most pro-Russian member of Congress in Russia in August 2015.
  • In December 2015, Butina’s group helped pay for another NRA bigwig trip to Moscow. The delegation included Paul Erickson, former NRA president David Keene, then-Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, and top NRA donors.
  • She and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2016.
  • She and Erickson incorporated a shell company Bridges LLC, in South Dakota that same month, for unclear reasons.
  • She and Erickson also began planning a series of “friendship and dialogue dinners” with various American political players in Washington DC and New York.

However, around March 2016, references about a communications channel between the Russian government and the Republican Party began to pop up. By this point, the first round of primaries have already taken place and Donald Trump was the clear favorite to win the nomination. That month, Butina emailed an American that “Putin’s side” had given them a “yes.” She wrote that a “representative of the Russian Presidential administration” had given approval for “building this communication channel,” according to the FBI agent’s affidavit.

In May 2016, Paul Erickson sent an email to Trump campaign (and Jeff Sessions) staffer Rick Dearborn, with the subject “Kremlin connection.” He wrote: “Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin. The Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.” He said that Vladimir Putin is “deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” and wanted Trump to visit Moscow before the election. So, he said, the NRA’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky, would be a good place for “first contact” because “President Putin’s emissary on this front” would be there. Another conservative activist Richard Clay sent a similar email to Dearborn soon afterward, and specified that Alexander Torshin as the emissary. The email was reportedly forwarded to Jared Kushner who wrote back that they shouldn’t accept, which is ironic since he attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort.

Later that month when the NRA held its convention in Louisville, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin attended yet met Donald Trump Jr. at the dinner. According to Trump Jr.’s lawyer, they only made “gun-related small talk.” Two weeks later, Trump Jr. received an email offer of information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Though there’s no clear indication that the 2 incidents are connected.

As the 2016 election drew nearer, Maria Butina moved to the United States on a student visa in order to receive a graduate degree from American University. At some point, she began living with Paul Erickson who’s twice her age. Yet, a government filing claims that she “appears to treat” this relationship “as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” In other words, Butina was simply just using Erickson for her work with the Russians. But given how Erickson is twice her age and resembles Dilbert’s boss, you probably knew already. In October 2016, Erickson emailed an acquaintance that he’d help secure “a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].” But Donald Trump’s prospects looked grim that month since he was down and the polls while Hillary Clinton was generally believed to win. On October 5, Butina and Alexander Torshin exchanged the following direct messages, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit:

Butina: “Time will tell. We made our bet. I am following our game.” …

Torshin: “This is hard to teach. Patience and cold blood + faith in yourself. And everything will definitely turn out” …

Butina: “Yesterday’s dinner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race. [Republicans] are for us, [Democrats] against — 50/50. Our move here is very important.”

A week later, they exchanged more messages with Maria Butina writing, “Important things are ahead of us. Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

Unfortunately, we all know that Donald Trump won the 2016 election. After the race was called, Maria Butina wrote to Alexander Torshin, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 am here. I am ready for further orders.” 4 days later, Butina hosted a costume party for her birthday at a Washington restaurant. She dressed as the Russian empress Alexandra while Erickson came as Rasputin. There, Butina “brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia,” according to 2 witnesses who talked to The Daily Beast.

Paul Erickson worked his GOP connections to influence Donald Trump’s transition team and the new administration’s staffing. Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin discussed who might be appointed secretary of state, with Butina asking about how “our people” felt about one name. She and Paul Erickson attended one of the inaugural balls together, and hosted guests at the Dupont Circle restaurant Russia House. Meanwhile, Butina planned another visit by Torshin and other Russians for the National Prayer Breakfast, set to be held shortly after Trump was sworn in “to establish a back channel communication,” as she emailed Erickson. She then set up a meeting between Trump and the Russians on the morning of the prayer breakfast, February 2, 2017. But at the last minute, the administration officially flagged Torshin’s name on the attendees list due to his suspected ties to organized crime. So the meeting didn’t happen.

After that, there’s been less published in reports and government filings about what Maria Butina has been up to. She allegedly asked a DC civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities for a supposed school project, according to the Washington Post. She dined with a Russian diplomat who the government suspects is an intelligence officer. At some point, the government obtained a note mentioning, “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization” and an “FSB offer of employment.” In April 2018, she testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee while she received her master’s degree in May. Then in July 2018, Butina and Paul Erickson ended their DC lease and began preparing for a trip. That is, until the FBI swooped in and arrested Butina. Since the bureau had its eyes on her since she moved to the US two years ago. But this arrest was rushed out of fear she’d leave the country and slip away from them.

Maria Butina initially pleaded not guilty to the charges against her, which at the time included as acting as an agent to a foreign government and conspiring to do so. However, that December, Butina pled guilty to the lesser charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent. She still faces a maximum of 5 years in prison, though she’s unlikely to be sentenced to that amount given her deal with prosecutors. Nonetheless, by pleading guilty, Butina admitted that she tried to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence in US politics.” She sought those “unofficial lines” of communication for the “benefit of the Russian Federation,” acting through a Russian official.

Through it all, Maria Butina communicated regularly with the Russian official believed as Alexander Torshin, reporting to him about her efforts and observations. Though the two met Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA dinner. In Russia, Torshin is a major figure in its politics, serving in its parliament’s upper house for years. Since 2015, he’s been a deputy director at the central Russian bank. Torshin is also a gun enthusiast and longtime supporter of gun rights. Nonetheless, Spanish authorities have linked Torshin to money laundering and a Russian organized crime syndicate called the Taganskaya. In fact, they planned to arrest him when he was scheduled to fly into the Mallorca airport in 2013, but he didn’t show up. While the FBI is investigating whether he “illegally funneled money” into the NRA that was then spent to help Trump win. If true, this would be a major scandal implicating the NRA. But the group denies it. And this year, the US Treasury Department put Torshin on a list of sanctioned Russian officials and oligarchs.

Maria Butina also sought advice and helped plan events with the person believed as Paul Erickson, whose role in this and potential legal exposure, is still unclear. Erickson has a colorful history. He’s worked for conservative activist Richard Viguerie, for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign, for Lorena Bobbit’s husband/victim, and for Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. More recently, he’s been on the American Conservative Union’s board and has close ties to NRA leadership since he fundraised for them. A Forbes columnist called him, “a sort of ‘secret master of the political universe’ known almost exclusively to the cognoscenti.”

Nonetheless, the exact nature and breadth on what’s being investigated on Maria Butina remains vague, making it unclear on how much legal jeopardy Donald Trump’s camp and the NRA is in. If the NRA really was tricked by a Russian spy, the whole group can be victim in all of this. Yet, a series of McClatchy reports dating from January, asserting that the FBI is investigating the NRA’s finances and specifically when Alexander Torshin “illegally funneled money” to the group “to help Donald Trump win the presidency.” Anyway, the NRA isn’t legally obligated to publicly reveal its donors and doesn’t do so. But we know it spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2016 to get Trump elected. Oregon US Senator Ron Wyden’s aide told McClatchy that the NRA had dodged questions on whether it accepted money from shell companies that could’ve been routed to the Russians.

As for Donald Trump’s associates, well, the government filings on Maria Butina are conspicuously light on references to her outreach to Trump’s team despite it being widely reported in the media. However, in May 2018, a Spanish organized crime prosecutor said that his government had given wiretaps on Alexander Torshin’s conversations to the FBI “just a few months ago” before adding, “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 3 – Michael Flynn

On Tuesday, December 4, 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller dropped a highly anticipated sentencing memo for former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI last year. Now the memo has large sections redacted since they described Flynn’s assistance with still ongoing investigations. But that still leaves a lot of text between the lines, amounting to 4 key findings.

First, Robert Mueller thinks Michael Flynn is doing such a good job cooperating with the investigation, that he’s happy to recommend Flynn serve no prison time. In fact, the special counsel praises Flynn’s input as “substantial,” writing that a “sentence that does not impose a term of incarceration” for him would be “appropriate and warranted.” Mueller continues, “His early cooperation was particularly valuable “because he was one of the few people with long-term and firsthand insight regarding events and issues under investigation by the SCO” (special counsel’s office). He then adds that Flynn’s decision to cooperate “likely affected the decisions of related firsthand witnesses to be forthcoming with the SCO and cooperate”— and redacts the sentence that follows. As for the specifics on Flynn’s cooperation, Mueller writes that the former National Security Adviser has “participated in 19 interviews” with either the special counsel’s office or other Justice Department office lawyers, as well as provided “documents and communications.” This stands contrast to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort who lied to federal investigators and gave the Trump White House advice on how to attack the Feds. You can guess Mueller’s sentencing memo on him will not be kind at all. And former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos who Mueller’s team claimed didn’t provide “substantial assistance” and complained that he talked to the press.

Second, Michael Flynn is currently cooperating with 3 different investigations, including Robert Mueller’s probe into Donald Trump’s campaign ties to Russia, a separate criminal investigation, and a third probe of some kind. But most of the other investigations’ details are redacted. And we don’t even know what type of investigation the third one is. For the criminal investigation, Mueller wrote that Flynn “provided substantial assistance.” But how? Well, figure that out yourself since the special counsel has redacted the 3-paragraph section explaining how. The third investigation just consists of a brief paragraph that’s all blacked out.

Third, Michael Flynn’s cooperation with Robert Mueller’s investigation apparently breaks down into 2 main areas. One focuses on contacts between Donald Trump’s transition team and Russia. As for the other area, well, we don’t know about that yet. Though the former section is heavily redacted, it’s not entirely. According to Mueller, Flynn helped his investigation “on a range of issues, including interactions between individuals in the Presidential Transition Team and Russia.” Anyway, Mueller starts off with the conduct to which Flynn pleaded guilty to like his own interactions with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak about sanctions and a United Nations Security Council vote on Israeli settlement policy. In addition, the memo also mentioned that other transition team members “publicly repeated false information conveyed to them” by Flynn about his Kislyak contacts. This apparently refers to 2 people: Sean Spicer and then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence. At the time, both publicly claimed that Flynn and Kislyak didn’t discuss sanctions. But this section on the transition contacts ends with a few more redacted lines. We don’t know what they say. But one obvious question has long been just what Donald Trump new about Flynn’s Kislyak contacts and the false information Flynn gave to Spicer and Pence. Flynn could clearly explain this to Mueller. A second section appears to follow, signifying a subject change, but it’s redacted. Mueller begins that Flynn “also provided useful information concerning” ….. whatever, but we can only speculate.

Finally, the many redactions indicate that there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that Robert Mueller doesn’t want the public to know about yet. Although there’s a round of reports and rumors that Mueller is ready to wrap up his investigation, the Flynn sentencing memo makes it clear that he’s not ready to show us all his cards just yet. Not only did Mueller’s team redact significant parts of the Trump-Russia section, but also entire sections on 2 other separate investigations. These redactions remind us of how little we know about what’s going on behind the scenes at the Justice Department and how much remains unsolved, or so it seems.

Nonetheless, though Robert Mueller gave a favorable assessment on Michael Flynn, the relationship isn’t a harmonious one. On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, Flynn submitted a filing containing details that seemingly implied how the FBI improperly questioned him over his contacts with Sergei Kislyak. The filing mentioned that agents hadn’t warned him that lying to the FBI was a crime and that then-FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe suggested that the questioning could be done more quickly if Flynn didn’t have a lawyer present. But that Friday, Mueller’s team fired back arguing that Flynn’s lies were premeditated and that he now attempted to “minimize the seriousness” of his crime. The special counsel emphasized that in lying to the FBI, Flynn had stuck to a false story he told others for weeks. Besides, Mueller wrote that Flynn would have to be idiot not to know that lying to the FBI was a crime (though he puts it more eloquently).

Some conservative media outlets have gone even further, suggesting that perhaps Michael Flynn didn’t really lie to the FBI, perhaps “misremembered” according to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. But considering the timeline of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak, this doesn’t make sense. Moreover, Flynn admitted to lying to the FBI under oath.

When the FBI questioned Michael Flynn on January 24, 2017, Flynn repeated his false story about his Kislyak contacts. He claimed he hadn’t urged Russia not to retaliate on sanctions (he did) and that he didn’t remember Kislyak calling him back to assure that Russia honored his request not to lash out. He also lied about a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements policy. Since he admitted to this under sworn testimony as part of a plea deal, Flynn doesn’t dispute this.

But in their sentencing memo, Michael Flynn’s lawyers seemed to make certain innuendos about the FBI’s behavior in setting up and conducting the interview. They called these “additional facts” that they deemed “relevant to the Court’s consideration”:

  • Then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe called Michael Flynn to tell him that the FBI wanted to interview him about his Kislyak contacts and had asked not to bring a lawyer because it would slow the process. Flynn agreed. (What?)
  • Peter Strzok and another agent showed up to interview Michael Flynn. Beforehand, the agents decided they wouldn’t warn Flynn that it was a crime to lie to the FBI. (Considering the career he’s had in military and the federal government, Flynn should’ve obviously known that lying to the FBI is a crime.)
  • Peter Strzok and the other agent also decided not to confront Michael Flynn if he lied. Instead, they’d try to refresh his memory by using “the exact words Flynn said” during his calls with Kislyak. (Was the FBI wiretapping Flynn’s calls to Russia? Seriously, Flynn had deliberately lied to the FBI and had made up his story at least 2 weeks in advance.)
  • One agent later said that Michael Flynn seemed “unguarded” during the interview, and that he appeared to see the agents as “allies.” (There is no way Flynn was unguarded for he had repeated his false story on more than one occasion. Besides, there’s no way he saw the FBI agents as allies.)

This memo is meant to obviously imply that Michael Flynn was railroaded, his interview was unfair, and that Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe were in on the fix. Keep in mind that Strzok and McCabe have been subjected to frequent conservative attacks and have both been since fired from the FBI. The Wall Street Journal editorial page soon wrote about “The Flynn Entrapment” portraying him as a “tragic” Mueller target. Furthermore, the publication claimed it wasn’t “believable” that “a highly decorated officer would lie to FBI officers he agreed to see without counsel.” Instead, the Journal claimed that perhaps Flynn simply “misremembered.” But whatever happened, the FBI’s behavior “reeks of entrapment.”

However, this hypothesis that Michael Flynn “misremembered” makes absolutely no sense. In fact, Flynn started lying about his Kislyak contacts 2 weeks before the FBI interviewed him, and 2 weeks after the contacts themselves. Furthermore, Robert Mueller’s team made this a point in their filing, arguing that Flynn’s “decision to make false statements was voluntary and intentional.” They also emphasized that Andrew McCabe told Flynn exactly what he’d be questioned about before the FBI agents went over. Finally, they write:

“A sitting National Security Advisor, former head of an intelligence agency, retired Lieutenant General, and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents. He does not need to be warned it is a crime to lie to federal agents to know the importance of telling them the truth. The defendant undoubtedly was aware, in light of his “many years” working with the FBI, that lying to the FBI carries serious consequences…

“The defendant agreed to meet with the FBI agents, without counsel, and answer their questions. His obligation to provide truthful information came with that agreement; it did not turn on the presence of counsel.”

Other conservative critics have mentioned that the FBI agents who interviewed Michael Flynn didn’t originally leave with the impression that he outright lied to them. Some have questioned whether Flynn lied at all. Though they acknowledge that Flynn admitted to making false statements to the FBI as part of his plea. But they think Robert Mueller strong-armed him into making that admission.

Indeed, the document describing Peter Strzok’s account of Michael Flynn’s interview, states that he had a “sure” demeanor that he “did not give any indicators of deception,” and that both agents had “the impression” that Flynn “was not lying or did not think he was lying.” But we remember that just because it may not seem that someone’s lying doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. Though the document poses the question of how and why the government changed its mind. Or why the agents who interviewed him found Flynn’s denials at least plausible. Nonetheless, we don’t know what happened next because much of the document is redacted.

In any case, Robert Mueller’s team claims that the 2 agents were “misled by the defendant’s false denials” like Trump’s transition team members (Mike Pence, Sean Spicer, and Reince Priebus) were. So they write, “Those misimpressions do not change the fact,” that Flynn “was indeed lying, and knowingly made false statements to FBI agents in a national security investigation.” They remind that Flynn has already admitted making these false statements ”in sworn testimony” to the court. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget about Flynn’s work with the Turkish government during the 2016 presidential campaign in which he received $530,000 for it from a Dutch shell company. Oh, and he extensively praised the Turkish government in an op-ed for The Hill. So the FBI interview wasn’t the first time Flynn had been deceptive about his foreign government contacts. Since such deception isn’t that unusual for him. Anyway, Flynn’s sentencing hearing didn’t go well so it’s been delayed as of December 2018.

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 2 – Michael Cohen

Meanwhile on Thursday, November 29, 2018, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen entered another guilty plea for lying to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. First, Cohen told Congress that negotiations to build the tower ceased in January 2016 and wasn’t extensively discussed with others in the Trump Organization. But he now admits these talks continued into to at least June 2016, well into the presidential campaign and after Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee. He also admitted to speaking with Trump about the project more than 3 times. Second, Cohen said “never agreed” to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow project and “never considered” asking Trump to travel for it. In reality, he considered a Russia trip and taking Trump with him. He also asked a senior campaign official about the possibility of Trump going to Russia. Third, Cohen told Congress “did not recall any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow Project.” However, Russian officials did call back. In fact, around January 14, 2016, Cohen sent an email seeking help on the tower deal to Putin press secretary and trusted adviser, Dimitri Peskov. Later, Cohen and Peskov’s assistant had a 20-minute chat on the phone. There were also plans to give the building’s $50 million penthouse to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The news that Michael Cohen is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is significant but not exactly surprising. Since he’s been signaling that he’s planned to do so for months. While he’s already pleaded guilty to separate charges in August. The big surprise is that Mueller’s new charge against Cohen focuses so heavily on his lying to Congress about a project to build Trump Tower in Moscow. Now Donald Trump has wanted to build or at least put his own name on a luxury tower in Russia since 1987. His latest effort came in 2015, when he and Russia-born businessman Felix Sater worked their Russian contacts in attempts to make a deal happen. On October 28 of that year (the same day as the third GOP primary debate), Trump signed a letter of intent allowing Michael Cohen to negotiate the licensing deal with the Russians. Ultimately, the deal fell through and the project never broke ground. Trump Tower Moscow has been the focus of several news reports about the Russia scandal. But it hasn’t been mentioned in any of Mueller’s charges so far. Now Cohen has admitted to lying to conceal how serious the Trump Tower Moscow project was. In fact, it reveals that Trump’s business tried to work with the Russian government on a major real estate deal while he was running for president. In addition, Trump knew of it while hiding it from the public eye.

Specifically, Michael Cohen now admits that the Moscow Trump Tower project was still active late into the presidential campaign. And that he often briefed Donald Trump and the Trump family about it. For the first time, Cohen revealed he had a detailed phone conversation with an assistant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, in which he asked the Russian government’s help moving the project forward. He tried to conceal all this from Congress. Not that revealing it would’ve mattered since the whole Congressional investigation into the Russia and the Trump campaign was a sham since it was headed by a member of Trump’s transition team. Nonetheless, whether there’s more to the story isn’t yet clear. While the Cohen plea deal reveals new information, it raises more questions whether more charges will come on Trump Tower Moscow and whether Cohen will provide damaging information on other matters as well.

Nevertheless, Michael Cohen’s plea deal for lying to Congress doesn’t just indicate that he lied about the Trump Organization’s attempt to get a real estate project off the ground in Russia. It also shows that the Kremlin helped in the cover-up. In August 2017, Dimitri Peskov confirmed ton receiving an email from Cohen in January 2016. Cohen’s email asked for help with a development project in Russia. Peskov denied responding to Cohen’s query, saying “This email said that a certain Russian company together with certain individuals is pursuing the goal of building a skyscraper in the ‘Moscow City’ district, but things aren’t going well and they asked for help with some advice on moving this project forward. But since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics — this is not our work — we left it unanswered.” At the time, Peskov’s account seemed to match Cohen’s. After all, Cohen told CNN his message to Pesokv was “an email that went unanswered that was solely regarding a real estate deal and nothing more.” He told the same story to Congress during his sworn testimony.

But according to a new plea agreement Michael Cohen agreed to, it turns out that Cohen and Dimitri Peskov lied. In reality, Cohen received an email from Peskov’s personal assistant, which led to a string of phone calls. But as Donald Trump’s Russian contacts came under increased scrutiny, Cohen and the Kremlin decided to lie about it, pretending they never successfully connected. Nonetheless, this episode illustrates one way the Kremlin has blackmail material on Donald Trump. Lying to Congress is a criminal offense. While the Kremlin knew for over a year that what Trump’s lawyer and personal fixer told Congress wasn’t true. Cohen also knew that Russia knew this and could’ve exposed lies if it wanted to. Still, we’re not sure why the Russian government covered up this lie.

Michael Cohen has also implicated Donald Trump directly in the campaign finance violations he pleaded guilty to back in August. As New York prosecutors’ documents reveal, “Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump. Recently, Cohen’s lawyers told the judge his case that much of the former fixer’s misconduct stemmed from a “fierce loyalty” to his boss. Since August, Cohen sat for several interviews for Robert Mueller.

However, according to sentencing memos Mueller and the Southern District of New York filed, Cohen wasn’t as initially cooperative or forthcoming as his legal team has led us to believe. According to Mueller, Cohen “repeated many of his prior false statements” about pursuing a Trump Tower in Moscow when he first met with the special counsel. It was only after Southern District of New York prosecutors charged him and made him face a prison sentence that Cohen decided to cooperate and admit that he previously lied to the special counsel. As Mueller writes, “Starting with his second meeting, the defendant has accepted responsibility not only for his false statements concerning the Moscow Project, but also his broader efforts through public statements and testimony before Congress to minimize his role in, and what he knew about, contacts between the Company and Russian interests during the course of the campaign.” From then onward, he went to “significant lengths to assist the Special Counsel’s investigation.” This included several meetings in the special counsel’s office, some of which were, “lengthy.”

In the meantime, New York prosecutors are unimpressed with Michael Cohen’s cooperation so far. They requested Judge William Pauley to “impose a substantial term of imprisonment” for Cohen, despite his previous requests for “extraordinary leniency.” Prosecutors claimed that “the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life.” They characterized Cohen as motivated by greed and “a desire to build his own power.” Taken alone, the prosecutors concluded, “these are each serious crimes worthy of meaningful punishment. Taken together, these offenses reveal a man who knowingly sought to undermine core institutions of our democracy.” Robert Mueller’s team agreed so Cohen received a 3-year prison sentence. New York prosecutors were particularly pissed at Michael Cohen’s efforts to silence at least 2 women about their alleged affairs with Donald Trump just before the 2016 election. As they wrote, “Cohen’s commission of two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 election for President of the United States struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows. He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs” with Trump. “In the process,” they wrote, “Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the Election.”

But why would Robert Mueller trust Michael Cohen? After all, Cohen has a history of deception. Not to mention, he already lied to Mueller before. Yet, the special counsel writes that the former Trump attorney’s information, “has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the SCO’s ongoing investigation.” He then added that Cohen “has taken care not to overstate his knowledge or the role of others in the conduct under investigation.” So he doesn’t think that Cohen is trying to throw anyone under the bus without any good reason. More specifically, Mueller claims that Cohen’s assistance has been “useful” about the following 4 subjects:

  • Cohen’s own contacts with “Russian interests” in the Trump campaign, including on Trump Tower Moscow.
  • “Certain discrete Russia-related matters” that are “core” to the Mueller investigation. Mueller is tantalizingly vague here, but he claims that Cohen knew about these things due to “his regular contact” with Trump Organization executives during the 2016 campaign.
  • His contacts with “persons connected to the White House” in 2017 and 2018. (This could be about Mueller’s investigation into obstruction of justice. But he remains vague.)
  • The “circumstances” around how Cohen prepared and circulated his “response to the congressional inquiries.” (This seems to refer to how Cohen made up his false story to Congress and who else was involved or at least knew about it.)

Thus, Michael Cohen talked about Russia, the Trump Organization, the Trump White House, and how he dealt with congressional Republican investigations. Robert Mueller found all of this “useful.” But we don’t know further details.

But now that Michael Cohen is cooperating with Robert Mueller, it’s not just Donald Trump who may currently be in legal danger. It’s also his family members whom Cohen admitted to briefing on the Trump Tower Moscow deal in 2016. According to Mueller, Cohen discussed the Moscow deal with Trump’s family members “within” the Trump Organization. Last year, Donald Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was “peripherally aware” of the Moscow deal in 2016 (yeah right). Trump recently claimed that he was free to pursue business deals while running for president. But he never publicly disclosed the deal. While Cohen’s guilty plea shows how he lied in a written statement to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to conceal the Trump Organization’s ongoing involvement in in the Moscow project from January through June 2016, with the Trump campaign well underway.

The Moscow project wasn’t revealed until August 2017, when the New York Times obtained emails between Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. Sater had previously scooped up deals between 2005 and 2006. In the 2015 emails to Cohen, he boasted about his ties to Vladimir Putin and told the fixer that he could get “all of Putins team to buy in” on the Moscow deal. He wrote, “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.” Now that Robert Mueller’s sentencing memo is out, we know that Trump Tower Moscow could’ve made “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources” for the Trump Organization. So this was a very serious project and a very big deal. And according to Mueller, Cohen also “explained financial aspects of the deal that would have made it highly lucrative for the Company and himself.” Not to mention, Donald Trump was very much involved with the deal while he was running for president.

Another interesting disclosure is that Donald Trump and Michael Cohen supposedly talked about meeting Vladimir Putin quite soon after the former started running for president. In September 2015, Cohen appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show, claiming that “there’s a better than likely chance Trump may even meet with Putin when he comes here” for the UN General Assembly. Cohen later stated that this was a spontaneous idea he had. Except it wasn’t according to Robert Mueller’s memo. In fact, Cohen had discussed a Putin meeting with Trump beforehand. As Mueller writes, “He had in fact conferred with [Trump] about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting.” Thankfully, the UN meeting didn’t come to fruition.

Furthermore, Robert Mueller writes that Michael Cohen provided “information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign.” Illustrating this, Mueller describes how “a Russian national” reached out to Cohen in November 2015, and claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation who can offer the Trump campaign, “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” This person also kept proposing that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet, which could help the Trump Tower Moscow project greatly. According to Buzzfeed, this refers to former Olympic weightlifter Dmitry Klokov who was also in contact with Ivanka. According to Mueller, Cohen didn’t end up working through Klokov. Since he was already working on Trump Tower Moscow with “a different individual” who he thought had “his own connections to the Russian government.” Most likely that would be Felix Sater. Still, what Cohen has to reveal remains to be seen.

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 1 – Paul Manafort

On Monday, November 26, 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted a court filing accusing former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort of breaching their September plea agreement. According to Mueller’s team, “After signing the plea agreement, Manafort committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters, which constitute breaches of the agreement.” Manafort was supposed to cooperate with the investigation as a plea deal condition. The special counsel didn’t provide specifics on what Manafort lied about or what evidence they have on it. But the fact the filing specifically mentioned lying among those crimes suggests that Mueller’s team will hit Manafort with more charges. Nonetheless, these lies concerned Manafort’s contacts with Trump administration officials, a suspected Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik, a separate Justice Department investigation, and a wire transfer. While most of the document is redacted, the report states, “A review of documents recovered from a search of Manafort’s electronic documents demonstrates additional contacts with Administration officials” well into 2018. Mueller doesn’t hint who.

After his trial conviction, Paul Manafort’s flip seemed like a major turning point in the Trump-Russia investigation. For a time, it seemed that Robert Mueller had a cooperator with close ties to Donald Trump and Russia. However, that cooperation didn’t pan out. Though Wired states that he did testify to a grand jury weeks before the plea deal fell apart. So Mueller’s team is using his testimony as part of a criminal case against someone else.

But is this worse news for Robert Mueller or Paul Manafort? On one hand, it’s possible Mueller badly needed Manafort’s testimony or other information to make a larger case. But now that possibility has gone up in flames. Yet, maybe Mueller didn’t need Manafort much after all. Since he might’ve got much of the information he wanted elsewhere.
On the other hand, considering the consequences Paul Manafort will face for breaching his plea deal, you have to wonder why he’d lie to investigators. Is he still banking on a presidential pardon from Donald Trump as his best chance of a Get Out of Jail Free Card? After all, Trump has refused to rule that out and even praised him after his conviction for his Ukranian shenanigans. However, keep in mind that just because Trump expects loyalty from his associates doesn’t mean he’ll reward it. This is especially if that person is in trouble and makes him look bad.

Nonetheless, on Friday December 14, 2018, Vox reported that Paul Manafort provided advice to Donald Trump and several senior White House officials on the FBI’s Russia investigation during the Trump administration’s earliest days. According to government records and interviews, Manafort gave guidance on how to undermine and discredit the FBI’s inquiry into whether Trump, his campaign aides, and his family members conspired with the Russian government and its intelligence services to covertly defeat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. While the White House knew about him being under investigation. In addition, Manafort gave advice on how to discredit witnesses against him and Trump.

First, Paul Manafort advised Donald Trump and his allies to move aggressively and attack the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies investigating the Trump administration. The former campaign chairman wanted nothing less than to “declare a public relations war on the FBI,” according to one of Vox’s anonymous sources as well as “delegitimize” the investigation itself. He also wanted to discredit then-FBI director James Comey and other senior FBI officials since they had become increasingly likely witnesses against Trump. Trump did just that though it’s unclear what role Manafort’s advice played into his attacks. Because Trump isn’t a man who takes advice. Besides, other more influential advisers recommended him to do the same thing. Not to mention, Trump didn’t really need to hear any guidance from Manafort or anyone else.

Through an intermediary, Paul Manafort advised a senior Trump administration official to attack the Justice Department, the FBI, and Obama administration officials for seeking court-authorized FISA warrants to eavesdrop on him and campaign aide Carter Page, as part of investigations and criminal investigations into whether they or others conspired with Russia to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election. Know that FISA warrants are granted when the court is presented with sufficient evidence that the potential target may be acting on behalf of a foreign power and there’s a high legal threshold in obtaining it. The Foreign Intelligence Service Court allowed for an electronic surveillance on Manafort before, during, and after his role in the Trump campaign. Donald Trump then alleged that then-President Barack Obama authorized wiretapping him and his campaign aides as part of an “illegal” espionage scheme. These allegations have since become central to Trump’s attacks to the Justice Department, FBI, and the Mueller investigation. Though Trump and his allies haven’t produced any evidence to show that any of this is true.

As part of these efforts, Donald Trump and his Capitol Hill allies made publicly sensitive classified information that endangered intelligence sources’ lives and interfered with ongoing criminal investigations. In May 2018, the Justice Department wrote to then House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, warning him that information he was about to make public would, “risk severe consequences, including potential loss of human lives, damage to relationships with valued international partners, compromise of ongoing criminal investigations and interference with intelligence activities.” But Nunes released much of the information, anyway. While Trump ordered the declassification of other intelligence information that law enforcement and intelligence officials warned would do similar damage. Attacking the FISA warrants’ use didn’t affect the Manafort criminal case’s outcome. But by discrediting the FISA process and the federal investigation into him and other campaign aides, it’s politically more feasible for Trump to pardon him.

Second, for distraction and scapegoat purposes, Paul Manafort counseled the White House to allege that the pro-western Ukranian government had colluded with the Democratic National Committee to try to help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election. Despite total lack of evidence to back up said charges, the White House adopted Manafort’s recommendation in the summer of 2017 to specifically target DNC strategist and consultant Alexandra Chalupa for allegedly working with Ukranian officials to hurt Donald Trump’s candidacy. Despite the torrent of allegations, no evidence has surfaced that the DNC or Chalupa did anything wrong. Acting on Manafort’s advice, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders encouraged reporters to investigate, “the Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy.” That same week, conspiracy propagandist, professional Trump asskisser, and Fox News host Sean Hannity intensified the allegations evening after evening on his show. Likewise, Republicans on Capitol Hill called for investigations into the “Ukranian matter.” That late July, Trump tweeted: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign – ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.” In August 2017, Matthew Whitaker and a conservative advocacy group he then headed, the ironically named Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) formally asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate the DNC’s dealings with Chalupa. The FEC hasn’t given any indication that it’ll investigate the matter further. Mainly because they saw right through the ploy.

Even though the allegations were total bullshit, they were effective whatabout propaganda to the white conservative Fox News audience. The White House made claims shortly after the public disclosures that Donald Trump Jr. had hosted the infamous Trump Tower meeting between a self-described intermediary for the Russian government and himself, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, where the Russians promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The White House tried drawing a parallel between its meetings with foreigners and the DNC’s via Alexandra Chalupa. But the comparison has always been a flimsy one. Since the White House and its surrogates couldn’t prove their counterparts did anything wrong. Not that lack of evidence didn’t stop them from pushing baseless conspiracy theories anyway. But Russia, a US enemy, engaged in a covert intelligence effort to influence the 2016 election’s outcome. Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort agreed to meet with individuals they knew were associated with the Russian government to get “dirt” on Clinton. Trump Jr. particularly acted on his dad and the Trump campaign’s behalf. Remember that it’s illegal for a campaign to accept help from a foreign individual, entity, or government. And it’s illegal not to disclose it. No wonder the meeting’s a focus in the Mueller investigation.

Fortunately, Alexandra Chalupa looked into Paul Manafort’s role as adviser to former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, an authoritarian strongman who wanted to cut ties with the European Union and become more closely aligned with Russia. She then set out to sound the alarm. At one point, she even organized a protest in Manafort’s hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, with protestors holding signs saying, “Putin, hands off the US election.” But these endeavors had nothing to do with her work at the DNC, where she co-chaired DNC affiliate the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Counci during the 2016 presidential election. When Chalupa brought up Manafort with anyone at the DNC, they were uninterested. In July 2016, she left her DNC part-time consulting role to work full time in human rights advocacy. The DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign claimed they weren’t involved in Chalupa’s efforts, while no evidence has surfaced to contradict it.

Third, in early 2017, Paul Manafort provided the White House specific information on how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign had sponsored research ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Particularly, Manafort provided information to the White House on how to discredit the so-called Steele dossier, written by a former MI6 Russia desk head named Christopher Steele, about alleged ties that Donald Trump and his associates had to Russia. In fact, Manafort provided the background to the White House lawyers about specific allegations and information in the document that he claimed was suspect. Manafort recommended that Trump play up that the Clinton campaign had commissioned the work by a private investigation firm that they hired. In reality, the work on the Steele Dossier had been commissioned by a right-wing entity during the GOP primaries.

Paul Manafort’s contacts with the White House continued even after his cooperation with Robert Mueller. Without telling prosecutors, Manafort’s defense attorneys secretly provided details of their client’s cooperation with the special prosecutor to Donald Trump’s legal team, in another apparent effort Manafort engineered to undermine the investigation and/or win a Trump pardon. In the process, Manafort may have helped Trump tailor his answers to questions the special counsel’s office recently provided.

Former US attorney and deputy assistant attorney general told Vox: “The open pipeline between cooperator and suspect Trump may have been not on only extraordinary but also criminal. … What purpose other than an attempt to ‘influence, obstruct, or impede’ the investigation of the president can be discerned from Manafort’s service as a double agent? And on the Trump side, the communications emit a strong scent of illegal witness tampering.” In other words, in trying to cover up and obtain a presidential pardon Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card, Paul Manafort and others committed more crimes. Each “discernable lie” Manafort told is a potential new felony charge of lying to federal investigators, perjury, or obstruction of justice. Now what’s an obvious interest to Robert Mueller is whether others, most notably White House officials, conspired with Manafort to lie, mislead investigators, or commit obstruction of justice and what Donald Trump knew of all this.