Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Who Is This Guy?

Yesterday before the indictments were made public, I speculated who would be the first to be arrested.

My guess is that it will be minions; those on the fringe who Mueller can offer immunity in exchange for testimony.

At that time, I didn’t know about George Papadopoulos.  But then, neither did the rest of the outside world.  So, who is he?

  • He graduated in 2009 from DePaul University in Chicago, where he studied international political economy, before moving to the University College London to earn a master’s degree in security studies, according to his LinkedIn page. There, he wrote a dissertation “focused on the deleterious effects of low governance and state capacity levels in the Middle East,” his page states. “My research allowed me to safely infer that the rise of pacified and violent Islamist groups was directly correlated with the aforementioned indicators and the paramount reason that the ‘Arab Spring’ currently reverberates throughout the entire Middle East.”
  • From 2011 to 2015, he said he worked as a research associate for the Hudson Institute, a well-known conservative think tank in Washington.
  • He briefly served as an adviser to then-Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson before joining the Trump campaign in March 2016. Barry Bennett, who had served as Carson’s campaign manager, told The Post in May that Papadopoulos “was someone who worked for me at the Carson campaign for, like, 15 minutes” and then somehow ended up on Trump’s list of foreign policy advisers. “I was, like, how in the hell did that happen?”
  • In a 2016 interview with The Washington Post editorial board, Trump said Papadopoulos, an “energy and oil consultant,” was an “excellent guy.”
  • As The Washington Post reported in August, days after Trump claimed Papadopoulos as one of his youngest advisers, Papadopoulos sent an email to Trump campaign officials with the subject line: “Meeting with Russian Leadership — Including Putin.” According to an internal campaign email, which was read to The Post, he volunteered to broker “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump.”

He was arrested in July and pleaded out in early October.  He’s been cooperating with the Mueller team all along.Yesterday was Day One.  There’s a lot more to come.

Backstage at the White House, they’re freaking out.

Away from the podium, Trump staffers fretted privately over whether Manafort or Gates might share with Mueller’s team damaging information about other colleagues. They expressed concern in particular about Gates because he has a young family, may be more stretched financially than Manafort, and continued to be involved in Trump’s political operation and had access to the White House, including attending West Wing meetings after Trump was sworn in.

Some White House advisers are unhappy with Thomas J. Barrack Jr., Trump’s longtime friend and chair of his inauguration, whom they hold responsible for keeping Gates in the Trump orbit long after Manafort resigned as campaign chairman in August 2016, according to people familiar with the situation. Barrack has been Gates’s patron of late, steering political work to him and, until Monday, employing him as director of the Washington office of his real estate investment company.

If you remember Watergate, you remember John Dean.  Among Papadopoulos, Gates, and Barrack, I think we’ve got Trump’s Dean.

Bonus Track:  Here’s a Guy who knows Robert Mueller and can testify to both his integrity and the seriousness of the charges against Manafort and Gates.

Monday, October 30, 2017

12 Counts

Here we go.

Former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his longtime business associate Rick Gates were indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 charges, including conspiracy against the U.S., Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office announced Monday.

Other charges against Manafort and Gates include money laundering, being an unregistered foreign agent and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.

The indictment was unsealed Monday after Manafort and Gates were told to surrender to law enforcement.

It says, “In total, more than $75 million flowed through offshore accounts” and it refers to Manafort’s “hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States.”

Here are the actual counts.

My instinct is that this will never get to trial.  One of them will either flip or work out a plea deal and there’s every likelihood that Trump will pardon at least one of them even before this gets to that.

Deflection and Jack McCoy

From the New York Times:

Pushing back against the accelerating criminal investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, President Trump argued on Sunday that its focus should instead be on his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, even as the special counsel’s inquiry was reportedly poised to produce its first indictment.

In a series of tweets, Mr. Trump said Republicans were now fighting the Russia allegations by looking into Mrs. Clinton, apparently referring to new House investigations into her email practices and an Obama-era uranium deal with Russia. But the president made it clear he believed that Mrs. Clinton should be pursued more forcefully, writing, “DO SOMETHING!”

He did not say who should take action or what it should be, though critics have accused him of trying to sway the congressional and special counsel inquiries into Russian ties. Still, the outburst suggested that Mr. Trump, increasingly angry and frustrated about the investigations, is waging a concerted campaign to shift the focus to Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats.

After long expressing anger that his allies have not done enough to protect him from the inquiries, he is now enlisting White House and administration officials, employing his vast social media presence, and putting pressure on the Republican-led Congress to deflect any potentially damaging reports.

We’re moving from “Oh, lookit the kitty!” to “Behold, a flaming meteor of catastrophic proportions is passing by!”

Meanwhile the speculation is running rampant as to who the first up on the indictment list will be; everyone from Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort to Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.  My guess is that it will be minions; those on the fringe who Mueller can offer immunity in exchange for testimony.  This is based on years of watching District Attorney Jack McCoy use that tactic throughout nearly twenty seasons of “Law & Order.”

Okay, so it’s a TV show, but it’s grounded in just as much fact and inside knowledge of what’s going on inside the Mueller investigation as those folks out there in Twitterland.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Reading

Deadly Serious — John Cassidy on Robert Mueller’s mission.

On Friday night, CNN reported that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., has approved the first charges arising from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and the Russian government. Citing “sources briefed on the matter,” the network said that a judge had ordered the charges kept under seal, but that at least one arrest could take place as early as Monday.

Details were scant. The CNN report didn’t specify what the charges were or whom they had been brought against. But the news created an immediate furor, as other news organizations sought to follow up the story, and people on television and social media began speculating about the nature of the charges. Shortly before midnight, the Wall Street Journalconfirmed CNN’s scoop, without providing any additional details.

Speaking on CNN, Michael Zeldin, a lawyer who served as a special assistant to Mueller when he was director of the F.B.I., suggested that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, might be the person charged. Zeldin imagined Mueller taking such a step to pressure Manafort to coöperate. “There is a lot of pressure on people who are under investigation to coöperate with Mueller after this indictment,” Zeldin said. Well before Mueller was appointed special counsel, the F.B.I. had been investigating Manafort’s financial ties to a pro-Russia party in the Ukraine. Mueller took over that investigation after he was appointed, in May. In July, F.B.I. agents staged a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Manafort isn’t the only name being speculated about. Other commentators suggested that Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who had his own extensive Russian ties, or Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser who was ousted from the White House over his post-election contact with Russia, might be subjects of the charges. It has been reported that the former F.B.I. director James Comey, when he was leading the Russia investigation, secured permission from a secret court operating under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap the communications of Page and Manafort. It has also been reported that Mueller’s team demanded White House documents about Flynn.

A key political question is whether these charges are related to things that happened as part of the Trump campaign, or whether they relate to alleged wrongdoings that occurred before it began or separate from it. If there are direct ties between the charges and the campaign, that will obviously have huge ramifications on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. But if the charges concern alleged actions on the part of Manafort or others that were unrelated to the 2016 campaign, the White House may well accuse Mueller of moving beyond his remit. That allegation wouldn’t be accurate—the terms of Mueller’s appointment gave him license to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly” from the Russia probe—but accuracy has never concerned Trump much.

One thing we can say for sure is that the news of the charges has moved the Mueller investigation firmly into the media spotlight, where it is likely to stay. Since Mueller’s appointment, his team of prosecutors and investigators has operated largely out of the public eye. One of the few known facts was that it had convened a grand jury in Washington. Friday night’s CNN report said that earlier in the day, “top lawyers who are helping to lead the Mueller probe, including veteran prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, were seen entering the court room at the D.C. federal court where the grand jury meets to hear testimony in the Russia investigation.”

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the CNN story. But it was published less than twelve hours after Donald Trump tweeted, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!”

For days, the White House and conservative media organizations have been touting a Washington Poststory that revealed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped to pay for the controversial Russia dossier written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. “I think this further proves if there was anyone that was colluding with the Russians to influence the election, look no further than the Clintons, look no further than the D.N.C.,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, told Fox News on Thursday. “Everything that the Clinton campaign and the D.N.C. were falsely accusing this President of doing over the past year, they were actually doing themselves.”

After CNN published its story on Friday night, some Democrats and commentators suggested that the Trump Administration may have known the Mueller indictments were coming and leaked the Steele story to create a smokescreen. “So clearly target is in crosshairs, alerted Trumpsville, right wing media & Trump engineered mass diversion &main stream media fell for it,” Neera Tanden, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who is the president of the Center for American Progress, tweeted.

Plausible as that theory sounds, it, too, is conjecture. What isn’t speculation is the fact that, five months into his investigation, Mueller has brought a first set of criminal charges. By the standards of recent special prosecutors, that is fast work, and it confirms Mueller’s reputation as someone who doesn’t like to dally. Now that he has started arresting people, there is no reason to suppose he will stop. And that is precisely the message he wants to send.

Hurricane Recovery — Nathalie Baptiste and Mark Helenowski on how nature is reclaiming itself five years after Sandy.

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy—a monstrous post-tropical cyclone with hurricane force winds—struck New York, bringing record-breaking wind gusts and deadly flooding. In New York City, 53 people diednearly half of them were from Staten Island. The Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Dongan Hills communities were especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities.  A few months after the storm, WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman described the square mile that makes up parts of these communities as “the most dangerous place to be in New York City” during Sandy.

Joe Herrnkind, a middle-aged man who moved to Ocean Breeze in 2000, remembers those days, as he walks through the deserted streets of his once tight-knit beach community. Most of the homes have been torn down, and a few are boarded up waiting to be demolished. The homes that do remain are surrounded by empty plots of land where wild turkeys wander. Unlike many other New York victims of Sandy who have rebuilt their communities, those from these neighborhoods knew that rebuilding was not the best option. Some sold their land to developers, and a few others, like Herrnkind and his neighbors, sold their land to the governor’s office so it can be returned to its natural state.

“We’re a low-lying community,” he says. “We had constant flooding and wildfires. You hear all this and you’re saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’”

Recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have all raised the same question: What is to be done with the dozens of towns and cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico that have developed infrastructure on vulnerable flood-prone land that routinely requires massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts after each disastrous storm? Altogether, the recent storms could costup to nearly $400 billion in damages. But some communities and local leaders are starting to realize that this model won’t break the cycle. In Ocean Breeze, instead of rebuilding on vulnerable flood plains, some residents have chosen to leave old neighborhoods behind and let nature take its course.

In 2012, when Sandy approached New York, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered evacuations of nearly 375,000 people in low-lying communities ahead of the storm. Herrnkind gathered his two dogs and left to stay with a friend in New Jersey. Most of his neighbors followed the evacuation orders, but eight or nine families stayed behind. Two of his neighbors died.

Sandy’s peak winds were recorded at 115 miles per hour and Staten Island saw wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. Father Cappodano Boulevard, the main road separating Ocean Breeze from the Atlantic, rises several feet above the side streets. Sandy’s unprecedented 16-foot surge overtopped the roads and poured into homes. A few days later, when Herrnkind was able to return, he had no idea if his home was going to be standing. The city estimated that more than 300,000 homes were damaged by the storm’s flood.

“An officer told me, ‘You can’t go down there,’” Herrnkind recalls. When he finally arrived the water was still nearly waist deep. “It’s still there,” he remembers thinking when he first saw his house. “I have something to work with.” The watermark on a lamp post today shows that the storm surge reached far above his head, which explains why his furniture and all his personal belongings were gone.

Local leaders struggled to respond to the crisis. New York City created Build It Back, a program for rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes. There are more than 8,000 participants and by 2017, the mayor’s office estimates 87 percent of those who enrolled have received compensation, completed construction, or had their homes acquired by the city. But the program has come under criticism. Many homeowners dropped out due to delays. City Controller Scott Stringer and City Councilman Mark Treyger who represents parts of Brooklyn have been fierce critics of the program. In a letter to Build It Back director Amy Peterson, the two wrote that the number of dropouts “raises serious questions about our City’s ability to mount an efficient and effective recovery operation in the event of a future disaster.” Herrnkind jokingly refers to it as “Build It Wrong.”

After six months of living in his car, which he had parked in front of his abandoned house, and disappointed by the city’s program, Hernnkind realized “the land itself should never have been built on.” Much of the region was a salt marsh, particularly vulnerable to storm surge and floods. “It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes,” Robert Brauman, a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection told Curbed New York in 2016, “and that was where the problems started.”

Another option for some homeowners was a program from the Governor’s Office for Sandy Recovery, which has been buying houses that were destroyed or substantially damaged and transforming them to open space and wetlands. The goal is to create a natural coastal buffer that can protect communities from future storms. In late 2013, more than a year after the storm Gov. Cuomo announced that Ocean Breeze would join Oakwood Beach as a town eligible for state buyouts, and Hernnkind’s entire block was included. Reluctant to “put someone else in harm’s way,” Hernnkind concluded that he and his neighbors should take advantage of the state buyout program. He was able to sell his home to the state at pre-storm value and move elsewhere on the island.

So far, more than 600 homes have been purchased through the buyout program. Once the sale goes through, the state government demolishes the home and lets nature reclaim the land. Today, Ocean Breeze is mostly empty, but complicating matters are the residents who refuse to leave. In Oakwood Beach where most of the land is going back to nature, remaining residents struggle with lack of trash pick-up and crumbling roads. One of Herrnkind’s former neighbors who stayed behind is an elderly woman who feared her children would put her in a nursing home if she left. Some opted out of the program because they didn’t have the proper paperwork required to sell their homes. Others didn’t want to give up their homes in a community they loved.

But staying behind comes with a cost. According to the New York Timesflood insurance premiums could rise up to 25 percent for homes that were damaged by Sandy.

On Hernnkind’s section of the street, only one home remains out of eight. “Around here, 90 percent of each block went,” he says, “and only one or two people stayed.” Just down the street from where Herrnkind used to live, more turkeys mill about on empty lots where homes used to be.

Hernnkind’s former neighbor Frank Moszczynski, a tall man with a large presence, took the state buyout and moved to another neighborhood on Staten Island. He doesn’t have much sympathy for someone who willingly stays in a vulnerable area. “Why should someone emergency workers have to go out and risk their lives for someone who chose to stay in harm’s way?” he asks pointedly. Today, the only thing protecting the Ocean Breeze from another storm is a four-foot hill of sand.

Across the street from the vacant lot he used to call home, Hernnkind stands on the beach looking at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a view he used to be able to see from his bedroom window. “If it weren’t for Sandy,” he says, “I’d still be here.”

How Twitter Killed the First Amendment — Tim Wu in the New York Times.

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment? Americans like to think of it as the great protector of the press and of public debate. Yet it seems to have become a bit player, confined to a narrow and often irrelevant role. It is time to ask: Is the First Amendment obsolete? If so, what can be done?

These questions arise because the jurisprudence of the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world. The First Amendment was ignored for much of American history, coming to life only in the 1920s thanks to the courage of judges like Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courts and civil libertarians used the amendment to protect speakers from government prosecution and censorship as it was practiced in the 20th century, such as the arrest of pamphleteers and the seizure of anarchist newspapers by the Postal Service.

But in the 21st century, censorship works differently, as the writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci has illustrated. The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. Unfortunately, those new censorship tools have become unwelcome imports in the United States, with catastrophic results for our democracy.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

Our distressing state of public discourse stems from the widespread use of these new tools of censorship and speech control, including by the White House. The administration habitually crosses the line between fact and propaganda. Instead of taking action itself, it demands that others punish its supposed enemies. To add to the mess, it is apparent that the Russian government and possibly others hope to manipulate American political debate, as its exploitation of Facebook and Twitter in the last election shows.

What can be done? It is time to recognize that the American political process and marketplace for ideas are under attack, and that reinvigorating the First Amendment is vital. First, it is an imperative that law enforcement and lawmakers do more to protect journalists and other public speakers from harassment and threats. Cyberstalking is a crime. And as the Supreme Court has made clear, threats of violence are not protected speech. A country where speaking one’s mind always results in death threats is not a country that can be said to be truly free.

Second, too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack. The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

Finally, the White House needs to be held accountable when it tries to use private parties to circumvent First Amendment protections. When it encourages others to punish its critics — as when it demanded that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.

Some might argue, based on the sophomoric premise that “more speech is always better,” that the current state of chaos is what the First Amendment intended. But no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another. We have entered a far more dangerous place for the republic; its defense requires stronger protections for what we once called the public sphere.

Doonesbury — Walled off.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Just In Time For The Holidays

There are those in the know who say Robert Mueller may have something to say by Thanksgiving.

National security expert Juliette Kayyem is predicting news from Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation will be announced within the next month.

“I think it is safe to say that before Thanksgiving … something’s going to drop with Mueller,” she said on Boston Public Radio today. “The pace is too much right now. Every 12 hours we’re now dealing with a piece of this story at a pace we haven’t seen.”

Kayyem was prompted to make her prediction by the buzz surrounding a story about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign funded what would eventually become the famous “Trump-Russia Dossier” that surfaced in January.

A law firm representing the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Convention hired the intelligence firm that eventually hired the dossier’s author, Chris Steele, to investigate Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

“Am I shocked, surprised, or [finding] it sleazy that the Democrats would have wanted to get potential incriminating information about financials or sex against Donald Trump? No,” Kayyem said. “Did the same thing happen on the other side? Yes.”

Kayyem speculated that the pace of stories critical of Hillary Clinton represents “a recognition by the White House team” that Mueller is getting close to something substantive as a result of his investigation.

Kayyem pointed out that Mueller has interviewed former Press Secretary Sean Spicer and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

“This is so close to the Oval Office now, if not in the Oval Office, that all of this [dossier news] to me is just background noise to what Mueller is going to deliver,” she said. “This is more than an obstruction charge. There is something big underlying the obstruction.”

Ms. Kayyem has a long background and extensive connections in the intelligence community, so this is not just some pundit working off a tip picked up by overhearing chatter in the bar of the Mayfair Hotel.

So if you had Trump lawyered up by Christmas in the betting pool, you might be a winner.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

There Is Always Something

Charles P. Pierce explains how and why opposition research (“Oppo”) works and why the newest kink in the Russia investigation and the “salacious” dossier are not necessarily the news.

Look, I would prefer that Oppo not be a part of our politics, but, unfortunately, that horse left the barn at approximately the same time that our ancestors left the primordial sea. (Josh Green wrote one of the definitive pieces on modern Oppo thirteen years ago in The Atlantic.) As long as we trust our politics to human beings as failed and flawed as we are, then Oppo is going to be with us as a self-governing democratic people. And Oppo is not always destructive. Indeed, in this case, if it reveals something more about the accommodations between various Russian oligarchs and the president*, it may even be said to have been of some benefit. However, that would depend on the political utility of the Oppo, and the willingness of the elite political press to allow itself to be used along with it. At the moment, the prospects are not rosy.

Right now, as the Mueller investigation grinds on, we are seeing a determined effort on the part of the president*’s allies to change the subject—or, at least, to put the whole thing into a Both Sides context that will reduce the whole issue to easily digestible mush. In addition to the WaPo scooplet, fed to the paper by those mysterious people familiar with the situation, we have seen the reemergence of Rep. Devin Nunes, the hopelessly compromised White House bobo and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who, in alliance with Rep. Trey Gowdy, the lopheaded Javert of Benghazi, Benghazi, BENGHAZI!, is trying to restart the whole business about the sale of uranium to Russia.

Whether or not this strategy works is completely a function of how the elite political media respond to it, and whether or not said elite political media is intimidated by the fact that 36 percent of the American people are liable to believe anything as long as they don’t have to believe that the president* is playing footsie with Vladimir Putin. This 36 percent of our fellow citizens live out their political lives listening to the same radio and TV stars who will beat this latest revelation into mulch. Again, I am not optimistic.

You didn’t really think we’d get through this without someone bringing back Her E-mails and Benghazi!, did you?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Short Takes

Trump looking into drug czar appointment after “60 Minutes” report.

Iraqi forces seize Kirkuk.

Wildfires kill 30 in Portugal and northern Spain.

Security flaw puts every WiFi connection at risk.

Scientists catch neutron star collision… 132 million years ago.

Fun fact: This is the 2,900th edition of Short Takes.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Trump’s Facebook Friends

CNN reports that Russian-linked ads on Facebook targeted two states that were crucial to Trump’s win last November.

Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

It has been unclear until now exactly which regions of the country were targeted by the ads. And while one source said that a large number of ads appeared in areas of the country that were not heavily contested in the elections, some clearly were geared at swaying public opinion in the most heavily contested battlegrounds.

Michigan saw the closest presidential contest in the country — Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by about 10,700 votes out of nearly 4.8 million ballots cast. Wisconsin was also one of the tightest states, and Trump won there by only about 22,700 votes. Both states, which Trump carried by less than 1%, were key to his victory in the Electoral College.

The sources did not specify when in 2016 the ads ran in Michigan and Wisconsin.

As part of their investigations, both special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are seeking to determine whether the Russians received any help from Trump associates in where to target the ads.

They’re getting close.  Any bets on who will be the first to turn states evidence?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Yet Another Shiny Object

I suppose if a dictator was threatening to blow up the West Coast, Congress was about to humiliate your plans to stomp on the legacy of your hated predecessor once again, three hurricanes in a row had devastated whole cities and wiped out the infrastructure and crops of a territory, and a special counsel was about to issue indictments for a former White House official, you’d be desperately looking for something to distract the attention of the media and start a Twitter storm.

So that’s what this is all about.

On three teams, nearly all the football players skipped the national anthem altogether. Dozens of others, from London to Los Angeles, knelt or locked arms on the sidelines, joined by several team owners in a league normally friendly to President Trump. Some of the sport’s biggest stars joined the kind of demonstration they have steadfastly avoided.

It was an unusual, sweeping wave of protest and defiance on the sidelines of the country’s most popular game, generated by Mr. Trump’s stream of calls to fire players who have declined to stand for the national anthem in order to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.

What had been a modest round of anthem demonstrations this season led by a handful of African-American players mushroomed and morphed into a nationwide, diverse rebuke to Mr. Trump, with even some of his staunchest supporters in the N.F.L., including several owners, joining in or condemning Mr. Trump for divisiveness.

So, yeah, dividing the country over how to listen to a song would the be way to go.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mueller Is Making Them Very Nervous

Via the Washington Post:

The special counsel investigating Russian election meddling has requested extensive records and email correspondence from the White House, covering areas including the president’s private discussions about firing his FBI director and his response to news that the then-national security adviser was under investigation, according to two people briefed on the requests.

White House lawyers are now working to turn over internal documents that span 13 categories that investigators for the special counsel have identified as critical to their probe, the people said. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, appointed in May in the wake of Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, took over the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians in that effort.

The list of requests was described in detail by two people briefed on them. Both insisted on anonymity to discuss a sensitive investigation. Some details of the requests were first reported Wednesday afternoon by the New York Times.

The requests broadly ask for any document or email related to a series of highly publicized incidents since Trump became president, including the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn and firing of Comey, the people said.

The list demonstrates Mueller’s focus on key moments and actions by the president and close advisers that could shed light on whether Trump sought to block the FBI investigations of Flynn and of Russian interference.

The newest wrinkle is that former campaign manager Paul Manafort offered a Russian billionaire “private briefings” on what the Trump campaign was doing.

“If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote in the July 7, 2016, email, portions of which were read to The Washington Post along with other Manafort correspondence from that time.

The emails are among tens of thousands of documents that have been turned over to congressional investigators and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team as they probe whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia as part of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.

I’m guessing that this was a requirement on the part of the Russians.  They were paying good money to buy off this election and they needed to be kept up to speed with how it was going.

Trump’s defenders are complaining that Mr. Mueller is going on a fishing expedition for anything that he can find that might possibly lead to a criminal indictment and it’s SO unfair.  Well, when Kenneth Starr did that with Bill Clinton, those same whiners were all in favor of it because they were sure that there was real corruption and murder and mayhem going on, and oh yeah, what about Hillary’s e-mails; did she steal the chocolate chip cookie recipe from Neiman-Marcus, too?

Friday, September 1, 2017

“The Auditor Is Here”

Having spent the last fifteen years working with budgets, accounting, and how money is spent and tracked, I can tell you that nothing makes the blood run cold more than hearing the words, “the auditor is here.”  It has nothing to do with the people who are doing the audit or a sense of guilt for having tried to pull off something shady.  It’s more to do with the fact that if there is a record missing or a number that is off, they will find it and patiently ask you to find it, rectify it, or prove why it shouldn’t be brought to the attention of the authorities, be they your boss or the people who issue subpoenas.

In short, don’t mess with them.  They have a job to do, they do it well, numbers and math don’t lie, and if they have a sense of humor — and many of them do, along with pleasant personalities — they are all business when it comes to doing their job.  And the best of them work for the IRS.

So this should be interesting.

Special counsel Bob Mueller has teamed up with the IRS. According to sources familiar with his investigation into alleged Russian election interference, his probe has enlisted the help of agents from the IRS’ Criminal Investigations unit.

This unit—known as CI—is one of the federal government’s most tight-knit, specialized, and secretive investigative entities. Its 2,500 agents focus exclusively on financial crime, including tax evasion and money laundering. A former colleague of Mueller’s said he always liked working with IRS’ special agents, especially when he was a U.S. Attorney.

And it goes without saying that the IRS has access to Trump’s tax returns—documents that the president has long resisted releasing to the public.

Potential financial crimes are a central part of Mueller’s probe. One of his top deputies, Andy Weissmann, formerly helmed the Justice Department’s Enron probe and has extensive experience working with investigative agents from the IRS.

“From the agents, I know everyone has the utmost respect for both Mueller and Weissmann,” said Martin Sheil, a retired IRS Criminal Investigations agent.

And he said Mueller and Weissmann are known admirers of those agents’ work.

“They view them with the highest regard,” Sheil said. “IRS special agents are the very best in the business of conducting financial investigations. They will quickly tell you that it took an accountant to nab Al Capone, and it’s true.”

[…]

It’s been widely reported that the special counsel’s team is trying to “flip” Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign CEO, in hopes he will provide evidence against his former colleagues. Former federal prosecutors tell The Daily Beast one of Manafort’s biggest legal liabilities could be to what’s called a “check the box” prosecution. Federal law requires that people who have money in foreign bank accounts check a box on their tax returns disclosing that. And there’s speculation that Manafort may have neglected to check that box, which would be a felony. This is exactly the kind of allegation the IRS would look into.

Like they said, that’s how the Feds nailed Al Capone.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

That Russian Thing

We’ve all been thinking about the millions of people under water in Texas, about the state of race relations after Charlottesville, about the missiles of North Korea, and well we should be concerned about all of them.  But there’s also the ongoing and sometimes forgotten investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 and the involvement of the Trump campaign in it.

It’s not a question any more of whether or not Russia did it.  It’s now to what degree — criminal or otherwise — did Trump’s people and perhaps even himself participate in it.  The latest bit of news comes via the New York Times which is reporting that a Trump associate was bragging about how they’d get their man elected president if a real estate deal in Moscow went through.

A business associate of President Trump promised in 2015 to engineer a real estate deal with the aid of the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, that he said would help Mr. Trump win the presidency.

The associate, Felix Sater, wrote a series of emails to Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin. He predicted that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would highlight Mr. Trump’s savvy negotiating skills and be a political boon to his candidacy.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Mr. Sater wrote in an email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

The emails show that, from the earliest months of Mr. Trump’s campaign, some of his associates viewed close ties with Moscow as a political advantage. Those ties are now under investigation by the Justice Department and multiple congressional committees.

American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election to try to help Mr. Trump. Investigators want to know whether anyone on Mr. Trump’s team was part of that process.

Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, said he had lined up financing for the Trump Tower deal with VTB Bank, a Russian bank that was under American sanctions for involvement in Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy in Ukraine. In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Moscow.

“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote.

Of course the Trump organization is trying their best to distance themselves from all of this: “Sater?  Never heard of him,” along with asserting that they have never had any real estate holdings in Russia.

If Mr. Sater is not high enough up the food chain then, how about Michael Cohen, who is described in the Washington Post as a top Trump organization executive trying to work his way with the authorities in Moscow?

A top executive from Donald Trump’s real estate company emailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s personal spokesman during the U.S. presidential campaign last year to ask for help advancing a stalled Trump Tower development project in Moscow, according to documents submitted to Congress on Monday.

The request came in a mid-January 2016 email from Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s closest business advisers, who asked longtime Putin lieutenant Dmitry Peskov for assistance in reviving a deal that Cohen suggested was languishing.

“Over the past few months I have been working with a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower-Moscow project in Moscow City,” Cohen wrote to Peskov, according to a person familiar with the email. “Without getting into lengthy specifics, the communication between our two sides has stalled.

“As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen’s email marks the most direct outreach documented by a top Trump aide to a similarly senior member of Putin’s government.

Cohen told congressional investigators in a statement Monday that he did not recall receiving a response from Peskov or having further contact with Russian government officials about the project. The email, addressed to Peskov, appeared to have been sent to a general Kremlin press account.

The note adds to the list of contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials that have been a focus of multiple congressional inquiries as well as an investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III exploring Russian interference in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin intervened to help elect Trump.

Unlike hurricanes or riots in the streets, a story like this doesn’t come with dramatic pictures and BREAKING NEWS banners across the screens of cable TV networks, and besides, it is complicated; you can’t tell the players without a program and knowing their backstories.  “Game of Thrones” is easier to follow because it has dragons (or so I’ve heard).  But while the story may lack those elements of high drama, it is the stuff of which brings down the players as surely as a wall of water.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Consciousness Of Guilt, Cont’d

Trump gets really jumpy when Robert Mueller’s name pops up.

Trump called Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and expressed his unhappiness with a bill Tillis co-sponsored to shield Justice Department special counsels from political influence, Politico reported Wednesday evening.

Politico reported, citing an unnamed source familiar with the call, that Trump told Tillis that he was unhappy with the bill the senator co-sponsored with Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), and did not want it to pass.

Trump called Tillis on Aug. 7, according to the report, a day after Tillis said on Fox News that there was “no question” the bill was partly directed at Trump.

Tillis said the bill reflected concern about Trump’s reaction to Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and that he and Coons set its effective date to reflect that concern.

It’s like Trump knows what he’s done and what the investigation will uncover.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Legal Moves

Paul Manafort has new lawyers.

Normally that kind of news isn’t a big deal; in Washington and other places where there’s a lot of complicated stuff going on, high-profile people change attorneys as often as some people change socks.  But this seems to be in reaction to the F.B.I. raid two weeks ago.

Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort on Thursday switched up his legal team amid several new reports on the federal investigation into his personal finances.

“Mr. Manafort is in the process of retaining his former counsel, Miller & Chevalier, to represent him in the office of special counsel investigation,” Manafort’s spokesman Jason Maloni said in a statement to Politico. “As of today, WilmerHale no longer represents Mr. Manafort.”

According to Politico, Miller & Chevalier is known for its work specializing in complicated financial crimes.

Manafort was Trump’s campaign chair in the stretch leading up to the 2016 election, and resigned in August 2016 amid scrutiny of his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.

It’s about the money.  It always has been.  Who paid it, who’s taking it, what they’re getting for it, where it’s kept… those are the motivators behind it all.  And these legal moves are telling me that Mr. Manafort is going to be the one to turn states evidence on Trump.

Bonus Track: From Bloomberg Businessweek, Trump’s legal team is no match to that being put together by Robert Mueller.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Who’s Going To Sing First?

Anyone who watches cop shows knows that one of the ways to get to an indictment of a suspect is to put the squeeze on one of his minions.

It sounds like that’s what Robert Mueller is up to here.

There are a couple reasons the special counsel’s expanding Russia investigation might be so interested in former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort that they showed up at his door before dawn, unannounced, searched his home and seized documents, as The Washington Post reports.

In many ways, Manafort is squarely in the crosshairs of the Russia-Trump collusion investigation: His brief tenure as the head of Trump’s campaign happened as concerns about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election were heating up, he’s got high-level connections to Russia in his own right, and he’s got a whole host of scrutinized financial dealings that could make him a useful tool for investigators seeking cooperation.

They may also go after Michael Flynn or even Jared Kushner.  A guy like Trump doesn’t engender a lot of loyalty (Exhibit A: the way he’s treated Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the first senator to endorse him), and political ideology and family ties go only so far.

If one of them is offered a deal to rat out the Trump organization, especially if they’re facing criminal charges, it won’t be a question of if they’ll turn but who will be the first to jump at the offer.

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