Political Animal

Quick Takes: Does Trump Have Any Lawyers Who Aren’t Being Investigated?

* Rachel Maddow got quite the scoop from James Comey last night. In talking to him about Trump’s newest lawyer, she played the tape of Rudy Giuliani bragging that he knew about Comey’s upcoming announcement on re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails before it happened. Here’s how the conversation went from there:

MADDOW: Did Rudy Giuliani and therefore the Trump campaign have advanced notice from inside the FBI, from the New York field office or wherever, that this announcement from you was coming?

COMEY: Not that I know of, but I saw that same publicity and so I commissioned an investigation to see if we could understand whether people were disclosing information out of the New York office or any other place that resulted in Rudy’s report on Fox News and other leaks that we were seeing in the media.

I don’t know what the result of that was. I got fired before it was finished, but I know that I asked that it be investigated.

Does the president have any lawyers that aren’t under investigation?

* The DNC, under the leadership of Tom Perez, is going on offense.

The Democratic National Committee filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Friday against the Russian government, the Trump campaign and the WikiLeaks organization alleging a far-reaching conspiracy to disrupt the 2016 campaign and tilt the election to Donald Trump.

The complaint, filed in federal district court in Manhattan, alleges that top Trump campaign officials conspired with the Russian government and its military spy agency to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump by hacking the computer networks of the Democratic Party and disseminating stolen material found there…

The case asserts that the Russian hacking campaign — combined with Trump associates’ contacts with Russia and the campaign’s public cheerleading of the hacks — amounted to an illegal conspiracy to interfere in the election that caused serious damage to the Democratic Party.

* I have no doubt that we can take Zarif’s word on this:

Iran may resume its nuclear activities “at a much greater speed” if President Donald Trump moves forward with plans to pull the U.S. out of a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposes sanctions against the nation, Iran’s foreign minister said Friday.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, in an interview set to air Sunday, that Iran was open to relaunching its nuclear program should Trump fail to waive economic sanctions on Tehran.

* Here’s some big news about those Republican tax cuts:

The nation’s six big Wall Street banks posted record, or near record, profits in the first quarter, and they can thank one person in particular: President Donald Trump.

While higher interest rates allowed banks to earn more from lending in the first quarter, the main boost to bank came from the billions of dollars they saved in taxes under the tax law Trump signed in December. Combined, the six banks saved at least $3.59 billion last quarter, according to an Associated Press estimate, using the bank’s tax rates going back to 2015.

I thought a comparison would provide some important perspective.

* Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made some news on 4/20.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to introduce legislation on Friday to decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, adding a high-profile advocate in the effort to decriminalize, legalize and normalize marijuana use in America.

Schumer’s legislation would remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under a 1970 law that classifies marijuana as dangerous as heroin for legal and regulatory purposes.

It would establish funding for women- and minority-owned marijuana businesses, require more research on the drug’s public health impact, and maintain federal authority to regulate commercial advertising, similar to existing regulations for tobacco and alcohol.

* Finally, spring has finally arrived up here in the tundra. So lyrics like this are ringing out everywhere.

Come on baby let’s get out of this town
I got a full tank of gas with the top rolled down
There’s a chill in my bones
I don’t want to be left alone
So baby you can sleep while I drive

Trump Admitted That Firing Rosenstein or Mueller Would Be Obstruction

Reporters at Bloomberg thought they had a story about Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein confirming to Trump that he is not a target of either the Mueller probe or the Cohen investigation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told President Donald Trump last week that he isn’t a target of any part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or the probe into his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Rosenstein, who brought up the investigations himself, offered the assurance during a meeting with Trump at the White House last Thursday, a development that helped tamp down the president’s desire to remove Rosenstein or Mueller, the people said.

In gathering information about that meeting, they actually stumbled on something that is a lot more significant.

After the meeting, Trump told some of his closest advisers that it’s not the right time to remove either man since he’s not a target of the probes.

If that accurately captures what the president said, he indicated that the time to fire Rosenstein and/or Mueller would come when he is a target of the investigation. In other words, Trump isn’t evaluating this decision based on their job performance, but is solely looking at it from the vantage point of his own legal jeopardy. That’s a classic definition of obstruction of justice.

As we have been reminded, to legally convict someone of obstruction of justice hinges on the issue of intent.

Impeding or influencing an FBI investigation is a crime only if it is done with “corrupt” intent—in other words, the intent to wrongfully impede the administration of justice. In my experience, proving a defendant’s intent without direct evidence—that is, without statements by the defendant that directly reveal his or her intent—is challenging.

If at some point in the future it becomes clear that Trump is a target of either investigation and the president moves to fire Rosenstein or Mueller, he has already stated his corrupt intent.

Trump Lied to Comey About the Pee Tape

I’ve now carefully read through The Comey Memos and I think Donald Trump told the FBI director a brazen lie about his time in Moscow in order to try to convince him that the Pee Tape story was not true. To examine this, I’m going to lay out a bare-boned chronology, relying largely on the careful reporting of Michael Isikoff and David Corn.

Trump landed in Moscow on November 8, [2013] having flown there with casino owner Phil Ruffin on Ruffin’s private jet. (Ruffin, a long-time Trump friend, was married to a former Miss Ukraine who had competed in the 2004 Miss Universe contest.) Trump headed to the Ritz-Carlton, where he was booked into the presidential suite that Obama had stayed in when he was in Moscow four years earlier.

This is the night that Donald Trump spent in the hotel room in Moscow. It was the night before the Miss Universe pageant. Trump did not stay at the hotel the night of the actual pageant.

After the event, there was a rowdy after-party with lots of vodka and loud music. A 26-year-old aspiring actress, Edita Shaumyan, made her way into the VIP section, entering the roped-off area the same time as a famous Russian rap singer named Timati. Shaumyan caught Trump’s eye. He approached her, gestured to Timati, and asked, “Wait, is this your boyfriend? You’re not free?” She said no. “You’re beautiful,” Trump told her. “Wow, your eyes, your eyes.” According to Shaumyan, “He said, ‘Let’s go to America. Come with me to America.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I’m an Armenian. We’re very strict. You need to meet my mother first.’” When other women approached, trying to get photographs with Trump, he took hold of Shaumyan’s arm and said, “Don’t go. Stay. Stay.” Shaumyan took selfies with him. (She later produced five photos and a video of her with Trump that night.) But nothing further happened. Trump later had somebody give Shaumyan his business card with his phone number on it. She never called.

From the party, Trump headed to the airport. He was going straight home on another Ruffin jet.

I think there has been some confusion on this point because on both the evening of November 8 and the evening of November 9 there were vodka-infused parties. On the eighth, the occasion was a more private celebration. Before we get to that, though, I just want to run through what Trump did during the day. After checking into the hotel, he had a meeting with executives from the pageant and the Agalarovs who were essentially hosting and partially bankrolling the event. According to the congressional testimony of Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller, an unidentified Russian approached him at this meeting and offered to “send five women to Trump’s hotel room that night.”

The entourage then had lunch at a famous sushi restaurant that is partially owned by the Agalarovs as well as actor Robert DeNiro. After lunch, Trump visited the venue site in Crocus City Hall. He stayed in that location during the evening: “That night, Aras Agalarov hosted a party at Crocus City Hall to celebrate his 58th birthday.” And Trump stayed at the party until late in the evening.

At about 1:30 a.m., Trump left the party and headed to the Ritz-Carlton hotel a few blocks from the Kremlin. This would be his only night in Moscow. According to Schiller, on the way to the hotel, he told Trump about the earlier offer of women, and he and Trump laughed about it. In Schiller’s account, after Trump was in his room, he stood guard outside for a while and then left.

Now, if there’s a good reason to doubt the Pee Tape story it isn’t on the say-so of Trump’s loyal bodyguard. It’s because it was already quite late in the evening when they arrived at the hotel and Trump was back up and working on a music video for Emin Agalorov early the next day.

The morning of November 9, Trump showed up for Emin’s shoot. He was needed for the final scene. The video would open with a boardroom meeting with Emin and others reviewing Miss Universe contestants. Emin would doze off and dream of being with the various contestants. Enter Trump for the climax—Emin wakes up with Trump shouting at him: “What’s wrong with you, Emin? Emin, let’s get with it. You’re always late. You’re just another pretty face. I’m really tired of you. You’re fired!” Trump’s bit would only last 15 seconds. Yet soon Emin would release a video that he could promote as featuring the world-famous Trump.

I can’t establish the exact time that Trump was at this shoot, but he definitely did not sleep in. Even if had gone straight to bed the night before, he probably would have gotten no more than four or five hours of sleep. Did Russian women show up at the Ritz Carlton that night? There are several reasons to believe they did, including that Christopher Steele was able to partially corroborate a rumor that he learned of from a conversation that took place in New York City several years later by having sources talk to staff at the hotel in Moscow. I also think it’s interesting that Keith Schiller felt compelled to admit that the offer was made, even if he denied that Trump accepted it.

Donald Trump did not tell James Comey that version of events during their conversation on January 28, 2017, however.

At this point, Trump had had about three weeks since the publication of the dossier to refresh his memory about his time in Moscow. He says that he had used the time to talk to other people who had been with him on the trip, and they had reminded him that he had not stayed at the hotel the night of the pageant but had instead flown straight home. That was true, but also highly irrelevant. The incident, if it occurred, would have happened the night before the pageant when he did stay at the hotel. On an issue of such grave importance both for his relationship with his wife and for its implications for the credibility of the much more serious charges in the dossier, you’d think that Trump would have figured out by then when the incident was supposed to have taken place.

The dossier had been in the possession of the FBI for months and they had already established that elements of it were true. Trump understood this, and yet he was trying to con the FBI director into thinking he hadn’t spent a single night at the hotel during the whole trip. This was far too brazen. He could be forgiven for not remembering the exact chronology of events or even for being confused about elements of them when he tried to piece them together three and a half years later. But he didn’t forget that he had stayed a night at the hotel.

He tried various arguments on Comey in at least three different conversations. He said that he wasn’t the kind of person who would need hookers and that he was a germophobe who wouldn’t want to be abound urine. He said that he was aware that hotel rooms often have cameras and that he wouldn’t have been so reckless. But he also argued that the story was impossible because he had never actually stayed at the hotel. He knew he was being deceptive, and what’s kind of staggering about it is that he even went so far as to suggest that Comey investigate the matter in an effort to disprove it.

By that time, the FBI had been combing over his trip to Russia and even if they had refrained from looking into the Pee Tape aspects of the dossier, they knew when Trump arrived and departed and on which plane with which associates. They had confirmed that he had booked a room in the presidential suite at the Ritz Carlton hotel. There was literally no hope that Trump’s excuse would stand the barest scrutiny on Comey’s part, which would undermine the president’s credibility with him. Yet, he said it anyway.

Later on, when his bodyguard had to account for the evening in question before congressional investigators, he had a very different story to tell. Far from arguing that Trump had not spent a night at the hotel, he said that he had mentioned the offer of hookers to Trump as they were walking back to the hotel from Aras Agalarov’s birthday bash. We said that he and Trump had both had a laugh about it. He also said that he spent some time outside Trump’s room before retiring to his own and so could confirm that no brood of prostitutes showed up that evening.

Trump had evidently forgotten all of this when he talked to Comey. If he’d remembered it, he would have used it then to help explain the origin of the rumor.

The whole idea of The Pee Tape is somewhat hilarious but it pays to remember that the whole idea behind it is that it helps explain why Donald Trump is so deferential to Vladimir Putin. He is supposedly terrified that Russia had possession of video footage of him in a hotel room having prostitutes urinate on a bed that the Obamas once slept in. To me, that angle of the story was always so weird that it almost had to be true because no one is deranged enough to make it up. As Naomi Fry put it:

To me, the oddest detail of all is the idea that defiling the bed after rather than before the Obamas occupied that Moscow suite—a years-late voodoo ritual—might count as taking revenge on the then President and First Lady. It is this bizarre logic that in fact seems most like Trump, with his crazed rage at perceived enemies and fixation on old offenses—chronology be damned!—and it is what might ultimately count as the true perversity here.

There’s a name for people who believe that the tape exists: peelievers.

When I saw that Trump lied to Comey about spending a night at the hotel at all, it made me more of a peeliever.

How Donald Trump Conned His Way to a Reputation for Great Wealth

Part of me thinks that if this had come out prior to the 2016 presidential election, it would have been devastating to Donald Trump, and part of me thinks that there’s simply no evidence that anything could penetrate the public’s perception that Trump has been a successful businessman. Parts of the story did emerge. That Trump sometimes made phone calls to reporters pretending to be someone else was reported, as was his obsession with being listed on the Forbes magazine list of America’s richest people. Many doubts were raised about the degree to which Trump made his own fortune and the ultimate size of his fortune. But this all percolated below the surface of the main narratives of the campaign.

Perhaps a first hand account from Jonathan Greenberg, who was responsible for compiling the Forbes list, accompanied by an audio recording of Trump impersonating a fictional ‘John Barron’ would have made a big difference. I can almost believe that it would have, especially if Greenberg had made the rounds of the talk shows and made sure to dominate a few news cycles.

Here are the basics of the story. Greenberg went around the country interviewing rich people and their associates, trying to ascertain with some degree of confidence how much they were worth. Many of these rich people didn’t want the attention and did not want to be on the list. Donald Trump not only wanted to be on the list, he wanted to be as close to the top as he could get. The problem was that his father owned most of the companies assets and Trump was only personally worth about five million dollars.

Using tricks taught to him by Roy Cohn (who I discussed at length yesterday) and with Cohn’s active assistance, Trump managed to trick Greenberg into listing his wealth at $200 million in 1983 and $400 million in 1984. As Greenberg notes, this error had the effect of being somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Armed with Forbes‘ highly inflated but totally incorrect assessment of his assets, Trump relentlessly promoted himself as a fabulously successful and rich real estate developer. And once Trump Tower was built and his first casinos opened, he had visual evidence to support this fiction. Yet, the perception that he had much more money and business savvy than he actually possessed helped him gain access to loans and created new business opportunities. He never had nearly as much money as he claimed to have, but his fortune did begin to grow for a time before it all came crashing down in the early- to mid-90s.

Trump also used this false perception to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of his bankruptcies. He landed The Apprentice show, that depicted him as a business genius, and he was able to trade on his reputation to rebuild his company as more of a licensing agency, trading on the brand value of his name, than an actual real estate development company. Most of things Trump has tried to brand (e.g. steaks, vodka, his fake university) have failed rather quickly, but he’s had some success with hotels and golf courses, and he’s gotten a steady flow of revenue from some of his luxury apartment deals.

In a real way, none of this would have possible if he hadn’t been able to con Jonathan Greenberg back in 1983 and 1984.

In May 1984, an official from the Trump Organization called to tell me how rich Donald J. Trump was. I was reporting for the Forbes 400, the magazine’s annual ranking of America’s richest people, for the third year. In the previous edition, we’d valued Trump’s holdings at $200 million, only one-fifth of what he claimed to own in our interviews. This time, his aide urged me on the phone, I needed to understand just how loaded Trump really was.

The official was John Barron — a name we now know as an alter ego of Trump himself. When I recently rediscovered and listened, for first time since that year, to the tapes I made of this and other phone calls, I was amazed that I didn’t see through the ruse: Although Trump altered some cadences and affected a slightly stronger New York accent, it was clearly him. “Barron” told me that Trump had taken possession of the business he ran with his father, Fred. “Most of the assets have been consolidated to Mr. Trump,” he said. “You have down Fred Trump [as half owner] . . . but I think you can really use Donald Trump now.” Trump, through this sockpuppet, was telling me he owned “in excess of 90 percent” of his family’s business. With all the home runs Trump was hitting in real estate, Barron told me, he should be called a billionaire.

At the time, I suspected that some of this was untrue. I ran Trump’s assertions to the ground, and for many years I was proud of the fact that Forbes had called him on his distortions and based his net worth on what I thought was solid research.

Looking back now, here’s how Greenberg assesses what happened.

I was a determined 25-year-old reporter, and I thought that, by reeling Trump back from some of his more outrageous claims, I’d done a public service and exposed the truth. But his confident deceptions were so big that they had an unexpected effect: Instead of believing that they were outright fabrications, my Forbes colleagues and I saw them simply as vain embellishments on the truth. We were so wrong.

This was a model Trump would use for the rest of his career, telling a lie so cosmic that people believed that some kernel of it had to be real. The tactic landed him a place he hadn’t earned on the Forbes list — and led to future accolades, press coverage and deals. It eventually paved a path toward the presidency.

Greenberg shouldn’t be too hard on himself. Trump was trained by Roy Cohn, and they’re two of the most accomplished conmen the country has ever produced.