Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A 'smocking gun' - Trump's Towering Tawdry Tabloid Trickery

In his morning email, Judd Legum (popular.info) tells us if we are To understand Mueller, follow the money.

There was a flurry of activity in the Mueller investigation last week, including sentencing memos for three key players – Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Michael Cohen. A lot of the critical information in these documents was redacted, suggesting that Mueller isn’t quite ready to show his entire hand because more indictments are forthcoming.

But there is a key piece of information from Mueller’s office in the sentencing memo for Cohen. In his testimony before Congress, Cohen stated that plans for a Trump tower in Moscow were shelved by January 2016. This was false.

Cohen continued working on the project until at least June, after Trump had secured the Republican nomination, and discussed it with Trump. Notably, Mueller asserts that the project, if completed, would have netted Trump “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources.”

Ethically, Mueller could not include the value of the Moscow Project to Trump if he could not provide it in court. So he is almost certainly not just relying on Cohen’s testimony. He likely has documentary proof of the value of the Moscow Project to Trump.

What’s striking is that the Moscow deal was worth exponentially more to Trump than a typical transaction. At TPM, Josh Marshall runs through some examples:

In 2016, Trump got $1 million in licensing fees from his Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto.

For his building in Vancouver for 16 months between January 2016 and April 2017 he received “more than $5 million.”

For a Trump Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan, the Trump Org got $2.5 million in 2014.

Trump was paid $1 million for a licensing deal in the country of Georgia in 2011. The project was later canceled.

One of the key questions, especially after Trump’s humiliating performance in Helsinki, is why Trump consistently carries water for Russia. The enormous value of the Moscow Project appears to be a significant factor.

Trump has consistently denied that he ever had any business dealings with Russia. The New York Times reports that “on at least 23 occasions since the summer of 2016, Mr. Trump has said either that he had ‘nothing’ to do with Russia, or that he has ‘no deals,’ no investments and no ‘business’ in Russia.”

Russia knew that was a lie and, therefore, had leverage over Trump.

Tawdry Trickery

All that’s important stuff, but let’s not forget a parallel issue playing out in another court case: the hush money paid out by Trump in order to hide his affairs. Here too we are well advised to follow the money.

Trump’s Tawdry Tabloid Sagas Reveal Weightier Themes reports Jim Rutenberg at the NY Times.

The stories were tawdry, and the news coverage sometimes veered toward clickbait, but there were important questions hiding beneath the sheets.

Has the presidential election process become so cynical that players in a campaign can surreptitiously blow through legal limits on spending to deceive the public?

Are they free to coordinate with a media organization that behaved in a manner antithetical to the role the founders envisioned for a free press by paying to hide information about a presidential candidate, rather than share it with the public?

On Friday, federal prosecutors in New York answered those questions with a resounding No.

In making their stand against Mr. Cohen, they were arguing for the legitimacy of United States campaign finance law — which, for all its loopholes, may have some teeth, after all — and for the value of truth and transparency in campaigns.

Mr. Cohen has pleaded guilty to two sets of criminal campaign violations. By secretly paying Ms. Daniels $130,000 for her silence in October 2016, he was flouting the law that limits individual campaign contributions to $2,700 in a general election.

And by arranging for The Enquirer’s parent company to squelch Ms. McDougal’s affair accusation by buying the exclusive rights to her story for $150,000 and then sitting on it — a practice known in the tabloid trade as “catch-and-kill” — Mr. Cohen was inducing A.M.I. to violate a law that prohibits corporations from spending any money in campaigns in coordination with candidates or their agents.

When prosecutors proposed a “substantial” prison sentence for Mr. Cohen on Friday, they cited those violations ahead of other crimes to which he has pleaded guilty, including tax evasion and lying to Congress.

“Cohen’s commission of two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 election for president of the United States struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency,” the prosecutors wrote in the sentencing memo. “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.”

People following the yarn may not have expected that a story centered on a porn star and a onetime Playboy model would end up with prosecutorial paeans to American ideals. But here we are.

It was easy to understand … why so many pundits were skeptical that federal prosecutors would pursue a case related to the hush-money deals involving Ms. Daniels and Ms. McDougal. Across the television news networks, the experts expressed doubt that anything would result from what was referred to as “just a campaign finance violation.”

Beneath their words was a world-weary knowingness. Wasn’t this how the game was played?

On Friday, the law answered back.

But Trump, of course, returned fire. Payments to silence women were a ‘simple private transaction,’ not illegal campaign contributions, he said. John Wagner at the Washington Post reports.

In morning tweets, Trump sought to counter assertions in a court filing Friday that he had directed his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to try to silence the women in a bid to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Cohen has pleaded guilty to the alleged crime, saying he acted at Trump’s direction.

In his tweets, Trump suggested that the payments were being scrutinized only because investigators have not been able to find evidence of collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia.

He also blamed Democrats for the scrutiny — a day after some high-profile members of the party appeared on Sunday talk shows and suggested Trump faces serious legal jeopardy.

"So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution, which it was not,” Trump wrote.

He further asserted that even if the payments could be considered campaign contributions, he should be facing a civil case rather than a criminal case. And he said, Cohen should be held responsible, not him.

In the tweets, Trump also twice misspelled “smoking gun” as “smocking gun” as he quoted a commentator on Fox News talking about the Russia probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Trump’s tweets were criticized Monday by several lawyers, both for their substance and for his public airing of a defense that could complicate matters if charges are ever brought against him.

Among those weighing in was George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and a frequent critic of the president on Twitter and in op-eds. He seized on Trump’s assertion that Democrats were behind the scrutiny of the payments.

"No, the criminal campaign-finance violations were found by professional line prosecutors in a Republican-controlled United States Department of Justice,” Conway wrote. “It looks like a pretty good case. Kudos to them.”

At issue are the payments to two women who alleged sexual relationships with Trump before he ran for president.

In August 2016, Playboy model Karen McDougal reached an agreement with American Media Inc., publishers of the National Enquirer, that ensured she would not share her story about a lengthy relationship with Trump. In October of that year, adult film actress Stormy Daniels received $130,000 to similarly stay quiet about a liaison that she said had occurred a decade before.

Both of those agreements were facilitated by Cohen, as he admitted in court in August when he pleaded guilty to two campaign-finance charges, among others.

Prosecutors argue that because Cohen was an agent of the Trump campaign, the payments to McDougal and Daniels were campaign contributions in excess of federal limits and not unrelated expenditures.

“With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election,” Friday’s filing from prosecutors in New York says. “Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual–1.”

We now know that Individual–1 is Trump. We also know, from Cohen’s own admission, that the intent of his actions - at the direction of Trump - was to influence the 2016 election. Cohen says he paid hush money at candidate Trump’s direction. The statement came as part of a plea deal that Cohen struck Tuesday afternoon [8/21/18] with federal prosecutors in New York.

… Cohen, Donald Trump’s combative former personal lawyer, on Tuesday [8/21/18] implicated the president in hush money payments he said were designed to sway the election, as part of a plea deal he struck with federal prosecutors on fraud charges.

Cohen, who once stated he would take a bullet for Trump, flipped on his former boss in a dramatic courtroom appearance …

“I participated in the conduct for the purposes of influencing the election” Cohen said about his payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump in the past …

That makes the payments, as George Conway put it, “criminal campaign-finance violations”.

It seems that Trump’s legal troubles multiply each day. Who is left to take a bullet for Trump? I’ll answer that in another post.

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