Donald Trump as President Is the Real National Emergency

After weeks of battling over funding for a worthless border wall that won’t do shit, overseeing the longest government shutdown in US history, and finally signing on to a deal to fund the government, Donald Trump has declared a national emergency over a contrived crisis at the US Mexican Border. On Friday, February 15, 2019, Trump invoked this power in a unilateral effort to make progress on the stupid border wall Congress has previously denied him. Initially, he demanded $5 billion for constructing a 200-mile barrier at the border. Naturally, congressional Democrats have repeatedly refused to go anywhere near that number. In the final deal, he got about $1.3 billion for border fencing, far less than the desired amount. So unhappy with the money and not getting his way, Trump went to declare a national emergency to get more.

So where will all this money come from? Well, Donald Trump will try cobbling together from a number of areas and redirect them for border wall construction. According to White House officials, this money would comprise of $600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund or money seized by the US government, $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense’s counter-drug activities, and $3.6 billion from other military construction accounts. Though Trump won’t try to take anything from disaster relief, yet.
Now the fact Donald Trump has declared a national emergency in addition to a spending deal isn’t surprising since he’s been wavering on the idea for weeks. So why declare a national emergency when he’s already got a spending deal? Because Trump doesn’t want to admit he lost. Since he’s already getting less for border fencing than he would’ve gotten in the bill he refused to sign in December and caused a 35-day shutdown over it. So he’s going for executive action instead despite that it’s debatable whether he can since no emergency at the border exists.

Since 1976, many presidents have declared national emergencies since there were 31 before Donald Trump’s declaration. However, the National Emergencies Act of 1976 only allows presidents to declare national emergencies in specific circumstances. So Trump can only use specific powers Congress has already codified in law. And he has to say which power he’s using. Besides, thanks to a little incident called Watergate, the 1976 law was meant to rein in presidential power and how presidents declared national emergencies. But it doesn’t define what counts or doesn’t.

Despite Donald Trump’s fearmongering about an influx of dangerous undocumented immigrants and terrorists at the US Mexican border, no such crisis exists. In fact, there’s no significant shift in the situation in recent days or weeks suddenly rendering such urgent action needed. However, we do have lingering crises with healthcare, opioids, climate change, aging infrastructure, family separations at the border, economic inequality, environmental devastation, right-wing and white supremacist terrorism, and more. But no. Besides, Trump has spent 2 years of an entirely-controlled Republican Congress to do something about immigration. While there’s been no significant shift in the situation that suddenly renders urgent actions unnecessary.

This isn’t the first time that Donald Trump has invented an immigration crisis when it’s convenient. Ahead of the midterms, he warned about a dire threat from a migrant caravan, only to essentially drop the issue after the elections. Sure, asylum seekers in the US have been on the rise, but seeking asylum is legal. But Trump’s not focusing on that. Congress won’t pay for his stupid border wall. And Trump thinks he’ll lose his base if he abandons it. So he’s creating a panic and going to any length possible to get it done.
Essentially, given the context, Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration is illegal and sets a dangerous precedent if it succeeds. Under Article I of the US Constitution clearly states, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” So only Congress can make such laws relating to public funds in non-emergency situations. Thus, no one person can seize control of our nation’s public funds. And even if Trump can declare a national emergency to get the money he wants, that’s not enough to build a wall. He also needs the authority of eminent domain from numerous unwilling owners, which must be expressed by the legislature. And there’s no clear authorization here.

This also puts a test on the Republican Party’s lack of willingness to stand up to Donald Trump. After spending years of complaining about Barack Obama’s overreach, they have so far deferred to Trump and encouraged Americans to do the same. But in this case, Republicans have expressed concern that Trump’s emergency declaration might lead to future Democratic presidents doing the same on issues like healthcare or climate change. Of course, their fears are well founded, since healthcare and climate change are actual national emergencies. The fact Trump basically declared a national emergency at the border before golfing at Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, it’s clear he’s abusing his power. Thus, Trump’s emergency declaration is an obvious fraud since in a real emergency, you act fast.

As usual, Donald Trump will likely face court challenges over this declaration and he’ll probably see it as some vast radical left-wing conspiracy that’s out to get him. While he deserves to lose, it’s possible he could prevail since courts often give presidents undue deference on immigration and national security issues. But should he win, it would set a very dangerous precedents. Again, he can also see pushback from Congress, which can pass a joint resolution to override it with 2/3 majority in both houses. But that’s not going to happen since the Republicans have control of the Senate and will do whatever Trump wants. Nonetheless, the fact Trump basically declared a national emergency at the border before golfing at Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, it’s clear he’s abusing his power. Thus, Trump’s emergency declaration is an obvious fraud since in a real emergency, you act fast. In fake national emergencies, you act when the political timing is right to cover your ass because you need to back down from an ill-advised congressional fight followed from an ill-advised campaign promise.

Of course, US-Mexico border security isn’t perfect. But the world is full of problems that aren’t “emergencies” in the sense of requiring some kind of urgent extralegal repurposing of funds. Nonetheless, by robbing the nation’s drug interdiction and military construction budgets for his stupid border wall, Donald Trump will more likely make the nation’s problems worse than better. Since fencing our southern border has been ongoing for decades and is subject to diminishing returns, with valuable sections already fenced in.

In the past couple of months, the real crisis on display is Donald Trump’s total incompetence you can see from miles away. For he doesn’t understand a policy agenda or get anything done. Without Paul Ryan around to drive a legislative agenda he could rubber stamp, he’s failing. First, it’s shutting down the government and throwing millions of people’s lives into chaos. Second, it’s reopening the government having gotten nothing he could’ve had in December while adopting a “Hail Mary” scheme that will only make things worse. Though it’s better than a real shutdown, we should all be worried that Trump can’t handle a real crisis if it’s staring at him in the face.

This whole stupid wall farce began back in 2015 when Donald Trump promised to build a wall across the entire US-Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. Even anyone with half a brain could see that this was an extremely stupid idea that was wasteful and unworkable in every way. But somehow thanks to racism and xenophobia, Trump transmogrified his opponents‘ mockery into a test of will. According to him, the political establishment didn’t want to secure the border, but Trump did. And the wall was proof. Now that Trump is in office much to our nightmares, he has been confronting the reality that his critics were right in every way. Since Mexico obviously won’t pay for his stupid border wall, he needs congressional appropriations and the cost-benefit analysis is valid. Trump has long ago conceded that he can’t build a wall across the entire border since there are places where It’s infeasible and useless. Not to mention, he’s also conceded that there won’t be a wall at all, but the previous steel bollard anti-pedestrian fencing he had previously mocked is a useful barrier and that Border Patrol prefers its see-through quality.

Thus, on a practical level, this whole dispute is simply about the spending levels and construction pace of a type of border hardening that’s been underway for years. While Republicans think it’s important, Democrats find this border hardening rightfully wasteful. Any halfway competent president would see this as the most banal political controversy imaginable. Since if you want to get money for a pet project, you have to offer something to your opponents in exchange. But Donald Trump’s problem here is that the wall is such a terrible idea that his allies and staff know it. The sort of illicit border crossings that these pedestrian fences are supposed to prevent have already fallen to very low levels and the immigration conversation has moved on to other things like the treatment of asylum-seeking families from Central America. But because the wall is bad, immigration hawks don’t want to make any meaningful concessions to get it. Anytime talks seem to take off about some swap of help for DREAMers in exchange for wall money, the hawks swoop in with a bunch of other demands having nothing to do with the wall. That conservatives don’t want to make concessions on an inherently bad idea is reasonable. But at the same time, if your allies aren’t willing to make concessions on a bad idea, it’s better to let the matter slide, not throw a tantrum. But Trump won’t do that.

First, the shutdown and now the “emergency” both stem from the basic fact that Donald Trump will neither admit the whole spiel was crock nor decide to act like someone who genuinely wants a wall and make a deal to get it. Instead, everyone’s time and money will be wasted on litigation while money will be taken away from duly authorized programs and sent to a useless construction project nobody really wants. This isn’t the worst thing anyone has done in American politics. Hell, it’s not even close to being the worst thing Trump has ever done. But it’s arguably the most absurd. Not to mention, it once again raises the fundamental question about Trump. When you have a president who can’t handle relatively banal problems like a $5 billion appropriation for a pet project, what will happen when a real crisis hits? Oh, wait, he is the crisis.

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The Mad Hatter Gets Cuffed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Senseless Shutdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 4 – Maria Butina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 3 – Michael Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 2 – Michael Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 1 – Paul Manafort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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