Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
The House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday made a criminal referral to the Justice Department for Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the private military contractor Blackwater and an ally of President Trump, accusing him of “knowingly and willfully” making false statements to Congress.
Prince’s statements “impaired the Committee’s understanding of Russia’s attempts to contact and influence the incoming Trump Administration,” Schiff wrote in his referral letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, describing six alleged instances in which Prince misled the panel about his January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian banker tied to the Kremlin — and how much the Trump transition team knew about it.
“The evidence is so weighty that the Justice Department needs to consider this,” Schiff said during a Washington Post Live event earlier Tuesday, announcing his intention to make the referral later in the day.
Democratic lawmakers have long suspected that Prince lied to them during his November 2017 interview before the House Intelligence Commitee, when he described his Seychelles meeting with Russian financier Kirill Dmitriev as a chance encounter, instead of one organized at the behest of the incoming administration. Their suspicions hardened after they read special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s depiction of the Seychelles meeting, which differed in several key respects with Prince’s sworn testimony.
Mueller’s team also learned that Prince had been in touch with Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, before the meeting and from the Seychelles, but it was unable to unearth the content those conversations, as the messages had disappeared from their devices, according to Mueller’s report.
“We know from the Mueller report that was not a chance meeting. . . . We know there were communications after he returned,” Schiff said during The Post event. “In very material ways I think the evidence strongly suggests that he willingly misled our committee, and the Justice Department needs to consider whether there’s a prosecutable case.”
The White House, the Justice Department and the Trump Organization had no immediate response to Schiff’s comments.
In a statement, a lawyer for Prince said there “is no new evidence here.” Matthew L. Schwartz said: “Erik Prince’s House testimony has been public for months, including at all times that Mr. Prince met with the Special Counsel’s Office. Mr. Prince cooperated completely with the Special Counsel’s investigation, as its report demonstrates. There is nothing new here for the Department of Justice to consider, nor is there any reason to question the Special Counsel’s decision to credit Mr. Prince and rely on him in drafting its report.”
Schiff noted Tuesday that some of the information Prince gave investigators was presented during proffer sessions. He speculated that if Prince told Mueller’s team what he knew “under the condition it not be used against him, then being able to prove” that he lied to lawmakers “might be problematic.”
Details in Mueller’s report have solidified many Democrats’ concerns that Trump Jr. lied to them about the details surrounding the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower that he and others from the Trump campaign held with a Russian lawyer promising “dirt” on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The report also sparked new concerns that Kushner misled lawmakers about the pre-inauguration contacts his business associate, Rick Gerson, had with Dmitriev, the banker who met with Prince in the Seychelles.
But Democrats are reluctant to levy official accusations against Kushner and Trump Jr. until they are able to view the redacted information in Mueller’s report, as well as the transcripts of the special counsel’s witness interviews.
In a separate interview at The Washington Post Live event, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Republicans are also considering referring some congressional witnesses to the Justice Department for possibly lying to Congress.
Meadows said the GOP is looking at two or three people. He declined to name them but suggested at least one is connected to Fusion GPS, the firm behind a controversial dossier alleging Trump had personal and financial ties to Russia.
Most important is the claim that he maintained a “covert relationship with Russia,” and that in August 2016 Cohen made a secret visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where he reportedly met with senior Kremlin officials. According to the dossier, whose allegations are so far unproven, the Prague meeting was facilitated by Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian Duma’s foreign-relations committee and who may have attended the meeting in person.
Most explosively, the dossier alleges that Cohen’s meeting in Prague in that late summer of 2016 included “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers,” and that “the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.”
.. Sourced to a “Kremlin adviser,” the dossier report said that the meeting was originally planned for Moscow but was “shifted to what was considered an operationally ‘soft’ EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.” And it adds that Cohen’s wife “is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.” (Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is a Ukrainian of Russian descent, according to the dossier; his brother, Bryan, is also married to a Ukrainian; and, like Manafort, the Cohen family has business ties to Ukraine.)
.. So far, the report that Cohen met with Russians in Prague is unverified. Cohen has vigorously denied it, and he’s shown his passport, which lacks a Czech entry stamp, to reporters. However, according to a report by McClatchy, citing “two [unnamed] sources familiar with the matter,” Mueller “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.” The McClatchy report, by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, two veteran investigative journalists, didn’t say whether Cohen met with Kosachev, but it did say that Mueller’s investigators unearthed the fact that Cohen traveled to Prague via Germany, meaning that his passport would not have needed a stamp from the Czech Republic.
.. Third, Cohen was involved in the still mostly unexplained “Ukraine peace plan” that reportedly ended up on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in February 2017 just before Flynn was forced to resign over his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The plan, organized outside regular diplomatic channels, was concocted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, reportedly at the behest of top aides to President Putin. The plan, which would have resulted in eliminating or easing Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, was cooked up in conjunction with Cohen and Sater. According to the New York Times report, Sater delivered the written plan to Cohen “in a sealed envelope,” and Cohen placed it in Flynn’s office.
.. Fourth, as The Wall Street Journal revealed in a stunning exposé, Cohen was the attorney who arranged a $1.6 million payoff to quiet a scandal involving an affair between Elliott Broidy, a top Republican Party fundraising official, and a Playboy Playmate. But Broidy has a part to play in the Russia scandal, too: Along with an operative named George Nader, who was picked up by federal agents at an airport and who’s now cooperating with Mueller’s office, Broidy was a principal in a scheme to boost US support for the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, in a tangled dispute among Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Nader is an adviser to the UAE, and as the Times recently reported, Nader maintains business ties to Russia, including working on arms deals.
.. Meanwhile, the Times reported, Broidy “owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country.” And it was Nader who arranged the secret meeting between Erik Prince, top UAE officials, and a Russian wheeler-dealer named Kirill Dmitriev, a meeting that Mueller is now investigating because it was apparently aimed at setting up some sort of back-channel links between Moscow and the incoming administration in Washington.
a third, run out of a suite of well-appointed offices on M Street in Washington. Founded by neoconservative journalist Clifford May just after 9/11, the non-profit Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has emerged as perhaps the most powerful outside influencer of the Trump White House today.
FDD is notorious: a self-styled “non-partisan policy institute,” the non-profit organization is funded primarily by right-wing supporters of Israel, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
.. Over the nearly two decades since its founding, FDD has
- promoted the Iraq War,
- banged the drum for an attack on Syria,
- opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran,
- extolled the virtues of Benjamin Netanyahu, and, at the beginning of this decade,
- launched a crusade that targeted the tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar where the U.S. maintains an airbase.
.. Tillerson, it turns out, was not only blindsided by the embargo, but, as was reported in these pages last June, suspected that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had known of the UAE’s plans, failed to notify him, and instead urged the president to endorse the UAE initiative, which Trump did. Tillerson was not only shocked, he was angry. “Rex put two-and-two together,” a close associate of Tillerson told TAC at the time, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid [Kushner] was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. [UAE ambassador to the U.S.] Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.”
.. Tillerson’s efforts, while prodigious, failed to heal the rift between Qatar and its neighbors, but it clearly backfooted the anti-Qatar coalition, who’d hoped to pressure their neighbor into ending its relations with Iran, isolate Turkey (a strong Qatar supporter), and shutter the Doha-based Al Jazeera television network.
.. only deepened the uneasy alliance of forces arrayed against him. Those forces, according to emails leaked in early March by the BBC, now included Erik Prince sidekick Elliott Broidy, a U.S. businessman and Trump campaign donor with deep business ties to the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. According to the emails, Broidy met with Trump in October and told him that Tillerson was “performing poorly and should be fired at a political convenient time.” The emails described Tillerson as “weak” and “a tower of jello” who needs to be “slammed.”
.. While Tillerson’s demise can be dated to the moment it was reported that he called the president a “moron” back in October, the clock actually started ticking the previous June, when Tillerson decided he would work to reverse the UAE-led embargo against Qatar. Which is why, within hours of Trump’s announcement that Tillerson was being shown the door, his enemies in the Gulf States held a mini-celebration. Among the celebrants was Abdulkhalez Abdullaa, a prominent UAE political science professor, who insinuated that his country could take credit for Tillerson’s demise. “History will remember that a Gulf state had a role in expelling the foreign minister of a superpower and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote on Twitter.
.. FDD President Mark Dubowitz tweeted his approval of the move. “BREAKING,” he tweeted. “Trump ousts Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, will replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.” Dubowitz linked the news to a Washington Post report on Tillerson’s ouster, but then CC’d the entry to three Iranian officials: “@khamenei_ir,” “@HassanRouhani,” and “@Jzarif “: Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.