If the United States had a functioning political system, this Friday night’s twin revelations of malfeasance by the Trump Administration would mark the end of Donald Trump’s presidency and force a snap election. Instead, they are yet another signpost of an executive branch unaccountable to law and insulated from consequences by the cowardice and short-term self-interest of his supporters in Congress.
First, we learned that longtime Trump confidant and Trump campaign associate Roger Stone did in fact have advance knowledge of the release of Clinton’s emails by Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign–and, most importantly told Trump all about it. Trump repeatedly denied having foreknowledge of the matter:
In July 2016, political consultant Roger Stone told Trump as well as several campaign advisors that he had spoken with Julian Assange and that WikiLeaks would be publishing the documents in a matter of days. Stone told the then-candidate via speakerphone that he “did not know what the content of the materials was,” according to the newly unveiled portions of the report, and Trump responded “oh good, alright” upon hearing the news. WikiLeaks published a trove of some 20,000 emails Russians hacked from the Democratic National Committee on July 22 of that year.
Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen told federal investigators that he overheard the phone call between Stone and Trump. Agents were also told by former campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates that Stone had spoken several times in early June of something “big” coming from WikiLeaks. Assange first mentioned having emails related to Clinton on June 12.
The new revelations are the strongest indication to date that Trump and his closest advisors were aware of outside efforts to hurt Clinton’s electoral chances, and that Stone played a direct role in communicating that situation to the Trump campaign. Trump has publicly denied being aware of any information being relayed between WikiLeaks and his advisors.
It turns out Mueller’s team was rightly concerned that Trump was lying to them about the matter. So in short, we now know that Trump’s team knew in advance about the release of Clinton campaign documents electronically burglarized by Russian operatives and passed on through Wikileaks; that Trump’s team did not inform the FBI, but actively welcomed the assistance and secretly kept tabs on the developments; that Trump made public statements welcoming Russia’s further help in stealing private Clinton documents afterwards; and that Trump almost certainly lied to Mueller’s investigators about it in a clear obstruction of justice. Even if there’s no smoking gun (yet) implicating Trump and his campaign in directly trading favors with Russia in exchange for leaking the documents, keeping the Russian assistance secret, maintaining secret contacts with its disseminators and lying about it afterwards is, on its own, a clear case of collusion, conspiracy and obstruction.
Worse, we only know about it now because of a Buzzfeed Freedom of Information Act request that forced the removal of the Attorney General Barr’s redactions of large section of the Mueller Report. It is quite clear that there was no actual national security pretext for these redactions, and that by implementing them Barr was engaged in a political coverup for President Trump. This, in addition to Barr’s previous mischaracterizations of the Mueller Report in his personal summaries as totally exonerating the president when it did nothing of the sort, amounts to obstruction of justice on the part of the Attorney General, hiding from Congress crucial information it would need in order to determine if impeachment proceedings were necessary. Now it appears that both Trump and Barr has committed impeachable offenses on this matter.
This revelation alone would have brought any other presidential administration to its knees. But it wasn’t even the biggest story of the night.
That honor belongs to a full-fledged Constutional crisis brewing in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office. This scandal once again is centered around Attorney General Barr, who is shamelessly acting not in service of the American people but rather as the Trump’s personal defense attorney with egregious abuse of power.
Barr suddenly announced the resignation of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in a Friday night news dump. Berman just so happens to have been involved in and actively pursuing a series of investigations into shady figures in Trump’s orbit, from Rudy Giuliani to Lev Parnas to Michael Cohen to Jeffrey Epstein.
But, in a shocking development, Berman is refusing to fall on his sword. He issued a defiant statement claiming that Barr didn’t have the authority to force his resignation, and that he would be staying on until the Senate confirmed a successor to take his place:
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney. I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Berman said.
“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor — and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
The law does appear to be on Berman’s side:
Unlike many other U.S. attorneys, Berman is almost uniquely positioned to resist efforts to oust him, at least for a while. U.S. attorneys are typically nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but in Berman’s case he was appointed to the job by the federal court in his district, and there is some legal precedent indicating that only the court, not the Justice Department, can remove him until a replacement is confirmed by the Senate.
Keep in mind that this is the same Southern New York position previously occupied by Preet Bharara, whom Trump had already fired previously for being an ethical civil servant. Bharara has raised interesting and intense speculation in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, tweeting that it doesn’t make sense for the president to be replacing his handpicked successor just five months before the election:
Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) June 20, 2020
He also retweeted legal analyst Daniel Goldman’s informed speculation that there is an intense disagreement within the Justice Department that led to Berman’s attempted removal, and noted that Barr lied about Berman supposedly resigning his position when Barr actually intended to fire him despite not having the power to do so.
What could cause Trump and Barr to take the rash step of trying to force the sudden resignation of Manhattan attorney involved in investigations of so many Trump associates on a Friday night, a move almost certain to cause an enormous scandal, right at a time when the Trump campaign is desperately trying to regain its footing in an election trending against them? It could be a random combination of incompetence and malevolence. But smart money would suggest that Berman is getting close to something that Trump and Barr are desperate to keep hidden. Otherwise why not let sleeping dogs lie? The official explanation is that Jay Clayton, Barr’s intended replacement for the position, asked to get the job. But doing a favor for a friend hardly seems worth the risk and extraordinary at this particular moment.
It looks far more like obstruction of justice again. In any case, Barr’s shameless lies about the incident are an impeachable offense. If, as seems highly likely, Trump was involved in the decision to try to ax Berman in order to stop him from a sensitive investigation, that would also be obstruction of justice and an impeachable offense.
Of course, the only direct impact any of this may have will be on perhaps a few swing voters who haven’t quite made up their mind yet. The House won’t impeach Trump again this close to an election, and the Republican-controlled Senate will do nothing, hoping to ride it out until November and survive the storm.
America’s system of government is broken, and the president and his attorney general appear to be engaged in multiple simultaneous coverups and conspiracies of obstruction with no accountability in sight beyond that hopefully provided by the voters. It’s an unsustainable system in the long run.