To prepare for my appearance on the Tom Shillue show yesterday, I boned up on the latest known developments in the Mueller investigation. I relied mainly on the links in Scott’s recent post, with the work of Andy McCarthy being, as usual, the most valuable.
There are at least three fronts of recent activity: the Paul Manafort front, the Jerome Corsi/Roger Stone front, and the Michael Cohen front. Let’s discuss them in turn with a focus on implications for President Trump.
On the Manafort front, Mueller has nullified the plea deal. He claims Manafort is lying to the special counsel’s team. What is Manafort allegedly lying about? We don’t know.
I suspect he’s not giving Mueller information he wants about the Trump campaign. One possibility is the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lady.
Such information would be Manafort’s “get out of jail” (and in this case, solitary confinement) card. By not satisfying Mueller, Manafort faces the possibility of a sentence that would keep him in prison for the rest of his life.
But Mueller’s position isn’t as strong as this fact suggests. Trump has the power to pardon Manafort or commute his sentence. I’m betting that, even in a worst plausible case scenario, Manafort doesn’t stay in jail past the end of the Trump presidency.
As to whether Manafort is lying or just not saying what Mueller wants to hear, I don’t know.
Turning to Corsi and Stone, I agree with Andy McCarthy that there seems to be no crime here. Even if one or both contacted Wikileaks about John Podesta’s emails, and even if they were inquiring on Trump’s behalf, this strikes me as unsavory politics, not criminal conduct.
The Clinton campaign, through intermediaries, worked with Russians to put out negative information on Trump. At worst, if Mueller can connect lots of dots that may not even be there, Trump, through intermediaries, worked with Wikileaks to put out what little negative information about Hillary was contained in John Podesta’s emails. Wikileaks may have obtained the information illegally, but Corsi/Stone do not appear to be implicated in that crime.
This aspect of the investigation may be about getting at Stone, through Corsi, on some sort of “false statement” charge, and then striking a deal with Stone that implicates Trump is some form of criminal conduct. If so, Mueller probably has a long, hard road ahead.
Finally, what about Cohen’s guilty plea for lying about whether Trump was still doing business, or trying to, with Russia? I don’t think this implicates Trump in any crime.
It could, if Trump gave information to Mueller’s team that’s inconsistent with Cohen’s admission. However, Rudy Giuliani says that Trump’s written answers to Mueller’s questions are consistent with what Cohen says.
There might also be a criminal issue if Trump directed Cohen to give false testimony. As I understand it, though, Cohen says he took his cues from what the Trump campaign was saying, not from a direction by Trump.
Nonetheless, Cohen’s admissions (consistent, apparently, with what Trump said in his written answers) are troubling, at least to me. A presidential candidate ought not be doing business with Russia while running for president. That’s why Trump’s team claimed the relationship ended in January 2016, when it became clear Trump had a good shot at winning the Republicans nomination.
If this was a lie, as it seems to have been, that’s a material deception of the electorate. I know I’d be complaining about this if Barack Obama had engaged in the deception. The standard shouldn’t be different for Trump.
Trump’s attempts at deals with Russia may also help explain his pro-Putin rhetoric, a point David French makes. The most sickening example was when Trump brushed off Russia’s murders by telling Bill O’Reilly, in effect, that the U.S. kills people too.
What prompted Trump to posit a moral equivalency between the U.S. and Putin’s Russia? It might have been a desire to promote Trump’s ongoing interest in doing business with Russia.
I agree that Trump’s actions matter more than his words. I also agree that his actions towards Russia as president have been largely unobjectionable and, indeed, often praiseworthy.
But let’s remember that Trump’s pro-Putin rhetoric caused public opinion among Republicans to shift sharply in Putin’s favor. If the rhetoric was based even in part on Trump’s private interests, then the problem is obvious to anyone willing to look at this matter objectively.
Because Trump’s words shifted public opinion on Russia, they do matter in this context.
Finally, though, it’s important to reemphasize that we’re not talking about collusion here. As far as we know, Mueller still, after all this time, has no evidence of collusion. He’s finding stuff that makes Trump look bad, but that wasn’t his assignment, or at least it should not have been.