The Senseless Shutdown

We all know that Donald Trump’s presidency is one long series of unfortunate events that’s making living in the United States a dystopian nightmare. As we all know, Trump managed to win over his supporters by promising a big, beautiful wall that Mexico will pay for. Despite that Mexico sure isn’t, especially since Trump called them rapists and criminals in a campaign speech. Now that Trump is president, he wants $5 billion to fund his wall at the US-Mexico border, which Congress doesn’t want to give him. Because it’s a stupid waste of money, which is plain to see if you just look at a map of North America. Or a history book on the Great Wall of China, which has benefitted the country more as a tourist attraction than protecting against Mongol invaders. Honestly, even Republicans wouldn’t give Trump any wall money when they were in charge of the legislative branch. As a result, the federal government has shut down in December and now we’re deep into its third week. While at least 800,000 federal workers are now struggling to keep it together along with the countless subcontractors and citizens who depend on them.

For the legions of government employees and contractors, the holidays was hell as they agonized over how to cover their electric bill, mortgage payment, or trip to the grocery store. And God only knows whether 2018 would be the worst Christmas of their lives that Donald Trump’s latest temper tantrum has upended. Some 420,000 of these are “essential personnel” and working without pay. This comprises of 41,000 law enforcement officials, 54,000 Border Patrol agents, and 53,000 Transportation Security Administration workers. 380,000 of these employees have been furloughed, including 28,000 Forest Service staff, 16,000 in the National Park Service, and 16,7000 at NASA. The longer the stoppage goes on, the more people will feel the squeeze. Already, the Small Business Administration has been shut down, delaying loan processing. A growing number of national parks, museums, and historic sites will need to close, disrupting tourism and for surrounding businesses. At some parks during the holidays, there were as many rangers and other support staff furloughed. While trash piled up, toilets overflowed, and facilities were vandalized. FDA routine screenings have been put on hold. The Federal Communications Commission is set to halt most of its operations as far as I know. The Indian land situation is about to get dire. Not to mention, the food stamp program is almost out of cash. The list goes on and on.

Sure federal employees will receive back pay, but only retroactively through a Congressional act after the government reopens. Yet, in the interim we must understand that their suffering will not influence Donald Trump to cave. Because Trump doesn’t care who gets hurt when it comes to getting what he wants. As of January 5, 2018, the GoFundMe website has 1,000 results for pages regarding the government shutdown. Most of the federal workers who’ve posted pages on the site ask for amounts ranging from $1000-$5000. While most pages have yet to receive any donations.

For the workers affected, those facing the greatest economic uncertainty are contractors who make up more than 40% of the government workforce. These not only comprise of white-collar workers, but also thousands of blue-collar jobs like janitors and security guards. Unlike the regular government employees, many contractors won’t be compensated for lost time. For these Americans, the shutdown’s effects can be potentially devastating even after the government reopens.

Apparently, Donald Trump’s supporters elected him because they saw him as a wily tycoon and deft dealmaker who could shake up Washington and bring decades of big-business knowhow to the Oval Office. In reality, Trump was never a peerless or even particularly skillful dealmaker. In fact, many of the most significant business transactions he engineered imploded. But because he was born into wealth, he could make his way in the world as a shameless self-promoter, a marketing confection, and billboard who frequently licensed his name on buildings others had paid for. In Trump’s professional life, his inept deal making often resulted in unmanageable debt and multiple bankruptcies. While his presidency has saw bungled, hapless efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, forge a nuke agreement with North Korea, wage trade wars with China, Mexico, and Canada, retain Republican control of the House, turn military and diplomatic strategy on its head, lay siege on any sensible immigration policy, and force a government shutdown to secure funding for a stupid border wall along the US-Mexico border.

Striking deals must have intimacy with the finer points of what every party wants out of a negotiation like realistic goals, maturity, patience, flexibility, and enough leverage so the other side can’t stall or walk away from the table. Of course, in his repeated efforts to build the wall to satisfy the white supremacists in his base, Donald Trump hasn’t met any of those perquisites. Nor has he addressed any of the real shortcomings or necessary enhancements of federal immigration policy. Obviously, Trump lacks the sophistication or interest to steep himself into policy details. So he already enters the immigration debate and deal making on his dumb wall at a distinct disadvantage. While Democrat and Republican politicians on Capitol Hill have immersed themselves in immigration discussions for years.

However, Donald Trump is perfectly willing to burn things down and ruin people’s lives just to get his own way. After all, look what he did in Atlantic City and tried to do to tenants at 100 Central Park South during the 1980s and 1990s. And he needlessly publicized himself as the shutdown’s author. Politicians in Washington DC should know that voters get sick of government shutdowns and don’t like those responsible for them. Of course, you can count on Trump trying to blame the Democrats for it or try to spin it as a positive thing once people get fed up with it. Still, if people know you as the guy who likes blowing things up, you’ll have a difficult time making deals. Besides, Trump had plenty of chances to avoid it and might’ve gotten the wall he wanted. In fact, one generous bipartisan Senate proposal offered $25 billion for a wall as long as the government opened a path to citizenship for 1.7 million young, undocumented immigrants in the US. Trump would’ve been wise to accept this deal. But no.

Good dealmakers prepare their teams to get the support they need to see the negotiation through. Donald Trump has overlooked the fact that more capable Republican dealmakers have initiated and guided his signature accomplishments of putting 2 conservative justices on the Supreme Court, pushing through an ill-advised tax overhaul nobody but Corporate America wanted, and passing criminal justice reform. On the other hand, building a wall has been Trump’s signature publicity stunt and has invoked fantasies to promote it like promising that Mexico would pay for it. Also, he’s become so emotionally invested in to the fruitless effort that he’s put himself at a strategic disadvantage. And Trump is now so consumed with appearing to win that he may not win at all. Left reeling and desperate, Trump has recently hinted that he may declare a national emergency on the southern border so he could simply appropriate the taxpayer funds he wants. This move may not even be legal and may compel Democrats to file a lawsuit to stop him regardless, and will likely further alienate some Republicans already fed up by his antics.

However, this is who Donald Trump is. All he cares about is fostering his own carnivalesque image. While has very little real interest in policy outcomes or other consequences unless they affect him personally. And he’s been there before. In 1988, he overpaid in a Plaza Hotel deal because he was so irrationally enamored by the property. He lost it in a bankruptcy a few years later. At the same time, he screwed up negotiations for another project that would’ve made him a transformative figure in New York real estate. Because Trump can’t exercise restraint, foresight, and financial discipline necessary to complete the deal. In 1996, he passed on a selling stake in one of his casinos that would’ve netted him $180 million and helped prop up his struggling Atlantic City operation because he didn’t want his name removed from the property. As you can see reading my blog post on Trump’s Atlantic City casino woes, countless people suffered from his actions. While he has still not learned his lesson and most likely never will.

But we must understand this isn’t a fight over border security. Despite Donald Trump’s wild claims, there’s no flood of savage foreigners pouring across the border. Even so, reasonable Democrats and Republicans recognize the need for bigger staff, better technology, and better fencing. Not to mention, both sides acknowledge the need for a sensible and more humane immigration and asylum policies. Even for competent administration, achieving all of this has proven to be a tall order. But already, Congress has already been allocating more money for border security. Despite that the Trump administration has spent less than 10% of what Congress had allocated this past year. Thus, to avoid the complex hard work that has traditionally gone with his job, Trump has instead created a political impasse over a symbol, a wall. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney derided this wall as “an easy thing to sell politically” that “doesn’t really solve the problem.” While former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times that the administration had long ago abandoned the idea of a concrete wall as irrelevant to border security’s real needs.

Not that Donald Trump seems much interested in either the public will or the public good. Because Trump never has. For him, this shutdown is a self-declared point of pride like a gaudy display of his boldness, his manliness, and his political steadfastness. But in reality, it reveals his selfishness and his apathy. Nonetheless, this political charade is mostly about Donald Trump taking it out on everyone over not getting his own way. So he’s making it miserable for everyone and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Is making all these people go without pay worth it? For God’s sake, no way in hell. These people have work for the benefit of the people each and every day. They deserve better than be furloughed or work without pay over a budget dispute on a stupid wall that our country doesn’t even need. Many of these workers have suffered already with making rent, paying bills, or getting groceries. As of now federal workers and contractors reckon with the possibility that the shutdown will drag on for months, leaving them with no steady income to pay mounting bills. Even for regular non-contract employees who’ll eventually receive back pay after the shutdown is over, the grinding anxiety and financial costs of scraping by in the meantime will mount with each passing day. Many of these workers live paycheck to paycheck, with very little wiggle room. Some of their creditors are more understanding than others. But even one missed payment can carry heavy consequences.

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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.

The Coming Saturday Night Massacre

There are times when moments you long wait for don’t always taste so sweet as you’d think they would be. On November 7, 2018, Donald Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, ending the longtime Alabama senator’s nearly 2 years running the Department of Justice. Now you’d think this would be a good thing. After all, Sessions is so racist that Coretta Scott King wrote a letter to the US Senate not to confirm him as a federal judge during the 1980s. And as attorney general, Sessions pulled back federal oversight of local police departments. He’s moved to prosecute anyone who illegally crosses the US-Mexico border, regardless of the conditions they’re facing back home, while pushing immigration judges to take on more deportation cases. And he’s even rescinded previous limitations on harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenses, and asked prosecutors to consider the death penalty in some drug trafficking cases. Furthermore, Sessions was an early Trump ally and a true believer with his boss on practically every single issue the Justice Department oversees whether it’s policing, immigration, prisons, or voting rights, all of which make up key parts of Trumpism. And because he so much embodied Trumpism is why I am happy to see him go. And it’s deliciously ironic that Trump removed one of his most loyal foot soldiers, which could imperil many parts of Trump’s agenda.

However, despite how it’s a spectacular blow to Trumpism, we shouldn’t celebrate Jeff Sessions’ firing. In fact, we should be very alarmed by it since the reason for his ouster is quite scary. In Donald Trump’s eyes, the ousted attorney general committed an unforgivable sin and act of betrayal that saw his ouster as a long time coming. For months, Trump has expressed anger which has prompted repeated questions about how long the attorney general would last. After all, Sessions has previously offered to resign at least once, which Trump refused to accept. But he’s also become Trump’s punching bag who’s had to endure tons of abuse all because he recused himself from the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, when it came out he had met with then- Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. This set the stage for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who has repeatedly declined to fire him even at Trump’s request. Trump has also complained that Sessions wasn’t sufficiently loyal because, since then he’s failed to prevent Mueller from indicting a growing number of Trump confidantes and targeting others. Trump’s anger also transferred another gripe that Sessions wouldn’t investigate connections between Hillary Clinton and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. And in February 2018, Trump complained that Sessions wouldn’t corroborate his unfounded belief in the existence of a widespread conspiracy theory, led by federal law enforcement personnel to undermine his candidacy during the 2016 presidential election. Because Trump believes that the FBI tricked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to surveil former campaign member, Carter Page, based on a Democrat-connected Steele dossier. Yet, none of this is true. For one, the FBI investigation into the Trump campaigns Russian connections began when Trump aide George Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged about getting Clinton dirt from the Russians to an Australian ambassador. Second, surveilling Page was justified with ample evidence beyond the so-called “Steele Dossier” and was renewed several times by appointed judges all appointed by GOP presidents and selected for FISC duty by Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Because they deemed the ongoing surveillance as fruitful. Now Mueller is currently investigating whether Trump’s alleged efforts to push Sessions out formed part of an endeavor to obstruct the probe, which would be a potentially criminal offense.

Now when a cabinet member resigns, you’d normally expect the Department No. 2 to take over in an acting capacity until a president hires a permanent replacement. In Sessions’ case, that should be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Trump hates him since he’s overseeing the Mueller probe, has refused to fire Mueller, and doesn’t really care much about politics. So Trump tweeted that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker would take over as acting DOJ head and will oversee the Mueller probe for the time being. Still, the fact he could either let Mueller do what he’s doing, curtail, or shut down the investigation should concern you. After all, Whitaker’s name cropped up in September as a replacement for Rosenstein when he appeared on the verge of getting fired himself. A former Iowa attorney, he’s the “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, according to the New York Times. He’s also a fiscal and social conservative who unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in 2014. Yet, what’s the most disturbing about Whitaker is that he was paid to sit on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, which was ordered to pay a $26 million following federal legal action on allegations it tricked aspiring inventors into paying thousands of dollars to obtain patents and licensing deals for their inventions. As federal authorities noted, they “failed to fulfill almost every promise they make to consumers.” According to court filings, Whitaker received payments of $1,875 from the Florida-based company and sent a threatening email to a scam victim who complained to the Better Business Bureau, where he cited his former role as a federal prosecutor.

Still, why would Donald Trump tap in Matthew Whitaker as a temporary replacement for Jeff Sessions? Because while Whitaker aligns with Trump and Sessions on issues regarding crime and immigration, he comes with an added perk of having criticized the Mueller probe. In fact, Whitaker has expressed skepticism about the Mueller probe before joining the Trump administration as Sessions’ chief of staff in the fall of 2017. In August he wrote a CNN op-ed blasting the investigation which stated, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing. If he were to continue to investigate the [Trump family’s] financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.” In July of that year, he appeared on CNN offering his own take on how an acting attorney general could sideline Mueller. He said, “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” Beyond this Mueller scrutiny, Whitaker has publicly lambasted Hillary Clinton. While serving head of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a right-leaning organization criticizing Democrats on ethics matters, Whitaker said in May 2017 that Clinton should be “extremely grateful” she wasn’t prosecuted for having a private email server. 3 months later, he wrote for The Hill that Clinton’s Ukraine connections were “worth exploring.” And let’s just say when a man dips into Clinton conspiracy theories, you know he shouldn’t be running the Justice Department.

But the truth is with Donald Trump firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with loyalist Matthew Whitaker should literally scare the shit out of us. Indeed, Sessions was a terrible attorney general and an unapologetic racist sack of shit who’s been rolling back Americans’ civil rights. Granted, I don’t like the guy at all and part of me wants to feel glad to see him go. But while he’d do anything for Trump’s love, there were certain lines he wouldn’t cross. And it’s because Sessions wouldn’t cross them that he’s no longer attorney general. Nonetheless, Sessions’ firing should inspire the same surprise and anger on the level of May 2017’s James Comey firing as head of the FBI, which much of Washington treated as a serious crisis in American democracy. Because both cases have Trump nakedly assert power over an investigation’s direction while sacking people to block oversight into his own conduct.

However, this time, the panic is more muted. While Democrats and some Never Trumpers are objecting, Jeff Sessions’ firing doesn’t have the same earth-shattering impact the Comey firing did. And the fact Donald Trump has been signaling this move for awhile normalized it, routinized it, and made it thinkable. It probably didn’t help he did it the day after Democrats won control of Congress in the midterms. Yet, slowly but surely this is how the threat to American democracy has kept growing during the Trump era. Since actions once considered as inconceivable and abhorrent back in 2016 have become accepted parts of our everyday reality. They’re just facts of life in a country governed by Trump’s Republican Party.

As we know, the Robert Mueller investigation grew out of the firing of FBI Director James Comey as a way of protecting the Trump-Russia investigation from presidential interference. Since Day 1, Donald Trump has been raging against Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe. In addition, he demanded that Sessions either take control of the investigation or resign and let someone else do it. Ever since then, Trump has repeatedly violated the norms of governing the way a president should treat an attorney general and the Justice Department. For Christ’s sake, he admitted that the Comey firing was about the Russia investigation on national television. He’s suggested that the attorney general’s job should be defending the president, not investigating him. He blasted the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for bringing charges against Republican members of Congress before the midterms because it might jeopardize Republican chances of holding onto the House. Individually, each of these shatters longstanding norms of how a president is supposed to think and act about the Department of Justice. Yet, it’s harder to muster outrage over each one individually. Though disturbing as these incidents are, no single one constitutes the end of American democracy, or even the DOJ’s independence. But even if these little norm violations don’t make a big difference by themselves, they cumulatively amount to a major change in how a president gets to treat an agency that’s supposed to be a check on his power. The same thing happened, in microcosm with Jeff Sessions’ firing. Trump’s berating of the attorney general in public, the insults, the humiliation weren’t enough to incite intense public outrage. But they served together to construct a new normal when it comes to a president’s relationship with an attorney general. By the time we got to the actual firing and replacement with a loyalist, it felt less like a novel event and more like an inevitable result of an ongoing process. And it’s this what makes Trump’s approach to firing Sessions such a worrying moment.

While it’s difficult to see how American democracy would collapse would look like in practice, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions shows how democratic backsliding is possible. Since taking office in Hungary in 2010, President Viktor Orban spent the last 8 years setting up a system resembling democracy but isn’t actually one. He didn’t abolished elections, but gerrymandered parliamentary districts and seized control of the civil service administering elections. He didn’t ban the free press, but either bought up critical publications or forced them to sell to government-friendly allies. There was never a specific moment in time when you could say that Hungary wasn’t a democracy. It just evolved over time into something different and unfree. Same thing happened in Venezuela.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a serious threat to the health of American institutions. Even if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker doesn’t fire Robert Mueller right away, it’s possible he could hamstring the probe behind the scenes with bureaucratic tools like refusing to approve Mueller’s indictments and subpoenas. Indeed, Whitaker has even floated the idea of cutting probe funding. He could run the same playbook of small fights over a major confrontation that helped him assume office without a huge public fuss.

Whether knowingly or not, Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in the democratic immune system. Democracies depend on a motivated and involved public for their survival. But if politicians only take one small step away from democracy at a time, each one narrow enough to be justifiable by their political allies, then a systematic shift away from democracy and constraints on presidential power never ends up truly galvanizing the opposition. Since if you don’t give anyone a crisis point to rally around, you can get away with a lot. But the slow degradation of institutions and the normalization of an authoritarian approach to politics, makes any warning about a particular development seem out of proportion to the immediate threat. But let’s be honest about the big picture. Along with the public flagellation and eventually firing of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s approach to politics is damaging the foundations of American democracy. Though the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives is certainly a good thing and will provide a check for Trump, the threats of American democracy can’t be solved with one election. Since they involve big structural problems like polarization of elites and politicians, growing hatred of the opposition party, deep emotional affiliation with one’s own party, and white anxiety over the loss of control over American politics and culture that’s driving authoritarian impulses and conservative polarization within White America and the Republican Party.

Born in a Golden Cradle

We all know full well how Donald Trump repeatedly paints his start in business as an up-by-the bootstraps, riches-to-slightly-more-riches tale. He’s cast himself as a New York real estate Oliver Twist with only his name and a $1 million loan from his dear old dad to keep him company. Only to become a self-made billionaire real estate mogul. Trump not only used this description to promote his image as a skilled businessman, but also portray himself as a “self-made man” during his presidential candidacy.

Despite the image Donald Trump projects to his base at his ego boosting rallies, he has actually spent 5 decades pretending not only that his father never rescued him from financial dire straits, but played a minimal role in his business success. When he said that Fred only gave him a $1 million loan, Trump glossed over how central his dad was to his career. When Trump entered the Manhattan real estate business in the mid-1970s, Fred cosigned bank loans for tens of millions of dollars. These loans made it possible for Trump to develop early projects like the Grand Hyatt hotel. When he targeted Atlantic City’s casino market, Fred loaned him about $7.5 million to get started. When he floundered there during the 1990s, Fred sent a lawyer to a Trump casino to buy $3.5 million in chips so his son can use the funds for a bond payment and avoid filing for corporate bankruptcy. In other words, Trump’s wealth has always been “deeply intertwined with, and dependent on” on his father’s wealth.

On Tuesday, October 2, 2018, the New York Times published investigation results into Donald Trump’s wealth and tax practices. They revealed a pattern of tax evasion and business practices that allowed him to receive at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father. According to the report, Trump and his siblings got hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money from their dad’s real estate empire, starting from their childhoods. As they write:

“Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.”

In sum, Donald Trump’s parents transferred more than $1 billion to their children and paid about $52.2 million in taxes. Given the relevant tax rates on gifts and inheritances, they should’ve paid $550 million, which is 10 times more. The IRS didn’t really notice it. While the Times didn’t see Trump’s own tax returns, their reporting was based on documents, records, and interviews pertaining to Fred Trump’s financial empire. These included, “tens of thousands of pages of confidential records — bank statements, financial audits, accounting ledgers, cash disbursement reports, invoices and canceled checks” along with more than 200 tax returns from Fred and various companies and trusts he set up. Even though he can’t be prosecuted for them due to statute of limitations expiration, evidence suggests that Donald’s actions on paying taxes weren’t always above the fray.

When Donald Trump’s finances were “crumbling” during the 1980s and 1990s, Fred Trump’s companies increased distributions to him and his siblings. From 1989-1992, Fred created 4 entities paying Donald $8.3 million in today’s money. When Donald’s finances were at their worst in 1990, Fred’s income shot up $49,638,928 and earned him a $12.2 million tax bill. According to the New York Times report, there are indications Fred, “wanted plenty of cash on hand to bail out his son if need be.” A former Trump Organization told Tim O’Brien in 2005, “We would have literally closed down. The key would have been in the door and there would have been no more Donald Trump. The family saved him.” Of course, it wasn’t really Trump’s family who saved him from personal bankruptcy, it was his dad. On another occasion, Trump allegedly gave his dad a $15.5 million share of the Trump Palace condo skyscraper in New York to square off some debts with his loans. But Fred then sold the shares back to his son for $10,000, making the whole exchange of $15.49 a taxable gift. Fred never declared it as such.
But it wasn’t always rich dad bailing out his son. Fred and Donald Trump worked together. As the elder man aged, his kids had to continue the tax schemes their parents put in place. In 1997, Donald and his siblings gained control of most of their dad’s empire. They significantly undervalued the properties, claiming they were worth $41.4 million and selling them off for 16 times the amount.

Nonetheless, the wealth transfer between Fred Trump and Donald Trump (along with his siblings) was a lifetime affair. As the New York Times notes:

“By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s.”

As the Times writes, there’s a fine line between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Rich people employ all kinds of tricks to lower their taxes all the time. But since Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, these journalistic investigations raise questions of what he’s hiding in his finances. For what the publication doesn’t have is what the American people have become accustomed to getting from their presidents like recent tax returns. Instead, the Times gave close scrutiny Fred Trump’s businesses which reveal the range of apparent illegal activity. Yet, everything the Times has is fairly old since Fred passed nearly 20 years ago while his years in business ended before that. So they no longer reflect the current state of Trump’s financial affairs. Furthermore, any illegal activity the Times sources revealed in this article can’t be prosecuted due to statute of limitations expiration.

The New York Times’ investigation is exhaustive and, to some extent, defies summary. But it’s worth recounting the most egregious thing they found as an illustrative example of the scope of crimes that serious forensic accounting can reveal. Basically, this was a 2-scams-for-the-price-of-one-caper, in which Fred Trump formed a shell company his children secretly owned. The company pretended to perform useful services for rent-stabilized buildings Fred owned, allowing to gift money to his children without paying a gift tax. Then, its bogus accounting was used to justify rent increases to regulators. As the Times wrote:

“The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.”
This is a particularly shocking crime because of the way it was used to defraud thousands of tenants as well as tax authorities. But this wasn’t the only time Fred cheated the public. After all, he got his start in profiteering in millions from programs to help returning GIs receive housing, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to throw a fit. In 1954, he was called before the Senate to testify about how he overcharged the federal government by inflating costs associated with a taxpayer-subsidized housing development in Brooklyn. As a result, Fred was banned from bidding on federal housing contracts. So he focused on state-subsidized projects. However, in 1966, Fred was called before a state investigations board to sit through embarrassing public hearings exploring how he overbilled New York State for equipment and other costs. These hearings essentially marked the end of Fred’s career as a major developer in public subsidized housing. Donald Trump would say that the government essentially reached in and took his dad’s business away from him. But this explanation ignores the fact that Fred’s business wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without government subsidies in the first place.

However, in terms of Donald Trump cheating on his taxes, it’s far from unique. In 1983, he’s admitted to sales tax fraud. He’s lost 2 income tax civil fraud trials. Hell, his own tax lawyer testified that Trump’s 1984 tax return was fraudulent. More strikingly, even before the Times’ investigation, we had numerous examples of Trump operating as a habitual criminal. While Trump would like to American people to forget about this, he got his start as a celebrity after the New York Times published an article detailing federal housing discrimination charges brought against him and his father. Ultimately, the charges were settled without admission of fault, which would be a pattern for Trump over the years. Even so, the fact his first foray into the real estate business involved criminal acts didn’t stop him from continuing in that business. When Trump branched out into casinos, he got caught accepting an illegal loan from his dad to stay afloat and got off with a slap on the wrist. He was even allowed to continue with the business as well.

From empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos, racial discrimination in his apartments, Federal Trade Commission violations for his stock purchases, and Securities and Exchange Commission violations for his financial reporting, Donald Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then essentially plowing ahead unharmed. Caught engaging in illegal racial discrimination to please a mob boss? Paid a fine. There was no sense this was a repeated pattern of violating racial discrimination law (despite being caught before in a housing discrimination case by the federal government). Nor there was certainly any desire to take a closer look at Trump’s various personal and professional connections to the Mafia. In New York, Trump Tower’s construction employed hundreds of undocumented Polish immigrants, paid them laughably low wages, and worked them beyond legal limits. Though Trump denied knowledge of the situation, a judge said his testimony wasn’t credible. Court records show that Trump and his children misled investors in failed condo projects in Baja California and Florida. Even as late as the post-election transition, Trump was allowed to settle a lawsuit about defrauding customers at his fake university for $25 million rather than truly face the music like a potential prison term. But he still insisted he did nothing wrong despite evidence to the contrary.

One of Donald Trump’s real insights in life was to see a bug in the system. When it comes to these white-collar crimes, it’s typically the government officials’ interest to agree to a settlement giving them positive headlines, raise some cash, and move on to the next investigation. But while these decisions can make sense individually, they let serial offenders repeat their crimes over and over again. After all, you wouldn’t want police to solve other crimes this way. Meanwhile, throughout the decades of Trump’s rise, the legal climate has only gotten more permissive.

The fact that Donald Trump appears to have been involved in serious financial crimes in the past is the most likely reason for his unprecedented lack of transparency. He didn’t magically stop committing them in the mid-1990s. Rather he’s just been getting away with it in an era of reduced law enforcement and fears his documents wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. As a candidate, Trump promised to release his tax returns. Now that he’s in office, he has refused to do so. In response to the Times’ investigation, the White House released a statement full of bluster about the “wonderful” things Trump has achieved as president. But it didn’t deny any of the alleged facts. Instead, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders merely observed that “many decades ago the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions.”

It’s not entirely clear if the IRS reviewed all of these transactions. But it’s unquestionably true that Donald Trump got away with it. Because lots of people get away with a lot of crimes and that doesn’t make it okay. The IRS is no more perfect in its work than any other law enforcement agency. To make matters worse, the IRS has been starved of resources, making it even harder to catch rich tax cheats. To be clear, this wasn’t caused by austerity by budgetary necessity. Based on macroeconomic estimates, the IRS believes that business owners like Donald Trump underpay their taxes by $125 million a year. Investing more in catching these tax cheats would pay off easily. But congressional Republicans haven’t wanted to do it because they think it’s good that rich business owners can get away with cheating on their taxes. Yet, this also gives tax-cheating businesses a very good reason to fear transparency and disclosure. While the IRS is relatively unlikely to get a hard, rigorous look at any particularly rich person’s complicated tax submissions. But since Trump is president, he’d find Congress and the press heavily scrutinizing his finances. Trump got away with tax evasion during an era of generally more rigorous enforcement. It’s very unlikely that he simply stopped doing it during the more recent years when enforcement got laxer. If he disclosed his tax returns, we’d find out about the scams he’s running. Because that’s why Trump doesn’t want us to see them. And why we absolutely need to. We won’t really know why Donald Trump hides his tax returns until he stops concealing them. But the New York Times’ investigation sends a clear message that he’s got a track record of doing illegal stuff with his taxes.

However, though Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns as president, Congress can make him. But congressional Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so. Nonetheless, the American people have a right to know whether or not the man in the White House is a crook. Though the case for oversight became stronger once Trump became president, Republicans who once distanced themselves from him became uniformly devoted to covering up for him. In addition, Republicans have totally resisted Democratic efforts to force disclosure.

While congressional Republicans may tell themselves these returns are no big deal, they have no idea how serious the crimes are they’re helping Donald Trump hide. Mostly because Republicans decided it’s good when rich people cheat on their taxes despite that it’s not. In fact, cheating on taxes contributes to inequality, higher interest rates, weaker public services, and a range of social news. And despite the Republicans’ best efforts, it’s still illegal. Though the tax code currently has minimal taxes on inheritances and gifts as well as large loopholes for the wealthiest of the wealthy. The New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth demonstrates how wealthy families wiggle out of taxes through licit and illicit means. Thus, starving the government of tax revenue, making the tax code less progressive than it’s designed to be, and effectively increasing the tax burden on low-income families and their businesses. The richer the family, the more likely they engage in tax evasion. In fact, one study shows that the richest .01% were shown to evade 25% of taxes, several times the rate seen among the general public. Because Trump is president, we need to know if he’s been breaking the law. All we need to do is have a congressional committee vote. But to get it, we need a new Congress.

Of course, since I’ve conducted extensive research on Donald Trump since he ran for president, the fact he’s not the self-made man he portrays himself to be doesn’t surprise me. I long knew that he never would’ve become what he is today if he hadn’t been born into wealth and privilege. And I knew about his dad vouching for him on his early projects and helping him out of his financial problems. Yet, millions of Americans still believe Trump as a modern Midas who’d lift them out of hard times as the super-rich flourish while everyone else’s incomes remain mostly flat. But the truth is that the man in the Oval Office isn’t the wealth-building entrepreneur he claims to be. In fact, he’s a financial vampire extracting cash from enterprises while leaving behind unpaid workers, vendors, and governments. And if you want to know what that will lead to, just take a visit to Atlantic City.