Tag Archives: Michael Cohen

Summing Up

Two weeks of dramatic and compelling testimony in the House impeachment inquiry has made one thing perfectly clear: President Donald Trump’s oft-touted “perfect” July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was far from perfect. Everyone but the morally blind who has tied his or her political future to the most corrupt president in our history understands that the evidence leads to only one conclusion: The president must be impeached and convicted. 

Here are some of the major lessons — much of which was already known — from the hearings:

First, there can be no doubt that Trump withheld an Oval Office meeting important to the newly elected Zelensky and military aid critical to Ukraine for its battle against Russian aggression in exchange for an announcement of two investigations. One investigation would be geared to implicating Ukraine instead of Russia in interfering in the 2016 presidential election and the other would be to smear former Vice President Joe Biden with fake and drummed up charges of corruption.

Second, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union testified that the investigations had merely to be announced, not actually conducted. An announcement, for example, of the Biden investigation would enable Trump to smear Biden with accusations of corruption, presumably because Trump viewed Biden as his most formidable potential 2020 opponent.

Third, Trump’s desire for Ukraine to conduct investigations was not motivated by concern for U.S. national security, but solely demanded to benefit Trump politically. Republican defenders of Trump are correct in saying that the United States often insists foreign countries take certain actions in exchange for American assistance, But, what is omitted in this defense is that such leverage is proper when it advances American policy objectives — not the personal and/or political interests of one individual.

Fourth, Trump believes the apparatus of the government exists merely to serve him and not the long-term interests of the United States. This has been apparent from day one of the Trump administration, but the hearings made it abundantly clear to everyone watching and reading about them. 

Fifth, as Sondland testified — and many others corroborated — there was a quid pro quo in this shady enterprise. Republicans argue that no witness in the hearings testified to Trump specifically ordering aid and a meeting for the investigations. Mob bosses — whose style Trump uses — rarely explicitly authorize criminal behavior. Rather, orders frequently are conveyed by hint and indirection. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen testified before Congress that the president adopted this style of management, which goes back at least to the12th century when Henry II asked of Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” 

Sixth, the weak Republican defense of Trump turns also on the assertion that the testimony of the witnesses was hearsay. That is not accurate. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a Ukrainian specialist on the National Security Council, and Pence aide Jennifer Williams were on the July 25 call, and David Holmes, a U.S. official in Kyiv, clearly heard a very loud Donald Trump express, in a cellphone call with Sondland, interest in an investigation of the Bidens. Besides, hearsay testimony is often admissible.

Seventh, if Republicans truly believe all the testimony is second-hand and thus suspect, there is a remedy available to them. Join with Democrats in calling upon the Trump administration to permit everyone implicated in the scandal to testify under oath.  

Eighth, virtually the entire upper echelon of the Trump administration is implicated in this criminal enterprise. Sondland named Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in the plot. There is plenty of corroborating evidence of their complicity.

Ninth, both Sondland and William Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, were right in describing the Ukraine extortion caper as not a rogue operation — Sondland’s view — and an irregular diplomatic channel — Taylor’s characterization. The operation was not rogue in that it was directed by the president and implemented by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and many American officials. But, American policy toward Ukraine occupied two channels: The official American policy to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression and the personal Trump policy to sacrifice Ukraine for his personal political benefit.

Tenth, the Ukrainians knew of the delay in aid long before the aid was released. Their knowledge undermines a key Republican talking point. A related GOP talking point — the Ukrainians got the aid in the end — evaporates upon realization that the aid was released only because the administration got caught when the whistleblower report came out. 

Eleventh, Republicans still blame the wrong country for interfering in the 2016 election. Former National Security Council advisor Fiona Hill eloquently chastised Republicans — including, by inference, the president — for continuing to push a false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, was the guilty country. 

Twelfth, the hearings revealed for Americans who have little or no contact with career government employees — in this case, Foreign Service officials and employees of the Department of Defense and National Security Council — the impressive dedication of public officials serving the United States — no matter whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican. The officials who testified are the real heroes in this sordid affair, as is, by the way, the whistleblower who had the courage to reveal Trump’s machinations in the first place.

Thirteenth, Trump will get away with his crimes because of the spinelessness of his lackeys in the Senate who will vote not to convict. And, an exoneration — such as it will be — will only embolden our amoral president to engage in a similar endeavor in the future. Remember, the phone call to Zelensky took place the day after former special counsel Robert Mueller gave his desultory testimony on Capitol Hill. The juxtaposition of those dates convinced House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, that an impeachment inquiry was necessary. 

Though the Senate will not vote to convict, the impeachment inquiry — which will almost certainly lead to a vote in the House to impeach Trump — was necessary. The facts have been laid out for everyone to see, and history has been well served with evidence of presidential wrongdoing.  

Posted November 26, 2019

Trump Thinks He’s Happy Now! Just Wait

Happy Easter! I have never been happier or more content because your Country is doing so well, with an Economy that is the talk of the World and may be stronger than it has ever been before. Have a great day! Tweet of President Donald Trump, Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Of course, in true President Donald Trump fashion, this tweet was followed by a storm of erratic tweets that could be read as counter to his claimed frame of mind. But, President Trump indicates he is happy, which is a good thing. A happy Trump means a Trump not likely to wag the dog, say, by bombing Iran. Of course, he may just be blowing smoke. After all, when Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, the president’s response was “I’m fucked.” Then, when Attorney General William Barr put out his deliberately misleading four-page summary, Trump replied, “Complete and Total Exoneration.” After the release of the redacted Mueller report, the president posted a “Game of Thrones”-inspired tweet, “Game Over,” which was quickly followed by a tweet claiming the report is “total bullshit.” It appears that Trump is not so much happy as confused.

But, taking the president at his word, if the redacted report made him happy, he is going to be positively giddy after Mueller testifies before Congress and Congress gets to see the un-redacted report. Trump even may do a jig when we get all the details of the pending investigations Mueller farmed out to other investigative entities. Mueller referred 14 potential cases to other investigators. We know the details of only two: The case involving Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to a number of counts stemming from hush money payments to women alleged to have had affairs with Trump, and another concerning Greg Craig, a Democrat, who has been charged with concealing information about work he performed for the Ukrainian government in 2012. Speculatively, the other cases may relate to Trump’s taxes, the defunct Trump Foundation, Trump’s inaugural committee, and a plethora of other possible illegalities.

As for Mueller’s potential testimony, the special prosecutor may shed light on whether any of the cases he referred to other venues involve the president, just how significant the contacts between the president’s campaign and Russians were, and what the connection was, if any, between Trump’s call to find Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russian hacking. Congress may ask Mueller if he discovered whether Russians tried to manipulate Trump and, if so, were they successful? About the infamous June 9 Trump Tower meeting, does the reason the special prosecutor did not bring charges against Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former campaign head Paul Manafort stem from their ignorance of the law, which made convictions problematic? 

On obstruction, the report states that if the special prosecutor found no evidence the president obstructed justice, “We would so state.” Does that mean the evidence indicates he did obstruct justice? Beyond a reasonable doubt? Can Congress infer from Mueller’s citing the Office of Legal Counsel’s ruling prohibiting indictment of a sitting president that Mueller believes action now falls to Congress? Finally, was the attorney general not bound by the same OLC guidelines as the special prosecutor’s office?

Trump tweeted after the report’s release, “Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes.’” Among others, that is a reference to former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who the report says was ordered by Trump to fire the special counsel. McGahn demurred, fearing a Nixonian “Saturday Night Massacre.” McGahn was right, of course, and Trump is lucky McGahn ignored the presidential directive. But, Trump is too narcissistic or too ignorant — claiming “nobody disobeys my orders” — to appreciate that McGahn saved him, for now. 

What next? Congressional Democrats will be under intense pressure to start impeachment proceedings. Though the president cannot be indicted on obstruction because of Justice Department guidelines nor charged with conspiracy — on interactions with Russians — because of the difficulty of proving such a charge, there is plenty of evidence of wrongdoing. Clearly, Trump’s campaign had contacts with Russians and did not report those contacts to the appropriate authorities. Just as obviously, Trump repeatedly tried to shut down the special prosecutor’s investigation. There is much in the report detailing shoddy and unethical behavior by Trump and his surrogates to warrant, at the least, the beginnings of proceedings looking into whether the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” 

At the same time, Congress must continue to investigate those matters as well as Trump’s taxes and business dealings. The president’s refusal to release his tax returns suggests he has much to hide. It could be a simple matter of Trump knowing the forms indicate he is not as wealthy as he claims. Or, it could be that the president is guilty of massive financial fraud and even money laundering. 

Hearings conducted by Congress — first, the Senate Select Committee on Watergate in the summer of 1973, then the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment the next year — laid out incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing by President Richard Nixon. That evidence swayed public opinion and eventually convinced Republicans in the Senate that Nixon had to go. Congressional investigations now may perform the same function.

Will that make Trump happy? Who knows? But, it will give joy to all who revere the Constitution and the rule of law.

Posted April 23, 2019

Who’s Winning Now?

Remember all the winning candidate Donald Trump promised? “We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don’t win so much. This is getting terrible,’” he said on February 19, 2016, just before the South Carolina primary. He repeated the vow of non-stop winning on numerous occasions, sometimes spelling out presumed victories on “trade” or at “the border.” President Trump even asserted in his rambling, semi-incoherent speech at CPAC last weekend, “America is winning again.” 

Well, guess what? Trump is blowing smoke. All claims of winning are hogwash, for the truth is simple: The president is on a monumental, epic losing streak. He is losing on trade, the deficit, immigration, and North Korea. He is losing in the court of public opinion. He is losing so much that his already narrow path to reelection in 2020 may snap shut.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that the United States trade deficit for 2018 reached $891.2 billion, the largest in the nation’s 243-year history. That whopping total comes after two years of Trumpian “America First” policies, including slapping tariffs on some goods in an attempt to curb the deficit. For a president who often said, incorrectly, that trade deficits are a good measure of “winning” and “losing,” such an enormous deficit is telling.

Trump is wrong about the significance of trade deficits. An imbalance in what we buy from foreign nations versus what we sell to other countries is not a sign of a sick economy, nor does it mean the United States is being “cheated.” The lowest trade deficit in recent years came in 2009, the tail end of the Great Recession, and the shrinking disparity reflected a bad economy in which Americans bought fewer goods abroad. Today, the economy is relatively robust — artificially so, perhaps, due to the stimulus of tax cuts (see below) and federal spending. In a healthy economy, consumers have more money to spend on more goods, including merchandise manufactured overseas.  At the same time, the dollar is strong, making foreign products cheaper and our exports more expensive to other countries, especially ones — like China and the European Union — with shrinking economies. Trade deficits are a sign of relative economic health; but, for Trump, they are politically toxic, given his overblown rhetoric on the subject.

The exploding deficit is another bad sign for Trump. The fiscal deficit is related to the trade deficit. By cutting taxes in 2017 and taking the lid off government spending, Trump has primed the economy. More money in the economy means more spending abroad. Less revenue for the government, which, at the same time, is spending more, means a burgeoning deficit of $779 billion in fiscal year 2018. The federal budget deficit rose 17 percent last year and is on pace to top $1 trillion before the next presidential election. The deficit keeps getting worse. In the first four months of fiscal 2019, the budget shortfall rose 77 percent over the same period last year. These massive deficits come under a Republican president!

There has not been much winning on immigration, the issue that more than any other defines Trump’s presidency. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that unauthorized border crossings are the highest in 12 years, despite Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and cruel policies to deter immigration. Trump shut down the government recently for 35 days because Congress refused to fund a border wall. The shutdown ended only when Trump accepted less money for the wall than he could have obtained earlier in negotiations with Congress. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build the wall has been overturned in the House, and, as of now, the Senate is poised to follow suit.

Then there is North Korea: Trump’s obsequious fawning over that country’s tyrannical dictator at the summit in Hanoi last week failed to yield an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Granted, the results could have been worse. Our clueless president could have pulled a reverse wag-the-dog and made peace at terrible terms to distract from his domestic problems and countless investigations. Still, his performance in absolving Kim Jong-un for the brutal torture and murder of Otto Wambier hit a new low even for this president.

While Trump was in Asia sucking up to yet another dictator, his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, was on Capitol Hill detailing the president’s illegal and shady behavior. When asked by Quinnipiac University pollsters whom they believe, 50 percent of respondents chose Cohen while only 35 percent named Trump. Sixty-four percent believe Trump committed crimes before becoming president. 

The 35 percent who believe Trump over Cohen tracks with the president’s consistent base of support, the voters who will side with Trump, no matter what, even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone, as he once boasted. But, a shade more than a third of the electorate is not going to get Trump reelected in 2020. He needs his core supporters plus those voters who helped give him a 45 percent approval rating in a poll conducted after Cohen’s testimony. If his approval rating were to hold steady, Trump would still lose the popular vote, but he might squeak by in the Electoral College.

The additional 10 percent are people who evidently believe Trump is a lying, untrustworthy rapscallion but they like his policies. Will they still like his policies if he keeps losing on trade, the deficit, immigration, and North Korea? If Trump’s losing streak continues, he may be headed to an epic defeat in 2020. That would be a win for the country!

Posted March 8, 2019

 

 

The Don and His Consigliere

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” That playground taunt, delivered by Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona and accompanied by a poster, was the epitome of the Republican defense of President Donald Trump during the day-long testimony of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee. Admittedly, Trump — who acts like a mob boss — is a tough guy to defend, so it should surprise no one that the Republican strategy was to impugn the bearer of the bad news rather than to counter the substance of Cohen’s remarks.

Chris Christie, a former governor of New Jersey and a Trump defender, noticed the weakness of the GOP ploy. The president, Christie said, must have been “fuming that no one’s defending him.” Christie labeled the lame performance “either a failure of those Republicans on the Hill or a failure of the White House to have a unified strategy with them.” 

In truth, there was not much Republicans could do. Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina tried to defend Trump against Cohen’s accusation of racism by positioning an African American woman — Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump aide and current official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development — over his shoulder as a prop to demonstrate diversity. That piece of theater led to a scuffle later in the hearing when Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, labeled the use of Patton a “racist act.” Meadows bristled at the thought Tlaib was calling him a racist, but she insisted she was talking about the act, not Meadows.

For the most part, GOP members simply used their time not to poke holes in Cohen’s testimony — which would have been difficult because he provided documentary evidence for many of his charges — but to question his motives or to attack Democrats for holding the hearing in the first place. It seems Republicans on the Oversight Committee have no idea what oversight means, since they refused, when they were in the majority, to hold any substantive hearings to investigate credible charges of Trumpian misdoings.

Gosar of the playground taunts was disowned last November by six siblings, all of whom endorsed his opponent in the 2018 midterm election. “We gotta stand up for our good name,” said David Gosar in a political advertisement on behalf of his brother’s opponent. “This is not who we are.” But, it is who the member of Congress is. Gosar got so excited by his attack on Cohen that he stumbled over his words. Others also demonstrated a fair degree of apoplexy. Meadows looked as if he were about to have a coronary when he tried to nail Cohen for allegedly lying on a committee form about whether the former Trump aide had been paid for services by a foreign government. The dispute demonstrated only that Meadows had not accurately read the question on the form. 

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan expressed outrage that Lanny Davis — a friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton — represented Cohen. Jordan and others repeatedly attacked Cohen as a convicted perjurer. Cohen is going to jail for that crime, and other misdeeds. But, even liars sometimes tell the truth, especially when they have documents to back up their assertions. 

Much time was spent on Cohen as a would-be influence peddler and prospective recipient of lucrative book and movie deals. Numerous Republican members tried to get Cohen to vow he would not profit from his notoriety, which Cohen refused to do. Republicans also tried to portray Cohen as a grasping office seeker disappointed he did not get a job in the White House. All in all, the strategy of attacking Cohen as a dishonest criminal who should not be believed begs an important question: Why did Trump employ such a disreputable person for a decade?

The truth is, of course, that Cohen is much like Trump, who was something of a mentor to the younger man. Apparently, Cohen had easy access to Trump and his family. According to Cohen, he briefed Trump, Don Jr., and Ivanka at least 10 times during the 2016 presidential campaign about the Trump family’s attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That gives the lie to Trump’s claim of no business dealings with Russia and implicates Ivanka for the first time in that sordid episode. One other family note: Don Jr. might want to inquire as to the veracity of Cohen’s statement that father thought son “had the worst judgement of anyone in the world.”

Cohen produced checks indicating Trump reimbursed his fixer for the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels while Trump was in the White House. Cohen also testified that he was present in July 2016 when Trump took a call on speakerphone from Roger Stone who said, “He had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” According to Cohen, Trump replied, “Wouldn’t that be great.” 

Cohen also offered tantalizing hints of more investigations. When one member of Congress asked about Cohen’s last conversation with his former boss, Cohen declined to give details, saying it is “being investigated right now” by federal prosecutors in New York. As for other instances of possible wrongdoing or crimes by Trump, Cohen repeated, “Again, those are part of the investigation.” Stay tuned!

The former consigliere reaffirmed that Trump operated like a mob boss. Trump never gave explicit instructions to Cohen to do wrong, but Cohen understood the “code.” Like a good Mafia underling, Cohen was not hesitant to threaten those who might stand in Trump’s way. When asked, Cohen said he issued about 500 threats on behalf of Trump (that includes threats of litigation) in his decade of employment. So, Cohen should not have been shocked that Trump used mob language in calling his former aide a “rat.” Nor should anyone have been surprised that on the eve of Cohen’s testimony, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who has a history of incendiary comments, tweeted, “Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” (The tweet has been deleted, but the gist was repeated on the House floor.)

Cohen’s testimony — and the antics of a fool like Gaetz — demonstrate once again that, as Cohen pointed out, Trump corrupts everyone who comes in contact with him. That may be the greatest tragedy of this sordid presidency.

Posted March 1, 2019

Going Down With Trump

Note to Republicans: You get no credit if you abandon President Donald Trump after the cell door slams shut.

Court filings Friday implicated the president in felonies. If all of Trump’s amoral and immoral actions — not to mention his lies, crassness, meanness, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and autocratic tendencies — did not force Republicans to reconsider their commitment to him, a serious and credible accusation of felonious behavior should.

In a court filing last Friday in New York City, federal prosecutors said the president directed illegal payments to prevent a potential sex scandal from jeopardizing his chances to win the presidency in 2016. The filing means the Justice Department believes the accusations previously made by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer. In a separate filing in Washington, prosecutors from the special counsel’s office said an unnamed Russian offered Cohen “governmental level” cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign at a time when Trump was interested in building a hotel in Moscow. 

If Trump were a private citizen, he likely would be facing an indictment in the near future. Only the Justice Department’s squeamishness over indicting a sitting president keeps Trump out of legal jeopardy — for the time being. (Prosecutors in New York believe Trump could be indicted on campaign finance violations if he is not re-elected.) But, he can be investigated and/or impeached by Congress, and the incoming Democratic majority in the House is poised to use its powers to look into Trump’s wrongdoing.

Almost all Republicans acquiesced silently as Trump coddled dictators, lied shamelessly, pulled out of trade pacts GOP leaders had previously supported, levied tariffs that hurt their constituents, separated immigrant families at the border, trashed the federal judiciary, and made light of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (this is a very partial list). There have been, from time to time, murmurs of discontent, but no real challenges to the president as putative leader of the Republican Party. Most of the GOP has fallen into line, accepting presidential misdeeds while supporting an agenda often at odds with traditional conservative policy.

Now that the president’s legal jeopardy is clearer than ever, Republicans have to decide whether to go down with the sinking ship — for it is going down — or save whatever remains of their tattered reputations. Doing the latter risks short-term retribution from the ever-loyal Trump base. Doing the former risks the condemnation of history.

When Republican leaders informed Richard Nixon he lacked the votes in a Senate trial following his likely impeachment, the president resigned. For two years, most Republicans stood by Nixon as the Watergate scandal crept closer to him and the inner White House circle. But, after the evidence became incontrovertible in the form of the White House tapes, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Arizona conservative, led a delegation of Republican congressional leaders to the White House to tell Nixon he was finished. 

There are signs that some Republicans are rethinking their loyalty to a president who never returns it in kind. Indications of economic distress — tariffs and trade wars hurting constituents and a tumbling stock market — coupled with the administration’s defense of Saudi Arabia for its complicity in the Khashoggi assassination make it easier for Republicans to separate themselves from Trump. Chaos within the White House following the ineptly handled announcement of John Kelly’s departure as chief of staff and the refusal of the heir-apparent, Nick Ayres, to take the job also worries some savvier Republicans. The latest legal maneuverings suggesting Trump’s complicity in criminal behavior only heighten GOP anxiety.

Robert Costa and Philip Rucker reported in The Washington Post over the weekend that many Republicans fear the White House has no plan to deal with the intensifying Russia investigation, which creeps closer and closer to Trump. Eventually, the probe will consume the party if it continues to tie its future to a president facing legal jeopardy. Trump’s unwillingness to listen to legal and political advice and his penchant for incriminating tweets contribute to Republican fears. Trump, after all, believes he is the smartest person in the room — in this case, the room is the world — and is convinced he can outsmart adversaries and weather any storms. Most of Washington, regardless of party, knows better.

For now, congressional Republicans appear inclined to stand by Trump. But, one pro-Trump senator says Trump has “lost me” if the special counsel documents a conspiracy with Russians. Others might bolt if the president were to pardon Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time campaign manager who has been convicted of tax and bank fraud and faces other charges, including lying to the special counsel. Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a vocal Trump critic and frequent butt of Trumpian bullying, says, “The president’s situation is fraught with mounting peril and that’s apparent to everyone who’s paying any attention, which is all of my Republican colleagues.” 

Trump reportedly believes ultra-right supporters on Capitol Hill — such as Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and the comically foolish Devin Nunes of California — will stick by him. That may not be enough as more indictments come from the various investigations that are getting closer and closer to Trump. It is time for the rest of the Republican Party to decide on its course of action.

Trump sullies the good names of everyone with whom he comes into contact. This is most obviously true of those who have worked for him in the White House, but it is also the case for the Republican Party. Prominent Republicans — congressional leaders, governors, and other party leaders — will have to answer to history for their silence in the face of a president who undermines the rule of law both nationally and internationally.

Once the cell door shuts — and Trump, metaphorically, is dressed in orange — it will be too late.

Posted December 11, 2018

It’s All About the Shtick!

Shtick” — Yiddish slang meaning “gimmick.” Often refers to someone’s signature act. 

Call me naive, but I do not get it. I do not understand how crowds at speeches — such as the one in Elkhart, Indiana, last week — by President Donald Trump continue to chant “drain the swamp” while Scott Pruitt remains as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Far from draining the swamp, under President Trump, the alligators have just gotten bigger, greedier, and even more numerous.

Among Pruitt’s alleged ethical lapses: Flying first-class instead of economy, unauthorized purchase of a secure, soundproof phone booth costing $43,000, spending $3 million on round-the-clock security since he began his tenure at the EPA, a condominium rental from the wife or an energy lobbyist (with whom Pruitt met) at an absurdly low rate, and accusations that EPA employees who criticized him were demoted or sidelined. He even requested the use of lights and sirens by his motorcade while en route to dinner. Pruitt is not the only member of Trump’s Cabinet enveloped in scandals: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also has misused public funds for travel, including a $12,000 chartered flight aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, and Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, purchased a $31,000 dining room set for his office, about which he lied and then blamed his wife. 

And, let us not forget the truly spectacular news of last week: The president’s personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, received a combined $4.4 million from various companies, including an investment firm that does business with a Russian oligarch. The payments were made to a consulting firm Cohen set up to pay hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The entities hired Cohen because he knew Trump and presumably something about the president’s thinking (a curious assumption, at best). While Cohen appears to have done little to advance the interests of his clients, and Trump’s knowledge of Cohen’s offer of wheeling-and-dealing remains unknown, Cohen’s pay-for-play scheme typifies the swamp’s reptiles.

Trump may be running the most corrupt administration in history (do not forget for a moment the president’s conflicts of interest stemming from his failure to fully divest himself of his business interests). Yet, the Trumpian crowds still chant “drain the swamp!” Are Trump’s followers so unaware that they fail to appreciate the disconnect between a man who promises to clean up Washington and, yet, tolerates Scott Pruitt at EPA? The argument is often made that Pruitt is valuable because he is admired by evangelical supporters of the president and is doing the president’s bidding in rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations. Surely, someone else could be found to do the same work, someone without Pruitt’s baggage. But, Trump does not seem to care.

And, neither do the crowds. “Drain the swamp” proved a winning chant at rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Trump is not about to give up an effective slogan at a time when he is besieged by numerous investigations. For Trump, the rallying cry of “drain the swamp” works as a diversion from the scandals plaguing his administration. For his loyal base, the chant is catharsis. It is a way to show disdain for what is believed to be the elitism of Washington insiders who have, Trumpistas believe, ignored the aspirations and wishes of millions of Americans left behind by technological and cultural change.

Draining the swamp is a Trumpian shtick, a gimmick, uniting the purported billionaire president with his working-class base.  No one — neither friends nor foes — actually believes Trump will throw the alligators out. Similarly, no one really believes Trump will build “a beautiful wall” on the Southern border, and, surely, no one believes Mexico will pay for it. But, Trump repeatedly tells his followers that the wall will be built, and they continue to chant “build the wall” to demonstrate their discomfort with the changing demographics of America.

Not only does no one expect the swamp to be drained or the wall built, but doing either would not serve Trump’s purpose. Success would rob him of his signature issues. And, it would rob him of his shtick, his gimmick, to fire up his base. Success also would rob his followers of a cathartic means to express their discontent. The primal scream is more rewarding in this instance than actually draining the swamp or building the wall. 

Trump has done next to nothing to make the lives of his followers better. Trump promised repeal of Obamacare. Luckily for him, repeal failed in Congress, since success would have meant the loss of health insurance for many of his most loyal followers. A long-promised and highly touted infrastructure plan is dead, at least for now. Trump has signed one piece of significant legislation: The huge tax cut passed late last year by Congress that mostly benefits multi-millionaires and big corporations. Trump, who campaigned as a populist hero of the working class, governs as a typical Republican favoring pro-business tax cuts and large-scale deregulation. Any of the myriad candidates Trump defeated in the Republican primaries and caucuses in 2016 would have done the same.

Trump is the quintessential showman; he knows the act, the shtick, is what matters. He cannot and will not deliver on his populist issues. (It is hard to imagine that the New York real estate developer ever really believed his own populist message.) But, chants of “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” are effective tools for masking the failure to enact promised programs. Trumpistas may not get a bridge over the nearby river or a better job, but they can leave a rally satisfied they expressed their disdain for the Washington elite and immigrants.

It’s all about the shtick!

Posted May 15, 2018

Follow the Money

I’m crushing it.” Michael Cohen, summer of 2017.

That was then; now, federal officials are squeezing President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. Federal prosecutors in New York are probing Cohen’s payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, using information acquired in raids last month on Cohen’s home, hotel room, and office. Agents obtained a search warrant based on information provided by special counsel Robert Mueller from his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

The Cohen investigation in New York involves possible bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations. This week, Cohen’s legal jeopardy intensified with the release of a document by Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, indicating that the shell company used by Cohen to pay Daniels’ hush money received payments from a company linked to a Russian oligarch and from several prominent corporations. Cohen may have to choose soon between loyalty to Trump — he once said, “I’m the guy who would take a bullet for the president” — and a long prison sentence as investigators in New York and Washington follow the money trail.

Cohen is not the only one with legal problems. Long before anyone suspected possible Trumpian collusion with Russia, there were questions about the New York realtor’s finances. Trump’s actions fueled questions when he refused to release his tax returns, as had other presidential candidates. Now, the new information about Cohen’s shell company — Essential Consultants, LLC — suggests a link between Trump’s finances and possible campaign collusion with Russia. 

The money trail is the nexus of the link. Essential Consultants — thought until now as simply the conduit for hush money — received payments totaling at least $4.4 million. Some of the money came from Columbus Nova, an investment firm whose biggest client is Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The drug giant Novartis paid $1.2 million to Essential Consultants, and AT&T —  currently being sued by the Justice Department over its proposed acquisition of Time Warner — shelled out $600,000 to Cohen’s company. Other companies paid varying amounts.

What were these entities buying? At the very least, advice from the president’s longtime fixer on how to navigate Trump’s Washington. Both Novartis and AT&T issued statements denying wrongdoing. In a memo to employees, the telecommunications giant said, “We hired several consultants to help us understand how the President and his administration might approach a wide range of policy issues important to the company.” A source told CNBC that Cohen did no lobbying or legal work for AT&T. The payments, the source said, were not “for access to the president. It was to pay for an understanding of the inner workings of Trump, his thought process…. And how he thinks about the big issues.” Really? AT&T’s protestations are contrary to what a Novartis official told NBC: The Swiss pharmaceutical firm signed a contract with Cohen in February 2017 after the president’s fixer promised “access” to the new administration. 

Federal investigators will untangle exactly what Cohen did for whom and who he possibly contacted. But, this kind of suspicious money flow lay at the heart of a recent Washington Post report detailing that in 2006 Trump did something unusual for a real estate developer — he stopped borrowing money. The self-proclaimed “King of Debt” either suddenly became more prudent or discovered that his multiple bankruptcies made him persona non grata at reputable banks. So, he spent cash — $400 million — on various projects. 

From where did that money come? Eric Trump, the president’s son, said other Trump holdings generated the funds. Business experts doubt that explanation, especially because the spending spree coincided with the Great Recession. Besides, Eric’s older brother, Donald Trump, Jr., said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets…. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” And, according to golf writer James Dodson, Eric Trump told him in 2013, “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”

Cohen also reportedly had Russian connections. According to a recent report in The New York Times, Cohen dealt with Russian mob figures. As late as the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen discussed plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow with Felix Sater, a felon with ties to Russian mobsters and with whom Trump worked on earlier deals. Cohen also figures in the Michael Flynn saga. In February 2017, when Cohen was “crushing it” the president’s lawyer visited the White House and gave Flynn, then the president’s national security adviser, a plan for lifting sanctions on Russia imposed for Moscow’s attacks on Ukraine. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials about his Russian contacts.

Mueller, named special counsel after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, is probing all this, including Cohen’s Russian connections. At&T and Novartis both report Mueller began asking last November about their payments to Essential Consultants. Russia and money have been part of Trump’s world for at least a decade. Now, the money trail is the key to whether his campaign colluded with Russia to undermine American democracy. Many have asked, “What does Putin have on Trump?” Following the money will provide the answer.

Posted May 11, 2018

Rudy, Watch Your Back!

The appeal of Rudy Giuliani to President Donald Trump is simple. The former mayor of New York City is like the man who hired him: An attack dog. Always go on the offensive is what Trump learned at the feet of Roy Cohn — Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting consigliere. If someone hits you, hit them back harder, ten times, a hundred times. That is one lesson Cohn taught Trump. Another is always keep your name in the newspapers (there is no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right). Trump never wavered from following Cohn’s advice, and, in Giuliani, the president sees a fellow brash New Yorker.

While Giuliani is not bashful in defending the president, he poses trouble for Trump: The former federal prosecutor is prone to speak before he thinks. That is a problem for Trump as well, and both run the risk of placing the president in deeper jeopardy every time they discuss Trump’s legal woes. For Giuliani, the difficulty is compounded because he left the U.S. attorney’s office three decades ago, and he has spent little time since practicing law. Giuliani was mayor of New York City — earning points for the city’s comeback from rampant crime and money woes during his tenure and for guiding it through the trauma of 9/11 — and he ran a disastrous presidential campaign — at one time, the front runner in 2008, only to drop out after spending millions of dollars and failing to win any primaries or caucuses. He also has worked as a TV pundit and a security consultant before becoming Trump’s unhinged surrogate during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Giuliani has been on a media blitz for the last week or so, showing up on television repeatedly. He has not limited his appearances to defending Trump. He has also weighed in on North Korea, predicting “there is a good chance” the Stalinist sate will release three detained Americans “over the next several days.” Two days previously, Giuliani said the release would happen that day. Then, over this past weekend, the former mayor indicated the United States would exit the Iran nuclear deal. He held up a piece of paper and pretended to tear it and spit on it, a suggestion that the deal will be cancelled on May 12, the date by which Trump must decide whether to continue the suspension of some American sanctions on Iran.

Can Trump by happy with Giuliani hogging all this media attention? It is one thing for the president’s lawyer to discuss legal issues, quite another to wade into foreign policy. Trump notoriously does not like to share the limelight, and Trump may soon decide that Giuliani is too big for his britches and ditch the former mayor. Trump acquiesced, after all, in Chief of Staff John Kelly’s decision to fire Anthony Scaramucci after only 10 days as White House communications director. The president probably appreciated Scaramucci’s in-your-face style, but not his out-sized ego. The president is addicted to attention, and Giuliani may be in trouble for stealing some of Trump’s time in the spotlight.

The former mayor surely must have realized he had problem when Trump corrected his facts. Think of that: Donald Trump correcting someone on the facts! Last week, Trump said his lawyer will “get his facts straight” after Giuliani said Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney, was reimbursed for the $130,000 he paid in hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. “Rudy is a great guy, but he just started a day ago,” Trump said. “He really has his heart into it. He’s working hard. He’s learning the subject matter.” Trump’s remarks prompted Vanity Fair to write the following headline: “Trump Assures Reporters He’ll Make Giuliani a Better Liar.” Nothing like learning from the best!

And, nothing like on-the-job training! Except the president is in serious legal trouble, and Giuliani’s loose-lipped appearances discussing the payment to Daniels may have worsened Trump’s problems. Already, reports indicate Trump has griped that Giuliani is a disappointment because he has not shut down the furor over the hush money. The president seems to believe Giuliani’s multiple television appearances have raised more questions than they have answered.

Apparently, Trump and Giuliani cooked up the plan to have Giuliani go on television and change the president’s story about the reimbursement. Neither man consulted any White House officials, not even the White House counsel, about the new plan. When a reporter for The Washington Post, texted a presidential adviser about Giuliani’s appearance last Wednesday on “Hannity” on Fox News, where he first discussed the new strategy, she received back a text with a string of emojis, including a popcorn box, the adviser’s way of saying he or she was watching in horror in real time.

The most charitable interpretation of the plan hatched by Trump and Giuliani is they intended to sow chaos. Say one thing one day, and while everyone is checking the facts on yesterday’s comments, throw something else out. The president lives for turbulence. “He needs the excitement,” says Trump biographer Micheal D’Antonio. “Without drama and the crisis and the powerful opponent, he’d be just another guy.”

It might work, But, then again, it is hard to imagine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe derailed by the nonsensical rantings of either Giuliani or Trump.

Posted May 8. 2018

Trump’s Latest Legal Strategy

“Stormtroopers coming in and breaking down his apartment and breaking down his office.” — Description by Rudy Giuliani of the FBI’s raid to obtain Michael Cohen’s documents pertaining to the payment of hush money to Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star known as Stormy Daniels. 

“That’s the Gestapo in Germany. That shouldn’t be the American FBI.” — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich similarly used a Nazi analogy when discussing Justice Department tactics in the probe of President Donald Trump and his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. 

Comparing something or someone to Nazis is tempting (if ultimately outrageous). After all, everyone (well, almost everyone) agrees Nazis were evil. It is a simple reduction: Nazis are bad; the FBI acts like Nazis; therefore, the FBI is bad. It is simple, but fundamentally flawed. First, Nazi analogies minimize the evil the Nazis committed:  Imposing a dictatorship on Germany, unleashing the Second World War and brutally occupying much of Europe, and the atrocities of one of history’s most heinous crimes, the Holocaust. Second, Nazi comparisons leave no room for discussion. And, third, calling an opponent a Nazi either means the accuser has lost the argument or has, at best, a flimsy legal case. 

Historical note: Gingrich, at least, has the correct analogy. Stormtroopers were Nazi foot soldiers who battled leftwing opponents on the streets of Germany before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. In 1921, the fledgling Nazi Party formed the Sturm Abteilung (Stormtroopers in English), usually abbreviated as SA. Stormtroopers donned brown shirts with a swastika band on the left arm. The SA protected Hitler at rallies while fighting Communists and Socialists in the streets. When Hitler seized power, the SA was led by Ernst Röhm, who immediately sought to fuse his organization with the German army. Röhm envisioned himself as head of the nation’s rejuvenated military. Other Nazi leaders feared Röhm and convinced Adolf Hitler that Röhm intended to supplant Hitler as Führer. On June 30, 1934, in what is known as the Night of the Long Knives, Röhm and other SA leaders were murdered by the regime. The SA continued to exist, but as a much weaker organization that was eventually supplanted by the SS, the Schutz Staffel, led by Heinrich Himmler. The Gestapo (an abbreviation of the German for Secret State Police) fell under the administration of the SS, and it conducted raids in the middle of the night, as well as other atrocities. Score one for Gingrich.

Gingrich’s historical accuracy, however, does not make his Nazi analogy palatable. The proclivity of Trump’s defenders to engage in Nazi comparisons may be a sign of the precariousness of Trump’s legal case. Another indication of the president’s legal woes is the continuing flux in his legal team. Lawyers come and go through a revolving door. Right now, Trump’s lead lawyer is Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, who described himself in one of a series of interviews on Fox News this week as owing his position to his friendship with Trump. 

On Wednesday night, Giuliani made news on Fox, claiming the president reimbursed his longtime personal lawyer for the $130,000 payment to Daniels. Cohen said previously the money had come from his personal home equity account, and Trump had denied any knowledge of the transaction. A new team, a new strategy? Or simply a slip of the tongue by the ever-talkative Giuliani? It is hard to tell.

Regardless, no one believed Cohen (a lawyer paying for his client?), and Trump’s lack of acquaintance with the truth made it easy to discount his version. Still, the former mayor’s admission came as a surprise. “That money was not campaign money, sorry. I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know,” Giuliani told fellow Trump apologist, Sean Hannity. “It’s not campaign money. No campaign finance violation.”

Giuliani appeared confused (or did he not have his story straight?) when describing how Trump had repaid Cohen. One version had the president paying his personal lawyer a monthly $35,000 retainer over several months; another, had the money paid of “law firm funds,” whatever those are. In any event, Giuliani said, there was no violation of campaign finance laws.

Not so fast, Rudy. Experts maintain that how the payment was made has no bearing on its legality. Lawrence Noble of the Campaign Legal Center said, “We still have the same question: What was the purpose of this [money transfer]?… If the purpose of this was to stop [Daniels] from hurting the campaign,” Noble added, “then what you have is Cohen made a loan to the campaign. And it was an excessive loan because lending the campaign money is a contribution. It was an excessive contribution until it’s repaid.”

On “Fox & Friends” Thursday morning, Giuliani inadvertently linked the payment to the campaign. First, he claimed the money was paid for personal reasons, to protect Melania Trump from further embarrassment. Donald Trump, Giuliani maintained, had been hurt personally, not politically, and so had the “first lady by the false allegations.” Then, the president’s lead lawyer said, “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton.” An allegation, even if false, Giuliani was saying, would damage the Trump campaign. So, the former mayor said, “Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”

“He did his job” may go down as one of the more famous political quotes of the young 21st century. But, the statement exonerates neither Cohen nor Trump. The candidate can, of course, make loans to his own campaign. The campaign, on the other hand, cannot take loans without reporting them, even if Trump pays them back later. If that were legal, there would be no point in campaign finance laws. By not reporting Cohen’s loan, if that is what it was, the campaign would be in violation of the law. If Cohen had not been repaid, then he committed a violation by making a contribution above the maximum allowed by law. Either way, a violation occurred.

For his part, the president quickly signed on to the new legal strategy, if that is what it is. “Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign,” Trump tweeted, in exceptionally literate English.“The agreement [arranged by Cohen with Daniels] was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair,” he further tweeted. 

Now we have it! The defense for Trump is to make him the victim. Daniels was extorting the candidate, and so his lawyer paid for her silence. Odds are this defense will not work any better than any other ones, including calling the president’s investigators Nazis.

Posted May 4, 2018

Sean Hannity: Deceptive Provocateur

The revelation that Michael Cohen’s mystery client was Sean Hannity led many to ask: Is the Fox News and daily syndicated radio show host a journalist? With all due respect to Hannity and the pundits who have weighed in on the question, the answer is irrelevant. Hannity is not a journalist by any of the standards of journalistic ethics recognized by the profession, but it does not matter. He commands a powerful platform that he uses — as a provocateur — to shape (mis-shape?) public opinion. Thus, he is obligated to reveal any connections he has to the people and stories he discusses. 

(Full disclosure: I worked for CNN for almost 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s. I do not, however, have any connection with Michael Cohen. He is not a friend of mine nor has he ever done any legal work, paid or not, for me.)

The question of Hannity’s journalistic bona fides probably is irrelevant to his loyal fans. The three million viewers of his nightly Fox show and the millions more who hear him daily on his radio program tune in for his reliably strident defense of President Donald Trump and virulent attacks on the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller. Most of Hannity’s viewers and listeners do not care that he failed to disclose his relationship to Trump’s personal fixer when he used his media platforms to lash into the FBI for raiding Cohen’s office.

Journalists are bound to recuse themselves from covering a story in which they have personal involvement, or, at the very least, disclose any relationship with a person or organization they are covering. Even Fox, which declared its “full support” for Hannity, admitted it was “unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen, and was surprised by the announcement in court.” The interesting question is what Fox would have done had Hannity disclosed to network executives his connection to Cohen. 

Hannity is coy on how he views his role. “I never claimed to be a journalist,” he told The New York Times in 2016 in reply to a question about his association with Trump. In a tweet that same year, Hannity declared, “I’m not a journalist jackass. I’m a talk host.” But, a year later, he told The Times, “I’m a journalist. But I’m an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.” And, just last month, in response to criticism from Fox colleague Shepard Smith, Hannity tweeted, “While Shep is a friend with political views I do not share, and great at breaking news, he is clueless about what we do every day. Hannity breaks news daily-Warrant on a Trump assoc, the unmasking scandal, leaking intel, Fisa abuse, HRC lawbreaking, dossier and more REAL NEWS!” (Apparently, Trump’s penchant for capital letters is spreading to his sycophants.)

Fox tries to distinguish between its news side — the area in which journalists like Smith work — and its opinion side — occupied by Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham. Fox prefers not to call the opinion purveyors “journalists.” A spokesperson for the cable channel referred to Hannity as “an opinion talk-show host.”

The network’s distinction may be lost on many viewers. When Hannity propounded the Seth Rich conspiracy story, did his viewers see it as a news story presented by a journalist or opinion offered by a talk-show host? Hannity and others on Fox implied that Rich’s murder was payback by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign for the allegation that the young political aide was the source of leaks of thousands of internal Democratic National Committee emails. Fox retracted the story, but not before conspiracy buffs — Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Alex Jones, and Hannity — had done their damage.

Hannity offers “news” (not always factually, as the Seth Rich story indicates), conducts interviews, and has talking heads on his show like many TV journalists. He many not meet the standards of traditional journalism, but he is a broadcaster who has an obligation to inform his viewers of any potential conflicts of interest. “He has an audience and he is bound as a broadcaster to be transparent with them,” says Susan King, dean of the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, King and I were colleagues at CNN.) 

Legally, Hannity is a journalist (which may prove relevant to the Rich family’s lawsuit against Fox). As Tom Rosenstiel, head of the American Press Institute, observes, “He doesn’t actually get to decide” if he is a journalist. “You can say you’re a kumquat, and the courts will decide if you walk or talk like a journalist, you will legally be a journalist. You’re talking about someone who conducts interviews, does exposes, breaks news and [is involved in] all the nomenclature of news,” Rosenstiel adds.

Hannity is an extreme example of the problems of journalism in the age of 24-hour cable networks and the internet. So much time and space to fill encourages talk and opinion in place of hard news. Many journalists hobnob with sources in the rush to get interviews or scoops. Just this week, Fox anchor Bret Baier — who thinks he is on the network’s news side — played golf with Trump to lobby the president for an interview. Hannity is so cozy with the president that some Trump aides have dubbed the broadcaster the unofficial chief of staff. “He basically has a desk” in the White House, said one presidential adviser. Hannity and Trump reportedly speak several times a week, discussing ideas for Hannity’s show and subject matter for presidential tweets. It should be no surprise the two men share an attorney.

What they also share is a lack of transparency. In Trump’s case, it is his frequent and uncontrollable lying. In Hannity’s, it is his dishonesty as a broadcaster. As a major media figure, provocateur, and presidential cheerleader who has the power and platform to shape public opinion, Hannity is obligated to be more forthcoming about his connections to the events and people he covers.

Posted April 20, 2018