Wherein I Buy Rich Lowry a #TrumpRussia Clue

It is completely unclear to me why Rich “Starbursts” Lowry would write something like this:

1) As far as we can tell at the moment (and this is necessarily speculative), [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller doesn’t seem to be closing in on a collusion conspiracy. If that’s true, he’s also unlikely to be closing in on a real obstruction-of-justice case. In other words, the best bet right now is that, after catching up people guilty of various, extraneous crimes, the Mueller investigation will leave President Trump relatively untouched.

That’s only a paragraph long but it’s chock full of strange logic. He doesn’t provide any supporting evidence for his supposition that Mueller isn’t closing in on a collusion conspiracy. Just for one example, Lowry doesn’t attempt to predict what Michael Flynn is providing that is so valuable that he’s so far escaping charges where Mueller has him dead to rights.

But we’re asked to go along with this, and then to assume that it logically follows that if there is no conspiracy proven then it is unlikely that any obstruction of justice case will be proven. Lowry should consult Scooter Libby on the soundness of this argument.

So, Lowry makes the case that it looks like Trump will be untouched by the investigation based on basically nothing we can rely on. And then he realizes that something else he’s seeing doesn’t make sense in light of this prediction:

2) Momentum is building for the idea of firing Robert Mueller. This is a result of the disturbing evidence of political bias of top FBI agents and prosecutors, (we editorialized about this Thursday) but is completely at odds with point 1.

Lowry doesn’t ruminate about the timing of this coordinated “momentum” for firing Robert Mueller or accept that it could be happening now precisely because Mueller is closing in on a conspiracy charge. He doesn’t wonder whether it could be Donald Jr. or Jared Kushner who is about to get his time in the barrel. For him, it’s a complete mystery why the Trump team would be launching a massive attack on the investigation, and it’s particularly dumbfounding if Trump is on the verge of being cleared.

If Trump knows he has something to hide that’s potentially impeachable, he should probably — putting ethics and the truth aside — fire Mueller and try to out-run the law. Otherwise, cashiering Mueller would be insane. It would be like firing Comey only worse. If Democrats took the House — and firing Mueller would increase the odds of that happening — Mueller might be the lead witness at an impeachment hearing, even if there isn’t any Russian collusion.

I have to pause here to nitpick at Lowry’s suggestion that a guilty president who deserves to be impeached “should” put ethics and truth aside and try to outrun the law. No, a president should never do that. A president in that situation should resign, like Richard Nixon did, and spare the country a bunch of heartache and hassle and divisiveness.

Having gone this far with a clearly flawed argument, Lowry opts for an ironic ending:

I have to say that there would be something perfect about this — a special counsel investigating, in part, the circumstances that led to his appointment would be fired, perhaps leading to an impeachment about the circumstances of his ouster. It’d be the most self-referential alleged high crime in the history of the republic.

Obviously, the assumption here is not only that the investigators will never make a conspiracy case but that there is no conspiracy case to make. Therefore, the only reason Trump might wind up getting impeached is because he couldn’t help himself from interfering in the investigation by firing first Comey and then Mueller.

But again, there’s no justification for making those assumptions and Lowry doesn’t even make an effort.

Now, I know that Trump’s lawyers are hopeful that the investigation will wrap up soon and that Trump will be vindicated, but Flynn’s cooperation is something that has to at least be weighed in any effort to make predictions here. Does anyone seriously think that nothing will come of that?

But Flynn is only part of the problem for the president. There are several elements to a possible conspiracy that are under investigation. Let me go through a few of them.

There is reason to suspect that Paul Manafort was under the control of Russia because he owed as much as nineteen million dollars to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is close to Putin and who has well known connections to the Russian mob. Manafort went so far as to offer private briefings on the status of the campaign to Deripaska in the hope that he would get some debt relief. Michael Flynn’s loyalty was considered suspect long before the FBI essentially demanded that he be fired as National Security Adviser because of his susceptibility to blackmail. Russian intelligence agencies tried to recruit Carter Page before he began serving as an advisor to Trump and came up in the Steele Dossier as a key part of a conspiracy of cooperation. In his recent congressional testimony, Page admitted in his own idiosyncratic way that he met with a Russian intelligence officer in both Moscow and Budapest during the campaign. George Papadapolous is cooperating with the Special Counsel’s office and he has admitted to meeting with and communicating with Russian intelligence officers and agents, including a woman he believed at the time to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. He also had possible contacts with Russians in Athens that still need to be explained. These are just the members of Trump’s team whose loyalty can be doubted, but there are others whose actions are highly questionable.

There’s Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and his adviser Michael Caputo, both of whom have connections to Russia that are worrisome. Caputo has several times bragged of his time “working for the Kremlin,” while Cohen wasn’t just mentioned as a key figure in the dossier, he’s also connected closely to his boyhood friend Felix Sater. Does Rich Lowry remember this?

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Or this?

A business associate of President Trump promised in 2015 to engineer a real estate deal with the aid of the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, that he said would help Mr. Trump win the presidency.

The associate, Felix Sater, wrote a series of emails to Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin. He predicted that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would highlight Mr. Trump’s savvy negotiating skills and be a political boon to his candidacy.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Mr. Sater wrote in an email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

Does Rich Lowry know that Felix Sater has been cooperating with Robert Mueller since at least July?

So, one part of the conspiracy involves possible Russian penetration of the Trump campaign, some of which could be witting and some of which could be unwitting. Another part is active collusion between people in Trump’s orbit and people in Putin’s orbit that predates the campaign and is tied to Trump’s interest in developing property in Russia. Part of that history could involve so-called kompromat, which might involve anything from the payment of bribes to the laundering of money to the use of prostitutes. Basically, anything the Russians have on Trump and his associates could be used to blackmail them, and of course dangling lucrative business deals can serve as a carrot.

These angles are being explored to try to help explain Trump’s strange affinity for Putin and his unwillingness to treat him with the contempt he dishes out on nearly every other leader, whether friend or foe. The use of Trump-branded properties as money laundering vehicles for Russian oligarchs is also part of this aspect of the investigation.

Then there are the hacks. Some of the Russian hacks were carried out before Trump was a frontrunner for the Republican nomination, so it’s highly doubtful that he or his team were part of the crime at that early stage. But they could have become accessories to that crime in a variety of ways, including by deliberately helping to disguise the culprits by engaging in a misinformation campaign (e.g. Seth Rich, Gufficer 2.0, and the allegation that the Democrats hacked themselves). Most crucially, they could have sought to gain access to the stolen materials (e.g. the Trump Tower meeting seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton) and to coordinate the release of the materials (see Roger Stone, Randy Credico, Julian Assange, Cambridge Analytica).

And Cambridge Analytica introduces another aspect to the conspiracy charge, which is the suspicion that Russian bots and social media advertising campaigns were coordinated through the Trump campaign to make sure they were targeted to voters and precincts where there were most likely to make a decisive difference. That aspect of the case is highly technical but Mueller is most definitely taking a look. In fact, Mueller is looking at Cambridge Analytica from both angles, that they sought to coordinate with WikiLeaks and that they sought to coordinate with Russian intelligence more directly:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office has reportedly requested information from Cambridge Analytica, the data firm utilized by the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential race.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Mueller’s team has requested all emails from employees at the firm who worked with the campaign.

The request, which wasn’t previously known, was voluntary, as was another request the firm complied with from the House Intelligence Committee, the newspaper reported.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix also interviewed with the House Intelligence Committee over video call this week, according to the report.

Nix was reported earlier this year to have been in contact with top Trump donor Rebekah Mercer about better organizing emails being released by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tweeted that he could confirm that he was contacted by Nix prior to November 2016 and that Nix’s request was declined.

It was reported that Nix was interested in obtaining the 33,000 emails deleted from Clinton’s private server used during her time leading the State Department.

“I can confirm an approach by Cambridge Analytica [prior to November last year] and can confirm that it was rejected by WikiLeaks,” Assange tweeted.

Of course, Rebekah Mercer is Steve Bannon’s paymaster, and so the tentacles get more entwined.

I could go on at much greater length here, but the basic truth of the matter is that folks like Michael Flynn, Felix Sater, George Papadapolous and even Sam Clovis are talking freely to Mueller, and they have a lot of information that we haven’t yet heard anything about. It’s highly doubtful that nothing will come of any of it.

If Lowry wants to do a better job reading the tea leaves, he ought to open up today’s Washington Post: Kushner’s legal team looks to hire crisis public relations firm amid Russia probe.

That, to me, seems like the best explanation for why Mueller’s team is coming under attack right now. Trump is thinking about following Lowry’s advice and putting ethics and truth aside to try to outrun the law.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.