Why the Paul Manafort Deal Matters

Perhaps the biggest and longest simmering development in the Robert Mueller investigation was Paul Manafort’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, after seemingly fighting the charges tooth and nail for months. President Trump points out that Manafort only worked for his presidential campaign for a few months, but those few months were a key stretch of the campaign during which Trump secured the Republican nomination and fought off a potential contested convention in Cleveland.

Keeping in mind that Mueller’s investigation is a leak-proof black box to everyone on the outside, it can be This development can go in all sorts of different directions, some of which don’t involve Donald Trump or his campaign.

I. The Trump Tower Meeting

Paul Manafort was one of three Trump campaign officials (along with Don Jr. and Jared Kushner) who met with Natalia Veselnitskaya and her entourage of Russians at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016.

Manafort’s deal means that Mueller now has a cooperating witness who was in the room. It was already known that Manafort took notes on his iPhone during the meeting, but now he can elaborate as to their meaning and how the conversation went. One of the central outstanding questions in this episode that Manafort would presumably be able to answer is what advance knowledge – if any – did then-candidate Donald Trump have about this meeting, and who told him about it? Did anyone else in the campaign have knowledge about this?

Jared Kushner was already interviewed by Mueller’s team and congressional investigators.  Don Jr. was interviewed by congressional investigators, but not by Mueller’s team.

If anyone misled or lied to the FBI or congressional investigators about the Trump Tower meeting, Manafort’s testimony would probably be key evidence in potential perjury or obstruction of justice charges. (Keep in mind that the Senate Judiciary Committee has already released its transcript and written statements of Trump and Kushner’s testimony, so there is already a public record of what they’ve written or said under oath) If Mueller indicts Kushner or Don Jr, that would significantly raise the stakes legally and politically.

II. Manafort’s Work for Pro-Putin Political Parties and Politicians

Beyond anyone in the upper echelons of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort as a witness is probably most valuable to Robert Mueller for potentially implicating Russian oligarchs or politicians. Given his longstanding ties and contacts throughout the region, if any of them were involved in the Russian attacks on the American election, and if any of them were coordinating or in communication with the Trump campaign, the odds are it would have been done with Manafort as the point of contact.

III. Changes to the RNC Platform

Beyond the Trump Tower meeting, perhaps no event during the campaign itself has generated more questions than the change to the Republican Party platform to soften its language on assistance to Ukraine. Manafort was still campaign chairman at the time, so if there was anything devious behind this, he theoretically would have been in a position to know.

IV. Obstruction of Justice by President Trump

The New York Times reported last March that President Trump’s then-attorney John Dowd floated the idea of presidential pardons with attorneys representing Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. If Manafort can testify or prove that these pardons were being dangled in implicit or explicit exchange for his silence during Mueller’s investigation, this would probably be a significant piece of evidence for obstruction of justice by the president and his attorney. It’s also worth noting that Mueller and his team have apparently taken steps to pardon-proof their deal with Manafort.

V. Details of His Lobbying Schemes

Mueller has already outsourced this part of his investigation to the Southern District of New York, and all evidence would indicate they are taking it very seriously.  Among the major names to get sucked into this angle of the story: Democratic superlobbyist Tony Podesta, former Republican Rep. Vin Weber, and former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig. Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates hired all of them between 2012 and 2014 in some capacity or another in an effort to bolster the image of the then-pro-Russian government of Ukraine. If SDNY needs Manafort or Gates’s testimony to build their criminal cases against Podesta, Weber or Craig, they will have to give it. (Remember, Gates had already cut his own deal with Mueller months ago and was the prosecution’s star witness in Paul Manafort’s criminal trial in Virginia)

VI. Manafort’s Business Partnership with Roger Stone

Once upon a time, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were business partners at Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly Public Affairs Co., a political consulting firm that worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and went on to lobby on behalf of countries and organizations with sketchy human rights records – Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines, and the Angolan rebel group UNITA, according to a 1992 report by the Center for Public Integrity, for which they received $3.3 million. The firm ranked fourth on the Center’s list of lobbying firms that received the most money from what it calls “The Torturers’ Lobby” for the 1991-1992 period.  Manafort was responsible for overseeing the firm’s foreign clients. Stone would go on to become a political adviser in Donald Trump’s orbit, and Manafort would eventually be hired as Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman to hold off a potential contested nominating convention.  Mueller is widely believed to be circling Roger Stone, who has openly said he expects to be indicted.  If Mueller needs potential evidence or back story on Stone going as far back as the 1980s, Manafort would have to provide it.

Keep an eye on Mueller’s court filings as his team continues to build its respective case(s), especially after the midterm elections.

Russian Military Intelligence Officials Indicted for 2016 Election Hacks

A federal grand jury indicted a dozen members of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – the military intelligence agency more colloquially known as the GRU – on eleven counts in connection with the hacking and publication of Democratic Party and campaign organization emails during the 2016 election. Just Security has a good recap of the six major takeaways from today’s indictment, which is well worth reading. I would also recommend listening to the newest episode of the Lawfare Podcast which focuses entirely on various aspects of the indictment.

This is the latest in a series of indictments produced by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the 17 months or so since he was appointed to the post.  This makes a total of 191 charges against 35 defendants, according to CNN’s Marshall Cohen. Previous indictments focused on Paul Manafort’s shady foreign business dealings, as well as guilty pleas from members of the Trump campaign’s inner circle, and an indictment of Russian individuals and agencies who were behind the social media effort during the election.

Journalists and observers who have been following the special counsel’s work had expected charges in connection with the hacks.  Why is this one so important? This indictment goes to the heart of the crimes that were committed during the 2016 election.  Remember, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and several senior staffers lost their jobs because of these emails.  Subsequent batches of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account upended the final month of the presidential race. This operation had an impact in real time, and is at the heart of the collusion accusations.

The timing for the announcement was probably not a coincidence.  Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was holding a press conference announcing the indictment at the same time that President Donald Trump and his wife were meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, just days before a scheduled summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. An anonymous White House official told Politico, “It’s a big FU from Mueller.”

The emerging Democratic position in the wake of the indictment was to call for the President to cancel his meeting with Putin next week. Some Democrats have even gone so far as saying that President Trump should demand the extradition of the indicted Russians, and in the likely event that Putin declines, to use that as an excuse to cancel the summit.

There are a few things still missing or outstanding from the latest indictment, which could turn up later in a superseding indictment or a separate indictment altogether. First, as Lawfare points out, is the thorny issue of what – if any – First Amendment protections WikiLeaks might have as a publisher when considering charges against the organization and its leader Julian Assange. This current indictment did not even address that question, but did make a few passing references to WikiLeaks as “Organization 1” as a recipient of hacked materials from Guccifer 2.0 – an online alter ego for the GRU, according to the indictment.

Assange insists WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise, but its actions in this episode suggest otherwise.  According to the indictment, WikiLeaks sent a private message to Guccifer 2.0 on June 22, 2016 reading, “Send any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” A subsequent message from WikiLeaks reads, “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against  hillary. . . so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.” In other words – they wanted to meddle and create controversy during the election to help Donald Trump win.  If Mueller subpoenaed Twitter to get access to all of the direct messages in the WikiLeaks Twitter account, assume he has more of these messages in which Assange or his subordinates reveal their true intentions.

Second, it should be noted Mueller has probably reached a tipping point where, unless there are more unforeseen names and charges pending, the only logical place left for him to go in this investigation is to start naming and indicting American collaborators. The unidentified American in the indictment who was in contact with Guccifer 2.0 is Roger Stone, who may still be at risk of greater legal jeopardy down the line. Buried at the bottom of page 15 is this tantalizing allegation which pretty much fits the criteria for collusion that journalists have been looking for:

One former Democratic House member from Nebraska went public on Facebook and announced that the Russians hacked his campaign’s emails in the 2016 cycle.  It’s not clear if he was the victim in the instance named in the indictment.

The big guessing game among political and congressional journalists for the next several days will be to try and figure out the identity of the campaign that solicited and received stolen emails from Guccifer 2.0. If this person is an elected state or federal official, he or she will be under tremendous political pressure to resign.  He or she may also face legal jeopardy, depending on what (if any) additional facts emerge.

Beyond the references to Stone and the unidentified congressional candidate, the big question is what happens if Mueller indicts a major figure who is close to the president – for example, Jared Kushner or Don Jr.

Third, is Vladimir Putin an unindicted co-conspirator? This may be a question for Mueller himself once he finishes his investigation, but it will be interesting to see if he takes a play from the Department of Justice’s past and slaps that dubious label on the Russian leader and implicate him directly in the hacks.

Fourth, what is the status of the obstruction of justice probe in connection with the firing of FBI Director James Comey? Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly moved the goal posts to set the criteria to grant a presidential interview, most recently arguing that they won’t allow it unless Mueller presents evidence that the President committed a crime. Mueller could get a subpoena to compel the President’s testimony, which would eventually lead to a protracted legal battle in which Mueller would likely prevail because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Clinton v. Jones.  If the case ever went that far, and an appeals court or the Supreme Court ruled in Mueller’s favor, that would create a permanent, binding legal precedent against the executive branch. The other question about the obstruction of justice investigation would be if and when Mueller would submit a final report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and if that report were to become a public document. As the calendar gets closer to Election Day, Mueller may wind up postponing any subpoena or report until after the elections.

Watch this space.

Poll: Half of Americans Think President Trump is Racist

Highlights of a Quinnipiac University poll released July 3:

  • Trump approval/disapproval: 40-55
  • Trump approval/disapproval among Republicans: 86-11
  • Trump approval/disapproval among Democrats: 95-3
  • Trump approval/disapproval among men: 57-40
  • Trump approval/disapproval among women: 39-57
  • Trump approval/disapproval among whites: 47-50
  • Trump approval/disapproval among blacks: 6-92
  • Trump approval/disapproval among Hispanics: 33-64
  • Is Trump honest, yes/no: 38-58
  • Does Trump care about average Americans, yes/no: 43-55
  • Does Trump provide moral leadership, yes/no: 36-62
  • Trump handling of economy, approval/disapproval: 50-45
  • Trump handling of foreign policy, approval/disapproval: 43-53
  • Trump handling of immigration, approval/disapproval: 39-58
  • Trump handling of trade, approval/disapproval: 38-55
  • Trump handling of race relations, approval/disapproval: 36-58
  • Trump handling of taxes, approval/disapproval: 43-51
  • Trump handling of health care, approval/disapproval: 37-55
  • Trump handling of children separated from parents, approval/disapproval: 36-60
  • Does administration have responsibility to reunite families, yes/no: 83-12
  • Is policy of separating children a human rights violation, yes/no: 60-36
  • Trump uniting/dividing the country: 36-58
  • Do you think Trump is racist, yes/no: 49-47

These aren’t the complete results, but in general they do put his approval ratings on various issues in negative territory.  What should keep his political advisers up at night is that these are his numbers in a time when the stock market is at a record high and there is little, if anything, that can be done to further stimulate the economy in the event of a downturn or recession. If he had plans to run during midterms on his handling of tax cuts, foreign policy, and immigration, these numbers should make him think twice, although voters give him a small majority of approval on his handling of North Korea and his meeting with Vladimir Putin.  What this poll does not take into account are recent intelligence reports that North Korea shows no indication of denuclearizing.

What is also jarring is the clear public opposition to his family separation policy.  Clear and decisive majorities feel the administration has committed human rights violations and that the administration has a responsibility to reunite the families that have been separated.

In essence – the president has been very fortunate that so far in his presidency, he hasn’t faced a real crisis that has tested his administration. The bad news is that if that does happen at some point, his polls have nowhere else to go but down.

Elizabeth Warren’s Senate Committee Shuffle

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren will be a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – which is responsible for oversight of the military and the Pentagon – beginning in January.  Why is this significant? According to the Boston Globe:

The posting which Warren sought and will take effect when a new Congress convenes next year, adds a new set of issues to Warren’s portfolio and promises to fuel speculation about a possible 2020 bid for president. The liberal firebrand — who is best known for dressing down Wall Street CEOs and pushing for ways to bolster the economic health of the middle class — will now be getting elbows deep in debates about defense spending, Russian cyberattacks, and deployment of the nation’s military around the world.

The decision also puts Warren (and by extension the state of Massachusetts) back on the committee that has oversight and importance for defense contractors in her state.  Her previous two predecessors – Ted Kennedy and Scott Brown – were members of the committee. Warren will join the committee in time to participate in the confirmation hearings for General James Mattis (Ret.) to be the next Secretary of Defense. To get this position, Warren gave up her position on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  As the Globe also mentioned, it will give her opportunity to brush up on foreign policy and national security issues ahead of a possible 2020 presidential run.

Ellison Calls for Scrutiny of Rex Tillerson’s Russia Ties

 

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) called Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s relationship with Russia “a real concern” during an interview on CNN’s “New Day.”

From the transcript:

CUOMO: All right. Donald Trump defending his pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is facing criticism from both sides of the aisle over his business ties to Russia, paving the way for a big confirmation battle, maybe.

Joining us now to discuss is the Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison. Mr. Ellison is also running to be chair of the Democratic National Committee.

We’ll talk to you about your political fate. Let’s talk about the state of play here. How do you feel about Tillerson, the president-elect has said some people don’t like that Tillerson is friends with world leaders? I don’t think that’s the issue. What do you think?

REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: I don’t think it’s the issue, either. I think the issue is, what are the material connections which may undermine, compromise American national security?

If you are the secretary of state or the president of the United States, for that matter, we need to know that there is nothing, absolutely nothing you’re thinking about other than the best interests of the United States. Not your company. Not your business dealings. Not what money you may have on the line.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, that this is a very troublesome situation, because if you expand this to the whole hacking situation, which our intelligence agencies have said that perhaps Russia has favored President-elect Trump, then we have to say what if they turn against him? What if suddenly they don’t like him? Will they expose things about him that they know that we don’t know?

I mean, will he be able to be full-throatedly, 100 percent for us?

CUOMO: Right.

ELLISON: This is a real concern.

Ellison’s comments didn’t go as far as those of South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison – a competitor of Ellison’s in the race for DNC chairman – who called on the Senate to reject Tillerson’s nomination a few days earlier.

UPDATE: Michael McFaul – President Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow – tweeted this:

CIA Concludes Russia Wanted to Help Trump Get Elected, Will Congress Investigate?

The Washington Post dropped a bombshell yesterday revealing the existence of a secret CIA assessment that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was done with the intended purpose of helping him get elected, as opposed to the previous theory, which was that it was about creating chaos and mistrust in the American political process:

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The article also notes that the intelligence was challenged by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Donald Trump himself repeatedly questioned the accusation that the Russians were behind the hacked DNC and John Podesta emails being published by WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign, and the Trump Transition put out the following statement last night in response to the story:

Setting aside the inaccuracy of their claim of “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history,” the Post’s reporting was subsequently confirmed by the New York Times, which added another detail to the story: Russians hacked Republican National Committee computer systems, but did not publish any of the information they obtained.

Democrats and some congressional Republicans are asking (and in some cases, promising) investigations into various angles of the Russian hacking.

From the Trump transition team’s perspective, this Russia hacking assessment would put another asterisk on their election victory, the first being that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes. The fact that Trump himself and Republicans in general gleefully cited the emails being dumped daily by WikiLeaks during the campaign, as well as the fact Trump himself called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email, does not help their case either.  The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a good article about the political dilemma Republicans find themselves in regarding how to handle this. As national security columnist John Schindler pointed out on Twitter:

Watching this story play out from the perspective of international leaders who will have to deal with President Trump for the next four years, those leaders can draw two conclusions: first, the President-elect only receives an intelligence briefing once a week, according to Reuters; second, that the president will not believe or openly dispute the findings of his own intelligence agency. The latter may wind up undermining Trump himself later on. If he has to rally international support for diplomatic action against a country or organization, and he cites U.S. intelligence findings as his evidence, who is to say that a skeptical country such as China or Russia or Venezuela won’t come back with a response along the lines of “Why should we believe your intelligence when you don’t even believe in it yourself?”

It will be interesting to see to what extent the Republican Congress is willing to investigate this in the months ahead, and if they do, how deep the rabbit hole goes.

UPDATE: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Donald Trump has chosen Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State, according to two sources. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tillerson has ties to Putin and Russia:

Among those considered for the post, Mr. Tillerson has perhaps the closest ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, having negotiated a 2011 energy partnership deal with Russia that Mr. Putin said could eventually be worth as much as $500 billion. In 2012, the Kremlin bestowed the country’s Order of Friendship decoration on Mr. Tillerson.

This pre-existing relationship with Mr. Putin complements Mr. Trump’s push to improve U.S.-Russia ties. A number of Republicans have urged him to be wary of working closely with Russia, warning that it is trying to expand its influence in a way that runs counter to U.S. interests in places such as Ukraine and Syria.

Exxon has a large global presence, and this could introduce sticky conflicts of interest if Mr. Tillerson is selected. The company explores for oil and gas on six of the world’s continents and has operations in more than 50 countries.

Mr. Tillerson, who is slated to retire next year, has retirement funds worth tens of millions of dollars, a value that could potentially be affected by State Department activities. For example, he could benefit from such potential department actions as the lifting of sanctions on Russia.

In light of the CIA assessment on Russia’s role in the election, this confirmation hearing will be a lot more interesting than if Trump had chosen a more conventional nominee like Mitt Romney or Bob Corker.

UPDATE II: Mitchell also reporting that former Undersecretary for Arms Control and UN Ambassador John Bolton is Trump’s choice for Deputy Secretary of State. Democrats wouldn’t allow a confirmation vote on Bolton for the UN ambassador nomination during the Bush years, so he was a recess appointment.

Branstad Nomination Gives Democrats a Possible Pickup Opportunity in Iowa

Donald Trump chose Iowa governor Terry Branstad to be his ambassador to China, an offer that Branstad accepted.  The vacancy for Iowa’s chief executive would be filled by Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds until the 2018 election. Branstad – who was already the state’s longest serving governor – was up for reelection, but now Democrats will have the opportunity to run against Reynolds. This would give Democrats an opportunity to win another governorship, in a state Trump won by a slightly larger margin than Texas.

The Democratic Governors Association went through the opposition research on Reynolds and forwarded this Politico story mentioning her as a potential U.S. Senate candidate in 2014. Depending on the political and economic winds in two years, as well as candidate recruitment, this could be a good opportunity for Democrats to get a win.