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A Russia to Judgment

Ever since the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” ended without any indictments of President Donald Trump, with  just his campaign manager and deputy campaign manager and and personal lawyer and national security advisor facing prison time,  Trump and his allies have been gloating about complete exoneration regarding everything they’ve ever been accused of. Alas, it’s starting to look like yet another case of Trump starting his end zone celebration a few yards short of the goal line.
Even the four-page summary of the nearly 400-page report on the investigation by Trump’s own Attorney General explicitly states that “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Now several of the investigators are telling The New York Times that the summary excluded evidence of actions by Trump and his associates that might not rise to the level of a indictable crime but are pretty embarrassing nonetheless, which seems not only plausible but downright probable to us.
The Democrats in Congress are naturally calling for the public to see the report in its entirety, and even as the Republicans claim the report utterly vindicates Trump they’re trying to keep the report under wraps. Our guess is that the Democrats will eventually prevail, either through court decisions or press leaks, and even if they don’t the Republicans will look bad for withholding information from the public. Perhaps the best argument for keeping the report secret is that it includes grand jury findings regarding investigations that are now ongoing in various state and federal jurisdictions, but that’s bound to come out eventually in some court or another, so the Republicans might as well start spinning it as no big deal right now.
Meanwhile, the Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee is requesting six years of Trump’s tax returns, which he kept under wraps and will surely prove interesting, the Democratic majority on the House Oversight Committee is looking into why presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner was granted a top secret security clearance despite the concerns of the national intelligence agencies about his business interests and personal conduct, and they’re both likely to get that information. Even if they don’t, Trump and the Republicans will once again be in the awkward position position of arguing that the public doesn’t have a right to know about a report they assure us exonerates them of everything..
There’s also an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York about Trump’s hush-money payments to a pornographic video performer and and a Playboy Playmate, which is already sending Trump’s longtime lawyer to prison and clearly identifies Trump as the un-indicted co-conspirator “Individual One.” It’s also a sure bet the pesky press will continue to come up with something or another about Trump’s private businesses and presidential administration that’s hard to explain. That four-page summary of a nearly four-hundred page report clearly excludes something that Trump doesn’t want the public to know about, so a certain suspicion should linger past the 2020 elections.
At this point we don’t have any rooting interest in either the Democrats or the Republicans, but we’d advise our once-Grand Old Party to go right ahead and let it all hang out. The damned Democrats are going to believe the worst about Trump in any case, and the damned Republicans don’t much care what laws Trump might have broken so long as he cuts taxes and appoints conservative Supreme Court Justices and otherwise upholds law and order. The Democrats will probably come up with someone who’s y crazy left yet squeaky-clean on taxes and foreign-business dealings and porn star dalliances and the campaign finance laws concerning such affairs.
How that turns out is anyone’s guess, but we don’t see it working out well for anyone in any case.

— Bud Norman

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The Character Questions

Michael Cohen, one of President Donald Trump’s many longtime personal lawyers, will be on television today testifying to a congressional committee, which will likely be one of the highest-rated epodes yet in our ongoing political reality show. He’s expected to dish some damning dirt about Trump’s businesses, campaign, and sex life, and how they’ve all run occasionally afoul of the law, so Trump and his defenders are preemptively raising questions Cohen’s character.
There are plenty of questions to be asked, of course. Aside from the suspicious fact that he was admittedly one of Trump’s longtime lawyers, Cohen is soon heading to a three year stay in federal prison for lying to congress and various other crimes, and he’s long relished his reputation for ruthlessness. Trump loyalist and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz also “tweeted” on Tuesday that Cohen has also cheated on his wife.
“Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” Gaetz “tweeted” to Cohen. “Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful while you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.”
Some of Gaetz’ congressional colleagues thought it was tantamount to witness intimidation, pretty much of all the rest thought it was tacky at the very least, and we can’t imagine anyone thought it a compelling argument. Cohen is undeniably a convicted liar and criminal, and we wouldn’t be much surprised to learn that he has cheated on his wife, but that’s a problematic argument to make in defense of Trump. Our president has been proved to tell an extraordinary number of lies even by presidential standards, Cohen has receipts to prove that the crimes he’s confessed were carried out at Trump’s request, and some of them involve hush money payments made to a pornographic video performer and a nude model who had alleged affairs with Trump, and although Trump denies the allegations he had frequently bragged to tabloid newspapers and shock jock radio hosts about similar extra-marital affairs, and we’re inclined to believe the porno performer and Playboy playmate rather than the President of the United States..
When forced to choose between the claims of two liars and alleged adulterers and generally sleazy characters, we’re inclined to believe the one with nothing to lose and documentary evidence to back him up. Cohen is expected to testify that he was pursuing a deal for a “Trump Tower” in Moscow at a time when Trump was assuring Republican primary voters that he had no business underway with Russia, and by now Trump is going to need some pretty damned convincing documentary to make us disbelieve that. There’s a report in The Washington Post that Cohen will also testify that Trump knew of his longtime and recently indicted friend Roger Stone’s contacts with the Wikileaks organization that was leaking damning hacked e-mails on Trump’s behalf during the presidential election. Cohen is constrained from some testimony about what he knows about the “Russia thing,” as he’s still a witness to an ongoing special counsel investigation in the matter, but we’re inclined to believe whatever it was he told the investigators.
If today’s highly-rated episode in this reality show is even half as soap operatic as the press has promised, Trump and his spokespeople and talk radio apologists will have a lot of explaining to do. They can rightly claim that Cohen is a liar, but they’ll be hard pressed to make that case that Trump isn’t. Cohen is a convicted liar and criminal, but he’s also one of those “very best people” that Trump brags he’s always hired.

— Bud Norman

“Flipping” One’s Way to the Truth

Anyone who’s ever seen “The Godfather Part II” or countless other crime dramas well knows how federal investigations into criminal enterprises go. First they catch some low-level figure red-handed, then they offer a lighter sentence if he’ll “flip” with corroborated testimony about the next-higher player in the conspiracy, who in turn is caught dead-to-rights and offered a lighter sentence in exchange for corroborated testimony about the next guy, and the process continues until eventually the kingpin winds up on trial.
So it seems to be going with special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing,” which has already secured guilty pleas and corroborated testimony from three people associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign and his administration’s former national security advisor, as well as his longtime personal lawyer, and on Thursday The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s longtime personal friend who runs The National Enquirer has been granted full immunity from prosecution to join the witness list.
It’s an effective time honored investigative technique and cinematic plot line, long upheld by judicial precent and cheered by movie audiences, but Trump is now calling it a rigged system. Appearing on the Fox News Network’s “Fox and Friends” program, which should be the safest place for him in the  entire vast media spectrum, Trump wound up almost saying it almost should be illegal.
“I’ve seen it many times,” Trump said. “I’ve had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called ‘flipping’ and ii almost  should be illegal. You get ten years in jail, but if you make up stuff about people, in other words make up stories, they just make up lies … They make up things and they go from ten years to a national hero. They have a statue erected in their honor.”
All of which strikes us as hogwash, and conspicuously desperate hogwash at that. We’re not sure which of of Trump’s friends in the notoriously corrupt New York real estate business he’s seen involved in this stuff, but we assume he’s talking about some of the mobsters who were also represented by past Trump lawyer Roy Cohn, and we note that a number of them were put rightly put in prison after several plea agreements by Trump’s current lawyer and formerly formidable federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. We also note that although a number of lower-ranking figures got off with light sentences in those cases, they always had corroborating evidence to go along with their admittedly dubious testimony that they’re weren’t making things up, and that none of them ever had a statue erected in their honor, and you’d need a very cynical view of the longstanding traditions of the American system of justice and the American way of doing things more generally to argue about the outcomes.
Although it’s only tangentially related to the “Russia thing,” Trump is apparently worried about the “flipped” testimony of his longtime personal lawyer and his longtime friend at The National Enquirer regarding some six-figures payments that were made during the campaign to a pornographic video performer and a former Playboy centerfold model who alleged they’d had sexual encounters with Trump shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child. Cheating on one’s wife isn’t a crime, and former President Bill Clinton and a few other predecessors have established a precedent that it’s not an impeachable offense, but in this case Trump’s former lawyer has pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws at the president’s request and with the president’s money, and in any case a pornographic video performer and a former Playboy playmate were indisputably givensix-figures hugh-money payments from Trump’s account it’s damned hard for a president to explain to a First Lady.
Longtime Trump lawyer and now=-confessed felon Michael Cohen also figures in the bigger “Russia thing,” as he was the admittedly and under-oath go-to guy for a Moscow skyscraper deal Trump was pursuing even as he promised the Republican primary voters he had no deals whatsoever going on with Russia. So far there’s no telling what he has to say about that, and he’s now a confessed felon, but after the special counsel investigation seized all the tape-recordings and documents and hand-written notes from his home and office and hotel room we expect they’ll have corroborating evidence. So far the public has already heard a leaked audio recording of Trump working out the details of the hush-money payments to the aforementioned porn star and Playboy model with his former lawyer, which Trump had repeatedly lied about having any knowledge of, and we expect that worse is yet to come.
There’s no denying that Trump’s former friends and lawyers and campaign officials and administration appointees are an unsavory bunch, and that their testimony shouldn’t be taken seriously without some convincingly corroborating documentary evidence, but we expect that evidence will be forthcoming, and even in the best-case scenario it looks pretty damned bad for Trump.

— Bud Norman

A Bad Day in Court

President Donald Trump’s die-hard defenders did their best to make the best on in talk radio and cable news show, but Tuesday was undeniably a bad day in court for their man. The president’s former campaign manager was convicted on eight federal charges of tax fraud and bank fraud in Virginia, while 200 miles away in New York City the president’s longtime lawyer was pleading guilty to banking, tax, and campaign finance laws. None of it proves that Trump conspired with the Russian government to win his office, as the die-hard defenders were quick to point out, but they had a harder time making any of it look good.
The former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted of hiding substantial foreign income from the tax collectors while hiding substantial foreign debts from the banks where he was applying for big-money loans, and a mistrial was declared on another 10 similar charges when the jury declared itself hung, and the trial had a lot of embarrassing details about what a sleazy fop he is. The now-proved-in-court crimes all happened before Manafort became Trump’s campaign manager, and Manafort was removed from the Trump campaign shortly after it was reported he had failed to file his lobbying business’ work with some Russian-tied entities, but that’s about the best the Trump apologists can say for it at the moment.
A clean acquittal for Manafort would have dealt a serious blow to the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the “Russia thing,” as it was the first federal case Mueller’s team has tried, eight convictions carrying potential longterm prison sentences will surely keep the “witch hunt” going, and so far it’s achieve five other guilty pleas including from the Trump campaign’s deputy manager and a former foreign policy advisor a short lived national security advisor, and it has another Manafort trial scheduled a couple of weeks from now in the District of Columbia, where the charges will involve alleged shady dealings with various Russia-linked entities, and the judge and jury are unlikely to be any more sympathetic than the one in rural Virginia.
Perhaps none of this has anything to do with anyone named Trump, as anything is at least theoretically possible, but in any case convicted felon Manafort’s ongoing legal troubles will surely keep the “Russia thing” in the news for weeks to come and leave the president’s defenders with plenty of defending to do. Trump himself has continued to defend Manafort as a “good guy,” and always notes that Manafort also worked for such Republican icons President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Bob Dole, but he also always understates how long Manafort was involved with the campaign and what role he played, so it remains to be seen if there’s a pardon in the works, and what sort of craziness might ensue.
Trump didn’t have any similarly kind words for his former longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, whose allocution of guilt in open court clearly explained that he had indeed committed the crimes he was charged with and had done so at the explicit instruction of now President Donald Trump. He used the same language from the indictment about “individual one” and “the candidate,” but even on talk radio was there no pretending that he wasn’t talking about Trump. Perhaps it’s not a crime to pay one’s personal lawyer to commit a confessed crime, as anything seems legally possible these days, but it still involves hush money payments to porn stars and Playboy playmates and The National Enquirer, and does nothing to enhance Trump’s self-proclaimed reputation as someone who only associates with very best people.
Worse yet, Cohen also represented Trump over many years in an effort to build a skyscraper in Moscow and various other dealings with Russian-linked entities, and if he has anything bad to say about that he now has every reason to say it. Perhaps Cohen has no such information to provide, as anything is theoretically possible, but given the laws of probability we’ll be expecting more developments in the “Russia thing” from Cohen. He’s now a convicted liar, as Trump’s defenders now huffily note — right wing radio shrieker Mark Levin gave us a chuckle by rhetorically asking “Who would hire this guy?” — but it’s now in his self-interest to tell the truth and he has a reputation for recording conversations, one of which has already been released and documents Trump and his client negotiating the hush money payment that the president famously denied know anything about. If there’s anything involving the Russkies he’s probably got documentation on that, and after a pre-dawn raid on his home and office and hotel room the special counsel investigation has all of that.
You had to scroll down to the bottom of the page to have seen, but California Rep. Donald Hunt, the second Republican congressman to endorse Trump’s campaign, was indicted along with his wife in a federal court on charges of using campaign funds for personal reasons. The first Republican congressman to endorse Trump’s campaign, New York’s Rep. Chris Collins, was indicted on insider trading charges a few weeks ago and has since suspended his reelection campaign. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Kentucky allowed a lawsuit by some Mexican-American protestors who were roughed up at a Trump campaign rally to proceed, and somewhere out there are lawsuits pending by a woman who claims to have defamed when Trump accused her of lying about him groping her, and several state attorney general also have an ongoing suit somewhere about Trump’s Washington hotel and its alleged violations of the constitution’s emolument clause.
Still, the thousands of die-hard defenders at yet another campaign rally, this time in West Virginia,” were still chanting “drain the swamp” and “lock her up,” and still booing the “fake news” on cue. Trump’s performance included the usual boasts about his electoral win and talk of the “witch hunt” that’s out to get him, but to our eye he seemed a bit off his usual cocky form after such a bad in court.

— Bud Norman

Trump’s Imperfect Storm

That whole “Russia thing” has lately merged with those porn star and Playboy playmate scandals, and it all seems to be closing in on President Donald Trump.
Trump’s longtime lawyer and sex-scandal “fixer” Michael Cohen recently had his office and home and hotel raided by the Justice Department, and is widely expected to be indicted soon, and Trump’s most longtime lawyer is advising him that Cohen is almost certain to start providing state’s evidence in whatever matters might arise from all the seized files and recordings and other potential evidence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation director that Trump fired has a best-selling book full of newsworthy allegations, with Trump offering explanations for the firing that contradict his past statements, and efforts by Trump loyalists to discredit James Comey have resulted in the leaking of some formerly classified memos he wrote after his conversations with the president that contain even more newsworthy allegations. Meanwhile, the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” that resulted from Comey’s firing, which has already secured several indictments and guilty pleas and has prominent Trump campaign and administration officials fully cooperating, plods irresistibly along.
Trump has now added former star federal prosecutor and legendary New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to a legal team that’s been depleted by defections and impending indictments, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed not to allow a vote on a bipartisan bill that would prevent Trump from firing the Justice Department officials he needs to replace in order to fire the special counsel and perhaps end the investigation into the “Russia thing” altogether. According to all the opinion polls he also has the support of about four-fifths of the Republican party, as well as the fierce apologetics of prominent voices on the talk radio airwaves and other right-wing media, but he nonetheless looks outgunned on all fronts.
Giuliani was a formidable lawyer who locked up a lot of New York City mobsters back in the ’80s, and his three terms as Mayor of New York in the ’90s saw crime and tax rtes decline dramatically while employment and and tax revenues and general quality of life soared, and his response to the Sept. 11, terror attack on the World Trade Center made him a national hero and Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 2001, but since then he’s been on a long losing streak. A sex scandal ended his second marriage and commenced his third, and once upon a time in the Republican party that sort of thing combined with the Republican party’s former suspicion of smartypants New Yorkers doomed his presidential campaign in the good old days of 2008. He cashed in with some lucrative lawyering and lobbying and consulting, but he largely faded from the news until he remerged as an advocate for his fellow New Yorker and serial philanderer and far less qualified friend Trump, who by then was palatable to a plurality of the Republican party.
Giuliani told the press that he expects to negotiate a quick end to the various criminal and counter-terrorism investigations regarding the “Russia thing,” which suggests to us that his legal skills have rusted over the past few years, and that his losing streak is likely to continue.
McConnell says he’s not going allow legislation protecting special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired because he doesn’t believe Trump would ever be stupid enough to fire him, but that doesn’t do Trump much good. A credibly accused child molester that Trump campaigned for lost a seemingly safe Senate seat in Alabama, Arizona Senator and erstwhile Republican hero John McCain is busy battling brain cancer, so the Republican majority in the Senate is down to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence, and McConnell is reviled as the epitome of the “Republican establishment” by the party’s pro-Trump “burn it down” wing and quickly losing control of his fractious and increasingly Trump-averse caucus. You can call the Cable News Network “fake news” all you want, but unless you think they can produce computer generated images more convincingly than Industrial Light and Magic they taped a full dozen big-name congressional Republicans who wouldn’t say on the record that they’re on board with Trump’s reelection.
Even if McConnell does somehow allow the president to fire the people he needs to fire the special counsel and put an end to the whole “Russia thing,” McConnell is quite right that it would be a damned dumb thing to do.
That fired FBI director’s best-selling book and widely publicized book tour is getting mixed reviews, as his seeming mishandling of the undeniably difficult problem of presiding over investigations of serious allegations of criminal activity by both major party candidates during a presidential election has made him a hated figure on both ends of the spectrum, and that storm should soon pass. Those memos Comey wrote in the lead-up to his firing are likely be more troublesome when these matters enter a court of law, though, and for all his undeniable and admitted flaws we’ll find Comey a more credible witness when it inevitably comes down to that.
At this point we can’t imagine what might shake that four-fifth of the Republican party’s faith in Trump, but we notice that some of the right-wing talk radio hosts are fulminating about Trump’s betrayals of his non-interventionist promises with his missile strikes in Syria and a possible betrayals on building a border wall and deporting all the “dreamers” and waging trade wars around the globe. By now all but the most protectionist and isolationist Democrats still hate Trump as much as ever, a fifth of the Republican party and at least a dozen prominent congressional Republicans are outspokenly unenthused about him, and our view from the sidelines sees Trump taking a licking on all fronts.

— Bud Norman