Thursday, February 21, 2019

BTRTN: What, Exactly, is the "Heart" of the Special Counsel's Investigation?


There are mixed messages coming out about the Mueller investigation, and Steve has a theory about how to square them.

Rise and shine, and welcome to the big buzz of this morning: reports are flying that Robert Mueller will deliver his final report very soon… possibly within days.

Many of us have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Mueller’s report, but the notion that it could happen before the end of February actually has many Trump loathers a bit concerned. The primary alarm bell is the very real possibility that Mueller concludes his work without even interviewing Donald Trump, Jr., and without issuing indictments to Junior or to Jared. Donald Junior hosted the famous Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016, which is considered to be perhaps the clearest example of documented collusion: the full email trail leading up to the meeting states that Trump was eager to get the “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that the Russians were offering.

The fact that there is no indictment of Donald Trump, Jr. – indeed, no public record that he has even been interviewed by the special prosecutor’s office – could therefore be interpreted as a sign that Mueller does not intend to conclude that Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia with the intent to influence the 2016 election. Mueller could certainly throw the book at Trump for obstruction of justice… but it will be a heckuva lot harder to make that stick in the court of public opinion if there is no charge or proof that a crime was committed.

All the more puzzling, because such an outcome doesn’t square with a discovery made by the sleuths at The New York Times just last week. They found a very revealing comment from Robert Mueller’s lead investigator in the non-redacted section of the transcript of a closed-door session with a Federal Judge. “This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here,” the transcript quotes Andrew Weissmann, one of the most prominent prosecutors in the special counsel’s office. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”

What, exactly, did Weissmann mean by that?

Somehow this quote managed to elude the redacting police. Then again, since the special counsel’s team completes every “i” with a perfectly spherical dot, we may infer that someone in Mueller’s camp actually wanted the world to see that particular phrase.

Heady stuff indeed. The closed-door hearing in question was held to determine whether Paul Manafort had violated the terms of his plea agreement by lying to the special prosecutors under oath. Mueller’s team had to appear before the judge to prove that Manafort had indeed lied to them in order to have the plea agreement voided. During the hearing, the judge had posed a question to the special prosecutor, asking why the particular subject of Manafort’s purported lie was so darn important. That’s when one of Robert Mueller’s top lieutenants got so emotionally charged up in the courtroom that he passionately explained that this particular lie was at the “heart” of the entire investigation.

The Times’ reporting on the matter was rather breathy as well. The story began with this line: “Of the few hints to emerge from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, about evidence of possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia, one of the most tantalizing surfaced almost in passing in a Washington courtroom last week.”

C’mon, NYT, do you really think Andrew Weissman would have gotten that worked up about “evidence of possible collusion?” Like after two years he has not yet encountered “evidence of possible collusion?”

Does The Times really think Mueller’s investigation has led to just “a few hints” of collusion? 

For heaven’s sake, The New York Times, your own investigative reporters have exposed more than “a few hints” on page one of your own paper. Get real.

From where we sit, there appears to be more “evidence of possible collusion” already sitting in plain sight than there are commercials for Trivago, golfers named Jason, Justin, Jordon, or Dustin, or even Democratic candidates for President. Geez, there’s probably a website called The Daily Collusion.

There was the platform change at the Republican Convention, Don Junior’s meeting at Trump Tower, the timed leak of the Podesta emails, Jared’s proposed secret back-channel to Russia, there was Flynn’s conversation about sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, there is Manafort handing Trump polling data to the Russians. There is the fact that virtually all the senior Trump campaign officials involved in these exact matters lied about them under oath. There was Trump’s claim that he had nothing to do with the White House statement explaining the Trump Tower meeting, and then his formal reversal and acknowledgment that he had dictated the memo. There is the fact that Gates, Flynn, and Manafort have already entered guilty pleas for lying to the FBI about their dealings with Russia. There is the videotape of candidate Trump colluding on national television, asking Russia to find and hand over the missing Clinton emails.

Heck, the other day I switched from Rachel Maddow to Rachael Ray because I was so tired of hearing new evidence of collusion.

Everyone – and The Times in particular -- seemed to be assuming that when Andrew Weissmann referred to “the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating” that he was referring to evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

I don’t think that’s why he got so animated with the Judge.

Here’s a different theory, which involves the trajectory of the Mueller investigation. We tend to think of Mueller’s probe as four discrete areas of investigation:

1. Establishing whether or not Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

2. Establishing whether or not there was a conspiracy among Trump campaign officials to work with Russia to meddle with the election.

3. Establishing whether the then-candidate for and now President of the United States was aware of and actively approved of any Trump campaign collusion with Russian officials to meddle with the election.

4. Establishing whether or not the President of the United States obstructed justice in order to hinder investigations into his own and his campaign’s involvement with Russia to meddle with the election.

It is, of course, already a matter of record that Mueller’s team issued 12 indictments of Russia nationals, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 election. Point 1 is settled: Mueller – like the rest of the United States intelligence community – is certain that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

Let's quickly jump to point 4. There was reporting back in August, 2018, that Mueller’s team had actually completed its work on charges of obstruction of justice (that's point 4), but had decided to not release those findings until it had addressed the issue of collusion. The theory at the time was that it would be hard to make an obstruction case hold up if Mueller could not prove that there had been an underlying crime. So Point 4 seems to be complete as well. 

Point 2? Well, that’s why we made the joke about The Daily Collusion, and piled up all of the evidence that has surfaced and now sits in plain sight. The list we compiled above reveals repeated instances of not simple contact, but of conversations in which a transaction is clearly implied. The change to the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign platform regarding the Ukraine appears to have been a “call and response” linked to the Podesta emails. Donald Trump Junior gleefully agreed to a meeting with Russian government officials who were offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And in the very meeting in the Grand Havana Room in New York City that was the subject of Andrew Weissmann’s quote about the “heart” of the investigation, Paul Manafort and his campaign deputy Rick Gates met with Russian Konstantine Kilimnik, who is widely believed to have close ties with Russian intelligence. The subject of that meeting is alleged to have been a discussion of an exchange in which Manafort would provide Kilimnik with the polling data Russians could use to try to sway the election, and, in return, Kilimnik outlined a “peace plan” on the Ukraine that benefited Russia which Trump administration would be expected to endorse.

Quid, meet pro quo.

Let’s follow our hunch and say that Mueller’s team already had a fair amount of evidence that members of the Trump campaign team had meetings with the clear intent of accepting Russia’s offer to help influence the outcome of the 2016 elections.

But somehow, it was Grand Havana meeting in August of 2016 that cut to the “heart” of the Mueller investigation.

Here’s my theory: for Weissmann and Mueller, the “heart” of the investigation is actually point #3: establishing whether or not Donald Trump was aware of, complicit in, or overtly approving actions of conspiracy and collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
 
Mueller knows that Donald Trump Junior could have taken the Trump Tower meeting with Russia government officials on his own initiative, and could deny that he ever told his father about it. Or that Paul Manafort was trying to peddle campaign polling data to reduce his own massive personal debt. Or that Michael Flynn is, and always has been, a corrupt rogue operator cutting his own deals on the side for personal enrichment. Weissmann and Mueller suspect that Trump was aware of each effort to contact the Russians, but they need proof. Proof that is hard to get, because unlike Watergate, there are no tapes. Proof that is hard to get, because Donald Trump never writes emails. Proof that is hard to get, because it is entirely possible that the only two people who ever talked to Trump about the campaign’s dealings with Russia were Don Junior, who will never talk, and Paul Manafort, who appears to be a scattered, reckless, feckless flip-flopper who cannot figure out whether his best bet is to go for a plea deal or lobby for a pardon.

The theory continues: let’s hypothesize that Mueller’s team has testimony from Rick Gates, who swears under oath that Manafort was informing Trump about the campaign’s contacts with Russia. On the other hand, we assume that the special counsel also has a trove of conflicting, changing, and disjointed statements from Paul Manafort in which he claims to have told Trump about Russia on one day, and – going for the pardon – reverses that statement and denies it the next.

Mueller’s team decides that they need to jettison Manafort, whose testimony is completely worthless to anyone. They need to crush any lingering shred of Manafort’s credibility, to be sure that he is never paraded as a witness in defense of Donald Trump.

So they submit a petition to a judge in New York City that alleges they have proof that Manafort lied to the special counsel after entering into a plea agreement.

Our speculation continues: they cite a number of inconsistencies between what Gates tells them about the Grand Havana meeting and what Manafort has told them. Let's bet that Gates cites chapter and verse about the background, substance, and outcome of the meeting: that Manafort talked about the polling data so Russia can help Trump in the election, and Kilimnik outlines the position that Trump will take regarding the Ukraine. They are outlining a quid pro quo. Gates is able to point to follow-up meetings on the same topic. Manafort provides the same vague reasons for the meeting that Kilimnik once floated – that they were talking about bills owed by former clients -- and claims there is no follow-up. Calendars show that Gates is telling the truth. Andrew Weissmann tells the judge that Manafort’s plea deal must be tossed out, because Manafort is lying about this meeting.

The judge is wary. As reported in The New York Times, the judge pressed the special counsel's office to explain why the particular lie in question was is so important.

It is then that Weissman, we suspect, explains the real goal of the special counsel’s request. They need to utterly discredit Manafort as a witness for any party at any time.

Because Paul Manafort, angling for a pardon, is now claiming that he never told Donald Trump about the campaign’s contacts with Russian. And that is the big lie. That is the lie Mueller and Weissmann care about.

To the judge, Weismann declares the line that was not redacted and was reported in The New York Times: “This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here.  This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”

We wonder if Weissmann’s public, non-redacted quote is followed by a heavily redacted section that might read something like this: “We believe that we can prove that Donald Trump was aware of, and in many instances directed, the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.  We cannot let a desperate and pathological liar like Paul Manafort get on anybody’s witness stand to confuse people on this point. At this point, his credibility is so tarnished that the only purpose he could serve is to muddy the waters and create doubt. He cannot be allowed to testify. Not for Trump, not against Trump, not for the United States, not against the United States. Publicly nullifying his plea agreement for lying under oath will serve this purpose.”

Perhaps the “heart of the special counsel’s investigation” is establishing that Donald J. Trump is “Colluder 1.”

Why wasn’t Weissmann’s comment redacted? It’s possible somebody goofed. But we doubt it. The special prosecutor's office is too disciplined to let something out that they don’t want out. No, we suspect that Mueller wanted to make sure that everyone knows that conspiracy and collusion are still very much on the table. Particularly if he suspected that his soon-to-be-approved new boss has ideas of pressuring Mueller to bring his investigation to a rapid and premature conclusion. 

Perhaps the new Attorney General thinks that his best chance of saving Trump’s ass is to force the report into the public before Mr. Weissmann has actually gotten all the way to the “heart.”

Because that is what may be happening.

A new Attorney General is sworn in, and suddenly the Mueller report will be issued within “days.”

Sure, we’ve been saying for a year that we’d love to see that report as soon as is humanly possible.

We’ve urgently wanted to see it, not just for our own curiosity, but for sake of the Constitution, the balance of power, the rule of law, and the United States of America.

But now? Now we want to feel certain that Mr. Mueller and Mr. Weissman have all the time they need.

Don’t be rushed.

Do the job you’ve been asked to do, in exactly the way you think it should be done. Don’t let the new Attorney General force the issue.

Take your time.

Mr. Weissmann, go for it. Get to the heart of the matter. 



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Saturday, February 16, 2019

BTRTN 2020 Vision: The Senators Have Arrived, Next Come the “B’s”


Tom with our BTRTN monthly feature on the 2020 Elections.

The 2020 campaign ramped up considerably in the last month, as the Democratic field nearly doubled from six to eleven, and the GOP field did double from one to two.  And it is entirely possible that both fields could double again in the coming months.
Image result for 2020 vision 
For the Democrats, the key end-date for entering the fray is probably May 31. The national debate schedule has been announced; the first one will be held in June (those early debates will actually be held on pairs of nights to accommodate the anticipated large field).  No Democrat will want to miss that opportunity.   But realistically, with nearly a dozen candidates traipsing through Iowa and New Hampshire (and South Carolina) already, only Joe Biden can really afford to wait too much longer than, say, March 31 to get in the game.

On the GOP side, the calculus for “primarying” Trump is more complicated with respect to timing, as the only likely trigger is the Mueller report.  If it is utterly damning, it could tempt several big names to challenge Trump, and that could be true even if the Dems decide against initiating an impeachment process.


THE FIELD

Pop quiz:  can you name the entire eleven-person-to-date Democratic field?  You can probably reel off the five Senators:  Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker.  You probably would have more trouble with a former Cabinet member and two U.S. representatives; Julian Castro might ring a few bells, Tulsi Gabbard perhaps some, and John Delaney none at all.  And real kudos if you can name any of the other three:  Mayor (of South Bend, Indiana) Pete Buttigeig, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and, most mysterious of all, Marianne Williamson, who is typically described as a self-help author or New Age lecturer, or more informally as “Oprah’s Spiritual Advisor.”  (And a grand bonus for anyone who knows how to pronounce “Buttigeig” – impress your friends with “boot-edge-edge.”)

But there are, of course, many other potentials, including the remaining “B’s - Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Sherrod Brown, Steve Bullock, Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders – as well as others (the “HIJKLM’s”?) such as John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Mitch Landrieu, Terry McAuliffe and Jeff Merkley (and possibly more.)

The pundit “report card” on the five major candidate “launches” generally gave high marks to Harris, Klobuchar and Booker and lower ones to Warren and Gillibrand.

·       Warren, the best known of the group, continues to be bedeviled by her claims of Native American heritage.  She has attempted to counterbalance this struggle with both policy specifics on her far left positioning (which is well-aligned with the current mood of the Democrats), and her Trump-bashing zeal.  But she has not been completely successful in this effort and the heritage issue has been a drag at the outset of her campaign.

·       Klobuchar, on the other hand, was a winner with her staging and seems to be successfully countering the breaking news that she was known for being “abusive” to her senatorial staff.  While a centrist all the way, Klobuchar’s relative youth, personal appeal and Midwestern state strength are giants assets in the field.

·       Harris is attempting to pull off the balancing act with the catchphrase “progressive prosecutor,” a rather oxymoronic positioning reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”  Being a former prosecutor is normally an excellent credential, but not for today’s Democrats who see crowded jails filled with targeted, profiled minorities.  But Harris used her formidable social media presence to get a Trump-esque crowd of 20,000 out for her launch, and her charisma carried it off, albeit while being deliberately light on the policy specifics.

·       Booker did no particular harm with his launch, while Gillibrand did no particular good, which she could ill-afford given her 1% standing in the polls.

On the GOP side, the incumbent, an unassuming fellow by the name of Donald Trump, now has his first official challenger, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who announced earlier this week. 

Who else might jump in if Trump is sufficiently weakened by Mueller?  There are a host of prominent names, including former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, former Governor of Ohio John Kasich, and the brand new freshman Senator from Utah, Mitt Romney.  Flake will probably be content that Weld is in the race, as he had indicated his sole interest in running was simply to ensure that Trump did not go unchallenged.   Kasich, at 66, and Hogan, at 62, would be much smarter to bide their time until 2024 (or 2028).

For Romney, 71, on the other hand, the future could be now.  He is, of course, a known quantity, and I doubt he got back into the game simply to represent Utah.  He has already positioned himself as, essentially, the “moral alternative” to Trump; he is not straying far from Trump on policy – he supported the Wall, for instance.  But he has made it clear that he considers Trump beneath the dignity of the office.  And all he needs is the opening that Mueller might give him.

And then there is Howard Schultz, the ex-Starbucks CEO, who has yet to announce but made a splash by making it clear that if he ran it would be as an Independent.  Since he is aligned with the Democrats on all issues save the debt/deficit (an issue that neither party is concerned with now), it is clear that if he made an independent run, he would siphon votes disproportionately off the Democratic nominee and benefit Trump.  I’m sure he knew that impression might be out there when he floated his balloon, but if not, he sure knows it now.  We’ll see if he goes through with this plan, but the obvious question is:  why would he not simply run as a Democrat?


THE NUMBERS

The polls at this point likely are as much indicative of the “name awareness” levels of each candidate rather than true preferences.  The chart below tracks polling over the last several months, and several key points emerge:

·       Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the clear frontrunners at this point.  What is interesting about the two is their common age (late 70’s) and their virtually polar opposite positioning on the ideological spectrum within the Democratic Party, with Biden the ultimate centrist/moderate and Sanders the progressive “Democratic Socialist.”  Some of the polls ask for a “second choice” and, surprisingly, Biden and Sanders are #2 behind the other, which shows that, awareness is dominating policy in these early days.

·       Neither’s position has been dented in the slightest by the five Senators’ launches in January and February

·       Kamala Harris is the clear winner in the launch stakes thus far, more than doubling her numbers and vaulting into double digits.  While Warren and Booker showed slight upward movement from their efforts, Gillibrand, starting from nothing, got nothing.  Klobuchar’s launch, the latest of the group, is not reflected in any of the polls.

·       Beto better get moving.  He has lost some ground with his dithering and this is not a time to pull a Hamlet a la Mario Cuomo.  The voters may wait for Biden, but it is less likely that they will wait for Beto.




Polls
Potential Candidates
Announced
Oct/Nov 2018
Dec 2018
Jan 1-15
Jan 16 - Feb 15
Biden

25
24
28
29
Sanders

18
17
15
17
Harris
Yes
5
5
4
11
Warren
Yes
5
5
6
7
O'Rourke

9
13
8
7
Booker
Yes
4
4
2
4
Bloomberg

3
2
2
3
Klobuchar
Yes
1
2
2
2
Brown

1
3
1
1
Castro
Yes
0
0
1
1
Bullock

0
0
0
1
Gillibrand
Yes
1
1
1
1
Hickenlooper

0
0
0
1
Holder

0
1
0
1
Yang
Yes
0
0
0
1
Gabbard
Yes
0
0
1
1
Buttigeig
Yes
0
0
0
0
Inslee

0
0
0
0
Delaney
Yes
0
0
0
0
Williamson
Yes
0
0
0
0
Clinton

10
9
12
n/a

Clearly some of the other potential nominees are waiting for Biden to move, and he, in turn, with nothing to gain by an early announcement, has caused them to lose ground to the Senators.  Sherrod Brown occupies more or less the same space as Biden (he is basically positioning himself as “Biden without the flaws.”)   Mike Bloomberg, who has traversed every political party at this point, much be wondering if his crossover messages can ever possibly gain traction in the left-swinging Democratic Party.   And those western governors/ex-governors, Inslee, Bullock and Hickenlooper, have to be calculating whether their long shot efforts can break through.

There have been only two polls in Iowa, with some intriguing variations versus the national numbers (see below).  Harris has vaulted into the first tier here, eclipsing Sanders, who has shown some modest falloff.  Warren also is making inroads, while Beto’s star is fading.  And the northeasterners, Booker and Gillibrand, are not playing well in Des Moines, at least as yet.  It will be interesting to see if Klobuchar’s launch propels her into contention in a neighboring state that should be strong for her; it is somewhat surprising how low her profile is there now, even recognizing that these are essentially pre-launch numbers.


DM Register
Date
Dec. 10-13
Jan 30-Feb 2
Biden
32
29
Harris
5
18
Sanders
19
15
Warren
8
11
O'Rourke
11
6
Booker
4
4
Brown
1
4
Klobuchar
3
3
Castro
1
2
Gillibrand
--
1

And a PPP poll in late January shows that the main contenders all are faring quite well in head-to-head polling versus Donald Trump.   Note that Trump is at 41-42% versus all of them, and the variation among the Dems reflects awareness, with Biden and Sanders at the head of the list.  This is a very ominous set of numbers for Trump, since the 41/42 precisely reflects his approval rating.  It also recalls a recent Washington Post poll that shows that 56% of voters would “definitely not” vote for Trump.  If Trump’s ceiling, regardless of opponent, is 45% or lower, he cannot win in 2020.   And since he is playing only to his base, finding a catalyst for upward movement above 45% will be a challenge.

Dem
Trump
Margin
Biden
53
41
12
Sanders
51
41
10
Harris
48
41
7
Warren
48
42
6
O'Rourke
47
41
6
Gillibrand
47
42
5
Booker
47
42
5

By next month we expect to see some of the B’s make their decisions, and others as well.  Perhaps even Joe Biden, and the race will flip into high-gear once he makes his decision, either way.

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