many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.
.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)
As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.
.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.
.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.
What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.
The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”
The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.
When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”
When members of the American media cover the story of Russian meddling, they implicitly portray Russia as a normal state, and the influence operation as an undertaking of the state aimed at furthering Russia’s national interests. This strikes Russians as absurd. By the measure of national interest, the Trump Presidency has been disappointing for Russia. Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction:
- he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine;
- he has failed to support nato; and
- he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total.
At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.
By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.
One odd wrinkle about the Cohen campaign finance case: Trump could have legally paid off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal as long as he used campaign funds and reported the expenditure. And Trump wouldn’t have had to report the expenditure as “hush money to mistresses” or anything so damning. Campaign finance law experts have said he could have reported it as “legal services” or “litigation settlement.”
Indeed, they wouldn’t have needed to report the October 27 payment to Stormy (in contrast to the earlier McDougal payment) until after Election Day under Federal Election Commission rules.
So Cohen and Trump could have gone the legal route and quite possibly gotten away with it. Why didn’t they? Perhaps they were too ignorant to know this was an option, or they were paranoid that the underlying facts would somehow leak before the election.
The lessons here are to hire competent lawyers and listen to them, don’t have mistresses, and don’t pay them off. It’s good to have a lawyer, bad to have a mistress, and perilous to hush either.
.. Speculation has been building for months about the report that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is obligated to write under the regulation governing his appointment. When will it come out? Will Rudolph W. Giuliani really write a “rebuttal” on President Trump’s behalf? Can the acting attorney general — whom Trump seems to have named to the job in a bid to exert more control over Mueller — or his replacement prevent the report from being made public, effectively burying whatever the investigation has found?
But Mueller has already been submitting his report, piece by piece, in indictments and other charging documents. He has hidden it in plain sight in the court dockets of individuals and organizations he has prosecuted. Many of those court papers have included far more detail than necessary to prove the culpability of defendants who have agreed to plead guilty. This isn’t just legal overkill on Mueller’s part — it’s the outlines of a sweeping narrative about the 2016 election.
.. Incoming and outgoing officials have more than Trump in common. Each American that works for this president does so knowing that there is a big chance they’ll end up implicated, perhaps inadvertently, in ongoing investigations. Every decision that the president has made, and will make, on Russia policy could be tainted by his other interests which should lead the special counsel (and perhaps the new Congress) to question officials about whether these conflicts of interests impacted policy decisions. Officials who served with Trump on the campaign, or are administration officials referenced in the Mueller filing on Manafort or as part of the work on Russia-related matters Mueller mentioned in his separate Cohen filing, likely have information pertinent to criminal proceedings.
Obvious question: Why would the SDNY federal prosecutors spend time determining whether they could indict Trump after he leaves office if they didn’t think they could possibly obtain sufficient evidence to convict him?
Obvious answer: The prosecutors weren’t wasting their time. https://t.co/DFqJUl6GGg
— Renato Mariotti (@renato_mariotti) December 9, 2018
.. Intelligencer’s Eric Levitz on how crazy it could get in 2020 if Trump isn’t just fighting for his presidency, but to avoid a post-presidency indictment for campaign finance crimes:
[Trump had little personal stake in this year’s midterms, and] yet, to boost his party’s 2018 prospects, the president proved willing to fabricate an impending “invasion” by migrant terrorists and gangsters; suggest that said invasion was being organized by the Democratic Party as part of an elaborate bid to steal the midterm elections; persist in fomenting such incendiary conspiracy theories even after they inspired one of his supporters to attempt the assassination of many leading Democrats; and deploy thousands of U.S. troops to the southern border, so as to give his big lie an extra measure of credibility.
Even before Mueller’s latest revelations, this behavior was sufficient to prompt widespread anxiety about what Trump would be willing to do to win reelection, and/or what he might incite “Second Amendment people” to do should he lose it. If the president’s personal freedom ends up on the ballot in 2020, a lot of worse-case-scenarios become more plausible.
.. 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.
.. The Guardian spoke with former prosecutors about the new filings and Robert Mueller’s tactics, and ended up having to include this telling disclaimer:
All the former prosecutors the Guardian spoke with cautioned that they did not mean by their analysis to say that Trump is a mob boss, or that the Mueller investigation is strictly an organized crime investigation. But the similarities kept coming up.
To wit, from the former deputy chief of the organized crime unit in the Southern District of New York:
“To play the mafia analogy out a little further,” [Daniel] Goldman said, “mob bosses hold sway over their soldiers because they hold the purse strings for their soldiers and their soldiers’ families, particularly when they go to jail, and they sort of rule with an implicit iron fist that reacts to cooperation with violence up to, potentially, death.
“Trump holds sway over his associates through his presidential pardon power and he’s not afraid to explicitly reference that power in connection to individuals who may have information about his own criminal activity. And so the parallels are very strong.”
.. And the most likely scenario now is that there was no division between the apparent Trump-Russian collusion on business matters and in the election. The coincidences are piling up. The conversations are piling up. And Mueller’s evidence is clearly piling up as well.
.. Speaking with the Guardian, Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was helped take down mobster John Gotti, also suggested that the current phase of Mueller’s strategy is more midgame than endgame:
I think these past couple weeks have shown us that we’re not really in the ninth inning as some people had said … that Mueller’s still got a lot of information that he’s processing and dealing with that’s turning into potentially criminal charges — and I think that the bigger picture is sort of starting to come into focus.
We’re in stage two. We’re hearing the indictments and the pleas, people cooperating. Then there’s going to be a stage three, where people who are not cooperating, just — the hammer falls. And I don’t know if it’s going to be Don Jr., or [Jared] Kushner, or who knows. But I think it’s going to happen, and I can’t tell you when. But I think it’s going to happen.
.. It also seems clear that Russia must have been overjoyed with the success of their meddling, as Garrett M. Graff sums up for Wired:
What intelligence professionals would call [the Kremlin’s] assessment and recruitment phases seems to have unfolded with almost textbook precision, with few stumbling blocks and plenty of encouragement from the Trump side. Mueller’s court filings, when coupled with other investigative reporting, paint a picture of how the Russian government, through various trusted-but-deniable intermediaries, conducted a series of “approaches” over the course of the spring of 2016 to determine, as [Lawfare’s Benjamin] Wittes says, whether “this is a guy you can do business with.”
The answer, from everyone in Trumpland— from Michael Cohen in January 2016, from George Papadopoulos in spring 2016, from Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016, from Michael Flynn in December 2016 —appears to have been an unequivocal “yes.”
.. At the New Yorker, Adam Davidson tries to put the memos in perspective, especially focusing on Mueller’s Cohen sentencing statement and what it says about Trump’s least favorite word:
The filing comes close to suggesting collusion without actually making that case. Mueller notes that Cohen’s effort to engage Russia with Trump’s knowledge and consent “occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.” Mueller provided another hint by praising Cohen for providing the special counsel’s office “with useful information concerning certain Russia-related matters core to its investigation.” There is arguably only one matter core to the Mueller investigation, as defined by Mueller’s appointment as special counsel: “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election … [and] any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” If Cohen’s information is core to the Mueller investigation, it is reasonable to conclude that Mueller does, indeed, believe he can prove that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
However — perhaps maddeningly for people who have been waiting for clarity on Mueller’s investigation — he does not, in the sentencing memo, lay out the details of possible collusion. But the document tells another damning story: Cohen repeatedly lied about his work, on behalf of Trump, to make money and develop political ties with the Kremlin. His lies were “a deliberate effort” intended “to set the tone and shape the course of the hearings in an effort to stymie the inquiries.”
.. The memo states that Cohen’s actions, “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows.” His sentence “should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful.”
One struggles to see how a document that alleges that such conduct took place at the direction of Individual-1 “totally clears the president.”
.. [I]it is highly likely that senior Trump officials reviewed Cohen’s prepared, false testimony before he lied to Congress. This raises two important questions. Was Trump aware of the substance of Cohen’s testimony? If so, was Trump aware that Cohen’s testimony was false?