Rachel Maddow reports on an avalanche of legal news including details in the Paul Manafort case exposed by a lawyer’s poor redactions, an intriguing new indictment, and another development in the mystery Mueller case.
The week before Christmas may go down as the strangest and most revealing of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Over just a few days, his sheer
- venality and
were laid bare. But it was also a time for Trumpian good deeds that allowed us a glimpse at how he might have governed if he had been shrewder — and had a genuine interest in the good that government can do.
.. Let’s start with his display of gangsterism and utter indifference to the law in a tweet Sunday calling his former lawyer Michael Cohen a “Rat” for telling the truth about various matters, including his dealings with Russia to build a Trump tower in Moscow and the president’s payoffs before the 2016 election to hide his alleged sexual conduct.
“Rat,” as many have pointed out, is a legendary organized-crime epithet, and we really are gazing at something like the Trump Family Syndicate. On Tuesday, the New York state attorney general, Barbara Underwood, forced the closure of the Donald J. Trump Foundation for what she described as “a shocking pattern of illegality.” She said the foundation functioned “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.”
And, yes, this was an all-in-the-family thing. The foundation’s board consistedof Trump himself, his three adult children and the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg. Incidentally, if you wonder why Trump hates the media so much, consider that it was the painstaking work of The Post’s David Fahrenthold that first blew the lid off Trump’s scamming disguised as charity.
.. But that wasn’t all. Two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee made it abundantly clear that Trump was Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate in 2016 — and remained Putin’s guy after he won.
This is a key civil rights issue of our time. (Voting rights is another, and on this problem Trump is pushing entirely in the wrong direction.) The long sentences the new law would roll back hit African Americans the hardest. That’s particularly true of the disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine sellers that the legislation would mitigate.
It’s often observed that Trump has few discernible political principles. A problem in many respects, this did give Trump enormous flexibility when he came into office. What if he had governed in other areas with the same eye toward bipartisan agreement that led him to criminal-justice reform?
Imagine a big infrastructure bill or a far less regressive approach to tax reform. Democrats would have been hard-pressed not to work with him. Instead, Trump just kept dividing us and stoking his base. He lazily went along with traditional conservatives on taxes and corporate lobbyists in the regulatory sphere because governing was never really the point. And now, he is reaping the whirlwind.
The case against the president would be far stronger than the case against John Edwards was.
This all suggests Trump could become a target of a very serious criminal campaign finance investigation. In response, Trump has offered up three defenses. His first was to repeatedly lie. For quite some time, he flatly denied knowledge about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. But now he seems to be acknowledging that he knew (since his personal company reimbursed Cohen for the payment, he ought to). Now Trump and his acolytes have turned to two other excuses: They point to an earlier case involving former senator John Edwards to argue that what Trump did wasn’t a crime; and they say, even if it was a crime, it wasn’t a biggie — there are lots of crimes, so what, who cares.
The former is a very weak legal argument, and the latter a dangerous one. Indeed, the campaign finance violations here are among the most important ever in the history of this nation — given the razor-thin win by Trump and the timing of the crimes, they very well may have swung a presidential election.But the case is actually harmful for Trump — especially what the judge ruled. Edwards repeatedly argued that the payments were not campaign contributions because they were not made exclusively to further his campaign. The judge rejected this argument as a matter of law, ruling that a payment to a candidate’s extramarital sexual partner is a campaign contribution if “one of” the reasons the payment is made is to influence the election.
As a legal matter, that aspect of the Edwards case is what matters now — and it’s damning for Trump. It provides a precedent that other courts could follow in any prosecution arising out of the hush-money schemes Trump paid: The president could face criminal charges for conspiring with Cohen to make the payments because the evidence shows the payments were made, at least in part, for campaign purposes. As for what the jury concluded in the Edwards case, there’s good reason to believe that the evidence in a criminal case against Trump would be much stronger.
The timing of the payments in Edwards’s case appeared to relate to paying for expenses from the birth and support of the child he fathered with his partner rather than to any campaign activity, and payment began before the campaign did. In contrast, Trump’s payments to his former sexual partners were made many years after the actual affairs. The payments to Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, were made in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, immediately after the “Access Hollywood” scandal broke, when Daniels was in negotiation with national media outlets to go public with her story. This timing strongly suggests that the payments were campaign-related.Edwards argued that he didn’t know anything about the payments and that, regardless, the payments in his case were intended to keep news of the affair and pregnancy from his wife — not to keep the information from voters. Trump tried the first tactic, but Cohen’s tapes eviscerated that argument. There is no reason to think that Trump’s attempt to paint these as personal payments is any less of a lie than his attempt to say he didn’t know about them... Unlike with Edwards, prosecutors have noted evidence that Cohen “coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments.” If Cohen had made the payments as a purely personal matter for Trump, separate and apart from Trump’s candidacy, Cohen would not have consulted with the campaign about doing so. Further, Trump was first aware of threats to publish information about this affair in 2011, when his youngest child had just been born to his new wife and at the time made no offers of money to keep the news quiet. What was different in 2016 was the election.
In the Edwards case, there was a paucity of evidence. A key witness, Bunny Melon, was 101 years old and too frail to show up at trial. There were no written legal agreements providing money in exchange for silence, as there are in Trump’s case, and no threats by the mother of the child to go public immediately if the funds were not received. That’s why one juror told the media that the evidence wasn’t there to show even that Edwards intended the money to go to Rielle Hunter. In contrast, in a bombshell disclosure this week, the public learned that AMI, the parent corporation of the National Enquirer, is cooperating with the prosecution and has stated that the payments were made to influence the 2016 election. And even more worrisome for Trump, reports emerged Thursday that Trump was the third person in the very room where Cohen and David Pecker (the head of AMI) discussed the hush money payments — making it very hard for Trump to assert a non-campaign-related purpose.
Trump’s legal adviser Rudy Giuliani has argued that the jury in the Edwards case vindicated Edwards, but, in fact, the jurors acquitted him on only one criminal charge and deadlocked on the others. And at any rate, as Giuliani (a former federal prosecutor before he was mayor of New York) should know, criminal jury verdicts are not legal precedents. The Edwards jury, applying the law to the particular facts of that case, did not find Edwards guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is 100 percent irrelevant to whether Cohen’s guilty plea proves that Trump broke the law based on very different facts.
The final Trump defense being floated, that everyone breaks the law, fares no better. As its chief expositor, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), put it, “I don’t care” if the law has been broken, “all I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.” He added, “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this president. Anything.”
As individuals who have devoted their lives to nonpartisan enforcement of the law, we cannot think of a more dispiriting statement. Hatch is wrong about every aspect of this statement. The accusations against Trump come from career prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (otherwise known as Trump’s own Justice Department). But the more important point is this: We will rue the day a senator trotted out such callousness about federal felonies.
The whole idea of our criminal justice system is to enumerate those offenses that are so egregious that they demand serious jail time. Those felonies are the bread and butter of our criminal justice system. Of course, every criminal defendant seeks to minimize his crimes. But such defendants don’t have a cheering squad composed of United States senators. If Trump wants to argue he didn’t commit the crimes, as he used to assert in April, fine. He’s entitled to that defense. But the grievous minimization of serious campaign finance violations by members of Trump’s political party further corrode our commitment to our age-old ideal of being a “government of laws, and not of men.” If Hatch thinks too much activity has been criminalized, he is in a welcome position to change the laws as a member of the Senate. He shouldn’t denigrate the law in the process. After all, the campaign disclosure requirements at issue here were enacted by Congress (as key post-Watergate reforms after President Richard Nixon’s personal lawyer Herbert Kalmbach went to prison for paying hush money to potential witnesses out of secret cash campaign contributions).
The bad arguments being floated in Trump’s defense are emblematic of a deterioration in respect for the rule of law in this country. The three of us have deep political differences, but we are united in the view that our country comes first and our political parties second. And chief among the values of our country is its commitment to the rule of law. No one, whether a senator or a president, should pretend America is something less.
The special counsel is connecting the dots and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the president.a flurry of recent activity this past week all points in the same direction: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will likely implicate the president, his campaign, and his close associates in aiding and abetting a Russian conspiracy against the United States to undermine the 2016 election.First, Mueller has clearly identified collusion in the
- efforts of Trump aides and associates to contact WikiLeaks. In a draft plea agreement provided to conservative operative Jerome Corsi, Mueller details how Roger Stone, who the special counsel notes was in frequent contact with Donald Trump and senior campaign officials, directed Corsi to connect with WikiLeaks about the trove of stolen materials it received from Russia.
- Corsi subsequently communicated WikiLeaks’ release plan back to Stone, and
- the Trump campaign built its final message around the email release. That is collusion.
Third, Mueller has found evidence that Trump was compromised by a hostile foreign power during the election. In his plea deal, Cohen revealed that Trump had repeatedly lied to voters about the then-candidate’s financial ties to Russia. While Trump claimed during the campaign to have no business dealings with Russia, he was negotiating a wildly lucrative business deal not simply with Russian businessmen, but also involving with the Kremlin itself. Trump’s team even reportedly tried to bribe Russian President Vladimir Putin by offering him a $50 million penthouse.
Worse, Russia not only knew that Trump was lying, but when investigators first started looking into this deal, the Kremlin helped Trump cover up what really happened. That made Trump doubly compromised: first, because he was eager to get the financial payout and second because Russia had evidence he was lying to the American people—evidence they could have held over Trump by threatening to reveal at any time.
Since the president’s embarrassing performance at the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin—when he kowtowed to a foreign adversary rather than stand up for American interests—there has been open speculation about what leverage the Kremlin has over him. Now we know at least part of the picture, raising the specter of what other information Putin has, and how he is using it to influence Trump’s policy decisions.
Fourth, we know that Trump has engaged in an increasingly brazen attempt to cover up his actions: installing a political crony to head the Department of Justice by potentially illegal means in an effort to shut down the investigation; using his former campaign chairman and convicted criminal Paul Manafort to find out information about Mueller’s investigation; and even appearing to offer Manafort a pardon if he helps him obstruct the Russia probe. These may be components of an obstruction of justice case, but they also provide strongly circumstantial data points as to how serious Trump himself views the allegations of collusion being levelled against him.