Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Reading

Inside the Mueller Investigation — Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig, and Josh Dawsey in the Washington Post report on what goes on behind the scenes.

A white sedan whisked a man into the loading dock of a glass and concrete building in a drab office district in Southwest Washington. Security guards quickly waved the vehicle inside, then pushed a button that closed the garage door and shielded the guest’s arrival from public view.

With his stealth morning arrival Thursday, White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II became the latest in a string of high-level witnesses to enter the secretive nerve center of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Twenty hours later, Mueller and his team emerged into public view to rattle Washington with the dramatic announcement that former national security adviser Michael Flynn would plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

The ensnaring of Flynn, the second former aide to President Trump to cooperate with the inquiry, serves as the latest indication that Mueller’s operation is rapidly pursuing an expansive mission, drilling deeper into Trump’s inner circle.

In the past two months, Mueller and his deputies have received private debriefs from two dozen current and former Trump advisers, each of whom has made the trek to the special counsel’s secure office suite.

Once inside, most witnesses are seated in a windowless conference room where two- and three-person teams of FBI agents and prosecutors rotate in and out, pressing them for answers.

Among the topics that have been of keen interest to investigators: how foreign government officials and their emissaries contacted Trump officials, as well as the actions and interplay of Flynn and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Mueller’s group has also inquired whether Flynn recommended specific foreign meetings to senior aides, including Kushner. Investigators were particularly interested in how certain foreign officials got on Kushner’s calendar and the discussions that Flynn and Kushner had about those encounters, according to people familiar with the questions.

Often listening in is the special counsel himself, a sphinx-like presence who sits quietly along the wall for portions of key interviews.

This picture of Mueller’s operation — drawn from descriptions of witnesses, lawyers and others briefed on the interviews — provides a rare look inside the high-stakes investigation that could implicate Trump’s circle and determine the future of his presidency.

The locked-down nature of the probe has left both the witnesses and the public scrutinizing every move of the special counsel for meaning, without any certainty about the full scope of his investigation.

Trump and his lawyers have expressed confidence that Mueller will swiftly conclude his examination of the White House, perhaps even by the year’s end. Trump’s Democratic opponents hope the investigation will uncover more crimes and ultimately force the president’s removal from office.

Meanwhile, some witnesses who have been interviewed came away with the impression that the probe is unfolding and far from over.

“When they were questioning me, it seemed like they were still trying to get a feel of the basic landscape of the place,” said one witness who was questioned in late October for several hours and, like others, requested anonymity to describe the confidential sessions. “I didn’t get the sense they had anything incriminating on the president. Nor were they anywhere close to done.”

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said he believes the probe’s focus on Trump’s White House is wrapping up, noting that all White House staffer interviews will be completed by the end of next week.

“At the end of the interviews, it would be reasonable to expect that it would not take long to bring this to conclusion,” Cobb said. “I commend the Office of Special Counsel for their acknowledged hard work on behalf of the country, to undertake this serious responsibility, and to perform it in an expedited but deliberate, thorough way.”

At least two dozen people who traveled in Trump’s orbit in 2016 and 2017 — on the campaign trail, in his transition operation and then in the White House — have been questioned in the past 10 weeks, according to people familiar with the interviews.

The most high profile is Kushner, who met with Mueller’s team in November, as well as former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer. Former foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon has also been interviewed.

White House communications director Hope Hicks was scheduled to sit down with Mueller’s team a few days before Thanksgiving. Mueller’s team has also indicated plans to interview senior associate White House counsel James Burnham and policy adviser Stephen Miller.

McGahn, who was interviewed by Mueller’s prosecutors for a full day Thursday, was scheduled to return Friday to complete his interview. However, the special counsel postponed the session as a courtesy to allow McGahn to help the White House manage the response to Flynn’s plea, a person familiar with the interview said.

Cobb declined to say which White House aides remain to be interviewed.

Several people who worked shoulder to shoulder with Flynn have also been interviewed by Mueller’s operation. That includes retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff to the National Security Council, as well as several people who worked with Flynn Intel Group, a now-shuttered private consulting firm.

During the transition, Kushner and Flynn met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. At the early December meeting, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications line between Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.

Kushner has said that Kislyak sought the secure line as a way for Russian generals to communicate to the incoming administration about U.S. policy on Syria.

Trump’s son-in-law has also been identified by people familiar with his role as the “very senior member” of the transition team who directed Flynn in December to reach out to Kislyak and lobby him about a U.N. resolution on Israeli settlements, according to new court filings.

The volume of questions about Kushner in their interviews surprised some witnesses.

“I remember specifically being asked about Jared a number of times,” said one witness.

Another witness said agents and prosecutors repeatedly asked him about Trump’s decision-making during the May weekend he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. Prosecutors inquired whether Kushner had pushed the president to jettison Comey, according to two people familiar with the interview.

Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell declined to comment on what the president’s son-in-law discussed at his November session with Mueller. “Mr. Kushner has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and will continue to do so,” he said.

Two administration officials said that it would be natural for investigators to ask a lot of questions about Kushner, whom Trump put in charge of communicating with foreign officials, adding that such inquiries do not indicate he is a target.

The special counsel has continued to make ongoing requests for records from associates of the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the requests. The campaign associates aren’t expected to finish producing these documents by the end of the year. Mueller’s team is also newly scrutinizing an Alexandria-based office and advisers who worked there on foreign policy for the campaign.

In the past several weeks, Mueller’s operation has reached out to new witnesses in Trump’s circle, telling them they may be asked to come in for an interview. One person who was recently contacted said it is hard to find a lawyer available for advice on how to interact with the special counsel because so many Trump aides have already hired attorneys.

“It was kind of a pain,” the person said. “It’s hard to find a lawyer who wasn’t already conflicted out.”

People who have gone before Mueller’s team describe polite but detailed and intense grillings that at times have lasted all day and involved more than a dozen investigators. Spicer, for example, was in the office from about 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. for his fall session. Mueller’s team has recommended nearby lunch spots, but many witnesses have food brought in for fear of being spotted if they go outside.

Mueller has attended some interviews, introducing himself to witnesses when he enters and then sitting along the wall. Sometimes he is joined by his deputy, longtime friend and law partner James Quarles, a former Watergate prosecutor who is the main point of contact for the White House.

Investigators bring large binders filled with emails and documents into the interview room. One witness described the barrage of questions that followed each time an agent passed them a copy of an email they had been copied on: “Do you remember this email? How does the White House work? How does the transition work? Who was taking the lead on foreign contacts? How did that work? Who was involved in this decision? Who was there that weekend?”

Some witnesses were introduced to so many federal agents and lawyers that they later lamented that they had largely forgotten many of their names by the time one team left the room and a new team entered.

“They say, ‘Hey, we’re not trying to be rude, but people are going to come in and out a lot,’ ” one witness explained about the teams. “They kind of cycle in and out of the room.”

One contingent of investigators is focused on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice and head off the investigation into Russian meddling by firing Comey in May. Prosecutors Brandon Van Grack and Jeannie Rhee have been involved in matters related to Flynn.

Yet another team is led by the former head of the Justice Department’s fraud prosecutions, Andrew Weissman, and foreign bribery expert Greg Andres. Those investigators queried lobbyists from some of the most powerful lobby shops in town about their interactions with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign adviser Rick Gates.

Mueller’s team charged Manafort and Gates last month with engaging in a conspiracy to hide millions of dollars in foreign accounts and secretly creating an elaborate cover story to conceal their lobbying work for a former Ukrainian president and his pro-Russian political party. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Lawyers familiar with prosecutors’ questions about Manafort said they expect several more charges to come from this portion of the case.

People familiar with the Mueller team said they convey a sense of calm that is unsettling.

“These guys are confident, impressive, pretty friendly — joking a little, even,” one lawyer said. When prosecutors strike that kind of tone, he said, defense lawyers tend to think: “Uh oh, my guy is in a heap of trouble.”

Long Time Coming — Charles P. Pierce on the inevitability of the GOP passing this tax bill.

I confess. I gave up on the whole exercise Friday night around midnight when the Republican majority in the Senate passed an amendment to its Abomination of Desolation tax bill that was proposed by that remarkably friendless character, Tailgunner Ted Cruz. (I like to think that it was Cruz’s essential friendlessness that accounted for the fact that they needed Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie on the Cruz amendment.) The amendment would allow families to use money from 529 savings plans to send their kids to private and/or religious schools, or to homeschool their children themselves. Considering that this was in the context of passing a retrograde bill that would wipe out the deduction for state and local taxes, a move that would hit hardest the American families who send their children to public schools, this was too much even for my strong political stomach. The Republicans had the votes to make war on the very idea of the commons, and they were using them, and, shortly before two in the morning, they won, and the commons lost, and we awoke Saturday morning to a meaner, grubbier country.

It is still possible that the Republican members of the House of Representatives will don their animal skins, sharpen their bone knives, paint their faces blue, and go screaming off to war when this thing goes to conference, befouling Mitch McConnell’s delicate magical math with poo flung from all directions, but, as the Romans learned centuries ago, you shouldn’t try to bargain with barbarians, and I doubt the Republicans will make that mistake again, not after what happened with their attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

No, there will be some howling and wailing for show, but the barbarians are not going to save the country. All they’ll do is make a greasy operator like Mitch McConnell look reasonable. (And make vainglorious senators like Susan Collins and John McCain look more useless.) And, besides, with this foul bag of rags they passed on Friday night, the one that eliminates the individual mandate that is the engine behind the Affordable Care Act, they won that battle, too. I think the Senate conferees will agree to some adjustments from their colleagues in the House, all of which will make things worse. However, alas, I don’t think the country can count on the Republicans fumbling on the goal line this time around.

No, they got what they wanted, and they’re going to be quite happy with it. Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, knows he’s a giant step closer to his lifelong goal of demolishing the social safety net. All he has to do is wait for the inevitable explosion of the deficit, at which point he will screw on his sad-basset face and tell us that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are just things we can’t afford anymore. The members of the House will quickly agree that the Senate bill is OK by them and pass it quickly on to a half-mad Republican president who won’t understand a word of what he’s signing but … so much winning!

(By the way, you can feel free to skip any story over the next week that discusses the passage of this sack of cholera in terms of who won and who lost, as though it were a ballgame. It is in measuring the scope of what has been wrought on the country here where elite political journalism will continue to fail utterly.)

In fact, it is important to keep in mind that, all things being equal, this is a bill that would have been proposed and passed even if the Tailgunner, or Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich had been elected president last November. If the president* had been impeached by the end of business on Inauguration Day, this bill, and the sad carnival of how it was passed, wouldn’t have changed a bit. For such a huge and consequential assault on the political commonwealth, the president*’s fingerprints are remarkably absent from this bill, not because the president* is smart, because he’s not, but because the Senate Republicans didn’t need him.

This was not a Trump bill. This was a Republican bill, a kind of culmination of everything the party has stood for since Ronald Reagan fed it the monkeybrains in 1981 and the prion disease began slowly devouring the party’s higher functions. It is purely supply-side in its economics, purely retrograde in its attitude toward the political commons, and purely heedless in its concern for anyone except the donor class who keep the party alive. This is why the Republican party chose to ally itself 50 years ago with the sad detritus of American apartheid. This is why the Republican party set itself against the expansion of the franchise. This is why the Republican party set itself against any form of campaign-finance reform, and cheered the decision in Citizens United. All of these dynamics were in play long ago, back in the days when Donald Trump was a Democrat. The assault on the idea of a political commonwealth began back then and it rarely has abated. The only way what happened Friday night could have been avoided is if Hillary Rodham Clinton had been elected in November of 2016 and, if the Bernie people have a problem with my saying that, they can go up an alley and holler fish.

This is also why so many longtime conservative fetish objects got stuffed into this big barrel of botulism. Lisa Murkowski’s price was oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. (Murkowski at least struck a hard bargain. Collins got bought off with a promise that there will be no Medicare cuts in the future, which…) There was the comical attempt to slip in an exemption for Christian Hillsdale College, which has rehabilitated its image from the days when its president was accused of having an affair with his son’s wife. This failed because it was too ridiculous even for this bill, but I’m fairly sure it will be back. One amendment failed because it was handwritten and nobody could read it. We all really ducked a bullet there, boy.

The entire process was shot through with a contempt for democracy, and for “regular order,” which suddenly became less important for McCain than it used to be a few months ago. That’s because the bill itself was built on a foundation of contempt for the notion that, in a democracy, we all have a stake in what the government does, and for the notion that we have certain values and principles in common upon which we act. The bill that passed the Senate early Saturday morning has been consistently, wildly unpopular. It passed anyway.

When its full effects descend on the country, there will be a great outcry about how the government is entirely corrupt and about how it has grown so distant from the people it was designed to serve. “Politicians” will be blamed, irrespective of party. “Politics” will be blamed, irrespective of ideology. Alienation and anger will rise and, very likely, another demagogue will appear, more competent than the present one, and he will ride that alienation and anger into power, and the whole thing will happen all over again.

The Republicans will have no problem with that, either. In fact, they’re counting on it.

Faking It — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on how Trump’s attacks on the media has strengthened it.

Last December, Variety and other news outlets reported that Donald Trump planned to serve as an executive producer for “The Celebrity Apprentice” while he was President. Kellyanne Conway, appearing on CNN, defended the President-elect’s prerogatives, but the next day Trump tweeted that the story was “fake news.” Since then, he has tweeted about fake news more than a hundred and fifty times; on a single day in September, he did so eight times, in apparent frustration over coverage of his Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. And, of course, Trump regularly invokes “the fake-news Russian-collusion story,” as he named it last summer. He has attacked coverage of the Russia investigation more than a dozen times on Twitter alone.

“One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake,’ ” Trump said on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, in October. (In fact, the phrase “fake news” has been around for more than a century.) The President’s strategy has been successful, however, in at least one respect: he has appropriated a term that had often been used to describe the propaganda and the lies masquerading as news, emanating from Russia and elsewhere, which proliferated on Facebook, YouTube, and other social-media platforms during the 2016 election campaign. These manufactured stories—“POPE FRANCIS SHOCKS WORLD, ENDORSES DONALD TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT,” among them—poisoned the news ecosystem and may have contributed to Trump’s victory.

Judging from the President’s tweets, his definition of “fake news” is credible reporting that he doesn’t like. But he complicates the matter by issuing demonstrably false statements of his own, which, inevitably, make news. Trump has brought to the White House bully pulpit a disorienting habit of telling lies, big and small, without evident shame. Since 2015, Politifact has counted three hundred and twenty-nine public statements by Trump that it judges to be mostly or entirely false. (In comparison, its count of such misstatements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is thirteen.)

The President also publicizes calumnies that vilify minorities. Last Wednesday morning, he outdid himself by retweeting unverified, incendiary anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right group. Through a spokesman, Prime Minister Theresa May responded that Trump was “wrong” to promote the agenda of a group that spreads “hateful narratives which peddle lies.” The following day, members of Parliament denounced the President, using such epithets as “fascist” and “stupid.” It was a scene without precedent in the century-old military alliance between the United States and Britain.

Trump’s tactics echo those of previous nativist-populist politicians, but his tweets also draw on the contemporary idioms of the alt-right. This is a loose movement, as the researchers Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis have written, best understood as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” who express “a self-referential culture in which anti-Semitism, occult ties, and Nazi imagery can be explained either as entirely sincere or completely tongue-in-cheek.” Trump is no alt-right digital-news geek, yet his Twitter feed is similarly ambiguous. He seems to provoke his opponents for the pleasure of offending them, but when he is called to account he often claims that he was just joking. Sometimes he promotes conspiracy theories to insult personal nemeses, as he did last week when he tweeted baseless speculation about the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s connection to the “unsolved mystery” of an intern’s death.

The President’s tweets slamming CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be comical and weird, but they do serious harm. Last week, a Libyan broadcaster cited one of Trump’s tweets about CNN in an attempt to discredit a report by the network on the persistence of slavery in that country. And, when the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.

At home, the Trump effect is more subtle, but corrosive. The First Amendment does not appear to be in existential danger; on the Supreme Court, Justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents endorse expansive ideas about free speech, even as they debate interpretations. Yet many of the rights that working journalists enjoy stem from state laws and from the case-by-case decisions of local judges. The climate that Trump has helped create may undermine some of these protections—for example, by prompting state legislatures to overturn shield laws that encode the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources.

Trump’s alignment with right-wing publishers, such as Infowars and Breitbart, some of which see Fox News as the old-school communications arm of an obsolete Republican establishment, reflects a broader fragmentation of the media. Amid the cacophony of the digital era, publishers and advertisers prize readers who are deeply engaged, not just clicking around sites. News organizations as distinct as the Times and Breitbart now think of their audiences as communities in formation, bound by common values. A more openly factional, political journalism need not portend the death of fact-driven, truth-seeking, fair-minded reporting. Yet excellent journalism typically follows a form of the scientific method, prioritizing evidence, transparency, and the replicability of findings; journalism grounded in an ideology can be discredited by the practitioner’s preëmptive assumptions.

Fortunately, in attacking the media Trump has in many ways strengthened it. This year, the Times, the Washington Post, and many other independent, professional enterprises have reminded the country why the Founders enshrined a free press as a defense against abusive power. Among other achievements, the media’s coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has made transparent the seriousness of its findings so far, and constrained the President’s transparent desire to interfere.

Last Friday, Mueller dropped his latest bombshell, a plea agreement with Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who admitted that, in January, he lied to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. The court papers filed with Flynn’s plea lay out a story of how senior members of the Trump transition team asked Flynn to communicate with Russian officials on matters of U.S. foreign policy. The papers also contain a reference to a discussion that Flynn had with “a very senior member” of the transition team, a characterization that suggests that the list of names of who that may be is a short one. The chances that history will remember Mueller’s investigation of Trump and his closest advisers as fake news grow slimmer by the day.

Doonesbury — A huge compliment.