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.

Obama Aide’s Book Blurs Lines Between Memoir, Comedy and Political Analysis

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Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump
Dan Pfeiffer
Twelve Books

This November will mark the ten-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s election.  Though he has only been out of office for almost nineteen months and is a relatively young ex-president at the age of 57, most Democrats would probably say that Donald Trump’s presidency feels like Obama has been gone much longer.  Without a clear leader in the Democratic Party and a general feeling of goodwill and nostalgia for his presidency, former Obama aides and cabinet members have been gradually writing and publishing books with their own take on the 44th president.  The latest to do so is his former communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer stays away from the traditional political memoir format in his tome, as opposed to works released by other Obama administration alumni like David Axelrod, Timothy Geithner, Leon Panetta or Ben Rhodes. Rather, his book melds a combination of a memoir of his life in politics, a personal post-mortem of the 2016 election, and an effort to make the connections in the political progression that led the American electorate to veer wildly from electing Barack Obama to electing Donald Trump.  Obviously, he does so through the prism of a Democratic political operative and with the benefit of hindsight almost 18 months after the presidential election.

The underlying thread connecting both Obama and Trump is the shifting media landscape due in no small part to the evolution of the Internet, social media, and means of communication, which both men excelled at, though Democrats would argue that Trump uses them for more nefarious purposes – his tweets, pushing conspiracy theories, and creating an information bubble that is difficult for independent outside sources to penetrate. (Pfeiffer describes Twitter as “a performance-enhancing drug for politics,” and compares it to using meth because of its addictive nature.)

Anyone who has listened to Pfeiffer on an episode of the Pod Save America podcast which he helped launch with three fellow Obama alums knows he can be foul-mouthed in his humor and political commentary, particularly when engaged in commentary with one of his co-hosts.  While reading the text, it’s easy to imagine hearing him saying these things during an episode of the show. Though he is an openly partisan Democrat, he is not a propagandist or an apologist in his writing or his commentary. He does critique mistakes and offers differences of opinion about Obama personally, the administration he served in, and the Democratic Party as a whole.

One of the more illuminating parts of the text is how Pfeiffer and the campaign coped with conspiracy theories about Obama as the years progressed. In the early days it was forwarded chain emails alleging he was a secret Muslim, later on it was the full-blown birtherism that Donald Trump used to launch his political career.  This culminates in Pfeiffer’s back story behind writing the jokes for the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner during which Obama infamously roasted Trump, an episode that some have speculated was a factor in his decision to run for president and his personal animus toward Obama.

One of the most amusing episodes in the book which Pfeiffer dedicates an entire chapter to is the time he split his pants in the Oval Office, and his frantic attempts to fix them before being called again to accompany the president to a press conference. There is also the scary account of him nearly having a stroke because of the toll the long hours and stress was taking on him physically, caused by a combination of a blood vessel in his brain and high blood pressure.

Readers who study presidential history and are looking for a bombshell revelation or profound insight about the Obama presidency will be disappointed, and are better served by more traditional Washington insider memoirs or books by historians and journalists.  However, some of the most intriguing parts of the text are the ones Pfeiffer hints at but does not elaborate on.  This specifically refers to his many experiences with candidate and president Barack Obama over the years, in which rather than giving up the goods himself, he defers to his former boss to let him tell his own story in his own words, presumably his upcoming presidential memoir. (Michelle Obama’s memoir is scheduled for a November release after the midterm elections.)

Even the stories he does tell about his personal memories of Obama shed some personal light on the former president: how Obama told him he was running for president, behind the scenes decision-making on the campaign and in the White House, relationship and marriage advice, Obama’s reaction to a long-winded question from Kanye West during an A-list fundraiser, and a rare example of Obama losing his temper when he walked into the White House communications office and delivered what Pfeiffer describes as “a twenty-minute, not entirely family-friendly rant about the opposition party.” This is the kind of story that probably would have leaked instantly in the Trump White House, but managed to remain secret until well after Obama left office.

Until Obama’s book is published, we are left to speculate about what other stories Pfeiffer might be alluding to. However, because of the timing, it is also worth noting the dramatically different reaction Pfeiffer’s book got compared to the critical and political reaction to memoirs by Trump administration alumni Sean Spicer and Omarosa Manigault-Newman.  (For historical context, the only memoir really critical of the 44th president written by a former Obama cabinet official so far was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but even he didn’t take the burning down the house approach to it that Manigault-Newman did. It’s inconceivable to imagine an aide in any other administration surreptitiously record private conversations inside the White House Situation Room or a phone call with the President of the United States and release at least some of those recordings.)

One thing worth noting: Pfeiffer buried a lot of his jokes in the footnotes at the bottom of the page throughout the text.  This gives the book a feel – intentionally or not – of Pfeiffer breaking the fourth wall like Zack Morris or Frank Underwood.

Is Pfeiffer’s tome Obama nostalgia? No, though most Democrats say they miss him every day. It’s a different take and a different style from the usual Washington insider memoir, arguably for the better. Pfeiffer had a unique vantage point to witness the Obama presidency, but he wisely tells the story in his own voice, rather than make it into a more scholarly text. Perhaps most importantly, what Pfeiffer does in his book is an honest attempt at answering the basic question that has bedeviled the country since Election Night 2016: how did we get here?

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.

October Surprise Watch: The Russia Investigation

Amid all the hoopla about the Supreme Court in the past several days, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there has been some movement in the Russia investigation. Here is a list of events that are already known and set on the calendar, scheduled to happen before the election:

  • July 25: Paul Manafort Virginia trial begins.
  • August 24: Mueller will update the court on sentencing hearing for Michael Flynn.
  • September 7: George Papadopoulos sentencing hearing. (Could be postponed to October, depending on judge’s availability)
  • September 17: Paul Manafort DC trial begins.
  • November 6: Election Day

Trials can be messy affairs – witness examination and cross-examination, as well as presentation of evidence by both sides virtually guarantees that a lot of Paul Manafort’s dirty laundry will be aired out in public for the world and a grand jury to see. While the charges focus on Manafort’s work as a lobbyist for a pro-Russian political clients in Ukraine, it is entirely possible that facts and allegations about Manafort’s time as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman come out during the trial.

Keep in mind, these are events we know about, based on court filings and public statements.  It is entirely possible Mueller could drop another bombshell or two. For example: a subpoena to get the president’s testimony, or the long-expected indictment surrounding the email hacks that caused so much chaos during the 2016 election. The thinking is Mueller will indict Russians who were involved in the hacks in the same way he indicted Russian individuals and organizations in connection with the social media efforts. If this is the case, the potential wildcards are if he indicts WikiLeaks as an organization, Julian Assange as an individual and the head of that organization, and if any Americans are named or indicted as well.

All of this does not take into account any potential developments in the Michael Cohen case, which may or may not overlap with the Russia investigation. (Reminder: it was Mueller’s office who referred the case to the Southern District of New York) When the FBI raided his home, office and hotel room, they seized more than 3.7 million items which federal prosecutors could potentially use as evidence. As of this writing, the judge overseeing the case has ordered that a review of documents and data files seized as evidence in the case must be finished by the first week of July.  (Reminder: federal agents seized eight boxes worth of documents, approximately 30 cell phones, iPads and computers, and the contents of a shredder)

The court-appointed special master has for the most part rejected claims of attorney-client privilege by Cohen.  According to a court document from earlier this month, out of nearly 300,000 items reviewed, only 161 were privileged and seven of them were conversations between Cohen and a legal client containing legal advice. This means that the vast majority of the evidence seized in the raids is fair game for prosecutors.

There has been reporting that Cohen is leaning toward cutting a deal and collaborating with a government but no concrete evidence of that yet. There has also been reporting that Cohen has had a falling out with his former boss and the Trump family, which might make him more willing to talk to federal investigators – whether it by the Southern District of New York or Robert Mueller’s office.

Watch this space.

Governors Oppose Trump Administration’s Family Separation Policy

In the past few days, governors from both parties have stated their opposition to President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” which has resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families at the border. Some governors issued statements, while others like Larry Hogan, Charlie Baker and Roy Cooper took action by recalling their National Guard troops that had been deployed to protect the border.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order by state, as of the night of June 19:

For political context, Hickenlooper (D) and Malloy (D) are term-limited. Baker (R), Hogan (R), Raimondo (D), Scott (R), Sununu (R), and Wolf (D) are running for reelection.  Carney (D), Cooper (D), and Northam (D) are in the middle of their current terms.

 

Democratic Candidate Enters South Carolina Special Election

Archie Parnell, a Goldman Sachs adviser, became the first – and so far, only – Democrat to declare for the special election for South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District. The race was called to fill the seat held by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who resigned from Congress to take the job of OMB Director in the White House.

A series of special elections in Georgia, Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina being held over the next three months to fill vacant congressional seats are widely seen as an early test of whether or not Democrats are able to harness some of the energy of the anti-Trump protests and turn it into tangible electoral results. All were held by Republican congressmen, and all four states have been traditionally Republican in presidential elections.

South Carolina has been a difficult state for Democrats on the ballot in recent years. It is one of the reddest states in the country, and the Fifth Congressional District has been voting progressively more Republican over the past several years.  Mulvaney ousted Democratic incumbent John Spratt 55-44 in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, and was reelected in each subsequent election by 11-21 points until his resignation.  According to Parnell’s communications director John Kraljevic, a centrist Democrat can win the district running on a positive message about the party’s positions than on opposition or obstruction to President Donald Trump or House Speaker Paul Ryan. “It’s easier to run for the ideals of the Democratic Party and the ideals of people back home than to run against any particular individual.”

Kraljevic said that a winning map for Parnell would require the candidate to keep the margin in York County – which is predominantly Republican – close, while running up the vote margin in neighboring Chester, Fairfield and Sumter counties. Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University, agreed with that assessment, but noted that Parnell’s victory strategy would require strong turnout among Democratic voters who tend to vote less regularly in off-year or special elections. If Parnell is able to tap into an anti-Trump movement in the district, he might be able to buck this historic trend.

Another factor working against Parnell is the fact that York County, the fastest growing region in the state, is becoming more Republican because of people from Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding areas moving 25 minutes away across the state line because of South Carolina’s lower taxes. These transplants tend to be white, college-educated, wealthier, and Republican – with most growth in the areas of Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Fort Mill.  On top of that, the district’s Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) dropped from 29.45 percent after the 2010 census under the old district lines to 26.46 percent under the new district lines. A victory in this election by Parnell or any other Democratic candidate, though an uphill battle, would be seen as an upset.

In a statement, South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said, “As we wait to see whether there will be a Democratic primary, today’s announcement ensures that 5th District voters will have at least one candidate with sensible ideas on how to expand opportunity for all and fulfill Congress’s constitutional role as a check against a power-hungry President.”

Candidates have until Monday, March 13 at noon to file the paperwork to enter the race. According to a state party official, if no other Democrat enters the race, Parnell becomes the Democratic nominee by default with the full support of the South Carolina Democratic Party. If one or more other Democratic candidates decide to enter the race, there will be a primary, in which the state party will remain neutral, but will get behind whoever emerges as the nominee.

In contrast, the South Carolina Republican Party has a deep bench of candidates throughout the state. Seven candidates have already declared for the Republican nomination in this race. According to Huffmon, two of them – Tommy Pope and Ralph Norman – are state legislators with strong name recognition in York County, and a third – Chad Connelly – is a former state Republican Party chairman. The primary election is scheduled for May 2, with primary runoffs scheduled for May 16 if necessary. The general election date is set for June 20.

UPDATE: A second Democrat, Alexis Frank, has entered the race, meaning there will be a primary to win the nomination.

Media Moguls Reconsidering Presidential Run for 2020

This double whammy could have Democrats salivating or give them heartburn.

First, this Hollywood Reporter story saying that Disney CEO Bob Iger is reconsidering running for president as a Democrat in 2020. The story notes that his current contract expires in June 2018, which means that if he were so inclined, that would give him a few months to mount a political operation before jumping into the Democratic presidential primary beginning in 2019. Beyond that, the story also reports that he has consulted with Michael Bloomberg about the transition from business executive to political executive. Bloomberg is another media mogul who made the jump into politics, serving as New York City mayor despite no previous record of public service.

Second, this interview with Oprah Winfrey on Bloomberg’s The David Rubenstein Show:

Rubenstein: Have you ever thought that given the popularity you have, we haven’t broken the glass ceiling yet for women, that you could actually run for president and actually be elected?

Winfrey: I actually never thought, I’ve never considered the question, even a possibility. I just thought, “Oh! Oh!”

Rubenstein: Because it’s clear you don’t need government experience to be elected President of the United States…

Winfrey: That’s what I thought! I thought, “Gee, I don’t have the experience. I don’t know enough.” Now, I’m thinking, “Oh!”

Trump’s victory has billionaires and business executives from both parties rethinking about political ambitions and entering public service. However, if one or possibly both of these entertainment industry moguls who are more than capable of self-financing a run – at least to a point – enter the race with a presumably crowded Democratic field of governors and senators, they will probably suck a lot of the media oxygen out of the race early on.  It should also be noted that Winfrey herself was an early and prominent backer of Barack Obama during the 2008 primary.