Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard

The legal jeopardy of Donald Trump, a.k.a. Individual-1, is the kind of story that our news media doesn’t cover very well. It’s not that they don’t give time to it; they do, every night, on every news channel other than Fox (which sometimes decides that a controversial nativity scene is more important, or that we still haven’t looked hard enough at the emails of a private citizen named Hillary Something-or-other).

The problem is that investigations move at a different speed than “news”. “News” is something happening right now that we didn’t know about yesterday. It’s what’s new since the last time you tuned in.

Investigations, on the other hand, play out over months or even years. Any given day might produce one or two new pieces of information, but it’s just a coincidence if today’s “news” happens to be what most deserves your attention. More often, an investigation plays out like a game of postal chess — a sport that will never have a TV contract.

What we’ve been seeing develop over that last several months, move by move, is the gradual encirclement of the GOP King. There are, by now, multiple investigations by multiple prosecutors, pursuing sketchy or suspicious or blatantly illegal behavior by (as Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter David Fahrenthold puts it) “nearly every organization [Trump] has led in the past decade.”

It’s kind of hard to keep track of them all without a program. And when a new detail appears, it can be difficult to file it properly in your mind: Which investigation is this exactly? Of what alleged wrong-doing? And which stage is that particular investigation at? Is it speculation about something that looks fishy? Or was probable cause established some while ago? Is it ready for indictments? Trials? Sentencing?

Trump, of course, is counting on you getting confused. So, for example, when a campaign finance charge starts to look indictable (or indictable for anybody who isn’t President), he will claim that this clears him of any conspiracy with Russia — despite the fact that those investigations are being pursued by two different sets of federal prosecutors.

So let’s start just by listing all the investigations, in no particular order:

  • Russia. We know Russia did a variety of things to help elect Trump; it’s highly likely that Russian interference made the difference. (In an election that close, just about any factor that helped Trump probably made the difference.) Russians hacked Democratic computers and leaked the results, propagated anti-Hillary fake news through social media, and so on. Simultaneously, Trump was calling for an end to sanctions against Russia, weakening the Republican platform’s support for Ukraine, and negotiating to build a highly profitable Trump Tower Moscow. Maybe Trump was just the unwitting beneficiary of Russian favors, and has had his own reasons for pursuing pro-Russia policies. But if those dots are connected, it’s treason.
  • The inauguration. Practically since it happened, people have been wondering how the Trump Inaugural Committee could possibly have spent $107 million. (Obama put on a bigger show for half the money.) Thursday, the The Wall Street Journal reported that there is a criminal investigation into (1) what happened to all the money, (2) whether some of it illegally came from foreign sources, and (3) whether donors received any government favors in exchange.
  • Paying off women. Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal were paid six-figure sums not to tell their stories of affairs with Trump. That in itself is not illegal, but if it was done for the purpose of helping Trump get elected, and if the money wasn’t mentioned in official reports of campaign contributions and expenses, that’s a crime. And were payoffs made to other women we don’t know about yet?
  • Emoluments. The Trump Organization continues to get revenue from foreign sources, including foreign governments. Does that violate the Emolument Clause of the Constitution? And does it account for Trump’s unwillingness to criticize emolument-paying countries like Saudi Arabia?
  • The NRA. Did the Trump campaign illegally coordinate with the NRA, which spent $30 million supporting him? And did the NRA get any of that money from Russia? And what is confessed Russian agent Maria Butina saying to prosecutors in her cooperation agreement?
  • The Trump Foundation. Trump’s foundation appears not to be a real foundation at all: It has no staff, no policy for making grants, and a board that didn’t meet for 18 years. It makes payments that benefit Trump’s businesses, and let itself become an arm of his election campaign. New York State is suing to shut it down.
  • Obstruction of justice. Obstruction is a second-order felony: a crime that you commit to cover up other crimes. Sometimes the obstruction is so successful that the original crime can’t ever be prosecuted. But you can still be convicted of what you did to cover up whatever-that-other-thing-was. The most obvious obstruction case against Trump involves the Russia investigation, but we may yet see obstruction of other investigations as well.

Wired breaks these seven areas down further and counts 17 investigations.

Now that you know the layout, let’s take a closer look.

Russia. Anything you hear about the Russia investigation proceeds on two tracks: what we know from what has been publicly reported and what Robert Mueller knows.

The two are very different, because (unlike recent investigations against Clintons), Mueller’s team doesn’t leak. This is noteworthy. Ken Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton leaked constantly. And during the anti-Hillary investigations into Benghazi and her famous email server — neither of which turned up anything worth taking to court — we were bombarded with salacious stories that eventually had to be walked back. Information from inside the investigation would get filtered through Republican staffers in Congress and then wind up in a distorted form on the front pages.

That’s not happening here, and the result is that we’re not sure what Mueller has until we see a court document like an indictment, a guilty plea, or a sentencing memo. That gives Republicans room to imagine that Mueller doesn’t really have much, while letting Democrats imagine that the crushing blow will fall any minute. The investigation could be about to wrap up or could go on for another year or two.

What we do know is that something in the Trump/Russia relationship was worth lying about. The Washington Post has totaled up 14 different Trump associates who were in contact with Russians during the campaign or transition. Across the board, those people lied about it. Mike Flynn and George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump Jr., and Michael Cohen lied to Congress. Trump himself has lied constantly to the public.

Republicans are often frustrated by how quickly Trump critics jump to the treason explanation, but there’s a simple reason they do: Trump defenders have not produced any coherent explanation for the wall of lies. If not treason, what?

Also, there must be some reason why Trump wants to de-legitimize or shut down the investigation: why he has resisted testifying, why he kept faulting Jeff Sessions for failing to “protect” him, why the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee worked so hard to throw mud on investigators and seemed not to want to know what Russia did to interfere with our election. The Deep-State-witch-hunt explanation might work on InfoWars, but it’s just not credible outside the Trump bubble. Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, and Jim Comey were all Republicans when this started. If you work at it, you can imagine that they all suddenly found a new Republican administration so threatening that they had to throw away spotless reputations they’d spent their entire lives developing. But why?

That’s the ground, the reason to be suspicious. The figure is the following possible conspiracy, which so far we just see the outlines of: Trump was compromised by a long history of business interactions with Russian oligarchs, possibly involving money laundering through his real estate empire. At the start of the campaign (and continuing through the Republican Convention), he was negotiating what would have been one of the biggest deals of his career: Trump Tower Moscow, which couldn’t have been built without Putin’s personal approval.

From the beginning of his campaign, Trump advocated a more lenient policy towards Russia. In particular, he wanted to do away with the economic sanctions imposed after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. (Rex Tillerson came to the Secretary of State job from Exxon, which was set to exploit Russian oil resources worth hundreds of billions.) Presumably, that’s what Michael Flynn was discussing in those conversations with Russian officials he lied to the FBI about.

Since taking office, Trump has been unusually solicitous of Putin, most notably in the infamous Helsinki press conference, where he sided with Putin against the American intelligence community.

The Trump campaign appeared to get advance knowledge of the Democratic emails Russia hacked and then passed through WikiLeaks. Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi appear to have been the connection between the campaign and WikiLeaks. Trump publicly asked Russia to look for Clinton’s missing emails, and they did.

What we don’t know (but Mueller might) is whether this pattern is a fortuitous convergence of interests between Trump and Putin, or a quid-pro-quo arrangement.

The Inauguration. At the moment, all we really know about this topic is that SDNY has opened a criminal investigation. The WSJ says the investigation is in its “early stages”. Pro Publica raises the possibility that a big chunk of the inaugural money eventually made its way to Trump, by way of over-market rates charged to the Inaugural Committee by Trump’s Washington hotel. (That’s the same hotel the emoluments suit is about.)

Paying off women. The case that is moving fastest and looks closest to being proved is the campaign-finance case about paying off Daniels and McDougal. Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday, partly for his role in these payments and partly for lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance felonies and says he committed them under Trump’s direction. A third member of the conspiracy, American Media Inc. (AMI), publishers of National Enquirer, negotiated an non-prosecution agreement with the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) in which it confessed its role.

As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election. AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Trump asked AMI CEO David Pecker “What can you do to help my campaign?”

Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.

NBC News confirmed Thursday that Trump was in the room at the August, 2015 meeting when the plan for National Enquirer to squash negative stories about Trump was agreed to.

Michael Cohen paid $130K to Stormy Daniels out of his own pocket, routing the money through a shell corporation. He was repaid $420K by The Trump Organization through a retainer agreement for “legal services”. The difference in figures raises the question of whether Cohen was also being repaid for similar payments that haven’t become public yet. Vox comments:

So Trump’s company certainly appears to have been heavily involved in these illegal payoffs — which raises the question of whether the company itself will be charged.

Trump’s defense rests on two shaky notions: The payments weren’t part of the campaign, but were made for personal reasons (so Melania wouldn’t find out, say). And he trusted Cohen as his lawyer not to get him involved in anything illegal. But everyone else in the picture seems clear about this being part of the Trump campaign and Trump knowing about it at the time. Plus, the long string of lies and elaborate methods used to cover up the transaction points to Trump’s awareness that he was breaking the law. People don’t lie to hide their innocence, they lie to hide their guilt.

If he weren’t president, he’d be on trial right now, and he’d probably be convicted.

Emoluments. It’s an old-fashioned word whose meaning is suddenly relevant again. The Constitution says:

no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

It hasn’t been relevant because no previous president was simultaneously carrying on a business that had foreign customers. But Trump has retained his ownership stake in The Trump Organization, which carries on business around the world, including with kings, princes, and foreign states.

What makes this a legal mess is that the Constitution doesn’t say who is supposed to police emoluments or what penalties should be assessed for violations. (Until now, a simple “don’t do that” has been sufficient.) So despite the fact that Trump is clearly violating the Constitution, it’s not clear who is in a position to do anything about it, short of impeachment.

Trump’s position is that he is policing himself: The Trump Organization makes voluntary contributions to the Treasury equivalent to its own estimates of its profits from foreign governments. There are two problems with this: First, it’s a trust-me arrangement; no other branch of government is receiving reports that it can audit. Further, Trump is interpreting emolument to mean only the profit he makes; profit being an infinitely flexible concept in the real estate business, which the Trump family has abused for decades.

Maryland and the District of Columbia are suing on behalf of merchants that compete with the Trump International Hotel in D.C. (One legal hurdle is establishing standing to sue. Simply being a citizen trying to enforce the Constitution is not enough.) They contend that emoluments are payments, not profits, and the judge seems to agree with them.

So far the suit has survived all of Trump’s attempts to have it thrown out. It has reached the discovery phase, which means that the plaintiffs can subpoena Trump Organization records, giving them a view into the company that no outsider has had before. Trump’s lawyers are trying to slow this down, but they will ultimately lose. What happens next depends on what the subpoenas turn up.

This investigation is likely not criminal, but is that rare situation where something non-criminal could be impeachable, because impeachment might be the only tool available for enforcing the Constitution.

The NRA. So far we know a lot more questions than answers. The NRA did spend $30 million boosting Trump, which is way more than they’d ever spent on a presidential election before. There was a Russian intelligence operation dedicated to using the NRA to exert influence on the Republican Party.

Like the Trump campaign, the NRA faces questions about to what extent it knowingly cooperated with Russia. In addition, Mother Jones and The Trace are reporting illegal coordination between the NRA’s pro-Trump spending and the Trump campaign itself. It’s not publicly known yet whether Mueller or any other prosecutor is investigating this.

The Foundation. One characteristic that defines Trump’s psychology is projection: If he accuses his enemies of something, chances are he’s doing it himself.

During the campaign, he constantly bashed the Clinton Foundation, which is a legit non-profit that doesn’t appear to have done anything wrong. At worst, the family foundation was a way for the Clintons to keep the band together between campaigns; people they wanted to hang onto could get jobs (doing actual work) at the Clinton Foundation. But no one has come up with examples of money passing from the Foundation to the Clintons, and none of the attempts to hang a pay-for-play label on the Foundation ever held water.

Quite the opposite is true of the Trump Foundation.

[New York] Attorney General Barbara Underwood said the Donald J. Trump Foundation “was a shell corporation that functioned as a checkbook from which the business entity known as the Trump Organization made payments.”

Just before the Iowa caucuses, the Trump Foundation was illegally taken over by the Trump campaign.

campaign officials were controlling the timing of donations ahead of the election. It’s not illegal for an individual to make donations during an election, but it is against the law for political campaigns to coordinate un-reported political expenditures.

… The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the foundation’s failure to make good on promised donations led to this investigation, reports that Trump ordered the foundation’s executive director Allen Weisselberg to fly to Iowa with checkbook in hand so that he could make donations to local groups immediately. Trump gave out at least five $100,000 grants to local groups in the lead-up to the caucuses, which he won in a shock victory that helped propel him to the Republican party nomination.

Trump tried to have the suit thrown out, claiming he couldn’t be sued while in office. But a judge didn’t buy that. Here’s what’s at stake.

The attorney general’s office, led by Barbara Underwood, is seeking to dissolve the Trump Foundation and wants $2.8 million in restitution, plus additional penalties. The office is also seeking to ban Trump from serving as a director of any New York nonprofit for 10 years and to prohibit the other board members, the Trump children, from serving for one year.

But it might not end there. The NYAG has referred the case for criminal investigation by the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, though it’s unknown whether those offices are doing anything with it. The interesting point here is if there is criminal activity, the Trump children might be involved. They can be indicted, even if their father is president.

Obstruction of justice. This is the investigation where the public perception and the legal reality seem furthest apart, at least to me. Trump has successfully popularized the notion that obstruction requires a “smocking gun“. White-collar crime is supposed to be something that happens behind closed doors, so the public believes that making a case requires looking behind those closed doors.

In those terms, the case is mainly a he-said/he-said between Trump and James Comey, who has testified that Trump tried to influence his investigation of Michael Flynn in particular and the Russia conspiracy in general. Trump’s firing of Comey (and then telling Russian officials that Comey’s firing had relieved the pressure of the Russia investigation) looks a lot like obstruction, if you believe that Comey isn’t just making stuff up.

What the public is largely missing is that Trump’s obstruction of the Russia investigation is happening in plain sight. Over Twitter, he tries to intimidate potentially hostile witnesses out of testifying and dangle pardons in front of friendly witnesses. He has publicly urged the attorney general to squash the investigation, and has conspired with Republican congressmen to ruin the careers of the FBI agents who started the investigation.

The fact that he is totally brazen about it doesn’t mean that it’s legal. (I might walk into a grocery and brazenly start eating an apple. It wouldn’t look like shoplifting, but it would be.) Trump claims he is just “fighting back” against the investigation. But when the President or his administration is a potential target of investigation, and he uses the power of his office to “fight back”, that IS obstruction of justice. As ThinkProgress puts it:

Suffice it to say there is no “fighting back” exception to obstruction of justice charges, which were part of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

The issues we need to be thinking about (and not thinking about). At the moment, despite Trump’s “fighting back”, the special prosecutor, the SDNY, and the New York attorney general are actively pursuing their investigations. Once Democrats take over the House in January, Congress will be a backstop for those investigations. (If, say, Trump’s new attorney general would try to suppress Mueller’s report, the House could still subpoena it.) So more and more, it looks like the truth will come out.

At that point, both Trump and the country will have to decide what to do about it. Trump may launch a wave of pardons, including the legally suspect move of pardoning himself. The administration may defy subpoenas, and defy court orders to enforce subpoenas. Democrats will have to decide whether to pursue impeachment. Republicans will face the question of how much illegality they want to defend. Ordinary citizens will need to decide when to take to the streets, or whether to launch tactics that have never been necessary in America before, like a general strike.

One question will be in the background of all our decisions: Addressing the issue of Trump’s (possible) crimes will be disruptive in the short term. If they turn out to be something short of treason, some will say that the disruption isn’t worth it. But looking to the long term, do we dare allow the precedent that presidential crimes can be ignored? If we establish that boundary, between tolerable and intolerable presidential wrongdoing, how might future presidents push it further?

A lot of those questions will hang on timing: If investigations drag out until an election is looming, maybe the decision should be left to the voters.

All in all, I think these questions point to a more useful focus for your attention than trying to guess what some witness might be saying behind closed doors, or when some new indictment might appear: What are you willing to tolerate? And what will you be willing to do if intolerable things are being ignored?

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Comments

  • Jeff R.  On December 17, 2018 at 9:53 am

    Is Saudi Arabia (i.e., MBS and the killing of a journalist) and more broadly the Middle East another area of investigation worthy of its own category?

  • Guest  On December 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    “One characteristic that defines Trump’s psychology is projection: If he accuses his enemies of something, chances are he’s doing it himself.”

    This is why I believe, despite a lack of evidence, that Seth Rich really was brutally assassinated. Just with Trump/Russia as the villains instead of HRC/DNC. I can allow myself one tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, right Doug?

    Re: the Clinton Foundation, isn’t there an on-going DOJ/FBI investigation looking into pay to play? Just because the Trump Foundation is worse by any objective measure doesn’t mean the Clinton’s is automatically clean. I agree with the sentiment raised by other posters in the Sift article you linked, namely that the appearance of corruption is plain enough to make efforts like yours, to spin the Clinton Foundation as a wide-eyed innocent player, counter-productive at best. Asking us to believe that the Saudi govt, for example, made 8-figure donations to the Clinton Foundation just because they really have a passion for solar panels in Haiti is asking for Brooklyn-Bridge-for-sale level naiveté. Donations plummeted after HRC lost the presidency. The Clintons might not personally be pocketing money directly, but as you point out, the Foundations keeps their small army of workers tethered between campaigns providing indirect benefits, while big donors like the Saudi’s have received reliably favorable treatment from in-office Clintons for decades. I am very prepared to believe that all of it falls just the side of legal under current law, but it doesn’t exactly pass the ethical sniff test with flying colors.

    In any case, thank you for the great round-up of Trump cases. Best I’ve read on the subject.

  • nicknielsensc  On December 17, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    “If he weren’t president, he’d be on trial right now, and he’d probably be convicted.”

    The ONLY reason anybody cares about any of this is because he’s the President of the United States. If he weren’t president, none of this would matter. He’d still be a third-rate reality show host trying to work out his next scam.

  • jh  On December 18, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    At this point, republicans have expanded the boundaries of what is and isn’t permissible. What I want and I really hope somebody in the incoming Democrat group does is go into a set of investigations to “restore the american people’s trust in government”.

    1. Investigate Hillary Clinton. That means subpoenaing the likes of Hannity and other prominent conservative pundits who are insistent that she committed crimes. Too often, we have this miasma of lies that we allow to taint people and it’s time for a clearing of the air. I would love to hear what Hannity’s evidence for the “Clinton Crime family” is. I’m betting that testimony will have nothing redacted.

    2. Investigate the NRA. Buttina is disturbing. The amount of access the NRA has to mostly republican legislators combined with Russian interests means I’m very interested in what the NRA is advocating for. (I believe Russia has a very strict gun regulation policy compared to the US gun regulation policy. So why is Russia advocating for something so contrary to their own gun policy?)

    3. Closely related to number 2. Investigate the recipients of NRA largess. What did they get out of this arrangement. I want to see emails.

    4. Investigate the republicans involved in the republican led investigation of Trump Russia dealings. Were there just incompetent or were they deliberately incompetent. I want to see emails.

    5. Investigate the Benghazi investigatory committee. How many Benghazi investigations did we need? I probably want a special task force looking at RNC emails at this point as well.

    6. Investigate certain business owners. AMI execs need to explain the payments concerning certain stories. Media should inform. Deliberately sinking stories makes AMI not part of the fifth estate but rather, something more like fiction publishers. Last I checked, fiction isn’t protected under our constitutional rights.

    And I definitely don’t want Trump impeached. I want investigations into all people associated with Trump including Pence. It’s time to Benghazi the republicans and I would recommend that democrats target governors and young republican leaders who have a chance of getting elected. I find it very suspicious that the Benghazi investigation was dropped right after the last presidential election.

    And while states may not be able to indict Trump, they can investigate Trump and all their associates. Trump is a dirty man. His associates are probably as dirty as Trump is. The honest people are probably the contractors who were defrauded by Trump and his associates.

    (Yeah – what I’m asking for seems McCarthyesque. But at some point, I have to question why republicans aren’t suspicious of all the “coincidences” when they were so deeply suspicious of Hillary Clinton. And I really want to see Hannity and others on conservative media have to prove their allegations in public. Surely these people who have gone on and on about how corrupt Hillary is should show the evidence for their allegations and put a bad person in jail. Otherwise, they are guilty of abetting a criminal in my book.)

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