Political Animal

Which Will Come First for Trump Underlings? The Flips or the Pardons?

Today brings news that investigators and federal prosecutors are putting the pressure on Paul Manafort to flip on his employers, including potentially the Donald Trump campaign.

U.S. investigators examining money laundering accusations against President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort hope to push him to cooperate with their probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, two sources with direct knowledge of the investigation said.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is examining Manafort’s financial and real estate records in New York as well as his involvement in Ukrainian politics, the officials said.

Between 2006 and 2013, Manafort bought three New York properties, including one in Trump Tower in Manhattan. He paid for them in full and later took out mortgages against them. A former senior U.S. law enforcement official said that tactic is often used as a means to hide the origin of funds gained illegally. Reuters has no independent evidence that Manafort did this.

The sources also did not say whether Mueller has uncovered any evidence to charge Manafort with money laundering, but they said doing so is seen by investigators as critical in getting his full cooperation in their investigation.

Manafort has by far the most exposure to this pressure given his shady history and connections, but he’s not the only one. There are lesser figures from all over the Trump universe, including Michael Flynn, who could theoretically be flipped. Even Trump’s own family is implicated, especially Jared Kushner–though obviously the likelihood of family turning on the pater familias is low.

This is one of the reasons that Trump seems to be coming apart at the seams. It only takes one of his associates flipping for everything to unravel irreparably.

Of course, Trump could simply issue a blanket pardon to all of them and take the prospect of punishment off the table. But that would set up a cascade of dominoes that not even a man as reckless as Trump is prepared to set in motion. It’s true that Republicans seem unlikely to do anything about it should Trump decide to go down that path, but the question has never been tested before in American history, and the risks are high. If nothing else, the Republican Congress would have all the leverage over Trump for the rest of his presidency: cross them, and they can impeach. This is an uncomfortable prospect on several levels.

Instead, Trump could simply demand that all his subordinates hold firm, with a promise that he will take care of them.

But this is where Trump’s famous lack of loyalty to those from whom he demands loyalty hurts him. A criminal president with connections who takes care of his own could assure his henchmen of a pardon on his way out of office should they clam up, remain true to him and fall on their swords. He could assure them of a quiet, plum gig once it’s all over.

Trump cannot do that, however. No one of sound mind would believe a Trump promise to be there for them with a pardon on the other side of a conviction. Trump’s lack of real connections and respect in either the business or policy world means that he can’t assure his underlings of dignity and highly paid employment in exchange for their loyalty.

Manafort and crew will know this intrinsically, and each will be looking askance at the other to see who will sing first–which means the clock is ticking down on Trump to issue a few pardons, despite the cataclysmic consequences such an action would entail.

It’s a pressure cooker set to explode in ugly ways.

Could Republicans in Congress Actually Turn Against Trump?

Earlier this morning I wrote that the 2018 election may be the last chance to save American democracy, if Trump does the unthinkable and the Republican Congress refuses to hold him accountable.

The smart money says that Republicans will absolutely refuse to move against Trump. There has been almost no public break in the wall of silence that has greeted the Trump Administration’s increasingly alarming transgressions. If Republicans failed to draw a line in the sand when Trump fired Comey, they will almost certainly cave on principle if Trump pressures Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller, or fires Rosenstein and replaces him with someone who will.

Meanwhile, Trump has already shown zero interest in policy. He has, in Grover Norquist’s immortal words, enough working digits to sign whatever legislation the Republican Congress gives him. Whatever populist policy instincts Trump and Bannon might have had on the campaign trail, they were either never genuine or they no similarly aligned policy wonks to help them put those instincts into legal practice. Which means that the Trump Administration has fully outsourced its policy agenda to Paul Ryan, much to the consternation of the racists, nationalists and even economic policy moderates who helped put Trump in power. But that suits the Republican Congress fine.

But even all that said, one has to wonder just how much of this chaos the GOP will tolerate.

The Trump Administration is moving to a full political war footing. This was supposed to be “Made in America Week.” Instead, it turned into “Will Trump Create an Authoritarian Regime” week. The ongoing political damage from the investigations are making it impossible for the White House to generate positive news coverage for its initiatives. We are now six months into total Republican control of the federal government, and aside from installing a stolen Supreme Court justice, Republicans have very little to show for it.

Trump’s total ignorance of policy is also a serious impediment. At a time when Senate Republicans are agonizing over a dying healthcare bill, Trump is claiming publicly that health insurance for young people costs $12 per year. As best as anyone can tell, that seems to be because of low-price life insurance advertisements running on Fox News. This isn’t just an embarrassment. It also means that Congressmembers cannot count on an effective bully pulpit to pass legislation. Legislators also know that Trump will readily throw them under the bus at the first opportunity. He’ll demand a “win,” celebrate partial legislation in the Rose Garden, then insult it and call it “mean” when he gets an inkling of what is in it. He’ll demand that others walk the plank for him so that he can win a couple of news cycles, but will take no responsibility for what he signs when the backlash erupts.

And then, of course, there’s the long-term damage to the party and its brand. Trump may remain popular with his most ardent fans in the GOP base, but everyone else in the electorate has soured on him or gone white hot with rage. Trump’s popularity is now the lowest in history for a president at this point in his term. Democrats failed in the years after Obama took office to hold Republicans to account as the party of George W. Bush, but they will not be likely to make the same mistake again.

If the Trump/McConnell healthcare legislation dies ignominiously as it seems likely to, thus jeopardizing tax reform and other GOP economic priorities, then Republicans are staring down the barrel of two years in full control of the government in which they managed to accomplish almost nothing of significance. Will they accept that? Will their donors?

Probably. The danger from the Trump supporters in their base and the conservative media establishment, should they oppose the president and impeach him, is still probably greater. But they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. There may come a point when even Republicans in Congress decide that enough is enough, and that it’s safer to pass closer to the angry hounds of their base than to drown in Trump’s widening whirlpool.

2018 May Become the Most Important Election in American History

Every two years, pundits and politicians tell the American people the same tired refrain: “This is the most important election in our lifetimes.” This time it may actually be true–and not just in our lifetimes, but in the lifetime of the great American experiment.

That is no exaggeration.

The last 48 hours have been a dizzying whirlwind of revelations from the Trump Administration that signal nothing less than the president’s intent to operate wholly outside the rule of law.

First came Trump’s New York Times interview in which he said he would not have hired Jeff Sessions as Attorney General if he had known that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. By doing so, the president let slip that he views the entire country’s law enforcement apparatus as answerable not to the American people or to the rule of law, but to himself and his personal interests.

Later in the same interview, Trump indicated that if Special Counsel Robert Mueller were to begin looking into his and his family’s finances it would “cross a red line,” even as it was announced within hours that Mueller was doing just that.

Within 24 hours of that explosive interview, Trump began asking his lawyers about his options for pardoning himself, his family and his campaign associates. The Trump Administration is also setting up a political operation aimed at discrediting Mueller himself.

New dominoes keep falling almost faster than many observers can even keep up with. Just this evening came more astonishing reports that Sessions spoke with Russian ambassador Kislyak about “campaign-related matters.” Members of Trump’s immediate family and his campaign will be testifying under oath later this week on the capitol.

All speculation carries some risk with it, and on matters of this severity one must be especially careful. But it seems very likely that 1) there is material of a potentially illegal nature about Trump’s business dealing that he wishes to hide; 2) that there was illegal collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians beyond what we have already learned; and 3) that the president himself was aware of both. Trump’s actions in these matters are not those of an innocent man.

So what happens from here? Well, the president could simply resign. But nothing in his past indicates he would be willing to lose face in that manner. Further, resigning would carry enormous legal risks to himself: he would be at the mercy of President Pence to pardon him and his entourage if he failed to perform the pardons himself on his way out the door. If Trump were to sign the pardons himself, there would be no reason for him to leave office assuming Republicans in Congress refuse to impeach him.

By firing former FBI Director James Comey, Trump has already shown that he is willing to cross lines that none but Richard Nixon dared to. But that has also been the real estate magnate’s modus operandi from the beginning of his campaign, and it has worked for him so far. Trump has been able to get away with behavior that no previous presidential candidate ever has before, and so far he has not paid the price in a significant way. There is no reason to believe that he will step back from any Rubicon he encounters.

The failure of the GOP-held congress to hold the president accountable is now creating a constitutional crisis. The founders envisioned that competition between the branches of government and a respect for rule of law would lead Congress to impeach a would-be imperial scofflaw president. The president was given wide latitude in pardons, in part in order to prevent legislative overreach and unjust punishments; the Congress in turn was given charge to remove the president if he overstepped his parameters.

The framers of the Constitution did not prepare for the possibility that a political party would abdicate its responsibility to its own branch of government and to the American people by protecting a criminal president from accountability.

The most likely course seems to be as follows: ever more damaging revelations keep coming out, and Trump either blocks the investigations into him by firing all the prosecutors, and/or he pardons his family, his campaign team and possibly himself. Republicans in Congress will refuse to act, hoping to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts to social services under the cover of chaos rather than deal with the anger of their extreme base for impeaching a president still supported by the party’s most ardent and activist conservative voters.

Which leaves one last remaining lever of accountability: the 2018 Congressional elections that would become almost entirely a referendum on impeachment. An election in which the president and his party would likely be colluding again with a foreign adversary to gain an advantage over his political opponents, while using all the tools of gerrymandering and voter suppression in their collective arsenal.

Remember that the American president isn’t being accused of just any crime: he is being accused of a criminal conspiracy with a hostile, kleptocratic foreign power to subvert the foundations of our democracy. He is being aided and abetted by a Republican Congress that has not only failed spectacularly to do its duty, but has actively assisted in the coverup.

If events proceed as they seem likely to, the preservation of American democracy itself will depend on the outcome of the 2018 elections. The stakes could not be higher.

Quick Takes: These Are Not Things An Innocent Person Does

* The Washington Post reports what Trump’s legal team is up to.

Some of President Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.

Those aren’t the kinds of things you do when your client is innocent.

* Martin was one of the first people to report that Natalia Veselnitskaya was more than simply a Russian lawyer. Now Reuters adds this:

The Russian lawyer who met Donald Trump Jr. after his father won the Republican nomination for the 2016 U.S. presidential election counted Russia’s FSB security service among her clients for years, Russian court documents seen by Reuters show.

The documents show that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, successfully represented the FSB’s interests in a legal wrangle over ownership of an upscale property in northwest Moscow between 2005 and 2013.

The FSB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB service, was headed by Vladimir Putin before he became Russian president.

* As we’ve seen over the last six months, Trump tends to obsess over certain things. Philip Bump documents that one of the things he obsesses about the most is Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is Trump’s eternal foil, the person who, Trump seems to think, can always be identified as the unpopular yang to his yin, the looming reminder to his supporters of What Could Have Been. Whatever Trump does or doesn’t do, he’s always willing to point out what Clinton did or didn’t do that’s worse.

So she comes up in his interviews a lot. In fact, in 19 interviews that he’s conducted since becoming president, we found that Clinton tended to be mentioned much earlier than a number of Trump’s other favorite topics: The 2016 election, the votes he received, the electoral college and Barack Obama. Tallying the first appearance of each word in those 19 interviews, we figured out how far into an interview Trump first made mention of them, on average. (Making it 100 percent into the interview means he never mentioned it at all.)

* Mike Allen reports that Trump’s staff are having to learn how to speak his language.

What doesn’t work: Sources who’ve watched McMaster in action say he over prepares to brief the President. He knows the outcome he wants and wants to stick rigidly to his plan. But Trump likes to be discursive and will frequently turn to others or meander into other subjects while McMaster is briefing him. When Trump finishes his riff, McMaster will often return precisely to the point he left off.

This bothers Trump, who has openly wished for the return of Michael Flynn, who was more spontaneous…

What works: A more successful approach with Trump is a more conversational, anecdotal style with lots of references to him — his theories and beliefs, things he has said in the past. Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser, has been especially adroit at this: She gets the same place McMaster would go, but does it in a personal, leisurely style that engages the boss.

* Finally, I’ll be on vacation next week. We are making the annual trek up to the North Shore of Lake Superior. We know that the scenery will be spectacular and the air will be crisp. If we’re lucky, guys like this will show up to serenade us.