Tag Archives: privilege

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.

Comey Testimony – The Bell Tolls ….

Appointment in Samarra

 A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market.
The servant returned, trembling and frightened. The
servant told the merchant, “I was jostled in the market,
turned around, and saw Death.

“Death made a threatening gesture, and I fled in terror.
May I please borrow your horse? I can leave Baghdad
and ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.”

The master lent his horse to the servant, who rode away,
to Samarra.

Later the merchant went to the market, and saw Death in
the crowd. “Why did you threaten my servant?” He asked.

Death replied, “I did not threaten your servant. It was
merely that I was surprised to see him here in Baghdad,
for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

 This ancient tale appeared as the epigraph to the John O’Hara 1934 novel of the same name. I believe it refers to the unavoidable nature of judgment and the self-destruction of those seeking to avoid it. I was reminded of it today while listening to and watching most of former FBI Director James Comey’s riveting testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Overall, although I think Comey made some mistakes in handling the extremely difficult situation with which he was faced, I concluded that his narrative of the events was completely credible in virtually every detail. Comey was put in a very difficult spot by the President who was, on the face of it, the elected leader of the government. The decisions he had to make about whom to tell, who he could trust, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion created by the President’s own conduct, were hard ones. In retrospect, it is easy to criticize some of his choices but the critics are partisans looking to make a case to protect what they wrongly believe is their interest in propping up the President regardless of the cost to the country.

So, while Comey is not perfect, and likely made some mistakes along the way, it will be “no contest” between his credibility and that of the President, who is a demonstrated serial liar and fantasist. The Republicans will score some points along the way to the endgame but, stacked against the malicious conduct of the President, his history of mendacity and the multiple unexplained campaign contacts with the Russians, the game will go to Comey.

Let’s look at a few of the “defenses” suggested by the questions asked by Republican Senators in today’s hearing. One seems to be “you (Comey) didn’t tell the right people what happened, so it didn’t happen,” or, the alternative version of that: “you’re just as bad as he is, so what’s the problem?” To this, I think, the conclusive answer is that Comey told everyone he thought was trustworthy and that should have been notified. “Standing up to the President” was certainly a theoretical option but given the circumstances and the plain intent of the President’s importuning, it is not unexpected that Comey would have been super-cautious in the wake of the President’s prodding.

Finally, on this point, the fact that Comey didn’t object to the President’s face or tell the Attorney General (whom he accurately believed was about to recuse himself from the Russia investigation) does not logically defeat the statement that the President sought Comey’s agreement to an inappropriate and unlawful objective: stopping the Flynn matter and derailing the Russia investigation. Trump later confessed publicly that he fired Comey precisely to interfere with the Russia investigation. Even if Trump, as he asserted, genuinely believed he was a victim of a “witch hunt,” that was no excuse for his action in firing the leader of that investigation.

Another suggested defense was that Trump’s expression of “hope” that Comey would drop the Flynn investigation was just that, an expression of a personal desire, but not a directive. If all you had was a cold transcript of the conversation, that is a spin that could be placed on the words used. But, Comey testified that in the context and circumstances of the request, he took it as a demand for compliance that was totally inappropriate. If Trump had merely wanted to express his belief that Flynn was a “good guy,” he could have done that with witnesses in the room. But he cleared the room instead.

Could he have been more aggressive in his response? Surely, he could have, but it is not implausible to believe that he was indeed truly “stunned” by the unexpected request by the head of the government who had just cleared the room so there would be no witnesses. Instead of “standing up” to the President by challenging him personally, he quickly wrote a memo of what had happened so that there would be a contemporaneous record to support his version of the events. That is powerful evidence of the truth of what transpired, notwithstanding the claims of Trump’s lawyer that Comey’s testimony somehow vindicates the President. If Trump believes that, it is yet another example of how divorced from reality he is.

The third defense I heard was “You’re just mad because he fired you and you’re seeking revenge.” This claim fails on the facts, given that Comey, while still holding his job and having no reason to believe he would be fired, prepared contemporaneous memoranda of what happened in his private contacts with Trump. Comey’s testimony made clear he prepared the memos because he did not trust the President to tell the truth. No surprise there – the chickens have come home, as Trump’s history of lying and distortion returns, once again, to hurt him.

My personal favorite is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan saying that Trump “is new at this” and thus “he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this” and “he is learning as he goes.” Nevertheless, according to the CNN report, “Ryan declined to comment on whether he thought it was appropriate for Trump to ask Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn.” http://cnn.it/2rGgcf4

They can’t have this both ways: yes, the President is an inexperienced neophyte who made mistakes but, no, I can’t say what he did was wrong. If Ryan had any credibility left, he sacrificed it on the Trump altar today.

Then there is White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denying that Trump is a liar, flatly challenging Comey’s testimony: “I can definitively say the president is not a liar,” Sanders told reporters during an off-camera briefing at the White House. “I think it is frankly insulting that question would be asked.” http://politi.co/2rQpKCq

I am, of course, deeply reassured by Sanders declaring the President’s veracity “definitively.” Otherwise, we might question her conviction if not her judgment. More seriously, I am also wondering, of course, how she can be so sure of this, since neither she nor Sean Spicer seem to know what is going on at the White House most of the time. When asked, for example, about the existence of a White House taping system that would potentially support an earlier Trump tweet about “tapes” of his interaction with Comey, she said “I have no idea.”

No doubt that is true. White House staff generally continues not to know the answers to basic and important questions about the President’s conduct of the nation’s business. And the truth likely is they don’t want to know. Ignorance may be their only defense to complicity in the attempt to cover-up Trump’s obstruction of justice, as they, perhaps, recall that many of Nixon’s White House staff served prison terms for covering up the Watergate conspiracy.

Finally, there is the astonishing claim by Trump’s personal attorney that Comey violated some “privilege” arising from communications with the President. There is no privilege for obstruction of justice and, in any case, Trump has waived any privilege that might exist by his public comments on Twitter and elsewhere regarding the conversations with Comey. Again, they can’t have this both ways.