Fifty shades of Trump

“For all of his many other legal and political problems, is it possible that Donald Trump could be brought down by a porn star? His lawyer’s payment to her to buy her silence about a one-time liaison with the US president may not be the only issue at stake.”

From Project Syndicate:

Last week was a most unusual one for President Donald Trump’s administration. There was no high-level firing: the only dismissal of any note was that of the White House aide in charge of homeland security, who was forced out at the behest of John Bolton, who had just taken over as Trump’s third national security adviser in 15 months. Nonetheless, it may well have been the most turbulent week yet of Trump’s presidency.

Bolton’s appointment was enough to set much of Washington trembling with fear that he would reinforce Trump’s most pugnacious views, for example, that the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped. Still, it has been widely speculated that Bolton, reportedly a bureaucratic whiz, was outmaneuvered by Defense Secretary James Mattis on the question of how far to take the military attack on Syria in retaliation for the latest use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s government against its own people. In the end, the attacks by the US, the United Kingdom, and France were restricted to targets believed to be chemical weapons and storage facilities.

Questions are being raised in the Senate about the suitability of Mike Pompeo, a hardliner on Muslims and Russia, to succeed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. And with Bolton now ensconced in the West Wing, the consensus is that only Mattis stands between Trump and military overreach. (Mattis supports the Iran deal.)

Trump’s most peculiar recent personnel move – part of an ever-growing list of dismissals – was to fire David Shulkin as head of the Veterans Administration, a Leviathan of an agency, and nominate his personal physician for the job. The number of pending nominations for high-level positions ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections is believed to be one reason for Trump’s reluctance to fire his most controversial appointee, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt’s determination to reverse the EPA’s achievements in reducing air and water pollution, especially regulations adopted during Barack Obama’s presidency, bespeaks Trump’s own resentment of Obama. In addition, major polluting industries are enthusiastic about Pruitt.

The problem is that in an administration filled with grifters and experts at indulging in first-class air travel and other comforts at taxpayers’ expense, Pruitt is probably the champ. Trump blows hot and cold on Pruitt, and observers have learned not to predict what he might do with regard to any aspect of policy and personnel.

That is also true of the question creating the most tension: whether Trump will try to end the investigation into whether he or his campaign conspired with Russians to try to swing the 2016 election in his favor. The evidence of such collusion is mounting. Trump, according to many observers, has absorbed the idea that firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the probe, wouldn’t go down well at all. The supine congressional Republicans, terrified of Trump and his base of devoted supporters, are actually beginning to show some spine and are moving toward backing a resolution that would protect Mueller, who is supported by a large majority of the public.
[…]
Since early this year, it has seemed possible that Trump might be brought down not by his and his campaign’s possible dealings with Russia, but by a pulchritudinous adult film star whose professional name is Stormy Daniels (her real name is Stephanie Clifford). Daniels and her aggressive attorney are fearless toward Trump, on whose behalf Cohen arranged to pay her $130,000 shortly before the election to keep quiet about her one-time liaison with Trump, which occurred early in his marriage to Melania Trump and four months after the birth of his son, Barron.

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Michael Cohen and the end stage of the Trump presidency

The raids on the office, hotel room, and home of Trump’s personal lawyer may be the clearest indication yet “that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency.”

The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson writes:

This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency. This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth. I know dozens of reporters and other investigators who have studied Donald Trump and his business and political ties. Some have been skeptical of the idea that President Trump himself knowingly colluded with Russian officials. It seems not at all Trumpian to participate in a complex plan with a long-term, uncertain payoff. Collusion is an imprecise word, but it does seem close to certain that his son Donald, Jr., and several people who worked for him colluded with people close to the Kremlin; it is up to prosecutors and then the courts to figure out if this was illegal or merely deceitful. We may have a hard time finding out what President Trump himself knew and approved.

However, I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality. In Azerbaijan, he did business with a likely money launderer for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, he partnered with a group that was being investigated for a possible role in the largest known bank-fraud and money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is “knee-deep in dirty politics”; there are criminal investigations of his deals in Brazil; the F.B.I. is reportedly looking into his daughter Ivanka’s role in the Trump hotel in Vancouver, for which she worked with a Malaysian family that has admitted to financial fraud. Back home, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka were investigated for financial crimes associated with the Trump hotel in SoHo—an investigation that was halted suspiciously. His Taj Mahal casino received what was then the largest fine in history for money-laundering violations.

Listing all the financial misconduct can be overwhelming and tedious. I have limited myself to some of the deals over the past decade, thus ignoring Trump’s long history of links to New York Mafia figures and other financial irregularities. […]

The narrative that will become widely understood is that Donald Trump did not sit atop a global empire. He was not an intuitive genius and tough guy who created billions of dollars of wealth through fearlessness. He had a small, sad global operation, mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen, a lousy lawyer who barely keeps up the pretenses of lawyering and who now faces an avalanche of charges, from taxicab-backed bank fraud to money laundering and campaign-finance violations.

Cohen, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka monetized their willingness to sign contracts with people rejected by all sensible partners. Even in this, the Trump Organization left money on the table, taking a million dollars here, five million there, even though the service they provided—giving branding legitimacy to blatantly sketchy projects—was worth far more. It was not a company that built value over decades, accumulating assets and leveraging wealth. It burned through whatever good will and brand value it established as quickly as possible, then moved on to the next scheme.

There are important legal questions that remain. How much did Donald Trump and his children know about the criminality of their partners? How explicit were they in agreeing to put a shiny gold brand on top of corrupt deals? The answers to these questions will play a role in determining whether they go to jail and, if so, for how long.

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Comey’s book swipes at Trump—but Mueller’s inquiry is the real threat

Trump must be wondering whether the shit that’s happening to him is ever gonna stop.

From The Guardian:

As the fired FBI director makes headlines, the bureau’s raid on the offices of Trump’s lawyer signals peril for his presidency.

The sky began to fall in for Trump on Monday, when FBI agents raided the offices and a hotel room used by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen. The raids were a strong sign that prosecutors might soon charge one of Trump’s fiercest loyalists with a serious crime or crimes, legal experts said.

“It’s a disgraceful situation,” Trump said. “It’s a total witch-hunt … It’s an attack on our country, what we all stand for.”

As the implications of those raids continue to sink in, Trump may be lured towards the kind of drastic action that would send fissures through the executive branch and beyond, multiple former White House and justice department officials interviewed by the Guardian said.

“The raid of Michael Cohen’s office was a seismic event, for any presidency,” said Andrew Wright, a former White House associate counsel and a professor at Savannah Law School. “I think he [Cohen] is in very serious trouble. […]

“And sure enough, the president appears to have really come pretty unhinged at that news, so I think that’s incredibly significant.”

Even for a White House that can seem to cycle from crisis to extreme crisis, the current pressure on Trump, and the resulting peril for his presidency and the country, is acute, according to seasoned prosecutors.

“The pressure on the president is actually unimaginable to me,” said Betsy de la Vega, who was a federal prosecutor for more than 20 years.

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Did Trump pardon Libby to protect himself from Mueller?

Was President Trump’s pardoning of “Scooter” Libby an act of compassion, or rather a means to an end?

From Politico:

President Donald Trump on Friday pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney who was caught up in the investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

“I don’t know Mr. Libby,” Trump said in a statement, adding, “but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”

Libby came under scrutiny in connection with the leak in 2003 of the identity of Plame, who had worked undercover overseas and was married to a prominent George W. Bush administration critic, Joseph Wilson. Libby was never charged with leaking, but was indicted in 2005 on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to investigators, largely for denying his contacts with the media about Plame.

Trump so far has used his pardon power sparingly, but there has been intense speculation over whether Trump may pardon any of his aides facing charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, particularly former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has so far refused to cooperate with Mueller’s probe.

Plame, appearing on MSNBC on Friday, suggested that Trump is telegraphing a message to Manafort and other aides, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who are also key figures in the Russia investigation.

“This is definitely not about me. It’s absolutely not about Scooter Libby. This is about Donald Trump and his future,” Plame said before the formal announcement hit. “It’s very clear that this is a message he’s sending that you can commit crimes against national security and you will be pardoned, so I think he’s got an audience of three right now. That would be Manafort, Flynn and Kushner, and perhaps others.”

“The message being sent is you can commit perjury and I will pardon you if it protects me and I deem that you are loyal to me,” she added.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also saw ulterior motives in a Libby pardon.

“On the day the President wrongly attacks Comey for being a ‘leaker and liar’ he considers pardoning a convicted leaker and liar, Scooter Libby,” Schiff tweeted on Friday. “This is the President’s way of sending a message to those implicated in the Russia investigation: You have my back and I‘ll have yours.”

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Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier

From McClatchy:

The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Confirmation of the trip would lend credence to a retired British spy’s report that Cohen strategized there with a powerful Kremlin figure about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

It would also be one of the most significant developments thus far in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether the Trump campaign and the Kremlin worked together to help Trump win the White House. Undercutting Trump’s repeated pronouncements that “there is no evidence of collusion,” it also could ratchet up the stakes if the president tries, as he has intimated he might for months, to order Mueller’s firing.

Trump’s threats to fire Mueller or the deputy attorney general overseeing the investigation, Rod Rosenstein, grew louder this week when the FBI raided Cohen’s home, hotel room and office on Monday. The raid was unrelated to the Trump-Russia collusion probe, but instead focused on payments made to women who have said they had sexual relationships with Trump.

Cohen has vehemently denied for months that he ever has been in Prague or colluded with Russia during the campaign. Neither he nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment for this story.

It’s unclear whether Mueller’s investigators also have evidence that Cohen actually met with a prominent Russian — purportedly Konstantin Kosachev, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the Czech capital. Kosachev, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of a body of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council, also has denied visiting Prague during 2016. Earlier this month, Kosachev was among 24 high-profile Russians hit with stiff U.S. sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s meddling.

But investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany, apparently during August or early September of 2016 as the ex-spy reported, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential. He wouldn’t have needed a passport for such a trip, because both countries are in the so-called Schengen Area in which 26 nations operate with open borders. The disclosure still left a puzzle: The sources did not say whether Cohen took a commercial flight or private jet to Europe, and gave no explanation as to why no record of such a trip has surfaced.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined comment.

Unconfirmed reports of a clandestine Prague meeting came to public attention in January 2017, with the publication of a dossier purporting to detail the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia – a series of reports that former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele gathered from Kremlin sources for Trump’s political opponents, including Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Cohen’s alleged communications with the Russians were mentioned multiple times in Steele’s reports, which he ultimately shared with the FBI.

When the news site Buzzfeed published the entire dossier on Jan. 11, Trump denounced the news organization as “a failing pile of garbage” and said the document was “false and fake.” Cohen tweeted, “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews.”

In the ensuing months, he allowed Buzzfeed to inspect his passport and tweeted: “The #Russian dossier is WRONG!”

Last August, an attorney for Cohen, Stephen Ryan, delivered to Congress a point-by-point rebuttal of the dossier’s allegations, stating: “Mr. Cohen is not aware of any ‘secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.’”

However, Democratic investigators for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which are conducting parallel inquiries into Russia’s election interference, also are skeptical about whether Cohen was truthful about his 2016 travels to Europe when he was interviewed by the panels last October, two people familiar with those probes told McClatchy this week. Cohen has publicly acknowledged making three trips to Europe that year — to Italy in July, England in early October and a third after Trump’s November election. The investigators intend to press Cohen for more information, said the sources, who lacked authorization to speak for the record

One of the sources said congressional investigators have “a high level of interest” in Cohen’s European travel, with their doubts fueled by what they deem to be weak documentation Cohen has provided about his whereabouts around the time the Prague meeting was supposed to have occurred.

Cohen has said he was only in New York and briefly in Los Angeles during August, when the meeting may have occurred, though the sources said it also could have been held in early September.

Evidence that Cohen was in Prague “certainly helps undermine his credibility,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor who lives in Chicago. “It doesn’t matter who he met with. His denial was that I was never in Prague. Having proof that he was is, for most people, going to be more than enough to say I don’t believe anything else he says.”

“I think that, given the relationship between Michael Cohen and the president,” Wine-Banks said, “it’s not believable that Michael Cohen did not tell him about his trip to Prague.”

The dossier alleges that Cohen, two Russians and several Eastern European hackers met at the Prague office of a Russian government-backed social and cultural organization, Rossotrudnichestvo. The location was selected to provide an alternative explanation in case the rendezvous was exposed, according to Steele’s Kremlin sources, cultivated during 20 years of spying on Russia. It said that Oleg Solodukhin, the deputy chief of Rossotrudnichestvo’s operation in the Czech Republic, attended the meeting, too.

Further, it alleges that Cohen, Kosachev and other attendees discussed “how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers in Europe who had worked under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.”

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Tempests buffeting White House now threaten to engulf Trump

From AP News:

The Russia collusion probe. The Stormy Daniels allegations. The escalating tension with Moscow.

The tempests that have separately buffeted the White House for months merged into a maelstrom this week and threatened to engulf President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday railed against members of the Justice Department by name and took to Twitter to threaten military strikes in Syria and taunt a nuclear-armed power.

While alarmed aides and allies worried that Trump was the angriest he’d ever been, the president saw conspiracies in the challenges facing his administration and hinted at more chaos. And as Trump’s party was rocked by upheaval on Capitol Hill, White House staffers explored whether he has the legal authority to fire the men leading the investigation into his administration and, as underscored by the seizure of documents from his private lawyer, his business and personal life.

“Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama,” Trump tweeted. “Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!”

That message followed another provocative tweet, in which Trump laced into Russia for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government is accused of launching an apparent chemical attack Saturday on its own people. Disregarding his own insistence that he would never tip his hand to military strategy, he seemed to suggest that he would launch airstrikes.

“Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ’smart!’” Trump wrote. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

The president’s renewed public anger at special counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein was prompted by the FBI raid on his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen, who acknowledged paying $130,000 to Daniels, a porn actress, to buy her silence about an alleged affair with Trump. Trump has warned that an investigation into his business would cross “a red line” and could lead him to fire Mueller, despite strong pushback from a number of aides and Republicans in Congress.

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Zuckerberg discloses Facebook working with Russia probe

From AP News:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disclosed Tuesday his company is “working with” special counsel Robert Mueller in the federal probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — and working hard to change its own operations after the harvesting of users’ private information by a Trump campaign-affiliated data-mining company.

The founder of the social media giant publicly apologized for his company’s errors in failing to better protect the personal information of its millions of users, a controversy that has brought a flood of bad publicity and sent the company’s stock value plunging. He seemed to achieve a measure of success: Facebook shares surged 4.5 percent for the day, the biggest gain in two years.

Zuckerberg told the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees that he has not been personally interviewed by Mueller’s team, but “I know we’re working with them.” He offered no details, citing a concern about confidentiality rules of the investigation.

Earlier this year Mueller charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies in a plot to interfere in the 2016 presidential election through a social media propaganda effort that included online ad purchases using U.S. aliases and politicking on U.S. soil. A number of the Russian ads were on Facebook.

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