Week 100: The Real Disappointment of the Mueller Report

I still don’t know the whys behind his behavior. Why did Donald Trump lie so tirelessly about the status of the Trump Tower Moscow project? Why did he attempt to conceal the true purpose of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a gaggle of Russians? Why did he suggest the hackers behind the stolen Democrats emails could have been China or a “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds“ when it was so obviously Russia? Why did he lie about his request to get White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in June 2017 and then demand that McGahn lie about issuing the directive?

Why did he ask FBI Director James Comey to abort the bureau’s investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had lied to investigators about his talks about sanctions with the Russian ambassador? Why did he switch stories on why he fired Comey? Why did he ask Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hold a presser about the firing and tell the lie that the sacking was Rosenstein’s idea? Why did he try to throttle the special counsel’s investigation? Why did he tease Paul Manafort with the promise of a pardon? Why did he shout “fake news“ so many times when he was the faker? Why did so many of the players in the Trump orbit—Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Erik Prince, Sarah Sanders, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Cohen and Roger Stone—appear to have told lies in the president’s service?

Except for pausing to explain that Trump suppressed information that would call into question the legitimacy of his election—and that he feared that incessant probing might uncover criminal activity by him, his campaign or his family—the Mueller report offers no firm theory on what motivated Trump’s constant deceptions. Likewise, Mueller’s assessment that Trump obstructed his investigation on at least 10 occasions lacks a firm explanation for why he would engage in such risky acts. For instance, why did Trump, whose sense of loyalty usually runs one way, put his neck out so far for Flynn by instructing Comey to lay off? Consider a counterfactual in which Trump dumps Flynn at the first opportunity and doesn’t interfere with Comey’s Russia investigation. No Comey sacking, no Mueller, hence no pattern of obstruction. Obviously, Comey probably would have uncovered some damaging Trump information, but those revelations would have been limited compared with what Mueller revealed because so much of the damning information in the report is about Trump’s efforts to undermine Mueller.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump in May 2017 that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate the Russia business, the report tells us, “the president slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh, my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.’” One way to read this lamentation is that Trump understood that he was guilty of great crimes and that the special counsel’s dragnet was going to collect them all and send him and his cronies to jail. Another is that the backstage Trump captured in the “I’m fucked” anecdote is a lot like frontstage Trump: He overdramatizes and overreacts to everything. If you were to stick Trump’s finger with a pin, he would scream that he was being fed into a woodchipper.

Maybe this hysterical bearing, fueled by Trump’s imperfect knowledge of the law, prompted him to regard any legal scrutiny as a potential Armageddon. The idea that confronting controversy by telling the truth—like admitting secret payoffs to your mistresses, for example—makes better political sense than uncoiling a batch of lies to conceal the facts seems beyond Trump. One takeaway from the report is that given his druthers, Trump would rather be maimed by the backlash of one of his lies than suffer the sting of telling a simple truth.

The watchword of the Obama administration, formulated by Obama himself, was “Don’t do stupid shit.” The corresponding watchword in Trumpworld, as observed by White House counsel McGahn, was “do crazy shit.” Trump’s sustained appetite for duplicity, his brinkmanship, and his ceaseless chaos-making, thoroughly documented in the report, appear to have prevented Mueller from formulating a greater theory of the case against him. Having made dishonesty his careerlong policy, Trump encourages us to believe that his lies don’t necessarily point to any definable goals. His lies exist primarily to shield the earlier lies he’s told, making his life’s work an endless weave of fraud and falsehood. That makes anybody who punctures these lies—the “fake news media,” for example, or Democrats on the Hill, investigators like Comey or Mueller, or intelligence agencies—the enemy. And the best way to counteract their critiques is with additional lies and new vitriol, Trump surmises.

Today, with Trump dodging an indictment, it looks like he won. But that victory might be temporary. Dispassionate almost to a fault, the Mueller report punctures with legal precision Trump’s ugly methods. The report’s final use might not be as the legal cornerstone to a Trump impeachment but as a political text to guide voters in the 2020 election.

Trump and Taxes: The Art of the Dodge

This week’s episode of Trump, Inc. brings clarity to a complex subject. It identifies three patterns in the president’s approach to taxes.

  1. First, it describes a history of ignoring norms (which, for presidential candidates, include releasing tax returns).
  2. Second, it delves into a recent New York Times investigation — which concluded that the president’s family committed “outright fraud” — to show a history of breaking tax rules.
  3. Finally, it examines Trump’s ability to change tax rules to benefit himself and his wealthy peers.

The episode includes an interview with The New York Times’ Susanne Craig, the co-author of the expose that reported that Fred Trump passed $413 million in today’s dollars to his son Donald, who describes how she reported her article and the mysteries she and her colleagues unraveled. It also examines a second New York Times article that explored how Kushner exploited a seemingly prosaic tax technique — depreciation — to wipe out his taxable income. (Representatives of the Trumps and Kushners have denied any tax improprieties.) Finally, the episode looks at many of the ways in which Trump’s signature tax cut will redound to the benefit of the real estate industry.

Old land deal quietly haunts Mick Mulvaney as he serves as Trump’s chief of staff

Mick Mulvaney was a young businessman and budding politician 11 years ago when he became co-owner of a company that wanted to build a strip mall near a busy intersection in this upscale bedroom community outside Charlotte.

All that was needed was money.

The company cobbled together the financing — which included borrowing $1.4 million from a family firm owned by a prominent local businessman named Charles Fonville Sr., according to court records and interviews.

Eventually, the project fell apart. The mall never got built. And Mulvaney moved on, building a political career as a firebrand fiscal hawk and tea party pioneer in Congress who railed against out-of-control government deficits — eventually rising a few weeks ago to be President Trump’s acting chief of staff.

Fonville, however, said his company has not received the $2.5 million with interest that he said it is owed. In explaining the debt to a Senate committee during his 2017 confirmation hearing, Mulvaney cast it as a casualty of a bad real estate deal, saying the sum “will go unpaid.”

Today, their dispute is at the center of a legal battle playing out behind the scenes in South Carolina as Mulvaney guides Trump through a high-stakes budget showdown with congressional Democrats.

.. The fight threatens to tarnish Mulvaney’s image as fiscally responsible, just as he has reached the most influential position of his career.

Fonville’s company has filed a claim in a South Carolina court against two companies in which Mulvaney has an ownership stake, accusing them of ­

  • “intent to deceive,”
  • “fraudulent acts” and
  • “breach of contract” to avoid repayment. ]

The heart of Fonville’s allegation: When a new Mulvaney-linked company was formed and sought to foreclose on the first company Mulvaney co-owned, it was a maneuver to avoid paying the debt owed to Fonville.

.. Mulvaney was not sued individually, but late last year — while he was running the Office of Management and Budget and carrying out his duties as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — he traveled to Charlotte to be deposed in the case, his attorney said.

.. “I can’t believe he treated me the way he did,” Fonville said during interviews about the case, including one last month as he visited the property that kicked off the dispute. “It is not a small piece of money. You are talking about a couple of million dollars.”

“I have tried to call him,” said Fonville, 83, who said he is a Republican who voted for Trump. “He never called me back. I had thought Mick was an ethical person.” 

Mulvaney declined to comment. The White House referred questions to Mulvaney’s lawyer, John R. Buric, who said Mulvaney has done nothing wrong.

Episode 876: Patent Deception

World Patent Marketing’s pitch to inventors was simple: Pay us lots of money, and we’ll take care of the complicated patent office details. Hundreds of tinkerers and would-be visionaries took this deal.

After all, the patent system is complicated. Marketing is tricky. It can be hard to find factories. But, for new inventors, it’s hard to tell a legitimate service from a scam. It was especially hard to tell with World Patent Marketing, which boasted an advisory board that included Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

If you want more, check out this piece in the Miami New Times, by Brittany Shammas, who joins us on this week’s show.