Reading Mr. Mueller

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It has now been two weeks since the redacted Mueller report hit the street, enough time for us to begin—but only begin—to digest its meticulously prepared, bone-rattling conclusions.

For some, the headline—seized upon and hammered relentlessly by Donald Trump and his lowlife band of criminals, would-be autocrats, and political enablers, led by the utterly shameless William Barr—was that no criminal charges were being brought. But that does not begin to be the whole story, not by a country mile, even though Trump would like us to believe that it is. Indeed, with his characteristic pathological dishonesty, he has crowed that the report goes way beyond even that, representing “complete and total” exoneration of all wrongdoing.

Well, it turns out America was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

B.L.U.F.

So here’s the real bottom line, which fortunately has been well-reported in the legitimate media, and continues to gather steam with each passing day and further revelations:

The Mueller report laid out a damning portrait of a presidential campaign that eagerly accepted the help of a hostile foreign power in order to win the White House; that was well aware of Russian efforts to interfere on its behalf and welcomed those efforts; that enthusiastically entertained meetings with foreign nationals offering such assistance (“If it’s what you say I love it”), openly encouraged this attack on our electoral system (“Russia, if you’re listening…”), and then gleefully exploited and capitalized on the poisonous fruits thereof (the WikiLeaks dump of stolen DNC emails).

Among other things, Trump & Co. tried to set up a backchannel with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that would circumvent the US intelligence community; to tap into WikiLeaks (via Roger Stone) regarding the Russian hacking of the DNC; strategized how best to use that dump against Hillary Clinton; and passed polling data in key battleground states to Konstantin Kilimnik, a known GRU operative.

Everybody over there in once-Russophobic Fox Nation cool with all that?

Writing in Salon, former federal prosecutor Kenneth F. McCallion summarizes the import of this very well:

Trump and his team were willing without hesitation to betray the core interests of the United States in maintaining the integrity of our democratic and electoral systems and to provide aid and comfort to the efforts of a foreign hostile power to attack America and to shake its democratic foundations to its core. This stark portrait of a presidential candidate and a campaign organization that was willing to seek a short-term political advantage at the risk of jeopardizing fundamental US interests by soliciting and utilizing data that they knew had been hacked and stolen by the Russians amounts to a fundamental betrayal of the US on a scale never before experienced by our country.”

Moreover, Team Trump vehemently denied over and over that it had ANY contacts with Russians whatsoever, only later to be shown to have had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals, WikiLeaks, or their associates. That alone ought to have made any American citizen think twice about the honesty of this team and its claim of unquestioned loyalty to the United States….although per Rudy Giuliani, Republicans have recently decided that accepting the help of the Kremlin is totally fine, when their side does it.

But of course the public didn’t have the opportunity to think twice about that, because in September 2016 Mitch McConnell blocked the proposal to make that pertinent information public in a bipartisan manner.

The parade of guys in furry hats meeting with Team Trump was so long that Mueller spends 198 pages in Volume One of his report documenting it, as noted by Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a key passage, Mueller writes: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” That, by any reasonable political definition, is collaboration with a hostile foreign power, passive or otherwise—a sin of omission that ought to be disqualifying for any presidential aspirant, to say the least.

The proof, for any doubter, is that the Trump campaign failed to inform ANYONE in the US law enforcement or intelligence communities that it had been contacted by foreign nationals offering this kind of illegal assistance. As Lucian Truscott IV writes: “To the contrary, the Trump campaign made continual use of the help the Russians provided to the campaign when Trump repeatedly and approvingly cited the release of the Democratic Party emails hacked by the Russians and released by WikiLeaks. He cited WikiLeaks and the hacked emails more than 160 times at rallies and in interviews in the closing weeks of the campaign.”

So we are not talking about a presidential campaign that was appalled by the actions of Vladimir Putin’s agents, regardless of its own cooperation with them or lack thereof.

Ben Wittes of Lawfare has always been one of the sharpest observers of the Trumpocalypse, and his reading diary of the special counsel’s report is an invaluable and enlightening resource. If Barr’s infamous, now-discredited four page “summary” of March 24 was the kindergarten-level Cliff Notes version of Mueller’s Moby-Dick—one that mysteriously left out any whales—Wittes’s diary is more like a PhD dissertation on the same. (He recently produced an condensed summary of his conclusions in the pages of the Atlantic.) Wittes sees the semantically imprecise question of “collusion” this way:

Trump personally ordered an attempt to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails; and people associated with the campaign pursued this believing they were dealing with Russian hackers. Trump also personally engaged in discussions about coordinating public-relations strategy around WikiLeaks releases of hacked emails. At least one person associated with the campaign was in touch directly with the Guccifer 2.0 persona—which is to say with Russian military intelligence. And Donald Trump Jr. was directly in touch with WikiLeaks—from whom he obtained a password to a hacked database. There are reasons none of these incidents amount to crimes—good reasons, in my view, in most cases, viable judgment calls in others. But the picture it all paints of the president’s conduct is anything but exonerating.

Call it Keystone Kollusion.

OH, DID I SAY “NO CONNECTIONS WITH RUSSIA”? I MEANT LOTS

The Mueller report also catalogued other clandestine connections between Trump and Russia that in any previous administration would, in and of themselves, been presidency-ending. Chief among these was the fact that Donald Trump had a multimillion dollar real estate deal in the works in Russia—a proposed Trump Tower Moscow—that came with a $50 million in-kind bribe he offered to Putin personally in the form of a penthouse apartment designed to lure other oligarch into the building.

Wow. Just fucking wow.

(We actually learned that through journalistic efforts before the special counsel report was released, but the SCO fleshed it out and confirmed it. Which I mention by way of credit-where-it’s-due to the Fourth Estate, which is much beleaguered these days.)

And just to remind you: like the claims that there had been no campaign coordination with the Russians, Trump howled with righteous outrage—both throughout the election and after he was in office—at the very suggestion that he had ANY business contacts with Russia. Now we know that that was perhaps the most bald-faced lie any politician ever tried to perpetrate on the American people.

As if all that is not enough, Trump’s lies about the Moscow venture created another historic scandal in the form of a counterintelligence nightmare: a presidential candidate (and then sitting president) vulnerable to Russian blackmail and other political pressure because the Kremlin held explosive information about him that he was hiding from the American people. That is the very definition of how extortion works, folks. In light of that, Trump’s bizarre, previously inexplicable pattern of pro-Russian statements and actions—even in defiance of his own intelligence chiefs and the US military and diplomatic communities—suddenly makes sense, and stands as stark evidence of just how much he was in Moscow’s thrall.

Lastly, and almost in passing, Robert Mueller and his team also painted an Armando Iannucci-worthy picture of a White House riven with incompetence, backstabbing, venality, megalomania, and palace intrigue that would make the Borgias blush. But none of those are really criminal or impeachable offenses, except against good sense, short of the argument that this administration is so appallingly inept that it is in breach of its duty to protect and defend the common welfare. Among his more headspinning conclusions, Mueller noted that some members of Trump’s team—including Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner—were, in effect, too stupid to know that what they were doing with the Russians was wantonly illegal. (Not that ignorance of the law is an excuse, only that their sheer idiocy might make it hard to win a conviction.)

All this in addition to other skullduggery that—as many on the hard left would remind us—arguably constitutes reason for removal even without entanglements with the Russians or efforts to cover up same, including (but not restricted to) tax, bank, and real estate fraud; pardon dangling; felony campaign finance violations in the form of hush money payments to a porn star and other mistresses; numerous and brazen conflicts of interest; nose-thumbing violations of the emoluments clause; and a jawdropping level of general corruption and wholesale abuse of presidential power.

All in all, kind of seems like a guy who should not be the President of the United States, no?

IN THIS AFTERNOON’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF JOHN MITCHELL WILL BE PLAYED BY BILL BARR

Unsurprisingly, Trump and Barr have done their best to obfuscate and pervert the actual content of the SCO report, for reasons that are now obvious. We can only wonder what the effect would have been had the report been dropped on Congress and the public—the way the Starr report was—without their despicable and profoundly deceitful muddying of the waters. But we are now—belatedly—experiencing a dawning understanding of how Trump, Barr, and the entire GOP have been trying to gaslight us.

Just this week we learned that Mueller himself was so unhappy with the way Barr’s initial four-pager mischaracterized the report that he twice complained in the three days after that statement was released, even taking the eyebrow-raising step of sending a personal letter to the DOJ expressing his frustration.

Yet when questioned by the House Judiciary Committee on April 19 about Mueller’s opinion of his four-pager, Barr professed ignorance. (I’m not a lawyer, but is the AG supposed to lie to Congress?) Testifying again yesterday, this time in front of the friendlier, Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr resorted to unconvincing semantics to try to explain away that borderline perjury, and in the weaseliest possible way. In a stunning display of arrogance and Orwellian sabotage of the rule of law, he again flatly lied in how he framed the content of Mueller’s letter, even though it had by then been published for the whole world to see.

The chutzpah on this guy!

The Attorney General was also questioned on the related issue of whether he is being pressured by Trump to initiate politically motivated criminal investigations. Kamala Harris, like the former prosecutor she is, took Barr apart and had him stammering like the guiltiest perp on “Law and Order” ever. He never did answer definitively yes or no.

Really? Bill Barr can’t remember if he had any conversations with the President of the United States about launching investigations to punish the president’s political enemies? My eight-year-old wouldn’t try to get away with a howler like that.

(Sitting next to Harris during Barr’s cringeworthy non-response, fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker had a look on his face that was admiring, but a comic strip thought bubble over his head reading, “I’m screwed.”)

Asked about Trump’s pathological dishonesty by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barr replied, “I’m not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people.” Which is too bad, because that business is booming. At the very end of the testimony, Blumenthal had zeroed in another crucial matter—the existence of a written record of Barr’s recent phone call from Mueller, which Barr, appallingly, bluntly refused to hand over—when Lindsey Graham leapt in and ended the day’s events, a clip that is not going to age well for Barr or Graham.

How else did Bill Barr disgrace himself in front of Congress yesterday? Let me count the ways:

  • He flatly lied about what Mueller was upset about, claiming it was only about the media and how the summary was being perceived. (Read the letter—Mueller explicitly complains about Barr’s summary itself, not just the public reaction, and does not mention the media at all. Republicans continue to parrot this lie, but it is simply not there in black & white, making this an especially egregious attempt at deception on their part.)
  • He argued that Trump can rightly stop former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress, a claim that is beyond Nixonian in its view of executive power. (But we already knew Barr felt that way about the unitary executive theory.)
  • He continued to characterize properly authorized FBI surveillance conducted under a FISA warrant as “spying,” playing to his boss’s tweetstorm fits of pique and Fox Nation fantasies.
  • He claimed that the Steele dossier might include Russian disinformation, which is risible given that this administration (and the Trump campaign before it) might as well be a subsidiary of TASS.
  • Also, I’m not sure, but did the ghost of Richard Nixon just appear on live TV and say when the president orders his lawyer to lie it’s not a crime, because the one who gave the order is the president?

I could go on. Can we just go ahead and impeach this motherfucker too?

There were only two silver linings to the Bill Barr Shit Show on Capitol Hill yesterday:

First, that what little was left of Barr’s much-vaunted credibility is now gone, and second, that he has backhandedly made Mueller’s testimony before Congress an inevitability. “If there was any chance DOJ could prevent Mueller from testifying it’s gone now,” said former prosecutor Joyce White Vance. “Congress is entitled to hear from Mueller directly to see if he agrees with Barr’s characterization of his concerns and his comments.”

Not surprisingly, Barr declined to appear before the far less hospitable House Judiciary Committee today, presumably because he will be busy watching the ashes of his reputation scattered into the Potomac. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has suggested that should Adam Schiff subpoena Barr and he still refuses to appear, the House ought to exercise its power to arrest him and march him over in chains. I am heading over to Stub Hub now to get my tickets.

So in case it wasn’t already painfully clear, despite all the assurances that Bill Barr is a man of integrity and an “institutionalist” whom no one could imagine being a bagman for the likes of Donald Trump, it turns out that Barr is exactly that: a true believer, a soulless autocrat in full support of an imperial presidency (right wing version only), not at all bothered by Trump’s outrages, and more than willing to chain himself and his legacy to this rapidly sinking Liberian-flagged garbage scow. He strikes me as yet another rich old white man who has come to internalize the Fox News worldview, irrespective of his credentials and alleged reputation, and gone all in on Donny. He is the missing link between today’s Trumpified GOP and the allegedly respectable “old school,” Bush-led GOP that gave birth to it and is now undeservedly mythologized by some. (On that count I am almost grateful for him as a living reminder of that.) “Trump with a brain,” Nicole Wallace called him, abnormal though that brain appears to be….which makes him much more dangerous than regular brand Donald Trump, and exponentially more dangerous when the two are in league, melding schoolyard bully demagoguery with faux legalistic smoke-and-mirrors gibberish spouted by a soporific evil grandpa.

In short, in the words of the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, he is a hack who “can no longer function credibly as attorney general.”

The oft-asked question, therefore, of why a man like Barr would come out of retirement to go to work in the Trump administration, in a job he’s already had no less, is self-answering: Because he is not a man of integrity or principle in the first place. At all.

Bring back Matt Whitaker.

OBSTRUCOLLUSION

Setting aside this shameful right wing campaign to distort and disguise the truth, when it comes to Russigate the only remaining question is the degree to which Trump and his underlings cooperated in Moscow’s effort to influence the 2016 election, as opposed to merely serving as its happy beneficiaries.

Mueller seems to have concluded that Trump was not an active collaborator, only the passive but very willing recipient of the Kremlin’s gift-giving, a distinction which the GOP is bizarrely trumpeting as some sort of vindication and badge of honor. But even by that definition Trump’s involvement is more active than it might seem, and to understand that, it’s helpful to look at the story through a different lens.

Some months ago Ben Wittes offered the pithy formulation that “the obstruction is the collusion.” (See also Rise of the Espiocracy in these pages, January 20, 2019.) By that he meant that, in trying to stymie the Russia investigation, Trump was continuing to do the very thing of which he was accused: acting as an agent of a hostile foreign power. In concealing the scope of Russia’s actions from US intelligence and law enforcement officials, he was both serving Moscow’s interests and giving it cover to continue those attacks in the future.

Can anyone seriously argue that he is not continuing to do precisely that even now, by refusing to cooperate with Congress in its right and proper oversight role as a co-equal branch, despite compelling evidence of this behavior by Russia? Faced with the legislative branch taking over the investigative lead, Trump is waging an unconscionable campaign of defiance toward Congressional authority that even Nixon wouldn’t have dared: refusing to comply with subpoenas, suing to stop the release of banking records, ordering the Treasury Department and IRS to hide his tax returns, attempting to block White House aides from testifying (foremost among them Don McGahn), and so forth. Despite his lawyers’ specious claims, all that is well within Congress’s legitimate purview, both in terms of Trump’s demonstrable benefit from Russia’s actions and his pattern of corruption in general. Meanwhile Trump still refuses even to acknowledge that Russia interfered in our election, let alone spend any of the money allocated to harden our cyber defenses and prevent it from happening again, since he privately figures to benefit from it in 2020.

(Wittes also make some keen observations about the missing counterintelligence side of the SCO inquiry, which is a subject for another day.)

And this obstruction is a pretty winning strategy.

In his reading diary of the SCO report, Wittes offers a very compelling case that Trump so successfully obstructed justice that he prevented the special counsel from being able to uncover the full story of his conspiracy with Russia in 2016……which is kind of the whole idea of obstruction, n’est-ce pas? Charlie Sykes summarized Wittes’s argument well in a piece last week called “Did Trump’s Attempts to Obstruct Actually Work?” in the new(ish) Never Trump online magazine The Bulwark, which is a fascinating publication for any progressives out there interested in a (usually) sensible conservative view on our ongoing national nightmare.

Now, I know this sounds like exactly what we often accuse the right wing of doing, over Benghazi, and pizzagate, and Solyndra, to name just a few: refusing to accept the available facts and clinging to the delusion that there are hidden secrets that would prove us correct if only the invisible hand would remove itself. It’s a fair and predictable allegation, and one we have to be prepared to rebut.

But rebut it we can, as not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

There is ample evidence that the whole story on Team Trump’s collaboration with Russia has not yet come out, particularly in the case of Paul Manafort, whose lies to the special counsel are explicitly mentioned in the Mueller report as having hindered the investigation. Likewise the Seychelles meeting between Erik Prince, emissaries of the UAE, and Putin ally Kirill Dmitriev. (Though Adam Schiff and the House Judiciary Committee made a criminal referral to the DOJ against Prince just this week, for perjury, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Maybe Betsy DeVos can get her brother to start some adult education programs in federal prison, or he can just recruit some more hired killers for his businesses there.)

The SCO was also denied all the facts on Carter Page, Don Jr. declined to testify, and most notoriously, the White House legal team successfully kept Donald Trump from turning on his perpetual perjury machine in a face to face interview.

In other words, because of the stonewalling, the destruction of documents, the number of Trump deputies who baldly lied to the special counsel, and witness tampering with some of those same people, not to mention the ticking clock and intense pressure (some might call it “harassment”) on the SCO from the White House, the GOP-controlled Senate, and the right wing media, we may not yet know the full story of conspiracy with Russia, and possibly never will.

So one man’s tinfoil hat is another man’s Occam’s razor. To each his or her own conclusions, but for me, I’ll leave it at this:

Imagine a bank robbery where you couldn’t prove the suspect had the loot, but he was a known gangster, was at the scene of the crime, and was now covered in bright blue paint where the dyepack exploded on him.

That is certainly the feeling one gets after reading the Mueller report.

LOW CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

We have already discussed at length the difference between crimes that can be charged in a court of law with a reasonable certainty of obtaining a conviction, and what is morally wrong, poisonous to our democracy, and/or an eyepopping counterintelligence threat….that is to say, high crimes and misdemeanors. It is that latter half of that dichotomy with which we are now rightly concerned, no matter how much the perpetrators of those offenses would have us believe that this is settled science and there is nothing to see here, folks, let’s move along.

Trump need not have actively conspired with the Kremlin for his behavior to be outrageous and warrant ejection from office. For a reminder of that, let’s go to no less an authority than Senator Lindsey Graham, the former litigator who served as one of Bill Clinton’s prosecutors during his Senate impeachment trial in 1998, when he was accused of offenses far less than Trump is:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

Get ready to hear those words on an endless loop for the next eighteen months, Lindsey.

So let me make a statement that may sound absurd in its sheer obviousness:

The actions described in the Mueller report constitute a grave scandal, unprecedented in American history, that ought to rock the nation to its core and trigger severe political and legal ramifications, to include the removal from office of the current President of the United States.

The reason I feel obliged to state that blindingly self-evident point is because, as you may have noticed, many Americans don’t see it that way.

But history sure will.

Where is the outcry from the Republican side of the aisle? Where are the conservatives who screamed bloody murder about 44’s alleged “imperial presidency” and “executive overreach”? Hell, the right wing was ready to march on the White House with torches and pitchforks when Obama wore a khaki-colored suit. (A recent supercut of Fox News attacks on Obama makes this hypocrisy crystal clear.)

Now all I hear from the right of center is crickets. And that is the subject we will delve into next week in the second installment of this series….

 

 

 

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