- Paul Rosenberg
How many different crimes aided the president — and how closely and personally was Donald Trump involved?
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
On Aug. 21, within minutes of each other, two close associates of Donald Trump—long-time fixer Michael Cohen and former campaign chair Paul Manafort — were each found guilty of eight felonies. Cohen also implicated Trump directly in crimes. He made two admissions in court that Trump had been involved in criminal violations of campaign law to hide extramarital affairs. He admitted paying hush money to “influence the election,” acting “in coordination with and at the direction of candidate Trump.
Within days, prosecutors revealed immunity agreements with two other close Trump associates — National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, reputedly involved in decades of Trump cover-ups, and Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s longtime chief financial officer—promising more prosecutions to come.
“The guilty plea of Michael Cohen provides further confirmation of the following fact: MOST SUCCESSFUL WITCH HUNT EVER (And it’s not over),” Rep. Ted Lieu (a former Air Force prosecutor) tweeted, in response to the first announcement. Shortly after, he added, “With Paul Manafort being found guilty on multiple counts, I am revising the below fact as follows: MOST TREMENDOUSLY SUCCESSFUL WITCH HUNT EVER.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (a former federal prosecutor) added:
Trump campaign manager: Guilty
Trump personal lawyer: Guilty
Trump deputy campaign manager: Guilty
Trump National Security Advisor: Guilty
Trump foreign policy advisor: Guilty
Some witch hunt, huh?
“At least two separate criminal conspiracies helped elect Donald Trump president in 2016, one executed by the Russian government, another by Trump’s personal lawyer,” Wired’s Arrett Graff wrote. “The questions now are how many different crimes aided the president—and how closely and personally involved was Donald Trump himself?”
Scratch a liar, find a witch
Predictably, Trump responded by repeating his baseless “Witch hunt!” claim—an ironic claim given that Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn, helped invent the modern witch hunt as lead investigator for Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. But the diversity of directions in which the convictions and guilty pleas pointed instead raised the question, “Which hunt?” The hunt for evidence of collusion with Russia? Financial crimes? Election law violations? Or something much deeper, going back decades—a pattern of both domestic and international corruption grown so vast that it threatens the very foundations of American democracy?
Evidence for all these hunts have already been uncovered, and more will surely come. But what will be done in light of the evidence— remains in question.
In addition, dozens of other hunts are needed. Axios recently reported the existence of House Republican spreadsheet listing “more than 100 formal requests [for oversight investigations] from House Democrats this Congress, spanning nearly every committee.” These are investigations that are a part of Congress’ constitutional oversight duty — investigations that Republicans have blocked, but Democrats will take up if they win control of the House in the mid-term elections.
Tip of the iceberg
Trump’s tax returns, family business (and conflicts with Constitution’s emoluments clause) and dealings with Russia are just the tip of the iceberg of that long list, which also includes Trump’s family separation policy, the hurricane response in Puerto Rico and a slew of cabinet-level investigations. This long list exists not just because Trump has held himself to be above the law, but because Congressional Republicans have agreed with and supported him.
The lawlessness of the Trump presidency is a natural outgrowth of the decades of corruption that Trump has avidly participated in. The deeper international pattern of that corruption is laid out in a new book, House of Trump, House of Putin, by Craig Unger. It documents how both men have mob ties dating back more than 40 years, includes a descriptive listing of “Trump’s Fifty-Nine Russia Connections,” and cites BuzzFeed News reporting that “More than one-fifth of Donald Trump’s U.S. condominiums [1,300 of them] have been purchased since the 1980s in secretive, all-cash transactions that enable buyers to avoid legal scrutiny by shielding their finances and identities,” for a possible money laundering total of $1.5 billion.
The money-laundering started with the 1984 sale of five condos for $6 million to David Bogatin, who was indicted for a gas tax scam three years later, fleeing to Poland. How much Trump knew about Bogatin is unclear. How much he cared is not. The floodgates were opened and have not closed ever since.
The possible extent of Trump’s involvement with Russian organized crime significantly dwarfs the tip-of-the-iceberg Mueller investigation findings revealed so far. What’s more, Unger notes, the Russian mafia is essential a tool of the Russian state.
“Where Americans cracked down on organized crime, Putin co-opted it,” Unger wrote. He weaponized it. Russian gangsters became, in effect, Putin’s enforcers.” Starting in the mid-1980s, he writes:
Two powerful forces in a newly created global underground economy had begun to come together. On the one hand, the disintegration of the Soviet Union had opened a fire-hose-like torrent of hundreds of billions of dollars in flight capital that began to pour forth from oligarchs, wealthy apparatchiks, and mobsters in Russia and its satellites. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s zeal to sell condos, no questions asked, to shell companies meant that Russians could launder vast amounts of money while hiding their personal identities. Over the next 30 years, dozens of lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and other white-collar professionals came together to facilitate such transactions on a massive scale….
Luxury real estate has provided a haven for Russian oligarchs and their kleptocratic president, Vladimir Putin, son of a factory worker and Russian seaman, to stash billions of dollars.
Without subpoena power, Unger notes, it’s impossible to know how much Trump properties were used to launder Russian mafia money. But subpoena power is precisely what Mueller’s team has. Will they use it? That remains to be seen. But a Democratic-controlled House can investigate, as well.
A 2014 article in the American Interest, The Twin Insurgency, by Nils Gilman, reveals an even broader, deeper, and more troubling problem, as explained in its subhead, “The postmodern state is under siege from plutocrats and criminals who unknowingly compound each other’s insidiousness.”
In this case, it’s not so unknowingly, but Gilman argues it’s not exactly what he had in mind, since Putin isn’t actually a plutocrat in his sense (though he is, reputedly, the richest man in the world). However, one sees Putin, he is operating consciously in the terrain Gilman describes and has benefited enormously from it.
As Gilman argues, from 1945 to 1971, during the post-World War II “social modernist era,” states around the world using different models sought “to legitimate themselves by serving the interests of middle classes whose size they sought to expand.”
But those models started failing in different ways, and by 1980 a reaction had set in, characterized most dramatically by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain.
“Many states stopped even pretending they wanted to create a more egalitarian society and instead sought to legitimate themselves by claiming they were maximizing individual opportunity.” The resulting retreat of the state left the middle-class lives dramatically less safe and secure, vulnerable to threats on two fronts:
From above, middle classes find themselves threatened by a global financial elite, in league with ultra-wealthy compradors, both of whom seek to cut social services and the taxes that pay for them — taxes that these elites depict as a form of illegitimate expropriation. From below, the middle classes find themselves exposed to a new resurgence of criminality, which has discovered in their plight a business opportunity.
That’s the twin insurgency in a nutshell: predatory plutocrats above, criminal insurgents below, with a beleaguered middle class caught in between. Trump, of course, is presenting himself as a savior of the middle class, but his actual life-history make a mockery of that claim. He’s been closely allied with both sides of the twin insurgency and remains so today.
Gilman was describing a global phenomenon, but Unger is describing a variation within that broader pattern. Their views of Trump are similar, describing Trump as self-absorbed where Putin is strategic. As Gilman told Random Lengths News:
Trump I suspect — though we don’t know — had a completely opportunistic relationship with Russian sources of capital, and he was none too tidy about asking questions about where the capital he was using was coming from. The man has also fucked hookers in hotels across the world all his life. The result is that he really has no idea what they have on him ….
But Russia is more complicated.
“I don’t see Putin as being a plutocratic insurgent at all,” Gilman said. “The first generation of Russian oligarchs (Fridman, Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, etc.) were more like American businessmen like Adelson or Thiel: people who really wanted to achieve autonomy from the state. They were plutocratic insurgents. But they all got it in the neck when Putin came to power. That subordination to the interests of the state is precisely what plutocratic insurgents are trying to escape.”
“In contrast, the current oligarchs in Russia, like rich business people in China, know that in the last analysis, and probably well before then, they are subordinate to the interests of the state as defined by the political leadership,” Gilman added.
But many current oligarchs have mob ties, and Russia’s government is hardly comparable to China’s, as Unger notes:
Putin’s greatest triumph is his extraordinary command over a Mafia state, a political system that is effectively a government of, by, and for organized crime.
Organized crime may indeed serve the state, as Gilman argues, but the state it serves is made in its own image. And that’s reflected in how it fights war.
“After the Euromaidan protests against Russian aggression began in Ukraine in 2013, Russia launched a massive global offensive in which its strategic goals were to weaken not only the United States but Britain, NATO, the European Union, and, indeed, the entire Western Alliance,” Unger writes. It involved interventions in domestic politics all across Europe, as well as America. He notes:
The most striking fact of this massive new global conflict, however, may have been that barely anyone noticed that it was taking place. It was extraordinary. War is generally defined as armed conflict. However, Vladimir Putin had attacked the sovereignty of America and other Western nations—a Virtual World War III, if you like—but almost no one reported on it in the newspapers, on TV, on the radio, or on the Internet. That’s because this was a war by other means, a war that eschewed the bombs, bullets, and boots on the ground of conventional warfare, and instead relied on a new, sophisticated, asymmetric, hybrid form of “nonlinear” warfare….
It was a war in which Russia hacked its adversaries; used third parties, such as Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, to make it seem as if leaks had emanated from heroic, highly principled whistleblowers, rather than Russian intelligence; hijacked social media and exploited algorithms to make highly provocative “fake news” go viral; transformed Facebook into one of the biggest purveyors of Russian propaganda on the planet; deliberately used not only “alternative facts” and fake news but bogus websites that pretended to correct fake news, and, in the process, upended the very notion of truth, of reality itself, of what is real.
Back in the U.S.
Destroying the ability to know what’s true has been a key element of Russian state practice throughout the Soviet era, all the way back to Tzarist times. It’s been a tendency in America, as well—we shouldn’t fool ourselves. But it’s one that we’ve struggled against, both through our free press, and through our broader array of civic institutions—educational, scientific, and cultural—as well as through the ranks of our professionalized, apolitical government agencies, such as the Department of Justice. All are imperfect, but at best they serve as checks on one another, as well as on arbitrary state power and plutocratic overlords.
This is precisely what Trump wants to destroy. He has two months to do his worst, before the midterm elections. While many Democrats see winning the House as key to beginning impeachment, Talking Points Memo publisher Josh Marshall warns.
“That’s a mistake. … By any rights, the President should have been removed from office months ago,” he wrote. “Impeachment is a mistake because it distracts from things that are much more important to protecting the country against President Trump.”
For a Democratic House, Marshall said:
“[T]he first order of business is to get hold of the President’s taxes, which is to say to have Congress make sense of his finances and financial relationships as a baseline for investigating his relationship with Russia, Russian organized crime and Russian intelligence. It is also the basis for any real investigation of the use of the Presidency for private gain: the Trumpian project of kleptocracy.
Given the history that Unger lays out, these priorities make perfect sense. We need to gain the best possible sense of the large-scale lay of the land. Mueller’s investigation is focused on prosecuting specific crimes, which means that much of what he learns along the way will stay secrete.
Congressional investigations are meant to inform the public, expose wrongdoing that may or may not be illegal and provide a basis for future legislation and oversight.
“In many ways, getting to the bottom of what happened in 2016 is a bigger national priority than the punishment of individual wrongdoers, though there’s no reason we should have to choose between the two,” Marshall said. The 100 other investigations Republicans fear should go forward as well:
Congress can do many things at once. But impeaching the President inevitably distracts from this and delays this. If anything it tends to harden partisan divisions rather than moving the ball in a way that can shift public opinion against the President. And after all that it will fail, with a shabby but real victory handed to the President.
Trump is, and always has been, a minority president. He thrives on division, playing to, lying to and enraging his base, at the same time trying to confuse the larger public about the very possibility of established facts. Which is why a Democratic House (and perhaps even Senate) relentlessly focused on factual investigations is so crucial for the preservation of our democracy. The hunt for truth is the most important hunt of all. But it won’t even begin, in earnest, unless Democrats win in November.