Tag Archives: Mueller

Whistling by the Graveyard

On August 25, 2018, the New York Times published a “News Analysis” of Donald Trump’s treatment of the American legal system:  Trump’s War on the Justice System Threatens to Erode Trust in the Law, by Michael D. Shear and Katie Benner. https://nyti.ms/2oINv1V

The piece opens with this:

In his attempt at self-defense amid the swirl of legal cases and investigations involving himself, his aides and his associates, Mr. Trump is directly undermining the people and processes that are the foundation of the nation’s administration of justice.

The result is a president at war with the law.

Further, and presciently,

The president’s public judgments about the country’s top law enforcement agencies revolve largely around how their actions affect him personally – a vision that would recast the traditionally independent justice system as a guardian of the president and an attack dog against his adversaries.

The comment ends with this:

“No matter when this all ends, Trump will have caused long-lasting damage to the ability of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to execute on its mission…. He is sacrificing our public safety and national security on the altar of his own ego.” [quoting Christopher Hunter, a former FBI agent and prosecutor]

Certainly, the authors could not have precisely foreseen how Trump’s approach to governance would lead to the present circumstances, but their overall impression of the direction of Trump’s presidency was stunningly accurate.

Now, perhaps emboldened by what he convinced himself was “exoneration” by Mueller and thus a free hand going forward, Trump has been caught out trying to use a foreign power to influence the 2020 election. And, the evidence is clear, Trump and his loyal team of lawyers, who were also allowed to skate by Mueller, have clumsily tried to cover up the president’s crimes by secreting the records in a computer system designed to contain only coded high-security information. Indications are that this is not the first time they have done this. As we have come to expect, Trump responded to all this by threatening his “enemies,” attacking the press and deflecting by inventing others’ offenses that he purports to expose.

All of that was simply too much for the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who called for an impeachment inquiry and had the votes to do it. Trump responded by declaring that Pelosi was no longer the Speaker of the House. This from a man who publicly swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Also, as we have come to expect, Republican enablers in and outside the White House rushed to Trump’s defense with all manner of false and hysterical claims. While the wagons were being circled, more news emerged, including that Secretary of State Pompeo was listening on the Trump-Zelensky call even though he indicated otherwise in television interviews. Trump is demanding to “face my accuser” and has said that the White House is trying to determine the whistleblower’s identity even though the governing law provides for protection of that individual’s identity. Trump supporters have offered a large cash award for anyone who will conclusively identify the whistleblower. Trump has not repudiated them for this action, arguably putting the whistleblower’s life in danger.

And so it goes. Meanwhile, the Editorial Board of the New York Times and the editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have both called for Trump to resign. Likely, other major newspapers will join the list. What goes around ….

The Times if, of course, still trying for “journalistic balance,” by giving print space to defenders of Trump to make their case. The same Sunday that the Times printed “The Allegations Are Grave. An Election Is at Risk. The Founders Were Clear,” a half-page op-ed appeared, entitled “Impeachment Is an Act of Desperation,” by Christopher Buskirk, publisher and editor of the very conservative website American Greatness. Buskirk’s argument is the reason for the title of this post.

Buskirk posits that by proceeding with an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s conduct, the Democrats are playing into the Republicans’ hands and assuring Trump of victory in 2020. Why? Because (1) “we’ve all been down this road before” and nothing Trump has done or said so far has affected his support that “has bounced around in more or less the same range since he took office,” (2) what about Hunter Biden in Ukraine? (3) impeachment “success requires broad public support,” and (4) Democrats can only beat Trump by focusing on the issues.

The corollary to the first point is that “there will be no resignation, there will be no conviction in the Senate.” That is probably true, but it misses the point that Trump’s conduct is so egregious across a broad range of areas and issues that a well-presented impeachment case in the House will serve the Democratic agenda in 2020 as well or better than any candidate on her/his own. It also ignores the Democratic sweep of House seats, and return to a majority there, in 2018. Finally, to claim that Trump’s popularity has not been affected by his prior egregious acts in office ignores the reality that his “popularity” is very low. These are not the likely elements of a winning position.

Buskirk’s second point is the classic Republican trope transplanted from Barack Obama (the usual target of Trump ego-angst) to Joe and Hunter Biden. But, no matter what the Bidens may have done in Ukraine, and so far there is no evidence of wrongdoing, a point made repeatedly by past and present Ukrainian officials with reason to know, it would not justify Trump’s attempt to arm-twist a foreign government into investigating a domestic political opponent. Except for self-defense against physical threats, American law does not support a defense that “someone else broke the law so I can too.” This is essentially the “Hillary’s emails” defense and it’s worthless. As Yogi Berra famously said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Buskirk’s third point – impeachment success requires broad public support – is, I believe, simply wrong. Impeachment requires only a smartly executed process of compiling and presenting for public viewing the evidence of corruption in the multiple scenarios in which Trump has acted as if he were above the law. But even if Buskirk’s claim is right, we are in early days and it’s premature to conclude that the public won’t get on board as the evidence of Trump’s venality and illegality is presented. Again, this assumes the presentation is properly done. I have argued repeatedly that this must not turn into another political show with politicians sitting on the House committees trying to act like practicing prosecutors. Develop a list of “points to be proved” and leave the questioning to experts that know how to do it.

Finally, the fourth point that defeating Trump requires beating him on the “issues,” is an attempt to divert attention from what is at the root of the current mess. Trump has willfully violated a serious federal law designed to protect American elections from foreign interference and then tried to cover it up. Moving the records to a secret computer for coded security information is functionally equivalent to Richard Nixon’s deletion of 18.5 minutes of tapes involving a crucial meeting between the President and his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the revelation of which ultimately destroyed Nixon’s support in the Senate and forced his resignation prior to being impeached and removed. Trump’s crimes are extremely serious and they follow a thoroughly documented showing of at least 10 prior instances of criminal obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report. He was only saved from indictment by Mueller because the Department of Justice, dubiously, has opined that a sitting president may not be indicted.

Buskirk argues that impeachment of Trump now is just “political theater” and “more Washington psychodrama.” He claims the voters are simply uninterested in the crimes Trump may have committed and that they “just want to know what Washington is going to do for them.”

Methinks Buskirk has it backwards. Trump’s most ardent supporters seem only interested in political theater. The proof is evident in the endless tapes of Trump’s rallies that have little or nothing to do with “issues” and everything to do with performance. Trump is a star in that crowd because … he’s a star. He gives voice to their anger and fear and they see no irony in the fact that he is rich and unlike them in almost every way. He does not really share their fear and anger; he puts on the show they came to see and they love him for it even though the hard evidence is that he has done virtually nothing to make their lives better.

And that is the ultimate point. Even if Buskirk’s assessment regarding the “issues” is correct, it fails to reckon with Trump’s massive and ongoing failure to deliver on most of his electoral promises. If indeed it is only “issues” that will motivate the voters, and Trump’s illegal and immoral conduct of the Office of President and multiple violations of his oath of office are not “issues” of interest or force in the election, Trump’s performance still fails. Most of his governance actions are for “show” to impress his political base but it is not a stretch to show how he has failed to deliver.

So, is impeachment a mistake? I don’t think so. Democrats have been handed a weapon by Trump that needs to be used with surgical precision. We have a criminal in the White House, a person who does not respect the office he holds or guiding principles of the government he swore to serve. It should not be hard for the Democrats to show this to the electorate in a compelling way, to motivate their own base to go the polls in 2020 and, if Donald Trump still sits in the White House, to send him packing.

Going Along to Get Along

Since the news of Donald Trump’s latest criminality is racing ahead faster than I can keep up, I’m just going to engage in a little homespun philosophizing for a moment. The subject is “inevitability.” By that I mean the inevitability that some things that start badly will end badly.

Trump, we now know (Mueller) was elected with the substantial help of Russia. To that extent, at least, he is an illegitimate president. The majority of the American electorate, by a margin of about 3 million votes, wanted someone else to be president. Someone who, while far from ideal and with some troubling history, had shown for many years a high degree of intelligence, commitment to important human values and a willingness to serve her country, if not perfectly, at least with a serious commitment to protect its interests.

The person who was elected was not demonstrably qualified to be president. He was qualified, if at all, to be what he was: a real estate tycoon, staked by cash from his father, who had managed to bankrupt casinos, an airline, and a multitude of other businesses bearing his name. He had a reputation for dishonesty, for refusing to pay his bills, for using the legal system to bully and intimidate others and a reputation as a misogynist who was buddies with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein. His life was so exposed to public view that there was no doubt about his character and values, made all the clearer by the revelations in the Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape. Many Republican stalwarts of the day, such as the US Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, spoke of him in the most derogatory terms imaginable: “a race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot” who is “putting our soldiers and diplomats at risk” and “empowering our enemies.” https://cnn.it/2DjJHdC Another Republican leader of presumed integrity, Mitt Romney, described this person as “so not smart.”

Nevertheless, with help from Russia, Donald Trump rose to the top of the manure pile that was the Republican nominee class. Further aided by the Electoral College, a vestige of another time and country we thought had passed into history, Trump vanquished all the Republican contenders and won the general election. His most ardent supporters didn’t care whether he was qualified. They were against his opponent and liked that he “told it like it is” even though independent fact-checkers found that Trump lied multiple times a day. It took only a few days for his prior critics, Graham and Romney among them, to undergo a complete transformation. Romney went begging for a Cabinet job (rejected) and Graham became one of Trump’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When Robert Mueller produced conclusive evidence that Trump had committed at least 10 significant acts of criminal obstruction of justice, Graham said he didn’t care about that “obstruction of justice stuff.” https://bit.ly/2mAPxAt

In office, Trump’s conduct has matched his résumé. His speech is full of bigoted and often incomprehensible hate rhetoric. His policies have been rejected by the courts in a multitude of cases. His cabinet appointees proved to include a large number of grifters in it for the perks and unqualified incompetents with no idea how to manage a large federal department. Many have resigned in disgrace. There have been more indictments and jail terms handed out in Trump’s administration that in any modern presidency except Nixon (who resigned when impeachment was imminent) and he’s only in his third year.

The evidence is now in, and Trump has admitted most of the essential actions involved, showing that Trump tried to get the help of a foreign power to undermine his (currently) main 2020 challenger, Joe Biden. The evidence of Trump’s illegal conduct was apparently recognized by multiple staff and thus the records of the call were moved to a coded computer intended for other purposes on the “direction of White House lawyers” or other “White House officials,” which may be the same thing in this case (to be determined).

This is not, of course, out of the ordinary. The Mueller Report, about which I published a series of too-long analyses in this blog, documented multiple undisputed cases in which White House staff were directed by Trump to engage in acts constituting criminal obstruction of justice. While Mueller was unduly impressed with the failure of some of those staff, including attorneys, to carry out all of Trump’s obstruction directives, I showed there were cases in which they clearly did what Trump demanded. Mueller’s failure to indict those people remains unexplained and inexplicable.

This, then, is the central theme of the Trump administration. An entire collection of Republican elected officials, comprising a majority of the Senate, and a number of White House staff, including attorneys, have actively participated in the crimes and the coverup of those crimes.

Why do they risk everything for this?

It’s hard to fathom. For some, no doubt, it’s just the money. Or it’s just keeping the job. For some, it’s possibly the innate resistance we all have to uncertainty and major changes in our lives. For some, I’m sure, there is a misguided attachment to some ideology that they convinced themselves is being promoted by this president.  In all cases, it’s easier, much easier, to go along to get along than to do the right thing. It’s hard to give the advice no one wants to hear. If, as in Trump’s case, the boss has a short fuse, is easily angered and has made clear that personal loyalty to him is more important than virtually anything else, it’s hard to get yelled at, called out and humiliated in front of colleagues for not being a “team player,” “putting everyone at risk” and being called a rat. It’s very hard to be the odd-man-out when a big challenge is on the table and everyone else is either deferring to someone else or simply agreeing to avoid being called out. Going along to get along is the easy path. Standing on principles is very difficult.

Thus, going along rules the day. With each affirmation, each failure to object, the pressure to stay that course mounts until, in all likelihood, the possibility of taking a stand for principle, for the right thing, doesn’t even arise any more.

These outcomes, which are commonplace in society and entrenched in Trump’s history and his performance as president, are, I think, the inevitable consequence of electing someone who is fundamentally not competent to do what is probably one of the most difficult jobs in the world. And that inevitability is all the more assured when the mitigating influences are stilled.

It’s not just the Mitt Romneys and Lindsey Grahams and Mitch McConnells who are responsible, though they certainly bear huge responsibility. It’s also the voters who stayed home; it’s the voters who said “if it’s not Bernie, I won’t vote or I’ll just vote for Trump;” it’s the voters who didn’t think about the question of qualifications at all and just thought it was cool that Trump called his opponents by insulting nicknames and threatened to ban Muslims and immigrants from the United States. It’s the voters who still think a woman’s place is … nowhere. It’s the voters who are racists and religious bigots. It’s the inevitable result of all those actions, inactions and indifference.

There was, I believe, no chance that Donald Trump’s presidency could have been successful by any reasonable standard. It was clear early on that the Republican Party establishment would go along to get along; that the types of people Trump admired and appointed to cabinet and high government posts were often unqualified ideologues, in it for themselves and no one else. It was clear that nothing of substance was going to change. Inevitability was driven by the root problem of Trump’s incompetence, dishonesty, immorality and insecurity, all of which was there to be seen.

We now have arrived at the denouement of this sad, pathetic saga. Trump has admitted to seeking the aid of a foreign power to help him win the 2020 election. He participated in a coverup, adding to the multiple violations of fundamental American law of which he is guilty. He was aided in this by multiple White House staff who were going along to get along.  The time has come for a reckoning.

As I have written elsewhere, the proceedings in the House of Representatives should move forward with deliberateness. The relevant committees should hold multiple hearings to set out the evidence not only about the Ukraine episode and coverup but also the evidence of criminal obstruction of justice from the Mueller Report. The evidence should be presented by experts, and hostile witnesses should be cross-examined by retained expert trial counsel.

Above all, take the time to do this right. The American public needs to understand all of what happened, presented in a way that ordinary people can understand. DO NOT allow another Lewandowski style hearing to occur. If the committees are going to do their jobs, insist that testimony be presented under oath and if questions are refused without claims of 5th Amendment privilege, arrest the witnesses and hold them in contempt of Congress. This is the job the American people expect and deserve from their elected leaders. The time has come for a reckoning.

There is much talk in the press about whether a majority of Americans support impeachment. That, I suggest, is the wrong question. This is not a political popularity contest whose outcome should depend on ever-shifting polls. Impeachment, rarely used because it is so serious, is about holding to account a lawless regime that threatens to undermine the democratic republic that was created by the Constitution. If the case is properly made, the majority of Americans will support the action. The Republicans in the Senate will undoubtedly act as they have always acted, supporting the regime no matter what it does. So be it. Make the case for the voters to see. Do it professionally and soberly in keeping with the gravity of the task.

It will be hard for politicians, especially those running for president, to give up some of the limelight but it is essential that they do so in the interest of bringing an end to the massive and unrelenting corruption that has infested the Trump presidency from its inception. The time has come for a reckoning.

 

Omertà – The Vow of Silence

Once again, it is reported that putative president Trump has “ordered” certain citizens to either limit or completely refuse to respond to questions from a duly authorized congressional investigating committee looking into, among other things, Trump’s conduct of the office of president and probable instances of illegality as documented in the recent report of the Office of the Special Prosecutor (the Mueller Report). This is not the first time, not is it likely to be the last, as Trump desperately employs every tactic possible to prevent a true accounting of his crimes.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, reportedly has said that Trump’s position is a “shocking and dangerous assertion” and that

 “The President would have us believe that he can willfully engage in criminal activity and prevent witnesses from testifying before Congress – even if they did not actually work for him or his administration.”

Yes, that is exactly what Trump is doing. Trump appears to believe he’s still running a reality TV show.

On the face of it, Trump’s demands for omertà, the mob vow of silence regarding talking to law enforcement, are just another example of multiple instances of his criminal obstruction of justice. It appears that his lawyers have advised him that this strategy can be based on the principle of “executive privilege” that was analyzed and interpreted narrowly in the seminal case of United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), in which President Nixon tried to defeat a congressional subpoena for the Watergate tapes. Trump’s position has more kinship with the Mafia version of omertà than to any legally sound claim of executive immunity from congressional oversight.

For one thing, in the current situation, Corey Lewandowski, the target of one subpoena, never worked in the White House. At a minimum, that reality makes the extension of executive privilege to Lewandowski’s actions and knowledge a bridge too far. As for testimony by former White House aides Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn, Trump has asserted “absolute immunity” to their responding to any and all questions about their time in the White House.

This seems on its face to be a losing position. United States v. Nixon pretty well disposed of the idea that executive privilege was “absolute” and that a president could prevent the production of evidence by blanket assertions of privilege. At best Trump may buy some time with this stalling tactic but is almost certain to lose in the courts, assuming, of course, that the House Judiciary Committee does not simply accept this rejection of American constitutional principle.

Trump has not thus far asserted any other basis for preventing the testimony of former aides. He has not, for example, claimed that they signed non-disclosure agreements. Even if they had done so, I suggest any such agreements would be void on their face as against public policy. Trump may not have figured it out yet, but he is neither a king nor a CEO of the United States. As putative president, he is subject to the constraints implied by the separation of powers that was created by the Constitution. He cannot, therefore, expect to shield the public’s business from scrutiny by demanding that public servants who happen to have worked in the White House refuse to testify in response to oversight by congressional committees.

Other than executive privilege or private agreements, no other basis appears possible to permit the president to order private citizens to refuse subpoenas properly issued by congressional committees. What then should happen if, as expected, Lewandowski, Porter and Dearborn elect to tow the Trump line?

I suggest that the next steps should be to hold the three witnesses in contempt of Congress. If, as I believe to be true, their arrest is provided for in the criminal code, they should be arrested. I understand they are in a difficult place, caught between two warring forces in a contest for the preservation of democracy in America. They are, however, making a choice in following Trump’s demands. They could choose to do otherwise and act as good citizens providing the knowledge they have in response to questions from the investigating committees. If, as appears to be the case, they elect omertà, they should face the consequences of their choice.

A contempt of Congress citation should also be issued against the president. Likely he cannot be arrested while holding office, but his improper use of executive privilege to shield his administration and himself personally from congressional oversight should be met with every indicia of formal legal force that the circumstances will support and let the courts sort it out.

We have reached the point of no return regarding Trump’s abuse of his office. The congressional staff memo about which I posted yesterday clearly supports impeachment for the obstructive conduct of this president. No reason appears for treating him with the proverbial kid gloves. He is itching for a fight and the House investigative committees should give it to him. Nothing is to be gained by timidity in the face of Trump’s continued rejection of democratic and legal norms and constraints on his behavior. His legal position is untenable. The time to act aggressively against his administration has arrived.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – F

F. The Inexplicable Treatment of Trump’s Personal Attorneys & Other Enablers

Another unexplained aspect of the Report relates to Trump’s use of his personal attorneys (never identified) to communicate with Flynn and his attorneys. Trump’s personal counsel appear a number of times in the report. II MR 121-122. A fair interpretation of this evidence is that Trump used his personal attorney to try to influence Flynn’s cooperation with the SCO, first with cajoling about how Trump cared about him, then with implied threats about Trump’s presumed anger. A further fair argument can be made that Trump’s personal counsel was a knowing participant in an obstruction effort. Why is this not at least mentioned in the Report?

The Report relegates to II MR-122, n. 839 the extraordinary decision not to try to interview Trump’s personal attorneys “because of attorney-client privilege issues.” Given the active role those lawyers played in some of Trump’s obstructive acts, it is hard to understand a decision not to try to learn something from them. Attorney-client privilege does not protect an attorney who is participating in a criminal enterprise. This is known as the crime-fraud exception to the general privilege rule. If Trump’s personal counsel were actively and knowingly participating in an attempt to obstruct justice by, for example, influencing Gen. Flynn’s testimony or by attempting to unlawfully procure the firing of the Special Counsel, the privilege likely does not apply. It is, moreover, inconceivable that Trump’s attorneys acted on their own without consulting their client. We are left to speculate as to why Mueller did not pursue this seemingly fruitful source of information.

We can’t be sure, of course, whether to credit Rick Gates assertion that Paul Manafort had talked with Trump’s personal counsel and been assured that they would be “taken care of” if they did not talk to the SCO. Mueller, however, clearly believed Gates’ account of these conversations with Manafort. II MR-123 & n. 848, 850. This is a subject that could have been pursued directly with Trump’s counsel if Mueller had been more aggressive in seeking the full body of evidence rather than simply assuming that the privilege would be upheld.

One of Trump’s personal attorneys during this period was Rudy Giuliani who gave multiple interviews in which he suggested Trump might pardon Manafort, then, following the classic Trump playbook, claimed he was misunderstood and not signaling anyone. II MR-124. This was fertile ground to discover whether Trump and Giuliani had mapped out this strategy to obtain Manafort’s silence or other forms of cooperation. A good argument could be made that Trump-Giuliani had waived the attorney-client privilege when Giuliani told the Washington Post that Trump had consulted his attorneys about granting pardons to Manafort. II MR-127. Manafort had some kind of joint defense agreement with Trump and was coordinating his Mueller interviews with Trump’s attorneys. II MR-127. That fact alone warranted taking Giuliani’s testimony under oath. It is all the more compelling because Trump publicly contradicting Giuliani’s statements. II MR-128. Instead, Mueller concludes that the evidence on Trump’s personal participation in all this was inconclusive (II MR-132), an amazing conclusion in light of his decision not to press for an interview of Giuliani and/or Trump.

Mueller digs deep to find alternative explanations for Trump’s comments about the treatment of Manafort. II MR-133. In the totality of circumstances regarding Trump’s repeated litany of claims that he and others were being treated unfairly, this is astonishing, especially considering that at times Trump claimed he knew very little about what these people did for him and the campaign. Normally you can’t have it both ways but Mueller lets Trump get away with it.

Note that there are substantial redactions in this part of the Report for Harm to an Ongoing Matter, suggesting that additional investigations have been farmed out to the US Attorneys’ offices. II MR 128-130.

Trump’s personal attorneys played a further role in Cohen’s false testimony to Congress. II MR-139. A joint defense agreement existed between Cohen and Trump plus other unnamed individuals involved in the Russia investigation. II MR-139. The identity of all the other individuals is not revealed in the Report. Why is this not addressed? The president’s personal attorney played an active role in assuring Cohen that his loyalty to Trump would be rewarded. II MR-140.

Despite the fact that drafts of Cohen’s false testimony to Congress were discussed with members of the Joint Defense Agreement and that false testimony to Congress under oath is a crime, Mueller did not see the drafts because of concerns about the common interest privilege. But it is not clear who raised those concerns. This is another example of Mueller seeming to act as counsel for the defense.

Perhaps because Cohen was in almost daily contact with Trump’s personal attorney about Cohen’s Congressional testimony, Mueller, in this one case, indicates an attempt was made to interview counsel. But the counsel declined, citing “potential privilege concerns.” II MR-143. What precisely those concerns were is not explained. Nor is there any indication that the SCO aggressively pursued this obviously important testimony about an agreement to suppress truthful information being sought by Congress. Who exactly is the “President’s personal counsel” that is referred here? Is it the same person throughout? Trump hired and replaced many attorneys during this time. Why does the SCO not identify these people by name?

This is not the normal or effective way to handle privilege disputes. The privilege-claiming party should be presented with the questions and compelled to explain with specificity why each question cannot be answered even in part because of privilege. Mueller may have gone through this exercise but there is no evidence of that anywhere in the Report.

Further puzzling issues arise from Mueller’s failure to pursue Robert Costello who, in the period following the raid on Cohen’s home and office, was used as a go-between connecting Giuliani and Cohen and assuring Cohen of Trump’s continued favor. II MR-146. Costello’s offering to support secret communications between the White House and Cohen appears to have been of no concern at the SCO. One question is which personal counsel to the President was assuring Cohen that if he continued lying, Trump would protect him? Why does Mueller protect the identity of President’s personal attorney engaged in a cover-up and overt acts of witness tampering/obstruction of justice?

 Beyond that, Mueller accepts that Trump’s personal counsel was working with Cohen on false testimony to Congress but does not attribute that conduct to Trump and never goes after the counsel for aiding & abetting false testimony or giving message to Cohen that he would be protected if he stuck to the party line. Why was Mueller so reticent about these compelling facts that do not appear to be disputed? Faced with an apparent conspiracy to submit false testimony to Congress, resistance by Trump & by his personal attorney (who refused to provide his version of his conversations with Cohen who was not his client and thus not covered by any plausible claim of privilege), Mueller simply assumed he couldn’t get evidence about Trump’s discussions with his personal counsel and didn’t even try to pursue this line. II MR-154. No presumption of privilege should attach to conspiracy to commit a crime. Mueller’s unwillingness to tangle with Trump’s personal attorneys is inexplicable and unconscionable malpractice. Why was Trump’s personal attorney not charged with suborning perjury in connection with Cohen’s false testimony that Trump’s personal attorney helped facilitate?

Mueller’s approach is particularly disturbing because Trump refused to answer the written questions posed to him about the Trump Tower meeting. II MR-149. What Trump did say was that he couldn’t remember his conversations with Cohen. After Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower meeting, Trump refused to provide any more information about his role and turned sharply against Cohen. II MR-151. Thereafter, Giuliani made public statements that conflicted with what Trump was now saying, then “walked those back.” II MR-152. Mueller seems completely bamboozled by all this, unable to make the obvious conclusions.

Trump refused to clarify what Mueller calls the “seeming discrepancy” between his statements about the Trump Tower project in Russia made before and after Cohen’s guilty plea. Mueller engages repeatedly in speculation about what Trump might have meant rather than concluding that, having declined the opportunity to set the record straight, Trump should be estopped to deny the discrepancy and to deny what Cohen said was the truth eventually.

I have asked repeatedly in these evaluations of the Mueller Report why Trump’s enablers were not indicted. Mueller addresses very briefly at II MR-158 where he leaps a giant chasm of evidence to conclude that because a few of Trump’s aides refused to carry out his blatantly obstructive orders, virtually all of them were allowed to walk away unscathed, including Trump’s personal attorneys and others who, according to undisputed evidence, did carry out Trump’s orders to try to intimidate witnesses, terminate the SCO investigation and other forms of interference detailed throughout the Report. Mueller calls the “pattern” one in which Trump’s enablers resisted his obstruction directives, but the evidence adduced shows that in most cases the White House staff did exactly what Trump wanted them to do. The “pattern” is the exact opposite of Mueller’s conclusion.

The Mueller Report ends with a lengthy, lawyerly analysis of the statutory and constitutional defenses asserted by Trump’s attorneys. The analysis is unobjectionable and supports not only the conclusions Mueller did reach but re-emphasizes the lingering questions about the conclusions he declined to reach. In particular, we are left to wonder why so few of the obvious enablers of Trump’s overt obstructive acts were not held accountable. Mueller’s treatment of “presumption of privilege” issues is inexplicable, given that much of the enabling activity was in support of federal crimes. We can only hope, though likely in vain, that Congressional hearings will flesh out the hanging questions.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-E

E. Mueller’s Inexplicably Generous Treatment of Trump’s Knowledge of Events

Another of the remarkable and unexplained conclusions reached by Mueller was that the evidence of Trump’s knowledge about Flynn’s lies about Kislyak was inconclusive. II MR-46. This conclusion seems flatly inconsistent with Trump’s statement to Christie that firing Flynn ended the Russia collusion issue.  II MR-38. We are asked to believe that Flynn told McFarland that his contacts with Kislyak had averted a major policy conflict with Russia but she did not pass that on to Trump! And that neither she nor Bannon could remember this major development! This is yet another example of Mueller’s lack of aggressive approach to Trump. WHY didn’t the SCO interview Trump to get at answers to these critical questions instead of saying they had enough evidence and it was late in the investigation? It is also unclear why it mattered so much whether Trump knew about Flynn’s deception close to the time the Kislyak talks occurred.

Even more puzzling is Mueller’s conclusion that Trump’s effort to get K.T. McFarland to write an internal email saying that Trump did not direct Flynn to talk to Kislyak was not an attempt to have McFarland lie. II MR-48. What then was Trump trying to get McFarland to do?  What is the alternative explanation for Trump’s request of her? This is another example where evidence of corrupt intent is simply written off as “insufficient” without explanation. IF SCO had interviewed Trump, questions like this could have been resolved instead of being left open and then construed as exonerating Trump.

A similar problem arises regarding Trump’s campaign to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions un-recuse himself regarding the Russia investigation. In a footnote Mueller says it was unclear that Trump was aware of White House counsel’s admonition not to contact Sessions. II MR-50, n. 289. Why isn’t Trump chargeable with constructive knowledge of WH counsel’s directive? Trump declined to read documents — does that relieve him of responsibility for knowing what was official White House policy that had been put in writing?  Moreover, if the SCO had interviewed Trump, it could have gotten answers to these questions left open and ultimately construed in Trump’s favor on grounds that the evidence did not show he knew something that, on a common sense view, he almost certainly did know.

Mueller’s generous treatment of Trump continued in the discussion of Comey’s briefing of the Gang of Eight legislators in March, 2017, about the Russia investigation. Mueller said it’s “unclear” whether Trump knew about the briefing at the time, but notes taken by McGahn’s chief of staff say that “POTUS in panic/chaos.” II MR-52. How/why would Trump be in a panic if he didn’t know about Comey’s briefing of Congressional leaders? How could the president be ignorant of such developments that might have such huge impacts on his presidency and to which he had devoted so much attention in the past few months?

 The Comey briefing led to one of the clearest cases of obstruction of justice, in that Trump demanded, and McGahn complied, that McGahn contact Dana Boente, then acting assistant attorney general at Justice, to publicly correct the “misperception” that Trump was under investigation. II MR-54,55. Once again, Trump insiders had failed memories of demands Trump made for intervention with the Department of Justice. II MR-5. And, there is no attempt to explain inconsistencies in other testimony from some of the same insiders, claiming Trump never ordered them to do anything wrong. These statements from NSA Director Rogers are inconsistent with the contemporaneous memo of the President’s call and of NSA Deputy Director Ledgett’s characterization of the extraordinary nature of the call. II MR-56. Why is there no consideration of these inconsistencies?

When Trump then reached out directly to Comey to ask him to relieve the impression Trump was under investigation, the Report, unbelievably, turns to McGahn’s asserted recall of what Dana Boente told him Comey had told Boente about Trump’s contacts with him. II MR-59.  As usual, Boente claimed not to recall this discussion. II MR-60.

Then, in one of the most remarkable moments in the Report, Mueller drops into a footnote (II MR-59, n. 376) the reminder that White House counsel had advised Trump not to contact DOJ about the investigation. Mueller seemingly attached no significance to the extraordinary & undisputed fact that Trump on multiple occasions ignored the advice of his White House attorneys by reaching out directly to Comey to discuss relieving the pressure of the Russia investigation. WHY? This was not the conduct of an innocent man.

Mueller seemed to be impressed with the fact that the people involved claimed that they did not interpret Trump’s repeated importunings as “directives” to interfere in the investigation. II MR-60. These people were all Trump appointees and true believers in his politics, who would naturally seek to maintain favor with him by declining to interpret his repeated requests as “directives.” In any case, the real question is not what they thought, but what Trump intended and the only way to get to the bottom of that ultimately was to interrogate him, which SCO, curiously, declined to demand. Trump’s attempts to secure a champion at DOJ included personal contacts with Coates, Pompeo, Rogers and Comey. Despite that, Mueller, with his usual reticence to accept the obvious, concludes that “the evidence does not establish that the President asked or directed intelligence agency leaders to stop or interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation.” II MR-60.

The same question arises in connection with Trump’s multiple attempts to prevent AG Sessions from recusing himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. A couple of things are clear. Trump thought the AG worked for him personally and therefore that Sessions should remain in place to do Trump’s bidding regarding the investigation. And, White House counsel tried to cut off communications with Sessions about recusal to avoid the appearance of attempted interference with the investigation. Yet, once again, Mueller states it was “not clear” that the “no contact” directive was conveyed to Trump. II MR-61. HOW is it remotely plausible that White House counsel, in a matter of seminal importance, would not have conveyed this information to the one person whose knowledge of it and compliance was the most important? Why didn’t the SCO demand Trump answer this question? He refused to do so even in writing and the SCO let him get away with it!

Mueller repeatedly and uncritically refers to Trump’s asserted belief that the Russia investigation was somehow interfering with, Miller his ability to conduct foreign policy but never discussed how that interference worked or what real impact it had on a president who, by all accounts, spent most of his time watching television and playing golf. II MR-61.

Another point of clarity in the Report is the finding that Trump lied about the basis for firing Comey. II MR-62. Why would he do that except to cover up his corrupt motive to which he shortly confessed? Trump’s lies about his conduct, in the context of his other actions, were a clear case of cover-up that could have been treated as a separate offense by Mueller if he had the aggressive instincts of a prosecutor rather than the timidity of an equivocator.

A related question – why was Stephen Miller not indicted for his role in preparing a phony letter to cover Trump’s tracks regarding the firing of Comey? II MR-64. Another related question: the final stated reason for firing Comey was pretextual. All Trump cared about was establishing that he was not under FBI investigation and that he was firing Comey because Comey refused to say that publicly. The Rosenstein/Sessions memo was constructed as an alternate explanation that Trump then adopted while still insisting, against advice, that the point about his not being under investigation be prominently included in the firing letter. II MR-67. Yet, again, no indictments were brought against any of the president’s men for conspiring and lying to cover the tracks of a discharge action plainly intended to obstruct the FBI investigation. See, e.g., II MR-70 regarding lies told by Sean Spicer, then Press Secretary about the motivation for the Comey firing.

Mueller basically gave a pass to all Trump’s enablers who accepted and acted on his directions. Michael Cohen, in later testimony before Congress, spoke specifically about how Trump rarely gave specific directions for anything. He spoke in “code,” that Cohen claimed he understood. It is beyond credibility that, by the time of Comey’s firing, the president’s men did not also understand how he “directed” what he wanted done, what he insisted upon, without ever explicitly saying so. Mueller appears to have completely overlooked this aspect of Trump’s directorial style, crediting him with innocence because there was no overt statement by him that amounted to a confession. In the future, then, Trump’s enablers have no reason to fear repercussions when they willingly follow his non-order orders.

Further evidence of Mueller’s timidity may be found in his ultimate conclusion that “the anticipated effect of removing the FBI director … would not necessarily be to prevent or impede the FBI from continuing its investigation.” II MR-74. That astonishing statement shows Mueller going out of his way to avoid the overt implications of evidence regarding Trump’s actions that were, by Trump’s own admission, intended to interfere with the Russia investigation. Why else would he have fired Comey and handled the firing as he did, including conspiring to give the impression that Rosenstein/Sessions were responsible for the firing? A seasoned prosecutor like Mueller surely knew better, but falls all over himself in avoiding the plain implications of Trump’s conduct. Moreover, even if the investigation would have been unfazed by Comey’s firing (and thus completely ignored by the surviving DOJ attorneys), the clear intent of the discharge was proven and, as Mueller’s own statement of the governing legal tests showed, an attempt to obstruct does not have to be successful to violate the criminal law.

Curiously, the Report takes a somewhat different approach to assessing evidence of Trump’s intentions when it addresses Trump’s attempts to have the Special Counsel removed. II MR-84 thru MR-90. This may be the result of superior clarity of the evidence but this is not apparent from the Report language. One explanation may be that the “committee” of lawyers that drafted the Report were assigned different sections and that each one had a different approach. The analysis highlights the fact that Trump lied publicly about whether he had tried to have Mueller removed, an approach Trump had taken to other issues but which led to Mueller equivocating about the strength of the evidence. II MR-90.

It is a fair question as to why Mueller did not indict Cory Lewandowski whom Trump chose as the go-between to direct AG Jeff Sessions to publicly speak about the unfairness of the SCO investigation and to limit its authority to future elections only. The recited evidence clearly shows that both Chief of Staff Kelly and Lewandowski himself were well aware of the impropriety of Trump’s demands and took actions to conceal his conduct from exposure. II MR 91-93 & n. 604.

Regarding the infamous Trump Tower meeting, the evidence is clear that Trump took overt actions to cover up the situation. II MR-98 to MR-107. Yes, Mueller concludes that Trump’s actions were merely part of a press strategy and not an effort to affect the SCO investigation or the related work of Congressional investigations. This is an astonishing judgment when the SCO allowed Trump to avoid testifying and be examined about this subject. It is therefore impossible to conclude that these obstructive acts did not occur. Moreover, Trump clearly acted dishonestly regarding disclosure of the information and created a misleading paper trail that could have affected decisions at SCO about what to do regarding the Trump Tower meeting. Mueller resolved all doubts in favor of Trump even in face of evidence of his lies and duplicity regarding the issue at hand.

Other instances of Mueller’s resolving doubts in favor of Trump or his people involved Trump’s effort, using his personal counsel, to have McGahn publish a statement denying that Trump had asked him to fire Mueller. Mueller resigns to a footnote and fails to explain the conflict between Hope Hicks & Gen. Kelly regarding whether the McGahn resistance story was correct. II MR-114, n. 788. Kelly, Sarah Sanders and Rob Porter all experienced memory failure regarding aspects of Trump’s demands and denials about trying to get McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump, of course, remorselessly lied to his own staff about what he had said. II MR-115. He continued to press McGahn to “correct” stories that ” McGahn repeatedly told Trump, and others, was accurate as written. II MR 116-117. Mueller resorts to the gentlest possible language when describing these activities, using phrases such as “runs counter to the evidence” as opposed to the more precise “he lied.” II MR-118.

Rob Porter played a direct role in delivering Trump’s demands to McGahn (II MR-116) but, without explanation, was not indicted for conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice – D

D. Why Weren’t Trump’s Enablers Indicted?

One of the great lingering mysteries about Mueller’s treatment of the obstruction issues is why he did not secure indictments of Trump’s enablers when the evidence clearly indicated their involvement in promoting the obstruction that Trump was executing. One prominent example of this is K.T. McFarland, who seemed to act as a go-between for Trump to direct Michael Flynn. It is implausible, I suggest, to believe that McFarland would not have revealed discussions with Flynn and Russian Ambassador Kislyak in meeting with Trump one hour after talking to Flynn about those discussions. II MR-25. As referenced earlier in these posts, Flynn had multiple memory failure about the information he may have discussed with other administration officials and Trump himself. The Russian response to the US sanctions was apparently a matter of considerable importance to Trump and his administration. Given Flynn’s admission of lying about his contacts with Kislyak, it is very hard to conclude that these memory failures were legitimate and that neither Trump nor his principal enablers were kept in the dark.

Beyond all that, McFarland followed Flynn’s directions to tell the Washington Post that no discussion of sanctions had occurred with Kislyak. Mueller specifically says, “McFarland made the call as Flynn had requested although she knew she was providing false information….” II MR-29. No charges were brought against McFarland for her role in this ruse. Why not?

Putting aside the further implausibility of Trump, after a lifetime of litigation and political commentary, denying that he understood the law, one thing is clear: as of January 26, 2017, Don McGahn, White House counsel, explained both 18 USC 1001 (crime to lie to federal government) and the Logan Act (crime for citizen of U.S. to communicate with a foreign government with intent to influence the foreign government in relation to disputes with the U.S. or to defeat the measures of the U.S.). II MR-31.

Rather than extending this already-long narrative about the multiple situations in which credible evidence shows Trump committed obstruction of justice and possibly other crimes, I want to raise some questions about the obstruction investigation that cry out for answers but are not explained in the Mueller Report.

One of the big ones relates to the visits by Acting Attorney General Sally Yates to the White House to explain that the Justice Department had evidence indicating Gen. Flynn had been compromised by his lies about interactions with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. When Yates returned to the White House on January 27, 2017, at the request of White House counsel Don McGahn, he asked to see the information DOJ had on Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak. This information was provided! II MR-33, n. 166. It was reviewed by John Eisenberg, legal advisor to the National Security Council. Why did the Acting AG think it was a good idea to provide the evidence to the White House in light of Trump’s history of denying Russian influence in the election and lying about events related to it? Why would Yates think that the White House would act against Flynn?

As it turned out, that was the same day that Trump invited FBI Director Comey to a private dinner at the White House, disregarding not for the first nor last time, the advice of White House counsel to avoid the appearance of political interference with law enforcement. II MR-33. That, of course, was the dinner at which Trump demanded “loyalty” from Comey. II MR-34. Both Press Secretary Sanders and counsel McGahn adopted Trump’s denials of the “loyalty” demand, thereby making themselves collaborators in what Mueller concluded, based on all the evidence, was a series of Trump lies about what transpired. II MR-35, 36 and 35, n. 183. Yet, neither Sanders nor McGahn was indicted. Why not?

In the end, Trump reluctantly fired Flynn while assuring him that he would be taken care of. II MR-38. The very next day Trump cleared a meeting room of witnesses and asked Comey to let Flynn go. II MR-40. Astoundingly, Jared Kushner, one of those dismissed, claimed he could not remember that Trump asked Comey to remain behind for a private meeting.  II MR-40, n. 233. Trump continued to assure Flynn of his kind regard for him into late March or early April. II MR-44.

Trump continued to lie about the Flynn situation, going so far as to claim he did not recall the “loyalty” meeting at all. II MR-44. Trump insiders Priebus & McGahn minced words regarding Trump’s attempts to call off Comey from the Flynn investigation. II MR-44, n. 270.

Mueller Report Part II – Trump Guilty of Obstruction of Justice-B, C

B. Governing Legal Standards

Little value can be gained by repeating Mueller’s recitation of the legal standards for judging whether criminal obstruction of justice has occurred. Of the three tests (obstructive acts, nexus to a pending or contemplated official proceeding and corrupt intent), the Report conclusively shows (1) multiple, repeated obstructive acts by Trump personally, in some of which he was aided and abetted by members of the White House staff and (2) clear nexus to multiple investigations, including some of the obstructive acts themselves.

Given the rhetorical and other linguistic hoops that Trump and his attorneys/advisors have been willing to jump through to defend him, it is worth nothing that Mueller made plain that “an improper motive can render an actor’s conduct criminal even when the conduct would otherwise be lawful and within the actor’s authority.” II MR-9. Equally, if not more, important, is Mueller’s determination that criminal obstruction can exist even if the attempt is unsuccessful. II MR-12. It also includes “witness tampering” and attempts to influence others not to cooperate with law enforcement. II MR-10, 11, 12.

C. Trump’s Refusal to Cooperate

Mueller’s treatment of the president is noteworthy and inexplicable in several ways, given the gravity of what was being investigated.

Mueller allowed Trump to dither away a year following the SCO’s request for a voluntary interview. II MR-13 Trump ultimately agreed to answer some written questions about “Russia-related topics” but refused to answer any questions regarding obstruction of justice or events occurring during the transition. Despite concluding that the SCO had both the authority and the legal justification for a grand jury subpoena of Trump, the SCO decided not to force the issue. The SCO reasoning behind this extraordinary decision was that a such a late stage in the investigation, a subpoena, and the inevitable legal dispute to follow, could result in a “substantial delay.” The SCO also believed it had separately found evidence sufficient to “understand relevant events and to make certain assessments” even without Trump’s personal testimony. II MR-13.

This decision is quite remarkable. The investigation was in a “late stage” because Mueller had allowed Trump to fend off a decision and play an obvious delaying game for an entire year. Moreover, the statement that the investigation was at a late stage was not explained in the Report. Was there an internally-imposed deadline on when the investigation had to conclude? If so, who imposed that deadline and when? If not, then the “late stage” rationalization is pure vapor and another example of kid-glove treatment for a person as to whom substantial evidence existed of multiple acts of obstruction of justice. The decision left the SCO to infer conclusions based on circumstantial evidence in some cases and, while this is normal and often unavoidable (II MR-13), there was no compelling reason for the SCO to allow itself to be maneuvered into this position. Moreover, the credibility factors that apply in assessing testimony, enumerated by Mueller in details (II MR-14) all would work against Trump.

The ultimate outcome of Mueller’s reticence was that the door was opened for Attorney General Barr to declare falsely that the case was not even close and that Trump was innocent of all the charges. This opportunity to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation traces directly back to the strategic mistake of allowing Trump to avoid testifying.

The bulk of Volume II of the Mueller Report is devoted to a lawyerly application of the three obstruction elements to the various discrete situations in which Trump or his enablers in the White House or elsewhere attempted, one way or another, to derail the Russia investigation and any evaluation of his acts of obstruction. Several major points stand out.

First, Trump lied about numerous events. For anyone following the arc of his presidency with a reasonably open mind, this comes as no surprise. One obvious lie, for example, was Trump’s claim that he had no business dealings in Russia. II MR-15. An interesting thing to note is that as regards WikiLeaks release of Clinton’s emails, there was evidence Trump was plugged into the information pipeline about what WikiLeaks was planning to do. II MR-18. That portion of the Report is heavily redacted, indicating on-going investigation into the WikiLeaks connections. Mueller’s refusal to discuss the Report publicly leaves us to wonder what this on-going matter is about, a subject that should be pursued in his upcoming public testimony before Congress.

Mueller also notes that the Campaign tried to distance itself from people who were publicly identified as connected to Russians. Vice President Pence joined in the denials of Russia connections. II MR 20-21. All these moves are equally, if not more, plausible as efforts to conceal the Russia connection by outwardly disassociating from campaign people whose connections became known and publicized. Mueller also cites the opinion of unnamed Trump advisors for the point that Trump genuinely believed the stories about Russia connections undermined the legitimacy of his electoral victory. II MR-23. No doubt the stories did have that effect because the Russian support for Trump plainly does de-legitimize his standing as a “duly elected” president.

The inclusion and apparent full crediting of these statements from Trump campaign insiders, without Trump himself being questioned, seems designed to buttress the idea that Trump genuinely believed the Russian interference was a false story designed to undermine his legitimacy. But even if true, these claims about what he was thinking are entirely self-serving and based on interested 3rd party statements not supported by his own testimony under examination.