Et Tu, Paul Manafort?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

How Donald Trump Makes Money Off the Presidency

1_rxHHlDc_io9w16MGYjOnpA

Among the barrage of Donald Trump’s scandals, legislative failings, and Twitter tantrums, that appear in the news with constant regularity, there are plenty that seem to fall through the cracks. One of these concerns Trump’s businesses and his holding power as president. Despite promising to divest himself from his businesses while in office (he hasn’t), Trump is actively profiting from the presidency, which the founders never intended. While we still don’t have his tax returns to shed light on whether his behavior benefits his business’ ledgers, we know taxpayer money has been flowing to some of his businesses like Mar-a-Lago. However, despite the public seeing their tax dollars flow directly to the Trump Organization every time he goes golfing at his resorts and the rules being laid out in the Constitution, nobody has tried to stop this.

Previous presidents have disclosed and divested, so this hasn’t been a problem. After all, the Founding Fathers wrote protections into the US Constitution with emoluments clauses making it illegal for presidents to receive gifts from foreign governments or federal and state governments. Now Donald Trump did promise to release his tax returns during the campaign, and divest himself from his business while in office to avoid conflict of interests. After all, he promised to “drain the swamp” which his supporters think it meant that he’d stop corruption in Washington DC like limiting access to lobbyists, curbing deals with foreign governments, and refusing to profit from the White House. Yet, unlike his predecessors, he’s does nothing more than the legal minimum required.

However, we must understand that corruption and egregious abuses of power makes Donald Trump who he is. In fact, since he came to Washington DC, the United States has seen an unprecedented attack on presidential ethics. Trump campaign donors have gotten cushy White House jobs. Goldman Sacks bankers wrote the GOP tax plan. But most importantly, Trump hasn’t divested and most likely had no intention to in the first place. He doesn’t care about conflicts of interest. So he’s still making money.

First of all, the Trump Organization is huge private company with properties and business interests all over the world. But we don’t have a clear picture of exactly how big and valuable it is. According to a February 2018 Forbes report, Donald Trump rakes in at least $175 million a year from commercial tenants like the state-owned Industrial & Commercial Bank of China. But it’s impossible to say which companies pay him and how much because federal disclosure laws don’t require an accounting of where his businesses get their money. So we don’t know where the money’s coming from and how much he’s getting. Since he hasn’t released his tax returns either. And that’s a big problem since Trump probably has many conflicts of interest that could influence public policy. As Forbes noted, “Take any hot-button issue of the past year, and there’s a good chance Trump’s tenants lobbied the federal government on it, either in support of or in opposition to the administration’s position.” In fact, according to Forbes, at least 3 dozen Trump tenants have “meaningful relationships with the federal government, from contractors to lobbying firms to regulatory targets.”

Trademark-Timeline-2

Here’s a CREW timeline of Trump trademark approval actions by governments overseas. Not the ones coming from China.

In addition, foreign governments have been quick to figure out how to get on Donald Trump’s good side. According to a January McClatchy article, they’ve “donated public land, approved permits and eased environmental regulations for Trump-branded developments, creating a slew of potential conflicts as foreign leaders make investments that can be seen as gifts or attempts to gain access to the American president through his sprawling business empire.” The Chinese government has granted Trump at least 39 trademarks since he took office while his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka has received 7 since she joined the administration.

Then there’s the fact the Trump Organization still sells real estate. Last summer, a USA Today investigation found that during the last year Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, “70% of buyers of Trump properties were limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names. That compares with about 4% of buyers in the two years before.” According to the paper, overall in 2017, Trump’s companies, “sold more than $35 million in real estate … mostly to secretive shell companies that obscure buyers’ identities.” So since Trump became the Republican nominee and later president, mysterious investors have poured millions of dollars into his coffers.

ANY5ZXTUK5BNFCY2QBBC2KI66U

Since Donald Trump became president, the Trump International Hotel has become the go-to place for foreign visitors and anyone else wanting to curry favor with the White House. Not to mention, the GOP holds a lot of activities there. The lighting above the arch is by an anti-Trump protester.

Of course, the most obvious Donald Trump uses his position as president to promote his own business interest is through mixing and matching his presidential activities with his own properties while charging Secret Service and transportation costs to taxpayers. As Washington University professor Kathleen Clark told ProPublica, “Trump appears to be commandeering federal resources in order to maximize revenues at Trump properties, and he does this by visiting properties close to the White House. And when he travels to the golf courses in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey, other agencies that are involved in supporting the president end up spending money.” In fact, he spent 1/3 of his first year in office visiting his own commercial properties. Every Trump appearance at his properties is a marketing event. According to financial disclosures, Trump hotel revenue soared over the past few years. In 2015, records show just $16.7 million in hotel and resort revenues. In 2016, that income more than doubled to $33.8 million. Since Trump moved into the White House, Trump hotel income jumped about 80%, reaching $60.8 million in 2017. Sure in late 2016, Trump opened the Old Post Office Hotel in Washington DC despite the clear guideline that, “No elected official of the Government of the United States…shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease.” Since then, it’s become the go-to hotel for any foreign visitor looking to win favors from the Trumps as well as headquarters to GOP activity in DC.

hotel-final

TIME magazine has a good cover for Donald Trump’s DC hotel. Funny how they call it “The Swamp Hotel” since Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” Though I think he might’ve meant the Everglades than Washington.

But what the public doesn’t know is that Donald Trump wasn’t the only political and/or business figure to visit his properties. According to a January 2018 report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, during Trump’s first year in office, his properties hosted more than 100 executive branch officials, 30 members of Congress, and more than a dozen state officials. Trump’s properties also hosted events held by at least 40 special interest groups. At least 11 foreign governments and 6 foreign officials have appeared on Trump properties since 2017. The Kuwaiti Embassy held a National Day celebration in 2017 and 2018 at Trump’s D.C. hotel. While one Asian diplomat told the Washington Post shortly after Trump’s election that going to his D.C. hotel makes perfect sense, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?'” In the business sector, USA Today found that executives from 50 government contractors and 21 lobbyists hold Trump club memberships.

Top-Campaign-Spenders2

This is a CREW graph on top campaign spenders at Trump properties. You can see Trump’s top the list. But Republican governors and politicians aren’t far behind.

The Center of Responsive politics sorted the spending of political committees at Trump properties with Donald Trump’s own campaign events topping the list. In 2017 alone, Trump’s 2020 campaign spent $760,064 at buildings he owns. And since Trump still owns these properties, he and his family make extra money every time he holds a fundraiser. Since Trump’s DC Hotel is only a block away from the Justice Department and close to the White House, anyone who wants to make a contribution to Trump’s pockets simply books events there. Same goes for New York’s Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. In 2016, the RNC spent $146,521 at Trump properties and $173,416 in 2017.

untitled

Here’s a CREW map of members of Congress who’ve visited a Trump property. Kind of surprised to see Ted Cruz on there given what Donald Trump put him through. Yet, I don’t see Devin Nunes for some reason since he was on Trump’s transition team.

Before assuming office, Donald Trump vowed to donate his DC hotel profits from foreign governments to the US Treasury. However, to no one’s surprise months later, the Trump Organization admitted that tracking all foreign government money was “impractical.” But it promised to donate profits from guests self-identifying as foreign government representatives. Yet, in early 2018 the Trump Organization announced that it had donated profits from “foreign government patronage” after all but declined to disclose specifics like as the Washington Post speculated, “How much was donated? Which Trump properties were included in this accounting? Which foreign entities had paid money to Trump’s businesses?”

untitled1

Here’s a CREW map of foreign governments that have paid a Trump-owned entity since the inauguration. Includes China, India, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Turkey, and Malaysia.

Furthermore, neither Donald Trump nor his team have shied away from promoting his brand. After the 2016 election, Trump signaled he’d spend a great deal of time at his Mar-a-Lago in Florida. In turn, the club doubled its membership fees to $200,000 before taxes and charged $175 more to $600-$750 for its New Year’s Eve party. From January to August 2017, 2/3 of the 50 executives and lobbyist club members played golf on days Trump was. White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway promoted Ivanka brands on Fox News for God’s sake. During his first year in office, Trump mentioned his private businesses at least 35 times according to CREW estimates. Overall, their report found that political groups spent over $1.2 billion at Trump properties during his first year in office, after never having spent more than $100,000 “in any given year going back to at least 2002.” CREW chair and former Obama ethics czar Noah Eisen tweeted that the group’s report described Trump as “the most unethical presidency,” adding, “Year two has been even worse—& it’s just getting started.” In the fall of 2017, the Trump Organization debuted Trumpstore.com where you can buy all other-than-made-in-the-USA #MAGA gear, which is just another Trump family cash grab.

Nor is Donald Trump the only one in his family profiting from the presidency. In June 2018, the Washington Post reported: “Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, brought in at least $82 million in outside income while serving as senior White House advisers during 2017, according to new financial disclosure forms released Monday. Ivanka Trump earned $3.9 million from her stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, while Kushner reported over $5 million in income from Quail Ridge, a Kushner Cos. apartment complex acquired last year in Plainsboro, New Jersey. The filings show how the couple are collecting immense sums from other enterprises while serving in the White House, an extraordinary income flow that ethics experts have warned could create potential conflicts of interests.” Allowing Ivanka and Kushner retain their outside income sources is remarkable since Cabinet officials are required to divest themselves from their holdings or abide by strict rules imposed by a blind trust. Shortly after the inauguration, the State Department’s web page promoted Melania’s jewelry line. The Secret Service has even provided protection for Trump’s family as they go on business trips as well, with their expenses being paid on the taxpayer dime.

w7bqgrzngqdhuka2rioj

Here’s a small snapshot of Donald Trump’s and his administration’s over 500 conflicts of interest. You many not be able to read everything on here. But it’s truly staggering.

So why is all this a problem? Because it’s against the rules at a constitutional scale. The presidency shouldn’t be a get-rich-quick scheme. No president or First Family member should use the Oval Office to enhance their wealth. With his business interests on his mind, Donald Trump is making decisions as a country’s leader and under the guise of what’s best for the nation. But since he won’t be in office forever, he’s possibly putting Trump Organization interest before public interest. As CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder put it, “Every decision President Trump makes in the course of his job is followed by the specter of corruption. Because of his steady stream of conflicts, we have to question whether each decision he makes was made in the best interest of the American people or the best interest of his bottom line.” CREW estimates that Trump has over 500 conflicts of interest, which a clear picture of a presidency being used to turn a profit and his businesses serving as access points to corridors of power. Bookbinder adds, “Just as we feared, President Trump is not only making money in spite of his official position, in many cases, he’s making money because of it.”

Of course, the courts need to hash out this though with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court almost a done deal, does this harm the public? (Absolutely). Is there any proof Trump’s violating the Constitution? (Yes, the Emoluments Clause which forbids the president from accepting money from foreign governments). Fortunately, the apparent Emoluments Clause violations haven’t gone unnoticed as several lawsuits work their way through the courts. It appears quite serious as Trump businesses are subpoenaed and ordered to preserve documents. 3-4 suits have been filed so far. Naturally, the Trump administration asked that they’d be thrown out. Again, a judge will decide if Donald Trump’s broken the law. As of March 2018, one suit has been thrown out in December while the others endure and may be gaining traction.

187965_600

Donald Trump doesn’t see anything wrong with profiting from the presidency. Since he sees himself having the right to the spoils. Nonetheless, making the presidency for sale greatly undermines our democracy.

So how is Donald Trump’s legal team defending profiting off the presidency? For one, despite how rich he is, we taxpayers are paying for lawyers to argue that Trump has a right to profit from his presidency. And according to a USA Today article, it all boils down to this: “The taxpayer-funded lawyers are making the case that it is not unconstitutional for the president’s private companies to earn profits from foreign governments and officials while he’s in office.” Further, “The government lawyers and Trump’s private attorneys are making the same arguments — that the Constitution’s ban on a president taking gifts from foreign interests in exchange for official actions does not apply to foreign government customers buying things from Trump’s companies. The plaintiffs, including ethics groups and competing businesses, argue the payments pose an unconstitutional conflict of interest.” Or to quote Trump before he took office, “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.” However, we must keep in mind that Donald Trump doesn’t see himself as constrained to any norm, rules, or even laws. He was born into wealth and privilege and sees himself exempt from certain restraints that get in his way that would land the average person in jail. Profiting off the presidency is political corruption at its finest and not at all normal. Yet, like any con artist businessman, Trump sees profit as natural and immediate spoils of office.

COIThumb2

This is a map of where Donald Trump owns property outside the United States. You can see that Russia is in bright yellow since it interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.

Whether you can agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s actions, it’s very obvious he’s at least violating the spirit of the law. After all, he promised to step away from his interests but didn’t, implying he knew he should’ve before taking office. But it’s still hard to say whether or not a court will throw the book at him since there’s not much legal precedent here. However, since presidential ethics laws never foresaw a businessman president who wouldn’t follow political norms of divesting himself from his businesses, disclosing his taxes, and generally trying to avoid conflicts of interests, much of this may be legal.

Nonetheless, it’s more than just making sure that a president acts in good faith while in office. The real issue here is establishing precedent moving forward. While Capitol Hill seems fine letting Donald Trump get away with anything he wants including Emoluments violations, what can we expect from future presidents? While it’s a test for the courts, it’s also one for how much the public is willing to put up with from our elected officials. If we don’t put our foot down now, what happens when another more competent president goes out of bounds?

But what’s certain is that each day he occupies the White House, Donald Trump continues to profit from the presidency and possibly because he’s the man in the Oval Office. By promoting his business in an official capacity without shame and by offering access and influence to his businesses’ patrons, Trump sends a message to special interests and foreign government that his administration is for sale. This is no message an American president should send to the world since it shows that Trump’s support can be bought with patronage. While most Americans can’t even afford to stay at any of his resorts or visit his golf courses. This isn’t how American democracy should function. Nonetheless, the remaining years of the Trump administration are unlikely to be any different unless the American people and their Congressional representatives demand better.

20161126_LDD002_0

A Profile in Courage or Cowardice

On Wednesday, September 5, 2018, The New York Times published an op-ed by an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration under the headline “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump White House.” The official writes that they’re one of many “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [President Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” To put it in other words, “don’t worry because we Trump appointees are working from the inside to stop Trump from fulfilling parts of his agenda we disagree with.” The author’s motives were immediately questioned and reasonably so. But you have to wonder why this person just doesn’t quit. Is it good for people aware of Donald Trump’s dangers to stay inside the administration in an attempt to undermine it from within?

The op-ed’s major problem is with its lack of accountability. The “senior official in the Trump administration” raises a serious question on whether Donald Trump is fit to be president (oh, hell no) before slipping past any follow-up responsibility. Instead of leading a public debate of possible 25th Amendment invocation to remove Trump from office, the writer encourages Americans to trust the administration officials in the background. The author claims, “it’s okay, we got this.” For they‘ll thwart his “misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

But how much credibility should Americans give to someone who takes shots from a secret hideaway? The alleged presence of secret saviors shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every White House adviser should see it as part of their job to smother bad ideas and save the president from misguided impulses. But anonymously bashing one’s boss is disloyal and more likely makes everyone in the organization paranoid than fix anything. Though knowing the kind of boss Donald Trump is, I can hardly blame the writer for bashing him. Yet, unlike what Donald Trump states in his outbursts, it’s not treason in the slightest. Apparently, this Trump official wants a paper trail to show the world in case things go south.

The op-ed tells us nothing that we already know. It’s already established that Donald Trump is morally bankrupt, has no coherent worldview outside the primacy of his own ego and interests, and moves from objective to objective. How many times a week do news outlets and comedians broadcast his tweets? The op-ed depicts Donald Trump as anti-trade and anti-democratic while characterizing his leadership style as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.” According to the writer, Trump goes on long, repetitive rants and makes “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.” Yet, you can easily see this whenever you tune on the news. But don’t worry, these “unsung heroes” will protect America from Trump’s “erratic behavior.” If they really feel the need to subvert Trump to protect the country, why not go all the way and get that fucking piece of shit out of the White House.

The piece suggests that the United States is currently under a “two-tier” presidency. If Donald Trump wants to do something his underlings like, they go along with it. If he wants to do something they don’t, they find ways around it. This is consistent with Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear where he describes senior officials taking things off Trump’s desk to prevent him from seeing them. However, make no mistake that those working for the Trump administration and carrying out any part of his agenda are enabling him for their own benefit, not undermining him. If Trump is so incompetent that his most trusted advisers have to play peekaboo for national security’s sake, they should work to get him out of office. Not sparing us from his cruelest instincts isn’t enough, especially if they involve sabotaging Obamacare, separating families at the border, pandering to white supremacists, being way too friendly to authoritarian dictators like Vladimir Putin, getting rid of essential regulations to satisfy major corporations, and neglecting Puerto Rico and Flint. Furthermore, Trump believes that the Justice Department should allow his allies get way with crimes but prosecute his enemies maliciously for whatever’s under the sun. Like any dictator, he thinks it should be illegal to criticize or read any criticism of him. And he believes that ethnic and religious minorities he’s bound to respect. Not to mention, Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court and will very well be confirmed. Yet, Kavanaugh could bring Trump’s authoritarian agenda to fruition. More importantly, Kavanaugh believes that Republican presidents are above the law and won’ answer basic questions about conversations he’s had regarding the special counsel investigation. While the Kavanaugh nomination may be less fun and dramatic than the anonymous op-ed from the White House, it will have a far greater impact on American life.

Alas, these Trump officials are cowards too afraid of facing the consequences. While they hand-wave the notion, thus: “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” How is utilizing the 25th Amendment cause a constitutional crisis while admitting to subvert a so-called democratically elected president wouldn’t? The truth is Republicans like the “two-track” arrangement and don’t want Trump out of office. Because they’re advancing a right-wing economic agenda that any other batshit Republican president would’ve championed while preserving the popularity of Trump’s base. Everyone who works for Trump and his Republican allies knows he’s dangerously unfit for to be president. Yet, they’re willing to abdicate their constitutional responsibilities, sacrifice democratic principles, sell their souls, and leave their conscience at the door in a Faustian exchange for upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. Furthermore, the fact the author defends Trump’s policy agenda of “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” illustrating their conservative leanings. The writer even notes in the beginning that “ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” That’s not a voice of a resister, that’s an enabler. A resister like myself wants the Trump administration to go down in flames.

Nonetheless, the anonymous op-ed allows the author to have it both ways. If the Trump administration goes down in flames, they can claim to have heroically resisted the orange tyrant. If Donald Trump and his swamp toadies from the Washington cesspit triumph, they can claim to being a loyal caretaker to the conservative agenda Trump was “elected” to implement. Either way, while this self-serving cowardice might get the op-ed author off the hook, history will remember the Trump administration as a dumpster fire disaster. 2 years in, the Trump administration has led to has led to displacement and death of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico, systematic abuse of children as immigration policy, arbitrary status revocation for black and Latino immigrants posing no threat to public safety, abdication of the federal government’s responsibility to defend the civil rights of racial and ethnic minorities, attempted subversion of federal law enforcement, and the enrichment of Trump and his affluent allies at taxpayers’ expense.
On the other hand, given the stakes up to including a literal nuclear war, there needs to be some people quietly working backstage to prevent the worst from happening. Perhaps, in the future, they will be in a position to do more when Republicans are willing to do something about Donald Trump. Of course, you can do something about that by voting straight Democrat at the polls come November. Also, you might want to call out your relatives and community for abandoning their souls to hateful and banal Trumpism and Fox News. But for now, a little resistance is better than no resistance at all.

Make no mistake that the root cause of this clusterfuck is that the Republicans chose to back an unfit and dangerous president for selfish and crass political reasons. After all, since they’re getting the policies they want, they see no reason to challenge him. Unless the Democrats sweep the 2018 midterms, there’s no reason to believe that one or several officials coming out and condemning the unrespectable Donald Trump as a threat to democracy will ever change the minds of any Republican who knows of Trump’s worst habits full well. This forces well-meaning Trump officials into a terrible choice. On one hand, they can stay and do their best to undermine him where they can. On the other hand, they could quit and potentially let Trump staff the White House with cronies and ass kissers. Choosing the latter could cause irreparable damage to American democracy, a major war, a global economic crisis, or all 3 at once.

Indeed, these Trump officials may be enablers but they’re not helping their boss implement terrible policies while trying to make them better on the margins. In fact, they’re actually blocking some of these policies from coming into existence, especially the worst ones. Not to mention, the United States is an advanced democracy with Donald Trump up for reelection within 2 years and may lose his congressional majority in 2 months. White House officials aren’t indefinitely helping an occupying power but holding the line until the legitimate political process has a chance to curb Trump’s excesses. Sure they haven’t always succeeded. And we’re not sure if the author or anyone else has even tried or wanted to try to do anything to help immigrants, refugees, Puerto Ricans, Obamacare enrollees, or any other groups of people whose lives the Trump and his administration has imperiled significantly.

Nonetheless, the vast swath of bureaucracy appears to be on the dissenting officials’ side. Since they have a real opportunity to the contain the last election’s consequences until they can be reversed. Yet, given the nearly unimaginable stakes here, it’s too dangerous for anyone of goodwill to quit. We need utilitarians around to mitigate the risks of a true disaster. Remember when Donald Trump spent the latter half of 2017 threatening Pyongyang with “fire and fury?” Well, Trump’s antics undercut then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts. While the Defense Department had quietly ramped up preparations for war while Trump constantly brought up the idea of attacking North Korea in tweets and in meetings. It’s certainly apparent that a war between North Korea and the US would’ve cost millions of lives. Thankfully, we didn’t get that. Instead of a globally destructive conflict, we got a summit in Singapore and a sham deal between Trump and Kim Jong Un which seems to have moved us of the war footing for now. Sure, the summit was utterly embarrassing, but at least nobody got killed. Still, there are few practical checks to the executive branch’s ability to initiate force. If Trump decided to follow through with his “fire and fury” threats, he could’ve ordered a strike on North Korea’s nukes. But somehow, he changed his mind.

The op-ed author doesn’t go into detail on how they can assert various claims in their piece as well as they’ve personally stopped some of Donald Trump’s horrendous ideas. But a couple years of concrete reporting has uncovered concrete examples of Trump’s staff “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses.” Last June, White House Counsel Don McGahn refused a direct order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller as well as cooperated with the Mueller investigation and sometimes didn’t tell his boss what he was doing. Then there’s White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly controlled the flow of information to Trump, blocking conspiracy theorists like Infowars’ Alex Jones or right-wing trolls like Chuck Johnson from getting into Trump’s ear. According to Bob Woodward, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to convince Trump that trying to assassinate Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad was a bad idea. Since the move would’ve been arguably illegal and possibly set off a dangerous confrontation with Russia.

Another incident has National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn stopped Trump from withdrawing from the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement by stealing the letter that would’ve ordered withdrawal from his desk. Since withdrawing from that agreement would’ve wreaked havoc on the alliance and American businesses. If Trump had gotten his way in these cases, we would’ve had a constitutional crisis, war, and economic pain. If it weren’t for people who understood the potential consequences, everything could’ve been much worse. Of course, this doesn’t mean Trump’s staff doesn’t always succeed nor that Donald Trump’s worst policies have all been stopped. We still got the travel ban, family separations, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and pointless and dangerous undercutting of Obamacare, all of which has caused real pain. But as bad as things are, it’s easy to imagine them being much worse.

Some may argue that the anonymous op-ed writer identify, resign, and present evidence justifying an invocation of the 25th Amendment, impeachment, or the first necessary step toward either outcome or a Democratic Congress after the November elections. This might be noble in theory, there’s no evidence that congressional Republicans would go along with checking Donald Trump’s power. Since they went along with him knowing full well who he is. For one invoking the 25th Amendment is far more difficult than it sounds since it would require the vice president and the majority of the cabinet to decide whether Trump is fully incapacitated. But Trump could simply refuse to accept the outcome, which kicks the issue to the GOP-controlled Congress with 2/3 voting to agree to remove Trump from office. That’s not going to happen as long as Republicans dominate Capitol Hill. Then there’s the idea of a Mike Pence presidency which Democrats really don’t want at this point.

However, regardless of what some may think, what Trump officials are doing isn’t a coup but an extension of bureaucratic politics to extraordinary times. As political scientist Naunihal Singh told Vox, “This is an extreme form of things we see often, when cabinet secretaries or military officers attempt to steer policy ‘from below’ by limiting information flow to the President.” Besides, we’ve seen this before but mainly when presidents are incapacitated or physically ill. Since it can only be pulled off only when the center’s so weak that everyone grabs power. What different is that the United States is currently governed by a man so unfit for the office that his White House functions as if he’s in a hospital. But unlike previous presidents, Donald Trump isn’t going to die or get better. The constitutional remedies for such situation like the 25th Amendment or impeachment aren’t plausible options right now. So Trump aides recognizing the reality are stuck with a quiet resistance.

If anything, the most persuasive criticism of the op-ed isn’t the author doing something wrong in the White House. But rather going public in an op-ed endangers the quiet anti-Trump insurgency back stage. As Cato Institute scholar Julian Sanchez tweeted, “If you were really concerned about protecting the country from an erratic Trump — rather than, say, trying to pre-salvage your post-administration reputation — you probably wouldn’t write something like this given its predictable consequences. I can pretty much guarantee that this: (1) Triggers an epic tantrum and makes Trump even more paranoid than he already is, & (2) Sets off a mole-hunt that results in suspiciously competent persons being purged & replaced with loyalist nuts and/or Trump family members.” So writing it in a newspaper probably wasn’t a wise move. But since it has, we must hope that the author manages to rally other “resistance” members or even inspire other Trump officials to join. Sure it’s naïve and these quiet resistors aren’t the most reliable since they might sometimes enable their monstrous boss enact terrible policies they agree with. But in dark times, it makes sense to cling to whatever shred of hope we got.

A Strike Behind Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Consigliere Folds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mole Tells All (Maybe)

On Saturday, August 18, 2018, The New York Times reported that White House Counsel Don McGahn has taken part in at least 3 voluntary interviews totaling 30 hours with Robert Mueller’s investigation team looking into the Russia probe over the past 9 months. He discussed a wide range of topics such as Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ouster, and Trump’s public and private whining about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. According to the Times, McGahn fears Trump’s setting him up as a fall guy on potential obstruction of justice. And that he’d end up like his possible Nixonian counterpart John Dean who helped his boss cover up the Democratic Party headquarters break-in at the Watergate hotel. But he eventually flipped after Nixon fired him in 1973, secretly giving investigators crucial help while still on the job. Dean later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after striking a deal with the prosecution and received a prison sentence.

According to the New York Times report, two of Donald Trump’s original lawyers, John Dowd and Ty Cobb devised an “open-book strategy” for their client when the Mueller investigation began. The rationale behind this is obvious. After all, if Trump did nothing wrong, then he should be as cooperative as possible. Unlike his boss, while Don McGahn was dubious, he went along with the plan. And when the special counsel’s office asked him for an interview last year, he was “surprised” but complied when Trump and his lawyers gave him the go-ahead.

Not surprisingly, the report describes McGahn and his lawyer, William Burck as “stunned” at the Trump team’s willingness for him to talk to Mueller. So much they’ve developed a theory that McGahn’s being set up to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction of justice. So he and Burck decided to come clean with Mueller to demonstrate that he has nothing to hide. That McGahn is speaking with Mueller isn’t new, but to the extent he’s cooperating and his potential motivations for doing so are.
It’s not exactly clear that Donald Trump “appreciates the extent to which” Don McGahn has cooperated with Mueller. But you kind of have an idea he doesn’t appreciate it all that much. Yet, to Trump’s disappointment, McGahn doesn’t see himself as his boss’ personal lawyer. Rather, he sees himself as a protector of the presidency, not Trump. Besides, while McGahn has overseen Trump’s judicial appointments and deregulatory push at the White House, he has a distant relationship to his boss. According to the Times, the two men rarely speak. And when they do, chief of staff John Kelly and other advisers are usually present. And since McGahn calls his boss, “King Kong” behind his back, Trump has questioned his White House Counsel’s loyalty to him.

Nonetheless, as White House Counsel Don McGahn has had extraordinary access to Donald Trump and some of his most controversial moves. As the New York Times reported citing a dozen anonymous sources, McGahn has told investigators he knew of Trump’s role in firing FBI Director James Comey and repeated criticisms of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his role in the Russia investigation before Trump hired outside counsel to deal with the matter.

To the surprise of no one, Donald Trump has been incensed by the New York Times report. For he raged about it on Twitter during the weekend. That same evening when the report came out, he tweeted, “I allowed White House Counsel Don McGahn, and all other requested members of the White House Staff, to fully cooperate with the Special Councel. In addition we readily gave over one million pages of documents. Most transparent in history. No Collusion, No Obstruction. Witch Hunt!” However, the Trump administration has been anything but transparent since we haven’t seen the guy’s tax returns. Trump has been fervently against the Mueller investigation since the very beginning and has gone out of his way to undermine it, including attempts to fire Mueller. In fact, McGahn threatened to quit when Trump considered firing Mueller last year and convinced his boss to work with the special counsel. And I don’t see Trump and his lawyers handing over a million document pages. On Sunday, he unleashed a string of angry tweets, calling the story “fake” and claiming he allowed McGahn and others to speak to Mueller in an effort to be transparent, “so that this Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt can come to a close.” Yet, given that the Trump administration is infamous for being one of the least transparent in presidential history.

Donald Trump then took specific aim at reporters Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, referring to them as “fake reporters” and used them as an example of why the media has become the “Enemy of the People” as he often claims in his mass gaslighting. He also claimed that some members of the media called him to apologize and made a reference to the New York Times’ “disgusting new Board member.” While It’s not clear if he referred to the paper’s board of directors which both publisher A.G. Sulzberger and investor John Rogers, Jr. joined this year. Or its editorial board which tech writer Sarah Jeong was named to this month and who’s been attacked by right-wing activists alleging her of racism against white people. Let’s just hope it’s the former but given his decades-long racism, I strongly think he’s referring to the latter. Nonetheless, we must take Trump’s attacks of the media as gaslighting his base in to not believing negative coverage against him.

Nonetheless, the news of Don McGahn cooperating with Mueller has the potential to become a big deal. But it really depends on what McGahn told investigators and there are still a lot of questions about that. Even Donald Trump’s own legal team doesn’t seem all that sure if McGahn’s account hurts or helps their client. Yet, given that McGahn’s lawyers fully brief Trump’s legal team and how an angry Trump called him a “John Dean type ‘RAT’” on Twitter, my guess is the latter. Mueller and his attorneys know what McGahn told them and how it may or may not play into the obstruction of justice investigation. Yet, whatever it is, Mueller’s team isn’t giving any hints.

In the meantime, don’t assume that Don McGahn or that his testimony will help unseat Donald Trump like Dean’s did to Nixon. Trump expressly permitted his White House Counsel to speak to Mueller. Though his job legally obligated McGahn to testify since he represents the office of the president and works for the US government. So he couldn’t cite attorney-client privilege even if he wanted to. And if he refused, Mueller would’ve compelled him to do so. However, it’s notable the fact McGahn didn’t even try to avoid speaking with the special counsel, especially since the Trump administration is infamous for eschewing precedent. There are 2 possible reasons why he decided to simply comply with Mueller’s request. First, is that a futile court battle over his testimony would’ve made him look bad and raise suspicions that he and the White House have something to hide. Secondly, he might’ve seen little risk and even some reward in telling Mueller’s team about events that could constitute obstruction of justice.

Nor does it put Don McGahn in the clear. A former FEC commissioner, McGahn is a campaign finance expert and served as Donald Trump’s counsel 2016 election. In that capacity, he was presumably involved in the campaign’s hiring of British Cambridge Analytica employees. This raised the possibility of improper foreign contributions. McGahn may have known about the infamous Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and Trump campaign officials to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, a flagrant violation of campaign finance rules. McGahn might’ve even failed to rein in Roger Stone from the campaign as the latter allegedly bypassed election laws to seek Clinton dirt from foreigners. Since he has a long-time history with Stone and various dubious fundraising schemes, including those of Russian pay to plays dating back to his days as Tom DeLay’s attorney.

Whether Don McGahn has told any of the 2016 campaign to Mueller is a critical question. Citing Donald Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator in these alleged crimes may be Mueller’s strangest move. But since we don’t know, McGahn’s cooperation with the Mueller probe gives us a false impression of McGahn as a model of transparency with regard to the special counsel. The New York Times story over the weekend provides the White House Counsel with a publicity boost for its depiction of him as an honest broker with Mueller. But is he really? And it paints Trump as underestimating by the threat McGahn’s testimony on obstruction can pose to him at worst. In fact, Trump comes across as naïve about the investigation, which is an innocent deviation from his usual, panicked rage.

For now the New York Times story on Don McGahn may help Donald Trump’s public standing. Since it strengthens his claims of non-existent transparency and insinuates that McGahn has nothing to hide. However, the real test of McGahn’s candor will be if and when Mueller asks him to speak about the 2016 campaign. At that point, McGahn can invoke attorney-client privilege since he represented Trump at the time, which can trigger a genuine conflict with the special counsel.

Until then, keep in mind that Donald Trump and Don McGahn want us to think that Mueller has no reason to compel testimony, since they’re giving him everything he wants. Despite that it’s really not the case. Yet, by talking to Mueller about obstruction and publicizing these talks, McGahn doesn’t throw Trump under the bus, but may even strengthen the White House’s case amid looming conflict. Though he might’ve turned since no one else in the Trump administration knows what McGahn told Mueller either. Since such revelation has Trump extremely worried. But don’t get your hopes up.

The Legal Woes of Paul Manafort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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