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Collusion, Obstruction, Manafort and Cohen -- Where Does Trump Go from Here?

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First off, there really aren’t multiple Trump scandals. There is one Trump scandal. Stormy Daniels, the Russia stuff, AT&T apologizing for leaving a giant sack of money on Michael Cohen’s doorstep—no questions asked—it’s all part of the same grift. Trump has exposed a gaping hole in America’s constitution: we have no answer for a president who puts their own interests ahead of the country’s. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Trump has always used running for president as a good way to make money while exploiting the media’s weakness for conflict and hyperbole. Now that he’s actually in the seat of power, Trump’s ability to grift has grown exponentially. When you take a step back and look at what we know right now, a pretty clear kleptocratic picture begins to emerge.

I bolded “what we know right now,” because as the last round of Russia indictments proved, the special counsel is playing things very close to the vest. Had I written this explainer two months ago, I would have a very different opinion as to the severity of trouble our president finds himself in. I bring this up because before I hop into this, I want to stress that this theory could all change with the drop of an indictment, as there are only a handful of people alive who really know what’s going on with this investigation, and they clearly do not leak.

That said, as someone whose job it is to pay attention to this whole mess (I wrote my first piece on this topic in October 2016), a pattern has definitely emerged, and the Michael Cohen guilty plea and Paul Manafort being found guilty fossilize part of that pattern (longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone’s time in the barrel is coming up next). Bribes and dirty money are an essential part of how the Trump universe functions. I dove in to as many news reports about Trump’s past business activity as I could find, and it’s clear that he is willing to work with whomever is willing to work with him to make a buck.

Literally anyone. I mean, the man sold steaks at the Sharper freaking Image. As much attention as Russia gets, don’t forget that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel have all been implicated in an attempt to influence the Trump camp too, according to the Mueller investigation. This isn’t just about Russia.

Collusion

But this part is. As far as we know right now, it’s only a question as to whether members of Trump’s 2016 campaign conspired on a large plan with Kremlin-adjacent and Kremlin forces. Remember how I said that this article would be vastly different before this latest round of indictments? This e-mail from U.S. Person 1 to an acquaintance from Maria Butina’s indictment is a major reason why.

Major media has been far too hesitant in giving this part of the investigation the legitimacy it deserves, and that’s understandable. It’s harrowing. Plus, obstruction of justice has been the central focus of Trump’s potential legal jeopardy, and that’s partially because it’s something we’re used to, and partially because Trump has basically confessed to it already and 75% of the public could convince a jury to convict him. We’ll get to that part next, but I want to stress how central the investigation into conspiracy against the United States seems like it will be going forward.

For example, for all the attention on Paul Manafort’s supposedly non-2016 connected legal woes, some crucial context about his chief deputy is getting lost. Per CNN:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team last year made clear it wanted former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates’ help, not so much against his former business partner Paul Manafort, but with its central mission: investigating the Trump campaign’s contact with the Russians. New information disclosed in court filings and to CNN this week begin to show how they’re getting it.

Or put another way: Robert Mueller believes that Trump’s campaign manager’s right-hand man is more important to potential collusion between team Trump and Russia than to the case against his boss. Mueller’s team has told us in legal memos that collusion is not just a crime (and I and many others were wrong to say that “collusion” has no legal weight, as this DOJ memo proves), but a real possibility. It just hasn’t clicked because the most important indictments (to date) haven’t targeted Americans, despite the fact that they contain harrowing allegations about unnamed Americans.

That e-mail about the supposed backchannel between the RNC and the Kremlin running through the NRA changed my thinking on this entire mess. After doing a deep dive into the whole Trump-Russia history in March 2017, I assumed that this was confined to the president’s inner circle making mistakes—like bringing in a man dripping with Kremlin debts to head their campaign, or not being smart enough to avoid taking meetings with Kremlin lawyers. What seemed like a circus of general dipshittery by people with far more money than sense has been revealed to look far more sinister.

Between Trump Jr.’s “I love crime with the Crown Prosecutor of the Russian government!” e-mails and Manafort’s indictments for bank and tax fraud, there looks like a whole lot more smoke than there is fire at this point—and more fire is scheduled to come as Trump’s former campaign manager has another trial in Washington D.C. next month.

Last month’s indictments of Russian military intelligence are instructive as to where this whole thing is going. If you find yourself saying “well indicting Russians doesn’t matter, since they’ll never stand trial here, right?” you are correct. But the next question you should ask yourself is “why is Robert Mueller indicting people he knows he won’t be able to convict?”

He’s doing it in order to establish crimes that have been committed by the Kremlin and its proxies—in case he can connect it to anyone on the American side of things—AKA “collusion.” The most important part of Marina Butina’s indictment wasn’t her, it was the fact that it brought the NRA directly into the middle of the story. Butina’s indictment along with the one targeting Russian military intelligence is a message to every U.S. Person 1 in those documents to lawyer up, because Mueller is comin’. The only reason to file an indictment against an unindictable person is to set up more indictments.

Lastly, there’s another known part of the conspiracy angle that broke some news this week, and it got buried under Manafort and Cohen’s revelations. Remember the shortest tenured National Security Adviser in American history, Michael Flynn? The government asked for a delay on his sentencing, stating that they needed more time “due to the status of its investigation”—meaning that whatever Flynn is mixed up in is either still an active investigation, or indicting him would reveal key details of the investigation. A third, entirely plausible option, is the notion that the government is holding additional charges over Flynn’s head while he works with federal investigators. It’s a pretty compelling theory, and I’ll let Paste’s Roger Sollenberger lay out the timeline explaining why Flynn might have far more legal liability than we are currently aware of:

Late July, 2016: Republican operative Peter Smith contacts a cybersecurity expert about vetting possible newfound Clinton emails. Smith tells the expert he was in close and ongoing contact with people at the top of the Trump campaign, particularly Flynn. A second cyber-security expert independently corroborated Smith’s claims: “I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this—if you find anything, can you let me know?”

July 27, 2016: Trump at a news conference asks Russia to find and release the allegedly missing Clinton emails.

Mid-August, 2016: The FBI apprises the Trump campaign that Russians will likely try to infiltrate its ranks, and that if they notice anything suspicious they should report it to the FBI.

August 17, 2016: Flynn accompanies Trump to his first intelligence briefing, where USIC officials inform them of Russia’s past and ongoing effort to commit hacking crimes targeting Democrats and the Clinton campaign.

September 2, 2016: Ditto with a second Intel briefing.

September 7, 2016: Peter Smith forms KLS Research, a group dedicated to exhuming the missing Clinton emails. The document says the company was formed in order to “avoid campaign reporting,” indicating it was ducking very real campaign ties, so neither side had to report financial or in-kind donations. As if this weren’t clear enough, Smith lists Flynn among the group’s campaign contacts.

This is why I chose the famed photo of Trump and Flynn for this article. That’s my best answer to the question in the title. There’s a lot more of the Michael Flynn story to tell.

Obstruction

This is pretty straight-forward. Again, the man confessed to it on national television right after he fired James Comey.

Not to mention, if Trump ever takes the stand or gets deposed, @realDonaldTrump will be used as an expert witness against him. Trump has done more than any president in history to prove himself guilty of criminal activity. It’s actually pretty impressive. If he has any talent, self-immolation is it.

So what’s going to happen if Mueller concludes that Trump obstructed justice? It depends entirely on who controls congress, as impeachment is a political question and not a legal one (whether a sitting president can be indicted is unsettled law, and longstanding DOJ procedures say that they cannot—although those are far from being a final word on the subject).

If the Democrats control both the House and Senate, then there’s a chance that we go into 2020 with a President Pence (which is why Democrats really need to think through whether we would impeach Trump if we obtain the power to do so). Trump is 100% right that he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and he wouldn’t lose a supporter, so don’t hold your breath on any Republicans in congress turning on Trump if the GOP maintains control of the Senate. Steve Bannon isn’t wrong when he says that a vote for any Republican this fall is a vote against impeachment (so get out and vote, damnit).

Any Republican with half a brain in their head knows that Trump is likely cooked on obstruction, which is why they’ve largely moved on to making a political defense (ie: Witch Hunt!) as opposed to a legal one.

Michael Cohen

So how do our two stars of this episode of Trump’s reality show presidency fit into the two main vectors of the investigation going forward? One is pretty easy to tell and the other is far more difficult. We’ll begin with the harder player to square—as ascertaining the motivations of professional sludge transporter, Michael Cohen—is far from certain right now. This is a man who not too long ago said he would take a bullet for Trump, and now he’s saying that he wouldn’t even accept a pardon from a president who is “dangerous and corrupt.” Your guess is as good as mine as to his true intentions, but I will just highlight the fact that Cohen, not Trump, brought up the topic of pardons here.

What matters with Cohen are the felonies he copped to, and how Trump admitted to violating federal election law in response (that’s right, we’re now up to two presidential confessions to crimes in this column). The president being guilty of at least campaign finance law is basically a fact of life by now—like gravity or oxygen.

Trump on the hush money payments: "They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me." (via Fox) pic.twitter.com/IlXm9R4b0M— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) August 22, 2018

It's such an obvious infraction that after the whole Stormy Daniels saga blew up, husband to senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, George Conway, helpfully tweeted out which FEC law Trump may have violated with the $130,000 hush payment.

https://t.co/bsZKAUJpu3 pic.twitter.com/xJgZXrvSuT— George Conway (@gtconway3d) May 3, 2018

Lastly, the most significant contribution (again, to date) made by Cohen is pointing the finger at Trump as a co-conspirator to the felonies he pleaded guilty to while under oath. In a normal world, that alone is an impeachable offense. Trump is going to have to find a way to answer this question going forward (that doesn’t include him confessing to a felony), and the fact that Cohen did it under oath should subject Trump to intense scrutiny both in the press and the Department of Justice. While the press has proven that they cannot do much to move the needle in Trumpville, and the FEC typically moves at a glacial pace, the main thing to worry about for team Trump is something we have learned time and time again: Donald Trump’s self-inflicted wounds while lashing out are as consistent as the sunrise.

Cohen isn’t the big player in Trumplandia that he seems to be portrayed as in much of the media. Yes, he helped keep all of Trump’s embarrassing dalliances out of the spotlight and consulted on a litany of shady deals, but he doesn’t know anywhere near as much as say, Allen Weisselberg, the Chief Financial Officer of the Trump Organization. If Weisselberg gets subpoenaed, that’s a red siren (wait, Weisselberg was already called to testify to a grand jury in the Michael Cohen probe? Well then).

The superpower that Cohen has is the ability to make Trump self-destruct by hanging his dirty laundry out to dry, as has already been demonstrated by Trump confessing to what Cohen accused him of under oath (seriously folks, we live in the dumbest era of all time). We could be witnessing just the beginning of this particular slice of madness. We know that Michael Cohen was dumb enough to make hush payments out of a slush fund with an array of donors ranging from AT&T to pharmaceutical giant Novartis to a Russian oligarch, so I’m guessing that we will learn much more about where certain bodies are buried in the coming months, perhaps even from the big man himself.

Paul Manafort

Once upon a time in 2008, there was a scummy influence peddler who left the United States to work on behalf of the Kremlin’s favorite party in Ukraine. In 2014, Manafort was sued in a Cayman Islands court by his longtime boss, Oleg Deripaska—a Russian oligarch who was referred to in a 2006 U.S. State Department cable as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis”—to the tune of $19 million. Manafort did not pay and dropped off the radar soon afterwards, before suddenly popping up on the Trump campaign a few years later, working for free.

Manafort was caught sending e-mails to his Russian military intelligence-trained confidant, Konstantin Kilimnik (who Mueller indicted, alleging that Manafort used Kilimnik to obstruct the investigation this year), like “Has OVD operation seen?” (OVD = Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska) and “how can we make to get whole.” I’m sure the latter is not an allusion to the millions of dollars in debt that Manafort owed to Deripaska. He’s definitely just talking about, you know, donut holes or something.

Manafort was charged on a litany of financial crimes that began before his work on the Trump campaign, but to say that they were not related to the campaign is the ignore the fact that a man who committed an endless line of crimes in service of a Kremlin-influenced Ukranian political party for years worked for Trump for free. Again, this bizarre fact has not received nearly enough attention now and certainly did not at the time.

Men who are deeply in debt do not work for free. Men who spend their careers literally putting a price on their soul do not work for free. Men who wear ostrich skin coats do not work for free. Why Paul Manafort suddenly was so willing to work for a man he hardly knew for zero pay is anyone’s guess (maybe to “get whole?”), but it’s impossible to ignore the financial tomfoolery he was engaged in leading up to the campaign. It’s not out of line to suggest that Mueller’s indictments of past financial crimes are setting up future indictments of more recent crimes related to the longstanding ones he just got nailed to the wall for. Paul Manafort is basically a walking money trail.

And Mueller has followed the money on the Kremlin side of things too (for what it’s worth, last year, Deripaska asked the U.S. for immunity in exchange for his testimony). There’s zero indication right now that Manafort’s financial crimes are related to Mueller’s proof that the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency was paid in Bitcoin, but looking at the overall investigation, that seems to be the subtext that’s emerging (my two cents: Cambridge Analytica + “how can we make to get whole?”).

If there were any direct financial transactions between team Trump and the Kremlin, Manafort is one of the most likely sources to facilitate that exchange. But, as I must repeat again, he would have been the only source considered if I wrote this two months ago. The new Russian indictments that seemingly fell out of the sky last month nominated another fantastic candidate for a possible financial conduit between Trump-aligned Americans and the Kremlin, as U.S. Person 1 wrote in that e-mail to an acquaintance, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [POLITICAL PARTY 1] leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].” This gave far more credence to earlier news reports that the FBI is investigating the NRA’s potential financial connections to the Kremlin—especially since the Russian banker involved in those reports, Alexander Torshin, was Maria Butina’s handler, according to Mueller’s indictments.

There is still much to come on this whole saga, and every single actor on the Trump-side of things is not credible, and they should not be taken at their word unless it is under oath (and even then…grains of salt). There will no doubt be twists and turns that repudiate some of the theories in this column, but after following this story intensely since the summer of 2016, it’s difficult to see how someone in Trump’s inner circle doesn’t get seriously nailed for this whole kleptocratic scheme—possibly even the president himself.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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